Tag Archive | "Mike Matheny"

St. Louis Cardinals should choose Jorge Rondon for final bullpen spot

Now that St. Louis Cardinals management has decided which pitcher it wants to begin the season in the fifth and final spot in the starting rotation, its focus can shift to a similar dilemma that exists for the last spot in the bullpen.

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Cardinals manager Mike Matheny announced Sunday that Joe Kelly would begin the season in the No. 5 spot in the rotation, while rookie Carlos Martinez would move back to the either-inning setup relief role he had at the end of the 2013 season and postseason.

The Cardinals decided to reward Kelly’s experience rather than Martinez’s stellar spring training numbers. Kelly has a 6.28 earned-run average in four starts, while Martinez posted a 1.76 ERA in his four starts.

Despite those contradictory numbers, the Cardinals made a sound decision to go with Kelly instead of Martinez.

Kelly has the experience of two Major League Baseball seasons where he showed the organization he could be a consistent contributor, given his 3.08 career ERA.

Plus, Martinez proved to be a dynamic setup reliever during the 2013 playoffs when he had 11 strikeouts in 12.2 innings during a run that ended in Game 6 of the World Series in a loss to the Boston Red Sox.

However, the Cardinals should make the opposite decision when they determine which pitcher will receive the last open spot in the bullpen.

Jorge Rondon, Keith Butler and Scott McGregor are the three candidates, and the two losers will likely begin the season with the Triple A Memphis Redbirds.

Butler is the pitcher with the most major-league experience. He pitched in 16 games with the Cardinals in 2013 and had an ERA of 4.08, with 11 walks and 16 strikeouts, but the team sent him back to the minors after he pitched Aug. 7 and he did not make the postseason roster.

McGregor and Rondon have never appeared in a big-league game, but Rondon has been far superior in spring training. McGregor has allowed three runs in four innings of work with two walks and two strikeouts. Rondon has yet to allow an earned run in 8.1 innings, and he has three walks compared to seven strikeouts.

Each of those three pitchers is in competition to likely be the right-handed option for the Cardinals in the seventh inning of games in which they have a lead.

That is certainly an important role, and the Cardinals would have nearly as complete of a roster as they ever have if the winner of this three-way battle excels once the regular season begins.

Rondon would figure to be in the lead to win the spot because he has shown the most potential, even though Butler has the most experience.

Rondon throws harder than Butler, but he too has struggled with his command during his seven years in the minor leagues, as he has racked up 230 walks compared to 338 strikeouts and had 37 walks to 42 strikeouts in 2013 at Memphis.

Still, Butler’s potential appears to be limited if he can’t locate his pitches because he does not have the electric action on his pitches that several of the Cardinals top young pitchers do, and McGregor has not done much with his limited opportunities.

The Cardinals need a middle reliever who can consistently throw strikes more than anything, and they might not need the winner of this battle for long anyway.

They already have groundball-specialist Seth Maness penciled into a bullpen spot, and former closer Jason Motte is on schedule to return to the big-league team in late April or early May, and he could take the spot of Rondon, McGregor or Butler because he has the experience and the ability to consistently throw strikes.

Still, the team needs a reliever to fill in during the meantime because the Mitchell Boggs disaster of April 2013 showed how important a reliever is even in the first few weeks of the season.

The Cardinals have a dynamic duo to finish games with Martinez and closer Trevor Rosenthal, but they’ll need someone to carry leads the starter gives them and hand them off for the eighth and ninth innings.

As of now, Rondon looks to be the man for that job.

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Oscar Taveras Needs to Find Motivation in Minor League Assignment

Oscar Taveras, one of the St. Louis Cardinals’ top prospects, was supposed to be competing for a spot on the 2014 major league roster at this point in the spring.  He was supposed to be earning at-bats, showcasing his talent and pushing manager Mike Matheny to make a very tough decision to send him to the minor leagues.  That decision was not so hard.

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Due to an ankle injury that required surgery near the end of last season, Taveras was very reluctant to step onto the field this spring.  Though team doctors had cleared him to play, he continued to favor the ankle, fearing that he may aggravate the injury and take another step back in his progression.

