With spring training games in full swing, the areas of the St. Louis Cardinals roster being most scrutinized at this point are the back end of the rotation and the middle infield. The rest of the roster seems pretty much set, save for a few bench roles and maybe a fourth outfielder.
For the first time in what seems like years, one area that the Cardinals coaching staff wont have to worry about is the back end of the bullpen.
The Cardinals have an abundance of talent waiting for the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. You want heat? Jason Motte, Trevor Rosenthal, Joe Kelly and Mitchell Boggs can all bring it at 98-plus. You want flexibility? Mark Rzepczynski and Randy Choate can put down southpaws. Experience? Check. Fernando Salas, Choate, Boggs, Motte and Rzepczynski all have World Series rings. How about numbers? Last season Edward Mujica posted a 1.03 ERA as a Cardinal, Boggs registered 34 holds and a 2.45 ERA and Motte led the National League with 42 saves.
The quartet of guys who can throw triple digit fastballs should be the most alarming aspect of the Cards ‘pen for national league foes. Motte has proven his heavy fastball to be downright unhittable at times. He throws like a catcher, hiding the ball very well behind his head and throwing from his ear, making an already daunting 101 mph fastball seem even faster and harder to opposing hitters.
Young guns Kelly and Rosenthal also showed themselves to be formidable power arms coming out in the seventh and eighth during 2012′s stretch run and post season. Kelly can back his four-seam fastball up with a moving 94 mph two-seamer and sharp slider. Rosenthal compliments his powerful fastball with a 12-6 curveball that was buckling the knees of Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants hitters during last year’s postseason.
Boggs’ 34 holds were no fluke either as the right-hander has used three different fastballs, his plus curveball and a frightening fu-manchu to establish himself as one of the premier set-up men in baseball.
The Cardinals shored up their left side and gave Rzepczynski some extra help with the signing of Randy Choate this past winter. Rzepczynski had a bit of a down year in 2012. He struggled with location all year long, walking 17 batters in 46 innings, not good for a situational lefty. His 1-3 record and 4.24 ERA was mediocre as well, but Rzepczynski still has a very high ceiling and is expected to continue to grow and develop this season at 27.
Choate is a proven veteran who has pitched for a handful of clubs in both leagues and has become very adept at his role as a lefty-only-one-out-guy (or a LOOGY as they call them, which is my favorite baseball term). He had a sub-2.00 ERA in 2011, has shown the ability to pitch on consecutive days and doesn’t take long to get loose in the bullpen.
Mujica declared ownership of the sixth inning after arriving in July from Miami in exchange for former first-round pick Zack Cox. He rode his low 90′s fastball and devastating splitter to a sparkling 1.03 ERA in St. Louis. He exhibited pinpoint control, walking only 3 batters in 26 innings, and showed calm and poise under pressure in the postseason.
Rounding out the relief corps will be prospects Maikel Cleto and Sam Freeman, along with Salas and Eduardo Sanchez. Cleto and Freeman are both capable of throwing gas in the upper 90′s, although they also both have no clue where it will end up at times. Sanchez and Salas were top prospects just a few years ago, but still have time to put it all together and make the step from mediocre to being valuble bullpen options.
Regardless of who throws when, the Cardinals bullpen will be stacked this year. With much of the talent being in the 25 to 28 year-old range, we should really see a lot of the guys take the next step and start to blossom. Motte’s arm wont last forever and guys like Kelly, Rosenthal and Cleto might be starting to audition for a future closer role this season. Expect the birds to be an impenetrable force from the sixth inning on. You can breathe a sigh of relief. The days of Ryan Franklin and Kyle McClellan are finally over.