Thursday, July 31, 2014
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Lessons from St. Louis in building a bullpen

Now we know one of the great misconceptions in the days leading up to the postseason: St. Louis did not have a leaky bullpen. There were times during the regular season that, yes, it was a weakness. But come Oct. 1, Tony La Russa had enough time to discern which parts were useful, what roles they were best suited, and who he could trust most.

Lessons from St. Louis in building a bullpen

As the closer for the Cardinals, Jason Motte has succeeded in getting them to the World Series. (Matt Slocum/AP)
As the closer for the Cardinals, Jason Motte has succeeded in getting them to the World Series. (Matt Slocum/AP)

Now we know one of the great misconceptions in the days leading up to the postseason: St. Louis did not have a leaky bullpen. There were times during the regular season that, yes, it was a weakness. But come Oct. 1, Tony La Russa had enough time to discern which parts were useful, what roles they were best suited, and who he could trust most.

The Cardinals' bullpen has thrown 48 1/3 innings in 12 postseason games. It has a 2.23 ERA. La Russa has deftly utilized each piece at the right time and it's made him the talk of October. (A lack of other storylines have aided that.)

Here is how St. Louis acquired their relievers:

Jason Motte ($435,000) - 19th round pick in 2003
Fernando Salas ($420,000 approx.) - International free agent signing
Arthur Rhodes ($3.9 million, but only $113,000 paid by STL) - Signed as free agent in August
Octavio Dotel ($3.5 million, but only $1.2 million paid by STL) - Acquired in deadline trade with TOR
Marc Rzepczynski ($430,000, but only $143,000 paid by STL) - Acquired in deadline trade with TOR
Lance Lynn ($414,000) - 1st round pick in 2008
Mitchell Boggs ($431,000) - 5th round pick in 2005

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That leaves the total cost of the seven primary St. Louis relievers at approximately $3.16 million. (Calculations are rough, especially with pre-arbitration salaries and mid-season acquisitions.) Granted, it cost a lot to reach that point. The Cardinals traded Colby Rasums, a talented young and cheap outfielder for Dotel, Rzepczynski and others. 

St. Louis began this season with Ryan Franklin as closer. Here is the sobering number: He was paid $3.25 million by the Cardinals in 2011. Franklin last pitched a game June 28 and he still made more money than the combined amount of the seven current relievers that have the Cardinals three wins from a championship.

There are risks in building a bullpen, most namely, multi-year deals. Franklin inked a two-year, $6.5 million deal before the 2010 season. In 2010, he saved 27 of 29 games to a 3.46 ERA and was a dependable closer. In 2011, he blew four of five save chances and was released with an 8.46 ERA. The Cardinals, effectively, ate half of the deal.

The Phillies will face a similar situation this winter. Ryan Madson is a free agent and on the cusp of a lucrative contract. He's been a member of the Phillies organization since 1998 and the team would very much like to have him back. But they are unlikely to offer anything more than three years (if that) in a contract. Madson's agent is Scott Boras. He will command top dollar as the top relief prize, and with a plethora of teams needing a new closer, Madson could find that four-year deal elsewhere.

If that happens, Ruben Amaro Jr. is on record saying he wants to sign another veteran closer to replace Madson.

"I don’t feel comfortable with the guys we have internally," Amaro said. "If Ryan does not sign, we might have to go outside the organization. There are some people in our system who think [Justin] De Fratus or [Phillippe] Aumont can do that. I am not convinced of that yet."

La Russa never named "a closer" in Franklin's departure. The majority of the save chances fell to Salas, who converted 24 of 30. Motte, who emerged as the best option late in the season, converted 9 of 13. As a whole, the Cardinals saved 64 percent of their chances -- only Washington, Chicago and Houston had worse rates in the National League.

The Phillies used a closer in 2009 who posted a 7.21 ERA and blew 11 saves. They still made it to Game 6 of the World Series with Brad Lidge.

When St. Louis could no longer ride their veteran closer, they turned to a group of high-ceiling, hard-throwing relievers to fill the void. It took a few months to figure out the best combination, but now the Cardinals are that close to a World Series victory. 


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Matt Gelb Inquirer Staff Writer
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