While hesitant to trust his ankle, Taveras ended up straining his hamstring.  Speculation has surfaced that the hamstring injury my be related to the unwillingness to test the ankle, as Derrick Goold of theSt. Louis Post-Dispatch points out when he writes, “With Taveras unable to take the field and do many of the workouts, his conditioning started to wane, and favoring his right ankle may have contributed to the right hamstring injury.”

Taveras, slowed by the injuries early on, has been reassigned to minor league camp.  He has made his debut on that side of the complex already and has begun the journey to try to reach the major leagues this season.  That journey is something that Matheny wants him to think very hard about.

Mathney is a strong believer in hard work and earning your spot.  The reassignment to minor league camp should be a motivational factor for his young star.  Matheny’s personal blog reflects that sentiment very well:

With almost 60 guys left in camp right now, I realize that I will have almost 35 of those tough conversations with guys who will not be able to make our club. I hope to remember the feeling of not making that team, many years ago, and the disappointment of a dream being delayed. I realize that I will most likely be part of their motivation to get better and make it to the next level, and I hope that I am around to celebrate with them when they beat the odds, and use their disappointments to help them reach their dream of getting to the Big Leagues. I will tell them, just like I told my son, ‘get to work and prove ‘em wrong.’

Over the next few months, Taveras can let his production speak for itself.  He can show a strong work ethic and prove that he wants to be in St. Louis.  He has the opportunity to do exactly what his future manager expects him to do.

Indeed, Taveras has every chance to “get to work and prove ‘em wrong.”

Bill Ivie is the founder of i70baseball.com.
Follow him on Twitter to discuss all things baseball throughout the season.

Posted in Cardinals, Minors, MLBComments (0)

Cardinals Winter Warm Up Progressive Blog, Day 3

The third and final day of the Cardinals Care Winter Warm Up is about to begin shortly, and in suit is the I-70 Progressive Blog, chronicling the media sessions for players, management and event announcements at the WWU.

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As has been the previous two days, content will be available on four platorms: via Twitter (@I70Baseball & @CheapSeatFan), Instagram (CheapSeatFan), Facebook at I70 Baseball and of course here on the site.

New updates will be provided periodically between player appearances. Scheduled to appear today are Matt Holliday, Michael Wacha, Mike Matheny, Peter Bourjos, Zach Petrick, Sam Freeman and John Mabry

 

Matt Holliday—10:06

Regarding his offseason workout, he spent the winter with Trevor Rosenthal working on strength training, which consisted of sled pushing, tire flipping and even fireman carries, which even saw the Trevor pick him up over his shoulder for a 20 meter carry. Regarding Rosenthal’s preparation, “It’s been fun to watch his discipline and effort. He wants to be the best, and I admire that.”

As a noted opponent of performance enhancing drugs, the acquisition of Jhonny Peralta, brought up a flurry of interest. In regards to whether he had insight on the club’s interest before he was signed, he acknowledged he knew about it beforehand. While he declined to specify on the details of the convo, he is looking forward to seeing what he can do firsthand.  “Mo just called and said this is what we are going to do, it’s not like he asked me for permission or anything.”

Continuing on, Holliday clarifies “I am against PEDs and always will be. But I am also a forgiving person and he served his suspension. That’s the rules of the game and I’m happy to have him as a teammate.” He does not believe he needs to justify anything to Cardinal clubhouse about the suspension. “He had his suspension, served it and his teammates in Detroit welcomed him back. If does and he wants to address it, that’s his prerogative. But it’s nothing we expect.”

Despite the exit of Carlos Beltran, he feels no new pressure of leadership this season, citing the depth of veterans with the club. “Leadership has been part of my role since I got here. Obviously, Carlos was a big part of our leadership and David (Freese) as well, but we’ve got Yadi, Adam and myself and lot of guys that have been around the organization and team for a while.

On the addition of Peter Bourjos and his impact on the dynamic of the club’s offense, he feels it is yet to be determined how his elements fit into the lineup. Yet he cautions that discounting Jon Jay would be an error. “I think Jon Jay’s ability to be a really good player in this league is being a big overlooked. I think Peter and Jon will compete for at-bats.”

