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Gordon: Bullpen turnover tests Cards' depth

By Jeff Gordon, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Feb. 06--The Cardinals underwent massive bullpen change during Mike Matheny's second season as a big league manager.

Many relievers who participated in the 2013 spring training have either moved on to new teams or assumed bigger roles on this squad. This creates fresh challenges for their young replacements -- and the next wave of prospects moving in behind them.

The organization must firm up its 2014 bullpen and rebuild its near-term depth.

Last spring the Cardinals started with a veteran bullpen, backed by an army of near-term prospects. Mitchell Boggs was the Cardinals' eighth-inning specialist and the next man up behind closer Jason Motte, who was trying to fight through his elbow injury.

Edward Mujica was the seventh-inning guy, coming off a brilliant campaign in that role. Marc Rzepczynski was one of the bullpen's two lefties, teaming with newcomer Randy Choate. Durable Fernando Salas, the team's former closer, filled a middle relief role.

Hard-throwing Eduardo Sanchez was trying to work his way back into a late inning role. So was Maikel Cleto. Prospect Michael Blazek was on the cusp of earning work at the big league level. Well-traveled veteran Victor Marte remained the closer in Memphis and offered insurance for the Cardinals.

Much has changed in a year.

This spring, Boggs is a free agent drawing interest from several teams. Mujica (Red Sox), Rzepczysnki (Indians), Salas (Angels), Sanchez (Tigers), Cleto (Royals) and Blazek (Brewers) are heading to spring training with other teams. Veteran reliever John Axford, a midseason addition from Milwaukee, moved on to the Indians with a chance to close.

Normally, that sort of turnover would be problematic. After all, Mujica stepped up to save 37 games last season after Motte needed elbow surgery. He was one of the team's MVPs.

Boggs appeared in 190 games during a three-year span and was 4-1 with a 2.21 ERA in 68 games in 2012. Rzepczysnki pitched in 70 games in 2012 and offered long relief and spot-starting potential. Salas saved 24 games back in 2011. Axford saved 81 games during a two-season span in Milwaukee.

That is a lot of proven talent to leave a roster within a year. Previous Cardinals teams could scarcely have afforded such turnover.

This team seems just fine, given the brilliant work of youngsters Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness in the bullpen last season. They effectively displaced more experienced hurlers on the fly.

But the turnover does raise some issues about depth. Here are some key prospects to track this spring, keeping in mind that starting pitching prospects often break into the big leagues as relievers:

Sam Freeman (32nd round, 2008): Better fastball command and a more effective change-up helped him take a quantum leap last season. He finished 7-2 with a 2.97 earned-run average and two saves for Memphis last season. He performed brilliantly through May (2-2, 2.93 ERA), June (2-0, no earned runs allowed in nine appearances) and July (0-0, 1.29 ERA) at the Triple-A level. In 13 big league appearances, he was 1-0 with a 2.19 ERA. A good spring would make him the Next Man Up for the bullpen.

Keith Butler (24th round, 2009): At the Double-A level he was an elite late-inning specialist. For the Cardinals, his sinking, low-90s fastball tickets him for middle relief. He seems unfazed with runners on base at the big league level, which is a good starting point. Poor command (11 walks in 20 innings) marred his initial tours with the parent club. Butler should earn a primary relief role and Memphis and chance to earn further fill-in work for the Cardinals.

Tyler Lyons (ninth round, 2010): The smooth lefty arrived to the organization as a finished product from Oklahoma State. He makes a strong case for drafting college pitchers. Lyons was 7-2 with a 3.32 ERA at Memphis last season and 2-4 with a 4.75 ERA for the Cardinals. He would be a mortal lock to make many big league rotations this season, but he arrives in Jupiter as a depth guy waiting for another turn.

Tim Cooney (third round 2012): He could be this season's Lyons, another polished lefty prepared to fill in as either a starter or reliever. ESPN expert Keith Law noted that "Cooney will pitch in the majors this year, a strike-throwing lefty starter with three average to slightly above-average pitches, including a fastball that will peak at 93-94." Cooney, the organization's No. 5 prospect in Law's rankings, was 10-13 with a 3.56 ERA last season pitching for Palm Beach and Springfield.

Marco Gonzales (first round, 2013): He will start his first Cardinals spring training in the big league camp, a nod to his fast-rising potential. Law slots him right behind Cooney, due to "a fringy fastball but out-pitch changeup and above-average to plus curveball, and no real projection. He's very athletic but isn't going to get much stronger or add velocity."

Lee Stoppleman (24th round, 2012): The lefthander from Central Missouri works the bottom of the strike zone with his three-quarters motion. He soared up the ladder last season, pitching for Palm Beach, Springfield and Memphis. Overall he was 6-3 with six saves, a 1.50 ERA and 78 strikeouts in 66 minor league innings. He must refine his curveball and changeup to take the final step to the big leagues, but he appears ahead of schedule.

