It seems like so long ago that Pat Neshek considered quitting baseball, but it was only last February when the Cardinals kept him out of retirement with a minor league invite and MLB minimum contract. This shot-in-the-dark turned out to be a wise decision for the 34 year-old Minnesota native.
Neshek did nothing but exceed expectations in a Cardinal uniform. The sidearmer developed confidence to put together his best statistical season prior to his Tommy John surgery in 2009. He thrived off of low expectations and revitalized his career with 68 strikeouts 25 holds and a 1.87 ERA last season.
Neshek’s 2014 campaign suddenly gained attention when he made the Cardinals roster out of spring training. Along the way he became one of Major League Baseball’s most reliable setup men, en rout to seven wins and his first All-Star game selection. The closer posted an ERA below 1.00 until Aug. 29 and was virtually untouchable against any team besides the Cubs (5.22 ERA against).
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But a plot twist interrupts this surprising start, causing the reliever’s season to go downhill fast. Neshek’s season ERA nearly doubled from mid-August to the end of regular season and teams began to figure out his pitching style into the playoffs. Neshek suffered the go-ahead home run to Matt Kemp in Game 2 of the NLDS and blew the Cardinals slim lead in the win-or-go-home NLCS Game 5 when Michael Morse delivered a pinch-hit home run.
Neshek’s late season struggles will most likely prevent the Cardinals from bringing him back on their budget. However, the setup man pitched well enough in the regular season to earn a large paycheck and possibly a closer’s bid on a non-contender. A few probable fits could be the Chicago White Sox, Houston Astros or New York Yankees, but Neshek’s next contract will largely depend on if teams see him as a long-term setup man or short-term closer.
Neshek did nothing but exceed expectations in a Cardinal uniform. He thrived off of low expectations and revitalized his career with 68 strikeouts 25 holds and a 1.87 ERA last season.
The Cardinals hope to work this type of magic again, but it is generally difficult to determine a player’s ability to bounce back from adversity. A few possible pitchers who could similarly produce comeback years and provide a short-term fix include Jason Grilli and Neal Cotts. Despite these possibilities, the Cardinals would likely target a veteran with a proven track record if bullpen woes remain a concern before spring.
With last week’s acquisition of Jordan Walden, Neshek’s departure becomes more foreseeable. Walden has valuable late-inning experience with 38 career saves and showed his ability to cover the eighth inning with 20 holds last season. The 2011 All-Star shows good control as well, boasting a 1.23 WHIP and only giving up 13 home runs in his five year career. The former Angels and Braves reliever does not become a free agent until 2017 at earliest, adding durability to a fairly young Cardinals bullpen.
While working his way up to setup man duties, Neshek proved his flexibility by adding six saves to last year’s campaign, often spelling out closer Trevor Rosenthal in shaky appearances. Ultimately, his All-Star campaign was overlooked by a few costly late season struggles. St. Louis will miss the positive energy and effort that Pat Neshek brought to the Cardinals bullpen in 2014, but the team will look to develop a new unsung hero heading into 2015.