Bullpen depth emerged as one of most significant Cardinal strengths this spring.
This explains why the team could send Eduardo Sanchez (and his 0.00 spring earned-run average) back to Memphis for more seasoning.
A year ago Sanchez helped save the Cards bullpen from an early-season implosion. He was 3-1 with five saves and a crisp 1.80 ERA. He struck out 35 batters in 30 innings.
His ascension was critical for a team that saw veteran closer Ryan Franklin, lefty specialist Trever Miller and journeymen Miguel Batista, Brian Tallet, Bryan Augenstein and Raul Valdes all fail miserably.
But this spring the Cards have a surplus of arms, many of them young, most with “plus” stuff. So Sanchez returns to the minors seeking to become more economical with his delivery and his pitching approach.
What a difference a year makes. The Cards are sorting through their relievers rather than searching for them.
While the starting rotation must deal with the long-term loss of staff ace Chris Carpenter, the bullpen appears ready to go after a productive spring.
Here are some thoughts on the relief corps:
*Sanchez seems intent on striking out every batter he faces. Moreover, he seems driven to make batters look foolish while fanning them. He has “swing-and-miss” stuff, but too much of it breaks out of the strike zone. Bases on balls, hit batters, wild pitches ... late-inning relievers can’t do these things. Eduardo needs to tone it down a bit. If he does, he won’t have to throw so many pitches to get through innings. He will also become less vulnerable to additional shoulder stiffness.
*As a pitcher with minor league options remaining, Sanchez is caught in the numbers crunch as well. His return to the minors gives the big league club reassuring depth. The Cards should have several big league-caliber pitchers opening at Memphis this season. That is a good thing.
*Along those lines, 2011 Memphis closer Victor Marte showed well this spring after finishing well last season at the Triple-A level. He has a 1.44 ERA with 31 saves for the Redbirds. If bullpen injuries begin stacking up, he is a pitcher capable of moving into a fill-in role. The Cards have had worse. Just ask Esteban Yan.
*Despite Lance Lynn’s move to the starting rotation, the Cards still have an extra reliever if Scott Linebrink earns a spot in the ’pen. Linebrink’s experience, solid career track record and success to this point of spring all make him a good option for middle relief. Given the relative inexperience of several relief candidates, he offers value.
*Mitchell Boggs remains a fascinating prospect, but nothing more at this point. If he can develop a consistently effective splitter, that would be a career changer for him. If he can’t, he will become just another big, reasonably hard-throwing pitcher likely to bounce around the big leagues for a few more years. Lynn’s move to the rotation and creates opportunity for him, as does Eduardo’s demotion.
*Fernando Salas solidified his standing last season as a durable and reliable option. He stuff makes him better suited for a set-up role. His ability to change speeds offers a nice contrast to the hard-throwing Jason Motte, who has supplanted him as the closer.
*J.C. Romero shows signs of filling the second lefty specialist role. The Cards could use a one- or two-hitter option to team with Marc Rzepczynski, a converted starter capable of working longer game stints. Perhaps Romero really is healthier than he was last season, when his WHIP soared past 1.70 for both Philadelphia and Colorado. But is he an asset at this point in his career or an extra guy?
*Kyle McClellan got a nice bump in pay this season, which could work against him should the Cards opt to clear some payroll spent additional dollars on veteran starting pitching. His $2.5 million salary isn’t THAT high, but the Cards have other viable options (like the demoted Sanchez) earning minimal pay.
*If Motte struggles as the closer and if Lynn must remain in the starting rotation, the Cards could come back around to Sanchez IF he has a better handle on his stuff and his pitching approach. Eduardo’s career is just taking off.
The bottom line: Although Sanchez could help the Cards right now as a spot reliever, the franchise would like to see him reach his full potential. That is a luxury this franchise lacked in previous seasons.
Jeff Gordon is a Lee News Service columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (314) 340-8187.