SAN FRANCISCO -- It's not entirely planned, general manager John Mozeliak insists. It's not as though the Cardinals go into each season with the expectation that their bullpen will struggle in the early going, and then get fixed.
It's just turned out that way.
As St. Louis rides a deep and effective bullpen deep into October for a second consecutive season, it's hard to miss the parallels between the 2012 relief corps and the one the Redbirds relied so heavily upon in the 2011 postseason. Each time, the group has been filled with hard-throwing youngsters. Each time, the playoff bullpen looks a lot different from the one that started the year. And each time, there was a ton of worry about the unit in the first half of the season.
The story even has some echoes of the last Cardinals World Series champion team before '11, the 2006 team that featured a rookie named Adam Wainwright pitching the ninth. Still, according to Mozeliak, the strategy is broader than any particular notion that you can always fix your bullpen at midseason.
"One of the things I feel like you always do as a general manager is you sort of want to put a bow on your club by Christmas," Mozeliak said. "And one of the things I learned early on is that there's always time to get better. There's always time to spend money. There's always ways to try to improve your club."
That, fundamentally, is the lesson learned over the years. It's not, necessarily, specifically about the bullpen. The current Cardinals front office is always cognizant that opportunities to improve do not end when Spring Training begins.
It's just that there tend to be more opportunities to improve a bullpen than other parts of a roster. Witness this year, when prospects and a savvy trade made a big difference for the Cards.
"I don't think we've ever really had any preconceived notion of, that's the simplest place to get better," Mozeliak said. "But there's no doubt that when you look at availability, say you need a No. 1 starter, that's very hard to go get. They're not easy to acquire in terms of cost."
Some of the evolution of the 2012 bullpen was unforeseen. As Mozeliak points out, the Cardinals went to camp feeling confident about their bullpen. That was before Chris Carpenter and Kyle McClellan suffered serious injuries. Carpenter missed nearly the entire season, forcing Lance Lynn from a setup role into the starting rotation. McClellan did miss the whole year, taking away a versatile and valuable piece from the late innings.
On top of all of that, left-hander J.C. Romero didn't work out after signing to be the team's second left-hander. Romero was released in May, leaving the front office to plug in a series of lefties alongside Marc Rzepczynski, with varying degrees of success.
As a result, the Cards' bullpen was a problem early in the season. St. Louis had the league's third-worst bullpen ERA on July 1, and a team with strong starting pitching and a potent lineup was in danger of frittering away too many late leads to be able to contend.
Then help started to arrive. Trevor Rosenthal made his first appearance on July 18. Edward Mujica was acquired in a deal at the non-waiver Trade Deadline. Joe Kelly gave up his rotation spot and moved to the bullpen in September when Carpenter returned to the rotation.
Little by little, ineffective pieces gave way to effective ones, and a familiar pattern started to emerge. The bullpen, source of so much consternation in late spring, became a source of strength in late summer.
"It's huge for our club," manager Mike Matheny said. "We lost quite a few games between our starters and the back end, the eighth and ninth inning. The addition of an Edward Mujica was a great addition for us to come in and throw a very good seventh. And being able to have a Joe Kelly, who started for us but now fills in in the middle innings, and a Trevor Rosenthal, those guys have made a difference for us especially down the stretch."
Compared with the 2011 team, there's one big difference in the way that St. Louis upgraded its bullpen in '12. Nearly all of the improvements last year were external. The addition of Edwin Jackson to the starting rotation, via trade, allowed McClellan to move back to the bullpen after starting for much of the year. Octavio Dotel was acquired in trade. Arthur Rhodes signed as a free agent.
This time around, aside from Mujica, the biggest adds came from in-house. Rosenthal, Kelly and even Shelby Miller have contributed after emerging from the Cardinals' farm system. They're all developing as starters, but in the near term, they offer serious punch for the bullpen.
A team doesn't just happen to have guys like that sitting around. There has to be a commitment to drafting the kinds of pitchers who turn out that way, and the Cardinals have bolstered the number of power arms in their system in recent years.
"You may have a philosophy of going out and finding strong-armed strike-throwers, but you may not always have that," Mozeliak said. "Having said that, one of the things from the strategic standpoint that you're starting to see us have success with is taking guys that have power arms, that start in the Minor Leagues, and then for a year or two use them in the bullpen before they make the transition back to a starter."
It's worked out well so far, so there's little reason to think it will change. The Cardinals will keep drafting big arms. They will continue keeping their eyes open for in-season additions. And likely, they'll keep ending the season with good bullpens.
But if they happen to have a good one start to finish one of these years, nobody will complain.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.