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The St. Louis Cardinals' Cramped Room for Improvement

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Here's why yesterday's game was a tough one to lose: Since the All-Star Break, the Cardinals' bullpen has been really-pretty-good. I could have this wrong—I'm working from a Day-by-Day Database page—but it's something around 3.50. The right-handers have been excellent, and Marc Rzepczynski, at least, has looked pretty good ever since the Cardinals began trying to replace him.

For the second year in a row the Cardinals have moved aggressively to fix a broken bullpen; it wasn't as easy this year, because Tony La Russa hadn't ground any top prospects into a fine dust, but the Cardinals have relied heavily on the guys who've worked—Mitchell Boggs is on his way to both a career high in innings pitched and a career low in innings pitched per appearance—and gotten six scoreless innings out of Edward Mujica in exchange for a guy they offered a major league contract two years ago.

At the same time, they've known where to hold on and where to start over. Fernando Salas and Marc Rzepczynski's peripherals haven't improved, but they've stopped allowing runs; J.C. Romero, meanwhile, has been acquired by the Baltimore Orioles on two non-consecutive occasions.

Those have worked. The Cardinals' limited resources have only shown in their two attempts at finding a lefty reliever with an easy-to-spell name; Brian Fuentes appears to have been done even before he was put on the restricted list, and Barret Browning (whose name is kind of hard to spell, thanks to the poet) has had about 30 games' worth of high-minors success in five seasons there.

So Thursday's loss hurt because the Cardinals have been doing the right thing and were burned in a part of the bullpen that does have enough resources devoted to it. There's a weird distinction here—the losses back when the bullpen were terrible were frustrating because the rest of the team was so good; the loss yesterday was frustrating because the rest of the bullpen is so good. Zeno suggests that eventually we will be frustrated because every other part of Skip Schumaker is so good, and so on.

That's how I'll remember this season—or at least how I'd remember the season if it ended today. There've been no lightning-strike rearrangements of the team or how it operates, no sudden shifts into or out of competence or big-name acquisitions. They've given up on two first-round picks in the least consequential way you could give up on two first-round picks and they've cycled through several slap-hitting outfielders, left-handed relievers, and back-of-the-bullpen wildcards; that's about it.

This team was good enough to win the National League Central from the start of the year—even with J.C. Romero and Erik Komatsu and all the other players you'll forget, sometime in November, have ever appeared in a Cardinals uniform. The rest of the season has been an awkward march toward matching expectations and run differential with a roster that's being improved, in this limited way, by fractions of a win every few weeks.

With that in mind—welcome to the bullpen, Joe Kelly.