Around the Horn: Bullpen boasts plenty of firepower
Anchored by young closer Rosenthal, Cardinals' relief corps flush with talent, depth
ST. LOUIS -- This is the sixth of a seven-part Around the Horn series that will take a position-by-position look at the Cardinals' projected starters and backup options heading into next season. The catchers, corner infielders, middle infielders, outfielders and rotation have already been discussed in previous editions. Up next: the bullpen.
In between work commitments two Septembers ago, former manager Tony La Russa stopped by the ballpark in Springfield, Mo., interested in watching the Cardinals' Double-A affiliate compete for a Texas League title.
Before the game, he approached Springfield manager Mike Shildt, who let La Russa in on what the rest of the league was already beginning to learn.
"He said, 'If we have the lead after five, you're going to see some fun,'" La Russa recalled. "He said, 'We will give the ball to four guys who throw 94, 96, 99, 98 and 99.' I went, 'This is the Cardinals?'"
Indeed, in the two years since La Russa's departure, the Cardinals' punch of power arms has made a significant impact in St. Louis. The bullpen projects to include four pitchers who were rookies a year ago. Three throw in the upper 90s. Add in Jason Motte (once he's healthy) and perhaps Joe Kelly (if he's left out of the rotation), and the Cardinals' bullpen will be stocked with firepower.
"At the end of the season, I don't think many people wanted to see the back end of our bullpen," manager Mike Matheny said. "We are very fortunate to have some options. I believe and I've heard it said many times: you need to develop that team around that bullpen. I think we've got some good pieces in place. It's just a matter of how the guys compete and how they prepare this winter to improve to make us even better for next year."
The 'pen will be anchored by 23-year-old Trevor Rosenthal, who learned at the start of the offseason that he would open 2014 as the closer. It's a job he assumed the final week of last season and also filled in the playoffs. Rosenthal rewarded the Cardinals' trust last fall by pitching 14 2/3 scoreless innings after taking the closer role.
It was enough for the Cardinals to forgo any sort of spring competition for the job.
"I was excited," Rosenthal said of learning the organization's plans for him. "It's an honor to be a part of the team, and then to have a role where you can contribute every day is pretty special. I definitely try not to take it for granted and put my best foot forward. Who knows what will happen in the future, but for this upcoming season, I'm excited."
The bridge from the starters to Rosenthal will look much like it did last season, with the exception of one new, but familiar, face. Motte may not have the closer job awaiting him, but he is targeted for a late-inning role nonetheless. Once fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, Motte could fit into an eighth-inning setup role.
Motte will likely begin the season on the disabled list, but if all continues to progress as expected, he won't remain sidelined deep into the season.
"We have some pretty good guys down there, so it's not like they're really hurting," Motte said. "I just need to take my time and get healthy and get where I can go out there and help the team win."
Also factoring into the late innings will be lefty Kevin Siegrist, whose 2013 emergence helped turn the Cardinals' bullpen into an area of strength. Siegrist, a 41st-round Draft pick, introduced himself to the league by posting a 0.45 ERA in 45 appearances last season. He had a WHIP of 0.882 and struck out 50 in 39 2/3 innings.
"Now looking back, there is kind of a 'wow' factor," Siegrist said. "When you're playing, you take everything day by day, game by game. It's normal at the time. I look back now and just the experience you can take away from being in that type of situation, I had a great time."
Seth Maness and Carlos Martinez also had notable success after making their Major League debuts last year. Maness became known as the ground-ball guy for his ability to induce timely double plays. In 62 innings, Maness tallied 16 twin-killings, most among all National League relievers. Only seven of the 58 runners he inherited scored.
Martinez floated around in various roles before finding a fit in the late innings during the postseason. If he does not earn a rotation job, he would be a candidate to slide back to a bullpen role to begin the season. The Cardinals would have role flexibility with Martinez, who could offer length or short-stint power.
The same would be true of Kelly, who will also be a participant in a crowded rotation competition. He showcased his versatility last year and would also be a long reliever fit if the Cardinals opted to use him that way.
''We have a couple guys who we know could start but could also fit the reliever role," general manager John Mozeliak said. "I think that's one of those things that when we get down to camp [the] staff, front office, we'll talk a lot about it. However we balance it out and whoever wins those slots, it's because we think we have the best chance to win."
The veteran of the bullpen will again be Randy Choate, who proved a worthy investment in his lefty specialist role last year. He held left-handed hitters to a .176 average (15-for-85) and four extra-base hits in the first year of a three-year deal.
In terms of depth, the Cardinals have relievers Keith Butler, Eric Fornataro, Sam Freeman and Jorge Rondon on the roster. Even Tyler Lyons could be an option if there is no rotation place for him.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.