One of the most debated elements to the late season, and now postseason, is the status of Edward Mujica. After an amazingly efficient start to the season, one that saw him rise from setup man to All-Star closer, he lost his way late in the second half. And now, the arm that was tasked with the majority of the most clutch moments of the year, is struggling to find relevance among the pitching staff.
The downturn in Mujica’s productivity has been a debated subject with no clear reason offered yet. With ideas that have ranged from workload fatigue, to compensating for an injury that he does not want to be public knowledge with free agency pending, the reasoning is not quite clear.
What is however is that the club has moved in a different direction regarding the ninth inning, where as it has been officially stated by Mike Matheny that the ninth inning will be handled by “committee”, it has been a committee of one thus far, consisting only of Trevor Rosenthal thus far. The move to Rosenthal, who has spent the majority of the season as setup man for Mujica looks to be permanent, as Matheny has struggled to find time to safely deploy his former closer. After seven days off the mound to rest, he returned to the hill for the final weekend of the regular season, in what was clearly a “dipping a toe in the pool” type of test to see what was there. But the results were far from encouraging, where in a third of an inning on Saturday, where he faced four batters; he surrendered three hits, including a home run and a long double to centerfield, before giving way to Randy Choate and ultimately Seth Maness, who closed out the victory.
This leaves the decision on what to do with Mujica in a precarious position. It is clear he is not the arm he was a few months ago, and the decline looks to have already fell over the cliff. His fastball has slowed some, and thus is not making his out pitch in his changeup nearly as effective. Also there is a loss off location, which is causing for the extreme rise in contact on him, with batters getting hits in 18 of 35 at-bats, good for a .541 average against during September. As a result, this saw him surrender as many runs in September as he did April-August, combined.
This loss in effectiveness certainly moves him away from the zero margin of error that is needed in an October bullpen. But the better question is what to do with him in regards to a role in the bullpen, overall. It is the personal relations portion that makes it difficult, as it has to do with keeping with the usual path of least resistance of Matheny. A norm in his approach has been a faith in his personnel despite downtrodden stretches, and dumping Mujica works against what has been established there. Mujica is not only a vital personally within the team’s dynamic, but has rightfully earned the right to continue to accompany the team. It would send a questionable message to the chemistry of the team to exclude him after what he has accomplished, regardless of recent struggles, with no clear injury declared.
With the expanded bullpen that one less starter brings, there will be quality arms to throw any bonus innings that may approach, thus also limiting the impact his continued struggles could have. But at the same time, there is no wasted role in October, and one spot being called on could be the difference between living and flaming out. If that player can’t be Mujica, and he bumps a Carlos Martinez or Sam Freeman, it could bite badly in the end.
Perhaps the answer that is easiest is to reset his role with the team, via lessening the leverage of the situations he is deployed in for the time being. He arrived in St. Louis with a similarly questionable role, and then excelled in the sixth and seventh innings as a bridge to the end of the games. Perhaps a return to an earlier role such as this is the best option for putting him to use as needed. While the presence of Maness, Kevin Siegrist and John Axford now lessens the load he would be tasked with, perhaps the return to what was first familiar is the first key to finding the spark that Chief so often lifted the team at in its most essential moments, at the most critical part of the year.