The ninth inning has been a tumultuous time for St. Louis Cardinals fans in recent years – with the 2008 season being no different. Three players saved seven or more games last year: starter-turned-reliever Ryan Franklin (3.55 ERA) with 17, former closer Jason Isringhausen (5.70) with 12 and rookie Chris Perez (3.46) with seven. Although he appeared in 41 games, Perez is still a rookie for 2009 in most people’s eyes because he did not surpass the magical 50 IP mark.
Isringhausen, now with Tampa Bay, was the Cardinals go-to guy for much of his seven seasons in St. Louis and he saved 217 games. However, he was never a truly dominating closer and he blew 38 save opportunities his seven seasons. Isringhausen also struggled mightily in 2006 and 2008 with a total of 17 blown saves in 62 opportunities. Although Franklin saved 17 games in 2008, he is not considered the long-term solution given his average stuff, eight blown saves last year and age (36).
The future likely belongs to former college closer Perez, although manager Tony LaRussa is not going to entrust a young pitcher in such a vital position without absolute proof that he is the best man for the job. Perez had a solid debut season with 34 hits allowed in 41.2 innings of work. He posted a respectable strikeout rate at 9.07 K/9 but he struggled with his control (which has been the knock on him) by posting a rate of 4.75 BB/9. Perez relied heavily on two pitches out of the pen: a fastball that averaged 95 mph, and a slider.
So far this spring, he has allowed three runs in five innings, with three strikeouts and three walks. Fellow rookie Jason Motte – another hard-throwing reliever albeit with less polish – has allowed just one earned run in five innings but also has seven strikeouts and no walks. Perez has one save on the spring, while Motte, a 26-year-old converted catcher, has two. It’s clear that Perez is not going to be handed the closer’s role this April when teams break camp. He has plenty of competition and LaRussa could simply go with a closer-by-committee or simply call on the pitcher with the hot hand – or play match-ups.
Over time, though, Perez should be the favorite to earn saves in St. Louis for the long haul. In 2009, expect a 3.50 ERA with 10-12 saves in 65 innings pitched with about 30 walks and 70 strikeouts. If he does worm his way into a more regular role as the team’s closer, be prepared to snap him up.