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Bullpen Math: The Cardinals Numerous Relief Options

One of the hotly debated topics of this past winter was the bullpen. With the release of rehabbing Trevor Rosenthal and exit of Seung-Hwan Oh, there were some major holes in the back-end of the ‘pen. There were several attractive, higher-end options available on the free agent market (one still remains) that the Cardinals elected to pass on. They decided to supplement their internal arms by signing veterans Luke Gregerson, Bud Norris and by trading for Dominic Leone.

Whether you agree or disagree with the approach taken to filling out the pen, it cannot be denied that they have a great deal of depth. The quality of the depth can be debated, but it’s there. So with all the choices, you might think that this is an area of competition this spring.

Not so much.

Save for an injury or a surprise performance, the Opening Day bullpen was largely set the day Bud Norris joined the team. However, we know that the bullpen that begins the year and the one that finishes it can differ greatly. And so with that, I look over all of the bullpen options that the Cardinals have at their disposal this season. Settle in.

Major League Contracts – 3

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This group includes veterans on guaranteed deals that are locked into 3 of the (presumed) 8 spots in the MLB bullpen.

Brett Cecil (3 years, $22.75M remaining; ’17 fWAR: 1.1, ZiPS: 1.0) – Cecil had a disappointing first season in St. Louis. A turnaround could help give the Cardinals a top-flight bullpen, because the man that pitched for the Blue Jays was a top-shelf reliever. Unfortunately, he had a delayed start to spring due to personal reasons, but I remain bullish that we see the real Cecil in 2018.

Luke Gregerson (2 years, $11M remaining. Team/Vesting option for 2020; ’17 fWAR: 0.0, ZiPS: 0.7) – Gregerson brings the most “closing” experience to the team. 2017 was tough, but the Cardinals are confident that he can bounce back to the form that made him one of the most consistently good relievers in baseball from 2009-16. He was throwing well this spring, and struck out 2 in his lone game appearance, before an oblique injury stalled him. Luke may be able to get back in action and be ready for Opening Day, but obliques are tricky and it remains to be seen exactly how it plays out.

Bud Norris (1 year, $3M; ’17 fWAR: 0.6, ZiPS: 0.8) – The former nemesis was brought into camp with an eye towards a swingman/6th starter role. He has since elected to focus on his relief work. Through his first 41 games as the Angels closer in 2017, he carried a 2.23 ERA, striking out 11.4 per 9 innings and holding opponents to a .193 average. He was then hampered by knee inflammation and his numbers suffered. If the Cardinals get the guy from the first half of 2017, look out. He had a one terrible game this spring, but has bounced back since. It will take a lot more than a subpar spring for the Cardinals to eat a $3M salary (see: Jonathan Broxton).

Team Controlled and Out of Options – 3

<a rel=The following pitchers are either Arbitration eligible or Pre-Arbitration, but have also exhausted all of their minor league options. The circumstances lock them into 3 of the bullpen spots. (That’s 6/8 filled).

Sam Tuivailala (Pre-Arb-2; 1 Pre-Arb, 3 Arb years remaining; ’17 fWAR: 0.2, ZiPS: 0.5) – His lack of options will give him a spot in the bullpen, but his talent will help him keep it. Tui throws hard and last year added a curveball that showed flashes of being an out-pitch. He is endorsed by John Mozeliak and Yadier Molina, but has yet to escape the low-leverage mop-up role with his manager. He’s impressed early in spring, averaging 2 strikeouts per inning. If he finally hits his upside, he’s going to sneak up on a lot of people.

Dominic Leone (Pre-Arb-3, 3 Arb years remaining; ’17 fWAR: 1.5, ZiPS: 0.8) – We don’t know a lot about the pitcher acquired in exchange for Randal Grichuk, other than he has two really good years in the big leagues, and two awful years. So far his spring has been impressive and he’s currently leading the team in saves. Matheny could be tipping his hand with the usage, indicating that Leone may be the one getting first crack as closing should Gregerson not be ready at the start of the year. He might also just take the role outright.

Tyler Lyons (Arb-1, 2 Arb years remaining; ’17 fWAR: 1.0, ZiPS: 0.6) – Lyons broke out as a reliever in 2017. He embraced his relief role and pumped everything he had into every appearance, with incredible results. He is arguably the best reliever on the team heading in the season, and he is effective against both right- and left-handers. Given health, he should continue to be a vital piece of the team. That is especially true when facing the likes of Rizzo, Votto, Harper, and Bellinger in the race for the playoffs.

Team Controlled, With Options and MLB Experience – 8

<a rel=This group contains a mix of incumbents, AAA depth, and prospects that have tasted MLB. What they all have in common is the ability to be shuffled between St. Louis and Memphis without consequence. the final 2 spots are currently the only flexible parts of the bullpen. These are the arms most likely to fill those two spots (subject to change with injuries/performance in other areas).

