A Different Cardinals Closer of the Future?

Ryan Franklin is currently holding the job for incumbent closer Jason Isringhausen and is under contract for 2009. Chris Perez is labeled by some as the "closer the future". Kyle McClellan is proving to be a valuable set-up man who can do more. Who will close games for the St. Louis Cardinals next season?

Though he is but a rookie reliever, Kyle McClellan had already been called out of the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen 40 times in 2008 when asked to do so again on Tuesday night.

Coming off a disappointing home series loss to the Chicago Cubs last weekend, the Cardinals had entered into the home of the National League East-leading Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday. A past pattern of losing game one of a series, only to come back to prevail in the subsequent contests was not something Manager Tony La Russa could count on.

Add together the quality of the opposition, the reputation of Citizen's Bank Ballpark as a hitter's haven plus troubled lefty Mark Mulder being slated to make his first start of the season in game two and it seemed clear that a series-opening win was crucial for the second-place Redbirds.

After the lone lefty in the pen, Ron Villone, bailed Joel Pineiro and the Cardinals out of a tough jam in the seventh, La Russa turned a fragile 2-0 lead over to McClellan (right) to protect.

All the right-hander did was log a perfect inning, allowing no baserunners and striking out one, reigning National League Most Valuable Player Jimmy Rollins. The 22-year-old wasted little effort, pounding 75% of his 16 offerings into the strike zone.

In the process, the Missourian registered his 19th hold of the season and lowered his ERA to 2.61. Those 19 holds place McClellan in a tie for third in all of Major League Baseball, just three behind the leader, the Chicago Cubs' Carlos Marmol.

On the season, he had fanned 41 and issued just 12 free passes in his initial 48 innings in the major leagues. 20 of his 28 inherited runners were stranded on the bases and McClellan has retired 30 of his 42 first batters faced.

The next night, McClellan followed Isringhausen to pitch the seventh inning of a 2-2 tie. Another boring line ensued – three up and three down – Rollins, Shane Victorino and Chase Utley, the Phils' one-two-three hitters.

Being asked to pitch a third inning in two nights proved to be too much, however, as McClellan yielded a 0-2 bomb to slugger Ryan Howard leading off the eighth. That ended Kyle's night on a down note, raising his ERA to 2.74 and setting him up for the loss.

Most Cardinals fans know the basics of McClellan's story by now. He first joined the organization in the 25th round of the 2002 draft, but languished for years in A-ball while slowed by injuries. With only 20 innings of competition as high as Double-A to back him up, McClellan came into 2008 spring camp as the longest of long shots.

Yet his ability to command four pitches impressed La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan in big league action this spring. Originally being prepared as a starter slated for Memphis or Springfield, McClellan ended up earning a spot at the back of the major league bullpen instead.

McClellan is not alone among rookie Cardinals relievers.

Though he already had more experience of the two, having mastered the Texas League and moved up to the Pacific Coast League in 2007, Cardinals "closer of the future" fireballer Chris Perez returned to Memphis to start the 2008 campaign. The 23-year-old was called up on May 16 after 18 solid Triple-A appearances (2.04 ERA, .190 OBA).

Perez is the higher-profile of the pair, having been the Cards' second-round pick in the 2006 draft and fast-pathed through the system. He of the mid-90's fastball and the "effectively wild" results is getting his feet wet in the majors this season, as is the far less-heralded McClellan.

Manager Tony La Russa said of Perez' major league career to date, "He started well, then walked some left-handed hitters… It requires a "different mindset going to pitch deeper than one inning," which is how the manager has used the rookie at times.

La Russa indicated Perez' two-step improvement plan. "First, he needs to continue to improve against left-handers and two, the expediency of the moment," referring to the acknowledgement that Perez "won't ever be a 30-to-40 pitch guy (per outing)."

On Wednesday, Perez relieved McClellan after Howard's home run in the eighth inning. He fanned the first two batters before yielding a long ball of his own, to Pedro Feliz, which extended the Phillies' lead to a pair of runs. Perez' 2008 ERA jumped to 4.03 in the process.

The ongoing usage pattern of the two seems to indicate that it is McClellan, more than Perez, is the guy La Russa and Duncan count upon to hold a lead in a close game. It is the role that veteran Ryan Franklin held last season and earlier this year prior to Franklin moving into the closer's job for then-struggling Jason Isringhausen.

