I'm wrapping up my look at bullpens this week because I've been staring at the same set of numbers for something like a month now. Anything that was going to emerge has and I'm close to beating a dead horse at this point. Let's take a trip down memory lane. In my mind, the last few seasons have always been marked by the 2004 peak and then a decline phase for the team -- we'll start there.
A quick note, the Cardinals bullpen has routinely outperformed their FIP over the last 8 years (probably before that, I didn't check) which over the course of some 2000+ innings is somewhat meaningful. One of TLR's strong points has always been his tactical deployment of the bullpen. When you're matching righties up against righties and lefties against lefties, the benefits are almost always on the side of the pitching staff. Being able to shield your relievers from opposite handed hitters is a good way to start outperforming metrics.
2004 - 457.1 IP / 3.01 ERA / 3.77 FIP
I'm not sure I remember often enough how absolutely kick-ass the 2004 squad was in virtually every aspect of the game. I get pegged as a stat-guy (and rightfully so) but I think part of the ignomious defeat in the World Series was a result of stage fright, the other part being random variation, because this was a good team.
The Cardinals had Isringhausen at the back end of the pen collecting 47 saves that year. They had right-handed holdover Cal Eldred post a very good season at age 36 with a 3:1 K:BB ratio and left-handed holdover Steve Kline had a sparkling 1.79 ERA in 50.3 innings. In the offseason, they had acquired Ray King in the JD Drew Trade with Atlanta and signed Julian Tavarez to a 2 year 4.2 million dollar deal. Tavarez was coming off a decent season with Pittsburgh although his peripherals weren't terribly impressive. The Cardinals also got significant contributions from Danny Haren and Kiko Calero both farm products.
It seems like a long time since the Cardinals have had even one left-handed reliever that could be called good much less outstanding. In 2004, they managed to capture career years out of King and Kline for a left handed side of the pen that was simply dominant. These were the days were if a starter only went 5 innings, TLR had enough pieces that he could still play matchups in the later innings; the pen had that many relievers that were that good.
O yeah, Mike Lincoln actually pitched in big league games that year too.
2005 - 397.6 IP / 3.17 ERA /4.32 FIP
In his 4th year as the Cardinal closer, Izzy records 39 saves with a nifty 2.14 ERA. If you throw out 2006 as an injury marred marker his FIPs from 2004-2007 are 2.76, 3.30 and 3.65 respectively. The Cardinals made the right decision to cut bait with Steve Kline after his fantastic 2004 who would head to Baltimore before being acquired by the Giants. While I always liked Kline (even for his less than socially appropriate reactions like flipping TLR the bird), the Cardinals felt comfortable with Ray King and Randy Flores as their primary lefties in the pen. Neither had reached free agency yet (although the Cardinals signed King to a two year deal) and as cost-controlled relievers they were a good bet to approximate Steve Kline in 2005.
Julian Tavarez stuck around but it wasn't long before he had been displaced as the primary set-up man from the right side by Al Reyes. I still remember seeing Reyes grab his elbow after in September 2005. I can't imagine what kind of financial punch to the gut that would be, setting aside the immediate health concerns at the time, after striking out 67 batters in 63 innings and then to blow your elbow out on the last game of the season. He was set to be a free agent, not to mention compete in the playoffs. That was still back in the earlier days of VEB.
Brad Thompson and Cal Eldred rounded out the back of that pen with both of them posting ERA's under 3 but the peripherals weren't as glowing. Cal was obviously in the twilight of his career at age 37 and viewed as something of a mentor and emotional stabilizer out in the bullpen. Thompson was just a year removed from his record setting scoreless innings streak in AA. The bullpen in 2005 really mirrored 2004 with players coming down off of career years still a solid corp but with a heavier emphasis in newcomers like Flores and Thompson. (It also helped that the 5-man rotation made all but 2 starts that entire season.)
Anthony Reyes pitched from the pen during a September callup which is probably the best stretch of 13 innings (1 start) he's had in his STL career.
2006 - 488 IP / 4.06 ERA / 4.46 FIP
I think we all remember this yea's bullpen for the collapse of Izzy and the emergence of the young relievers. Somehow, Izzy managed to throw nearly 60 innings and save 33 games but it was a struggle each and everytime he was on the mound. In the offseason, the Cardinals signed Braden Looper to an egregious 3 year 13.5M dollar deal. Supposed to be Izzy's backup after being the closer for the Mets. We all now how that story ended with Wainwright assuming the role in the postseason and Looper being transformed into a starter at the end of the year. The Drew trade continued to pay dividends as Wainwright followed in the mold of Morris and Haren to pitch a season out of the pen with a 3:1 K:BB ratio striking out nearly a batter an inning. (I'm sure someone has a screenshot of the Carlos Beltran strikeout in the NLCS, no?)
Ray King threw a fit in the offseason and was moved to Colorado in exchange for recently non-tendered Aaron Miles and Larry Bigbie of the Mitchell Report infamy. Randy Flores and Tyler Johnson both turned in some awful performances in 2006 despite still being effective against lefties. Flores held them to a .685 OPS and TJ a .734 OPS that season but both were crushed by right handed hitters. Given the instability in the pen, they each faced an unusually high number of righthanded hitters and their overall stat lines reflected it.