John Brebbia (Pre-Arb-1; 2 Pre-Arb, 3 Arb, 3 option years remaining; ’17 fWAR: 0.1, ZiPS: 0.3) – 2017’s out-of-nowhere reliever that gives hope to all of the candidates down the list and throughout the organization. Brebbia came in and did incredibly solid work last season, and although some of his peripherals are somewhat concerning, he has gotten results at every level. If he continues to produce and is the 5th or 6th option out of the pen, you are looking at a very strong unit.

Matt Bowman (Pre-Arb-3; 3 Arb, 3 option years remaining; ’17 fWAR: 0.7, ZiPS: 0.7) – The Rule 5 pick that has stuck around. Bowman has been a solid piece of the bullpen for 2 years now and did well in an expanded role early last year. Unfortunately, he was the only reliever worth a darn at that time, and the overuse eventually wore him down. Dialed back usage and Bowman can be a valuable middle reliever with the ability to throw 2 innings when needed. There is fear that he may go the way of Seth Manness (they are both overused groundball specialists) and run into arm trouble. Hopefully that won’t be the case.

This is the point that, barring injury, I cut off the 8 bullpen slots (and the projections) as the above pitchers are the ones that I THINK will be heading north. Of course, that requires health, and things can change quickly.–

John Gant (Pre-Arb-2; 1 Pre-Arb, 3 Arb, 1 option year remaining) – Gant has looked really good this spring, striking out more than a batter per inning. He has removed the quirk in his delivery, has a good change-up and a fastball that can ride in the 94-95 range. Gant has shown some flashes in the past but has yet to stick in the Majors. He will more than likely end up in the Memphis rotation, holding serve as the Cardinals 7th starter on the depth chart. But if a need arises in the ‘pen, especially if its a need for bulk innings, he has a profile that should play up as a reliever.

Mike Mayers (Pre-Arb-1; 2 Pre-Arb, 3 Arb, 1 option year remaining) Man, I think we all know the story here. His MLB debut in 2016 may have been the worst, ever. Things got relatively better after that, but were still pretty bad. However, the Cardinals have kept him on the 40-man roster. Mayers had success in the minors, but he knew that it wasn’t translating at the higher level. And so, he turned to winter ball. Here’s what colleague Adam Butler reported from the Winter Warm-Up:

  • Mike Mayers pitched in the Dominican Winter League during the offseason. According to him the hitters in that league can crush fastballs which forced him to use his offspeed stuff. He feels it really helped him develop those pitches. In 37.2 innings, Mayers had a 2.63 ERA with 37 strikeouts.

Paired with a fastball that could already reach the 97-98 range, the spring returns on the offseason work has been impressive, as he has allowed just 2 baserunners in 7 innings with 9 strikeouts. If Gregerson’s oblique pushes him past Opening Day, Mayers is a candidate to get an early season look. To suddenly find big league success would be quite a turnaround, and I’m definitely rooting for the guy.

Ryan Sherriff (Pre-Arb-1; 2 Pre-Arb, 3 Arb, 3 option years remaining) – Sherriff had a successful entry into MLB late last year, posting a 3.14 across 13 games with a healthy 9.4 K/9. He was impressive, holding lefties to a .080 average, however righties tagged him for a .367 mark. Unfortunately, the lefty specialist is a dying role in baseball, and Matheny hasn’t had much success in deploying such pitchers correctly. Those two factors, plus having Cecil and Lyons already set, probably places Sherriff in AAA as left-handed depth and he likely only gets a call in the event of an injury.

Josh Lucas (Pre-Arb-1; 2 Pre-Arb, 3 Arb, 2 option years remaining) – Another pitcher that got a look late last season, he was okay in his 5 games. However, he has turned heads this spring with 7.1 scoreless innings and 9 strikeouts. He got a lot of looks as the closer for the Redbirds in 2017, though he would be unlikely to find himself in that role with the big club. He is yet another solid right-handed middle reliever that will help the Cardinals keep the floor from caving in should the 2018 team run into injuries.

Jack Flaherty (Pre-Arb-1; 2 Pre-Arb, 3 Arb, 3 option years remaining) – 2017 Flaherty was a lot like 2016 Luke Weaver. Hopefully, 2018 Flaherty can ascend the same way Weaver did last year. Outside of a mistake to Manny Machado (who is, you know, really good), Flaherty has been one of the stars this spring. The Cardinals are committed to Miles Mikolas, and we know that Adam Wainwright gets a long leash in what may be his farewell tour. Otherwise, Flaherty could be challenging for a spot to start the year. Regardless, he is likely the first man up should a need arise. However, I include him here because we can’t totally rule out the “Waino treatment” in which Flaherty becomes a member of the bullpen until the rotation opens up. That was the plan with Weaver last year, but Wainwright promptly ran into elbow trouble and Weaver got his shot. Long story short, Flaherty is another name to consider in the bullpen.

