The Cardinals bullpen has been a mess all spring, everyone has seen that. Get out the legal pad and look at the notes. Jason Motte got hurt in the middle of camp. Mitchell Boggs quickly fell apart. Trevor Rosenthal has been inconsistent. Al Hrabosky isn't in game shape any longer.
It's time to ask the question once and for all: why not Edward Mujica in the closing role?
The well-traveled Mujic Man was the last reliever standing in Thursday's 4-3 victory at Philadelphia, recording four outs and picking up his first save of the year. Mujica bailed out Rosenthal in the eighth inning, striking out Laynce Nix on a nasty splitter, and he worked around his own mess in the ninth, stranding two runners after a pair of singles (neither hit particularly scalded) opened the inning. Two ground-ball outs sandwiched around a strikeout of Jimmy Rollins (splitter again) put the Phillies to rest. Start the handshake line.
I understand the natural tendency to discount a reliever like Mujica, but let's sort through some of those issues and why they really don't matter.
-- He's a journeyman. Because Mujica has been around the majors since 2006, there's a tendency to assume he can't be anything special – we would have seen it by now. But he doesn't turn 29 until May, and it takes some pitchers a bit of time to find their niche and their best stuff.
-- He can't handle the pressure of closing. One of the silliest stats for any would-be closing candidate is their save-conversation rate compiled in set-up work. Mujica entered Thursday's play with a lifetime 4-for-17 record with save chances, but that's because non-closing relievers are routinely given a chance to blow a lead without the full chance to finish a game out. Blown saves matter when they happen in the final inning, but it's pointless to tax anyone for that stat if the damage occurs before the ninth. Throw this misleading stat into the shredder, it's pointless.
-- He doesn't miss enough bats. Most of us have been raised on the idea of a smoke-throwing fire-breathing dragon as a closer, a strikeout wiz who can put the opponents aside with a bushel of strikeouts. Mujica doesn't completely fit that profile, with a strikeout rate of 7.35/9 for his career.
That said, Mujica's strikeout rate is enough to get by when you consider two other factors: he rarely walks anyone (1.5 BB/9 for his career) and he induces a lot of ground balls (this wasn't the case early in his career, but he's spiked his ground-ball rate since moving to the National League in 2009). Any pitcher who throws strikes, keeps the ball on the ground and misses some bats has a strong chance to be successful.
Mujica joined the Cardinals in the middle of the 2012 season and all he's done for them is produce: 32.2 innings, 25 hits, four runs, three unintentional walks, 28 strikeouts. That's a 1.10 ERA and 0.89 WHIP, friends. We'd be foolish to expect that sterling level of performance to continue, but he sure looks like the best option in the St. Louis bullpen at the moment.
You can still land Mujica for nothing in two-thirds of Yahoo! leagues. It's last call for your point and click. Who wants to shake hands with Yadier Molina?
• Tony Cingrani's first start wasn't all sunshine and lollipops; he needed 102 pitches to work through five innings, after all, and he walked three batters. But the minor-league strikeout ace still delivered a fantasy-useful line, striking out eight Marlins and picking up a victory. Here's your scouting tape to digest; note how all eight of the punchouts came on swinging strikes (and a fair amount of them in the zone). Imagine when this 23-year-old really gets an idea of how to pitch.
There's plenty of room for improvement, obviously. Cingrani's change could use a lot of work and he doesn't really have a third pitch yet, just a show-me curveball at this stage. He was able to cruise through the minors primary with one pitch, something that won't last at the major-league level. But the strikeout potential is real and the National League environment plays nicely, especially with a Cubs game on the schedule next week.
Cingrani could be back in the minors in a few weeks, obviously. But we're not sure yet when Johnny Cueto will be ready to return – it's a foggy timetable right now – and who's to say someone else won't be hurt or ineffective by the time Cueto comes back? Bottom line, I'm in favor of a Cingrani pickup (or a hold, if you already grabbed him) in any mixer, especially if you're in a league that caps innings (in those pools, K/9 is a man's best friend). The rookie southpaw remains unclaimed freight (it's great) in 53 percent of Yahoo! leagues.
Jose Fernandez didn't hold up his end of the unofficial future's game, laboring through four messy innings (6 H, 5 R, 3 BB, 4 K). Given the opponent and ballpark, I'm willing to give him a pass. I would play the rookie, with hesitation, at Minnesota next week.
Before we leave this game and check out other action, here's your feel-good clip of the night: Todd Frazier's home run and the post-homer celebration with bat boy Teddy Kremer. Chicken soup for your roto soul.
• Call me an apologist if you like, but I'm not going to fret over Matt Cain's gopher-happy day at Milwaukee (6 IP, 7 H, 7 R, 3 HR, 0 BB, 4 K), his second mess of the year (the Cardinals got him for nine runs on April 7). Ryan Braun is capable of going deep on anyone, Jonathan Lucroy is a solid stick, and don't laugh at the Yovani Gallardo tater – he's got some pop, too. Cain's headed home for three of his next four starts, where he's likely to fix things (albeit the Redbird rout did come in San Francisco). His career ratios in AT&T Park (3.06/1.13) should soothe any concern; he's still good on the road, but at a different level (3.63/1.22).
• The Rockies whisked the Mets out of town with an 11-3 rout, piling up 17 hits in the process. The sub-freezing temperature that opened the game didn't hurt the batters much, apparently. Power always plays at Coors Field of course, but this park massages offense for a number of reasons: the outfield is expansive, the infield lightning-fast. It's not just the rockets to the seats, it's all of those cheap singles that land in front of deeply-positioned outfielders. Any regular (or temporary regular) is worth considering when the Rockies are in Denver; heck, I have a handful of Chris Nelson shares this year, and I even kicked the tires on Todd Helton (the horror, the horror) in the Friends & Family League. You win again, gravity.
Speed Round: Boston reliever Joel Hanrahan is dealing with a minor hamstring setback, which allows Andrew Bailey more time to mark the closing territory. Bailey had a rocking chair save at Cleveland on Thursday, needing just 13 pitches (10 strikes) in a smooth inning . . . The Red Sox should get David Ortiz back on the weekend, sore heel and all. Daniel Nava sticks in the left-field mix, while Jackie Bradley Jr. heads to the minors for some much-needed seasoning . . . Let's hear it for Carlos Villanueva, who has been terrific in three starts (1.29/0.81) against three imposing matchups (Atlanta, San Francisco, Texas). He now has four walks against 15 strikeouts over 21 innings. Villanueva draws Cincinnati, another stern test, next week . . . Derek Jeter has a crack in his surgically-repaired ankle and will miss at least the opening three months of the season. The Yankees are basically frosted at shortstop without the captain; Eduardo Nunez doesn't offer much and there's no immediate help in the organization . . . R.A. Dickey and Hishashi Iwakuma (the most underrated pitcher in the majors, perhaps) both worked six strong innings Thursday before minor ailments pushed them aside. Dickey has a sore back and neck, while Iwakuma departed with a blister problem. I suspect they'll both pitch on schedule next week, but we'll see what we learn on the weekend . . . The other cleat finally dropped with slumping Brett Wallace: he's been optioned to Triple-A. He was considered a blue-chip prospect back in the 2000s and he's still just 26, but something doesn't add up here . . . No one is more tired of the Cubs bullpen shuffle than I am, but we should at least note Carlos Marmol and his five straight scoreless appearances (2 H, 2 BB, 5 K). Teammate James Russell has been superb through the opening weeks (1 H, 0 BB, 7 K), but he's the only left-hander in Chicago's bullpen and that might block his path to saves. Assumed risk comes with any speculation play from the North Side.
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