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System Sundays: Reliever Updates

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Keeping track of minor league relief numbers is important if you expect to see them sooner than later. And, well.....

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Look, I’m not necessarily suggesting anything specifically. But hey, you know, just in case the Cardinals need to make some alterations to their bullpen sometime soon, let’s take a look at a handful of notable relief arms down on the farm, shall we? You know, just in case....

Josh Lucas, RHP, Memphis

There are two righthanders on the Memphis Redbird roster I have to believe are very much in line for almost immediate callup should some big shakeup occur. Actually, three, but I’m talking besides Sam Tuivailala, who has already been one of the Cardinals’ more reliable relievers this year.

The first of those two righties is Josh Lucas, a 26 year old who qualifies for journeyman status in spite of never journeying outside his original organisation, as he was drafted by the Cardinals out of a tiny Florida college in the 21st round of the 2010 draft. It’s been a long, slow climb for Lucas since then; he hasn’t had his down and out moment like John Brebbia, pitching for the Gateway Grizzlies, but it also took him until 2016 to finally reach Triple A.

He’s been at the highest level of the minors all season, and seems to have taken a liking to pitching for the Redbirds, as he has been probably the club’s most consistently excellent reliever this year. In 34 games covering 46.1 innings — which is part of an interesting mini-trend I’ll get to in a bit — Lucas has put up a 3.50 ERA/3.01 FIP line, with a 27.1% strikeout rate and a minuscule 3.7% walk rate. He features a tremendous slurvy breaking ball from a three-quarter arm slot that, coming from his 6’6” frame, puts one in mind a bit of former Yankee setup man Jeff Nelson. The contact has been a bit loud for Lucas this season, but when it comes to generating empty swings and not handing out free passes, he’s been about as good as it gets.

Mark Montgomery, RHP, Memphis

The other of the two righthanders who have lit up the PCL wearing Memphis neon on their jerseys this year is Mongomery, the former Yankee farmhand the Cardinals picked up after he was released at the end of spring training, the victim of a numbers and options crunch.

The story on Montgomery has always been the same: tons of strikeouts, tons of walks. He possessed a pyrotechnic fastball and dominant slider when he first came into pro ball; after some arm troubles the fastball has leveled out into a more average pitch, while the slider is still pretty much unhittable most days.

The interesting thing this year is that Montgomery has finally gotten his walk rate under control, while also sacrificing some strikeouts as a result of working in the zone so much more often. The ERA is outstanding at 2.14, while the FIP is still very solid but not as amazing at 3.17. Having watched a lot of Montgomery pitching this year, though, I will say I think he has a better chance of being a consistent FIP-beater than, say, Lucas, because he generates a ton of weak contact in the air. Lots of popups, even though the fastball velocity is pretty ordinary now. There’s something deceptive about his delivery or movement that gets batters to go under the ball.

Even with that said, Montgomery’s calling card is still the slider, and he uses it with remarkable mastery. He’s struck out 29.8% of batters he’s faced this season, and a walk rate that rarely crept below double digits in his career this year is just 5.6%. Mark Montgomery deserves a big league callup, period.

The interesting trend I mentioned a moment ago with Lucas is present with Montgomery as well, in that he’s appeared in 34 games, but thrown 49.2 innings. Relief usage in general is a little less hidebound in the minors than in the majors, particularly because rosters are often so fluid, but it’s very intriguing to me that both of the best relievers the Cardinals have stashed at Triple A (again, other than Tui, who has followed a much more rigid one-inning closer schedule), have thrown so many multi-inning outings this year. The “Andrew Miller type” reliever has become such an overused cliche at this point, particularly because Miller himself has really only ever been that multi-inning fireman at one or two points along the way, but I do wonder if the Cardinals have made a conscious effort to develop some flexibility with their best high minors relievers by working them in a variety of roles, including a couple three-inning jobs for Montgomery earlier in the season.

Ryan Sherriff, LHP, Memphis

Ryan Sherriff, at the beginning of the season, was probably best known as the minor league pitcher who popped off after the organisation failed to protect him from the Rule V draft, only to not be taken anyway. A bit humbling, that, one would imagine. Personally, I kind of like the fire; that speech from Charlie Sheen to Lou Brown in Major League, when he vows to come back and make them regret cutting him? I can get behind a real-life version of that.

Oh, and then Wainwright rented him a car. That was kind of weird. Nice, but weird.

The really good news, though, is that Ryan Sherriff, following that rather humbling episode, has gone out in 2017 and established himself as a viable candidate for a major league callup, right on the verge of the bigs, especially if he were in any other organisation not carrying four lefties in the ‘pen right now.

