After reading a myriad of articles and predictions claiming the Cardinals should go after the likes of Wade Davis, Greg Holland, and Kelvin Herrera, among other end of game options I have decided to share my view on the predicament. I have long held the belief of not paying for "closers". I do not see this issue as a simply plug and play solution. The closer role is too unpredictable of a role to tie such high assets into. Clearly last year, and even the 2016 season, the Cardinals gravely suffered from insufficient success in late innings. The addition of Mike Maddux will hopefully improve the teams overall pitching performance but a revamped bullpen is a necessity for the offseason. The revitalized 'pen can be done without spending high-dollar amounts of money or prospects.
First, let us look back upon the previous years bullpen woes. Whether it be 2016-Rosenthal, 2017-Oh, 2017-*Insert any RP*, it has undoubtedly been an issue the last two seasons. Interestingly enough the Cardinals didn't seem to adjust the bullpen entering 2017 sans the Free Agent addition of Cecil. Leading into the 2017 season it was basically the same Mathenaging stalwarts who ended 2016. Oh, Rosenthal, Bowman, Broxton, Siegrist and the Memphis touring act of Soco and Tui, with Lyons on the mend. As 2017 unfolded we saw this plan backfired horrendously. Broxton cut, Siegrist all but died, Bowman met the same fate all groundballers meet, Rosenthal started great then faded, Oh's slider regressed faster than Bo Hart, Cecil started poorly so the overreaction, "worst contract" jargon started even though his WAR reached similar heights of his previous successful seasons North of the Border. Soco showed he was career minor leaguer, Tui showed flashes of brilliance, in blowouts. Only Jordan Lyles of Colorado, pitched 40+ IP and had a lower Game Leverage Index than Tui in the NL this year. Thankfully for Matheny and the Cardinals they were able to replace some of the struggling RP's with better options like Brebbia, Lyons, and much later in the year Nicasio. After such an abomination of a season the Cardinals could only improve, right? Here is how I would go about it.
Step 1. Do not sign any of the "Top Free Agent" Options
Closers are an odd, unconfigurable animal. We need Charles Darwin to figure out this rare breed of athlete to better quantify their ability. They are too unpredictable year-to-year to have such gargantuan monetary values handed to them. For example.
Here are the 2016 Save Leaders and their current designation with current teams.
1. Jeurys Familia, 51 Saves. Didn't close majority of 2017 for non-baseball health reasons.
2. Mark Melancon, 47 Saves. Lost closer job in first year of 4/$62m deal. Now being rumored to be involved in a trade for Jason Heyward.
3. Kenley Jansen, 47 Saves. Still Premier.
4. Zach Britton, 47 Saves. Saved 15 games in 2017, missed majority of season due to injury.
5. Francisco Rodriguez, 44 Saves. Lost closer job by early May 2017, cut by June 2017.
6. AJ Ramos, 40 Saves. Traded near 2017 deadline, xFIP of 4.30.
7. Sam Dyson, 38 Saves. DFA'd by June. Reclaimed closer job in SF. xFIP of 4.42 in SF.
8. David Robertson, 37 Saves. Performed well as closer for poor White Sox. Dealt to Yankees in July to be setup man.
9. Jeanmar Gomez, 37 Saves. Lost closer role on April 10. DFA by June.
10. Alex Colome, 37 Saves. Although he maintained his closer, xFIP rose from 2.75 to 4.32. K/9 dropped significantly.
That is just after a singular season worth of regression.
2015's Top 10 Saves leaders, who still are closing, are just Jansen and Kimbrel. As you can tell, there is not empirical evidence for sustained closer success year after year. If anything, their is evidence that a closer performance will regress into losing said closer job. So what does this mean for the available closers? For this case study, we will only look at the closers I have seen the Cardinals linked to the most. Which are Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, and Greg Holland. Basically your 2014 Royals bullpen.
A look back to four year's ago saves leaders, four years ago being my target year due to the projected four or even five year deals that Holland and Davis will command on the open market. Fernando Rodney, Kimbrel, Holland, Rosenthal, K-Rod, Jansen, Huston Street, Papelbon, Robertson, Cishek are your top 10. Stretch down to top 20 and only 5/20 were primary closers in 2017, however 7 of the 20 did not record a single save in 2017.
Now, let's look into each closer individually.
Wade Davis, 32: Just looking at his RP statistics as he started a bit in his youth down in Tampa. In 2017 he recorded career lows in BB% and HR/9. His fastball velo has regressed each year since 2013. However, Davis did post a career high with Swinging strike rate.
