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The St. Louis Cardinals' Mop-Up Problem

Matt Holliday is great, but I don't think he's ever failed to look awkward in wire photos while trying to field a baseball.
Matt Holliday is great, but I don't think he's ever failed to look awkward in wire photos while trying to field a baseball.

Here's one thing I like about starting pitchers: The best starting pitcher on a team, if he's healthy, will usually pitch the most innings. It was Chris Carpenter the last two years—he made two starts more than Adam Wainwright in 2010—Wainwright the year before that, Kyle Lohse the mostly unpleasant year before that... it just happens automatically, because it's really easy to put a rotation together and really difficult to get locked into inexplicable thought patterns that are powerful enough to make you, say, skip Chris Carpenter's start because it doesn't seem like an important game.

In 2012 Victor Marte leads the Cardinals in innings pitched out of the bullpen. He's pitched pretty well, the bullpen is a tough place to shout "small sample size!" and wait for a few weeks, and the more highly leveraged Mitchell Boggs is less than a full inning behind him, so I can't complain about Mike Matheny's performance to date too much. But on a game-by-game basis there's nothing interesting to say about Jose Costanza putting a 2-2 slider in play off Marc Rzepczynski, and there's a completely different post to write about how infuriating intentional walks are.

Over the course of a full season all the Cardinals can do is try to keep the pitchers who appear to be their best relievers around as much as possible so that they'll be useful when the time comes. Right now they're not doing that.

Because right now, given other options, they're carrying pitchers whose primary job is to come in in the fifth or sixth inning, and in situations where it doesn't matter very much at all who is pitching. So far those pitchers haven't cost the team games, because it's very difficult for them to do it, but by keeping them around Mike Matheny and John Mozeliak have limited their own options for the situations that do matter.

Brandon Dickson made his first appearance of the year in a game-situation with a leverage index of .01, and made his second appearance after Jake Westbrook got blown out of a game in the fourth inning. I can understand his role, though on a team whose bench wasn't already carrying Steven Hill and Shane Robinson due to injury I might suggest the Cardinals carry 11 pitchers and just let the 11th-best pitch two innings once it almost literally doesn't matter who's throwing.

This far down the depth chart, though, it's a matter of the Cardinals preferring Dickson's conditioning as a starter to Adam Reifer's remaining upside and Jess Todd's peripherals and status as a 2008 internet meme. Decision leverage index: .01.

But what team needs both Dickson and Chuckie Fick, whose appearances are necessarily going to be meted out just as delicately? Fick has been able to survive in the Pacific Coast League for 140 innings now, which, given the offensive levels there, is impressive in its own way. But he's a replacement level reliever, with a AAA strikeout rate of 6.5 and a walk rate of 4.0, and his call-up was used as a way to attempt to reset a pitcher who was, even in his slump, better than that.

And he's blocking not just Salas but Maikel Cleto, who has pitched very well since being moved (a little early, I think) to the bullpen to start this season; he's struck out 33 batters in 25 innings and could potentially be used by a Cardinals team with a narrow lead. Fick shouldn't be, and Dickson won't be. It's okay to keep potential high-leverage relievers around to pitch the low-leverage innings.

To date the Cardinals' management of the bullpen they have leaves little to complain about, so far as I can tell; Rzepczynski has thrown to more left-handers than right-handers, and Jason Motte and Mitchell Boggs are coming into the tightest situations. All I can hope for, in terms of Mike Matheny's game management with relievers, is that he rethinks walking Martin Prado to get Brian McCann in a game that seems unlikely to be decided by one run.

But they're doing a terrible job of setting up the bullpen they have. Fernando Salas and Maikel Cleto might benefit from time in AAA, and Eduardo Sanchez might benefit from being eased back into situations that could alter the outcome of a game.

But these are relief pitchers, the most ephemeral stars in baseball—the Cardinals aren't going to sign any of them to long-term contracts, and the next person to come up with a coherent, predictable theory for why they're successful and why they're unsuccessful will merit a chapter in Malcolm Gladwell's next book about eccentric small-area geniuses who solve wacky problems. If it's May and we're already complaining about how many games the bullpen has fumbled, there's no reason to leave so much dry powder sitting around while Marte, Dickson, and Fick all pitch exactly like we expect them to.