Josh Hancock was cut by the Reds for reporting to camp overweight and went on to pitch 77 solid if unspectacular innings for the Cardinals. Josh Kinney emerged from the farm system and played a significant role in the post-season out of the pen.
The Cardinals also lit ~3M dollars on fire that offseason.
2007 - 546.6 IP / 4.00 ERA / 4.14 FIP
We have to first recall the tragedy that struck the bullpen/team in 2007 when Josh Hancock passed away.
What a return year for Izzy. I know we've discussed this before but his 2006 looks aberrant in two primary regards: BB/9 and HR/9. I won't pretend to analyze why a hip injury would impact those aspects of his game but they both spiked wildly in 2006 compared to his career trend lines. The Cardinals signed Russ Springer to a 1-year deal in the offseason and saw him put together a big season with a great strikeout rate. Randy Flores was totally ineffective against lefthanders and I would guess is going to be out of baseball in 2-3 years. Tyler Johnson cobbled together a reverse platoon split while still being moderately effective against lefties and battling some injuries over the course of the year.
The team also got a surprisingly good performance out of Ryan Franklin. The peripheral statistics are slightly alarming though. He had a .251 BABIP which is most likely an unsustainable figure -- expect that to rise 20-30 points at a minimum. He also had a guady 3.5% walk rate, which is rather uncharacteristic compared to career figures. If either of those stats regress, Franklin is going to be hard pressed to come close to his 2007 3.04 ERA; if they both regress. . . . .
Perhaps the most surprising performance of the year was Troy Percival who came out of retirement to strike out nearly a batter an inning with a 3.5:1 K:BB rate. The Cardinals also managed to piss away 42 innings on Kelvin Jimenez who is still inexplicably on the 40 man roster. When you're allowing 26% LD rate as a reliever, you're FIP doesn't matter much because all your pitches are getting hit hard.
Perhaps what most characterized the 2007 bullpen was that two players combined to throw half as many innings as Chris Carpenter -- sadly, those two players were Aaron Miles and Scott Spiezio.
What can we safely assume headed into next year:
- Izzy will be the closer - Mozeliak made the right move to pick up the option on Isringhausen and here's why. The Cardinals aren't going to trade him mid-season, he has veto rights and he's too much of a recognizable face to STL fans. Provided that he puts together a decent season with an ERA below 4, I'd fully expect him to be a Type A free agent at the end of the year. He's probably going to be in line for a 3 year deal from some team and the Cardinals should have the relatively easy choice of whether to offer him arbitration.
- Russ Springer and Ryan Franklin are the primary setup men - The Springer contract has extenuating circumstances and is only a one year deal but his peripherals were all very good last season suggestion that he still has something left in the tank. If Springer falls off a cliff performance wise, I still think that his ~$3.5M is a defensible contract. Ryan Franklin on the other hand survived on a lower than normal BABIP and not handing out any free passes. I'd guess he pitches his way into middle relief by the end of the year. While we can poo-poo the money (2.25 in 08 and 2.5 in 09) and say that "middle relievers just cost that much these days" the point is that middle-market teams don't get by giving out average market rates to average players -- it's a losing strategy if you're payroll is middle -of-the-pack.
- Randy Flores and Tyler Johnson are the primary lefties - The Cardinals signed some depth in AAA for left-handed relievers (Ron Flores will be playing the Mike Venafro role from 2007) but the team needs Randy and TJ to do better. Mainly because there isn't a decent left-handed reliever in the Cardinals farm system. Unless, Jaime Garcia or Brad Furnish manage to push their way into the the picture as a reliever, there's no one from the farm that throws left-handed. There's still reason to believe that Johnson's stuff can continue to get people out but can we really say the same for Flores?
- If there's one area of the farm system that's primed to be productive, its right-handed relievers - Chris Perez, Jason Motte, Mark Worrell, Kyle McClellan and Mitchell Boggs all fit the power reliever profile. Boggs has been a starter throughout the minors but his lack of a third offering beyond his fastball and slider has led some to profile him more as a reliever. Mark Worrell is probably the most finished product of the group in that he's a high strikeout sidearmer that's probably going to struggle against left-handers but could be death on right-handers. (Of course, Pat Neshek doesn't struggle with either but that's an unfair comparison just because they're both side-armers.) Chris Perez finished last year in AAA and played for Team USA with Colby Rasmus and Bryan Anderson this offseason. Jason Motte is really a one-pitch pitcher featuring a fastball in the mid- to upper-90s with good movement.
The Cardinal pen was a relative strength of the team last year. I say relative, because it really wasn't all that spectacular but the rest of the team was considerably worse. If there's one thing we can be thankful for it's that Mozeliak hasn't handed out any Braden Looper-esque deals to guys like Scott Linebrink and their ilk. Even if the 2008 pen isn't a strength, it's going to be a year where the makeover starts. By 2009, you have to wonder if the top three righthanded relievers for St. Louis will be players that are currently in the farm system rather more familiar and older faces like Izzy, Franklin and Springer. Walt Jocketty did an excellent job of piecing together the right free agents and cast-offs to assemble a good bullpen. John Mozeliak has much the same task but his emphasis should be on getting the young relievers mixed in there as well. The bullpen over the next 2 years is set to act as the microcosm for Mozeliak's larger rebuilding process of the Cardinals. Whether he and Tony can find the right pieces from the farm and their veteran talent is going to decide whether the bullpen, and the team, remain stalled or start to improve.