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“Close” but no “Closer”…

Last night’s ninth inning was frustrating to say the least. It seems Isringhausen has improved, for the most part, on his inability to throw strikes. It even seems that improvement may have cut down on his inability to keep the ball in the ballpark. But…he’s still very hittable. I’ve supported putting Izzy back in the closer role, mainly because we have to know what we have…a closer or a “used to be a closer.” And, to be honest, last night was not entirely Izzy’s pitching that was to blame. If he comes up with that ground ball, the game most likely ends in the ninth – but let’s not kid ourselves. If a closer puts himself in a bases loaded situation, that’s bad. I don’t care if he gets out of it or not…he has no business being in that situation anyway. It’s clear the Cardinals have to (and will) take another look at their closer situation today. So, I’ve decided to put together a few options. Take the poll on the right to let me know what you think of the possibilities below:

Currently on the MLB level roster

Jason Isringhausen    Yes, he’s still an option, albeit not a very enticing one at this point. Izzy just doesn’t have it right now, and I don’t know that he ever will again. He looks as if he’s throwing very hesitantly. His hip surgery may have been a success, but I think it’s changed how he pitches. He used to throw “all-in” and fully commit to the plate with every pitch. However, his hip difficulties have forced him into a change in delivery…perhaps out of habit in trying to protect his hip prior to the surgery or maybe out of necessity because his repaired hip just can’t take the stress any longer. Whatever it is, it’s causing him to groove the ball to hitters. He’s entirely hittable, and without a high risk (to his hip) change in delivery, I don’t think he’ll ever get back to “closer worthy” again. At this point, Izzy is a 7th or 8th inning reliever, but that’s it.

Ryan Franklin    This guy has good stuff. He’s got the right mental approach, toughness, etc. – but he just doesn’t have a dominant pitch to challenge hitters with in the ninth. That doesn’t stop him from trying, however. “Frank” has solo home run written all over half his fastballs, and that just can’t happen in the ninth inning. As a setup man in the 8th, Ryan can afford to take a few more risks…especially at home…and his use of the off-speed stuff is actually beneficial to the pending closer because of the sudden change in velocity/stuff they will be seeing in the ninth. But those luxuries do not translate well to the ninth inning. Franklin just doesn’t have the fast ball to consistently challenge hitters in the ninth inning the way he is accustomed to doing it in the 8th. And none of this even addresses the fact that Franklin himself is clearly not comfortable in the closer role. All of that said, Ryan can be a very effective pitcher in the ninth inning, but more a Trevor Hoffman style (location and off-speed pitches) than an Izzy-in-his-prime style; but if the guy pitches the ninth like an ideal setup/8th inning guy, doesn’t that mean he should be a setup/8th inning pitcher?

Russ Springer    Springer has been outstanding this year (not considering his last appearance), which is exactly why the club is hesitant to pull him from his current role – come into tough spots with runners on base and get outs. At the same time, if the guy is currently your best bullpen pitcher, doesn’t that make him the closer by TLR’s own definition? Springer could do the job…for the most part. He’s tough as they come in the ‘pen. He knows how to pitch and how to locate. His fastball isn’t dominating but it’s not meat either. He could do it. The problems? He couldn’t do it every night. Putting Springer in the closer role automatically means you will be a “closer by committee” team – at least somewhat. Russ is just old, and his body can’t take it anymore. That was clear in Sunday’s game. The guy was just worn out after being used in several consecutive days. Also, I’ve heard reports that he struggles a bit with lefties. So, putting Springer in the role means you may have to spell him a bit due to his age, and he may have to share a few ninth inning appearances with a lefty specialist. Splitting time with a lefty and another closer makes you not really the closer at all.

Kyle McClellan    K-Mac may be able to do the job. He certainly has the stuff (especially with that breaking ball), and his fastball is good enough. He’s shown unusual poise and durability in his first big league season, but that’s just it…can we really expect to catch lightening in a bottle with a rookie starter-turned-reliever-turned-closer twice in three years (e.g. Waino)? Really, I don’t have any knocks against Kyle. I think he could do it. But what about the impact on the rest of the bullpen? Isn’t the closer supposed to restore order to the bullpen – not introduce even more role confusion? If another viable option exists, K-Mac is much too valuable in his current role to risk further upsetting the bullpen by moving him into ninth inning duties.

