Only three weeks into the new season, it appears that Cardinals GM John Mozeliak will be required to perform a bullpen intervention.
Unless closer Jason Motte receives surprisingly good news on his torn elbow ligament next week, the Cardinals will risk continuing to hemorrhage late in games.
Last season the Cardinals had a 78-5 record when took a lead into the eighth inning. That computes to a .940 winning percentage.
Only 18 games into their 2013 season the Cardinals already have lost three games when carrying a lead into the eighth.
At 9-3 the Cardinals have a .750 winning percentage when holding a lead at the start of the eighth inning.
For perspective, consider this: the other 29 MLB teams are 204-16 when holding a lead going into the eighth inning; that’s a .927 winning percentage.
And in the NL Central, the Reds (8-1), Pirates (9-0), Brewers (6-0) and Cubs (4-1) are a combined 27-2 when taking a lead into the 8th.
The Cardinals’ 5.69 bullpen ERA is the worst in the majors. For a reference point, the worst bullpen ERA in franchise history (5.46) was posted in 1954.
The Cardinals also rank 29th among 30 teams with a 37.5 save percentage. Only the sad-sack Marlins franchise (33.3 percent) has done worse.
Small sample or not, the trend is ominous.
One way or another, Mozeliak will likely have to do something to deal with this bullpen emergency. He came through with a trade-deadline deal in 2011 that settled the bullpen and saved the season. And Mozeliak did it again in 2012, acquiring reliever Edward Mujica from Miami in a deal that delivered profound impact.
Things may get better, but until we see the improvement it seems that the Cardinals are wandering down the same path in 2013.
1. Make an impact trade. That’s easier said than done, especially at this early stage of the season. Sure, Mozeliak could probably pull a closer/reliever in from another team. But he’d have to overpay, perhaps dramatically so, and that won’t happen.
2. Try Joe Kelly in a more meaningful role. His talent is being wasted in a long-relief gig. Kelly has appeared in only two games since April 7, and that’s preposterous. I’m not saying that Kelly is the solution, but he has too much ability to remain seated in the bullpen. Kelly doesn't have to jump into the closer role; it's Mujica's turn now. But Kelly's status must be upgraded. We know one thing about him: he won't scare. Kelly displayed admirable poise as a rookie starting pitcher last year in his MLB debut season.
3. In a related note, the overwhelmed Mitchell Boggs must be held out of pressure situations for a while. The dude’s confidence is shot; he has to regroup. Manager Mike Matheny should swap Kelly and Boggs. Kelly should get a shot at working high-leverage situations — and if he fails, so be it. But not giving him the chance is irresponsible. Boggs can slow things down and clear his head in a long-relief, middle-relief role.
4. Call up a reliever from the minors … but if you look at Class AAA Memphis there are no appealing options — unless you’re talking about converting a Memphis starter into a big-league reliever.
5. Bring up a starter from Memphis and transfer a starter — Lance Lynn? — to the bullpen. The obvious candidates are RH Michael Wacha and LH John Gast. Wacha has a 2.25 ERA in three starts. The intriguing Gast hasn’t allowed a run in 24.2 innings over his four starts. Then again: why mess with a strong rotation? The Cardinals’ starting-pitching ERA (2.54) ranks second in the majors to Boston’s 2.53.
6. Fast-track the No. 2 organizational prospect, Carlos Martinez, to the big leagues and turn him loose as a late-inning option. I've discussed this on my radio show for a couple of weeks ... but he’s only pitched one game at Class AA Springfield, so we probably need to tap the brakes on this one. At least for a while. But internally there's a a belief that Martinez is capable of making a quick leap to the bigs.
7. Can Jason Isringhausen pitch? (Kidding, kidding ... I think.)
Truth is, there are no simple solutions.
Before moving on, let me offer this final thought:
Boggs has allowed 12 earned runs in 8.2 innings. The other Cardinals’ pitchers have combined for a 2.98 ERA.
More pertinent: the other Cardinals relievers have given up 19 earned runs in 40.1 innings, an ERA of 4.23. That isn't good, but then again 13 MLB teams have a bullpen ERA over 4.00.
So for now, the first move is the most obvious one: remove Boggs from significant assignments. If he’s given some down time to get straightened out, it could have a calming effect on the entire bullpen.
Obviously, there’s no way to be sure of this. But something has to change, at least to buy Mozeliak some time.
It isn’t easy to remain patient, but if the Cardinals can ride this out for a while, Mozeliak figures to have a more realistic chance to make a deal. That, or one of the young-gun prospects could be ready to help at the big-league level.
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