COMMENTARY | Edward Mujica has done an outstanding job righting the ship in the St. Louis Cardinals' bullpen. In 22 opportunities, the middle-reliever-turned-closer has converted 21 saves. That's impressive and undoubtedly one of the best ratios in the major leagues. With a mystifying splitter that's served as the ever-present-equalizer, Mujica has been nothing short of jaw-dropping. But all good things must come to an end. It's a good thing for the Redbirds that Trevor Rosenthal shares the same bench in the St. Louis pen.
We've Seen This Before
When former All-Star closer Ryan Franklin started the 2011 season, the last thing on the Cardinals mind was replacing him -- at least not in the first month of their MLB campaign. But Franklin inexplicably and suddenly broke down, and the Redbirds were left reeling as game after game was lost in the final inning. Manager Tony La Russa was left with no alternative but to pull his favored pitcher. Multiple Cardinals relievers auditioned for the role, but it was Fernando Salas who eventually won the job.
Salas, a pitcher with closing experience in the minor leagues, was incorrectly labeled a "fireballer" when he joined the Cardinals staff, but deception, not velocity, was his weapon of choice. His fastball was quick, not fast, and his off-speed assortment was crafty. Hitters swung and missed or pounded the ball into the ground, but they rarely centered one of his tricky pitches in the zone. He rode his success to 24 saves in 30 opportunities, the most by any Cardinal reliever that season.
But Salas eventually tired, and those previously shifty pitches that dipped and jigged to the tune of nigh-untouchable became suddenly flat and all-too-hittable. Eventually, Salas was replaced by a pitcher who would not only throw the final pitch in game seven of the 2011 World Series, but also go on to record all 42 of the Cardinals' saves in 2012. Jason Motte, after spending most of the season fine-tuning a secondary pitch in so-called lesser bullpen roles, was finally ready to assume his prophesied duties in the ninth.
The rigors of an intense 2012 workload finally caught up to Motte in spring training of 2013, and the hard-throwing right-hander fell to Tommy John surgery. The Cardinals once again turned to one of the most successful arms out of their pen in recent memory, Mitchell Boggs. After a strong 2012 season as an eighth-inning setup man, Boggs seemed poised to inherit the closer's role seamlessly (the same path to the ninth, by the way, traveled by Franklin in St. Louis). The outcome, however, was anything but smooth.
Quickly banning Boggs from ninth inning work, the Redbirds again set to auditioning closing alternatives. It didn't take long to settle on Edward Mujica, the middle-relief pitcher acquired from the Miami Marlins the season before. Mujica shined, recording 21 straight saves with an aggressive, go-right-at-'em approach and a whacky splitter. But in his 22nd opportunity against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Chief faltered, and the Angels' hitters hung the first blown save of the closer's 2013 season around his neck.
And now manager Mike Matheny is faced with the same question that his predecessor faced in 2011. Is it time to hand the ninth inning role to his young fireballer, Trevor Rosenthal? Or will he stick with what's worked and send Mujica to the mound in a save opportunity again?
The answer is likely the latter, considering Matheny's penchant for player loyalty over clear and present trends. But a look at the recent stat sheets may argue in Rosie's favor.
It's Time For Rosenthal
Trevor Rosenthal burst on the scene in 2012 straight out of Double-A Springfield. Working as a starter, his velocity, control and overall maturity made him a prime candidate to help the Cardinals out of the pen. The gamble worked, and he entered the 2013 season a clear asset in late-inning situations.
Starting the season with that eye-popping fastball, Rosenthal immediately created the equivalent of a quarterback controversy in St. Louis. Fans and media seemed ready to anoint him the new Redbird closer right out of the gate, and Trevor seemed to be doing nothing to dissuade the opinion with each 98 mph fastball he threw. But a small bout of ineffectiveness -- likely due to a combination of over-throwing and an odd reluctance to trust his fastball against hitters expecting it -- briefly derailed his ascendance, and the Cardinals used Mujica's success to further develop Rosenthal's approach and assortment.
The progression of the two right-handed pitchers seems to be once again in sync. Just when Rosenthal needed more time to develop, Mujica surged. Now, when Mujica appears inconsistent and in need of a break, Rosenthal is once again mowing down hitters.
Since June 13, Edward Mujica has logged 5 2/3 innings and allowed five earned runs. He's struck out four and walked one. Rosenthal, by comparison, has logged seven innings and allowed three earned runs in the same time frame. He's struck out 10 batters and walked two.
The Cardinals could stick with Mujica and see if he rebounds before the All-Star break, but with the division up for grabs in the Central, it might be wise to learn from the Franklin-Salas-Motte relay race in 2011. It's time to hand the anchor leg to Trevor Rosenthal and let him carry the baton for the St. Louis bullpen down the stretch.
Kevin Reynolds is the author of Stl Cards 'N Stuff and host of The State of the Nation Address podcast at Cards 'N Stuff. He's been writing and podcasting about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2007 and can be found chatting about baseball on Twitter (@deckacards).
- Sports & Recreation
- Edward Mujica
- Trevor Rosenthal
- Ryan Franklin
- Fernando Salas