Well, that’s over with. We effectively campaigned against Sean Burnett, and John Mozeliak listened — instead, he signed Randy Choate. Just to rub it in a little, he went ahead and gave the 37-year-old southpaw three years as well, making it an especially silly commitment in the process. We’ve already covered the transaction in Brian’s admirable string of STANpede! posts, so I won’t go too much into the gory details, but I do think it warranted to take a look at what the Cardinal bullpen will look like in 2013 now that this signing is over with.
With the second lefty now in tow, we can safely assume Mozeliak will not be looking to do anything else to the bullpen, and that means it’s time to start projecting the group of players who will be cleaning up starter messes next season! Not to get too off topic here, but it’s looking pretty likely that most of the entire Cardinal team is already in place for 2013 along with the bullpen. Sure, Mo may well add that veteran right-handed bench bat he’s been musing about, and he may make a surprise move to shore up the middle infield, but for the most part, what you see is what you get, and you’ve pretty much already seen it for the last long while anyway. Not much will have changed between the 2012 Cardinal team that got eliminated by the Giants and the 2013 Cardinal team that takes the field on opening day in April.
About those relievers. A year ago, we were pretty excited about them (check the archives; we’ve been around, you know), and that didn’t turn out well. It didn’t turn out well at all. This year, we’re going to be feeling pretty bullish again, and damn it, it’s going to work out this time around. You might even say that last season, we gave it (the bullpen) our heart, and the very next day, they gave it away. So this season, to save us some tears, we’ll give it someone special — someone like Trevor Rosenthal, perhaps. I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to reference a Christmas song in a StanGraphs post since March. Pointless personal tidbit: I love Christmas music (and the holiday in general), and the tree I put up every year is white, as if blanketed in snow. I find it to be very tasteful and elegant, and it just looks better and better the more scotch I drink.
So what are the names we can etch onto the seven Cardinal stockings to be hung up in the bullpen? Let’s make some bold predictions! To accurately predict the bullpen, I’ll need to briefly set the rotation up, since there are multiple pitchers who could wind up in either role next season. Obviously, it’s pointless to get too far ahead, and a lot can change between now and spring training, but here are a few assumptions I’m going to make, foolish or not. First, I’m banking on Jaime Garcia not opening the season on the active roster no matter what he tries to say about pitching for Mexico. There’s never a guarantee with Chris Carpenter, but I’m hoping he can at least start the season healthy and in the plans, so that gives us Adam Wainwright, Carpenter, and Jake Westbrook for sure. For the last two spots, I’m going to project Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller. I have my reasons, and Miller especially will have to earn that place, but that’s what my gut tells me to expect.
Who does that leave for bullpen duty? Well, we know Jason Motte will be tasked with the closing duties, and if last season is any indication, he’s going to do an incredible job of it once again. Mitchell Boggs and Edward Mujica are also locks to work the back-end of games just ahead of Motte. That’s three spots nailed down, leaving four more vacancies. I do think it benefits the Cardinals to keep Trevor Rosenthal in the majors, even if it means pitching him out of the bullpen. His stuff is just disgusting, and I salivate when I think about the kind of numbers he could post over a full season as a reliever. This is not to say he doesn’t have the potential to be an excellent starter as well, but I see no harm in letting him dominate out of the ‘pen for the time being. For me, he gets the fourth spot.
The last available opening for a right-hander looks like it will come down to something of a battle. There’s certainly merit to giving it to someone like Joe Kelly, who proved he’s a capable big league pitcher in 2012, as he would provide the team with a long-man option and an occasional spot starter if needed. It’s highly unlikely Kelly has a new level he can reach by getting further polish on his game in the minors, so there’s another case for keeping him around. The only issue with that decision is that it effectively removes Fernando Salas from the equation, and I’m not entirely comfortable with doing that yet. Yes, he did have a disappointing 2012, and his stuff is quickly falling to the bottom of the depth chart when compared to his more talented peers, but he does one thing Kelly can’t do: he retires left-handers. Granted, the team essentially decided they would rather pay to import a specialist to help out with in that department, so at this point it probably makes more sense to keep Kelly around for long relief and perhaps even cut ties with Salas, who may no longer have a place with the organization a la Kyle McClellan before him. Eduardo Sanchez is always a dark horse candidate to make the team as well, and as much as we loved his brief moment in the sun (that slider was alive, we tell you), we’re pretty sure those control problems are the death of his career.