Alex Reyes (Pre-Arb-2; 1 Pre-Arb, 3 Arb, 3 option years remaining) – What can I say about Alex Reyes? He feels like an afterthought in this catalog, but he is SO much greater than that. Just look at his 2016 numbers. They are stupid. Reyes is going to be a huge part of the Cardinals’ future, but what his 2018 looks like is completely up in the air. I imagine that, unless there is a need at the major league level, they will keep him in the minor leagues, building up and controlling his innings simultaneously. At some point, he may enter the rotation. Or he may just as easily end up in a relief role. It’s so hard to tell, but he will be a factor…eventually.

Veterans on Minor League Contracts – 4

These veterans face tough odds in trying to get added to the 40-man roster, let alone cracking the big club. If they reach that point, they are then out of options and unable to be demoted without passing through waivers. Like I said, tough odds. Still, they can provide all-important organizational depth.

Preston Guilmet – In camp as an NRI after being signed out of Japan, Guilmet has thrown 2 scoreless innings this spring. Between the number crunch and not being on the 40-man roster, he has a lot of hills to climb. Still, if the early indications hold up, he provides depth at Memphis.

Sean Gilmartin – Gilmartin was fantastic for the Mets during their NL Pennant season in 2015. He hasn’t had much luck since. The Cardinals grabbed him on waivers last year. Released him in November. Then brought him back on a minor league deal. He provides further depth and the organization holds out hope that he can find his past form.

Jason Motte – The former closer has been touch and go this spring and faces a tough roster crunch. He probably ends up spending most of the year in Memphis. That’s not such a bad thing. He can be a veteran presence for all the young guns climbing through the system, and he lives in Memphis, allowing him to play in his own backyard.

Edward Mujica – Another former Cardinals closer, Mujica didn’t get an invite to spring. Still he can provide depth in Memphis and yet another veteran leader for the young pitchers.

Prospects

This group of prospect includes some pitchers on the 40-man, and some that are not. We have yet to see any of them in St. Louis, and, for the sake of their development, it would probably be best that we don’t seem them on Clark Ave. this summer. That being said, things happen and players ascend, so they are options all the same.

Austin Gomber – The lefty’s future is likely in the rotation and he is an underrated prospect in a system full of pitchers. He is now on the 40-man roster, which makes his path to big leagues alot smoother. Any injuries to the current lefties and we may see him in St. Louis this year.

Derian Gonzalez – Gun shy after being robbed of low-levels players Luis Perdomo and Allen Cordoba the last few years, the Cardinals elected to protect this electric righty despite the fact that he has yet to reach AA. He’s been flawless this spring and is probably closer to the MLB ‘pen than we thought when he was placed on the 40-man back in November.

Dakota Hudson – Set for a role in the AAA rotation, his hard fastball and highly-regarded slider give him a profile that would fit in the bullpen at some point. He’s best served continuing his development as a starter, but he is an option down the road.

Ryan Helsley – A righty with a big fastball, he too is best served continuing to develop as a starter. However, he could eventually find himself going the route of Trevor Rosenthal and becoming a force out of the Cardinals bullpen.

Connor Greene – The Blue Jays #1 pitching prospect going into 2017, he was brought aboard in the Randal Grichuk trade. The 100 mph throwing righty effectively replaced Sandy Alcantara (given up in the Ozuna trade). Similar to Alcantara, the talent is there but it still needs refined. His curveball has garnered rave reviews, so once he puts it all together he is yet another dynamite arm.

Jordan Hicks – The organization is sky-high on this right-hander, and for good reason, but he isn’t quite ready. It didn’t take long for the Cardinals to pull him out of Major League camp this spring, but that doesn’t change his future stock. He may not be an option at the onset, but he could be in play come July or August, a la Rosenthal.

The Final Count

Currently, there are 23 pitchers that could reasonably factor into the Cardinals bullpen this season. 24 when Alex Reyes is fully healthy. That’s enough for 3 bullpens. More realistically, I see enough arms to fill two average bullpens and, hopefully, combine to form one really, really good bullpen, even if it lacks the “stud” that fans desperately want.

There simply aren’t enough spots (even with 8 relievers) for all the guys that are earning looks this spring. Heck, even the Memphis rotation is looking at a number crunch eventually. Hudson, Flaherty, Helsley, Gomber, Gant, and Reyes all figuring to get innings.

But the old baseball adage is that these things tend to work themselves out.

The good news is that the Cardinals appear to have more than enough depth to cover any circumstance.

Thanks for reading!

Rusty Groppel
I'm a diehard Cardinals fan that feels privileged to write about his favorite team in this corner of cyberspace. I'm also the bass player for the best damn band in the 618, Tanglefoot. Check us out some time.
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