About working with the younger Cardinals, he is especially excited to work with the young outfielders within the system. “I’m excited to work with (Grichuk), Peter and Oscar Taveras. So it will be good to see those guys and watch to see how they handle things.”

Sam Freeman—11:33

On the adjustment between his 2012 and 2013 stints with the team: “Just mentally. When I came up I knew what I needed to do, and I just needed to continue to execute. The same thing that gets outs in Memphis it ultimately works up here too.

Michael Wacha—11:38

He was reserved on his personal goals for the season, but did reveal he began throwing around the top of the year and while he doesn’t anticipate any additions to his repertoire, focusing on location consistency. “I feel if I can do that, spot everything up and changing speeds everything will be pretty good.”

On managing the expectations that he set late last season, he is measured in his approach and attempting to leave it within himself. “There’s going to be some high expectations that are put on me, but you can’t really pay much attention to that. I have some high expectations for myself as well that I try to live up to, and if I can do those things it will be pretty good. Even going back to the postseason, the job is to try not to do too much.”

About his role on the pitching staff and the competition to make the starting rotation, he does not assume anything, regardless of how last year finished. “My mindset is to go into Spring Training to try and win a job. It’s going to be a competition, but it’s also going to be a fun competition because they are my teammates.”

Mike Matheny—11:56

(More on Matheny’s vision for the organization in a piece to come)

On the ending to the previous year, he expressed that it was more difficult to move on from than he could have anticipated. “I was surprised how long it took me to move past the World Series and reflect on the rest of the year.”

Regarding the impact of instant replay on this year’s season, he approves on the level that has been settled upon and sees it has taking the game in a fresh direction. “I think that everybody understands that with the level of technology we have right now that we need to do something moving forward. Is there a perfect system? No. But is this a step in the right direction, yes.”

Continuing on, he sees the impact of replay as a common sense portion of quality control on the game. “To not use the technology that everybody else in the stadium can use is a mistake. So now trying to put a system into place is for the best of the game and the integrity of it.”

He characterizes the competition for the starting rotation as “fierce” and wants for everyone to show up with the mindset that they have to show up to earn their jobs. “That is something that we have been very blessed to have around here, is that even our best players show up with the mentality that they have to earn their jobs.”

Matheny characterizes that he likes for pitchers to prepare as starters, so that they can develop their entire repertoire, because backing a pitcher off is much easier than ramping them up from reliever to starter. “The whole concept that ‘I’m going to compete, but it’s about the team’ is important, and if we are going to be consistent and win, we have to buy into that.”

While Trevor Rosenthal will absolutely be in the ninth inning role this year, a possibility of him returning to the rotation later is not ruled out. “Trevor is very important right now, and solidifying the back end of the bullpen is crucial.”

While the rotation candidates get much of the shine, Matheny lauded the ability of the bullpen and its success at the end of last year as well. “I think that at the end of the season, not too many people wanted to see the back of our bullpen.” He cautions that the health of Jason Motte and whichever pitchers fall outside of the starting rotation will impact the ability to duplicate that success again.

He expects for Jaime Garcia to arrive and be on the same pace as the rest of the starters.

Despite Carlos Beltran being gone and Peter Bourjos, Jhonny Peralta and Kolten Wong being in the fold and introducing a new tool set to the lineup; he cannot predict yet what the lineup would be and how exactly he plans to utilize the skills in the everyday mix.

He sees the secret strength of the organization as the ability for the team to integrate all levels of its operation seamlessly, via a shared trust for each. “We work very well together, seeing what the ideal situation would be and then looking at the market to see what’s available. While keeping with the long-term vision of the organization to be able to grow within and be able to promote guys from inside the organization, which is extremely rare but I think you see an organization now where each group trusts each other.”

Regarding his involvement in the push to reform rules around home plate collisions, he is encouraged by the steps that the MLB is taking. “I think there has been so much information we have gained from the other sports about the long-term damage to athletes, and I think we would be crazy to not take that information and move it forward.”

He feels that baseball is taking a proactive, instead of reactive, stance on the collateral damages of player collisions. “The way the system is set up, it is asking for major trouble,” he expressed, yet says the culture of the players approach has to shift also. “I guarantee that football and hockey would do anything to reverse these traumatic brain injuries to players, and I think baseball took a bold look forward for the health of the game and the health of the players.”

