St. Louis Cardinals: The Four Closer Candidates

Patrick MorrisContributor IMarch 9, 2009

First off, nice win for the Cards today. It’s always pretty to see a team put up 14 runs in the spring.

Down to business though. Today’s topic: the Closer Role. For the past seven years this has been a given every spring. But since Jason Isringhausen’s physical (and possibly mental) breakdown last season, the Cards face the unusual role of plugging the sudden vacancy. Manager Tony LaRussa stated that the top priority of the club’s offseason should be to find another top-end closer to fill Izzy’s place.

The front office responded by taking a legitimate stab at veteran closer Brian Fuentes, but promised not to overpay. Despite the Card’s offer actually being slightly more than the Angels, L.A. was Fuentes’ first choice, so he headed west. It was a decent attempt, but only one attempt nonetheless. After that, the front office announced that the team would be better off looking inside the club for a closer, as the chances of landing another top closer would be slim in this economy. So like it or not, that’s where St. Louis stands with a closer—in the same spot as in October.

The truth is, who ends up pitching the 9th inning doesn’t really matter. It’s how they pitch the ninth. It could be easily argued that the Cards’ blew their chance at a playoff run thanks to leading the league in blown save opportunities. This year’s team is very similar to last season; if the Cards want any chance to get back in the playoffs, they’ll obviously need to cut down the blown saves. And cut them down a lot.

The four men who will be attempting to do exactly that are veterans Ryan Franklin and Josh Kinney, and the young Chris Perez and Jason Motte. Going into camp, Perez and Motte are considered the fan/media favorites to win the closer role. Both need some tuning on their off-speed pitches this spring, but have the ability to throw absolute smoke when necessary. Perez can crank up his fastball near 98, and Motte has been known to break the century mark on occasion. The two youngsters definitely have the heat for the closer spot. It’s just a matter of controlling everything else.

Franklin and Kinney are a different story. Both are seasoned vets that can’t blow the ball by hitters much anymore, but can get them out with effective pitch movement and location. As many Cards fans know, Franklin’s been the custom set-up man for LaRussa. He did lead the team with 17 saves last year, but that was also out of 25 chances. While Franklin has been affective out of nearly every role since he joined the Cards’ bullpen, it’s pretty clear that he’s best in his normal 8th inning slot.

Kinney is somewhat of the dark horse among the four. Coming off several major surgeries (including Tommy John), Kinney pitched in the majors at the end of last season for the first time since the 2006 World Series. The guy was lights out in his comeback too, allowing only three hits and striking out eight in the seven innings he pitched. He’s expected to play a major role in this year’s bullpen—assuming, of course, that he remains healthy.

So who will win out of the four? Probably none of them, to be honest. At least to start the season, expect LaRussa and Dave Duncan to do what they like to do best: mix and match according to the situation.

LaRussa has already been quoted saying that there’s a chance they could just start off with a “closer-by-committee” similar to last year. That’s fine to do early on, but the problem rests in that they could easily fall into the same trap as last year: either guys become ineffective in the closer role, or they gas out because they’re used to much (a.k.a. Franklin).

If Tony and Duncan want to spend March, April, and even May rotating those four in and out of the ninth inning, that’s fine. But if they plan to do it the whole season, I’m afraid there could be some eerily similar flashbacks from ’08.

If I was a betting man, I would put my money down that Franklin is used the most out of the four early on. If or when the Perez/Motte combo settles into the ninth inning, then hopefully all will fall in place. Franklin can go back to the eighth inning, and Kinney can take on the seventh. There’s a misconception in Cardinal Nation that LaRussa doesn’t like to play the young players, that he favors veterans. Last year’s team, though, should be a testament to how untrue that accusation is.

Truth be told, the Cards’ bullpen is reminiscent of their outfield—a nice combination of veteran skill and promising young talent. It’s all just a matter of putting the pieces in the right places.

And that’s where Cardinals fans can smile, because we all know there’s no one better in the game at the ol’ “plug and chug” than the Redbird manager and his trusty pitching coach.