Currently on the AAA level roster

Chris Perez    Perez, in his initial stint in the Bigs, was not up to the task of closing out MLB games. He lacked a viable second pitch and was prone to bouts of wildness at inopportune times. When he was sent down to Memphis, he was specifically instructed to work on his slider and pay no attention to the results. In his last ten games at AAA, Chris was scored on twice – once in one game and five times in another. If those are save opportunities, one could say he has two blown saves in ten opportunities…in AAA. Considering that number could double or triple against MLB hitters, I have to hope the kid’s a good listener and didn’t worry about the results. Of course, if he’s consistently throwing his slider, I have to wonder if it has actually improved at all…as is, he seems pretty hittable. Still, he could be the best option considering the above possibilities.

Jason Motte    This kid is a toss-up to me. A former catcher turned pitcher, he’s certainly lighting up the minor leagues. In his last ten games at Memphis, Motte’s numbers are impressive:  13.1 innings pitched, 6 hits, 1 earned run, 3 walks, 27 strikeouts, and a 0.68 ERA. However, reports suggest his fastball – while “blazing” – lacks movement and occasionally misses it’s spot. As a recent inductee to the bullpen club, he also lacks a dominant second pitch. He does possess a slider, but it is reportedly less than impressive and perhaps telegraphed. Long story short, the kid’s gonna’ get timed and pounded at this level…maybe. After all, how do you bet against a kid that throws it 96 – 98 mph? Still…without much movement, that’s good enough to get your 6 – 9 hitters out, but the top of the order is gonna’ pound you.

Currently on the AA level roster

Fernando Salas    This guy is an enigma. He has 21 saves at Springfield, was selected to this year’s Futures Game when Jaime Garcia couldn’t go (no small task), and certainly looks impressive when I watch him pitch in person. But the reality is this…no one knows what to expect from him. He seems like the Springfield Mystery Man. I don’t like the idea of bringing this guy up.

Jess Todd    I really like the idea of bringing this guy up. According to all reports, this kid has a good cutter, a good slider, and several other pitches that could be used in a ninth inning role without fear. He’s currently a starter for Springfield, but I would love to see how his “phenom-like” pitches could translate to the Big League level right now…especially in a one-time-through-the-order situation like the ninth inning. Very intriguing…not very realistic, however. But remember, teams were specifically interested in Todd at the trade deadline for a reason.

Rotation considerations

Adam Wainwright    No. This option has been talked into the ground by many, many writers/sources, so I won’t spend much time on it here. But let me say this…Waino is FAR too valuable in the rotation to move into the closer role. You don’t take an ace quality pitcher and limit his innings. What would you think if the Cubs suddenly moved Rich Harden to the closer role? Or the Brewers suddenly yanked Sheets out of the rotation and inserted him into the ninth inning? I’ll tell you what my reaction would be…Whoo Hoo! The fewer innings I have to face those guys, the better…and if they are the closer, a lead by my team means I don’t have to face them at all. The same is true of Wainwright. You want to make Brewers and Cubs fans happy? Move Waino to the closer role. Otherwise, stop going down this road and find another option.

Braden Looper    This could work, especially with how much Looper has changed his approach to pitching since becoming a starter, but I still don’t like it. He doesn’t have dominant stuff to begin with, and the possibility of him suddenly discovering it because he is moved into a role that needs it is slim to none. However, he does have the experience. He was a closer for the Mets not that long ago. But don’t forget how we got him…he wasn’t removed from the closer’s role for no reason.

Todd Wellemeyer    This idea has merit. The guy has a good fastball (velocity and movement) and a decent slider. The problem? To get that “good” velocity a quality ninth inning pitcher of his type throws, he has to sacrifice control. He can throw 95 – 97 mph consistently (with movement), but without control. To keep from walking the side, he has to cut it back to 91 – 93 mph. Still, his fastball has enough movement and “life” to get hitters out consistently even with the self-imposed decrease in velocity. Problem number 2? His slider is a toss-up. Half the time it’s on, the other half it’s not. And if he can’t rely on his slider, his fastball tends to get him in trouble. Not a good combination.

Way out there options

Rick Ankiel    Hehe…just kidding.

I will say this…I would not want to be TLR, Dunc, and Mo right now. There is no clear-cut decision to be made here…but something does have to be done. And it has to be done sooner rather than later if we expect to continue contending.

A quick note on the young guys (Todd, Motte, etc.):  In a full season, these kids could become exposed (especially Motte) and timed. But we’re talking a month and a half left in the season. Most of these teams are going to see us one more time, twice at the most. Not counting the post season, I’m not sure they would see the kids enough in the ninth inning role to time them or “sit” on any one pitch. Still…counting on a “short term assignment” theory like that is a big gamble in itself.

Ah well…glad it’s not my decision…GO CARDS!!!


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