Ask a random Cards fan about the flaws of the 2016 Cardinals and most could complain for hours. In fact, I have done this. All year long. Now ask them about the biggest flaw and the answers will range from defense, centerfield, first base, Matheny/coaching, fundamentals, sports being pointless, etc... But one flaw every fan can agree on is this current bullpen gets VERY average, if not below average, once you look past Seung Hwan Oh (who now only pitches in 9th innings, because yay saves). Coming into Wednesday 7/27, Oh and his 1.5 fWAR make up 83% of the wins coming out of the bullpen. I know, Kevin Siegrist. But Kevin’s 4.39 FIP, 0.1 fWAR, and pedestrian ZiPS and Steamer projections are pretty uninspiring. I’d consider myself a Tyler Lyons believer but let’s be honest, the rest of the pen is comprised of AAA guys, a struggling Maness, an old Broxton and arguably the worst bullpen manager pulling the strings. But hey! What if I told you one midseason trade could take this average bullpen and turn it into a championship bullpen?
Time for trade talk! And I love me some trade talk. But awkwardly enough, the most surprising and most difficult to predict trades are the ones for MLB relievers at the deadline. Keep in mind there are currently 154 qualified relievers in Major League Baseball, half of which no one has heard of. Also, relievers might be the most volatile athletes in all of professional sports, right up there with NFL running backs. Therefore, in this discussion, I will only be using 2016 statistics. Which already makes the guessing game semi-irresponsible. Anyway! I will try my best to narrow down possible trade targets that could fill a need for the Cardinals by using my super low tech, subjective criteria. Ready?
We can safely assume the following:
Any team currently under .500 would trade a reliever for the right price
Any team within a few games of the wild card or division will most likely not trade a good reliever for middling prospects
*The Cardinals will not trade Reyes, Weaver, Flaherty, Bader, Sierra, Fernandez etc. for a big name. Or, for anyone (including younger arms that have 4-6 years of control).
*Just speculation, but no chance we make the leap for a Miller, Brach, etc.
So basically, any reliever the Cardinals would acquire will probably be relatively older, healthy, pitching moderately well but not GREAT, and be playing for a bad team. I will ignore salaries in this discussion but really only a few relievers have hefty multiple year deals.
Here’s a list of every MLB reliever that I believe fits this profile:
(Criteria: 27+ years old, not on the DL, 30+ innings pitched in 2016, 0.4+ fWAR in 2016, current team must be under .500)
Kelvin Herrera - KC
Tyler Thornburg - MIL
Nate Jones - CHW
Wade Davis - KC
Xavier Cedeno - TB
Zach Duke - CHW
Ryan Buchter - SD
Hector Neris - PHI
Jeremy Jeffress - MIL
Jeanmar Gomez - PHI
Blake Wood - CIN
Alex Colome - TB
Liam Hendriks - OAK
Dan Jennings - CHW
Ryan Pressly - MIN
David Hernandez - PHI
Blaine Boyer - MIL
Now, outside of the first 4 names, that list may seem dreary. But there are a few guys that could plug a hole the Cards have been dealing with since Trevor Rosenthal forgot how to throw a fastball. Now let’s shrink this list a little more by adding more qualifiers. First, let’s just eliminate Herrera and Davis (cause that ain’t happening). Next, let’s eliminate the guys who don’t have above average strikeout rates (cause who wants a deadline bullpen addition who strikes out 7 per 9??). Everyone with a K% under 20%, gone.
Now, the list looks like this:
Thornburg - MIL
Buchter - SD
Colome - TB
Neris - PHI
Hernandez - PHI
Jones - CHW
Duke - CHW
Cedeno - TB
Wood - CIN
Hendriks - OAK
Pressly - MIN
This new list is pretty darn solid, even with practically no big name there. A bullpen with any 7 of these 11 would be a top three bullpen in all of baseball. I believe these are the 11 names many front offices are inquiring about, especially the St. Louis Cardinals.
Who is my favorite pitcher on this list, you may ask? …Well, he’s a 27 year old righty that has already bounced around 6 (!) different organizations. His name is Liam Hendriks. Last year with the Blue Jays, his first full season as a reliever, he struck out 27.2% of batters while only walking 4.2%. Good for a 2.14 FIP and 1.5 fWAR. After elbow issues this spring, he is having a decent season but an elevated opponent BABIP and higher HR/FB% makes his 3.42 FIP and 4.54 ERA look worse than they actually are (which could mean cheap!). ZiPS projects Hendriks to earn 8.33 K/9, 1.77 BB/9, and a 2.96 FIP over the last two months of the season. Oakland is going nowhere and Hendriks enters arbitration next year with control through 2019. With young pitchers and outfielders on their way up for St. Louis, maybe package some MLB ready talent for Hendriks? Any combination of Randal Grichuk, Anthony Garcia, Charlie Tilson, Marco Gonzales, or Tim Cooney could be very attractive.
Now to answer for my tease about one trade turning this bullpen into a competitive one... I think one move for a Hendriks or a Nate Jones or an Xavier Cedeno does just that. Even after yesterday’s amazing comeback against Familia and the Mets, the Cards are still 12-16 in one run games with 13 reliever losses and 12 blown saves. But adding another sturdy bullpen piece will subtly prevent mismatches that have often caused these poor relief totals all season long. It won’t be Broxton in the 7th with 2 men on after Martinez is pulled for 2 weak singles getting through the infield. It won’t be Bowman in the 8th clinging to a 2 run lead after the reliever before him allowed two straight walks. It won’t be Dean Kiekhefer to come in and get a tough lefty like Joey Votto in the 8th. It’ll be a dominant righty in Hendriks right before or after an acceptable lefty in Siegrist and then one of the most dominant relievers in baseball to clean it up at the end. Projections have Oh + Siegrist + Hendriks combining for ~0.8-1.2 fWAR rest of season, which is more than acceptable for a team that has relied on late inning offense all season long. With Bowman, healthy (maybe?) Rosenthal, and Broxton as options 4 through 6 and help from Tyler Lyons, there is just enough firepower for this team to gobble up some August and September wins. Trading MLB talent for middle relief help is always risky… always. But knowing what we know about the randomness of October, it’s important to do almost anything to get there as long as the future isn’t significantly mortgaged. Pull the trigger, Mo!
Oh! Just for fun, I wanted to include the younger relievers who may be of interest. They only evaded my original list because they are 26 and under. These are guys bad teams aren’t likely to surrender.
(26 and under, 0.4+ fWAR, not on DL, 30+ innings pitched in 2016, team currently under .500):
Ryan Dull - OAK
Cam Bedrosian - LAA
Brad Hand - SD
Carlos Estevez - COL
Taylor Rogers - MIN
Michael Tonkin - MIN
Arodys Vizcaino - ATL
And obviously these two names have been swirling around the interwebs, many attaching them to the Cardinals.
Sean Doolittle - Currently on DL but played catch on Tuesday 7/26. Under team control for next 4 seasons.
Tyler Clippard - Career high HR/FB% but solid peripherals elsewhere, could be cheaper option. Under control for 2017.