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Closer casting call: Cardinals throw open ninth for competition, hoping one emerges from many

Closer casting call: Cardinals throw open ninth for competition, hoping one emerges from many

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JUPITER, Fla. — The job opening isn’t posted on the corkboards inside the Cardinals’ clubhouse this spring, but every day the candidates are — and by now they know the qualifications.

A few made their pitch for the vacancy as recently as October. Others have either done the job in the past or the club sees it in their future. With Jordan Hicks recovering from elbow surgery and unavailable until midseason and Carlos Martinez eyeing the rotation, the Cardinals are in the market for a closer and intend to hold auditions all spring. In the clubhouse Sunday, reliever John Brebbia, who has submitted a resume for consideration, described what qualities the bulwark at the backend of the bullpen must have.

It’s actually in the name.

“The first thing that comes to mind when I think of a closer is someone who is a bull — competitive and never backs down,” Brebbia said. “I think good stuff is always going to play into that because a lot of times teams appear to pick closers based on who they believe their best pitcher is out of the bullpen. But to make it successful in high-leverage situation you have to be more on the aggressive side, the more proactive pitcher, not a read and react pitcher. You lead the game.”

With a week of workouts before Grapefruit League play opens Saturday, how the Cardinals intend to conduct the contest for closer is crystallizing — and so is the circumstance. Miles Mikolas, the opening day starter a year ago, has had his spring interrupted by soreness in his forearm, and the delay could yet infringe on his availability for the regular season. That underscores the importance of Martinez returning to the rotation, leaving the ninth inning unoccupied. Several closer candidates, like Ryan Helsley, will open spring games on a starter’s program with the intent to get them innings and prep them, pitching coach Mike Maddux said, for multiple-inning appearances in relief. Even a closer needs to pitch two innings “out of the gate — in a tie game,” Maddux explained.

In the first week of games, priority innings are also planned for Andrew Miller, John Gant, Giovanny Gallegos, Brebbia and starter contender Kwang-Hyun Kim.

Any, all, or none could emerge as the closer by April.

“There are multiple ways to look at it,” manager Mike Shildt said. “We can have the guy (who) again on any given day is down. And then we could have multiple guys who are capable.”

A year ago, the Cardinals spent spring training prepping relievers to be used at any time, in any role, and suggesting they would, to start the season, go with closer by matchup. They didn’t want to earmark Hicks for the ninth when the middle of the opponent’s order was coming up in the eighth, and they wanted Miller available in the ninth if Christian Yelich or Joey Votto or Anthony Russo loomed. It wasn’t too long before the possibility of having Hicks as Thor’s hammer in the ninth was too tempting to delay, so the Cardinals didn’t. When Hicks’ elbow came unwound, Martinez took over — and buttressed one of the league’s best bullpens. Only the Dodgers’ bullpen had a lower ERA in the National League than the Cardinals’ 3.82, and the Cardinals had the best bullpen ERA in the NL in the postseason, 3.48. Cardinals relievers allowed the fewest hits and fewest homers of any bullpen.

Former pitching coach Dave Duncan would argue how a surefire closer is a thunderhead for any team — it gives the other relievers cover and thus confidence, and the opponent comes to the ballpark knowing if they don’t have a lead after eight innings that a storm’s a-coming. The goal, as Maddux described, is to find ways to shorten games. The entire bullpen can do that.

“Having one guy who is a lock down guy is fine,” Shildt said. “If we don’t have that then clearly the multiple options are going to be necessary.”

Shildt called it “just free-throwing” as he listed some of those multiple candidates. Giovanny Gallegos was the Cardinals’ most reliable setup man all season with a 1.89 ERA and 13 holds in the second half, and “two elite pitches,” Shildt said. Miller has been an All-Star and a closer before. Gant was the team’s leading setup man in the first half, flirted with being the team’s candidate as an All-Star reliever, and then stumbled down the stretch with 19 walks in his final 21 2/3 innings. Brebbia “goes and gets it,” Shildt said. He struck out 37 batters in his final 32 1/3 innings last season, including the playoffs. Shildt added there are “guys with good arms who can emerge,” and eventually that could be Alex Reyes, if he shows command and health.

With access to multiple innings to start spring, Helsley has been sharpening his secondary pitchers — reintroducing a curveball to his mix and test-driving a changeup. He mimicked the grip two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom uses for his changeup. Including a late-game, high-leverage role in the playoffs, Helsley struck out 28 and walked only eight in his final 31 2/3 innings. He had a 2.27 ERA in the second half.

Now he’s trying to double his pitches to play off a 100 mph fastball.

The variety and versatility available in the bullpen permits a closer by committee approach, which is traditionally avoided. The success the group has already had together gives it a twist, gives them all added trust in each other. It’s closer by collaboration.

“Closer by collaboration — that’s very cool,” Brebbia said. “Let’s say they don’t name a closer to start the season. We’re not a team that wouldn’t have a closer because there isn’t someone who can close games. We’re a team that doesn’t have a closer because we have so many people who can close games. That’s where we can draw our strength. We’re not just aimlessly wandering out there — pirates without a captain. I can look to my left and to my right and see people who will have tons of success in that role.”

The opening the Cardinals have isn’t some temp work.

They see it as a full-time role, complete with benefits. They’re hoping a reliever seizes the promotion to the ninth — by the end of March, by May, by midseason — and keep it, not keep it warm for Hicks. They hope not to ask that much of Hicks that soon after returning from Tommy John surgery.

“The players will define their roles,” Maddux said. “They’ll help you make the decision. It would be nice to have multiple choices.”

It’s even better to have the answer.


Closer Candidates

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