Peter Bourjos—12:25

He expressed that Albert Pujols reached out to him and gave a major endorsement to him regarding St. Louis when he was traded. “He called me the day that I got traded and was really happy for me. He couldn’t say enough things about playing in St. Louis in front of the fans.” Continuing on, he said that he was excited to be traded here, citing the team’s recent success as the major reason why.

He did not feel that he would be back in Anaheim entering the offseason, and that he anticipated a trade of some sort.

About his full-speed approach in the outfield, he doesn’t see him recent injuries as a result of that. “I pulled my hamstring in the 14th inning on a cold night in Oakland, then returned and got hit on the wrist by a baseball.” He sees last year as a ‘fluke’, and that it doesn’t tell an accurate story of his durability.

About a potential timeshare in centerfield, he is open to it and doesn’t have an expectation but to contribute.

Regarding the National League and the playing time options it provides, he sees it as a way to make a more regular impact in the game, even if he isn’t starting that day. “It’s a different game and is managed differently. “You may pinch hit or pinch run in the ninth, where you could be in the game by the fifth inning in the National League if you don’t start.”

He anticipates having to change his approach at the plate, even if he is at the bottom of the lineup due to taking walks in front of the pitcher spot and getting more balls to hit there.

He sees his goal level of stolen bases as in the 30-40 stolen base level, considering he gets the at-bats to do so.

 

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The Past Meets The Future—Matheny Extended, Carp Retires

It was a day of coming and going for the Cardinals. In the first major personnel announcements of the offseason, General Manager John Mozeliak announced that the organization was furthering its leadership on the bench with Mike Matheny, while also making official the retirement of Chris Carpenter.

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In the current, the decision to continue on further with manager Matheny was affirmed over the long-term—not that there was ever any question regarding it. In his second year, the Cardinals finished with a National League-best 96 wins, going to win its first National League Championship under his guide, before reaching Game 6 of the World Series. For these efforts, he finished fourth the voting for NL Manager of the Year and saw it come to a head today with a three-year contract extension that will keep him in St. Louis through the 2017 season. Before the 2013 season, his third year option that covers the 2014 season was previously picked up.

Matheny has played a pivotal role in keeping the organization afloat after future Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa retired two years ago. In a time where the team could have slipped into a minor rebuilding phase, under his watch it has instead returned it to the NLCS two consecutive years and won its first NL Central in four years. In his first two seasons on the bench, Matheny has a record of 185-139, which is the third best two-season start to managerial career in Cardinal history.

             HISTORY IN THE MAKING

Matheny has quietly climbed into elite company in Cardinal history in his first two years as manager. His 185 wins bring him in a third all-time in team history for manager wins over the first two seasons:

Billy Southworth (1941-42): 203-104

Frankie Frisch (1934-35): 191-116

Mike Matheny (2012-13): 185-139

Johnny Keane (1961-62): 177-147

Joe Torre (1991-1992): 167-157

Perhaps what has been most impressive has been the handling of the young guard of Cardinal prospects that Matheny has embraced. They have become an important foundation of the team, both now and in years to come. Armed with a ready to win, yet continually developing roster, the move to secure Matheny over the long-term is yet another strong early investment in continued Cardinal success.

 

Yet, while the club was securing its future, it also announced the newest part of its past. The biggest announcement of the afternoon was Mozeliak confirming what was long assumed to be coming: the retirement of Carpenter. Injuries curtailed the last two seasons for the 38-year-old pitcher, and he mustered only three starts since 2011. After mounting a final comeback attempt in mid-June, only to see it derailed in Memphis after the same nerve issues that ended his 2012 in Spring Training returned. Ultimately, it became clear there was nothing left to pursue in regards to continued attempts to return, and as his contract also expired with the club at the end of the season as well, it became clear that it was time to move on.

Injuries often kept Carpenter from being the regularly dominant presence at the front of the Cardinal rotation, but when he was there, he was among the best hurlers to ever wear the Birds on Bat. After beginning his career with the Toronto Blue Jays, Carpenter signed with the Cardinals in December 2002, but missed his first season in St. Louis with an elbow injury.