The good version of Sherriff is going to roll up a whole bunch of groundballs, and he’s done that this season, sporting a nifty 54.4% GB rate that helps him limit the damage on balls in play. That’s important, because he lacks one killer pitch that he can miss bats with consistently, relying more on controlling contact and limiting walks. He has struck out 22.8% of hitters this year, which is a career best for him, and he’s the second pitcher on this list today to have a sub-5% walk rate (just barely), at 4.9%.

The bad news for Sherriff is the major league bullpen is lousy with lefties, with Tyler Lyons, Brett Cecil, Zach Duke, and Kevin Siegrist all gumming up the works. The good news is he’s really the only legitimate lefty on the Triple A roster, so if some of those guys move it on down the line either through trade this season or sometime later in the year, he ought to be in good position for a 40 man spot this winter. Personally, I’m hoping he makes it; he’s a guy I called out back when he was drafted in 2011 writing up the draft in the RFT, and it would be really gratifying to see a guy I happened to see something interesting in actually make it all the way to the big leagues. Also, he’s got a bit of that Tommy Pham fuck you in him, and I really think the Cardinals could use some more of that.

Oh, and also because if he’s on the team next year they can do another ‘new sheriff in town’ commercials for Cardinals Care, with Matt Carpenter bringing in Deputy Sherriff, which I think would be cute. Don’t judge me. I like what I like.

Rowan Wick, RHP, Springfield

Hey, remember Rowan Wick? He became somewhat of a meme around here a couple years ago, after I predicted a breakout season from him and he then proceeded to crush State College pitching for some ungodly number of homers in a small sample.

Oh, and then nothing else happened. He didn’t move up to Peoria, strike out like 45% of the time, and completely shatter my mask of knowing anything about prospects. There’s literally no reason why he would have been moved to pitching. If anything, the Cards moved him because he was just too good as a hitter, and would have made the game boring for everyone else. We call it the Amaury Marti Rule, and it’s there for everyone’s protection.

So anyway, since being moved to pitcher for no reason, Wick has enjoyed a fairly rapid rise up the ranks of the system, quickly rising from a rookie ball audition in 2015 to opening this season in the Memphis ‘pen. It’s easy to see why, too; the stuff is borderline elite, even if his command of said stuff is far from it.

In Triple A this season, Wick was mostly successful, striking out almost 24% of the hitters he faced, and from most reports was making progress in developing a curveball to complement his mid-90s heater. The walk rate (10.5%), was on the high side, but considering this is just Wick’s third year as a pitcher, that’s maybe not incredibly surprising. The worse news is that Wick has spent two separate (short), stretches on the disabled list. Following the most recent stay on the DL, he was sent to the GCL on a rehab assignment and then sent to Springfield, rather than Memphis, when he was reactivated. I’m not sure if it was a demotion to work with a specific coach or a simple matter of a roster crunch in Memphis, but for now it appears Wick will be pitching at Double A for a while.

Of the four pitchers here, Wick is easily the least major league ready. He’s got big stuff, obviously, but still has a ways to go before you would want to count on him at the big league level. Maybe come September we’ll see him, but I definitely wouldn’t expect it before then.

You know, a funny thing occurred to me as I was writing this column. In the Cards’ major league bullpen right now, I think Zach Duke and Brett Cecil are both untradeable. Duke because he’s fresh off TJ and only has a couple months left on his contract, and I’m not sure another club is going to want to give up anything for a guy they may not be totally sold didn’t come back too quick. Cecil has the big contract and the no-trade that complicate matters, and while he started the season rough and has had a couple bad outings in a row here lately, he was also one of the best relievers in baseball for about two months up until the last week. I’m not sure you’re going to get anything for Brebbia yet, either, considering he was in indy ball two years ago and hasn’t done it in the bigs for very long. Also, he’s been good, so I wouldn’t give him away. So those three guys I just don’t see moving, because they’re net positives and don’t have a ton of value.

But if you were to trade Trevor Rosenthal, Seung-Hwan Oh (or just release him, let’s not beat around the bush), Matt Bowman, Kevin Siegrist, and Tyler Lyons, then replace them with Tuivailala, Montgomery, Josh Lucas, and Ryan Sherriff, I’m not sure you would see a marked negative difference in quality. And I don’t say that as a way of condemning the Cards’ current crop of relievers; despite the fact El Birdos have lost more leads than any team I can remember in a hell of a long time, their aggregate numbers are actually about average. Just a part of this weird, seemingly snakebitten season we’re living through.

Honestly, though, if you made those moves, would the ‘pen really be worse? And isn’t it strange that the answer is probably no? The Cardinals have a decent major league bullpen. They also have most of a decent major league bullpen in the minors right now, I think. Maybe better than decent. Tough to say.

But it seems like we really could see some changes coming on the relief side of things in the near future. And if we do, chances are good these names here are the ones that will be floating around as potential replacements.