Could St. Louis Cardinals Use a Tandem Closer System?

With Trevor Rosenthal looking dominant and Seung-Hwan Oh struggling a bit to start the season, could the Cardinals utilize a multi-closer approach?

After a rough 2016 season, St. Louis Cardinals reliever Trevor Rosenthal has bounced back in a major way to begin 2017. As he ascends, could he find himself in increasingly important opportunities?

Rosenthal has given up some hard contact on a couple of occasions; he allowed three hits and an earned run in his second outing of the season, and he gave up a solo homer on April 21 at Milwaukee. But his command has looked sharper than ever over his first seven outings–he hasn’t walked or hit a batter yet–and he’s throwing as hard as he ever has, averaging 99.1 MPH on his four-seamer this season.

With incumbent closer Seung-Hwan Oh looking fatigued to start the year while posting a 5.06 ERA and 1.50 WHIP with a blown save to start the season, Rosenthal has begun to get some ninth-inning opportunities.

After Oh collected two straight saves on April 17 and 18, Rosenthal was given the ninth-inning opportunity (which he successfully converted) on April 19. Oh was unavailable for the nightcap of Thursday’s doubleheader with the Blue Jays after throwing the 10th inning of the Cardinals’ extra-inning victory in the early game. Rosenthal got the save opportunity in the night game and was dominant, striking out two batters while allowing no hits or walks.

Oh has been better over his last four appearances, but Mike Matheny obviously has become more cautious with his use of the 34-year-old closer–a radical change from the 2016 season, when he seemed to utilize the righthander whenever he was available. It leads one to wonder if the Cardinals might consider using some form of a “tandem closer” system, with Oh and Rosenthal both getting regular save opportunities, at least in the early going while both pitchers are still getting into the groove of things.

While this type of system used to be frowned upon over an extended period, it’s becoming more common as relief roles evolve across the major leagues. Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin, who arguably possesses the best bullpen in the majors this season, has already given save opportunities to three different relievers: Santiago Casilla (three saves in four opportunities), Sean Doolittle (one save in two chances), Ryan Madson (one save in one opportunity), and Ryan Dull (no saves in one opportunity).

Similarly, Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price has used multiple closers: primary option Raisel Iglesias, who’s perfect in three save opportunities, as well as Michael Lorenzen and Drew Storen, who each have one save in two chances.

If Oh were getting paid like an elite closer, then it might be controversial to limit his save opportunities. But Rosenthal is actually making much more money–he’s earning $6.4 million this season, while Oh is only making $2.75 million–so in all actuality, Rosenthal is probably the one who should be getting the save chances if the pecking order is going to be dictated by salary.

Each pitcher needs to have his exposure limited to a certain extent, so it makes sense to have them split the duties. Rosenthal obviously showed last season that overuse reduces his effectiveness, and when he tried to get stretched out in hopes of becoming a starter or long reliever this spring, he began to endure forearm issues. The Cardinals have shown a reluctance to use him in multi-inning stints, so giving him some comparatively easy ninth-inning work may actually be a good thing for him.

Oh, meanwhile, had to pitch under pressure earlier than usual this season, throwing 3 1/3 innings for Team Korea in the World Baseball Classic. While those innings obviously couldn’t have worn him out too much, the adjustment in his training regimen may be a factor in his poor performance to start the year. In addition, he was one of the most heavily-used relievers in the major leagues last season, throwing 79 2/3 innings over 76 appearances.

With a pitcher like Rosenthal in the bullpen who was one of the game’s most dominant closer in the not-too-distant past, it makes sense for the Cardinals to give save opportunities to both pitchers. Both have proven that they’re capable of stepping into ninth-inning opportunities at a moment’s notice–and at the same time are effective in non-save situations–so there’s no reason to hold either of them back.