Lastly, of course, are the two spots reserved for the lefties: Marc Rzepczynski and the newly acquired Choate. Both pitchers are more than capable of retiring left-handers, and although Rzepczynski is coming off a down year and Choate is coming off never being that good, each southpaw has the real potential to ace their assignments in 2013. We know that Rzepczysnki is capable of performing very well, but what about the newest member of the team? Brian mentioned that he’s neutralized lefties nicely over the course of his career despite being a complete one-trick pony, and that’s essentially all there is to the guy. That said, I wanted to bring up a few more points about him.
I was very unimpressed when I looked at his career statistics: 4.02 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 4.2 BB/9. These numbers all point to a pretty mediocre reliever at best, one who probably isn’t even worth $2.5 million a season. There is, however, a bright side to these underwhelming statistics: Choate has been much better since 2009. Check out the before and after picture below.
2000-2007: 165.0 IP, 4.64 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 7.0 K/9, 4.7 BB/9
2009-2012: 144.1 IP, 3.30 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 3.7 BB/9
The after portion still doesn’t point to a top-notch reliever, but it’s clear Choate’s career numbers are misleading considering his more recent success. Furthermore, he’s never had trouble with the lefties — in 755 plate appearances against him over his career, they’re hitting .201/.278/.284, including a .251 wOBA since 2002 (the dawn of FanGraphs statistics). There’s yet another factor I thought was worth pointing out here, and that’s a theory I have that Choate isn’t as wild as his career numbers indicate. As a lefty specialist, it makes sense that he might have had to intentionally pass an occasional pesky right-hander to get a more favorable assignment after being inserted into a game (say, for instance, in a spot where the opposing batting order goes left-right-left).
I don’t want to cherry pick here, but one would think LOOGY relievers would be especially likely to rack up the intentional walks, and I considered the possibility that those were inflating his total. So I did the math, and what I came up with makes quite a difference in his career BB/9 rate. Choate has thrown just 309.1 innings in his big league career, and in that small amount of work (not even two full seasons of a starter’s workload, mind you), he’s been ordered to intentionally pass a hitter 30 times, or roughly once every 10 innings. That’s a lot of free rides given out, and if he hadn’t been such a whore, his career walk rate would drop all the way down to around 3.4 BB/9 instead of 4.2 BB/9 — almost a batter per nine innings of work. That’s a big difference.
Again, I do realize that removing intentional walks helps out any pitcher’s career walk rate, so don’t misunderstand me here. I’m just suggesting that a lefty specialist like Choate has been especially vulnerable to the free pass order since his bizarre throwing motion doesn’t have the same confounding effect on right-handed hitters. If they’re confounded at all after facing Choate, it’s more likely to be because they can’t figure out how he’s in the majors. I think there’s good reason to expect that he’ll do a very nice job if used carefully (not against a right-hander even once), and had this been a two-year deal for $2.5 million a season instead of a three-year deal for $2.5 million a season, I’d have very little to complain about other than the obvious points we’ve already made a hundred times: there are enough good relievers already on the team, and bringing in another pitcher only blocks the young and promising arms within the system.
You’ll never hear us saying the Randy Choate deal was a good one, but it’s not terrible, either. Even if that third year proves to be a problem, the organization can swallow the remaining $2.5 million and release him easily enough should it be necessary. All told, I think I can get pretty excited about the batch of relievers I just listed in this post. It’s always easy to get this way when making future projections on paper, but I like this group of pitchers a lot, and I doubt they give up a single hit all year.