Jason Motte threw the final pitch in the World Series in 2011 and was tackled by Yadier Molina as the Cardinals celebrated their 11th World Championship. He tied for the National League lead in saves in 2012. In the spring of 2013, he felt a pop in his right elbow that ended up requiring season ending Tommy John Surgery. Since that fateful day, nothing has come easy for the righthander.
Since his return in May of 2014, Motte has struggled to find consistency and success. These are the perils of a reliever making his way back from a serious arm injury in the middle of his teams chase of World Series glory. Motte has endured a tough season. He made his first appearance on May 21st against Arizona and in his second time out, he surrendered a solo home run in Cincinnati. In 24 appearances, Motte has a 4.91 ERA and has allowed 7 home runs in 22 innings. Batters are hitting .287 off him and his performance has worsened from month to month. While earned run average isn’t the greatest stat to judge a reliever by, Motte fits because more often than not in 2014 he has started an inning. He takes the mound like a starting pitcher and fires an inning instead of 6 innings. This is a lot different from his job in 2010 and the early part of 2011 when he came into the middle of close and tough situations to get a key strikeout.
This isn’t abnormal. Motte was going to have trouble in 2014. He wasn’t going to come back and be great right away. When you have an elbow worked on extensively, a pitcher doesn’t just fly back into action. It’s harder for a reliever to come back from Tommy John because they don’t pitch often enough to truly rehab the mind and the elbow to get back in the swing of competition. Motte has to find the innings and make good use of them. In an interview with Jim Hayes, Motte admitted that he won’t be 100 percent until spring training of 2015. When I talked to him in January at the Winter Warmup, he showed little agitation with his situation but the obvious misfortune is glaring.
He left the team with his closer job intact. He was the man and it was a job he worked hard for. This is a converted catcher who came up in 2008 and dazzled in limited exposure. In 11 innings, Motte struck out 16 batters in 2008. In 2009, he was given the chance to close and blew three quick games. He turned into a strikeout artist for Tony La Russa late in games in 2009 and 2010. It wasn’t until 2011 when Ryan Franklin wore down that Motte took the ninth inning mantle for good. He closed 9 games in the latter stages of 2011, and closed out the World Series. He saved 42 games in 49 chances in 2012. He was dynamite in the 2012 playoffs. He signed a 2 year extension with the team. Then the elbow happened. Mitchell Boggs came into the closer job and self destructed. Edward Mujica held the fort until the last series of the 2013 season, when Trevor Rosenthal settled into the role.
Rosenthal and Motte didn’t sense a conflict at the Winter Warmup, and Motte was happy for the younger reliever. The situation at closer hasn’t changed. Rosenthal hasn’t made saves look particularly comforting but he leads the National League with 35. Rosenthal is 24 years old and isn’t going anywhere. While the urge to start is there, Rosenthal has to think this closing opportunity could turn into something truly lucrative and quite legendary if he stays with it.
Motte is 32 years and without a contract in 2015. He signed a 2 year, 12 million dollar deal before the 2013 season and is a free agent for the first time in his career in 2015. For people complaining about Motte making 7.5 million to be a 4th RH arm in the pen this year, consider that he closed 42 games for 1.9 million in 2012. In a case similar to Chris Carpenter(who missed a lot of time, but made up for it with bargain seasons before), Motte has given the Cards a great performance in his 5 seasons here. I miss the days where he would take in the mound in the ninth inning and look like a man in a box coming unhinged. He’d rub his beard, adjust his hat, shout into his glove and ramp up the intensity. I miss that but I doubt it’s going to happen again in the 9th inning again. Possibly the 7th inning but it’s not easy to conjure.
The future is wide open. I asked St. Louis Post Dispatch Cards reporter Derrick Goold about the chances of Motte returning in 2015 and he admitted this much.
“It’s there. And in someways there’s a mutually beneficial attraction because the Cardinals have never met a one-year deal that they don’t like and that does give them some protection on the back end without blocking a young pitcher. It also gives them the chance to bring a player back when he should be full strength after working him through a season when he was recovering. Lots of things line up. But Motte would also have to like the opportunity and not think there’s a better one or a multi-year guaranteed one out there for him. Cardinals may work in order here: Talk to Lynn. Talk to Neshek. Talk to Motte.”-Derrick Goold(@dgoold on Twitter)
Neshek is the part that makes a Motte/Cardinals deal not so set in stone. Neshek’s emergence in the late innings this season has been quite the surprise and puts Motte’s role into question going forward. While it would be foolish to disregard what Motte has done for the team in the past, his role moving forward does have questions around it. I am a fan of the guy and love the charity work he conducted in his time away from the game with “K Cancer” and the money he has raised. He has become entrenched in this community for years so it would be hard to see such a likable face and fierce personality depart.
However, the game of baseball is a business and Cards fans found that out the hard way last week with the departure of Allen Craig and Joe Kelly. The toughness of this game extends to its fans. I hope the Cards find a way to bring Motte back because I believe he will get back to that late inning ferocity and be a force again. It’s hard to know what the team sees in Motte going forward and what lies out there for the reliever. I would doubt he jumps at a huge contract to pitch elsewhere but I am not so sure.
A painful reality is coming together in my head this morning. The idea of Motte in Cardinal Red next season is not yet a reality and the real question is this. How far apart is the idea and the reality?
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