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How Big a Problem is the Cardinals’ Bullpen?

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The Cards’ relief corps has been fairly brutal so far in 2017. How big an issue with the ‘pen be if the club hopes to compete for a playoff spot?

Pittsburgh Pirates v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The Cardinals’ season has, obviously, not started out the way we might have hoped. And yes, I’m aware that is a tremendous understatement.

So far, very little has really gone right for the Cardinals. I blame myself for the struggles of the starting rotation recently; the baseball gods are no doubt punishing me for my hubris and excitement about the rotation their first time through. Luckily, the completely unforeseen arrival of Mike Leake, baseball buzzsaw, seems to have helped stabilise things to a certain degree.

On the offensive side, things are much less encouraging. While we’ve seen some up and down performances from the rotation, we’ve seen pretty much nothing but down on the hitting side of things, minus that one ten run day against the Reds, which feels increasingly fluky as time goes by. Most worrisome of all is the degradation of the approach on the offensive side; I had a comment-section debate a while back with Big Jawn Mize, after he made a frustrated comment about how poor the Cards’ plate approaches were this year, and how many Redbird hitters seemed to be going up to the plate with absolutely no plan of attack in mind. I countered back, saying I thought the approach had been fine, evidenced by the 10.6% walk rate at the time, and the fact even the hitters who weren’t hitting were, I thought, taking great at-bats early in the season, and were only just starting to press a bit and lose some patience at the time this exchange took place.

Well, unfortunately, I have to concede that BJM’s view of the situation has proven more prescient than mine. The Cardinals have completely lost any semblance of plate approach at this point, with hitters walking up to the plate trying to hit a bases-empty three run homer every single at-bat. Aledmys Diaz still hasn’t drawn a single walk on the year, and is lunging at pitches down and away, out of the zone at a rate that is, frankly, astounding. Stephen Piscotty seems dead set on swinging at every single pitch thrown his way, no matter how far up or in it may be. Even Dexter Fowler seems overly aggressive at the moment, jumping at pitches he has let go basically his entire major league career.

It’s not shocking to see the plate approach suffer, considering how poorly the offense is going right now. El Birdos have hit for virtually zero power this year; their collective isolated slugging of .119 is third-worst in baseball. The team batting average on balls in play is .245, also third-lowest. The overall team walk rate of 8.6% is still pretty much middle of the pack (13th out of 30, to be exact), but it’s been falling pretty steadily. So very little power, very little hard contact, no luck on contact to help get some rallies (and some good feelings), started up, and a walk rate that’s dropped by two full percentage points in about a week. This is the definition of a team that is pressing. Things are going bad, and the hitters are compounding the issue by allowing their process to deteriorate. It’s a scary place to be.

Perhaps most worrisome of all, though, is the performance of the relief corps so far in 2017. Coming into the season, there was reason to believe the bullpen might be a real strength of the team. Well, two-plus weeks in, and in typical Cardinal fashion that has proven to be fool’s gold.

First, the positives: Trevor Rosenthal looks awesome. Matt Bowman, in spite of the worrying velocity decline outlined yesterday by Ben Markham, has been nothing short of stellar. Bowman’s drop in pitch speed is interesting, since so far he’s gotten both a good number of strikeouts and a ton of groundballs; the eye test argues he’s been excellent so far, but the gun says there’s a yellow flag there. Personally, I’m not worried, and happen to think the velocity drop could be the result of some minor wrinkle or change Bowman has added to his sinker grip or something of the sort. Sam Tuivailala didn’t look great when he was up with the big club, but he did look like he’s continuing to make progress with his control.

The negatives in the ‘pen, unfortunately, are much more apparent. Miguel Socolovich has seen a bit of an uptick in velocity, but he’s also been pretty shaky on the mound. Brett Cecil has put up four scoreless outings in a row now, seemingly righting his ship somewhat, but his velocity is down and some of his appearances have just been plain ugly. Oh, and lest we forget: he’s three weeks into a four year contract. Soooo, you know.

And then there’s the really scary part of the bullpen. Seung-Hwan Oh has been nothing like his 2016 incarnation, even after a strong turn through the WBC this spring. Now, admittedly, there has been some batted-ball weirdness and defensive shakiness in several of Oh’s outings this year; last night we saw two infield hits and a flared single to load the bases, and Jose Martinez not typically being a first basemen contributed to the slow development of the play on Jody Mercer. Still, Oh simply hasn’t been sharp, and it’s worth asking the question whether the Cardinals should have been more aggressive cashing in their chips on Oh when he was still a premiere closer this past offseason. Sure, it would have sucked to see the Stone Buddha/Final Boss leave town, but if the Cards could have pulled the inflated price elite relievers have been commanding in trade the past few years, it’s definitely a defensible position to argue they should have.

Even worse than the sudden vulnerability of the closer the Cards were counting on to shut down the end of games, we have the duo of Kevin Siegrist and Jonathan Broxton. Broxton was extremely mediocre in 2015, both before and after the Cards traded for him, was bad in 2016 (4.10 FIP for a reliever is not very good), and has been horrible so far in 2017. Broxton has been allowing far more baserunners than you want to see a reliever allowing for years now, and this season appears to simply be throwing meatballs.

