The man who closed out the 2011 World Series championship for the St. Louis Cardinals and saved 42 games for them a season later has not pitched in a competitive situation in more than a year, but he might turn out to be one of the most important pitchers on the 2014 team’s staff.
Jason Motte tore a ligament in his right elbow during spring training in 2013 and had Tommy John surgery to fix it, but that operation requires about a full year of rehab before a pitcher can return to the mound in a Major League Baseball game.
Motte has thrown bullpen sessions and batting practices in spring training camp this year, but he had the surgery May 7, 2013, so the Cardinals will most likely be about one month into their 2014 regular season before Motte is available.
Indications are Motte will become the eighth-inning setup reliever for closer Trevor Rosenthal once he is fully healthy, and that should make the back end of the team’s bullpen extremely dangerous, if not dominant.
However, the Cardinals likely have to get through the first month of the season, which includes 12 games against their top divisional opponents, the Cincinnati Reds or Pittsburgh Pirates.
Those first several weeks of the season are certainly important, even though the team survived the Mitchell Boggs disaster in April a year ago, and the Cardinals have potentially better pitchers set to again try to fill an April void left by Motte, but those options carry nearly as many questions.
The pitcher who starts the season as the righthanded setup reliever in the bullpen could easily be the one who loses the battle for the fifth and final spot in the starting rotation that has waged between rookie Carlos Martinez and third-year big leaguer Joe Kelly.
Martinez has had an exceptional spring training with a 1.76 earned-run average with nine strikeouts in four starts, while Kelly struggled in his first two starts before he settled down for 5.1 innings Saturday when he allowed one run and struck out three in a 6-2 win over the Atlanta Braves.
Martinez has made a Shelby Miller-like impression on the spring training mounds this year, but he still might be the better choice to start the season in the bullpen than Kelly.
For one, Martinez shined as the eighth-inning pitcher during the 2013 postseason with 11 strikeouts in 12 appearances, while Kelly started four games, including a 5.1-inning outing in Game 3 of the World Series against the Boston Red Sox to lead the Cardinals to a 5-4 victory and one of their two wins in the series.
Kelly was also not particularly stellar as a bullpen pitcher during the first half of the 2013 season after he lost the race for the No. 5 spot in the rotation to Miller in spring training. Kelly’s ERA was at 6.75 through 16 appearances before he got his first start of the season June 5 and gave up one run in 5.2 innings in what turned out to be a 10-3 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Much of that debate won’t matter on the bullpen side when Motte comes back because he should be able to fill the eighth-inning role and take some pressure off of Martinez, Kelly or anybody else Cardinals manager Mike Matheny wants to use in the meantime.
The challenge then will likely be to get enough appearances in middle relief for whichever pitcher does not get the fifth spot in the starting rotation.
And if that is the biggest problem the Cardinals have once May begins, they will probably be off to a pretty good start.