But from the time he made his Cardinal debut in 2004, on through 2006, he was as good a pitcher as the National League had. Over that time span, he posted a record of 51-18, including winning the first Cardinal Cy Young in 2005 since Bob Gibson hoisted the award 35 years before. In 2006, he anchored a Cardinal staff that salvaged a failing season to win the team’s first World Series since 1982.

While he missed all but five games in 2007 and 2008 due to a second elbow surgery, he played an important role as mentor to the young Adam Wainwright, becoming a critical part of launching a career that has seen him join Carp among the elite Cardinal hurlers all-time. He returned to the top of his game in 2009, joining Wainwright in the top three of the NL Cy Young vote, a third such finish for Carp.

His final great hurrah was in the 2011 postseason, when he authored one of the great postseason games in history, winning a 1-0 dual with Roy Halladay. Overall, he posted a 4-0 record that October, including two World Series wins over the Rangers, including the decisive game seven victory.

Overall, he finished with a career record of 144-95, and a 10-4 postseason record, the seventh most wins in playoff history. With the Cardinals, his career record finishes at 95-44 with a 3.04 ERA and finished in the top ten in strikeouts, winning percentage, WHIP and postseason wins. He fought through a litany of injuries during his career: a torn shoulder labrum, torn ulnar-collateral ligament, and finally thoracic outlet syndrome, that led to the nerve and circulatory problems that ultimately brought his career to a close.

Due to time lost, Carpenter will not reach Cooperstown, but will loom large in the lore of his era. He is likely to be a quick inductee into the forthcoming Cardinals Hall of Fame when the Ballpark Village-based Cardinal museum is completed. Nobody will ever wearing his number 29 again most likely, despite the fact it is not eligible to be “officially” retired under current team rules. As for his future in the game, there has been continued dialogue between him and Mozeliak on finding a place for him with the club, most likely in a coaching capacity. Because, for one of the game’s great warriors, a suit-and-tie front office gig will not do. Rather, keeping him close to the dirt and the players that continue the legacy that he so intensely embraced is the only way.

As it has always been, its only goodbye for now for Carp.

 

Matt Whitener is a staff writer for i70 Baseball. He can also be found at The Sports Fan Journal and Cheap.Seats.Please, as well as on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan and WhitenerCSP@gmail.com

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In Game 4, Mark One Down For Matheny

While wins go to the team and are created by the players, there are games where a manager can set a scene so precisely; they deserve a share of the victory as well. And Mike Matheny deserves credit for setting the scene for the Game 4 victory.

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It is easy for everybody to look good when a game is delivered like what Michael Wacha authored on the mound. Saying he made the most of his first postseason game would be a gross understatement, as he carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning and ran his total of no-hit innings in his last two starts up to 15.1. But unlike his first brush with perfection, this was not at home against a team that had just been eliminated from the postseason as the Nationals were. Rather, this was a game on the road in front of a crazed, 20-year postseason starved city of Pittsburgh that were urging their team on to close out the Cardinals in front of them.

But instead of feeling the pressure, Wacha fed on it and pitched the Cardinals back to another day in their season, having home field favor and into the hands of Adam Wainwright. Yet coming in, there was no shortage of second guessers on Wacha even taking the ball in the situation. It was seen as going against the grain, with his lack of starting experience and Shelby Miller being available as well, perhaps Wacha was not the guy.

But Matheny saw what he needed to in the 22 year old pitcher, from both a match up perspective, but more importantly, a makeup standpoint. It was that composure that won out in the end, and it has to be enhanced by the confidence that Matheny has shown in not only him, but the team in general. After his stuggles at the end of Game 4, the manager went to another of his rookie sensations in Carlos Martinez and let him know he was sticking with him in those same situations. Martinez responded by running up a big strikeout to end the eighth inning, quell a Pittsburgh uprising and deliver the game to Trevor Rosenthal with the slim lead intact.

The key to grooming a young pitching staff with the type of talent the Cardinals have isn’t just find room to utilize them. But inspiring them to be natural and trust in their talent to become the players they can be is the real task. In that lane, Matheny has already won the race for the season, as he has put much of the singular success of the season in the hands of his rookie arms. When there were grumblings to add a more experienced arm or to make safer (aka more experienced) moves on the mound, Matheny has stayed the path of letting talent win out, and has empowered them to not only be great prospects, but to be a part of carrying the Cardinals themselves.

