Is Mujica Playing His Way Out of St. Louis?

The early season tailspin of the Cardinals season was due much in part the inability to close games out late. The struggles extended when the search to find the right arm to fill in to the final frame role. Yet, when Edward Mujica took the ball to close out for the first time on April 18 in Philadelphia, everything changed, because Mujica’s performance didn’t. He converted that save for the club, and hasn’t wasted a chance since, and it’s no coincidence that since he established himself even later in games, and this weekend he saved both of the Cardinal wins, running his season total to a perfect 13 for 13.

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“Chief” has taken the same lock down performance he brought to seventh inning a year ago over this season, and has firmly established himself as the club’s most reliable reliever. Since arriving in St. Louis last August, he has put up a 1.19 ERA in 45.1 Cardinal innings, an effort that has also seen him perform unflappably in two different roles in the Cardinal pen. “Adding Mujica was huge for us,” pitcher Mitchell Boggs stated regarding his impact upon arrival last year. “He stabilized our bullpen and gave us another proven arm that could go out there night in and night out. We took off as a bullpen when we got him.”

Historically, he was not a final inning arm before coming to St. Louis. His career ERA in the eighth inning is 4.96, while 3.16 in the ninth. Yet, with his success closing out games raising his profile, it makes him a sleeper candidate for a guy having a huge contract year.

Hitting the market with a ninth inning grade is much different than a seventh/eighth inning one. Mujica, who is bringing in just over $3 million for the 2013 season, which was due from his final arbitration year, is setting himself up for a bigger boost due to the presence of one of the most rewarded stats in baseball: saves. And with Jason Motte on the mend and with no easy date to say when he’ll be ready to go, there’s a chance the Cardinals will have to get very competitive to keep him in the stable.

As things stand now, he’s aligning himself to be among the best relievers in the National League this season, and if history shows anything, it’s that a big jump in saves can equal a very solid jump in pay grade. When Brandon League saved 37 games for the Mariners in 2011, he had never bettered six before in a season. He also had never bettered $2.2 million per season either, yet when he neared free agency this past winter, the Dodgers handed him $27.5 million over the next four seasons, much in part due to that breakout year only one season removed. Similar cases can be seen recently with Joel Hanrahan, Grant Balfour and Francisco Cordero. The closer market overall will be very open for “jump biding” this winter, meaning it’s ripe for the over pay, which damages the Cardinals chances at retaining Mujica at a manageable price, even in a setup capacity.

Yet, the need for a return to St. Louis will be highly influenced by the price, as well as the contingencies. Trevor Rosenthal is in the wings, and is being groomed to be the ninth inning arm of the future, regardless of Motte’s status. If the price for Mujica surpasses the $5 million mark annually (which it seems guaranteed to do), is there a chance the Cardinals bow out in favor of parking one of the promising arms within the system in the role for nearly 90% less? With Rosenthal as well as Joe Kelly, Carlos Martinez, and potentially Mitchell Boggs, in the wings, the Cardinals hold over until Motte returns at the back of the bullpen is solid. And while Mujica has been without a doubt one of the great coups of John Mozeliak’s tenure, his continued success could continue to draw his time to close at Busch.

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