Is The Cards' Bullpen Fixable?

Apr 12, 2011 at 12:07 pm
click to enlarge Oh, Billy Mays. We still miss you.
Oh, Billy Mays. We still miss you.
We all saw the disaster over the weekend in San Francisco. Don't pretend you didn't. The Cardinals' supposed closer, Ryan Franklin, blew two more saves, giving him three on the season in four tries. In both games, the Cards were a single out away from winning before the rug was pulled out from under their feet. 

You can never put a team's poor performance on just one player, but if Franklin just did his job two of those three games, the Redbirds would be sitting at 6-4, rather than 4-6. Two games over .500 a week and a half into the season looks quite a bit different than two games under, doesn't it? 

Unfortunately, the Cards' bullpen as a whole has looked to be a significant problem so far this season. This was part of the concern over moving Kyle McClellan to the starting rotation, you may recall; K-Mac had been a valuable contributor in relief the past few seasons, and taking him out of the 'pen potentially created another hole. So far it looks like those concerns were well-placed. 

The weakness of the bullpen leaves us with a few big questions. First off, does it need to be fixed? Second, can it be fixed? And third, will management take the necessary steps to fix it? 

The answer to the first question has to be a resounding yes. Ryan Franklin has been effective enough the past couple years in the closer role, but he's never been a dominant presence, and he's also not getting any younger. I'm sure we all remember what happened when Jason Isringhausen came to the end of his effectiveness. It happened in a hurry, and it was ugly. I'm not saying Franklin is done, necessarily, but he's 38 years old and has been getting by on control and guile for a long time already. It wouldn't be a surprise if this is the year Franklin loses it completely. 

Even beyond Franklin, there are more questions than answers. Tony La Russa has fallen in love with Miguel Batista, who's even older than Franklin and hasn't been, you know, good in half a decade. So far he's seen the bulk of the setup work and is probably in line for first crack at closing if and when Franklin gets himself thrown out of the role. 

Then again, it's tough to make much of an argument for either of the Cards' other two short-relief options, Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte. Motte has been shaky at best so far this season and still has never managed to come up with a pitch other than a straight fastball. Boggs has still never managed to post a K/BB rate better than 2/1 in his career, and is prone to occasionally losing the strike zone completely. Still, both have premium stuff, and you would hope that stuff would translate into premium results at some point in time. 

So on to question to two: can the bullpen be fixed? It's a tough question, to be honest. Replacing Franklin at closer would probably help, but it isn't a magic panacea which will cure all ills. 

The first, and preferred, option for improvement would be for the pitchers currently in the 'pen to simply pitch better. How realistic a hope is that? Well, Motte should certainly improve. Almost every season since he's been in the big leagues it seems he gets off to a slow start, with inconsistent velocity and iffy command. (So far we haven't seen a bout of homeritis yet, so that's good, I suppose.) Then April turns to May, and suddenly Motte is stomping around in a frenzy, chucking chest-high 98 mph fastballs past hitters, and all is right with the world. So Motte should get a little better. Still, I believe Jason Motte essentially is what he's going to be right now. He's not taking a quantum leap forward and he's not waking up one morning with Brad Lidge's slider from 2004 sleeping next to him. 

Boggs has actually been pretty good so far, and I fully expect that to continue. I do not, however, expect him to get any better than what he has been. So no real improvement there. 

Franklin is worrisome. You would expect him to get better, based on his track record, but he's also currently sporting a batting average on balls in play of .249, meaning he's actually gotten lucky that more hits haven't fallen in against him. If he can go back to not walking anyone like he has in the past he should improve some, but I wouldn't count on much improvement, to be honest. 

Batista is the other side of the Jason Motte coin. He's looked very good so far, and while some might be tempted to slap the Dave Duncan magic tag on him, I say not so fast. Batista is going to regress, and the Cardinals will be facing down a 40 year old setup man with below-average command of above-average stuff who will probably perform, oh, about the same as he always has. 

What I'm trying to say is this: of the four main candidates for late-inning relief work, only one is a good bet to actually pitch better than he has so far. The lefties are going to be used in their own way, and Bryan Augenstein will be used in low-leverage garbage time work unless he's absolutely brilliant, and even if he is we won't see him moving up the leverage ladder until much later in the season. (And I probably don't have to tell you, but the 'pen really needs to get better in a hurry.) 

