St. Louis Cardinals: Is Finding a Closer More Important Than Signing Pujols?

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St. Louis Cardinals: Is Finding a Closer More Important Than Signing Pujols?
Marc Serota/Getty Images
March 6, 2011: Ryan Franklin warms up on the mound in Jupiter, Fla. He's been ice cold to start the regular season.

Would the Cardinals do better signing a top-notch closer than inking Albert Pujols to a $30 million deal? The answer to this question is a few paragraphs away.

For now, the Cardinals are batting around .290 with Pujols having one of the worst averages in the starting lineup. So it begs the question outlined in the headline.

I realize it’s the first month of the season and things can change in a St. Louis second. As things stand, however, the Cardinals need a closer perhaps more than they need Pujols it seems.

Does this sound crazy to you? It does? Keep reading to make some sense of the pitching-hitting dilemma the Redbirds will face all season.

As a franchise proud of its pitching since the Gashouse Gang days of Dizzy and Daffy Dean in the 1930s, the Redbirds are seemingly always at or near the top in team ERA. I realize pitching arms are sometimes more fragile than everyday player’s bats.

With the loss of Adam Wainwright this season and the inability of the current closer to shut things down, the team ERA has ballooned and put the Redbirds in the middle of the pack. 

The starting pitching has been relatively on point. It’s the bullpen, the closer position in specific, causing the rise in team ERA. I can’t understand the off-target approach. It’s made it obvious where the more pressing need for the Cardinals is.

Harry How/Getty Images
April 7, 2011: Pujols walks back to the bench in L.A. The Cards' slugger is one of the best hitters in the last 10 years.

Not many closers, though, are likely to be available as free agents or via trade at the end of this season. That’s the time frame Albert Pujols will be actively seeking a free agent deal.

The Cardinals don’t appear to have any confidence in their closers in the farm system to come up and deal with big league hitters. After Fraklin’s blown save percentage to start the season, they would have made a move by now.

They should have had a backup ready. To be fair, Adam Wainwright’s injury could have thrown a wrench in La Russa's bullpen plans.

Maybe Kyle McClellan was being groomed as the backup closer. He’s now a starter and doing a solid job. 

I wish I could say the same for the current closer. Of course, there is the possibility that Franklin can turn his season around and become a lights out closer, but it’s not likely. 

He’s been in decline virtually since he became the man—a role he took on during the down side of his career. 

I can’t blame him. He’s given the Cardinals a solid option to close out games, and he came virtually out of nowhere. It’s the patchwork closing design employed by La Russa.

Even in his only World Series championship season (2006) in St. Louis, Adam Wainwright became the closer out of nowhere. He quickly became one of two aces on the staff.

Marc Serota/Getty Images
February 16, 2011: Adam Wainwright loosens up in Jupiter, Fla. The former closer is on the shelf for presumably the rest of 2011.

Franklin was a journeyman reliever, to be kind, before being handed—or winning—the starter’s job in St. Louis. The jig is up.

His swing and miss and balls put into play percentages have been respectively on the decline and increasing as time progresses. Nothing against 38-year-old closers—Mariano Rivera is 41—it’s just Franklin’s time to get figured out by opposing batters is all.

The holes figured to be in the starting rotation coming into this season without ace Adam Wainwright, but the gaping chasm as been in the bullpen thanks to Ryan. And he is a professional, he can take a little criticism.

He knows he’s not getting the job done and will be the first to admit it. He’s been living a dream on borrowed time, and he’ll be fine off the field. There’s no need for a suicide watch for Franklin.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, have been playing Russian Roulette with their closers in the La Russa era. The Cardinals haven’t had a legitimate closer since Jason Isringhausen in 2006.

They’ve had Albert Pujols’ reliable bat—one of the most reliable in baseball history—since 2001. I hope he retires as a Redbird.

Not only is he the heart and soul of the Cardinals on the field, but he has a restaurant and is popular in the diverse communities and counties of St. Louis. 

Nick Laham/Getty Images
Oct. 21, 2009: Brad Lidge unleashes a delivery in Philadelphia. He's been delivering diminishing returns due to injuries.

His rookie season in 2001 was the last time the Cardinals lacked a legitimate closer before Isringhausen. While playing third base and outfield, Albert batted .329, hit 37 home runs and drove in 130 runs that year. Pujols obviously won Rookie of the Year in a landslide.

The Cardinals won 93 games in 2001 and finished as co-champions of the NL Central with the Houston Astros. The Astros were seeded higher in the playoffs due to a better head-to-head record.

Houston had eventual closer Brad Lidge in their farm system then. He was the 17th overall draft pick in 1998 and debuted as a middle reliever in 2002. He missed part of his first four pro seasons with injuries—a recurring theme, unfortunately, for him.

Pujols is credited locally in South Texas for catalyzing Lidge’s decline as a closer starting in 2005. Albert hit a crucial home run off Lidge in the fifth game of the 2005 NLCS, and Brad never recovered—Astros fans will tell you.

Houston defeated the Cardinals in the series, after all, and faced the Chicago White Sox in the World Series. In the second game, however, Lidge gave up a walk off home run to Scott Podsednik. The South Siders ended up sweeping the Astros.

Lidge did bounced back to win a World Series in 2008 with Philadelphia, but he's often injured. I must admit, he was considered lights out before the Pujols home run.  Injuries have always affected Lidge in the pros, but I suspect an injured ego also played a role.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
July 17, 2010: Rich "Goose" Gossage participates in a ceremony in the Bronx. He was the vaunted Yankees closer for years.

It’s a quiz without an answer—whether or not Pujols hurt Lidge’s confidence and career. I know Dan Quisenberry, Dave Righetti and Dennis Eckersley dominated the relief pitching accolades and hardware in the American League during the 1980s when Lidge was just a dreaming youngster.

In the NL, the Cardinals haven’t won a relief pitching award since 1995—their longest drought since the Rolaids Award was established in 1976. Rawly Eastwick won it with the Reds that year, and Rollie Fingers won three out the first five in San Diego

It only took the Cardinals six seasons to have a winner—Bruce Sutter. He’d won it in 1979 with the Chicago Cubs. In all, four Cardinals have won the award:

Sutter (1981-2, 1984), Todd Worrell (1986), Lee Smith (1991-2) and Tom Henke (1995) all won the award as Redbirds. Only Sutter won a world championship. He closed out the 1982 World Series for the Cardinals.

Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrobsky won the The Sporting News Fireman of the Year Award in 1975. Now known simply as Sporting News, their award has been around since 1960.  Lindy McDaniel of the Cardinals won it in the National League then.

A closer is one of the most valuable commodities in the Majors and maybe Rollie Fingers was most instrumental in bringing the closer’s role to prominence. A good closer could make the Hall of Fame or win the Cy Young—or both—like Rollie Fingers.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
April, 1, 2007: Bruce Sutter, left, congratutes Wainwright in Saint Louis. Sutter knew something about closing games.

Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen recently stormed out of a press conference after stating maybe he could get Bobby Thigpen to help his team. After posting an incredible 57 saves, Thigpen won the Relief Man Award in his magical 1990 season.

The Cardinals don’t have a Thigpen, but they better get to looking for one and find him—fast.

While this need is more pressing, I suspect Cardinals fans would rather suffer through a season or two without a closer than lose Albert Pujols.

I would probably feel the same.

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