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The Final Countdown

The Cardinals have won a remarkable 96 games this season. After tonight that counts for very little.

Matt Carpenter plans to spoil a tremendous season by agitating the P-D commenters into a frothing frency during MVP voting. Thanks a lot, Matt.
Matt Carpenter plans to spoil a tremendous season by agitating the P-D commenters into a frothing frency during MVP voting. Thanks a lot, Matt.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

There's still a little something riding on today's game. The Cardinals enter the day one game up on the Atlanta Braves for best record in baseball. Should Atlanta lose or the Cardinals win, the Cardinals would have home field advantage throughout the playoffs. They would also play the winner of the wildcard game, which would be either Cincinnati or Pittsburgh, in the NLDS.

Meanwhile, if the Cardinals lose and the Braves win today, the Braves would have the advantage of home games throughout the playoff by merit of having won the season series between the two teams. The Cardinals would then face the NL West Division winners, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In an effort to show just how much they care about either scenario, the Cardinals will be sending the lesser starting pitcher to the mound to start the game. Jake Westbrook is to be "recognized for his contributions", which is one of those things that baseball clubs do to prove that they treat players "right" and that free agents would love it here. Westbrook's contributions this year include an upside down K:BB rate, negative fWAR and multiple trips to the DL.

It's all but certain at this point that this will be Westbrook's last start with the Cardinals. The club traded for him in 2010 and then signed him to multi-year contracts to secure his services up to this point. Westbrook pitched almost 550 innings with the Cardinals and had a pretty good year in 2012. Living on the sinker the way he does, and with a fastball that's lost a mile this year in velocity, the difference between pretty good and and bad is a highwire act that Joe Kelly now finds himself wire-walking in similar fashion.

Overall, Westbrook ended up providing 3.7 fWAR in value. (bWAR isn't as nice with just 1.2 WAR over his tenure. Shockingly, Westbrook actually had FIPs that were better than his ERA despite that precariously low strikeout rate. Hence the lower bWAR.)  3.7 fWAR cost the Cardinals in the neighborhood of $30M which goes a long way towards explaining why Jake Westbrook will no longer be with the Cardinals after this season.

Meanwhile the dicey bullpen situation -- namely the deterioration of Edward Mujica -- continues as the Cardinals wrap up the season. Seth Maness finds himself with a save after Mujica's 9th inning home run to Anthony Rizzo precipitated some hand wringing. Mujica has been used heavily at times this year and it's easy to conflate causality and correlation when a reliever's performance waivers after what seemed like "an event".  People's natural inclination is to ascribe causal responsibility in moments like this but relievers are among the least predictable of players in a game full of hard to predict players.

Certainly this adds a bit of intrigue to the post season but also to the upcoming off season. The Cardinals handed out a foolish multiyear contract to Jason Motte who promptly got hurt but the ex-closer will return in 2014. John Axford is now on the roster and the organization has additional familiarity with him. (He pitched a scoreless 8th inning last night with 1 hit and 1 strikeout.) While the Cardinals generally avoid egregiously stupid relief pitcher signings (i.e. Jonathan Papelbon), Mujica may have been in line for a pay day prior to the performance dip.

The question will now transition to whether the club will commit to it's youth effort in the bullpen in the same way it did with it's rotation.  That option presents itself largely because of the remarkable depth in arms the Cardinals have acquired and their ability to mix and match to find success when the time demands it. If there's an underrated aspect to the management of the club, it might be their ability to mitigate risk and manage through transitions or injuries. What seems like, at times, a team without direction is really a team being steered toward a new harbor.

That is all premature though. For now, the Cardinals have one game left and then the post season. Contracts and offers and extensions and negotiations can all wait. Next year's bullpen is something to worry about another day. Instead, the Cardinals will again regale us with post season opportunities and we will watch raptly as we always do.