John Brebbia deserves a shot as the St. Louis Cardinals’ closer

He looks like a closer and has been pitching like a closer, so why not make him the closer?

While the St. Louis Cardinals have been plagued by bad defense and baserunning, a lack of power, and poor middle relief all season, one major issue has made itself increasingly obvious over the past month or so: the fact that the Cardinals don’t have a pitcher they can depend on to close games out in the ninth inning.

Incumbent closer Seung-Hwan Oh has been given plenty of chances, but he’s repeatedly struggled, posting a 4.17 ERA and 1.44 WHIP while blowing three saves and sustaining five losses through 39 appearances. Since the beginning of June, he has a 6.19 ERA and a .309 opponent batting average. After surrendering a walk-off homer to Pittsburgh’s Josh Bell last Friday, it appears that he’s been removed from the closer’s role indefinitely.

The Cardinals’ hardest-throwing reliever (and the one with the greatest history of success in the ninth inning), Trevor Rosenthal, has been somewhat inconsistent in pressure situations as well, and it appears that manager Mike Matheny doesn’t want to push him into the closer’s role because of concerns about the durability of Rosenthal’s arm. He’s blown two saves in six chances and opponents have a .749 OPS against him in high-leverage situations according to Baseball Reference. No one knows what kind of command Rosenthal is going to have when he pitches–he’s issued 4.0 walks per nine innings, which is exceeded on the Cardinals’ pitching staff only by Kevin Siegrist’s 4.9–which makes him a less-than-stellar candidate to fill such a crucial role. While he still provides enough intrigue that it’d probably make sense to give him a longer look as the ninth-inning guy than he’s gotten this year, it appears that Mike Matheny’s seen enough to determine that Rosenthal isn’t going to be his closer anytime soon.

The latest pitcher to get a chance in the ninth inning has been lefty Brett Cecil, who rode into Sunday’s game with a 15-outing scoreless streak that dated back to June 13. While Cecil suffered a walk-off loss on Sunday, he received his second save opportunity in as many days on Monday, and he picked up his first save since June 19, 2015. It didn’t come without drama, though, as he allowed a sharp lineout to right field by Michael Conforto which left the bat at 104 MPH, then gave up a hard-hit single to Curtis Granderson which was hit at 94 MPH.

It’s possible that Cecil will get an extended look in the ninth inning, which makes sense since he’s getting paid like a closer (he’s in the first season of a four-year contract worth $30.5 million) and isn’t really much of a lefty specialist. But if he continues to be unreliable in the ninth like he was on Sunday, then there’s another pitcher in the Cardinals’ bullpen who makes sense as a ninth-inning option, even if anyone who suggested he’d make sense as the Cardinals’ closer would have been considered insane if they’d broached the subject back in spring training.

27-year-old rookie righthander John Brebbia, who pitched in independent ball for two years and survived a brutal 2016 season which saw him post a 5.03 ERA and 1.49 WHIP between Double-A and Triple-A, has pretty clearly been the Cardinals’ most effective reliever this season. Through 19 innings, he’s posted a 1.89 ERA and 0.84 WHIP while striking out 12 batters and walking just four. He’s done all that while averaging an impressive 94 MPH on his fastball. Sure, he’s an unlikely candidate to be a closer, having initially earned his spot in the big leagues because the Cardinals didn’t have enough available relievers and had optioned Sam Tuivailala too recently to be able to bring him back. But in a season where the Cardinals really don’t have much else to lose, why not see if he can be the answer?

Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Brebbia wouldn’t be alone as a former independent ball pitcher turned major-league closer. Minnesota’s Brandon Kintzler, who made his first All-Star team earlier this month and has 25 saves this year, pitched for the independent Winnipeg Goldeyes and St. Paul Saints from 2007-09 after being cut out of the Padres system.

While it obviously amounts to nothing if he doesn’t continue to pitch well in the ninth inning, Brebbia even possesses more of a stereotypical “closer look” than anyone else in the Cardinals’ bullpen. With an intimidating demeanor on the mound and a thick red beard that rivals the facial hair of Yukon Cornelius, his appearance evokes memories of great closers like Bruce Sutter, Jeff Reardon, Rick Aguilera, and Brian Wilson.

One of the few negatives about moving Brebbia to the closer’s role–at least if Mike Matheny maintains the same conservative approach that he’s generally utilized through his first six seasons as manager–is that he’ll no longer be able to be used in a multi-inning role. Brebbia has pitched more than one inning five times in 17 appearances this season, and he’s given up no earned runs in four of those five appearances. But with a 13-man pitching staff and Tyler Lyons being stretched out to throw multiple frames, the Cardinals can afford to move Brebbia into the ninth-inning role (or perhaps, they could even allow him multi-inning save opportunities on occasion if he proves himself as a closer).

The Cardinals certainly couldn’t have expected that Brebbia would be their most intriguing ninth-inning option during spring training–otherwise, they probably would have invited him to big-league camp. But since Matheny and the front office seem to be nervous about putting Rosenthal in that role and Oh and Cecil have proven themselves unreliable, Brebbia may receive his shot sooner than later.

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