StrategyApril 23, 2013

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Bottom of the 9th: Bailey and Mujica Locked In

By R.J. White

Closers in Boston and St. Louis are getting opportunities to establish themselves as long-term options thanks to injuries. In St. Louis, Jason Motte may or may not be out for the entire season, and the Cardinals may have settled on a closer. In Boston, Joel Hanrahan hit the disabled list with a hamstring injury, and the team’s manager came out and said last week that he wasn’t guaranteed to get the job back when he returns. Let’s take a look at the Bottom of the 9th.

Boston Red Sox

Joel Hanrahan’s injury couldn’t have come at a better time for the Red Sox. He blew a save on April 10 by allowing five runs while only recording two outs, and he wasn’t able to record an out in his next appearance April 13, walking two guys before being pulled. The team put him on the disabled list with a hamstring strain that may or may not explain how poorly he’s been pitching this year. However, it’s important to point out that his excellent 2012 season (2.72 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 67 Ks, 36 saves) was built upon a .225 BABIP and 89.7 percent strand rate, numbers that screamed regression based on his career numbers and the fact that no pitcher can maintain a .225 BABIP. He’s walked five guys and served up three home runs in 4.2 innings thus far. If it’s because of a strained hamstring, it must be the worst hamstring strain in the history of sports.

Meanwhile, displaced closer Andrew Bailey has been given the ball in the ninth inning and has looked fantastic. He’s saved four games over the past week, giving up one run on two hits and two walks in five innings while striking out eight batters. On the year, he owns a 1.74 ERA, 0.87 WHIP and 17 strikeouts in 10.1 innings. Those are Craig Kimbrel-type numbers, not something you would expect from a guy that posted a 7.04 ERA last season in his brief return from injury. Bailey’s .222 BABIP and 92.1 percent strand rate clearly show he hasn’t been this amazing, but with how good his ratios have been, even regression to the norm would make him a quality closer and likely better option than Hanrahan.

For what it’s worth, manager John Farrell said last week before this run of saves that Hanrahan wouldn’t necessarily be handed the job once he returned. They’ll have to evaluate how his hamstring holds up in game situations. If Bailey continues to excel, that may not even matter. The first-place Red Sox have a good thing going in the late innings, and I don’t see a reason to mess that up. I expect Bailey to hold on to the job for as long as he’s pitching well. If he hits a cold stretch at some point or succumbs to the injury bug, we’ll see Hanrahan back in there.

Bailey is a must-own in fantasy leagues, while Hanrahan should be dangled in trade talks the second he’s activated to see if he’ll bring back a closer-worthy value.

St. Louis Cardinals

May 1 looms large for Jason Motte. The Cardinals shut him down in early April after an MRI revealed a tear in his UCL. They announced at the time that he would be re-evaluated at the beginning of May, and if they don’t like what they see, he could be a candidate for Tommy John surgery, which would knock him out for the remainder of the year. It would be a tough loss for the Cardinals, and for fantasy owners who may have drafted Motte expecting a top-three overall RP.

Initially, the team went to Mitchell Boggs as the ninth-inning guy. He’s pitched his way to a 12.46 ERA and 2.31 WHIP thanks largely to a horrendous outing against the Reds in early April. Even without that meltdown, he’s put far too many people on base, and three times this season (including that Reds game) he’s recorded one out or less. It seemed apparent that the Cardinals would soon turn the job over to Trevor Rosenthal, a hard-throwing top prospect who was in contention for a rotation spot this spring but whose presence in the bullpen made people think the Cardinals could be grooming him to close.

In fact, Rosenthal has been excellent for most of the season, striking out 15 batters while walking only two in 11.2 innings of work. Unfortunately for him, he had to deal with a case of bad timing, as he had a poor couple of games right around the time Boggs had to be pulled from the closer role. Rosenthal has also been a little too hittable; he’s put multiple guys on base in four of his last five outings.

What that means is that Edward Mujica has been given a shot at closing. I called Mujica a sleeper for saves last week in this space, and he’s notched the last two saves for the Cardinals, with the most recent coming Monday. He’s given up just one run on five hits and one walk in 7.1 innings this year while striking out eight, making him the strongest performer of the three late-inning guys on the team. Mujica has a history of excellent control, having held his walk rate under 2.0 per nine innings each season since 2008.

There are two knocks against him: he gives up far too many home runs and his strikeout rate vacillates between being strong and mediocre. However, if his batted ball profile can level out to its levels over the last few years, when he’s limited the number of fly balls surrendered, he should be a reliable ninth-inning guy who gives up the occasional home run (hopefully not in too poor of circumstances).

If Motte gets shelved for the rest of the year after being re-evaluated, Mujica could have a very valuable fantasy season. Rosenthal could take over eventually, provided the Cardinals don’t move him to Triple-A at some point to stretch him out and give him a shot at the rotation (a long shot, but one worth considering). For now, I’d definitely own Mujica and Rosenthal in leagues, and kick Boggs to the curb.

R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe and contributes to's MLB Rumors blog. He has previously written for FanHouse, Razzball and FanDuel. Catch up with him in the forums under the name daullaz. Follow him on Twitter; don't follow him in real life.
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