Retooling the Cardinals Bullpen

You can’t retool a workbench without a good chuck key

Although the news of the promotion for Chuckie Fick hasn’t hit the Cardinals official website yet, it doesn’t keep us from taking a quick  look at how this might effect the bullpen in the coming days.

The Cardinals added the 26 year old righthander to the major league roster last November, along with left handed reliever, Samuel Freeman.   While these roster moves were done to precent losing either player in the Rule 5 draft, it sent a different and more immediate message to Fick – get ready, this day would be coming, and soon.  It’s about time.

Before looking more at the newest member of the St. Louis Cardinals, let’s take a peek at how some of the other relievers have been doing.

Jason Motte  (3-2, 2.70 ERA, 8 saves, 0.850 WHIP)

Simply put, Jason Motte is getting it done.  His walk rate continues to improve with each season.   He’s also reversed a trend and his strikeout rate is climbing a bit.   Just a bit.   The fidgety flame thrower now has a legitimate secondary pitch – a couple of them, actually – and his fastball is no longer of the “as the crow flies” variety.

The biggest improvement this year is that opponents just aren’t hitting Motte.  Collectively, they are hitting a measly .183  at the moment, and he has been especially tough on left handers, not that righties are doing that much better.

If there is a concern, Motte has given up a few home runs.  The one last night to Hunter Pence cost the Cardinals the game, but that loss could easily be  shared with third base coach, Jose Oquendo, who foolishly sent Yadier Molina home on a play in which he shouldn’t have.  Or Mike Matheny for that matter for not opting to pinch run.  Any other player on the team beats the relay throw home and the Cardinals win that game.

The Redbirds have themselves a closer, and a pretty darned good one at that.   The ninth inning is the absolute least of the Cardinals concerns, at the moment.

Marc Rzepczynski (0-2, 3.86 ERA, 1.041 WHIP)

Like Motte, if you are looking for trouble, look elsewhere.   Rzepczynski is tracking pretty closely to his performance last August and September (and we know how that ended up).    His strikeout rate is way down, but a closer look at some of his peripheral stats show that 2012 Scrabble is nearly identical to the 2011 version, perhaps just a bit better.  For now, we can look away from the strikeouts as a worrisome indicator.   For now.

It would be nice to complement Rzepczynski with another lefty, a veteran LOOGY perhaps, but those tend to be in very short supply.  Mike Matheny and Derek Lilliquist may have to rely on Victor Marte and Brandon Dickson’s ability to retire lefties, at least until the trade deadline.

Mitchell Boggs (0-1, 2.11 ERA, 1.219 WHIP)

Mitchell Boggs is the Kyle Lohse of the Cardinals bullpen – a convenient punching bag for fans wanting to take out all of their frustrations on a single player.   As with Lohse, this might be a bit unwarranted.

Let’s take a look at Mr. Boggs through the first 20 appearances of his last three seasons, including this one.

2010 20 22 2/3 20 9 18 .233 .693
2011 20 22 2/3 19 8 22 .229 .639
2012 20 21 1/3 17 9 21 .224 .577

There has been steady improvement in each of the last three seasons for Mitchell Boggs.   Not in a “let’s turn the closer’s role over to him” way, but the progress is there nonetheless.   Boggs is giving up fewer hits (and I won’t jinx him by mentioning a particular kind of hit), his strikeouts are up and his control is very good (2.3 K/BB).

So why do some fans want to see Boggs elsewhere ?   Probably for the same reason the do with Kyle Lohse.   A middle reliever or setup guy is something like a shock or strut on your automobile.  When they are doing their job as expected, you hardly notice.  Things roll along smoothly.   When they don’t, you can’t think about anything else.   It gets so bumpy that your back teeth want to fall out and all you can think about is replace them as quickly as possible.

It is not all rainbows and butterflies with Boggs.  Last year he wore down in the second half, and started to get hit with greater regularity.   We should keep an eye on that over the next few months.  Until then, relax and enjoy the slow but steady maturing of Mitchell Boggs.