Siegrist might actually be the scariest case of them all. He has always been basically a one-pitch pitcher, relying on a high velocity fastball with riding movement to overmatch hitters. Unfortunately, since bursting into the league back in 2013, Siegrist’s velocity has pretty steadily declined, year after year, and he’s down again so far this year. The surface numbers for Siegrist looked solid last year, but that perception was largely created by a .221 BABIP and unsustainably high strand rate of almost 90%. His ERA was a shiny 2.77, but his FIP was a dreadful 4.43. There’s a lot of regression that can happen between those numbers. And, at least in the early going this year, it looks like Kevin Siegrist may just be collapsing.

All of which adds up to a bullpen that could prove to be a real crisis point for the 2017 Cardinals. It’s funny that the team’s terrible start overall has somewhat served to keep the heat off the relievers; as poorly as the team has played it’s not like the ‘pen is coughing up leads twice a week. There simply haven’t been many leads to cough up.

But make no mistake: that will not hold true if the rest of the club can get things turned around. A team fighting for its wild card life cannot bear the kind of performances we’ve seen from the relief corps this year. Maybe the Cardinals won’t actually be fighting for a wild card spot, but even a start as rough as this one doesn’t mean the club can’t climb back into contention. It’s a steeper hill to climb, absolutely, but it can still be done.

Which means, of course, that the Cards could be looking at two complete black holes in the bullpen in Siegrist and Broxton, and a big question mark in regards to Seung-Hwan Oh. I’m not ready to jump off the Brett Cecil wagon just yet, but guess what? I’m certainly worried.

The Redbirds could literally be looking at four serious problems in the ‘pen if things break badly. I think two of those problems are far more likely than not to come to pass, while Oh and Cecil are still a bit more of a mixed bag, I think.

How many of those potential leaks (not Leakes), the Cards could potentially fill is an open question. Tuivailala looked interesting, and once Luke Weaver gets off the disabled list he could offer an option to replace an ineffective reliever. Tyler Lyons will almost certainly be coming back soon, but the worry there is whose spot he takes. If the front office were willing to simply move on from Broxton in favour of giving Lyons a spot, I would feel much better about both the bullpen and the overall direction of the franchise, if I’m being frank. I very much doubt that will be the move, though. Siegrist might have options, but I don’t think that’s the case. We know Socolovich does not. Matt Bowman might literally be the only reliever the Redbirds can easily send to the minors at this point.

Cory Jones had a very nice spring training, as well as a solid turn for Team Israel in the WBC, but he’s still a pretty limited ceiling guy. Josh Lucas looked interesting in spring as a righty killer with that big sweeping breaker of his. Mike Mayers could be a relief option, allowing his stuff to play up a bit. Mitch Harris will be in the mix, I suppose. Arturo Reyes had a nice spring, and is off to a good start in Triple A Memphis. He’s not on the 40 man roster, though, meaning a move to bring him up would be more complicated. Rowan Wick, off to a very good start of his own at Memphis, is on the 40 man, so he could be an option sooner than later depending on how careful the organisation wants to be with him.

There are two other really interesting options stashed in Triple A, neither of whom is on the 40 man roster. Mark Montgomery, a former Yankee farmhand who was released at the end of spring training and caught on with the Cards on a minor league deal, has gotten out to a ridiculous start in Memhpis. He’s thrown 9.1 inning so far this season, and has racked up a 16:1 strikeout to walk ratio. Montgomery was always a swing and miss beast in the minors, but had serious control issues for most of his career. It’s far too early to assume he’s made any real strides in that area, of course, but the early returns are obviously encouraging.

The other option I’m really intrigued by is current starter Daniel Poncedeleon. Poncedeleon has been a starter throughout his minor league career, and while there’s a chance he could stick in a big league rotation long term, my personal preference would be to move him to relief work where he could concentrate on his best pitches and let the pure stuff play. Hell, if he moved to the ‘pen and simply threw his cutter 80% of the time I think you could have an All-Star reliever on your hands.

It’s somewhat tough to argue in favour of a Poncedeleon move to the ‘pen, though, when he’s pitching as well as he currently is in a starting role. In ten innings this season, he’s allowed just five hits, while putting up a 13:5 K/BB ratio. The walks are a little high, obviously, but he’s as tough to hit as just about any pitcher in the system right now.

There are obviously big issues with the big league bullpen right now, and most of them are performance-related. Broxton being bad, Siegrist looking busted, Oh looking like December’s smartest trade opportunity, and Cecil looking like November’s worst buy. All of those things are worrisome. Even beyond the performances, though, the issue of a lack of flexibility in the ‘pen is just as bad. Broxton cannot be sent to the minors, and the club doesn’t appear eager to simply let him go. Rosenthal can be optioned, I think, but who would be dumb enough to option Trevor Rosenthal right now? (Don’t answer than, on second thought.) Socolovich is out of options, as is Tyler Lyons once he comes off the DL. Brett Cecil cannot be optioned. In other words, it’s going to be much harder than one might hope to cycle in new blood to help out the bullpen, unless the Redbirds are willing to make some tough choices on players they seem to want to keep far more than many of us do.

All of which is just a very long-winded way to say that yes, it’s almost a guarantee this year at the trade deadline the Cardinals will be once again dealing away minor league talent for average relievers. As it was, is, and ever shall be.