When Cardinals lefty Marc Rzepczynski looks back at the past season and the struggles he had at times, he shares the club’s view — some selective editing shows when and where the reliever had his greatest success. For both, it’s a matter of math.
Rzepczynski would like to subtract a month.
The Cardinals believe he’s best when they add a lefty.
“Rzep’s peripherals were still pretty good, but there is some external variables that affect him that we need to make sure as an organization we get right,” general manager John Mozeliak said. “I think usage is critical. I think having another lefty made him feel better. When he was a one-man band out there he didn’t pitch as well. That’s why we need to find someone.”
As next week’s winter meetings approach, the Cardinals have spent the opening weeks of the offseason window shopping and comparative pricing. Their list hasn’t changed. Near the top is a lefthanded reliever for the bullpen, preferably an established lefty to join Rzepczynski in the job of erasing an opponent’s lefthanded hitters. Of the lefties the Cardinals used this past summer, only Rzepczynski remained with the team for the entire season. He was the only lefty the Cardinals had in their bullpen for the final 12 games of the postseason.
The desire to add a lefty from outside the organization could push the Cardinals into an area Mozeliak has rarely had reason to go: a multi-year commitment to a specialist. Of the 12 lefthanded relievers who have had at least five appearances for the Cardinals since Mozeliak became general manager only one, Dennys Reyes, arrived on a multi-year contract.
And that was signed during spring training.
“I’m not opposed to a multi-year deal with a reliever,” Mozeliak said. “In the past we’ve always been chasing that complementary lefty, whereas this year we might be looking for someone who can share the burden with Rzepczynski.”
In 70 games during the regular season, Rzepczynski had a 4.24 ERA, and lefties hit .255 against him as he collected 18 holds, the middle-relief equivalent of a save.
After the All-Star break, Rzepczynski had a 2.08 ERA, though he was used sparingly as the Cardinals settled into their three-headed answer to the seventh, eighth and ninth innings: Edward Mujica, Mitchell Boggs and closer Jason Motte. Rzepczynski’s overall season was inflated by a difficult June that included a 9.39 ERA and three homers allowed in 7 2/3 innings.
“I’d love to have been for the entire season the pitcher I was at the end. I’d be pretty happy with that year,” Rzepczynski said. “There was a bad month. Everybody goes through a stretch like that where I didn’t get anybody out. I’d make a good pitch, and I’d get hit. And then I’d make a mistake, and it would get hit even harder.”
His “bad month” actually started in mid-May. For a stretch of nine appearances, Rzepczynski allowed seven runs in 7 1/3 innings and had an 8.59 ERA. There was another element to those struggles in that span: He was alone. The Cardinals released J.C. Romero on May 14 and went without a second lefty until June 1. Twice during the regular season Rzepczynski went an extended period as the sole lefty reliever, and his ERA during those 14 appearances was 7.45.
This past season was the first time since 2000 that the Cardinals did not have two lefty relievers appear in at least 25 games each.
It’s that trend that Mozeliak said helps urge the team’s search for a second lefty. The market has already been set at its high end. San Francisco reliever Jeremy Affeldt re-signed with the Giants, inking a three-year, $18 million deal. The next best free-agent lefty is Sean Burnett, who, like Affeldt for San Francisco, faced both lefthanded and righthanded hitters for Washington. Burnett declined a $3.5 million option for 2013 to become a free agent. That bonus alone is worth more than the Cardinals have spent total on any lefty reliever other than Trever Miller.
“We knew that the lefty relief market was not a great place to be shopping in the sense of there’s just not a lot of them out there,” Mozeliak said. “As we look at a lot more options, it may come from trade. It’s still pretty early. It might be a little premature to just term exactly where it’s going to come from. We’re still interested in finding one.”
The last time the Cardinals had two entrenched lefties was in 2009 and 2010 when Miller and Reyes combined to make 261 appearances in those two seasons. Each had a multi-year deal by then, the only two Mozeliak has signed for lefty relievers since the 2007 winter. Otherwise, the Cardinals have shopped for lefties who have been released (Arthur Rhodes late last season, Brian Fuentes), who are open to minor-league offers (Ron Villone), or on one-year deals (Brian Tallet, Romero).
There are short-term options in this market that fit previous signings. Randy Choate, 37, a past trade target of the Cardinals, and Mike Gonzalez, 34, are free agents. Both could be classified as a complementary lefty. Miller was at a similar stage when he negotiated a two-year deal that was rewritten to one year because of a tear found in his shoulder. He didn’t finish the eventual extension signed with the Cardinals because he was traded — as part of the deal that brought Rzepczynski from Toronto.
The trade market could be the more appealing route for the Cardinals to find Rzepczynski’s match. Rzepczynski is arbitration eligible, this winter and the Cardinals have three more seasons of control. Sam Freeman and Kevin Siegrist are rising lefty prospects, but a trade could bring the Cardinals control as well as an immediate help.
Rzepczynski referenced his trade to the Cardinals as something that allowed him to reset. He found confidence by “remembering what got me traded, why they wanted me.” While the sum of this season wasn’t what he hoped, he did find late success to carry into spring.
Even if the Cardinals add a lefty to the equation, Rzepczynski wants to be counted on.
“I think it can’t hurt to have a second lefty,” Rzepczynski said. “It doesn’t change the fact I also have to do my job. That’s how I’m going into next season — that I have to try to win a spot again and prove to them that I am the guy they traded for in 2011 and not the guy I was during a six-week hiccup in 2012. That’s how I have to get ready for 2013.”