Today’s offering proved a struggle on more than a few levels but honestly that is not a bad thing when talking baseball in single-digit weather! As fun as this prediction series has been so far (& continuing right up to when pitchers and catchers report), the challenge of making the bullpen pieces fit was by far the most taxing.
Memphis has to fight to keep the talented hurlers as it is but now that the big league staff has gotten much younger, a direction change may be needed to compete in the Pacific Coast League. The Redbirds have as many as four solid candidates who could all be named closer, and that is the main story all by itself.
In the beginning of the season, though, much at the AAA level will be set by a former 9th inning option for the Cardinals. Jason Motte may not actually throw a pitch for Memphis in 2014, but he will have a role in determining who is making the trek back and forth. Keith Butler should have first crack at finishing games for the Redbirds and if St. Louis goes with three lefties, he has the edge. There also could still be a big league job for Butler to hold down with an impressive spring, leaving the door open for a trio of candidates.
With the NRI’s released this week, it pushed the favorites to the top of the exposure list, and that leaves Jorge Rondon as the other returning answer in the late innings. He is coming off a solid initial campaign for Memphis and could be on the radar for a call-up due to already being on the 40-man. Eric Fornataro also retained his spot in future plans but needs a bounce back start to avoid being passed up or a roster casualty.
If the first pair of expected names get caught on the Redbird Express or struggle, two others with high hopes are ready to step up to the challenge. This may finally be the year where a southpaw takes over as closer, especially since Lee Stoppelman dominated in his first full minor league season and earned an invite to the Arizona Fall League. His projection is much higher than just a LOOGY, but the Cardinals can be patient and see how the PCL reacts to the next big thing.
St. Louis has found no shortage of impressive RHP from just about everywhere, and Jose Almarante quickly has added his name to the discussion. The Dominican hurler followed much the same path as Stoppelman in 2013, first in Palm Beach followed by same saves for Springfield and a late call-up to Memphis. Almarante just makes good pitches and has allowed exactly three home runs the past two seasons, control that can move him ahead of anyone else in the system.
While the stacked bullpen may lack a lot of known prospects, the names will quickly stand out once April rolls around. Dean Kiekhefer joined Stoppelman from the left side in the AFL and Nick Greenwood protects the rotation as the long man with more experience as a Redbird than anyone else. This is a team ready to compete for the playoffs, and the strength of an impressive bullpen sets a much different tone from 2013.