The St. Louis Cardinals are set to have a very deep bullpen in 2017. The Cardinal relievers combined for a 3.62 ERA in 2016, good for 7th best in the national league. The signing of Brett Cecil adds another very good late inning reliever to the mix and adds even more depth to the bullpen. Now the search for a multi-inning reliever begins.
After seeing what Andrew Miller was able to do in the postseason, the era of the relief pitcher is upon us. The Cardinals haven’t historically been a team that has used their relievers for much more than an inning at a time. You have to go all the back to Manny Aybar in the 1999 season to find the last reliever that topped 90 innings. And all the way back to the Bruce Sutter days to find anyone that pitched that many innings consistently.
Using a pitcher in almost every game the way that Terry Francona used Miller is definitely unrealistic. The regular season just doesn’t have the needed amount of off days. But I believe that a similar process could be used if a team had two pitchers that can be used in a multiple inning role. That’s where the 2017 Cardinals come into play. I believe they have two pitchers that are capable of handling multiple innings at a time and doing it 2-3 times a week.
Wacha is coming off of a very disappointing season in which he struggled with poor performance as well as dealing with a stress reaction in his shoulder for the second time in his career. He is supposedly working on adding muscle to try to prevent the injury from returning. The Cardinals still see Wacha as a starter, but they appear to already have five starters ready to go.
Using Wacha as a traditional reliever probably isn’t the best idea because warming up several times a week could be especially taxing on his shoulder. But a role in which he throws 2-3 innings a couple of times a week could be very useful.
In his career, Wacha has been very effective against lefties thanks to his change-up. Left handed batters have posted a .226/.291/.333 slash line against him in his career. For reference we can look at former Brewers and now Giants solid southpaw reliever Will Smith. Last season Smith posted a very comparable .229/.299/.329 against lefties. I believe Wacha can be used very effectively against teams with multiple lefties coming to the plate in successive innings.
Rosenthal will be coming into spring with aspirations of earning a spot in the starting rotation after being told to stretch out over the offseason for a larger workload. The problem is that he would seem to be more of a long shot for the rotation than Wacha is. This gives the impression that Rosenthal is being prepared for a multi-inning role out of the bullpen.
Rosie had his own struggles in 2016. He dealt with shoulder inflammation and a flexor tendon strain which sidelined him for all of August and some of September. His performance left much to be desired as well. He had a 4.46 ERA and the highest walk rate of his career at 6.47 BB/9.
There’s no denying that the walks absolutely have to get under control. And there is reason for optimism as he only walked two hitters in his seven innings after returning from injury. But what stands out to me the most about Rosenthal’s 2016 season is the .429 batting average on balls in play against him which blows away his career .326 BABIP coming into the season. A big reason I’ve found is some very bad luck on balls hit to the outfield.
If you look at his 2016 spray chart you see a lot of singles in the outfield. By my count, only 14 of the 56 balls hit into the outfield were caught. That’s an extremely low rate that would seem almost impossible to keep up.
I believe there is reason to expect both Wacha and Rosenthal to succeed in multi-inning roles. It will just come down to Matheny using them in spots where they can succeed, which I acknowledge can be a big problem. However, using each for 5 or 6 innings each week could be a great way to limit Alex Reyes. After throwing 111.1 innings last season he can’t reasonably be expected to throw much more than 150 innings this season. Plus it could keep some innings off of Lance Lynn in his return from Tommy John surgery.
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