Nothing more could inspire confidence than the victories in the situations that have faced the team down the stretch. Whether is giving Seth Maness the chance to be the double play magnet he is, sticking with Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly throughout their peaks and valleys or turning Rosenthal into a fearless relief machine, Matheny’s confidence has grown these 22, 23 and 24 year old group of players beyond just their age.

The kids (in years at least) are alright.

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In Pirates, Cardinals Face Path of Proven Resistance

There is no doubt about the task that lies ahead for the Cardinals in starting their playoff push with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The margin of a difference between the two teams was rarely much further apart than three games at any point in the season, and for much of it, it felt as if the Pirates owned the Cardinals head-to-head. The numbers are what the numbers are, and while the playoffs do reset the standings, they do not reset the match up; a series which has turned 10-9 in Pittsburgh’s favor thus far.

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However, the Cardinals have had their usual late season swerve since much of the damage that was done to them by Pittsburgh. They were an NL-best 19-8 in September, which included a three-game sweep over Pittsburgh in St. Louis early in the month. Over the past two seasons, the Cardinals have played at their best the later the season has drawn, with a 42-27 mark in the months of September and October, including the postseason. Experience is their ally, and could be their greatest asset over the next (at max) five games.

Despite this, it would be fair to say that the general sentiment that the Pirates could be the arrow in the Cardinals Achilles is fair. They hold two pitchers that have been dominant against the St. Louis lineup all year. Nobody has had more success versus the Cardinals than Francisco Liriano, who in three starts is undefeated and carries a ridiculous 0.75 ERA and .127 average against. He is in line for the Game 3 start on Sunday in Pittsburgh, where they Pirates have won seven of ten games against the Cardinals this year. Another asset on their side takes to the mound today, in AJ Burnett, who also has three wins to only one loss on the year in the matchup, and carried a no-hitter into the seventh against the team early in the year.

Pitching has been a strength for the Bucs, and it is an upper hand that will have to be overcome by the Cardinals, who are countering with a less certain staff, but some definite strengths as well. Adam Wainwright is setup to be the alpha and omega of the series, throwing game one and in line to toss the decisive game five as well. Yet, outside of their ace, the Cardinals are primed to leave nothing off the table in taking down their most persistent foe.

Having the league-leader in wins for the season taking to the mound is an obvious strength, but there it is what is to follow him that has been the most debated element, but could be a smokescreen to much bigger strategy. The decision to start Lance Lynn in game two was rightfully questioned by both fans and media alike. Lynn is the most mercurial of all the Cardinal arms, and despite pitching much better down the stretch, with the club winning three of his final five starts and him posting a 2.12 ERA two of the victories for himself. Yet, the Pirates have hit him well, to the tone of 30 hits in 27 innings and a 5.60 ERA. However, he still carries two victories against the club this season, which is second to only Joe Kelly’s three victories against Pittsburgh.

Yet, winning in swarms is the Cardinals approach this year offensively, and it appears Matheny is looking to spread this approach the mound as well early in the Division Series. He is going all in with his arms, as he has made the decision to put his now-proven arsenal of young arms on full availability out of the bullpen. Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha will both join the mix of Carlos Martinez, Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist and Trevor Rosenthal in the bullpen early in the series. With Kelly primed to start game three on Sunday in Pittsburgh, one will move to the rotation later, but both of the prized rookies will be available to go if needed before that crucial, but as of now if necessary, date.

This decision proves one thing clearly: the Cardinals are going all-in and sparing no part of its depth to do so. While the Pirates are the most formidable opponent the team could face, the Cardinals have reached the summit of entering as the National League’s best team over the past six months by holding nothing back. An approach they are appearing to be willing to go into overdrive to keep their year moving.

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What’s The Move For Mujica?

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.

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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.

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Jake Westbrook start a nice gesture, but not worth losing home-field advantage

The St. Louis Cardinals have starting pitcher Jake Westbrook to thank for helping them win the National League Central Division this season and make the playoffs in each of the last three years, but an attempt to recognize him for those contributions could cost them dearly in October.

jake westbrook I70

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny announced before Saturday’s game that Westbrook would start the final game of the season Sunday because the organization wanted to honor him for his Cardinals career, which is likely about to end.

