Palm Beach Cardinals 2012 Reliever of Year

Our choice as the top relief pitcher on the Florida State League Cardinals wasn't the primary closer.

The pitching staff of the 2012 Palm Beach Cardinals might best be described in one short phrase - bullpen dependable.

After all, it was needed, as five of the six opening day starters ended up in Double-A Springfield. The lone starter that remained in the starting rotation was Drew Benes, and his inconsistencies throughout the season allowed the bullpen to showcase their talent.

One notable thing about the Cardinals relief corps was the revolving door at the closer position. It was not due to any lack of consistency from the spot, but instead, because of the availability of multiple dependable arms. Dean Kiekhefer, Zack Russell and Chase Reid were the primary options for manager Johnny Rodriguez, and after Reid was promoted in August, Russell took over.

It is impossible to dismiss Russell's hard work out of the pen in the month of August, as he went 1-0 with a team-best 1.93 ERA and five saves. He showed signs of vast improvement as a reliever, as he spent all of last season as a starter.

However, Russell's eye-opening numbers in the one month of August did not make up for the rest of an up-and-down season. So the attention in trying to select our Relief Pitcher of the Year for Palm Beach is turned to three key cogs in the pen; Kiekhefer, Iden Nazario and Aidan Lucas.

Nazario was solid, collecting a team-high five wins in relief, while limiting hitters to a .188 batting average. The left-hander tacked on an FSL leading 11 holds, while finishing second in batting average against. Nazario would have been an ideal candidate for the award, but he could not avoid the free pass. In 62.2 innings, Nazario walked 43 hitters. His self-inflicted damage resulted in a 2.73 ERA and 1.34 WHIP.

With Nazario out of the picture, it came down to two. Lucas began the season as Rodriguez' number one option of the pen, but he lost the spot to Kiekhefer during the second half.

This season, Lucas performed as a primary set-up man. However, that did not stop him from being named our Palm Beach Reliever of the Year.

Yes, it was a tough decision, as Kiekhefer finished the season with 2.24 ERA and team-leading 14 saves. His 1.04 WHIP led the Cards, as he walked just four hitters all year. The numbers do not lie; Kiekhefer was good, arguably one of the best in the league, but his inability to finish off hitters allowed them to hit .260 against him.

On the other side, Lucas limited Florida State League opponents to a .195 batting average, while finishing second in the league with 10 holds. He also racked up 72 strikeouts in 74.1 innings, while Kiekhefer tallied just 41 in 60.1 innings.

Yes, the strikeouts are important, but not the determining factor. Lucas' ability to be extended for multiple innings on any given night was a huge help to shorten the gap between starter and closer.

While in the first month of the season, the Cardinals did not often need a multiple innings guy, in the later months it proved vital, as many pitchers were held back by limitations or production.

In 17 appearances from May to the end of June, Lucas went 1-0 in 26.1 innings, allowing two runs, while striking out 21 hitters. His play in those months allowed him to earn a few saves in July and August, finishing with three.

At the end of the day, Lucas' contributions proved to be more important than that of a closer. The 24-year-old right-hander finished the year 1-1 with a 2.18 ERA. He struck out 72 and walked 34.

Congratulations to Aidan Lucas, The Cardinal Nation/ Palm Beach Cardinals Relief Pitcher of the Year for 2012.

Link to master article with all 2012 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series.

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