Sam Tuivailala (third round, 2010): He may be the most intriguing pitcher in the Spring Training Early Program. He is big guy with a big arm, a converted infielder who throws high-90s heat. ESPN's Law is intrigued enough to rank him as the team's No. 11 prospect, noting that Tuivailala "struck out nearly a third of the guys he faced last year." Never mind that he is 0-3 with a 5.03 ERA in 48 1/3 innings at Johnson City and Peoria. He excites the organization.

Jordan Swagerty (second round, 2010): While he battled elbow trouble, everybody and their Aunt Judy flew past him in the organization. He returned from Tommy John surgery last season but struggled with lingering bone spurs. In six relief appearances for Palm Beach in the Florida State League, he allowed 10 runs in 6 1/3 innings. But if he can pitch pain-free this spring and if he can regain his command, he could get back on the fast track.

Seth Blair (first round, 2010): He returned from a hand injury and remained healthy last season while throwing 129 2/3 innings for Springfield. But he wasn't terribly effective (3-9, 5.07 ERA) as a starting pitcher. Law still ranks Blair as the team's No. 15 recruit, calling him "a two-pitch right-hander who lacks the command to start but could move quickly if the Cards put him in the pen." Those pitches are a low- to mid-90s fastball and a nasty curveball, weapons that could some day make him a set-up man at the big league level.

Cory Jones (fifth round, 2012): He has managed to make just 16 starts (8-4, 3.12 ERA) at Johnson City and Peoria since arriving from the College of the Canyons in 2012. But he has great stuff. Law calls him "a live-armed starter with control over command but a long history of injury."

Zach Petrick (undrafted free agent, 2012): He was the organization's big success story in 2013. He signed out of the NAIA college level two years ago to fill out a short-season pitching staff. He pitched his way into prospect status, blasting through Peoria and Palm Beach last season en route to Springfield. He offers enough power and plenty of polish. He seems destined to become a back-of-the-rotation starter in the majors.

Alex Reyes (international free agent, 2013): Law tabbed him as the organization's sleeper, noting "his stuff is electric, in the Trevor Rosenthal/Carlos Martinez mold, with a fastball that can sit in the mid-90s and a hammer breaking ball. Like many teenage arms, he needs to develop a changeup and his command is still below-average, so right now it's a reliever profile but with plenty of time for him to make himself a starter if he puts in the work."

Rob Kaminsky (first round, 2013): He will get his first taste of the big leagues while participating in the STEP program this spring. He started his adjustment from high school to professional baseball by striking out 28 batters in 22 innings in the Gulf Coast League last season. This lefty possesses top-of-the-rotation power potential, but the big leagues are a long ways off.

Mike Mayers (third round, 2013): He jumped from the University of Mississippi up to the Midwest League last year, after a five-game orientation in the Gulf Coast League. He has a nice changeup to go with his low-90s fastball and slider. Lance Lynn comparisons are inevitable.

Sam Gaviglio (fifth round, 2011). The former Oregon State standout delivered a solid showing at the Low-A level in his first full minor league season, but struggled with injuries last season. He salvaged his year with a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League (3.58 ERA in six starts) and he gained a non-roster invitation to Cardinals camp. He is a sinkerball pitcher could reach the majors as a long reliever.

Jorge Rondon (free agent, Venezuela, 2006): Cleto is gone. Marte is gone. Sanchez is gone. But the Cardinals are investing additional time in this hard thrower. He was 3-5 with a 3.06 ERA in his first full season at Memphis. But he has almost as many walks (37) as strikeouts (42) in the Pacific Coast League last season. He is running out of time to take the final step with this organization.

Eric Fornataro (sixth round, 2008): He followed a solid spring training showing (1.50 ERA in six appearances) with a good start at Memphis last year, posting a 3.86 ERA with nine strikeouts and one walk in 1-0 appearances. But injuries and ineffectiveness marred the rest of his season. He has been pitching in the organization since 2008, so he, too, is running out of time.

Boone Whiting (18th round, 2010): The former Centenary College standout bypassed Palm Beach during his swift climb up the ladder and reached Memphis after making just eight starts at the Double-A level. But he is a craftsman, now a power pitcher, and The Cardinal Nation's Brian Walton puts him in the P.J. Walters/Brandon Dickson depth-pitching category. He offers stability for the Triple-A staff.

It will be interesting to see which of these pitchers show will well while mingling with the big leaguers at Jupiter.

The organization also has near-term (John Gast) and long-term (Tyrell Jenkins) prospects coming back from surgical repairs, but those are players to watch later in the summer.

___

(c)2014 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Visit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at www.stltoday.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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