Choate hopes for similar results, but more work, in '14
Veteran lefty believes there's a better fit for him in Cardinals' bullpen this year
JUPITER, Fla. -- Randy Choate jokes that there are two ways to view his distinction as the oldest guy in the clubhouse. There's the self-deprecating approach (which he does take from time to time), in which he reminds his youngest teammates that he was driving a car when they were born. More often than that, though, he cites it as a point of pride -- that at the age of 38, he has a place on a team ripe with young, hard-throwing arms.
He may stand out by age, but Choate looks poised to fit into this Cardinals' bullpen even better than he did during his first season in St. Louis.
Signed specifically as a left-handed specialist, Choate found himself as the lone lefty reliever in the 'pen for some time after the Cardinals demoted Marc Rzepczynski to Triple-A Memphis late in April 2013. That further complicated how manager Mike Matheny deployed Choate.
It meant that some situations would dictate that Choate stay in to face right-handed hitters. Other times, Matheny had to weigh using Choate in a key left-on-left situation early versus keeping him available for a possible similar predicament later. It wasn't until Kevin Siegrist entered the mix and pitched himself into a key late-inning role that allowed the Cardinals more elasticity with Choate.
Now, with Siegrist projected to fill a setup role again in 2014, Choate believes there is better potential for him to find the right fit.
"With Kevin hopefully having the same results as last year, you can use me more often," Choate said. "Hopefully that works out. But the main thing is, if I'm keeping lefties under a .200 batting average and going out there and the team is winning, that's what is important."
With those as parameters, Choate would be plenty pleased with a repeat of 2013. He returned to the World Series for the first time since 2001 and held left-handed batters to a .176 batting average. Of the 59 runners Choate inherited, 15 percent scored. He posted a 2.29 ERA during the regular season and wasn't scored upon in nine appearances during the postseason.
Choate's sinker, in particular, had a lot to do with that late-season success.
The only two numbers from his season line to disappoint Choate were workload related. He entered the season -- as he does each year -- eyeing 90 appearances and 45 innings. He got 64 and 35 1/3, respectively, due mostly to circumstances outside his control.
"That's a testament to Kevin," Choate said. "He came up and did such a great job, and he just dominated hitters. He earned the right to be in some of those [late-game] situations. So when the starter would work themselves out of the sixth or seventh inning, Kevin would come in and then Carlos [Martinez] and then [Trevor Rosenthal]. Those guys definitely earned the right to do that."
Nevertheless, the Cardinals like what Choate will continue to offer as a left-on-left specialist in a bullpen that could feature as many as three left-handed pitchers. Everyone involved has also been pleased to see how much smoother this spring has been for Choate than his first one in a Cardinals uniform.
There was a disconnect last year between Choate and Matheny as to how best to get Choate the workload needed. With Matheny trying to use Choate as he would during the season, the left-hander found himself often making one- or two-batter appearances. It wasn't enough work for someone trying to build arm strength, and Choate broke camp having not retired a batter in his final five appearances.
With a scoreless seventh on Wednesday, Choate has not allowed a run in seven outings (6 2/3 innings) this spring.
"This is the pitcher we saw last year as well," Matheny said. "It's nice to see him have some success against the righties and have to really use that breaking ball. I think that will help him with the lefties. He's been doing a nice job with it."
As the Cardinals transition from a focus on work to role, Choate may make some appearances on the backfields, where matchups can be more controlled.
Inside the clubhouse, Choate continues to make himself available to the young members of the pitching staff who may want to lean on his experience. Seth Maness has so far been the most inquisitive. Choate is not the overbearing type, preferring to let the mentorship role develop more naturally.
"These guys, no matter how long they've been in the Minor League system here, they've learned a lot," Choate said. "They all really have a good head on their shoulders and are real humble. If they come to me with a question, I'll answer. But I'm not out there leading them or holding their hand or anything. I don't want to step on their toes when they've done what they've done to get there."
At least once this spring, Choate has been asked by a younger reliever to compare the potential of this 'pen to the American League championship one he was a part of with the Yankees in 2001. The difference, Choate answered, isn't so much with talent. It is with age.
Back in '01, he was the youngster in a bullpen of veteran relievers. Now, he finds himself an age outlier again as a part of a youthful 'pen.
"Watching all those guys who came up last year in the bullpen, they were basically all starters in the Minor Leagues," Choate said. "Some guys have a hard time transitioning from starting every fifth day to pitching several days in a row, but those guys seemed to make that transition pretty easily without having done it much at all. That's what was impressive to me."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.