2014 Cardinals Draft Preview, Farm Inventory: Relief Pitchers

Joel Auerbach

A big strength of the Cardinals organization in recent years has been the ability of the farm to turn out above average relief pitching and place it in the major league bullpen. The ability to develop low cost relievers is a huge advantage since some of the worst contracts in all of baseball end up going to relief pitchers that are, as a group, incredibly inconsistent from year to year.

Up until about 15 years ago, you rarely saw any pitchers being groomed for a relief role in the farm system. Split-starting carried the day, for the most part, with one pitcher starting a game and the other coming into the ball game in the 5th or 6th inning to record the final 9-12 outs remaining. In the next start, the two pitchers would switch places. Relievers, back then, were mostly just failed starters or guys who could absolutely dominate a lineup one time through, while falling off a cliff from a performance perspective when seen by hitters a second time in a particular game.

Everything really started to change in the late 90's: The offensive explosion of the latter half of that decade, the advent of the pitch count, and the offensive strategy of patient PA's championed by the Yankees' championship clubs under Joe Torre sent managers and GM's scrambling for solutions. Those solutions turned out to be ever greater specialization in the bullpen, and grooming pitchers in the minor leagues to fill those roles.

We still get a ton of relievers from the starting pitching ranks of the minors today: The current Cardinal bullpen is full of mostly guys who rarely pitched a relief inning in the minors before their call up: Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, and Seth Maness are examples. Jason Motte and Kevin Siegrist are the counter to that: Guys who were groomed specifically as relievers at a certain point of their minor league career and doing well enough in that role to become productive major leaguers when they wouldn't have been otherwise.

So keep all that in mind as we look at the ranks of Cardinal relievers throughout the farm system. I noted in the starting pitcher inventory yesterday that I thought Seth Blair would make a better relief candidate than a rotation one, and we could have a few others on that list that eventually end up in the bullpen.  This list comprises a group of players who aren't likely to ever start a game in the big leagues and the grades reflect how I think their abilities play in the bullpen only.  It's a long list, so we'll look at the higher ranked pitchers first and the lower ranked pitchers at the end.

  • Lee Stoppelman has his struggles at the AAA level to start the season and has continued to have command problems since being demoted to AA -- which is strange because his command was one of his strong points coming into the season and a big reason why he moved through three levels a year ago. He's got good stuff and is a left handed bullpen arm in a farm system short on left handed specialist types as well as one of the few bullpen arms in the top half of the minors that isn't either hurt or been massively ineffective either in the minors or during short stints with the big league club.
  • Sam Tuivailala, a former 3rd round selection as an infielder, transitioned to the mound last year and has been blowing hitters away with his 97+ mph heat ever since. He's still a project and his secondary stuff needs work, but if he can harness his command, he's a good bet to see the majors at some point. The fastball gets tons of swings and misses and has solid movement for a pitch with that much velocity -- if he can spot it, he's going to be very tough to hit.
  • Dixon Llorens is another good bet to make an impact in the next couple of seasons as well, throwing 95+ from a funky sidearm delivery makes him absolute death to right handed hitters. A future ROOGY at the very worst, Llorens has actually performed well against hitters on both sides of the plate. I wouldn't expect that to continue as the faces better hitters in the upper minors, but there have been a few sidearmers with that sort of success and he's one of the harder throwing guys from that arm slot that I've yet seen.
  • Zach Loraine was a 21st round selection a year ago out of Coker College but went to school in the St. Louis area. He was nearly unhittable last year closing games for Johnson City and he's been just as untouchable this year in all but a couple of his outings with Peoria. A fastball/slider pitcher with 95-96 mph heat and a hard, late-breaking slider that is an effective out pitch, I'd be shocked if he doesn't progress to Palm Beach by July the way he's pitching as of late. He could be the Stoppelman of this season, working through three levels of the minors on his way to a non-roster invite next spring.
  • Chris Perry is among the Midwest League leaders in strikeouts, striking out 60 hitters in just 36 innings this year out of the Peoria bullpen, a ridiculous (and likely unsustainable) 41% of the hitters he's faced have been retired via the punch out. Perry's also sporting a 5.45 K/BB ratio as well and has allowed just 22 hits thus far. He locates his fastball well, sitting 94-95 and touching 96 and has an excellent breaking ball to pair with it. I saw him for two innings last Wednesday and he was impressive, garnering 5 K's (Steve Bean graciously made an errant throw on a dropped third strike to allow him to get the 5th one) but he did hang a few breaking balls as well as losing a couple of them up, mistakes that better hitters would likely punish. That said, it's hard to argue with the results thus far.
Jose Almarante and Jorge Rondon have been staples in the Memphis bullpen so far this year, with Almarante getting most of the setup work and Rondon pitching in the middle innings when he's not getting bounced up and down to St. Louis to fill a hole there. Rondon has the best slider in the system, but can't locate his pitches at all most of the time; Almarante has solid stuff but nothing plus and has command issues of his own.

This is not the Luis Perdomo you're thinking of, it's a different one, and one that hasn't thrown much above the short season leagues until now. It's hard to grade him as I don't have good scouting reports, but his results in the low minors last year suggest solid command and good swing-and-miss ability.  Need to see more of him at Palm Beach to say anything more for sure.

Kyle Barraclough remains a C+ for me despite his age and level simply because he's battled a ton of injuries the last couple of years, but when he's right he's been absolutely dominant wherever he's pitched.  Plus, I love a good story and if he could figure out how to get the big leagues, I look forward to reading the Derrick Goold profile when it happens.  Ditto for Jordan Swagerty, who looked every bit the part of setup man and possible closer before injury set in -- he's back to throwing in Jupiter and hopefully can make a full recovery to the mound this season.

The remaining three C+ guys are live armed, young, low minors guys to keep an eye on. A number of scouts were intently watching Polanco last week in Peoria -- he throws really hard and gets a lot of swings and misses, but the command isn't quite there yet and neither is his secondary offerings. Grana and Baez both finished at Johnson City a year ago and likely will start at State College this year to see if they can replicate their excellent performances. Both have good fastballs in the mid-to-upper 90's -- it will be interesting to see how they look when they can't just throw it by everyone in sight. Baez is particularly interesting to me because he was absolutely unhittable last year, surrendering just 15 hits and striking out 47 of the 137 batters he faced.

Keith Butler dominates AAA hitters but struggled to throw strikes and get anyone out in the big leagues before getting hurt.  Herget pitched well last year but hasn't been nearly as good in 2014, and Greenweed and Kiekhefer are around because they are left handed and because they've been able to get left handed hitters out at a decent rate -- considering the club went out an signed a LOOGY when Siegrist went down, that doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in either of those two guys to get the job done should another lefty specialist be needed in St. Louis.


All the AA guys listed here have taken turns being terrible and the one I left off, Ronnie Shaban, was kinda thought to be a potential prospect coming into the year by some...until getting blistered in just about every trip to the bump this season so far before getting hurt. Stock is the former wunderkind catching prospect who struck out a ton and never made contact...now he's the former wunderkind who transitioned to the mound and can't miss bats at the same rate he swing through minor league pitching (although, that's admittedly hard to do).  Thomas and Donofrio have had their moments this season but are a bit old for their league and don't have any plus stuff.

I put the D guys up here because, from time to time, one of these guys breaks out and I want to be able to link back to how wrong I was about that guy (see Ankiel, Rick, Outfielder) a couple of years from now when he's leading the National League in appearances and swinging strikes.
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