It was almost one year ago that Trevor Rosenthal supplanted Edward Mujica as the Cardinals closer. Mujica was in the midst of an outstanding all-star campaign as the 9th inning man in St Louis when he imploded in September, amassing an 11.50 ERA. Despite racking up 37 saves for the Cardinals in the regular season, Mujica was yanked from his closer role in favor of Trevor Rosenthal, the young flamethrower, in the middle of a tight playoff race and for the duration of the Cards’ world series run.
For Cardinals fans, 2014 is looking eerily similar amidst Rosenthal’s recent struggles. Despite Mike Matheny’s quick decision to change closers last season, he has been loyal with Rosenthal as his closer this season, declining to even comment on his thoughts of removing the 24-year-old from the closer role despite having perhaps the best reliever in all of baseball this season as his setup man.
Pat Neshek has been outstanding in the St. Louis bullpen this season, with an 0.81 ERA and 0.57 WHIP to go along with four saves of his own. Neshek has been absolutely one of the best finds in the MLB this season, signing a minor league deal with the Cardinals this offseason. Originally signed to be a right handed specialist, he has taken care of every increasingly difficult assignment Matheny has handed him, pitching left handers just as exceptional as he has been against righties.
Neshek’s sparkling numbers have to at least be tempting for Matheny given Rosenthal’s regression from the last two seasons. From 2013 to 2014, Rosenthal has seen an increase in his WHIP, ERA and walks as well as a slight decrease in strikeouts and velocity. The problem is that Rosenthal has been allowing far too many baserunners and hardly ever finishing with a clean inning.
Rosenthal has only blown 5 of his 46 save opportunities, so yanking him may seem harsh, but sometimes the games he saves tell more of a story than the ones he does not. His walk rate is up to 5.4 per 9 innings, up from 2.4 from a season ago. His pitch count has frequently gone into the 20s, and he has been used a lot. The Cardinals have been in a plethora of close games this year, and they have called upon number 26 for the majority of those, and he often finds a way to make things interesting before slamming the door. Combined with high walk and strikeout rates and the velocity he puts on his fastball, his arm may be getting worn out, which could explain the lack of command and movement on his stuff recently.
On the contrast, Neshek is a 33-year-old with few miles on his arm. Before this season, Neshek has only pitched more than 40 1/3 innings once in the majors, back in 2007. While he has been used frequently, he has thrown less innings and appeared in fewer games than Rosenthal. It’s clear that Neshek has performed better this season, and may be the safer option at this point.
Yet, Rosenthal is the obvious choice to be the Cardinals closer for many years to come. He turned 24 years old this season, and he has electric stuff prototypical of a major league closer. Rosenthal has made it clear that he wants to start for the Cardinals in the near future, but until he can improve his breaking ball, Matheny & co. will likely continue to use him out of the pen.
Matheny made a huge leap switching to Trevor Rosenthal as the closer for the playoffs last season. It was an enormous confidence boost for him, and he was lights out in October, including striking out 9 in 4.2 scoreless world series innings. That confidence appears to be diminished for now, and moving him to a middle innings role could potentially harm it even further.
Nobody should blame Matheny for sticking with Trevor Rosenthal as his closer assuming both he and Neshek continue the pace they are pitching. Yet, as the playoff races draw close with the Cardinals right behind the Brewers for the NL Central lead, we may start seeing Pat Neshek in the 9th inning more and more. Clean innings are not as important as finishing off the game with the save, but frustrations are no doubt increasing, no matter how badly Mike Matheny wants you to believe they are not. Given last year’s choice to replace one of the save leaders in the NL as closer in September and the emergence of Pat Neshek, the possibility lingers that there may be soon a different 9th inning man for the Cardinals.