Cardinals’ Current Bullpen of Chief Concern

We’ve had a lot of discussions about the Cardinal bullpen’s struggles, and about how John Mozeliak might have to retool it for the Cardinals to keep pace in the National League Central. That retooling may have started Thursday, with the demotion of Chuckie Fick and Brandon Dickson, and the recall of Mikael Cleto. It’s expected that today the Cardinals will recall young lefthander Sam Freeman from Memphis to join Marc Rzepczynski as portsiders out of the ‘pen. (For the uninitiated, a portsider is a lefthander. Port refers to the left side of a boat or ship as it sails. The right side is the starboard side. Why righthanders aren’t called starboardsiders, I don’t know.)

I looked at the Cardinal bullpen in May, and was as disenchanted as anyone with a group that had so much success in last year’s postseason. But upon closer inspection, this group doesn’t even resemble last year’s postseason bullpen. In part, that’s because of bad luck. But the Cardinal approach during the offseason played a role, too.

The general modus operandi of Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan in last year’s playoffs was to bring Fernando Salas out of the ‘pen first. Of course, Salas was awful this year, posting an 0-3 record and a 6.32 ERA in 18 games before being sent out. Salas was money is last year’s postseason, allowing an earned run in just three of 11 outings and more than one earned run in just one of those. So his loss as an effective performer has been huge.

After Salas, it was either Rzepczynski or Arthur Rhodes. The Cardinals tried to replace Rhodes with J.C. Romero, who was an absolute failure. His ultimate release left manager Mike Matheny with one lefthanded reliever, and hasn’t allowed the Cardinals to let matchups play out like they were expected to. Both Rzepczynski and Rhodes were dynamite in last year’s playoffs, combining for an 0.81 ERA after Scrabble’s three runs allowed in zero innings in Game 1 vs. Philadelphia.

After a lefty, Octavio Dotel came on. The veteran righthander was also magnificent last postseason, allowing runs in two of 12 outings. He was signed by Detroit as a free agent in the offseason, and the Cardinals tried to fill his role by signing Scott Linebrink, or by counting on youngsters Eduardo Sanchez or Victor Marte. To this point, their effectiveness with this bullpen has been hit-or-miss.

Then after Dotel, it was one of the lefthanders bridging the gap to Lance Lynn. He was a brilliant late-inning performer coming off an injury last October. Lynn pitched in the seventh inning or later in six of the 10 games he entered in the NLCS and World Series, and posted scoreless outings in eight of his 10 games. Because of the bad luck of Chris Carpenter’s injury, the Cardinals haven’t had Lynn available as their eighth-inning man. Yes, he has been brilliant as a starter. But I’d rather have a great Carpenter in the rotation, and a great Lynn in the bullpen. That bit of bad luck has bitten the Redbirds.

Jason Motte was perfect as a closer last postseason. He finished ten of his 13 games, including the clinchers against Milwaukee and Texas, earning saves in all five of his opportunities. This year, he’s saved eight and blown three opportunities. He recently went six days without a save opportunity, and four days without pitching at all. Motte – who turns 30 next month – simply isn’t as sharp as he was last year. By the way, Motte was the only Cardinal reliever to start the season on the 2011 roster and last the whole season.

To review, the Cardinals have had some bad luck, with Salas falling off the cliff, with Carpenter getting hurt and Lynn leaving the bullpen, and with Motte not being as sharp as he was last year. In addition, Kyle McClellan, who has been a stalwart in previous Cardinal bullpens, suffered an elbow injury, and Linebrink has yet to pitch for the Cardinals because of arm soreness.

They also made some tactical errors. As they waited for Albert Pujols to make a decision, they let Dotel walk away. Rather than bringing back Rhodes (who wanted to come back) or sign a more substantial lefty, the Cardinals signed Romero, who had been released by three teams (the Phillies, Nationals and Yankees) in 44 days last season. Any manager, especially a first-time manager, needs two lefthanders coming out of the bullpen.

Ultimately, as the Cardinals start their series with the Mets, Salas, Rhodes, Dotel and Lynn (you remember them from the postseason) have been replaced by Cleto, Freeman (we think), Mitchell Boggs and Marte. Rzepczynski and Motte are still there, but both haven’t been used to the best of their capabilities yet.

I’ll be interested to see what Mozeliak does. Last year he made the big deal to get Rzepczynski, Dotel and Edwin Jackson, and signed Rhodes. Does he have another one of those deals in his arsenal? If so, it could be another great stretch run in St. Louis. If not, the Cardinals are going to need some luck.