Westbrook was the first of several Cardinals starters to go on the disabled list this season when he went down with elbow inflammation May 12. He was 2-1 at the time of the injury and had given up four runs total in his first five stars before a May 8 loss when he gave up four runs in 5.1 innings in his last start before the injury.

He returned to the rotation June 14 and won five of his next eight starts, but his performance dropped precipitously in August when he gave up 24 runs in four starts, and then the Cardinals put him back on the disabled list, citing back soreness.

Westbrook came back from that injury Sept. 6 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, allowed three runs in 1.1 innings and has not pitched since.

Still, Matheny plans to use him to start Sunday with the best record in the National League on the line instead of Joe Kelly, who will be the first pitcher used in relief.

Westbrook might pitch well in his first appearance in nearly a month and the Cardinals will cruise to a win over the lowly Cubs, but Matheny is taking a large risk with an important achievement left to get.

In the best-case scenario, the Cardinals will enter play Sunday with a  one-game lead over the Atlanta Braves for the best record in the league, which would guarantee them home-field advantage in the National League Championship Series if they make it that far.

But the Braves would get home-field advantage if the teams finish with identical records because they own the tiebreaker since they beat the Cardinals in four of their seven games during the regular season.

The location of those games was a significant factor in those games. The Braves swept a three-game series from the Cardinals in late July at Turner Field in Atlanta, but the Cardinals won three of four games against the Braves about a month later at Busch Stadium.

Plus, both teams have played exceptionally well at home compared to their performance in away games. The Braves were 31 games above the .500 mark heading into their final two home games against the Philadelphia Phillies but had just a 40-41 away record. The Cardinals were 25 games over .500 at home heading into play Saturday compared to five games above .500 on the road.

Based on their overall records and head-to-head games, home-field advantage would figure to be vital in a matchup between the Braves and Cardinals in a seven-game series.

The Braves will send rookie Julio Teheran, with his 13-8 record and 3.09 earned-run average, to the mound Sunday to try to clinch home-field advantage.

The Cardinals will rely on a veteran with a 7-8 record and 4.67 ERA who has not pitched in nearly a month.

A lot still has to happen for the Braves and Cardinals to meet with a trip to the World Series on the line, but one of the keys to that potential series could be decided Sunday simply because the Cardinals want to honor one of their pitchers.

It’s a courteous move, but the game is too important to leave open the possibility of a loss because it could lead to a much bigger loss a couple of weeks later.

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St. Louis Cardinals need Lance Lynn in starting rotation despite struggles

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Lance Lynn may have saved his spot in the starting rotation with a solid six innings Wednesday when he held the Milwaukee Brewers to one run in a game the Cardinals eventually won 5-1.

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But his spot in the rotation should have been safe regardless, even if he might not have deserved it with his recent performances.

Lynn has a 13-10 record but had been awful or close to awful in his five previous starts before Wednesday as the second half of his season fell apart for the second consecutive season.

He began the season nearly the same way he did his rookie year in 2012. He won 10 of his first 12 decisions in 2012 and won 10 of his first 11 this season, but what happened next is what keeps Lynn from being a force in the rotation.

Lynn went 3-3 after the All-Star Break in 2012 until the Cardinals sent him to the bullpen in late August to rest and work on his mechanics.

That decision helped, as Lynn all four of his starts in September as the Cardinals made their push to qualify for the second wild-card spot. Of course, the Cardinals could afford to let Lynn regroup in the bullpen for a couple of weeks because they had a rotation that still had Kyle Lohse and Jaime Garcia, and Chris Carpenter was on the way back from the disabled list.

They had no such luxury this season when Lynn lost five of six decisions between Aug. 4 and Sept. 5 and saw his earned run average jump from 3.78 to 4.37.

Lohse signed with the Brewers in the offseason, Garcia blew out his shoulder in May and Carpenter never could get back from his arm injuries. Plus, manager Mike Matheny does not yet have enough confidence in Jake Westbrook to move him back into the rotation from the bullpen, which is where he’s been since he returned from a back injury.

