The Cardinals, in the midst of having perhaps the most difficult offseason we've seen them have in the past decade (the 2006-'07 offseason comes to mind, but in that case Walt Jocketty's Redbirds seemed to get the players they were targeting, the problem being they were targeting Kip Wells and the ghost of Adam Kennedy), went all out in adding bullpen help. They re-signed Jonathan Broxton and crossed the ocean to add Seung-Hwan Oh, making reinforcing the relief corps a seemingly top priority.
It was a curious choice. Relievers being what they are, it seems the Redbirds invested a somewhat unreasonable amount of resources in one of the riskiest possible propositions, all the while making little effort to improve other areas of the club which appear, at least at this early junction, to be rather thin. It also seems as if the club put quite a lot of capital into strengthening one of the stronger aspects of the team already, again while failing to do much to shore up other areas.
It's also interesting to note the bullpen has been a particular bone of contention for a certain segment of Cardinal fans who happen to believe Mike Matheny is an appallingly poor manager of it. There is an undercurrent of criticism in some circles that the Cards could have easily been just as effective -- and far more efficient -- in upgrading the relief situation by simply finding someone capable of utilising it in a more optimal manner, rather than investing tons of resources and roster spots in trying to manager-proof the 'pen.
Regardless of the current situation, in terms of the wisdom of the strategy or the opinions of those observing the club, the fact is it appears the Cardinals have gone out of their way to invest in relief efforts. As it stands, I see the Redbirds' current bullpen shaping up something like:
- Trevor Rosenthal (R) -- closer
- Kevin Siegrist (L) -- 8th inning
- Seung-Hwan Oh (R) -- 7th
- Jonathan Broxton (R) -- 7th
- Seth Maness (R) -- 7th/DP specialist/all-purpose fireman type
- Tyler Lyons (L) -- long relief and potential LOOGY (don't see that combo very often)
which doesn't look too shabby, all things considered. And really, I can't honestly see any of these six not being fixtures, relatively speaking. Rosenthal isn't going anywhere, and neither is Siegrist. The two established themselves as one of the more dynamic late-inning duos in baseball last season, and barring something unforeseen, such as an injury to one or the other, it seems a fair bet they will be that again, if perhaps a bit better, or a bit worse, or just a bit different, in that way relievers so often are from year to year. The club's investment in Broxton, whether wise or not, would seem to guarantee him a spot. And really, while Broxton may not be the dominant force he once was, and perhaps one would argue you should never pay market rates for anything less than dominance on the relief market, he still struck out better than a batter per inning last year, and was really burned only by a run of homeritis early in the season. If you're only counting on him to be something like your fourth best reliever, you're looking pretty solid.
Personally, I'm very excited to see what Oh brings to the table this year. Again, I understand the objections to spending on relievers, and the usual questions about how well his stuff and results will translate across the Pacific, but still, I have a soft spot for split-finger pitches in general, and I can't wait to see how Oh performs. I assume his contractual situation would allow him to be shuttled down to Memphis if necessary to make room for an extra arm when the 'pen needs it, but I assume he'll be with the big club all season, more or less. Seth Maness is Seth Maness, and a Matheny favourite, seemingly. He's going to get a bunch of double plays, and give up a few ill-timed moonshots when the sinker doesn't sink, I would imagine, but he's not going anywhere.
Tyler Lyons is one of the more interesting cases in the 'pen this year, but the rotation looks too crowded for him to break in, and as everyone is aware, I'm sure, Tyler the Handsome is out of options, meaning he can't even be put on the Memphis Shuttle. He could be traded, but it would seem to be selling low on him, or he could be released, but he seems entirely too useful for that. Plus, it seems a fairly good idea to have at least one lefty in the bullpen not dedicated to late innings, so Tyler stays, I think.