Kelvin Herrera, 28 by April 2018: In 2017, he posted a career worst xFIP and lowest LOB%. Compared to his season averages he posted below average K-BB%, HR/9, BB/9, K/9, among others. All around a down year for Herrera in his first year as the closer. His fastball velocity has steadily dropped each year
Greg Holland, 32 by April 2018: Holland is tough to judge as this was his first year pitching since his 2015 TJ surgery. His numbers were spotty. Worst xFIP, 2nd worst K%, 2nd worst BB%. Fastball velocity was a good three ticks down from his non-TJ 2015 year.
From the projections I have seen on these pitchers It looks like Holland will get about a 4/$50, similar to what it looks like Lance Lynn will receive. Davis will get a few million more, 4/$65. Herrera, still under contract with the Royals, give or take will get about $9m then becomes a FA.
Comparing these options to Free Agent closers of years past you can see why there is reason for concern.
Mark Melancon, 32 by April 2017. Received a 4/$62m deal with SF last offseason, again similar to what Davis is expected to receive. Looking back a year ago to 2016 Melancon, compared to his previous years you can't find a drop off like you see with the aforementioned three. 2016 Melancon's xFIP, K% and B% all rank 3rd of his five seasons in which he recorded 15+ saves. It was his average closer season.
Aroldis Chapman, 29 by April 2017. Received 5/$86m deal with NYY. We can all conclude that of the five closers mentioned up to this point, Chapman is by far the superior option. Leading into his FA offseason, he had just posted his lowest BB%, his second best xFIP, and second best ground ball rate. Granted his K/9 dropped to his second worst of his career, still at an astonishing 13.97. Although I follow the rule of "Don't pay for Closers", there are exceptions. Chapman and Jansen are those exceptions. Even though you are starting to see some deterioration in Chapman two years running now.
Kenley Jansen, 29 by April 2017. Received a 5/$80 deal with LAD. Yeah, he is really good. We all agree. Except Marwin Gonzalez. Marwin does not. I don't need to futher divulge into his dominance.
The FA's available today are, at best, Melancon good. Even with him, he put up career average's going into his FA payday. The two FA's put up below average numbers with Herrera, via trade, also putting up equally below average numbers. This is clearly not the route the Cardinals should travel down to find the long desired bullpen we have long chased for.
Step 2. Sign Juan Nicasio + Pat Neshek + Anthony Swarzak
Based upon the projected salaries from MLBTradeRumors.com, the three combined would cost 2/$14m (Swarzak), 2/$12m (Neshek), 3/$21m (Nicasio), totalling $47m. 3 pitchers for less than price of one of the "superior" pitchers.
Juan Nicasio, 31. Nicasio dazzled in his limited exposure in St. Louis in 2017. Quickly grasping the wide open closer job in September. As Nicasio was a starter for the majority of his younger days, we will only look at his RP stats. Nicasio xFIP has hovered right around 3.50 for his RP days with a 3.64 last year with St. Louis. His 17.9 K-BB% is less than a percentage point(18.7%), from the $50m man, Holland. His BB% has dropped each year since becoming a RP. The fastball velocity hasn't dropped since becoming a full-time RP, 95.7 in 2017 compared to 95.8 in 2015 with LAD.
Pat Neshek, 37. You thought Neshek was lights out in 2014 for St. Louis? He was better in 2017. Neshek, in his age 36 season, posted the best season of his career. His BB/9 was the best by a RP in baseball. Do you need any more information? His K/9 was his best season in which he threw more than 40 innings. His xFIP was the best of his career. He has a great life story. His beef with Zack Greinke is hilarious. Just sign the man yesterday.
Anthony Swarzak, 32. Swarzak was a no-name, serviceable reliever on abysmal Twins teams from 2009-2014. After a home run laden 2016 season in the Bronx, Swarzak caught fire for the White Sox in 2017, becoming a hot trade deadline commodity before Milwaukee acquired for the postseason run. Combined in 2017, Anthony posted a 2.33 ERA with a 3.48 xFIP. His xFIP has trended downwards throughout his entire career while his K/9 has trended up. The velocity has surprisingly risen along with his age, coming up from 93.3 in 2012 to 95.0 this year.
With the addition of these three, your 2018 Cardinals Bullpen would line up as follows:
Your last spot or two, depending on how Matheny/Maddux decide to go would come down to Tuivailala, Brebbia, Sherriff, Gant, or Reyes and Alcantara (If not traded for Stanton). I would like to see Reyes start the year in the bullpen, get his mojo back and save his arm some innings to start the year.
The Cardinals will need as much money as possible if our illustrious Stanton trade ever comes to fruition. Paying a regressing Greg Holland and Wade Davis is not the way to achieve that. I would rather go down the Herrera route during the season as a deadline pick up if he could regain his previous year success.
Step 3. Acquire Stanton = Prosper
Make the trade, without dealing Reyes.
There are some other steps the Cardinals can do to improve for the 2018 season and later years but these are just a few steps to get us started in the right direction.