02/18/09 10:00 AM EST
Cards will wait and see about closer
La Russa, Duncan hope open competition will provide answer
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
Manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan are open to the possibility of a mix-and-match approach to the ninth inning when the season starts. That's also known as the dreaded "closer by committee." But neither man is committing to a committee at this point. They'd love to find one pitcher to designate as their man to nail down leads in the ninth.
"Ideally," Duncan said, "what I would like to see is that over the course of the spring, somebody emerges that we have the confidence in to finish the games. Start the season with a guy that you can designate as your closer. I don't know if it's going to be that way or not. But if that guy doesn't emerge during the course of the spring, then you mix and match early on and hope that somebody does step forward and give you the kind of confidence that you can use him as your closer."
Unofficially, the revamped Redbirds bullpen has four candidates for closing duties. The most attention has gone to young flamethrowers Chris Perez and Jason Motte, but it's not a two-man race. Josh Kinney is very much a player in the competition, and veteran Ryan Franklin could factor in as well.
The final inning was a major problem for the Cardinals in 2008. They lost six games they led entering the ninth, and went an ugly 12-21 in extra innings. They identified closing as their top priority entering the winter, then didn't add a closer.
Thus, the uncertain situation that faces St. Louis this spring. General manager John Mozeliak has a great deal of confidence in the in-house options, but La Russa and Duncan maintain that the kids in particular have plenty of work still to do.
"I said before, I don't think last year was a time to put that responsibility on either one of the two young guys," La Russa said. "Now they're a year older. They're better right now than they were last year, but they were not ready to do it last year."
So the field staff will use the spring to try to determine if either pitcher is ready now. If one pitcher is going to grab the job, Perez is the early favorite. And though Motte is the hardest thrower, Kinney might be the next likeliest candidate. Unlike his younger teammates, Kinney is more of a finished product, even if he doesn't have the same raw stuff.
The question for Kinney is health. He missed all of 2007 and most of 2008 thanks to Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery and complications during his rehabilitation. He pitched very well at the end of '08, though, and he's having a normal spring thus far.
"I'm really just focusing on being healthy," Kinney said. "I'm not going to get into that whole thing about who's going to pitch where, in what role. You let Spring Training have its toll. And even then, you've got to get into the season and see who's doing what before roles can be established."
Some parts of the bullpen fared better than the closers, a group that included Jason Isringhausen, Franklin and Perez. Setup/middle men Kyle McClellan and Russ Springer had nice years. Franklin was particularly good in that role. Then again, lefty relief was a gaping hole. And unlike the ninth, the Cardinals made a number of additions in hopes of solving that problem.
Trever Miller takes over for Randy Flores as the primary lefty specialist, and Ron Villone is gone as well. Fighting for the second lefty spot are Royce Ring, Charlie Manning and Minor League signee Ian Ostlund. For such an unpredictable job as a left-handed specialist, there's something to be said for the approach of throwing a bunch of things against the wall and seeing what sticks.
"I think in left-handed relief especially [it makes sense]," La Russa said. "Because I think the way Dunc would evaluate a guy would not be the same as he's evaluated in some other organization. I like depth and competition."
Evaluating the lefties will be a fairly straightforward process. Once the spring gets going a little bit, Major Leaguers will stick around into the mid to late innings, and the candidates will have the chance to face lefty-swinging big leaguers.
Closing is a tougher job to simulate in the spring, however. For the vast majority of Grapefruit League play, it's Minor League batters taking the at-bats in the ninth inning. So you can either evaluate pitchers in the fifth or sixth inning, or you can watch them close against kids who will be plying their trade in Triple-A.
"I think the audition comes more late than early," Duncan said. "I don't put a lot of value on the early part of Spring Training as far as evaluating. Then, you're just looking, is this guy executing his pitches? Is he keeping the ball down? Is he throwing strikes? Is he getting the breaking ball over? Is he getting mis-hit balls? You just look at stuff like that."
Some evaluation, however, is already under way. And Duncan, at least, feels he has something to work with.
"It's too early to start making predictions as to what kind of bullpen you're going to have or how it's going to shape up because there are too many things that can happen," he said. "But I like the people we have in camp."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.