For some MLB teams, losing a closer to injury could be a significant development.
The Milwaukee Brewers booted John Axford from that role quickly, before his struggles could seriously damage their chances to contend. The Detroit Tigers didn't name a closer out of spring training, and have spent the first two weeks of the season looking for someone to seize the job.
Could the St. Louis Cardinals find their division title hopes jeopardized if Jason Motte ends up missing the entire season with an elbow injury?
The Cards' closer has been out for the past three weeks, resting what was initially diagnosed as a strained flexor tendon in his right elbow. But as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Rick Hummel reports, Motte hasn't shown any improvement.
An MRI exam showed a low-grade tear in Motte's elbow ligament. The Cardinals are hoping that three weeks of rest are sufficient for the injury to heal.
However, if Motte's condition hasn't improved by May 1, he will undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the rest of the season. Given the typical timetable for a pitcher recovering from a reconstructive procedure, Motte will probably be out going into next season, as well.
So where does that leave the Cardinals? With a fully healthy roster, St. Louis appeared capable of challenging the Reds in the NL Central. They will almost certainly be contenders for one of the NL's wild-card playoff spots.
But if there's one team that might be able to sustain losing its top reliever, the Cardinals might be it. Obviously, being without a pitcher that struck out 86 batters in 72 innings and racked up 42 saves is a notable setback for the St. Louis bullpen. Yet the Cardinals have some arms that could step into that ninth-inning role effectively.
Setup man Mitchell Boggs looks like the natural pick to take over as closer. However, neither the Cardinals nor their fans might want Boggs anywhere near the ninth-inning after he allowed seven runs (six earned) and four walks in just one-third of an inning during a 13-4 loss to the Reds.
Boggs did bounce back nicely with a clean inning the following game, allowing no runs, hits or walks. It was a good move by manager Mike Matheny to get his reliever back out there the next night to quickly get past the bad outing. But the Cards did have a 5-1 lead in the ninth when Boggs came in. It wasn't a save situation, nor a challenging high-leverage scenario.
The more appealing candidate is Trevor Rosenthal, who throws the strikeout stuff everyone likes to see from a closer. Last year as a rookie, he averaged 10 strikeouts per nine innings (9.9 Ks, to be exact) in 19 appearances. Rosenthal was even better during the postseason, albeit in only seven games, averaging 15.6 Ks per nine frames.
Yet Rosenthal has already blown two leads early in the season, pitching as the setup man. How might he respond with the pressure of closing out a game in the ninth inning? Additionally, if Rosenthal has the best stuff in the Cards' bullpen, Matheny might eventually prefer to keep him out of a designated role and use him in a tight late-inning situation when a strikeout is necessary.
Other in-house possibilities include Fernando Salas, who saved 24 games for St. Louis in 2011 before Motte eventually emerged as the best option at closer. But Salas struggled last season, compiling a 4.30 ERA and averaging nearly nine hits and four walks per nine innings. He's not off to a good start this year, giving up three runs and five hits with only two strikeouts in just 3.1 innings of work.
Eduardo Sanchez could also get the call up from Triple-A Memphis. He would certainly mow some opposing hitters down, averaging 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings in both the minors and majors. But controlling that stuff has been a big problem for Sanchez. His walk numbers (7.8 per nine innings in 17 appearances last year) are a concern, surely not what Matheny wants from a reliever late in a ballgame.
Of course, general manager John Mozeliak could look for an outside hire to fill the closer position. But this early in the season, that would be a panic move. Who is going to trade an established closer after only eight or nine games have been played?
As is always the case, there should be plenty of names available close to the July 31 trade deadline, if not sooner.
Depending on how the Arizona Diamondbacks perform, perhaps J.J. Putz is a trade possibility. Jim Johnson of the Baltimore Orioles and Tom Wilhelmsen of the Seattle Mariners fit similar circumstances. Other closers whose teams are expected to quickly fall out of contention include the Miami Marlins' Steve Cishek and Colorado Rockies' Rafael Betancourt.
But that's presuming one of the Cardinals' current relievers won't eventually find success as the closer. As Garrett Wilson wrote on Tuesday, MLB teams don't need to pursue a proven closer. Just because someone hasn't proven himself in that role doesn't mean he's not capable of thriving once given the ball in the ninth inning.
No team likely realizes that better than the Cardinals.
The 2011 team cycled through several closers — including Salas, Sanchez, Boggs and Ryan Franklin — before Motte eventually emerged as the best man for the job. It took most of the season for manager Tony La Russa to find the right mix and for everyone in the bullpen to settle into their roles. But it eventually worked out well, and the Cards had a great bullpen as they made a run for the NL wild card and a World Series championship.
Could this work out as serendipitously for the Cardinals in 2013? Obviously, it's far too early to say. Motte might even be able to come back and settle the closer issue himself, though his prognosis looks rather grim at the moment.
But St. Louis has built the depth to withstand injuries throughout the long season. The Cards might just have to tap into those resources sooner than originally planned.