Bullpen should again be strength for Cardinals

JUPITER, Fla. – Mitchell Boggs has no problem saying it. He thinks the Cardinals bullpen could be good. Real good. And after he backed up his talk a year ago with a strong personal season, those doubting him might want to think again.
Boggs made headlines last winter when he said he could compete with anybody in the game and predicted a big season from himself on the mound. He then went out in 2012 and established himself as one of the premier late-inning relievers in baseball, posting a career-low 2.21 ERA in 78 games.
And now he’s making similar predictions for the Cardinals bullpen as a group in 2013.
“I don’t see any reason why we can’t be a strength of our team and one of the best bullpens in the game,” Boggs said. “But at the same time, we have to go out there and do it.
“I think the pieces are there to be as good as anybody. But we have to go out and pitch and compete the way we’re capable of.”
The Cardinals bullpen has followed a similar path the past two seasons. They came out of the gate slow in both 2011 and 2012, struggling to find consistency and defined roles. But things changed both years with key mid-season trades, turning their relief group into a dominant group down the stretch and into October.
The addition of right-hander Edward Mujica from the Miami Marlins settled things last year, helping the Cardinals fill a valuable void in the seventh inning. Mujica, Boggs and closer Jason Motte helped the Cardinals form a dominant late-inning trio that essentially gave opponents six innings to get the lead before being in trouble.
And all three are back and again ready to shorten the game. If the Cardinals can get a lead after six innings, chances are they will win the game. They did it last year, and they figure to use the same formula again.
“We have the same guys we did last year and we had a really good season,” Mujica said. “We had a pretty good bullpen and when you add Randy Choate and you have (Marc Rzepczynski) and the guys fighting for the last spots, the bullpen will be important for us. If the starter goes six, the rest will be up for us to decide the game. We have to be ready.”
Mujica posted a 1.03 ERA in 29 games with the Cardinals, allowing just three earned runs in 26 1/3 innings. He solidified the seventh inning before handing things over to Boggs in the eighth and Motte in the ninth.
Motte tied Craig Kimbrel for the National League lead with 42 saves, establishing himself as one of the top closers in the game in just his first full season in the role. The flame-thrower had a 2.75 ERA, his third straight season with an ERA under 3.
The Cardinals could also have the best lefty-duo in the league in 2013 to go along with their right-handed trio. Left-hander Marc Rzepczynski struggled midway through last season by finished by allowing runs in just three of his final 33 appearances after July 1.  
Choate, signed as a free agent in December, kept left-handed hitters to just a .158 batting average last year and is known as one of the top left-handed specialists in the game. And having him on board should free up Rzepczynski to pitch in more favorable spots.
“I think Mitchell answered a lot of peoples questions, I think Jason solidified some issues and obviously Mujica did a terrific job of giving us an extra option there,” said manager Mike Matheny. “I do believe there are more options than what I felt we had a year ago, bringing in Randy to help our Marc, but there are still some pieces that are going to be interchangeable at this point so we just have to wait and see how that all plays out.”
The intrigue comes with the final remaining two spots. Trevor Rosenthal was nearly unhittable in the playoffs and became a weapon the Cardinals would love to have back out there again. But he’s competing for the fifth starts spot and could find himself in the rotation come Opening Day.
Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller are also competing for the fifth spot and could find themselves in either the rotation or bullpen to start the year. It’s conceivable the Cardinals could put one of the three in the rotation and the other two in the bullpen.
Fernando Salas and Eduardo Sanchez have both looked impressive so far this spring and can’t be forgot about either. The Cardinals appear to have too many options for the amount of spots they have left. But all the options are impressive ones, putting them in a good spot whichever way they decide to go.
For the first time in a while the Cardinals bullpen could be comprised entirely of guys who made up that group last season. They lost nobody and got better by adding Choate, making it easy to think they can repeat the success they had last season. Or be even better.
“I think the roles are a little more defined and guys know what they are going to be asked to do, but I think the biggest thing is that there are a lot of guys out there who are extremely talented and show up to the field every day ready to compete,” Boggs said. “I think that’s the biggest reason that we were successful at the end of the year and that’s going to have to be the reason we’re successful this year, guys are prepared every day and go out there and compete and want to be very good and a strength of our team.”