JUPITER, Fl. (KMOV.com) -- Certainty, especially in baseball, is hard to come by. From the first day of spring camp to the final pitch of the season, players, managers and front offices seek consistency and repeatability.
In the ninth inning, the need for certainty is paramount. Teams crave a back-end pitcher who, with the game on the line, assuages their fear of baseball’s vagaries.
For the first time in recent memory, the Cardinals enter Grapefruit League play without it.
“It’s completely different this year. We have a number of different guys,” Mike Matheny said. Thursday. “It’s been easier [in the past] to say ‘that’s our guy.’ That’s just not where we are.”
In year’s past, the team began spring camp with a clear closer. Edward Mujica, Trevor Rosenthal and Seung Hwan Oh all finished preceding seasons on high notes, making camp less of an audition and more of a tuneup for the back end of the bullpen.
This year, the name on the roster with the most saves in 2017 is Bud Norris, who had 19 with the Angels last season. The highest total from someone who was on the Cardinal roster a year ago belongs to Tyler Lyons, with three.
Over the winter Luke Gregerson’s name was spoken the most, and after being signed to a two-year deal, he was named the presumptive closer.
But the Cardinals have a handful of arms that fit the bill for the role, and early in camp, that’s less a point of stress and more a point of pride.
“It makes great competition here,” Matheny said. “What we’re seeing of the mound, it looks like we’re going to have a number of options there. It’s just how we deploy them.”
Generally, bullpen roles start at the end and work backward. Once a team knows who they’ll call on in the ninth, they can staff the eighth and so on. Some pitchers, like Brett Cecil, like that system because it provides consistency.
“I think at some point in spring training you gotta have your closer, you gotta have your setup man, and you gotta have your sixth and seventh guys. I think it’s important for guys to know that going into the season just because it makes it easier for preparation for us. We’re not playing a guessing game from the fourth or fifth inning on,” Cecil said at the Winter Warm Up. “I know for me, if he says, you know, if somebody gets in trouble you’re gonna be our seventh inning guy or you’re gonna be our eighth inning guy, I know it’s easier for me to prepare for that rather than having to be ready for four innings and you don’t know when you’re going to go in.”
But without a clearly defined closer, the roles are still fluid as February closes. For some relievers, that makes the process simpler. Dominic Leone, acquired from Toronto in the Randal Grichuk trade, pitched in all nine innings at least once in 2017. He did the bulk of his work between the sixth and eighth innings, but appeared in both the fifth and the ninth at least five times each.
For Leone, variance means every inning becomes the same.
“I think everybody can be effective in every role. The motto I go by is, ‘every inning is a closer inning.’ If you’re coming in in the fifth, your job is to close out the fifth. Maybe potentially the sixth. If you come in during the ninth, your job is to close the game,” he said. “Using that mindset keeps things simple. You don’t get caught up in being a seventh inning, or eighth inning or ninth inning guy. Everybody has a job, none more important than the other, really, if you look at it. The fifth inning could be more strenuous than the ninth sometimes. You keep that closer mentality for every inning you pitch.”
As the Cardinals work toward finding a closer organically, that approach helps prepare the relief corps for deployment in any situation. Having multiple guys who can handle several of the late innings is a good problem to have as exhibition games open. As is having a number of young arms to supplement veteran relievers.
With bullpen use on the rise year over year, having a constant cycle of fresh arms helps alleviate wearing and tear on a bullpen. Many of the candidates for 2018’s pen are out of options, but younger throwers like John Brebbia and a handful of prospective arms (Jordan Hicks, Ryan Helsley, etc.) can be shuffled between the minors and majors when fresh personnel needs to be cycled in.
“You’re going to see a lot more of that league-wide. You just hate to get yourself hemmed in. So many guys that are out of options that you don’t have that flexibility,” Matheny said. “It’s never fun to be that guy, but I think you’re going to see rosters manipulated a bit more like that with players that have that flexibility.”
The Cardinals aren’t going to enter the season without at least an outline of the roles. But at this point in spring performance, not incumbency, is the defining factor. The manager is confident spring competition will not only help answer the question of closer, but may provide a different type of certainty. One with multiple answers.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you today that we have to leave here and head to Montreal and say THIS guy is going to pitch the ninth. Could we go a full season without that? Maybe. And we may be real successful doing it having multiple guys that can throw,” Matheny said. “But I think guys should come in and be prepared to pitch significant innings and trust us on what inning that is going to be. Somebody has to pitch the last three and to fight to be that guy is a good thing for all our pitchers to aspire to.”