Cardinals' closing role still up for grabs

March 21st, 2018

JUPITER, Fla. -- The Cardinals will break camp with no concrete answer to their ninth-inning question.

That's not necessarily a surprise: manager Mike Matheny all but predicted the possibility in the second week of February. And while he couldn't foresee Luke Gregerson's strained oblique, ' early exit or ' race up the hypothetical depth chart, Matheny never truly expected any spring circumstances would force his hand.

Matheny's forecast called for his club's cloudy late-inning picture to clear itself up in time. The Cardinals just still need more of it, not only to decide who gets the ball in the ninth, but how they'll bridge to it.

"There is no resolution yet, for any of them," Matheny said. "That's everybody. I don't think we have to have that decided right now."

The decision won't necessarily be made by Opening Day, when the Cardinals open in New York against the Mets on March 29. St. Louis intends to begin the year cycling through options, playing matchups and letting roles define themselves.

"When you look at it right now, that eighth, ninth inning, we have three or four arms who can compete for [the closer job] or do that," president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said. "Once the season starts, I think we'll try to get into that ebb and flow where there is someone who has the ninth."

The goal is for, eventually, a pecking order to emerge from there.

"What you don't want to do is end up feeling like you're a bullpen by committee and you're not having success," Mozeliak said. "That phrase, bullpen by committee, if you're winning games and closing out games, is fine. If you're not, it becomes a little bit frustrating. My hope is we don't go down that latter path."

Gregerson, , and lead the list of active big league candidates. hasn't seemed challenged by Grapefruit League play, and he brings high-90s heat. lies in wait if necessary.

And then there are Mayers and , two righties who've had better camps than anyone but are likely begin the season at Triple-A. Either -- or both -- could be asked to get big outs at the Major League level in the short-term.

"We'll go with what we've got," Matheny said. "Who will give us the best chance to win right now?"

It's a strategy rooted in knowledge of some history. Matheny knows the closer he begins the year with likely won't be the one he ends the year with. The turnover is higher than at any other position in baseball, not just in St. Louis during Matheny's tenure, but across the sport. Each of the past eight World Series winners finished with different closers than they broke camp with. The Cardinals have a made a habit of creating closers from within after others withered.

To that end, the Cardinals also have a stable of high-velocity prospects -- Hicks, and to name a few -- that they expect to dip into come summer.

For now, Gregerson and Leone will likely get first crack at the ninth. Leone has converted three saves in Grapefruit League action this spring, and the Cards consider his high-spin cutter, in particular, a plus pitch. Gregerson missed a chunk of camp, but is expected to be ready in full come Opening Day.

The club pivoted from the idea of shuttling Norris back and forth from the rotation and opted to keep him in the later innings where he found success with the Angels last season. He's an option. Lyons struck out more hitters (11.3 per nine innings) than any current contender did last year, though he'll likely be tasked with retiring tough lefties before the game's final frame.

"We have a number of guys throwing the ball well that could end up finishing games for us," Matheny said. "It's a good problem and I feel good firing them all in there. I think it gives us the freedom to look at more matchups, play it more inning-to-inning, batter-to-batter sometimes."