Victor Marte (no record, 3.98 ERA, 1.180 WHIP)

Without a doubt, Victor Marte is my favorite story so far in the 2012 season.  Picked up last year from the Omaha Storm Chasers for future considerations ($1 US), Marte took over the closers roll in the Memphis bullpen and was absolutely lights out.  He wasn’t supposed to be part of the Cardinals future plans in any way.   As with a lot of minor league veterans, he was there to fill a roster spot.   That’s not to say he wasn’t important, but that is all that we should have heard from him.

Until spring training, and the big hard throwing righty made something of an impression.   When the bullpen started showing signs of trouble, Marte got the call and made the short trip to Milwaukee and immediately got to work.   He gave up a home run in a losing blow out – ok, so his Cardinals debut wasn’t so hot.

Since then, it has been a different story.   His 3.98 ERA is a bit tricky, as it can be with a lot of relievers.   Let’s look at this from a different direction.   In his 21 appearances, he has allowed a run in just 7 outings (4 of them in multiple innings of work).  Only once has he given up more than a single run.  If you take that away, his ERA drops to a respectable 2.65.

Marte has an interesting reverse split, suggesting that he might be more effective against lefties.  We will need to let this play out over a few more innings to see if this is a real trend or just the result of a small sample size. If there is a concern, Marte has given up a few too many home runs.

If he can hold up as well as he did last year in Memphis, he should be an important part of the late inning relief over the summer.  I love this story.

Brandon Dickson (2-3, 3.42 ERA, 1.31 WHIP – all with Memphis)

For the last couple of seasons, Brandon Dickson has been the most effective starter for the Memphis Redbirds.  His numbers from the minor leagues do not immediately jump out at you, but then again, neither did Woody Williams, and we remember how well he pitched in St. Louis.

Dickson is not a hard thrower, but can be deceptively fast.   If he can keep his pitches low, and not nibble on the corners, he can be very effective against both lefties and righthanders.   With Kyle McClellan on the disabled list, Dickson is an important member of the bullpen – the only guy you would trust with long relief.  A little bit of major league success while Kyle McClellan is recovering could make for a very interesting trade deadline.

Eduardo Sanchez (0-0, 6.75 ERA, WHIP unreliable due to sample size)

Sanchez remains the anomaly in the current bullpen.   He started the season with Memphis in the hopes that he would regain the form he showed so brilliantly in 2011.    His velocity was down and his control was off, but the young righthander seemed to solve both of those problems while pitching in Memphis.

He has been used sparingly since his recall two weeks ago.  Twice he pitched effectively, not allowing a run, but in his last outing, exactly one week ago, he got hit hard and his control issues resurfaced.  Jake Westbrook’s ERA, not Sanchez’s, is the real indicator of his ineffectiveness.

Was that just a single game misfire or is there some other concern with Sanchez ?  The way Mike Matheny is protecting him suggests there is something wrong with Sanchez, or – open the rumor floodgates – perhaps there is some deal in the works somewhere.   Not only is it too early in the season to consider trading away an important part of the bullpen, his contract status makes him the one reliever the Cardinals would most like to keep.

Maybe this is nothing more than the Cardinals manager getting a bit predictable in the way he uses his pitchers.   Either way, Sanchez remains an important cog in the Cardinals relief machinery.

Scott Linebrink (oh where oh where did Scott Linebrink go)

Linebrink was brought in to be the veteran leadership and some right handed pitching depth in the bullpen.   His early season injury opened the door for Victor Marte, so in some respects, his loss has yet to be felt.   On the other hand, with the release of JC Romero, the Cardinals bullpen has become a very young group (Marte the oldest at 31, Motte at 30).  A veteran like Linebrink could be a very good influence on some of the younger pitchers, much like Octavio Dotel last year.