In aggregate, the Cardinals pen this year offers an interesting contrast.

On one hand, they lead the majors in holds with 62, yet on the other, they also set the pace with the most blown saves in MLB, 20. Izzy has seven of those blown saves and Franklin has four. It is pretty clear on which side of the equation McClellan rests, with almost 1/3 of the club's leading holds total.

Looking ahead to 2009, Isringhausen, the club's career saves leader and just eight short of 300 for his career, and another veteran rock in the pen, 39-year-old Russ Springer, are free agents to be. It is reasonable to assume that one or perhaps both will not be back next year.

While Franklin (right) is under team control through 2010, he seems best suited for a set-up role rather than to close. Converting 12 of 16 opportunities (75%) isn't embarrassing, but it is not what legends are made of, either. Since having taken over as interim closer in mid-May, Franklin's ERA has risen substantially, from a sharp 1.50 as a set up man to an overall mark of 3.12 now.

In other words, as closer, Franklin has allowed ten earned runs in 17.1 innings for an ERA of 5.19. As a very telling point of comparison, even with all his troubles, Izzy's 2008 ERA is currently 5.17.

It isn't a huge stretch to suggest the 35-year-old Franklin might return to his old job down the line, and if so, who might become Izzy's successor?

Certainly the Cardinals have gone outside for veteran relief help before, as did then-GM Walt Jocketty when signing Isringhausen as a free agent prior to the 2002 season. The difference in the club's situation today is that there appears to be viable in-house options not available before.

Though the organization has stated in the past that McClellan's future may be in the rotation, might circumstances in 2009 dictate another change to his career trajectory?

While two of the current starters, Kyle Lohse and Braden Looper, can be free agents following the season, both Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter are expected back at full strength in 2009. Incumbents Todd Wellemeyer and Joel Pineiro are under team control for next season, potentially leaving at most one rotation spot unclaimed.

In other words, might McClellan bypass the strikeout and walk-prone Perez, anointed by some as the Cardinals closer of the future, and leap over the veteran Franklin, to become the new Cardinals closer of the present in 2009 and perhaps beyond?

I asked Duncan about that. Of course, with so many variables at this point, no one is going to risk disrespecting Izzy or Franklin by going out onto a limb to speculate on roles for next season. After all, we aren't yet to the 2008 All-Star break.

Duncan does seem very proud of the progression of McClellan, noting he "really grew into" his current set-up role. "We really need a guy late that can get out left-handers and right-handers and he has proven he can do it. He is not afraid of any role," said the pitching coach.

McClellan looked over his shoulder nervously when I asked about his use of his four pitches, sounding ominously like Izzy in saying, "I don't want to give away my game plan." He acknowledged that to remain sharp, he throws all four pitches in the bullpen every time, "three fastballs, then a cutter, a curve and a change-up."

To get the opposing hitters thinking, he also shows each of his four pitches while making his warm up pitches on the field since "they usually can't see what I was throwing in the pen."

McClellan doesn't necessarily use his entire arsenal against each batter or even in each outing. "It more depends on what our reports show as the hitters' weaknesses. If a guy is not good with a change-up, then I will exploit that," he explained.

Like many hurlers, McClellan is more prone to go with his best pitch regardless of match-up with the bases empty, a better time to challenge enemy hitters.

I probed the pitching coach about McClellan's future use, but realistically all Duncan can and will say is that "it will depend on our need". What remained unsaid is when that need will be defined, but it could be as late as 2009 spring training, as it was in 2008.

Duncan believes the difference in off-season preparation between being a starter and a reliever is "more mindset than anything". Implied but not stated is that the Cardinals braintrust has confidence that McClellan can play any role they need.

When I asked Duncan if never having been a closer before might disqualify McClellan from consideration for the role in the future, he would have no part of it. Duncan responded by pointing out that "Franklin was never a closer before, either."

So, it remains to be seen how well Chris Perez will improve and how the St. Louis Cardinals reshape their rotation and bullpen for 2009, with the latter defining the ongoing role of Kyle McClellan.

It is clear they have a lot of faith in McClellan already and Perez has another 70 games or so to elevate the confidence in him as well. And if so, the two could play very prominent roles as second-year Cardinals.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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