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Cardinals' bullpen is taking shape

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Cardinals spring training

St. Louis Cardinals pitchers Marco Gonzales throws from the bullpen mound next to teammate John Lackey during St. Louis Cardinals spring training on Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015, at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. At right is bullpen coach Blaise Ilsley. Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

JUPITER, Fla. • There are several givens about the Cardinals’ bullpen that will be seated, no doubt shivering, along the first-base box seats in Wrigley Field on April 5.

One is that it will have seven relievers and also perhaps one starter because the Cardinals won’t need a fifth starter until the second week of the season and possibly the third.

Another is that Trevor Rosenthal will be starting his second season as the Cardinals’ closer, hoping to be more expeditious in his handling of save chances.

A third is that hard-throwing Jordan Walden, a former closer himself with the Angels, will be the primary eighth-inning setup man. Manager Mike Matheny intends to start pitching Walden and Rosenthal in that 8-9 tandem in the next couple of days, perhaps on Friday at Port St. Lucie, Fla., against the New York Mets, who drubbed the Cardinals 7-2 on Thursday in a game Matheny called “awful. That was just ugly.

“Spring training or not, we’ve got to look better than that,” said Matheny. “First we’ve seen of that. That won’t happen again.”

Some questions remain as to the righthanded-lefthanded breakdown of the bullpen, whether it’s 5-2 or 4-3. The group almost certainly will encompass righthanders Rosenthal, Walden, Matt Belisle and Seth Maness and lefthanders Kevin Siegrist and Randy Choate, the specialist. It also could feature Marco Gonzales, if he isn’t in the rotation, although Matheny suggested on Thursday that, for a young pitcher like Gonzales, opening the season in the minors might be more beneficial.

“We always need to be real honest,” said Matheny. “A younger player always has that advantage of going back there and pitching and staying sharp if and when we need him. That’s always going into the consideration.”

Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, when this topic was broached, smiled and said, “I would back whatever the skipper said, 100 percent.”

Matheny said, “We always talk about competition and (Gonzales) has been pitching very well. He’s competing, just like we’ve asked.

“(But) some of them can’t go to the minor leagues. That does play into this, for sure.”

Carlos Martinez, if he is the fifth starter, also could be spending time in the bullpen early in the season before his first start would arise, depending on how much rest Matheny wants to give veterans like Adam Wainwright and John Lackey.

“We realize we probably could go with four guys for a while but it’s a nice option to have, to be able to space them out a little,” Matheny said.

Martinez, as it turns out, though, will make his first appearance out of the bullpen on Saturday when he follows Wainwright, who will be making his first start of the spring.

“So much (of the bullpen) hinges on how that last starter position ends up,” said Matheny.

The bullpen lineup could well include veteran swingman Carlos Villanueva, a nonroster righthander who has moved between starting and relieving throughout his career with Milwaukee and the Chicago Cubs.

“That’s a strong possibility,” said Lilliquist.

Then there is lefthander Sam Freeman, whose command issues, which became more prominent when he walked the only two Los Angeles Dodgers he faced in last year’s playoffs, continued on Thursday. Freeman walked the first batter he faced in the seventh inning, which became a two-run frame for the Mets.

“We’re not making any secret of what we need from him,” said Matheny. “And that’s pounding the strike zone.”

Lilliquist said, “His stuff is as good as anybody’s. He’s just got to get it in the strike zone.”

The bullpen conversation also, in theory, could include lefthander Jaime Garcia, who mostly has been impressive and, it appears, completely healthy this spring. Garcia, who spent much of last season on the disabled list, could be left in Florida to pitch until needed or, a little less likely, wind up in the bullpen early on.

“That’s another option we have, based on what we see,” Lilliquist said. “This is still an active competition.”

Siegrist, so dominant in 2013 before encountering injuries last spring, has been healthy this spring and hasn’t allowed a run in four innings although he has had some long innings as he tries to work on a breaking ball and also a quicker time to the plate out of the stretch.

“The ball’s coming out (of his hands) the way it was before he was feeling things in his forearm,” said Lilliquist, who said he wasn’t yet concerned about Siegrist’s pace.

“We’ve asked him to do a lot with his delivery. Right now, we’re just looking for his health, crispness of pitches and for him to be able to (answer) the call on the given day.”

On the right side, Lilliquist and other coaches have been working with former Cincinnati and Colorado pitcher Belisle on technique so as not to tip his pitches. “He’s real comfortable with it now,” said Lilliquist.

“And Walden’s got good stuff and good deception.”

As for righthander Seth Maness, durable and consistent in his first two seasons as a reliever, “he’s our ground-ball guy,” said Lilliquist. Maness has induced 1.77 double plays per nine innings, tops in the majors among pitchers with 100 or more innings.

The future book has Mitch Harris, the 29-year-old Naval Academy product who has added pitches to his repertoire and velocity to his fastball and hard-throwing Sam Tuivailala, both of whom likely will be at AAA Memphis.

“Mitch is night and day from what we saw of him in a game last year,” said Lilliquist. “His velocity was 87 to 88. Now, it’s 93 to 95.

“‘Tui’ has some skills, too,” said Lilliquist. “He’s a converted (shortstop) and it’s just going to take time.”

The Cardinals’ bullpen may well hinge on how consistent Siegrist can be and, more importantly, how efficient the 24-year-old Rosenthal can be at the end of the line.

Lilliquist said of Siegrist, “I wouldn’t say it boils down to him. We need him to be good, that’s for sure. We need a lot of the guys to be good.”

Rosenthal, said Lilliquist, turned in his best outing in two years on Monday in a 1-2-3 inning against Detroit.

Last year, Rosenthal, though saving 45 games, walked 42 hitters in 70 1/3 innings, pitched behind many others and Lilliquist said Rosenthal had occasionally succumbed to “distraction.’

“Right now, he’s really focused on what he wants to do,” said Lilliquist.

For someone so young, Rosenthal seems to be able to shrug off bad games. “We tell him it’s like water off a duck’s back,” said Lilliquist, who added that youngster Rosenthal knew what relative oldster Lilliquist was talking about.

So, Lilliquist likes the bullpen — and the entire staff — no matter how it shakes out.

“We’ve got a lot of tough decisions coming up,” he said. “And we’re happy for that.”

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