While a lot of Cardinals fans rolled their eyes when the Cardinals signed Linebrink, me included, he did pitch fairly effectively in spring training.   It is really hard to tell if the bullpen is better off with or without his presence.

Chuckie Fick (23-16, 3.24 ERA, 1.230 WHIP in 6 minor league seasons)

Last year, the only reliever more effective that Chuckie Fick (5-3, 2.30) was Victor Marte (2-4, 1.44), and he got the first call of the season.   If it had been any other pitcher than Kyle McClellan heading onto the disabled list, Chuckie Fick would have gotten the phone call and not Brandon Dickson.  Dickson’s ability to pitch multiple innings made him the ideal replacement for McClellan, even if his use so far has been largely of the single inning variety.

Mike Matheny will learn very quickly that Fick’s value will come from entering a game in the sixth inning and holding the score, and getting the game to the setup guy in the eighth.   Fick was used regularly in Memphis, appearing in 54 games last year while throwing 70 1/3 innings.  Only Cory Rauschenberger threw more, helped by a couple of emergency starts.

Fick will fit well into the Derek Lilliquist/Dave Duncan school of pitch to contact.   He is not a strikeout pitcher, but his high sidearm motion puts a lot of downward break on every pitch.  That induces a huge number of ground balls hit harmlessly at infielders.   This year, with a rejuvenated Rafael Furcal and a (curiously) emerging Tyler Greene, that should lead to a lot of inning ending double plays – something that Memphis fans learned to expect from Fick.

The thing to watch is his control.   He has gone through long periods of wildness, putting a lot of runners on base via the walk.   He has largely been able to work around them, as evidenced by a low ERA and equally impressive WHIP, but major leaguers might be able to take advantage of that weakness.

One more thing you will learn to love about Chuckie Fick, and this again is thanks to his unusual sidearm delivery, the balls that are hit will stay in the ballpark.   Even major league hitters will have a hard time getting a lot of lift on those heavy sinkers he throws.   They will learn to become patient, and bloop them into the opposite field for singles and doubles, something that minor leaguers have yet to figure out.   But there won’t be many three run bombs while Fick is on the mound.

Who next ?

With Fick’s callup, the cupboards in Memphis are starting to get bare.   If Salas gets  things turned around, and there is no reason to believe he won’t, he should be the next pitcher called back up to the big club.  At that point, Fick or Dickson (probably Dickson) would go back down to AAA.   In the event of another injury, or should Dickson or Fick become ineffective, things get a bit more complicated.

Maikel Cleto remains a callup possibility.  He’s still a hard throwing strikeout machine and is currently fifth on the Memphis staff in strikeouts, in spite of pitching less than half the number of innings as the top 4.   He also seems to be giving up less walks, which as always been his weakness.   Even though we have heard the name Maikel Cleto for a long time, he is only 23 years old.   He might yet find his inner Lee Smith.

Sam Freeman and John Gast are a pair of lefties recently promoted to AAA.  While some of their callup is a result of the injuries to the big club staff, some of it is because they were pitching incredibly well for Springfield.   With left handers in terribly short supply, getting these two some experience against near major league ready hitters might become important late in the season for the Cardinals.   This would be more of a last resort move, but the same was said of Matt Adams, and look who is playing first base right now.  Freeman is on the 40 man roster, Gast is not.   Should the need arise, the Cardinals have three players that could be moved to the 60 day DL (Lance Berkman, Scott Linebrink and Chris Carpenter).

Adam Reifer is the only other pitcher in the minor league system on the 40 man roster.  The hard throwing righthander was looking every bit the closer of the future before an unfortunate slip while fielding a bunt on wet turf blew out his knee early last year.  He is still recovering from season ending knee surgery and has been inconsistent so far this season.  Optimistically, his velocity seems to be coming back and his control is beginning to look like his pre-injury level.  He would remain a long shot to be called up this season, but could be a part of a renewal effort next season.

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