So that's six guys. And all of them pretty high quality, depending on how you feel about certain individuals, but no real glaring issues. Given the current reality of seven-man bullpens being the norm, that leaves us with one more spot.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, could be a problem. See, when you look at that list above, you don't see Jordan Walden's name anywhere. And for now, at least, Walden appears to be healthy and ready to contribute. That may not last, of course, but for the moment we have to plan on him at least being available.
There's also Miguel Socolovich, who did quite a nice job getting his name into the mix last season, and who ZiPS, at least, projects as one of the Cardinals' better relievers. Socolovich doesn't have the blazing fastball of some of the other options the Redbirds could run out to the mound, but he has two occasionally wicked offspeed pitches and some deception in the delivery.
Sam Tuivailala is still working on developing as a pitcher, but is probably ready to at least be in the major leagues, and needs a chance to prove himself. He has some of the best stuff in the organisation, and probably one of the higher ceilings amongst potential relief options.
Oh, there's also Matt Bowman, the Cards' Rule V pickup from the Mets this offseason. An undersized sinkerballer, Bowman at his best looks a little like Seth Maness, only with better velocity and not quite the aversion to free passes. Bowman has to be on the major league roster to remain Cardinal property, due to the mechanics of the Rule V draft, but at this point it's hard to see where he fits.
And this is all to say nothing of Marco Gonzales, who has been a starter throughout his career but could offer an intriguing relief option if no rotation spot is available. Or Arturo Reyes, the Cards' other Gonzaga gambit, who I'm thinking of trying to write up relatively soon, considering he's knocking on the door of the big leagues at Triple A. Or Dean Kiekhefer, the likely LOOGY, who will begin the year at Memphis also, and already projects for a better than league average FIP via ZiPS. Oh, or Mitch Harris, the man with the golden narrative and the big fastball, who needs to work on the splitter but just might be a usable relief option.
There are also pitchers moving into the upper minors who could warrant auditions in the relatively near future. Names like Chris Perry and Trey Nielsen, who I'm thinking of putting with Arturo Reyes to make up a more substantial scouting post, aren't that far from being intriguing callup options. Luke Weaver, a more legitimate prospect than nearly any of the other names on this list, will start out at Double A this season, with a quick promotion to Memphis a possibility, and could offer a jolt if needed in the 'pen.
And lastly, there's the case of Alex Reyes, the Cards' number one prospect, slated to begin the year serving his pot suspension, but also due back early enough in the season that it isn't hard to imagine he could be ready to come up and get his feet wet in short relief by, say, late July if things really go well for him once he returns. I'm not saying thatshould happen, or that I think it's the most likely outcome, but it isn't hard to imagine, either.
Now here's the problem: I've just named eleven pitchers, and at least half of those could be realistic options to contribute in the Cardinal bullpen this season. And the Redbirds have...one open spot. And really, if Jordan Walden is actually healthy, they might not have any open slots. The option situations of some of these pitchers also serves to further complicate things, as some cannot be sent to the minors at all, and thus are more or less permanent 25 man fixtures, absent a sudden willingness to give away assets that are not Peter Bourjos, which just doesn't seem to be the Cards' modus operandi.
As it stands, I'm having a very tough time seeing how the Cardinals are going to manage this rather complex bullpen situation in 2016. They've invested an extraordinary amount of resources in trying to build in stability to the 'pen for this season, but the unintended consequence of that maneuvering could very well be a severe lack of opportunity for discovery, for surprise, for unexpected performances to jump out of the woodwork and make an impact. The stability the organisation has seemingly gone all out in trying to create could come at the expense of potential. It's the very definition of opportunity cost; costing yourself opportunities for great solutions by trying to find sure, good solutions.
Then again, half the 'pen could get hurt by Memorial Day, and we could be staring down the barrel of a gun again, watching Mitch Harris make eighth inning appearances not because he's mastered the forkball and gotten awesome, but because he's the second best reliever with a functioning shoulder, and only loses a game every third or fourth time out.
It will probably all work itself out. But, maybe it doesn't, and we have a very weird and crowded situation to pay attention to this season.