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Unconventional and conventional relievers

Charlie Zinknewly minted Memphis Redbird and one of the most recent Great Knuckleballing Hopes, somewhere between Steve Sparks and Charlie Haeger, is not going to be in the Cardinals' bullpen this year. Having made that clear, we can talk, in January, like he might be. 

Zink as an individual is interesting only in the general knuckleball way. Once a pitching prospect with a generic hard fastball—I seem to recall the Scout Tag mid-90s being applied at least once, but that could mean anything—he picked up the knuckleball and became interesting; lost track of it for several years and became less interesting; found it again in 2008—in the process, I believe, slowing his fastball down to traditional knuckler speeds; and then lost it again in 2009, with a truly horrifying 3 K/9 6 BB/9 AAA season. In knuckleball years he is... let's say 26. 

A knuckleballing alumnus of the Savannah College of Art and Design would probably be the weirdest part of the Cardinals' bullpen in 2010, but their recent bullpen history is significantly stranger than average in its own right, from the top down. Ryan Franklin was an innings-eating starter who was no longer good enough to eat innings; Jason Motte (and Casey Mulligan and David Carpenter) is a converted catcher; in the past there's also been Josh Kinney, a refugee from the independent Frontier League, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention inexplicable starting pitcher Braden Looper

I'm not suggesting Charlie Zink in particular, but I am certain that even if the Cardinals finally jump on the Kiko Calero bandwagon the success and failure of the 2010 pen will depend in part on how they utilize unconventional assets like him. With impact depth a few months away, and almost solely in the person of Eduardo Sanchez, any injuries and inconsistent pitching will be alleviated by the nearest warm body, and it's up to the Cardinals to make sure it's a Josh Kinney and not a Kelvin Jimenez

Which shape Zink's knuckler will be in in 2010 is of interest mostly to Memphis fans, but given the particularly strange nature of the knuckleball, almost exclusively a province of one-pitch pitchers, I'm surprised that so many of its practitioners are primarily starters in the minors. Tim Wakefield hasn't been a swingman since 2002; Haeger and Zink are starters; only R.A. Dickey, who spent the first half of last season as a low-leverage reliever for the Twins, has made a roster in the bullpen. 

It's not as though knuckleballers don't exhibit the same relief-conversion tendencies as conventional pitchers; in fact, Tim Wakefield's strikeout rate is a full two per nine innings higher in the pen than it is in the rotation, a split that mostly held up when he was doing both at the same time. That knuckleballers can confuse hitters for six innings is remarkable, but that doesn't mean it doesn't confuse them more in one. 

Zink might be the man on whom to test this theory, but I think mediocre pitchers are generally more interesting as relievers than starters, and I think that's especially true of the ones who throw a single pitch. That is currently an unusual plan for a knuckleball pitcher, but given the Cardinals' current unusual bullpen construction, I think they're exactly the team to try it.


As for conventional relievers... Jose Valverde was apparently an easier no-decision than we thought. The Cardinals' minor league ranks are neither full nor extremely exciting; if they were, the Cardinals might not even need to worry about signing Jose Valverde. With that in mind, picking Valverde up and losing the first-rounder, even on a one year deal, was going to be a significant risk. 

But two years, $14 million? That's downright unpleasant. I am not all the way on one side of this issue—I think at some point it is helpful, to a team and its fans' morale, if nothing else, to overpay for a reliever. But to do it for a reliever who is a type-A free agent on a team where the bullpen is not the only problem seems like an overpay. (That said, the Tigers, like the Cardinals, have some supplementary picks on tap—this won't turn out like the Cardinals' awful 2002 draft, which began with Cal Hayes in the third round.)