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The Cards’ Bullpen Makeup for 2017

Taking stock of where the Cardinal bullpen is here in the early days of spring training 2017.

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Yesterday’s column about Joe Blanton, and the question of whether or not he should be under consideration at a potential bargain rate by our Redbirds got me to thinking: now that Alex Reyes is officially out for the year, it looks as if one of the rotation spots we thought was filled is now more up for grabs. And while that may or may not ultimately hurt the rotation (personally, I would say the ceiling of the 2017 Cards dropped a fair bit when Reyes went under the knife, but the expected outcome probably hasn’t changed all that drastically), it seems just as reasonable to ask what the loss of the top pitching prospect in the system will do to the relief corps this upcoming season.

At the very least, the loss of the organisation’s highest-octane arm is bad news for the bullpen. Even if we think the likelihood of Reyes grabbing a spot in the starting rotation was a little less a fait accompli than it’s sometimes been portrayed, it’s hard to see how Reyes and his devastating fastball could have been passed on for relief work. Certainly, there’s an argument one could make he would have been better off in the minors, starting on a fixed schedule, throwing side sessions on an equally fixed schedule, and working to continue improving and developing within that structured approach, but when you’re trying to make the playoffs, it’s a little tougher to argue the kid with 101 in his back pocket who strikes out 40% of the hitters he sees isn’t helping you out of the ‘pen.

All of that now, of course, is moot. Reyes isn’t starting for the Cardinals this year, nor will he be making any relief appearances. As Ben pointed out in his case for Blanton, that means there may be a little more room to add some value. For my own part, I more got to thinking about the ‘pen as a whole and where it stands after an offseason that saw one notable addition and a whole lot of uncertainty regarding the pitchers who were already on the roster.

The Givens

As it stands now, there are only a couple pitcher I see as absolute locks to be in the Cards’ bullpen in 2017.

  • Seung-hwan Oh, RHP
  • Brett Cecil, LHP

Cecil was the Cards’ big addition to the pitching staff this offseason, and he’ll be counted on to get a lot of important outs this year. He’s been one of the better relievers in the game over the past few years, and hopefully that continues. The Final Boss was one of the two really fantastic surprises for the Cardinals in 2016 (the other, of course, being Aledmys Diaz), and comes into 2017 as the presumptive closer. This may be Oh’s last season wearing Cardinal red, unfortunately, and if things go sideways this year I would expect his name to be the first put on the trade block. That being said, as things stand now his spot is secure. He and Cecil give the Cardinals two elite-level performers around whom to build.

  • Matt Bowman, RHP

I think Matt Bowman did enough in 2016 to more or less cement himself as a member in good standing of the Cardinal bullpen for the near future as well. He’s not quite as strong a lock as the two above, I don’t believe, but he’s close. He would have to really fall on his face this spring, to the point of basically looking like a different pitcher, to not have a spot in the ‘pen with his name penciled in.

The one small wrinkle to that situation is the small potential the Cards might want to see if they could have anything in Bowman as a starter. He was a starting prospect coming up for the Mets, and while the Redbirds have certainly shown a proclivity for groundball escape artist types working in relief in recent history, it’s also possible they could try to turn him back into a starter, perhaps sending him to Triple A to stretch out. For my part, I expect him to continue in 2017 right where he left off in 2016: occupying the Seth Maness Memorial fireman spot.

The Near-Locks

These players would seem to be nearly as firmly entrenched as those on the givens list.

  • Kevin Siegrist, LHP

Siegrist probably belongs on the givens list, but considering his off and on performances the past couple years, his extensive injury history, and already missing time this spring (though for now it looks like typical early-camp soreness), I think it’s fair to hold a little doubt as far as Siegrist having a spot locked down. Still, if he’s healthy, Siegrist would seem to pretty much be close to a given.

