Can Cards Build New Closer with Carpenter?

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa is considering the option of using rehabbing starter Chris Carpenter as the club’s closer for 2009. With former closer Jason Isringhausen likely on his way out of town as a free agent, after a disappointing 2008 season, the club is left with just younger pitchers with true closer experiences (in the minors and college). The club recently lost out on former Colorado closer Brian Fuentes, who signed a two-year contract with the Los Angels Angels.

Everyone who knows LaRussa knows he’s not likely to give such a key role to a pitcher like Chris Perez or Jason Motte, with just 41.2 and 11.0 innings under their belts, respectively. Perez, 23, collected seven saves in 2008 with St. Louis and blew four save opportunities. Motte, 26, collected one save and did not blow an opportunity.

Perhaps LaRussa is looking for the next John Smoltz, another talented right-handed veteran pitcher, whose effectiveness and durability were derailed by injuries to his arm and shoulder. Smoltz was 34 when he became the closer for the Atlanta Braves. Carpenter will be 34 as of Opening Day 2009. Smoltz had been in the Majors for 13 seasons; Carpenter will have been in the Majors for 12.

Smoltz and Carpenter have similar repertoires at this points as starters. Based on small sample sizes from 2008 (just four games for Carpenter, and six games for Smoltz) both utilized fastballs and breaking balls as their two main weapons, although Carpenter favored the fastball (52.7%) about 10 percent more than Smoltz. Both pitchers averaged out around 91-92 mph. Smoltz used his slider (37.5%) about 10 percent more than Carpenter. They also have curveballs and change-ups that they mixed in, although the Cardinals righty used his curveball far more often in his last healthy season (2006: 22.2%). Carpenter also used a cutter 2.9% of the time, while Smoltz has a splitter that he used 8.6% of the time in 2008.

Obviously, comparing the above numbers does not solve the question of whether or not Carpenter will be an effective closer but it is kind of interesting to compare the two players on a somewhat superficial level. There are enough similarities with the two players to suggest that Carpenter could be an effective closer, if he can handle the rigors of pitching on back-to-back or back-to-back-to-back days. It also won’t be hard to top Isringhausen’s 2008 season after he saved just 12 games and posted an ERA of 5.70.

Whether he pitches out of the bullpen or the starting rotation, the Cardinals definitely need to figure out how to get the best value out of Carpenter, as he is signed through the 2011 season (with a club option for 2012) at $14 million or more a season. Carpenter would certainly be a sleeper choice for Fantasy owners if he heads into the 2009 season in the bullpen.




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Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospect analysis. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.


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