The following is from Bradford Bruns, a special contributor to St. Louis Baseball Weekly…
Despite the foul conditions outside, St. Louis seamheads should take comfort in knowing that the thaw lies straight ahead. Heck, if the mood strikes, warble the notes from the top of your ice-coated den: Pitchers and catchers report Feb. 19 in Jupiter, Fla.
It’s an odd, antsy time, the period between now and spring training’s commencement. Many a team augments its overall talent level by plucking from the remaining options in free agency. Every member of the applicable fan base then gets to play armchair manager, assembling lineups and shuffling rotation permutations until the Grapefruit League festivities officially begin in early March.
Mike Matheny is tasked with the kind of tinkering that results in tangible wins and losses. The Cardinals’ fourth-year skipper must decide where to put new right fielder Jason Heyward in the batting order and gauge Carlos Martinez’s starting-five readiness, among other duties, in the coming weeks. And while several bullpen roles remain up for grabs, one position stopped accepting applications long ago – closer.
Such a pronouncement might rile quite a few given last fall’s glut of Tums-inducing episodes in the late innings. Forty-five saves aside, massive paranoia tended to grip the Busch Stadium faithful whenever Trevor Rosenthal took the hill. The fear grew during the stretch run, and could have reached DEFCON-1 level heights in Game 2 of the NLCS if not for second baseman Kolten Wong’s walk-off homer to salvage that night.
Then again, the Cards’ resident fireman himself probably never anticipated this particular gig lasting so long. Rosenthal soared through the farm system with the rest of his starting brethren, only to be assigned a relief slot as camp concluded in 2013. Jason Motte’s recovery from Tommy John surgery, coupled with Mitchell Boggs’ general ineffectiveness, thrust the young flamethrower into high-leverage situations immediately. He flourished, using Grade-A stuff to notch 29 holds before rescuing a floundering All-Star.
Edward Mujica had essentially replaced Boggs as the closer by mid-April, earning a trip to the Midsummer Classic for his efforts. Once the pennant race launched into overdrive, however, “Chief’s” tank found itself running perilously low. Enter Rosenthal, whose gas-to-spare repertoire literally saved St. Louis’ playoff ambitions.
The former college shortstop’s warm-up act consisted of three tight spots in the regular campaign’s final 10 days. Rosenthal allowed nary a baserunner in converting those chances against the Washington Nationals, but the national buzz truly intensified following a pair of scintillating outings in the NLDS and a banner NLCS vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers. Shenanigans initiated by Boston’s Daniel Nava and Xander Bogaerts finally exposed his mortality in Game 3 of the Fall Classic. Nonetheless, Allen Craig’s wild, obstruction-aided scamper home let the Cards prevail anyway.
A worthy, or superior, sequel proved harder to craft. Rosenthal started 2014 nine for nine in save opportunities, but erratic control soon reared its ugly head. That heater, no longer scraping triple digits, sailed up in the zone. The still-under-construction changeup flattened out. And the walks were more prominent than ever. Rosenthal issued 26 free passes in his first 42 1/3 innings.
As the calendar flipped to August, though, he actually paced the major leagues in saves. He’d look marvelous in shutting the door on the ultra-competitive Milwaukee Brewers and scarcely locate the plate when the scuffling Boston Red Sox rolled into town hours later. The roller coaster pressed on, regardless, ostensibly turning off additional riders with each new jolt.
Through it all, Matheny stood behind Rosenthal. Setup savant Pat Neshek amassed a 1.87 ERA and surrendered runs in just four of his initial 54 appearances. No matter. Neshek staked his claim to the eighth, and for better or worse, Rosenthal maintained that ninth-inning stranglehold.
There will be detractors who cite Jordan Walden’s addition – and recent contract extension – as a surefire sign that Rosenthal’s closing days are numbered. In reality, little evidence exists to suggest upheaval at the back end of the Cardinals’ bullpen. Walden last lowered the hammer, regularly, in April 2012. Guest what occasionally curtailed his success with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Atlanta Braves? Yep, you guessed it: suspect command.
Walden and Rosenthal boast a lot of the same attributes, but the latter deserves to continue evolving as “the man.” The formula appears shockingly simple, really, with an emphasis on hurling first-pitch strikes to reduce the bases on balls. Hits didn’t suddenly cause Rosenthal’s WHIP to balloon to 1.41. Nah, the 42 walks took care of that.
What began as a sort of work-study program in the bullpen has become a permanent residence, at least in the Gateway City. Nobody can accurately predict what awaits Rosenthal in the future. The arbitration process frequently rewards saves handsomely, and the 24-year-old seems to have embraced the notion of salting away victories on a steady basis. Bottom line, at the present moment: He’s the latest in a long line of luminous closers here.
Yet the likes of Bruce Sutter, Todd Worrell, Jason Isringhausen and Motte never recorded consecutive seasons of 40-plus saves. Barring something cataclysmic, bank on Rosenthal joining Lee Smith as the only Redbirds to accomplish said feat. Hiccups are inevitable, common for any NL Central closer not equipped with Aroldis Chapman’s bionic goods. The division’s prohibitive favorite could do far worse, however, than a guy who’s fanned 38 over 24 career playoff innings of two-run ball.
So whittle down that list of exhibition-season concerns, and let the Sunshine State of mind kick in.
Photo credit: Jeff Curry, Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports