So the offseason is coming to a close, but we still don't have baseball. We know who will start at every position. We're pretty certain of the rotation, assuming Carlos Martinez will man the fifth spot. The bench and bullpen are almost set, but there are a few different directions the Cardinals could go. Here's how I think it should work out:
1. Keep Gonzales out of the pen
The former first round pick had some success out of the bullpen in September and October, and since we're moving Carlos to the rotation the team may have the urge to keep him there as an extra option for Matheny this year. The problem with that logic is two-fold. First of all, even without CMart and Neshek, two stalwarts in last year's pen, this year's pen looks pretty deep. Here is a chart showing our bullpen options along with their projected FIP from our friends Steamer and Zips:
League average reliever FIP last year was 3.60. So this gives us 7 options not named Marco Gonzales who project to be above average relievers for the Cardinals in 2015. Lyons falls below the 3.60 cut-off, but his ZiPs projection is as a starter, so his 3.92 FIP as a starter falls pretty close to the 3.81 average starter FIP in 2014. His 3.61 FIP Steamer projection is based on 25 innings out of the pen and 38 as a starter. So I think we can include Lyons here as another average or better option.
Rosie, Walden, Belisle, and Maness are all shown themselves to be above-average options for full innings, and the projections agree. Choate is more than competent at the only role he should be used in, someone who comes in to get a lefty hitter out in a high leverage situation. Freeman or Siegrist will probably get one of the two remaining spots, and one of them should be a perfectly cromulent as a low leverage middle reliver/second LOOGY role.
As for options down on the farm, that is headlined by Sam Tuivailala. Tooey could benefit from some more seasoning in the minors though, as the 22 year-old has only been pitching for a two and a half years and only had a cup of tea at Triple-A last year.
If it were up to me I'd have Tooey start at the minors, and give Lyons the last open spot in the bullpen. He'd be used as a Long reliever/Swing man, though I would prefer if once an injury to the rotation does occur that he moves back to the minors to stretch out as a starter in the event of another starting pitcher injury.
The second reason has to do with Marco himself. Across 4 levels in 2014 including October, Gonzales threw 162 2/3 innings. If he can get this year's total up to 180 innings this year that sets him up to be able to pitch 200 IP as soon as 2016. Letting him spend a year in the pen instead of starting would totally derail that. Between Waino and Wacha's injury concerns, concerns about Carlos' ability to pitch 6-7 innings, and the general instability that accompanies any pitcher who hurls a baseball a hundred times every five days, it's very likely that we will need a 6th starter sooner rather than later. Here's a chart of our options for the sixth starter right now, again with FIP projections:
The averaged projections give Tyler Lyons the advantage over Marco. But there's also the matter of upside: Lyons is going into his age 27 campaign whereas Gonzales is entering his age 23 season. But one thing is clear: Gonzales and Lyons are the only options for 6th and 7th starters. Cooney, Petrick, and Mayers are cromulent considering their position on the depth chart, but you wouldn't really want to see them higher than where they are. The team will need at least 7 starters this year, and if we had to yo-yo one of Gonzales or Lyons, I'd rather it not be the 23 year-old first round pick who threw over 160 innings in his first full pro season. It makes a lot more sense to yo-yo the 27 year-old AAAA guy who can't really be expected to be better than he already has so far.
So Marco is not a necessity in the bullpen. We have Rosie and Walden at the top, and a lot of at least average pieces to put around them, 8 relievers for the 7 spots available. As I type this I see we have now signed Carlos Villanueva. He will be another option for the Long Reliever/Swing Man role. Furthermore, Marco is an option we will almost certainly need as a starter at some point during the 162 game season. Lastly, thinking long-term, the best thing for Marco's development is to continue starting, especially since he just another full year of starting away from having the strength to go 200 innings.
2. Give Ty Kelly a spot on the 25-man roster.
Four of our bench options are set. Cruz, Reynolds, Anna, and Bourjos will be the back-up catcher, first-basemen, utility infielder, and fourth outfielder respectively. Grichuck has the upper-hand on the last bench spot, but I'd like Kelly to fill that role much more. Kelly can play 2B, 3B, and COF. Bourjos and Jay both are centerfielders by trade and Heyward can play there fine so Grichuck's ability to play CF shouldn't be considered an advantage over Kelly.
There's also the fact that while Grichuck has upside, he's not going to realize it sitting on the bench in St. Louis, battling it out with Bourjos for back-up outfielder playing time. He would benefit from everyday at-bats. Kelly has probably shown all he can show at Triple-A with over 800 PA at the level in the last two years. The 26 year-old is in a similar position to Lyons: He has little upside left but could do well for us in a specific role this year. And there's the fact that the projections find his bat to be just as good as Grichuck, actually very marginally better. Here's a chart showing Kelly and Grichuck's projected offensive production, along with Dean Anna, who is relevent here as I think Kelly is good enough to be the second-string option at 2B and 3B over Anna, and Piscotty, another possibility as a 5th outfielder. With Steamer we'll use wRC+, though ZiPs doesn't project wRC+ so we'll use wOBA.
Kelly also could fill a bench role that needs filling: a pinch-hit option good at getting on base in order to start a rally. Here's our current bench options along with their projected OBP%:
With his ability to play 4 positions, Kelly could be somewhat of a super-sub. Spelling four regulars would get him get him around 7-8 starts a month, and based on his OBP profile compared to our options he should be pinch-hitting in at least half of the games he doesn't start. Perhaps Wong struggles against lefties and Kelly, a switch-hitter, could platoon with him. Used correctly, even if he didn't platoon with Wong he could get 250-300 PA. Steamer600 has Kelly as a 1.9 WAR player over a full season, with Zips projecting 1.8 WAR/600 PA. So in this role Kelly's mean projection would contribute almost a win for the Cardinals in 2014, just from pinch-hitting and spelling the regulars at the four positions he can play. Anna and Grichuck are projected to be better than replacement level, so the difference would probably be more like a half a win, but in a year in which Fangraph's steamer-based, projected standings gives us just a one game lead over the Pirates, we should be maximizing our value, especially when it comes at no long term cost.
Kelly interests me because of his plate discipline and positional flexibility. Mo definitely has an interest in him, based on the fact that he traded something for him. Matheny would probably love his grittyness and Descalso-like ability to play several positions.
These are small moves, improvements that don't exactly doom us if they're not made, because they really only impact fractions of a win. But I think it is the optimal course of action, and we are at a part of the win curve where even fractions of a win are important.