A Bullpen Dilemma


The season is quite young, but it is already evident that this Cardinals team is flimsier than overcooked spaghetti in the bullpen. Now, one must not forget about the positives – namely the superb offensive production of Lance Berkman, Colby Rasmus, and David Freese, and Jaime Garcia’s decision to channel his inner Cliff Lee – but as fans, it is our job to dwell on the negatives. It builds up are emotional investment and makes winning only so much sweeter.

But, Oh My! The bullpen. Of course, Ryan Franklin’s inconsistencies, or rather, consistently abysmal play deserves much of the attention, but the problem is admittedly more than this. Just as a primer, I present the members of the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen:

  • Ryan Franklin, a closer who expresses neither power nor command, instead relying on contact and luck that appears to have finally run out
  • Jason Motte, a one dimensional pitcher whose one-dimension, a 94-97 fastball, has a bi-polar nature in terms of success
  • Mitchell Boggs, a starter/reliever tweener whose name has hung around in the lingo of Cardinal fans for a few years now, but has failed to promote excitement or exude confidence, at any time.
  • Bryan Augenstein, a right handed pitcher who fools no one, as his 8.34 career ERA and .354 BAA exhibits. Perhaps to the benefit of the Cardinals, he finds himself on the DL just two weeks in to the season
  • Brian Tallet, an aging lefty with injury problems, as he, too, finds himself on the DL early in the season
  • Miguel Batista. Oh Please No, we didn’t sign him, did we? Regardless of what his early numbers may indicate, a 1.4 WHIP suggests a quick regression to the mean.

That was our opening day bullpen, minus one name: Trever Miller. I left Miller’s name off the list because, simply, his persona and his value do not correlate with the names mentioned before him. Trever Miller is a classic lefty reliever: a wiry sidearmer, unkempt and mysterious, with a track record of experience and success. As such, he encourages confidence in even the most casual of Cardinal fans. And with good reason, as Miller has been consistently successful with the Cardinals and handles his team role – neutralizing tough lefty batters in the 7th and 8th innings – ably. He does this while also filling a defined personality role on the team that fans and players alike can latch on to.  Frankly, in an element of the game, the bullpen, that is all about confidence and character, Trever Miller is the only Cardinal that emits the vibes of these crucial traits.  This is the Cardinal bullpen’s crucial problem.

The way I see it, while a bullpen does not need "character" from all its members, it does need it from their guys with defined roles: 7th and 8th inning guys, a lefty, and a closer. And not all character is created equally, mind you. It helps to have one 7th or 8th inning man of the fiery, emotional variety, who packs heat with results, and another with a diverse set of pitches, calmer in nature that pitches to the model of efficiency, minimizing walks and pitches thrown. The 7th guy can be fiery and the 8th calm, or vice versa. Whatever works. A good bullpen also requires a wily lefty, a veteran in years and in MLB service who performs well under immediate entry into a big situation Essentially, the Trever Miller mold. Finally, a major league bullpen needs a shutdown closer who either has an unhittable, often  trademarked pitch, i.e. a Mariano Rivera cutter or a K-Rod slider, or so much personality (and firepower) that opposing teams and fans legitimately fear his entrance into the game. I’m talking Eric Gagne in his record saves streak, or a Brian Wilson or Heath Bell of today.

Don’t buy my broad "prototyping analysis" of relievers. Check out these current MLB examples.

  • San Diego has arguably the best pen in baseball. Their 7th inning guy Mike Adams is a fireball totin’ (95+ fastball) strike out machine. 8th inning man Luke Gregerson (former Cardinal draft pick) is a game-face sportin’ slider/fastball combo user, and also a strike out machine. Yes, they lack a go to lefty, but with Gregerson and Adams sporting .180 and .185 BAA’s against left handed hitters, this position is unneeded. Then there is Heath Bell, fastball aficionado and lockdown closer.
  • San Francisco also has a stellar pen, with crafty old lefty Javier Lopez, a poised out machine in Ramon Ramirez, charismatic Brian Wilson look alike Sergio Romo, and the man himself, Brian Wilson doing the closing.
The examples could continue but the fact remains that this Cardinals team needs help in the bullpen efficacy and charisma department. It appears that one, maybe two pieces – with the arrival of Eduardo Sanchez, fiery strike out guy (8 Ks, 3 IP, no runs) – are in place, but the Cardinals need help securing a calm, diverse and dependable outs guy (the role Kyle McClellan has filled the last couple years) and, of course, the all elusive closer. Internal solutions could include Fernando Salas or, more likely, a focused Mitchell Boggs, who has a fastball with movement and a nasty sinker. While a guy like Boggs filling the 7th or 8th inning role doesn’t solve the closer problem, it delays our need to rush out and overspend on a closer of average quality.

Bullpens require confidence, and confidence, among fans, players, and individual pitchers alike, starts with a certain level of unique bullpen character. 

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