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Fixing The Cardinals' Broken Bullpen

David Freese's author photo.
David Freese's author photo.

This seems like the moment, in a baseball season, where a contending team would just eviscerate its bullpen and start over, except the Cardinals have already done that--the underperforming players are two young former relief prospects, Fernando Salas and Eduardo Sanchez; a lefty brought in in the middle of last season, Marc Rzepczynski; and the most recent set of would-be lightning receptacles, Victor Marte and Sam Freeman. Jason Motte has underwhelmed, but it's not the kind of underwhelming that usually leads to a real change of course.

That might be what's frustrating about the Cardinals' bullpen ills to date--it feels as though there's no real way to escape, since we're already watching the bullpen that most teams would go to out of desperation. Since they can't start over, exactly, short of trades we haven't even begun speculating about, all that's left is to go over their assets and see what it is the Cardinals have, in lieu of a more satisfying complete dismantling, to hold on to.

Here's the impression I get: The Cardinals' bullpen, right now, consists mostly of the kind of players we'd be looking at as trade options on other teams. The reclamation projects, the near-prospects, the underappreciated change-of-scenery guys--somehow, we already have all of them. It's like making a series of trades without giving anybody up! Or getting anything in return!

Potentially expensive relievers: Jason Motte and Mitchell Boggs would each demand an actual investment in talent, if the Cardinals were going to acquire one of them--which might be bad news, I guess, for anybody hoping the Cardinals trade for someone to replace Motte. Motte strikes out a batter an inning and his control is solid-to-excellent; his stuff looks undiminished from 2011, when he was the answer.

The difference: He's allowing a home run on 11 percent of fly balls, which he's only done once before--the last time he lost the closer's job, back in 2009. That kind of performance is a problem if it's for real; more pressingly, it's a problem only if there aren't so many other problems to attend to.

Boggs, for his part, appears to be turning into Chad Qualls--and just in time for us to speculate about the real Chad Qualls. His strikeout rate might never get where we thought it would in the giddy moments after his first 97-mph bullpen fastball, but his control continues to improve and he induces more grounders than the average pitcher.

If he's playing a little over his head right now, he's still trending toward being a plausible set-up man; he's the kind of reliever who makes a random All-Star appearance on a 100-loss team, and gets traded for an MLB-ready shortstop-who-might-be-a-second-baseman or a center-fielder-who-might-play-left.

So that's two assets worth trading somebody else for.

Change-of-scenery guys: If Fernando Salas had a really insistent stage-dad and a sulky mound demeanor I'd be convinced he wasn't long for the St. Louis bullpen; after a spectacular but not quite perfect season he's suffered a number of frustrating and possibly luck-related defeats, lost his spot in the bullpen, and otherwise failed to establish himself as a top-flight reliever.

I don't think Salas is as good as he was last year, but the Cardinals, of all teams, can't afford to continue marginalizing him. Let him pitch until the Cardinals find six guys who are clearly better than he is, or else he manages to suck without the aid of a BAbip over .390.

Marc Rzepczynski--no idea; his peripherals aren't so conveniently similar to his baseline as Salas's, but the completely different strikeout and walk rates he's working on are pretty good anyway. Matheny's done a fine job of keeping him pointed at lefties, but he's been just pretty good against them (.271/.317/.424) and LOOGY-bad against righties (.318/.375/.545.)

These guys are the least fun, because you're the scenery; one of the default answers for why a pitcher is underperforming, and how he will return to form later on, is lost to you. I'm left in the unpleasant position of being all for trading for somebody else's Fernando Salas, and uncomfortable about watching our own.

Prospects and near-prospects: This concerns me: Eduardo Sanchez last had control problems as a 17-year-old in the Venezuelan Summer League. Now his unintentional walk rate is just under six. It's just 14 innings, and I don't think the erratic treatment he's gotten in the big leagues this year has helped--it's never a good thing when you have to cite a player's "unintentional walk rate"--but he's done his part, too.

I'd trade for him, but not if I were a contender--he's the kind of guy who gets included in a detail for a losing team's ace as the second or third piece, and then stashed at the back of the bullpen or in AAA for the rest of the season. I'm not sure where to put him on the Cardinals; he makes a crappy low-leverage reliever, since he can't be counted on to finish the particular kind of bad inning he has, but a 12-man pitching staff should be able to deal with that sort of thing.

Behind him, Maikel Cleto, who's probably deserved a legitimate shot by now. He's got 39 strikeouts in 31 AAA innings, against just nine walks. I wouldn't be averse to trading him for Eduardo Sanchez on the roster, so long as he got more and more consistent exposure than Sanchez has.

To this list I'll add my new hobbyhorse, Joe Kelly. Kelly's earned an extended look as a starter--more specifically as a pitcher who gets the chance to hit--and his sinker is more impressive than I was prepared for it to be. But if the Cardinals get Jaime Garcia or Chris Carpenter back on time, I'm hoping to see him in the relief role he played in college.

Waiver-wire pickups: Sam Freeman didn't really do anything in the minor leagues that suggested he'd be able to do anything in the major leagues, so I don't know that his scuffling here should shock us. Victor Marte has been about average in a bullpen that really needed it--he's just off the team leads in appearances and relief innings--but I feel terrible about the bullpen needing it.

Behind that? Well, I still await the return of noted Future Redbirds meme Jess Todd, but despite his solid peripherals I doubt the Cardinals spring for his 4.82 ERA anytime soon. 27-year-old Barret Browning, a free agent from the Angels' system, could be the next lefty up; he's got 36 strikeouts against 18 walks in 38 innings, and a 1.89 ERA while he's at it, though all that's much better than he showed in the Los-Angeles-of-Anaheim system.