With John Mozeliak slamming the door on a possible Jason Isringhausen return, it’s becoming apparent that we will see a new closer to start the season for the Cardinals in 2009. Last year was not a good one for our relieving corps, as they combined to lead the league in blown saves with 31. Many people have been critical of the Cardinals offseason efforts and plans for the closer role.
One camp has been adament that the Cardinals sign the next big free agent, and are severely disappointed that we did not sign Brian Fuentes or Francisco Rodriguez (for a boatload of money and a first round pick). The second main group thinks we should just roll the dice with our player development. Chris Perez or Jason Motte should sink or swim, and we should annoit one of them as the closer for 2009 at the start of spring training. This will show us what we have, and only give confidence to make them better for the years ahead, right?
Of course there is the third camp, which most importantly happens to include Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan.
“You still want to improve your bullpen,” La Russa said. “The optimum thing is not to ask Chris or Jason to close in ’09. Let them grow into the role when they’re ready to take it.”
I haven’t seen a lot of analysis on the “competition angle” and whether this is the right move. I believe this deserves scrutiny. Tony La Russa has gone on record to say that he doesn’t belive the kids are quite ready for the closer role. He has pushed them through the media and presumably behind the scenes, but will not publicly anoint one as the fireman for this year. Duncan has made it a full blown competition:
“If no one takes the job by the horns, you could go into the season trying to mix and match,” Duncan said. “That’s not your preference. But it can be done.”
Is it the right method to question the ability and competence of your young relief staff through the media? Will this push Perez to throw strikes under pressure or increase Motte’s ability to develop a secondary pitch? What positive outcome might these comments provide? Remember, La Russa and Duncan are very smart and experienced men. This ‘ain’t their first rodeo’ and they don’t make off-handed comments through the media without a purpose.
Contrary to popular belief, La Russa and Duncan might want Perez or Motte to win the job outright. Cries that they don’t like young players and that they don’t give them a chance are really not accurate. For every Anthony Reyes and (to a lesser extent) Dan Haren, there is a Bud Smith, Rick Ankiel, Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. They are no dummies, and can see a player’s abilities, probably better than we can. They aren’t totally adverse to throwing a rookie out to the mound in tight, late game situations (see Wainwright, Adam circa 2006).
Some coaches/ managers use the media to drive or push players to varying success (it didn’t work with Scott Rolen, but some players fuel on critical comments… look at Michael Jordan or Albert Pujols). While it might not be the way you would do it, pushing a player publicly can work (as long as you are not demeaning them).
Motte and Perez have plenty of stuff (high K rates, successful minor league stats) and deserve a shot to close, but I’ve come up with 10 reasons why La Russa should push them and not anoint one of them as closer just yet:
- Pushing a player makes them work harder on conditioning in the offseason (especially someone with weight issues like Perez). It looks like Tony’s comments on Perez getting in shape has paid off as he has reported to camp leaner
- Decreasing expectations (a young player CAN lose confidence in his abilities if pushed into a role he is not ready for)
- Push management to add more options. While the Cardinals did come up empty on a free agent closer. They made the best offer to Brian Fuentes. He turned the muggy midwest down to be closer to his home in California, but you can’t say that they didn’t make a competitive offer. Many people decry that the Cardinals always seem to make the second best offer. They didn’t in this instance.
- Keep young players grounded and from becoming overconfident and/or cocky
- Give a goal for a player to shoot for instead of giving someone a job to lose. This is important because if you fall just short of your goal you are still pushing upward instead of regressing.
- Chris Perez is only 23 years old and Jason Motte is 26. There is plenty of time for them to take the closer role if they are able to earn it.
- Perez does not have a good walk rate (and never has), he had a few issues with the long ball last year with 5 in 41 IP (not terrible, but not where you want it to be). He may be our best option, but while I have a lot of confidence in his ability, I do not believe he will be a dominant closer this year. It’s not like LaRussa and Duncan would be holding him back from being one of the best closers in the league.
- Perez has toyed with the idea of replacing his secondary pitch (slider) with his third pitch (curve ball) this spring. This does not instill confidence that he is ready.
- Jason Motte does not have an effective second pitch yet.
- Creating less expectations for a fan base is a good thing. The closer role might be the most mentally strenuous position on the team. We all saw how fast the fans turned on Izzy, and he had a track record for being great. Could a young player really handle that? Remember how tough mentally that Izzy was as a closer. Do we really think Perez or Motte could handle the extreme negativity when Izzy had trouble with it? I don’t care how many games Perez saved in the minors or college, the big leagues are different. Thinking about it, this could be the number one reason to NOT anoint them the closer going into camp, and possibly making it a closer by committee for the year.
Photos courtesy of Dustin Mattison