I Don’t Get It

I don’t get it.

When the offseason began, the Cardinals announced that they had 2 offseason goals. Priority 1 was to add a middle of the order hitter and the addition of a closer was called “Priority 1A.” Six weeks ago the team was willing to spend $250 million on Giancarlo Stanton. Two days ago, the team wasn’t willing to spend $17 million on Addison Reed. I don’t get it.

To a degree, the Cards’ bullpen problems in 2017 were overblown. The pen wasn’t awful; their FIP was 8th in the majors and 2nd in the NL. By ERA, it was 7th in the majors and 4th in the NL. A lot was made throughout the season about the team’s number of blown saves but they had the 6th fewest blown saves in the majors, 4th fewest in the NL. On the other hand, the Cards’ pen’s record was 22-29 and they had 90 (yes, count ’em…90!) meltdowns (most in the NL and 4th most in the majors).

Last season the team went through 3 closers, all of whom left the team at the end of the season as free agents. The Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold wrote earlier today about many of the pen’s struggles in 2017. He wrote that the team, “blew 41 leads, 20 more than the LA Dodgers. The Cardinals had 101 games decided by three or fewer runs, and they went 48-53 in those games. The only teams with a worse record were retched (sic): Philadelphia and San Francisco. The Cardinals had more one-run games (53) than any winning team, and they lost 29 of them.”

It just makes no sense that, with only Reed and the questionable Greg Holland left on the free agent market, a team that was willing and able to give Stanton $250 million would be unwilling to beat the Twins’ $17 million offer to Reed.

It sort of made sense that the team allowed Wade Davis to sign with the Rockies — $52 million over 3 years for a 32 year old reliever who’s had some arm troubles in the past is a little rich. I also understood when Juan Nicasio, the best of the team’s 3 closers last year, chose the Mariners over the Cardinals (for another $17 million) because, with Davis still on the market at the time and the team apparently attempting to trade for Alex Colome (though in the same article, Goold basically shot that down as well), I could see that the team might not be able to guarantee Nicasio a shot at the closer’s role. But with the very obvious need for a closer and ostensibly only Reed and Holland left, the team allowed Reed to be banished to the Land of 1000 Lakes for just $17 million.

When the offseason began, there were a lot of solid free agent relievers out there and it was my contention that the team needed to add 2. Over the last month or so, we’ve seen them sign with other teams, one by one, and the Cardinals ended up with Luke Gregerson. Now, Gregerson’s ok — though Zach Gifford raised some legitimate concerns about his ability to consistently get hitters out — but he’s still a fastball-slider guy who has been outstanding against righties but struggled against lefties throughout his career. Despite being a really solid closer for the Astros in 2015, he doesn’t really have the requisite profile for a closer.

Still, I’m not that appalled by Mozliak’s declaration that Gregerson would be the team’s closer if the season ended today. I’m more interested in who the team’s closer will be in August and September and, despite all the mystery about the closer’s role and the team’s refusal to add one this offseason, I think there are reasons to be optimistic about the pen.

First, I’ve long been a fan of Tyler Lyons and think he has the ability to be an outstanding reliever. He could probably close but might even be more effective in sort of an Andrew Miller-type role. He’s always destroyed lefties and was nearly equally potent versus righties out of the pen last year. John Brebbia performed very well for the team in 2017 and Brett Cecil was much better than a lot of fans recognize in his first year in St. Louis. A lot of people are very high on Sam Tuivailala, even though I’ve struggled to see what so many others have seen in him. Matt Bowman is a useful, if overused, piece as well.

While there are no obvious, well-recognized big-name relievers among that group, it has the makings of a deep and decent core. What is really intriguing, however, is the prospect of prospects like Jordan Hicks, Dakota Hudson, and Ryan Helsley joining the pen this season. They are all hard-throwers with potentially dominant stuff that could add some real horses to the bullpen this season. Add to that the fact that Alex Reyes will likely become a member of the pen when he gets back on the mound in May and there may be reason for some excitement.

Still, of those 4, right now only Reyes is on the 40 man roster so, in order for those guys to help the team, some players will have to be removed from the 40-man. Moreover, despite their talent and stuff, it’s unrealistic to think that all of them will succeed in their first opportunity to get major league hitters out. As Goold pointed out in the article above, Hicks has never pitched in a game above the class-A level and Helsley only has experience in 7 games above that level.

There’s clearly a lot of talent and the potential for a very good bullpen in 2018 but any honest assessment also has to acknowledge that there’s a great deal of uncertainty as well. While this may work, and I certainly understand the desire to see what all these good arms can bring to the pen, it’s really difficult to maintain that the team approached the closer’s role or the bullpen this offseason as “Priority 1A.” They’ve added Luke Gregerson…and no one else.

And it’s not like the free agents who signed with other teams signed for outrageous salaries that couldn’t be predicted. If you look at the free agent predictions from both MLB Trade Rumors and Fangraphs, most of the actual signings are either in the same neighborhood as predicted or were actually a little lower. It’s not like the reliever market exploded and the team just decided it was more prudent to go with the team’s prospects instead.

So I don’t get it. It’s not that I don’t get the team’s decision to go with the young guys. I can see why they’re interesting and potentially exciting. What I don’t get is the “Priority 1A” stuff. I don’t get that the team seemed to create the expectation that they were going to go after some big fish (or 2 medium-sized fish) and instead decided to go after Luke Gregerson and some guys from Springfield. Why tell the fans that the closer’s role is a priority instead of telling everyone, “we’ve got a bunch of great, young, hard-throwing pitchers and we’re going to go with them.”

It should be clear from this that I still think the team should have signed someone like Tommy Hunter or Nicasio or Bryan Shaw. There were good pitchers on the market who signed for contracts that weren’t prohibitively expensive and would have provided some insurance if those young guys showed that they’re not quite ready. That said, this strategy could work and, while I would have preferred at least something better than Gregerson in the pen, I can see wanting to find out if Hicks, Helsley, or Hudson can help. I, too, am excited about the prospect of seeing what Reyes can do out of the pen. But I don’t understand what appears to be the change in strategy since the offseason began.

There’s no doubt that a lot of fans will react to the Cards’ decision here as though the team is being cheap and there will be howls of “DeWallet” all over the internet. I sincerely don’t think this decision was a financial one. Those relievers haven’t signed for that much money — in baseball, $17 million just isn’t that much — and the team was willing to take on more of Stanton’s contract than any other team was, including the Yankees. They gave Gregerson $11 million so why not add just $6 million more and add some like Nicasio or Reed who is objectively better than Gregerson? I don’t know. I don’t understand much of this. I just don’t get it.

Thanks for reading.

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