It’s not profound to declare that the Cardinals had some issues with their bullpen in 2017. In fact, the team made it clear that shoring up the end of the pen was one of its most important priorities this offseason. And yet, as fall turned to winter and we headed toward the day pitchers and catchers report, we all were forced to sit and watch as reliever after reliever was kicked off of free agent island and shipped to their new destinations. Relief pitcher is seemingly the only position where free agents have actually signed, and yet only the estimable Luke Gregerson was signed for the Cards’ roster.
And fans fretted…
The 2017 pen actually wasn’t as bad as it seemed to be. It was 7th in baseball in ERA and 8th in FIP. It was 12th in reliever WAR but the problems the team had with its closer position in particular made it seem like the pen was much worse than that. That’s probably because the team had the 4th most meltdowns in the game. According to Fangraphs, a meltdown “is when a reliever’s WPA is less than or equal to -0.06 in any individual game.” Cards’ relievers did this 90 times in 2017. Combine all this together and we see that, basically, the relievers pitched fairly well but when they didn’t they really blew up.
As we would expect given the team’s concerns about its closers, Seung Hwan Oh and Trevor Rosenthal had a bunch of those meltdowns (11 each) and Matt Bowman had 14. No Cardinal exemplified this meltdown problem better than Brett Cecil, however, who had the 2nd most meltdowns in baseball with 17. (As it turns out, Cecil’s given name is Brett Aarion Cecil, not Brett Fucking Cecil as Cards’ Twitter had led me to believe.)
Cecil actually had a pretty good year in 2017. His K:BB ratio was 4:1 and his FIP was 3.26. The problem was that he got A-bombed 3 times, giving up 4 runs against the Cubs in April, the Reds in June, and the Braves in August. Cecil also projects to be quite good in 2018 as ZIPS loves him.
Tyler Lyons really emerged in relief in 2017 with a FIP below 3.00 and a 31% K rate. He could be a poor man’s Andrew Miller, going more than 1 inning to set up the closer or possibly even becoming the closer, if needed. I think he would be more valuable, however, in that Andrew Miller role.
Last month the team traded for Dominic Leone from the Blue Jays. This guy was deadly in 2017 — another guy with a FIP under 3.00 and a K rate over 30%. He’s a hard fastball, cutter guy who just carved up opponents last season. While he was fantastic against righties, he also pitched extremely well (3.58 FIP) vs lefties leaving open the possibility that he could emerge as a closer.
Gregerson has always been a fastball-slider guy who’s been outstanding against righties but when Mozeliak proclaimed him the team’s closer as of now, I was taken aback. Unlike Leone, he’s never been all that good against lefties due to his arm slot and repertoire. He’s really closer to being a ROOGY than someone who you’d want in the closer role simply because he has a difficult time matching up against lefties. So despite my concerns about Gregerson in the 9th, I’ve always felt reasonably confident about his ability to get righties out in the 6th through 8th innings. Still, Zach Gifford raised some legitimate concerns about what’s happening with his slider but the bullpen’s depth should allow the team to avoid using him in high leverage situations if it turns out he can’t handle them.
Today the team added Bud Norris to the pen, an addition I think could help a lot. His stuff really plays up in relief as he’s added a 90 mph cutter to his mid-90’s fastball which got the K rate to nearly 28% in 2017. He did go through some knee inflammation last year that led to a pretty bad couple of months but he was dominant in the first half and in September for the Angels. Read Jeff Sullivan’s take on this signing to get a sense of high this could really be a coup for the team.
So right now, this pen’s top 5 looks like Lyons and Cecil from the left side and Gregerson, Leone, and Norris from the right side. These aren’t really well-known guys but they’re guys who could be really good.
To that 5 we add Bowman, the ground ball specialist (and Matheny man-crush) who, despite a relatively low K rate, does have a high GB% and had a 3.65 FIP in 2017. If he’s the pen’s 6th best guy, this pen is really good.
John Brebbia was great in 2017 and can definitely contribute if he continues with his 4.5:1 K:BB rate. Because he’s a fly ball pitcher, he’s prone to giving up homers but he showed that he has some promise as well.
Sam Tuivailala might have the best stuff of anyone in the bullpen but so far in the big leagues it really hasn’t translated into the strikeouts that we’ve hoped for. Still, we’re talking about a guy with a good, hard fastball (probably the hardest in the bullpen), a hard slider, and a good curveball. If he can put it together, he could have the kind of season for the Cards that Leone had for the Blue Jays last season. And he’s out of minor league options so he’s going to get every chance to make it.
There’s 8 guys who could pitch for damned near anyone. There may not be another team in the National League with 8 guys in their pen who are this good. There’s no Kenley Jansen or Craig Kimbrel but there’s a lot of depth, some with the ability to emerge as elite bullpen guys.
Maybe the best part is that we still haven’t mentioned the 4 young guys who all have great stuff and could emerge as dominant guys. Ryan Helsley and Jordan Hicks have the ability to dial up triple digits and Dakota Hudson could be that 7th or 8th inning guy who comes in and destroys hitters with that wipeout slider. And then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room, Alex Reyes. I don’t have any idea what the team plans to do with him when he starts game action in May — he could be a tremendous boost to the starting rotation — but if the team decides to utilize him in the pen to better control his innings coming off of Tommy John surgery, he could add one hell of an ICBM to the bullpen’s arsenal. Imagine Matheny being able to turn to Reyes in the 8th or even him emerging as a dominant closer in June or July.
It’s reasonable to be concerned about the team’s starting rotation. Indeed, I’ve been as vocal as anyone in begging Mozeliak to trade for Chris Archer to boost the rotation. But I can envision a scenario where the team only needs all the starters not named Martinez to get 15-18 outs and then turning the game over to the bullpen. If the team needs a starter, then they could trade for one in July.
The trend in baseball is clearly toward expecting less from starting rotations and expecting more from the relievers. It looks like Mozeliak is doing just that. Now, some Cards’ fans will rightly point out that this plan (if I’m correct in identifying it) is predicated on Matheny’s ability and commitment to getting the starters out early and selecting the right relievers to use later on. That’s a big if but that’s also part of why the team added Mike Maddux as its pitching coach.
All that considered, I see the makings of a really good bullpen, one that could help the team shorten the game both in the regular season and in the postseason. It’s short on big names, but long on ability and there’s a good chance that Cards’ fans will take notice of how good some of these guys really are in 2018.
Thanks for reading.