What about the minors? Well, that's an interesting option, because both Fernando Salas and Eduardo Sanchez profile in the late innings, and both are only a phone call and an overnight drive away in Memphis. Salas we've seen, and he's been good, even in the majors. Plus command, good fastball, plus breaking ball. He even has a nice little changeup he breaks out for lefties. I expect to see Salas sooner than later, probably as soon as one of the other bullpenners has to throw three innings a couple days in a row. 

click to enlarge Ryan Franklin in 2008, his first season closing for the Cards. -
Ryan Franklin in 2008, his first season closing for the Cards.
​Sanchez is really the wild card in all of this. More than any other pitcher in the Cards' system, Sanchez fits the bill of a closer. And not a guy who pitches the ninth, but a real, honest-to-god, scare-the-shit-out-of-the-opposition Closer. With a capital C. If there's one player who could come up from the minors this year and make a major impact on the Cardinals' fortunes, it would probably be Sanchez. And sure, you could say he's much too young to be closing games in the big leagues, and you would have a point. Then again, the Cards won the World Series in 2006 with a closer who had about a month of job experience. Just a thought. 

Here's the problem, though, and it leads right into the third question of whether management will do what it takes to turn this thing around. See, Tony really likes his guys. He does. And when there's a guy he likes, that guy gets chances. Chances upon chances. Chances far beyond most rational human beings would offer. "Hey, Skip, try playing second base because you don't hit enough to play the outfield but I can't stand the thought of you not being on the team," chances. 

La Russa recently gave an interview in which he was asked about the closer situation. His response? Franklin is the closer, because he's better than anyone else in the 'pen. Now, whether or not he managed to say that with a straight face is not mentioned, but one would have to assume he did, if only because Tony's face is pretty much always straight. 

Now, the problem with that statement, of course, is that it just isn't true. Franklin is in no way, shape, or form the best option in the bullpen to close games right now. He's blown three of the four opportunities he's had so far. That's not even a good batting average. However, I believe that Tony believes Franklin is still the best option. I believe he believes that Franklin has some sort of magical quality which makes him a capital C closer. Never mind it isn't true. He's the manager, he believes that, and we're all going down with the ship. It is the most curious of all Tony's blind spots, that stubborn refusal to see when a player can no longer perform the way he once did. 

We saw it with Isringhausen in 2008. Izzy finally had to fall on his own sword and tell La Russa to take him out before the club tried out other options to close. And I fully expect that to happen again this year. Maybe not to quite the same extent, but I think we're going to see Ryan Franklin closing games for the Cardinals for most of the year, regardless of what it does to the team. The next option, I'm sure, will be Miguel Batista. And no one wants that. 

So what would my solution be, you ask? After all, it's easy to complain, but much more difficult to come up with a fix. Well, here's what I would do, all bullet-pointy and organized: 

  • Disable Franklin. Sorry, Ryan, but you're just not right at the moment, so it's time to invent an injury. Start practicing your limp. I could deal with Franklin getting hit; he's always going to be hittable. But he's walking hitters right now, and that's out of character. Stash him on the DL and give him time to try and work out whatever's going on. Invent a beard-related neck malady. Whatever. Just buy him some time to try and figure it out. 
  • Bring up Fernando Salas. As much as I would like to see Sanchez in the majors sooner rather than later, Salas has already been here and likely helps more immediately. First priority has to be to stabilize the 'pen and staunch the bleeding. Salas gives you the best chance at doing that straight off. Plus, I think he's best suited to function as a fireman type, the guy you go to in a jam, rather than starting off an inning. Just a feeling. 
  • Give Boggs first shot at closing games out. He has the best stuff of anyone down there and has proven to be fearless in pressure situations. (That's not to say he's always been good, just that he's always been fearless.) Throw Motte a chance or two while you're at it, see which of the two perform better. 
  • When that next arm is needed, bring up Sanchez and let him get his feet wet. Don't throw him right into the fire, but don't baby him either. Even more than Motte or Boggs, Sanchez could be a top-tier closer, and it would be good to find out where he is on the road to that. 
  • Whenever Franklin comes back, give him setup duties to whoever is serving as closer. If he proves he's 100% right, move him back into a time-share closing situation. There's nothing in anyone's contract that states they can only be used in save situations, so don't be a slave to the title. Mix and match would be best, I think. 
The problem, of course, is that this approach will likely never happen. La Russa essentially invented the notion of the ninth-inning only closer, and he has been bound to it ever since. Long-term I don't like closer by committee either, but until one of the young guns the Cardinals have developed takes hold of the job I think that might be the best approach. 

What has to be avoided is another Izzy situation, where one player is allowed to damage the team because the manager continues to put that player in a position to fail. The late innings of games that need to be won is no place for a pitcher to try and find himself. 

The bullpen is going to be a challenge this year. We all knew there was a chance it could be; I'm not sure any of us thought it would rear its ugly head so soon and so dramatically. Still, there are options to fix it, or at least muddle through. Unfortunately, the track record of the Cards' manager suggests those options may not be considered until it's too late. Hopefully he learned from the past. If not, the future could be a problem.