Cardinals Said to be Going After a Mystery Closing Pitcher

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You know, there are plenty of reasons that I get up out of bed every day. The smell of clean laundry. The laughter of a child. The off chance that a beautiful woman may walk up to me and demand that I immediately make passionate love to her.*

But every so often, something comes along that makes me question whether it's really worth it. Something that makes me just want to down a handful of cyanide tablets and wash it all down with a big tall glass of rubbing alcohol. 

This falls into that second category. (Oh, and by the way, I hate the laughter of children. What the hell do you have to be so happy about?)

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In their continued quest to fill one of the areas of the team that, to me, seems to need the least improvement, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan have now apparently decided there is a particular free agent pitcher out there that they want to turn into the next Dennis Eckersley (who was a career starter until Duncan and TLR turned him into a closer in Oakland.) 

But they're not saying who.

Now, in the interest of being as accurate as I possibly can be, I must say up front that this isn't from published comments or anything. This is simply coming from the mouth of local columnist Bernie Miklasz, speaking on his radio show. Take that for what it's worth; this may all just be idle speculation by a columnist looking to drum up a bit of conversation.

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However, we're going to assume this is legitimate and an accurate representation of what Tony and Dave are looking to do. That assumption having been made, I have a couple of problems with this line of thinking. 

First, I just have to ask, really?

All along, all we've heard from these two is about the need for a proven closer. Of course, we all read "proven" as "veteran," simply because that's been the long-standing preference of this management team. But when that invariably comes up to La Russa, he's quick to jump all over the offending party, claiming that "proven" and "veteran" aren't the same thing. You have to make a distinction, he's always claimed. A proven closer just means someone that's done the job before; someone who has proven they have the fortitude to handle the role. It's a small distinction, but one that La Russa has hammered home on many occasions.

And that's where the trouble begins for me. See, if Tony and Dave were honestly interested in a pitcher who had proven he could do the closer job, then how exactly does a career starter fit in to that? To me, "has never closed a game in his life" is relatively dissimilar to "proven closer."  I know it's tough, but look real hard with me. Do you see how those two aren't the same thing? 

On the other hand, we have a couple of relievers in Chris Perez and Jason Motte who have, in fact, closed out games before. Now, I'll be the first to admit that neither has done it at the major league level for any appreciable amount of time before. Perez only closed down the stretch for the Cards last year, essentially as a last resort. Motte has thrown only eleven innings in the majors, and none of those came with him trying to close out a game. Point taken. Still, closer is the general job title of both of these guys, and both have acquitted themselves quite admirably. 

So what we have is two pitchers who haven't closed in the major leagues, but who have closed essentially for most or all of their pitching careers up to this point. On the other hand, we have a player who has never taken the ball at the end of the game in his life, who is used only to starting games, not finishing them. 

Okay, now, quick! Explain to me how that all jibes with the notion of wanting a player who has proven he can handle the job. Oooh, a little too slow there! Sorry. 

I've tried to avoid jumping on the whole "Tony and Dave hate young players" bandwagon. I don't always succeed, but I've tried to avoid just making that sort of statement. On this one, though, I honestly can't find any other explanation. The two of them have talked, endlessly, about how important the closer role is, how the ninth inning is so much different from the other innings, how you can't just hand the closing duties to anyone. It takes a special kind of pitcher to handle it. And now, with two pitchers who have already been closers in the past sitting right there, just waiting for a chance to take the ball, the Cardinal on-field brain trust is so desperate to find another solution that they've combed the free-agent lists for washed-up starters in order to avoid using either of the youngsters.

I literally picture the both of them, sitting somewhere in a seedy diner, an ashtray full of exhausted cigarettes on the table. Both are clearly sleep-deprived, and there's a bunch of papers scattered all over, many of them stained with grease and coffee. While waiting for his sixth refill, Tony shuffles papers despondently, obviously beginning to lose hope. 

Duncan begins, "Well, let's go over it again. Maybe there's something we missed. There must be someone out there over 30 that we can get to close games. We just haven't looked hard..." 

"Goddamnit, just shut up, Dave!" Tony bursts out angrily. His control is starting to wear thin, and the strain of holding back the tears is clearly costing him. "There aren't any other fucking options. We've looked at every single grizzled one of them, and they're all starters! Not a single closer in the bunch! Just a bunch of guys who've always been starters. And we don't need a starter, we need a clo..." Tony suddenly stops. 

The two look at each other, identical smiles of realization slowly dawning on their faces. 

"What if we..."
"We could just turn..." 
"Plenty of old guys who are..." 
"We don't need a..." 
"It'll be just like Eckersley!"

The last is delivered in a triumphant, synchronized shout, with both of them leaping up out of the booth and commencing to dance in the aisle. Upon closer inspection, we realize that it is, in fact, the Dance of Joy, last seen in 1993 during the final episode of Perfect Strangers. (By the way, did you know that show was on for eight years? Seriously. Look it up.) 

Aaaand, scene. 

You know what? To be completely honest, I'm bothered by the thought process that this sort of move points toward, but not by the move itself. While I in no way, shape, or form think that some former starter should be brought in and handed the closer role because it seemed like a good idea during that four day NyQuil bender, I also don't think it would be a terrible idea to pick up a guy like that and stick him in the bullpen, just to see what you could get. 

Looking at the list of free-agent pitchers, the only two guys that make any real sense to me are Pedro Martinez and Mark Prior. Martinez has lost quite a bit off his fastball, both figuratively and literally, but in a one-inning role I would be willing to bet he could still be effective, adding a couple ticks to his velocity and mixing in that killer change-up. Prior is very intriguing, to me at least, as a guy who has always had some of the best stuff I've ever seen, but just can't seem to keep himself healthy. If closing could do for Prior what it has done for his former rotation mate Kerry Wood, then sign me up for him on a flyer-type deal. Both Prior and Martinez fit portions of the Eckersley bill, as both have posted unusually low walk rates in their major league careers, have above-average strikeout rates and find themselves at career crossroads.

If one of those guys is who Tony and Dave are looking at, then I wouldn't have a huge problem with a one-year deal being offered. Guys like Jason Jennings or Orlando Hernandez, though, just say no and walk away. Again, at no point do I think the closer job should be handed over, but the potential payoff of trying one of those guys out in the bullpen could be pretty significant, and it would be foolish to simply dismiss the notion out of hand. 

There. You see, they've got me actually considering their hare-brained ideas. Son of a bitch. 

* (That last one happens much less often than you would think, sadly. I'm a little puzzled, to be honest. I thought that "blogger" was one of those jobs that just drives women mad with lust, right up there with "firefighter/extra-large-condom test subject" and "impotent, near-death billionaire.")

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