The construction of the Major League bullpen as we currently know it has become such an omnipresent component of modern baseball that it is easy to forget that until about twenty years ago, most teams only carried ten pitchers. The idea of having 12 or more pitchers was foreign until relatively recently.
But in the Mike Matheny era of Cardinals baseball, the seven-man bullpen has been the standard. There have even been occasional flirtations with eight-man bullpens. Much has been written on VEB lately about the sheer volume of quality arms available to the Cardinals in relief in 2016.
But if Rick Hummel's piece early Monday morning is to be believed-and why wouldn't it be?--the Cardinals are at least considering going with an 11-man pitching staff to start the 2016 season.
How the Cardinals start their season is not necessarily a reflection on how they will operate throughout 2016. As Hummel notes, there is a logistical reason why the Cardinals would not necessarily need a host of options in the bullpen early: the season starts on April 3, and the club gets its third off day of the season on April 12.
If the team goes with a six-man bullpen to start the season and then immediately abandons the plan once the daily grind of 2016 begins in earnest, this ranks somewhere alongside Carlos Martinez throwing an inning of relief during the first game of the 2015 season: an anomaly that lacks significance as a predictor of future usage. It means a little bit of shuffling among players likely to spend a lot of 2016 traveling I-55 to get from Memphis to St. Louis and vice versa.
But for 2016 beyond the first week and a half, what would the effects be for the Cardinals of a shorter bullpen?
First, it's important to separate the mortal locks for the 2016 Cardinals bullpen from those whose roles are less defined. Trevor Rosenthal, barring a trade (while Craig Kimbrel was traded on April 5 of last season, this is unlikely), will be the closer. Seung-hwan Oh has yet to debut in MLB, but it is unlikely that the Cardinals would have signed him if they did not intend to play him. Veteran Jonathan Broxton had mixed results in 2015 but signed a two-year extension with the team this offseason.
In addition to these three are two more pitchers who made 81 and 76 appearances for the 2015 Cardinals: Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness. This leaves, in a six-man bullpen, one more spot to fill. That spot will be filled almost certainly by Tyler Lyons, who would have to clear waivers in order to be sent to the minors and has potential value not only in relief but as a starter in case of injury.
But the only way this works is if Jordan Walden, slated to make $3.5 million this season after a 2015 season in which he was very successful in a tiny sample size, is not ready to pitch. Granted, February 23 is right around the absolute pinnacle of Player X Is In The Best Shape Of His Life season, but it does seem that Walden should be ready for 2016.
In theory, the team could start 2016 with Seth Maness in the minors. Unlike Lyons, he has minor league options available, but this would also mean putting a guy who pitched in nearly half of the team's games last year in Memphis. Given Seth Maness's popularity with Mike Matheny, it is difficult to imagine that John Mozeliak would make such a push. It's one thing to work around Matheny's tactics when they substantially impact the team (the trades of Allen Craig and Jon Jay were arguably done primarily to keep them from being overused), but it's hard to imagine an alternative 25th man to Maness contributing too significantly.
So this leaves the Cardinals with 12 pitchers assuming that Walden (and everybody else) is healthy, that the club doesn't want to risk losing Lyons (nor risk going forward with only Kevin Siegrist among bullpen southpaws), and that Maness is, barring a collapse, untouchable.
But the real question is not whether the Cardinals need a certain number of relievers. The Cardinals would utilize a 64 man pen if it were allowed, deciding the next man up with a March Madness-style bracket. The question is at what point the marginal value of an additional reliever is less than the marginal value of an additional position player.
Brayan Pena is a given on the bench, as is Jedd Gyorko. Although the Cardinals may be tempted to trade Matt Adams if indeed Brandon Moss beats him out for the starting first base job, but he is far too potent of a hitter to release without receiving some value in return.
Tommy Pham is currently not listed as a starter on the depth chart, but he offers too much outfield versatility, has been too productive, and is old enough that extra minor league seasoning won't likely benefit him much to expect that Pham won't be in the majors. And while Gyorko has played shortstop, it is unlikely that the Cardinals trust him to spell Jhonny Peralta, thus giving Greg Garcia the inside track to make the team out of Spring Training.
This gives the Cardinals five bench players. Could they use another? It wouldn't hurt, in a vacuum, but adding another bench bat means sacrificing some of the aforementioned bullpen depth.
Aledmys Diaz could be exciting but he is largely redundant if Greg Garcia and Jedd Gyorko also make the team. Anthony Garcia and Charlie Tilson are interesting names, but are they ready to be MLB contributors? And even if they are, would the Cardinals want them for sporadic cameos in St. Louis rather than working on their game in the minors?
Especially after Cardinals relievers demonstrated signs of fatigue down the stretch in 2015, the club should jump at anything which allows them to better pace their bullpen. With more quality options, the top pitchers may not be required to pitch in half of the team's games. And with the options for an extra bench spot being what they are, an 11-man pitching staff seems to be a sub-optimal use of the current resources that the Cardinals have.