Perez, Motte vying to become Cardinals' closer

Updated: February 14, 2009, 4:02 PM ET
By Buster Olney
Jason Isringhausen earned 217 saves over seven seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals, but now he is gone and manager Tony La Russa is left to identify a closer -- a problem which ultimately devastated the team in 2008.

But because of decisions by the Cardinals in their drafting and developing, La Russa would appear to have some viable options: hard-throwing youngsters Chris Perez and Jason Motte.

When the time came for the Cardinals to make their first pick in the 2006 draft with the 30th overall selection, they would have been OK taking Perez, a hard-throwing right-handed reliever, in that spot. But another pitcher they had ranked higher was on the board, righty Adam Ottavino, so the Cardinals passed on their first shot at Perez.

Twelve picks later, Perez was still on the board, and the Cardinals made a rare choice to draft someone they projected to be a closer. "Our scouts had seen him since high school," recalled Jeff Luhnow, the Cardinals' vice president for amateur scouting and player development. "I happened to see him six times, and our scouts saw him every single game. What we saw was a guy who was able to go up against tough competition -- and he had the same kind of fastball he does now, 94 mph, and a hard slider. Occasionally, his arm would get away from him."

What the Cardinals' scouts and Luhnow saw in Perez is essentially what he has been since turning pro; mostly, he has dominated hitters. Perez struck out 42 in 41 2/3 innings while allowing 34 hits for the Cardinals last summer, and sometimes he has bouts of inconsistency. There are questions among rival scouts about his secondary pitch, but Luhnow feels that's more about Perez's command than about the quality of the pitch. "It's a matter of making sure he's confident enough in it to throw it in certain counts," he said.

In an August game against the Brewers last year, Perez threw his slider with confidence -- "and at exactly the right moment," Luhnow recalled -- and struck out Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.

La Russa never anointed Perez as the Cardinals' closer last year, but by season's end, Perez had six saves in six chances. Motte, a right-hander, had one save at the end of last season. He had a brief but strong showing with the Cardinals: In 11 innings, he allowed just five hits, struck out 16 and walked three.

The Cardinals initially tried Motte at catcher when he came out of college, but all along they considered a switch to pitcher as a possible fallback for him because of his powerful arm. In his last season as a catcher, in 2005, Motte was named an All-Star in the Florida State League while hitting under .200, largely because of how he could shut down a running game with his strong arm.

His velocity, 88-92 mph while in Class A, has climbed as Motte has developed as a pitcher. He was clocked several times at 100 mph at Busch Stadium last season.

The Cardinals considered the possibility of signing a veteran closer, such as Brian Fuentes, in the offseason. Ultimately, they opted to go into spring training and identify their closer among a group of their young arms, which also includes the likes of righty Kyle McClellan. And both Perez and Motte appear to have the stuff to become the closer. If the Cardinals were relying on one guy, there would be a higher degree of unknown. "But with two guys," Luhnow said, "the chances of one of them stepping up and playing that role are fairly decent."

Some Cardinals are being moved around this spring, writes Joe Strauss.

Heard this: The Royals are trying to figure out a way to fit free-agent second baseman Orlando Hudson into their budget. He would be a terrific addition for them and further deepen their improved lineup. With Hudson, this is what the Royals' lineup might look like:

LF David DeJesus
CF Coco Crisp
2B Hudson
RF Jose Guillen
3B Alex Gordon
SS Mike Aviles
1B Mike Jacobs
DH Billy Butler
C John Buck

The Royals could move Hudson up in the lineup to the No. 2 spot, of course, and perhaps slide Crisp toward the bottom. If the Royals signed Hudson, they would probably have a greatly improved lineup and a better defense. And if somebody emerged at the back end of their rotation, they'd be an interesting team.

Mark Teahen could move around the diamond as an almost-full-time player, spelling teammates in different spots. Or if the Royals needed to clear some payroll, he would be a candidate for a trade.

Rangers team president Nolan Ryan felt frustrated as he watched the team's pitchers last fall, and he implemented a running program that he thought would change them -- something he had done in his career. So it was early last fall when Scott Feldman joined a group of Rangers pitchers for a series of sprints, beginning from a foul line and going out into the outfield grass. "Sixty yards down and 60 yards back," Feldman said the other day. "We did about 10 or 12 of those … I felt like my legs were going to give out on me."

In the past, the work of the Texas pitchers had been built around less intense running. The hope of the Rangers is that the sprints condition more of the muscles used while pitching. Jose Vazquez, the Rangers' trainer, mixed up the drills, having the players go through some shuttle runs and use some cones. Feldman and other pitchers have been doing this, generally speaking, four days a week.

"I was pretty tired and sore for a couple of days," Feldman said. "But I've noticed how much easier it's gotten since the first time we did it. You can tell it's paying dividends. … It can't do anything but help. I'm interested to see kind of how it would help. It gets pretty hot in Texas, and endurance is a big part of it. Hopefully, it'll allow me to get deeper into games."

Rangers GM Jon Daniels wrote in an e-mail that the running program will continue to be enhanced in spring training. "We're also going to have our starters throw live batting practice, which we feel will have positive effects in the conditioning as well as their feel and command.

"Nolan took it to another level when he played -- he'd do it in intervals -- run poles for 15 minutes, then live batting practice for 15 minutes, and he'd alternate between the two a number of times. If we had a few more Nolans in the system, we might try that, but for now we'll take it one step at a time.

"The goal is to condition pitchers to go deeper into games -- to give them the confidence knowing they've pushed their bodies harder in the winter and spring, and now know what they're capable of, especially in the Texas heat. It's not so much a pitch-count thing as it is mental and physical preparation. We're still monitoring pitch counts, but in the context of what the individual is capable of, and what type of workload he's carried recently."

Josh Hamilton isn't worried about what position he's going to play this year, writes Anthony Andro.

A resurgence by Andruw Jones would have ramifications for the Rangers, writes Jim Reeves.