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Cards release Motte; righty may return to team

35-year-old has 48 hours to sign with new club, expects to pitch for Triple-A Memphis
MLB.com @JoeTrezz

JUPITER, Fla. -- Jason Motte's return to St. Louis is still possible -- but it'll have to wait.

The Cardinals released the veteran reliever on Thursday, an unsurprising move given the club's late-inning picture is already a bit jumbled.

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JUPITER, Fla. -- Jason Motte's return to St. Louis is still possible -- but it'll have to wait.

The Cardinals released the veteran reliever on Thursday, an unsurprising move given the club's late-inning picture is already a bit jumbled.

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The former closer was a long-shot to make the big league club after signing a Minor League deal a week into camp, returning to the team that developed him in part because the Cardinals' Triple-A affiliate plays in Memphis.

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That's where Motte lives, and likely where he will begin the season. But that's not guaranteed. Unlike most non-roster players, who can simply be reassigned, Motte's service time requires the Cardinals to give him a chance to sign with a Major League club before he is sent to the Minors.

To do so, the club must grant him his unconditional release, which it did Thursday. If a big league opportunity doesn't materialize in 48 hours, Motte would be able to rejoin the organization. He would then be reassigned to Triple-A Memphis.

The 48-hour window begins immediately, meaning Motte could be back with the Cardinals well before Monday, when it finishes spring with a two-day trip to Canada. The Cards will likely borrow pitchers from Minor League camp to provide depth during the two exhibition games in Montreal against the Blue Jays.

If Motte does stay with the St. Louis organization, he would provide coverage in a Memphis bullpen the Cardinals dipped into heavily last season. The Cards used 19 different relievers in 2017.

A former fan favorite in St. Louis, Motte made 311 appearances over six seasons with the Cardinals from 2008-14, elevating to the closer role late during the '11 season and finishing with a National League-best 42 saves in '12. He returned to the organization this spring after consecutive one-year stints with the Cubs, Rockies and Braves, where he pitched mostly as a middle reliever.

Motte no longer features the triple-digit fastball that once made him one of baseball's fiercest closers. But the Cardinals were impressed with the velocity of his four-seam heater this spring, which routinely reached 96 mph. Statcast™ tracked Motte's fastball at an average of 93.7 mph last season, while his strikeout rate ranked among the Majors' lowest for a full-time reliever.

Motte pitched to a 10.13 ERA in six Grapefruit League appearances with the Cardinals this spring. 

"He looked better than he has in the last couple of years," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "I think he's starting to pitch more. Using the changeup. Using the cutter a little bit more. Not just trusting his velocity."

Wainwright to start home opener
Matheny will only commit publicly to three regular-season pitching plans so far. The first two lead to the third, and they are as follows:

Carlos Martinez will start Opening Day in New York.

Adam Wainwright will pitch the second game of the season against the Mets

• And that sets up Wainwright to start the club's home opener against the D-backs on April 5 at Busch Stadium. Wainwright probably doesn't slot in as the club's No. 2 pitcher all season (Matheny won't say who does, though it's ostensibly Michael Wacha), but Wainwright is being lined up as such early on, specifically to start the Cardinals' first game at home.

The Cardinals consider it an honor Wainwright has earned heading into the final year of his contract.

"There is something real cool with that," Matheny said. "That is a big deal to us. And he is an ace of our staff."

Wainwright made five Opening Day starts over his first 12 years in St. Louis, including four in a row from 2013-16. He relinquished Opening Day in '16 to Martinez.

Camp battle
Yairo Munoz's sensational spring continued Thursday, when he started at shortstop and homered in the Cardinals' 8-2 win over the Braves. The 23-year-old is hitting .375/.423/.625 in Grapefruit League play, during which he's swung his way into a neck-and-neck race for the club's final bench spot with Harrison Bader.

Bader is hitting .313 this spring and profiles as an elite defensive outfielder, but could see limited playing time backing up a starting unit that is already full with former center fielders. Munoz has played five different positions in Spring Training.

Up next
The decision between Munoz and Bader will come down to the wire, making every remaining game important for the two youngsters. Expect both to play again Friday when the Cardinals play the Mets in Jupiter, live on MLB.TV. First pitch is set for 12:05 p.m. CT.

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com.

St. Louis Cardinals, Jason Motte