  • Jonathan Broxton, RHP

Now here’s a chance for some controvery. Much has been said around here regarding Jonathan Broxton’s level of quality, and how much of a role he should really have. But, for whatever reason, the organisation seems unwilling to move away from the hefty righty. To me, these two entries represent probably the shakiest part of the ‘pen, and where you could look for cracks if one wished to.

The Consolation Spot

As things stand right now, the Cardinals have a pair of pitchers competing for the fifth spot in the starting rotation in Trevor Rosenthal and Michael Wacha. One of them is likely going to sew up a starting job, and the other will most likely transition to relief work, possibly in that fireman-type role everyone is so jazzed about right now. Personally, I’m intrigued by the idea of Rosenthal stretched out for the rotation and Michael Wacha boiling his 1-2 combo of fastball and changeup into a devastating syrup, but I also concede it seems far more likely the Cardinals will refuse to seriously consider upsetting the apple cart and the ‘competition’ will be one of those trumped-up spring farces we’ve all come to know and love.

  • Trevor Rosenthal/Michael Wacha

Now a slightly funny thing quickly becomes apparent at this point. Namely, we already have six pitchers who seem like relative locks to be in the bullpen in 2017 (awaiting the outcome of the Rosie/Pac-Man competition). And, somewhat worryingly, there are very, very few options to be used among them. This is a far less flexible group than many we’ve become accustomed to over the years. If

  • Tyler Lyons, LHP

happens to get healthy, it would seem like he slides right into the ‘pen again in the same role he occupied last year, that of the long man/swiss army knife reliever, good to go from pretty much any inning, for nearly any length of outing. And if that is the case, Lyons lacking options to be sent down to Memphis could make the unit difficult to manage again.

If, on the other hand, Lyons does not manage to get himself healthy, there’s probably a little more flexibility, in the form of

  • Miguel Socolovich, RHP
  • Sam Tuivailala, RHP

but also, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, less versatility. Both TuiandSoco (not to be confused with failed prospect Tuiasosopo), seem to be cast better for traditional single-inning relief, rather than being able to fit multiple roles the way Lyons potentially can.

Regardless of which pitcher ultimately fills that final spot, though, it is a fact of the 2017 Cardinal bullpen we are really only looking at, at maximum, one spot of which we are really unsure who will fill it. This seems a heavy philosophical contrast to the bullpens of the Dave Duncan era, when every year in spring training there seemed to be a scrum of several arms to grab one of a couple available spots. I’m not saying it’s better, not saying it’s worse; just saying this is a very different philosophy toward bullpen building, it seems.

It is also a fact that going through this list makes Jonathan Broxton’s name stand out as the obvious spot to make a change. Whether you would be excited about a Joe Blanton signing or not is one thing; understanding that Broxton is a limiting factor on this bullpen is quite another. For instance, I’ve gone this whole column without mentioning the name of John Gant, the right-hander the Cardinals acquired as part of the Jaime Garcia deal, and who belongs at the major league level. Nor did I mention Marco Gonzales, returning from injury without a 25 man spot guaranteed but who could have a lot to offer. Nor did I bring up perhaps the most obvious name, that of Luke Weaver, who almost completely bypassed Triple A last season and still managed to look good enough to get outs at the major league level. His fastball/changeup repertoire could play very similarly to Wacha’s in relief, and it would seem a waste to push him back to the minors when he could be missing bats in the bigs, even out of the ‘pen.

As it stands now, the Cardinals appear to have a strong bullpen overall, potentially a very strong one, but not as much flexibility as one might like. Especially once Tyler Lyons comes back to claim his spot in the ‘pen, the club might struggle this year to make the Memphis shuttle work as well as it has some other seasons. There’s a reasonable amount of surety in this group, it seems, but it’s also hard to find much room for breakouts here. There just aren’t enough spots for meteoric rises in 2017, it would seem.

Unless, of course, the club were willing to bite the bullet, accept some extra uncertainty, and release Broxton.

It’s very, very difficult to see an organisation which has become so incredibly conservative and risk-averse the past handful of years make a move like that, though. Even if it could open up the door for something exciting and potentially great to happen.