Spring is here, and though the baseball season is fast approaching, we’ve been inundated with various versions of the “_______________ is in the best shape of his life” stories. You’ve seen them:
“Tommy Pham has been working out all offseason and has dropped his body fat to -3%”
“Adam Wainwright looks like he’s 10 years younger and just hit 90 on the radar!”
“Dexter Fowler’s is ready to be the best defensive right fielder in baseball! Jason Heyward, he’s coming for you.”
Even the dreaded Cubbies have gotten in on the act with their “Kyle Schwarber has dropped 100 pounds and is headed for a 50 SB season.” “He’ll probably be a Gold Glove left fielder!” As an aside, the way in which Cubs’ fans talk about Schwarber makes you wonder how many Schwarber family members actually live in Wrigleyville. Here’s a video showing Cubs’ fans’ reaction to his injury in 2016.
Well, Mike Matheny is also in the best shape of his life. This post is meant to play “Devil’s Advocate” to all the “Matheny should be fired” tweets that have filled the Twittersphere this offseason. (God knows, I’ll tweet something similar to that probably 50 times between now and when the team’s season ends so we may as well start the season with a positive attitude.)
Matheny has never been better equipped to have a good season than he is right now. Over the offseason, the front office made several changes specifically designed to help Matheny be a better manager. Matheny has been criticized by Cardinals’ fans and the St. Louis media for several things throughout his tenure — and rightly so. His handling of the bullpen has been questionable, at best, and he has too often left starters in far too long which has led to the starter losing the game before the pen can even be summoned. He has become over-reliant on specific relievers that he trusts (ahem…Matt Bowman) while he becomes unwilling to risk going to others he’s less certain of. He has been over-reliant on “proven veterans” while leaving younger, often better players (like Tommy Pham) sitting on the bench or playing in Memphis. At times, John Mozeliak had to send younger guys like Pham, Randall Grichuk, and Kolten Wong to the minors just to get them some playing time because Mike Matheny refused to play them.
The front office didn’t exactly buy Matheny a copy of “Managing for Dummies” and quiz him on it over the offseason (or maybe they did; I don’t really know) but they did give him a front office version of Spark Notes to help him get better at the stuff that he needs to improve on. Step 1 was replacing his pitching coach (Derek Lilliquist) with a new one — pitching guru Mike Maddux. The important quote from Mozeliak in the article discussing the fact that Lilliquist wouldn’t return to the Cardinals is this one: “Mozeliak said that they want to rethink the strategy of pitching use and have a pitching coach that is open to the data available and some modern views of how pitchers should be deployed.” That tells me the front office wants to modernize the team’s use of data on their pitchers, their pitch selection, and how their pitchers are deployed. The article from Jenifer Langosch about the hiring of Maddux had the following to say in explaining the change:
Before he started interviewing candidates for the open position, Mozeliak stressed that he was seeking a pitching coach willing to utilize advanced metrics, as well as the ability to “understand modern strategy, modern analytics and how we can leverage that to optimize our staff.”
The intent was to bring in someone who could have a louder voice alongside Matheny, who will be returning for his seventh season as manager. Maddux’s experience and coaching resume offers that sort of instant credibility.
“A louder voice alongside Matheny”…to me, this means that Maddux will have more of a say in pitching changes — when they should occur and which pitchers should be used — than Lilliquist did. Matheny has to recognize that the hiring of such a well-respected pitching coach wrests some control from Matheny.
Two other additions to the coaching staff should help give Matheny the tools he needs to be as successful as he can be. GM John Mozeliak specifically went to Florida to encourage fan and player favorite Jose Oquendo to return to the staff as 3rd base coach. Most everyone recognizes that the team was better fundamentally and defensively when Oquendo was manning the 3rd base coaching box and, since he’s often been mentioned as a potential manager, Matheny has to feel a little pressure from the front office to get things right.
While the change that brought Oquendo back to the team also brought in Willie McGee to the coaching staff, the other truly noteworthy change to the staff was moving Mike Shildt to the bench coach’s role. Shildt is basically the team’s data guy who’ll help Matheny with defensive shifting and in making other baseball decisions during the game. He was management’s addition to the coaching staff a couple of years ago and is being moved into this position by the front office to insure that Matheny hears the voice of the front office during the game.
The front office elected not to replace batting coach and Matheny buddy John Mabry but the other changes in the coaching staff have to send a message to both Matheny and Mabry that the offense needs to improve in 2018. For one thing, Matheny surely knows by now that Pham needs to be in the lineup every day and in center field. Mozeliak went to Las Vegas over the winter to meet with Dexter Fowler to talk to him about playing right field rather than center. There’s another decision taken out of Matheny’s hands.
With the addition of Marcell Ozuna, the emergence of Pham, and the movement of Fowler to right, the outfield is a lot more settled than it was at this time last season. Wong showed last season that he was a solid, league-average second baseman and one who can be in the lineup against lefties, if necessary. Shildt is on staff to help Matheny figure out when and how to deploy Matt Carpenter so that Jose Martinez gets maximum PA’s and Maddux is on staff to help Matheny with the pitching changes. Oquendo is there to help the team with defense and fundamentals and McGee is around to help improve the team’s base running. So Matheny has never had as many good tools at his disposal to help him make good decisions during the course of the season. Now it’s incumbent on him to utilize those tools to help get all those Cardinals’ fans off his back.
But who am I trying to fool? I’m going to go nuts the first time he insists on leaving Michael Wacha in to face the top of the Cubs’ order for the 3rd time in a tie game.
Thanks for reading.
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.
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.