The Case for Kyle McClellan as the Cards Closer

Jul 28, 2008 at 6:15 pm

Well, one out of three against the Mets is certainly better than 0-for-4 against the Brewers, right?

Of course, even within that one victory over the New York club, we still saw the club's current closer, one Mr. Ryan Franklin, give up a home run in the ninth inning. It was the third outing in a row that Franklin had allowed a homer. It was the fifth time out of the last six games that the Cardinals gave up a run in the eighth or ninth inning.

It's time to make Kyle McClellan the closer.

In short, it was still just another day in the Cardinal bullpen paradise. We saw, once again, manager Tony La Russa go to a bad option in the bullpen, rather than choosing the best possible reliever to get the job done.

This morning, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Tony La Russa gave Ryan Franklin his vote of confidence:

"When Franklin is fresh, he's going to get the ninth inning. He's the best guy we have for that role."

Really, Tony?

Look, I understand backing your players, so I'm not going to go after La Russa for making those statements. You don't come out in the press and blast your own guys. Ever. It's just not productive. You end up hurting the relationships on the team, you drive down a player's value; there's a thousand reasons not to run down your players in the media. Of course, it would be nice if Tony could try a little bit harder to stick with that strategy across the board, rather than only when it suits his mood. (See also: Reyes, Anthony; Rolen, Scott etc.)

Regardless, I fully support a manager giving his guys public backing. The problem comes when a manager continues to put his team in a position to lose games by making poor decisions. Tony has always had his 'hero' pitchers. He rides the guys that he believes in, fully capable of ignoring whether or not the results justify his continued faith. Guys like Jason Isringhausen get all the rope in the world, even when it's hurting the team.

Personally, I belong to the school of using your best reliever to close games, whether he's done the job in the past before. I realize that conventional baseball wisdom states that the last three outs are different from the other twenty four, but I don't really buy into that a whole lot. The ninth inning is tough, yes, but so are all of the others. I like having my best reliever at the end of the game simply because the closer you get to the end of the game, the higher the chance that any mistakes turn into losses. You lose the lead in the seventh inning, there are still a couple of innings left to come back. You lose it in the ninth, you're pretty much screwed.

Stop this charade of thinking that Jason Isringhausen is going to come back as an effective closer. The guy's a warrior, and I respect the hell out of everything he's done, but it's just not going to happen. He's done. Ryan Franklin simply isn't a closer. He's not going to shut the other team down on a day in, day out basis. Let it go, Tony.

So who does that leave? Well, the Cards' two best relievers this year, by far, have been Russ Springer and Kyle McClellan.

Both have ERA's well under three. In fact, Springer's is below two. Both of them have been helped by the defense this season, as each are outperforming their FIP (fielding independent percentage), but have been solid even by those definitions. You want to close out games effectively? Those are the two names you should start with.

Now, there are certainly reasons to question either choice. Springer is 38 years old. You do have to worry about overusing him. He hasn't shown any ill effects from throwing multiple days in a row so far, but it's always a concern. Personally, Springer would probably be my first choice to close out games, as I think he's been the most consistently good reliever for the Cards this year. On the other hand, I can see the questions about his ability to stay healthy at his age.

And so that brings us to Kyle McClellan. Of all the pitchers the Cardinals have in the bullpen right now, McClellan easily has the best stuff. He throws hard, he has two above average breaking balls, and even features a plus changeup that has helped him beat up on left-handed batters.

The knock on K-Mac, of course, is the fact that he's only 24 years old and has no experience closing games. To this point, it appears as if La Russa has come down firmly on the side of using the guy with the experience, rather than the guy with the good stuff.

I would like to point out here the last time the Cardinals had to go to a young, inexperienced reliever to close out games for them late in the season. The year was 2006, and Izzy was at the end of his rope. He was on the disabled list, awaiting hip surgery. Tony went first to Braden Looper, then the team's primary setup man, to try and close out games.

Unfortunately, Looper then proceeded to lose two games in a row, right around the 20th of September. La Russa, finally out of options, turned to Adam Wainwright. Wainwright had been the best reliever in the bullpen that season, and had moved from mop up duty to middle relief to seventh inning responsibilities as the year carried on.

I don't think I have to remind you how that one turned out, do I?

Now, of course, that doesn't really mean much of anything to the current situation. Just because the team had success with a rookie closing games for them a couple of seasons ago doesn't mean it would work this year, right? Right. However, it also means that there is absolutely no reason not to try it this year.

Of the two options, I think Springer would be the best choice to shut opponents down for the rest of the year. Given the questions that come along with Springer, though, I can understand being a little careful with him. So, I have no choice but to go with Kyle McClellan. Of all the relievers the Cardinals have available, McClellan may give them the best chance to consistently win the games they've been losing lately.

Given the choice between handing away three good prospects to pick up a Brian Fuentes or a George Sherrill and going with an in house option, I say give the ball to K-Mac. Given the choice between continuing to watch this team hand away leads in the seventh inning or later and going with an unproven rookie at closer, I say give the ball to K-Mac.

Tony can complain all he wants about the lack of moves the front office has made to try and improve this team. At some point in time, though, as he continues to trot out bad options to try and close out games, the onus falls on him. La Russa is supposed to be the guy trying to win these games. So do what it takes to win, Tony.

Give the ball to K-Mac.

- By Aaron Schafer