The Cardinals also have two rookies already in the rotation with Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha, and their only other options are rookies Tyler Lyons or Carlos Martinez, who have both been inconsistent in their first seasons in the major leagues.

So Matheny must continue to give the ball to Lynn every fifth day regardless of his performance. The pressure in this situation is not on Matheny; it’s squarely on Lynn, who must consistently pitch well for the Cardinals to maintain their slight lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central Division to avoid having to play in the winner-take-all Wild Card Game, as they did against the Atlanta Braves in 2012.

Lynn often gets frustrated when his outing does not go perfectly. For example, he gave up three homeruns and four runs total in five innings Sept. 5 against the Reds in Cincinnati, and his body language after each was terrible.

It’s fine to be frustrated. The Cardinals certainly wouldn’t want their pitchers to be happy after they give up a homer, but they also need their pitchers to refocus immediately and get the next hitters out to avoid a bad at bat becoming a bad inning and a bad game. The Cardinals lost Lynn’s latest start against the Reds 6-2 in part because he struggled to bear down and push through the adversity that is part of nearly every Major League Baseball game.

He was much better Wednesday against a much weaker lineup. The Brewers don’t have near the quality hitters of the Reds, who could easily be a playoff opponent for the Cardinals this year.

But the Cardinals don’t necessarily need Lynn to be a postseason starter. They can find three pitchers to take care of the starts in October. They instead need Lynn to be at his best in September so they are positioned for success once the playoffs begin.

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St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff roulette about to mercifully end

The St. Louis Cardinals made two more roster moves Thursday when they sent rookie right-handers Michael Wacha and Michael Blazek to Triple-A Memphis after each pitch the night prior, which continued a trend of incredible pitcher movement between Memphis and St. Louis this season.

Michael-Wacha

The Cardinals have used 23 different pitchers this season as injuries plagued the staff early in the season and ineffectiveness has crept in the past month or so, but the game of musical chairs is about to end, thank goodness.

Major League Baseball allows teams to expand their rosters from 25 players to 40 on Sept. 1, so manager Mike Matheny and general manager John Mozeliak will be able to keep all of the young pitchers they have brought up at different points during the season.

Wacha and Blazek might be in the minors now, but their stay will most likely last just a couple of days, which should be a familiar role for them now. Of the 11 rookie pitchers the Cardinals have used, only Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal and Kevin Siegrist have stayed with the team full time since they were first called up, or in Miller’s and Ronsethal’s case, when they made the team out of spring training.

The Cardinals use of the minor leagues has been dizzying in 2013. Matheny and Mozeliak have taken full advantage of the rules that allow roster movement.

When the team needed an emergency starter, Wacha, John Gast, Tyler Lyons and Carlos Martinez stepped in to fill the spot. When they needed a reliever, pitchers such as Blazek, Keith Butler, Seth Maness and Sam Freeman had stints of various lengths in the bullpen.

Often, those pitchers would pitch for Memphis and St. Louis multiple times in the same week.

Still, Matheny and Mozeliak deserve credit for their wild use of the minor league roster to supplement the big-league club. It might have been extremely confusing to try to track the incredible amount of moves the team has made, but it has been perhaps the largest factor outside of catcher Yadier Molina that has kept the team in contention for a playoff spot as September approaches.

And now the Cardinals will have all of those options available throughout the remainder of the season.

Yet at the same time, they still have several important decisions to make.

Each team has to restrict its roster back to 25 players for the playoffs, but those decisions have to be made Sept. 1, as well.

Given how the Cardinals have used their bullpen throughout the season, Siegrist, Rosenthal and Maness are locks to be with the team in postseason. The pitchers on the bubble figure to be Wacha, Blazek and Martinez.

The team sent Butler and Fernando Salas to the minors in July and neither has been much of an option anytime the big club has recently made one of its myriad of moves. They will likely fill the final spots in the bullpen for the next month, but October will probably be a different story.

But at least postseason rosters cannot change unless a player needs to be replaced because of injury. Teams can change their rosters between rounds but not during them.

In any case, the Cardinals pitching staff could probably travel the world with all of the frequent flyer miles it has racked up on the team accounts this season.

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