Cardinal news has been a bit scarce of late, but a lot of that has to do with the fact we’re stranded in late January, a time of year during which baseball-related discussion seems to be at a disgusting low. I’m well aware of which two NFL teams will be headlining the Super Bowl, and I’ve totally heard enough about that college football player’s fake girlfriend or whatever. Thankfully, John Mozeliak has at least temporarily sated my baseball information needs by guaranteeing beard-faced closer extraordinaire Jason Motte to a two-year, $12 million deal. I started to refer to this contractual reworking as an extension, but then it occurred to me that the deal won’t actually keep Motte around any longer than he already would be. Instead, it takes care of Motte’s arbitration years in 2013 and 2014.
Generally speaking, commitments like this one are made to retain a player a bit longer by covering at least one free agency season. Mozeliak opted for the safer route instead, and I doubt he paid any more than he would have been asked to through arbitration. Motte seems to have really turned the corner as a reliever, even if relievers in general are terrifyingly inconsistent. Everyone’s favorite jittery madman saved 42 games a year ago, posting a 2.75 ERA, 3.12 FIP, 2.88 xFIP, 10.75 K/9 rate, and 2.13 BB/9 rate in 72 innings. Those are stellar numbers, and I remain impressed that a pitcher with Motte’s impossibly violent motion has so much control.
Motte famously spent 2012 working on developing a cutter to compliment his 1,000-mph lightning ball, and the results seem to speak for themselves. While Motte was certainly good before the All-Star break (39 K, 12 BB, 3.05 ERA in 38 1/3 IP), he turned into a defiant force after it (47 K, 5 BB, 2.41 ERA in 33 2/3 IP). Should he keep up that pace for another season, the 30-year-old converted catcher has a serious case to be mentioned as one of the game’s truly elite relief pitchers if he isn’t close already.
As a fan, I’m a little torn on what I want my favorite team to do with its highly entertaining closer. Motte has morphed into a dominant reliever as I hoped he would, but the fact remains that he’s a reliever, and no matter how good he is there is immense risk in keeping him around for a large chunk of time or making a Colletti-type investment in him financially. I’m kind of beating a very worn down drum here, but relief pitcher performance is extremely volatile, and going more than two years on one of them always makes me nervous. Shelving my personal fandom for a moment and focusing on the rational approach I believe Mozeliak is starting to master, I’m glad we’re not looking at an overly-long deal already, and I have confidence nothing like that will happen unless there’s a good reason.
So if Motte was already going to be a Cardinal for the next two seasons, why even do this? Well, there’s always the chance another great season out of him would have forced the Cardinals to pay a bit more than what they’re giving him with his this two-year pact. The difference would have almost certainly been negligible, though, so I’m going to assume a lot of the reasoning behind this deal has something to do with the organization and the player giving each other a great big hug.
No, I don’t mean a literal hug; if Motte were to hug anyone a lawsuit and an ambulance would be imminent. I just think the Cardinals are trying to send a message to the player they’ve taken care in developing over the years, basically one saying, “hey, we like you and we don’t want you to even have to worry about the distraction of arbitration.” Additionally, guaranteeing a player like Motte what may amount to a little extra money over the next two seasons couldn’t hurt in increasing the chances of a discount after the 2014 season. If Motte continues his recent run of badassery, he’s not going to be cheap. The Cardinals know that, and anything that might help lower the price later on is well worth doing.
I look at this Jason Motte contract reconfiguration as a show of good will and a means to keep a talented player happy. The Cardinals have recently said they may be increasing payroll in the future, and while that excites me, I can’t help but remind myself that the way this team has been winning for the past decade-plus is by assembling a roster creatively. A couple of exceptions aside, building from within and getting interesting value in trades and otherwise have been the main reasons for St. Louis’ success. Even the little things, like nodding gratefully at a hairy, fireballing closer, go a long way when you’re a team that doesn’t want to mortgage the future to win right away.