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Miguel Socolovich should head north with the Cardinals in April

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how to juggle the bullpen in a way that ensures depth throughout the season.

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

It’s Spring Training, and that means figuring out which players are starting the year on the 25-man roster. Craig weighed in on one 25-man roster decision on Tuesday. There, he made a convincing case that even with his hot Spring Training, Jose Martinez probably shouldn’t make the 25-man roster. On the positional side, it really is down to that one spot. The rotation was also probably already set, but Trevor Rosenthal’s issues this spring finished off any chance of an unexpected change to the rotation.

There hasn’t been quite as much talk about the bullpen, though The Red Baron did run down the options recently, and just today, Joe went over why someone could get squeezed out of the bullpen. Seung Hwan Oh, Brett Cecil, Kevin Siegrist, Trevor Rosenthal, and Matt Bowman all seem like sure things, assuming health. Jonathan Broxton will be there, unless a convincing case can be made that the team has seven clearly better relievers. He’s guaranteed $3.75M in the last year of his deal, and can’t be optioned to the minors. I would say that we haven’t reached the point where they should should just cut him loose. There are not two Cardinals relievers unmentioned that need to be on the roster over Broxton.

The seventh spot will be an interesting decision though. Tyler Lyons will not be ready in time for Opening Day, so it won’t be him. When he comes back he won’t have any options remaining, so the team can’t send him to the minors without him clearing waivers first, which he probably won’t. That decision doesn’t have to be made today though.

There’s also John Gant, the main returning piece of the Jaime Garcia trade. Gant has impressed in Spring Training. To be clear, we don’t want to take Spring Training stats seriously. Players are working on getting ready for the upcoming grind of the regular season, and not always concerned with the result themselves. Players change though, and VEB resident scout The Red Baron has been impressed with the way Gant has looked in those performances. That's in terms of stuff and command, not the results, which should be taken lightly.

I’m happy that Gant looks better than expected, but I don’t think he should fill out the seventh spot in the pen. I think he currently slots in well as the 7th starter. Recently, I looked at the Cardinals’ rotation’s injury risk. Luke Weaver grades out as one of the best 6th starter in the league, and Mike Mayers ranked in the middle of the pack in terms of 7th best starters. Here’s how things change with him as the seventh-best starter:

Gant projects as the second-best seventh-best starter in the league, behind only Scott Kazmir of the Dodgers (The Dodgers and Cardinals also take first and second respectively among sixth starters). A seventh starter can be more important than you think. Using Jeff Zimmerman’s D.L. projections, I calculated that the Cardinals’ rotation only has 28.5% chance of suffering one or less D.L. trips this year, and nearly a 40% chance of three or more D.L. trips.

Instead, I think the Cardinals should keep Miguel Socolovich. Socolovich is out of options, so like Lyons, he can’t be assigned to a minor league team without the 29 other teams having a chance to claim him for nothing. He came to the team as a minor league free agent in the 2014-2015 off-season, so it’s tempting to think that maybe he could make it through unclaimed. In his two years as a Cardinal, he’s clocked just under 48 innings, but he’s been almost exactly a league average reliever over that time frame.

Average relievers don’t grow on trees, so there’s a good chance he’d be claimed. As evidence, I grabbed Fangraphs Depth Charts, and looked at every pitcher projected for no games started, in order to filter for just projected relievers. I ordered every team’s relievers by FIP, and found the seventh-best reliever for each team. Here are the results:

This system selects Sam Tuivailala as the club’s seventh-best reliever. The projections actually see Socolovich as the fourth best reliever on the team, seeing a 3.51 FIP in 2017. I’m not going to argue that you should believe that he’s that good; the projections are inevitably going to have higher error bars for a guy like him with 64 career innings in the show spread out over three seasons. Still, the point is that two objective systems see him as way better than the large majority of seventh best relievers, so there’s probably at least a few teams around the league who would be happy to add him at basically zero cost.

As I mentioned, Tuivailala is ranked as the seventh-best reliever, but on the outside looking in. And that’s including Lyons on the list still. That’s because Jonathan Broxton and Kevin Siegrist both project as worse than him, with Bowman just a single point of FIP higher than him. Siegrist might surprise you, but he had the 25th and 33rd worst FIP and xFIP respectively among 135 qualified relievers last year.

It’s tempting to say the Cardinals should just DFA Broxton, and bring Tuivailala and Socolovich north. Depth is super important over the 162 game season though. I don’t see “Tui” wasting away in Memphis. If he’s lights out there, and the bullpen is remarkably healthy, someone will eventually get the boot, probably Broxton in the form of a DFA. That represents a small slice of potential outcomes though. Over the course of a 162 game season, Broxton isn’t really blocking anybody. The same goes for Siegrist, who has been lights-out in the past.

The next decision will come when Tyler Lyons returns from injury. He also has no options remaining. The team could further delay losing someone though, by demoting Matt Bowman, who still has all three options remaining. Again, if there are injuries (which are always likely), he’ll be back, and it could easily happen relatively quickly. If there’s not, and Broxton is ineffective, then at that point they can DFA Broxton.

Like in the rotation and on the bench, the Cardinals have accumulated an enviable level of depth in the bullpen. Choosing a guy like Broxton over a guy like Tui may not be the exciting move. It’s a boring move, but an effective one that helps accumulate that depth in the first place. It makes the issue Sam Tuivailala or Miguel Socolovich, instead of Sam Tuivailala and Miguel Socolovich. That’s only for the Opening Day roster though, which doesn’t exactly mean everything. With Socolovich out of options, that decision is an easy one. Picking Socolovich now means keeping both in the organization.