The Matt Holliday Question—I like thinking of it that way, as though its ramifications for Singapore are about to be discussed in an unsigned piece in The Economist—has kept us from freaking out about the bullpen. In some ways this is a good thing; there's nothing less satisfying that worrying about The Bullpen Question, which is never answered to our satisfaction on a year-to-year basis. But with Holliday in Flux, we've got no choice. As a prompt, this headline from Ken Rosenthal: "Too many closers, not enough jobs":
For some closers, the free-agent game of musical chairs is not likely to end well...
The availability of the Padres' Heath Bell in trade only adds to the squeeze. Bell is more affordable than some of the closers on the open market...
Four teams already have found closers. The Braves signed left-hander Billy Wagner. The Orioles signed left-hander Mike Gonzalez. The Rays traded for righty Rafael Soriano and the Astros signed righty Brandon Lyon...
This article is why the term "closer" is worthless. I'm done trying to convince people any other way—no more decrying the overrated concept of "closing experience", of "the closer's mentality", of anything else that can be measured statistically. Mike MacDougal, Heath Bell, Billy Wagner, and Mike Gonzalez are all described here, by a well-regarded baseball reporter, as closers. If that is the case—then this term is completely without meaning.
Does labeling this set of relievers "closer" tell you anything more about them than labeling them relievers would? Just one thing: they have all pitched in the ninth inning for at least one season. This information is completely worthless.
That aside—this is not an extremely promising crop of relief pitchers. Jose Valverde is the best free agent, but as a Type A free agent who was offered arbitration he'd cost the Cardinals a draft pick. The Cardinals haven't been linked to Matt Capps's list of finalists, and that he's in such demand following a really ugly season—Jason Motte with fewer strikeouts and walks?—is condemnation enough of the remaining prospects. (Though, seriously, where are they on Kiko Calero? Where is everybody on Kiko Calero?)
For these prospects are, in grand La Russa/Duncan fashion, interesting-but. My favorite, and probably Duncan's favorite, is Mike MacDougal, but my interest is purely as a spectator; his fastball is awesome, his nickname is awesome, and he gets a ton of groundballs and doesn't give up any home runs, which would be awesome if he were still striking batters out. (Bizarre, possibly related Fangraphs fact: he almost totally stopped throwing his once-vaunted slider last year, going with the fastball more often than Jason Motte.) MacDougal's not likely to be a good reliever, and my taste in bad relievers aside he's of interest mostly as a Dave Duncan lottery ticket. But he's also a closer, so there's that.
What this means for the Cardinals is that barring a trade their improved bullpen will have to come from within. Is anybody here willing to nominate someone other than Motte as the bullpen savior in 2010? Relievers are so difficult to predict that I've almost stopped doing it; it's the last baseball territory in which my emotions are basically sovereign over my common sense, and it would definitely be my weakness if I were a GM. Francisco Samuel? Certainly this is the year he puts it all together, perhaps under the steady tutelage of a veteran closer like Mike MacDougal. Casey Mulligan? He's apparently got no stuff whatsoever, but he's dominated four levels in two years, so why not? Gary Daley? Well, he got to AAA, and he didn't walk 25 batters per nine innings this year.
I thought about ending this entry with a poll, but there are just too many choices, even though in the end my tastes run, conventionally, toward Mitchell Boggs, whose fastball looked nearly as good as Mike MacDougal's in the bullpen, and Eduardo Sanchez, the only blue-chip reliever left in the high minors. It's just that in the bullpen it's harder than any other corner of the roster to discount the possibility that someone who I was not counting on at all in March is carrying the team in July.