As Derrick Goold wrote Sunday evening, former Redbird closer and worthy fan favorite Jason Motte is expected to be activated from the DL in time for tonight's game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. One year removed from Tommy John surgery, Motte has a good chance to immediately contribute to the team, but he should not be counted on to challenge the current bullpen stalwarts for key spots. Sam Freeman was optioned to Memphis to make room.
How hot is the sauce?
I spent the last hour watching Jason's rehab appearances for Springfield and Memphis over the last couple of weeks. It did my heart good to see Sauce pitching; Last year, I missed every bit of his puzzled squint while reading signs, his cartoonish muscular delivery, his hopping recoil, and his generally goofy-but-not-obnoxiously-so reliever's mien, and I am happy to report they all came through rehab intact.
Neither my eyes nor the cameras on milb.tv are good enough to tell much about how intact is Motte's pitching arsenal, but the straight hard fastball and cutter looked, well, familiar, as did one attempt at a curve that self-destructed quickly out of his hand. His velocity, on the other hand, is not where it used to be. In this interview, the man himself reports he's pitching at 94-95 rather than the 97-98 he used to throw, and the minor league guns supported this.
It's certainly possible that Motte is still in the process of rebuilding strength, and he might very well return to elite velocity in a matter of months or by next year (he'll be a free agent after this season), but it should not be taken for granted that he will. While many pitchers do return to pre-injury velocity after Tommy John surgery, it's by no means universal. Furthermore, 2012 was Jason's age-30 year. It's folly to presume he'd still be throwing 98 at 32 or 33-years-old regardless of his health.
But it's also folly to write-off Jason's ability to contribute to the club with decreased velocity. When Motte first received serious innings in the majors in 2009, he had a straight fastball and a miasmic set of other pitches, none of which were much use. This was unsurprising given his background as a converted catcher, but under the tutelage of Dave Duncan and Derek Lilliquist, Motte slowly developed his sinker and then his cutter as legitimately decent offerings. With a trio of different fastballs, all reasonably effective, Motte became an excellent closer, but more importantly for 2014, he is no longer the velocity-only reliever he once was. Sure, he's highly unlikely to be as effective at 95 as he was at 98, but this doesn't mean he can' t be an upgrade from Eric Fornataro or Sam Freeman.
There has been a lot of recent discussion about Mike Matheny's level of trust in his baseball players. The theory goes that Mike is generally slower to allow players new to him to gain key roles and quicker to give them the hook when they struggle than players with whom he has a certain level of personal comfort. This has been discussed on this website with some frequency, Goold alluded to it in his chat yesterday, and Bernie wrote about it in the context of Motte at the bottom of this piece.
I'm not entirely sold on the idea that "trust" is the driving force in Matheny's decision-making. I don't particularly "trust" the back of the bullpen either, and I'm not sure how overused Rosenthal, Martinez, and Siegrist actually are. Hell, Matheny showed more trust in new-to-him Neshek than many in the blogosphere wished early on, he gave Wong some key opportunities last year and early this season, and Bourjos got the majority of starts in the season's opening weeks. Furthermore, Martinez and Siegrist rather quickly ascended into the ranks of "trusted," if that's the word. Trust might be part of the issue, and to the extent that it is, expect Motte to be firmly in the trusted camp, but don't forget to factor in the plain old Mathenaging chestnuts "over-reaction to small sample size," and "commitment to defined roles in pen." (you were right about Neshek, Mike! Maybe! Use the man every once in a while if you're up by three runs in an empty frame with a trio of mediocre righties lined up! Even in the 9th inning!)
As far as what Mike himself has said about Motte's role, this paragraph from the Goold piece linked in the first paragraph is as much as we know:
Matheny said Motte’s role is "yet to be determined."
The righty has experience as both a setup man and closer, and his first high-leverage role in the bullpen was escaping chaotic innings after entering with runners on base. Matheny said that "in a perfect world" the assignments wouldn’t be that dramatic, that soon.
Mike's use of the qualifier "in a perfect world" seems pretty trust-y to me.
Given concerns about Martinez, Rosenthal, bullpen depth, and usage rates, Motte joins Jaime Garcia as a player whose full recovery and contribution surprisingly seems more necessity than luxury. If Motte can return fully to form, it would change a lot of things, most notably make it easier for John Mozeliak to tag Carlos Martinez for the rotation later in the year. That said, as much as Motte could possibly help the team, the best we should probably hope for is good middle-relief. His legend possibly outshone his real contributions a bit in 2011-2012, and his age as well as his recent surgery are potential red flags. Fortunately, Mozeliak has track-record of doing pretty well trading for middle-relief late in the year if necessary. I tip my glass tonight in hopes that it's not.