Entering the season, one of the easy strengths for the Cardinals was the bullpen. It was a group that had a phenomenal second half and postseason a year ago, and was getting a boost from a few of the promising prospects in the organization finally reaching St. Louis as well. However, what’s gold doesn’t always glitter, and the bullpen has been remarkably dull in the early season, and already has the team search for new answers on a daily basis.
Coming into Tuesday, the parallels between the Cardinal staff were huge. While the team’s overall ERA is third in the National League at 3.24, the bullpen’s effort still drug the total down. It has been responsible for three Cardinals losses and had the worst overall ERA in the National League at 5.92. With five of the seven bullpen arms with ERAs over 4.00, it’s been a group effort to drag down every level of the bullpen’s effectiveness.
The current standing of the organization’s roster has created this idea of infinite options to solve every problem the team faces, but in reality facing the situation in the bullpen is the toughest issue for the organization to solve. The quick fix of plugging in a new (fill in the blank uber-prospect) truly denies the complexities of constructing a well-rounded roster, and especially bullpen. The Cardinals early struggles have been because it is a mixture of arms that are searching for new identities on the run. The loss of closer Jason Motte late in spring training is quickly showing to be the worst possible loss for the pitching staff, as there is no easy successor to his role. Even replacing Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse has gone much smoother than finding an answer for the one-inning door closer. Motte was responsible for the most important inning of them all, and has truly shown why not just anybody can be a closer.
But the scramble to find out how to account for the loss of the one absolute part of the pen from a year ago has been rough. Mitchell Boggs, while only truly blowing one save, has not inspired late game confidence. He is sporting an ERA over 9.00 in seven games, and managed to strikeout only one more batter than he’s walked. For whatever reason, he has not shown the same calm execution that he did an inning earlier a year ago, when he set the club record for holds with 34.
Yet he still is the clearest choice of the crowd in the pen for the job. The most frequent name that is clamored for is Trevor Rosenthal, who has in effect become the bridge to Boggs thus far. And while he’s got all the tools of a stereotypical closer (chiefly, the 100 mph fastball), he is absolutely not the answer right now. He’s still working out his arsenal so that he’s not all fastball, and it’s taking some time. In seven games this year, he’s surrendered runs in five of his appearances, and has struggled some with pitch count and location with runners on. These are the same issues Boggs is facing, yet they just aren’t magnified by the spotlight of the ninth inning yet, and are also cushioned by the optimism his promise brings. Although he is a member of the big league squad now, his development is still taking place and that is much better off not being burdened by the ninth inning quite yet.
So what else is there currently? Not much really. Edward Mujica has struggled mightily in his career the later on he has pitched (4.79 and 3.69 8th and 9th inning ERAs). Mark Rzepczynski and Randy Choate aren’t the type, and have an essential to keeping the situational management that eluded the team a year ago. That leaves the undesirable idea of moving a middle reliever to the back end of the bullpen in an ultimate trial run, promoting a new arm to the mix that isn’t ready for the pressure, or the absolute worst option, making a trade. Teams would hang the Cardinals out to dry for prospects and developing Major Leaguers to accommodate such a request, so it seems unlikely that route is taken, especially with the uncertain return date (and recent multi-year contract extension) of Motte still in the picture.
So where does this leave it all at? Boggs may very well not be closer material; he’s labored through nearly every outing thus far. Ultimately, a decision will have to be made, even if it means truly not making one. Is it a committee, based on who is the most capable at the moment, a la 2011? Maybe it’s Rosenthal ascending the role early. Or perhaps it’s Mujica by process of elimination (Matheny had him ready to enter on Monday if the game would have pulled within three). Or maybe it remains Boggs, simply by pulling himself together. Regardless, there’s no other choice that makes clear sense now, and really, “thus far” isn’t that far at all. All of this could be for naught, but for better or worse in the time being, this is what there is to roll with. So affairs will have to straighten themselves out, because there’s no other choice but for them to do so.