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What’s the ‘Pen Plan?

The Cardinals seemed intent on upgrading the bullpen early in the offseason. Now, not so much. What happened?

St Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Going into the offseason, one of the Cardinals’ top priorities seemed to be upgrading a bullpen that, while mostly right around average in the aggregate, served as one of the biggest potential causes for the club underachieving its true talent markers last year. The relief corps of 2017 probably got more hate than it deserved — particularly certain members — but it was not, in really any way one could defend, a real strength of the team.

And that, unfortunately, became even more true after the season. A bullpen that had already lost Trevor Rosenthal to Tommy John surgery during the year saw Zach Duke depart, saw Seung-Hwan Oh depart. Admittedly, Duke barely pitched in 2017 after a TJ surgery of his own in 2016, and Oh was actually one of the chief culprits for the unit’s struggles following his stellar ‘16 campaign, so it isn’t as if either one was a huge positive contributor to the cause. When it comes to building a bullpen, though, as Napoleon was fond of saying, quantity has a quality all its own, and losing talented arms from the pool is hard to ever see as an unequivocal positive.

A return to prominence for the Cardinals in 2018 was, in all likelihood, going to require a lot of bullpen renovation, the thought went. The early rhetoric from the front suggested those major renovations were very much on the docket. Whatever happened in the offseason, it seemed, the Cards’ bullpen was one of the areas of the club which would see the most turnover.

It is now the 14th of January, and here are all the notable additions to the ‘pen made by the Cardinals so far this offseason:

  1. signed Luke Gregerson to a two year, $11 million dollar deal,
  2. .......

Yep, that’s it. One free agent signing of a former closer coming off a down season, and a whole lot of nothing. The Cardinals checked in on Wade Davis before he signed with Colorado. They’ve apparently had discussions with Greg Holland and Scott Boras. They were reported to have had serious talks with Tampa Bay about trading for Alex Colome. Basically every late-inning relief option on the market has been tied to the Cardinals in one way or another at some point this offseason.

And yet, right around the same time Addison Reed was putting pen to paper on a two year deal worth $17 million from the Minnesota Twins, Johnny Mo was telling a group of fans that, as of right now, Luke Gregerson is the Cards’ closer heading into 2018. Luke Gregerson, I would like to remind you, while potentially a good value play and certainly a candidate to see some positive regression from last season, put up a 4.62 FIP in 2017.

So....what gives?

It is, of course, still possible the Cardinals could add a piece or two to the bullpen; the offseason, after all, is not yet over, and the incredible slowness of the market means there are still some solid arms floating around out there. But if I’m being honest, Addison Reed was really the only arm left on the relief market that I felt was a really good fit for the Redbirds this offseason, so to see them just take a pass is rather discouraging.

The problem is that the remaining options all have pretty significant warts. Greg Holland was great once upon a time, and returned to post fine numbers last year in Coors Field, but having watched him last season, he just doesn’t look like the same pitcher anymore. He doesn’t have the fastball to challenge hitters in the zone anymore — or perhaps simply lacks the confidence in the fastball he does have to challenge hitters — and got by in 2017 largely by throwing slider after slider, mostly down and out of the zone, and trying to get hitters to chase. I’m just not sure the approach is going to hold up, given he’s lost so much of his once-dominant stuff.

Alex Colome has gotten the most run as a potential trade target, but beyond saves it’s hard to see what he brings to the table that’s really exciting. Colome had a great season in 2016, his first as a full-time closer, but other than that his career has been uninspiring. From 2016 to 2017, he saw his strikeout rate decline from 31.4% to 20.6%. For reference, Seung-Hwan Oh’s K rate fell from 32.9% to 20.5% from ‘16 to ‘17. In other words, remember how much worse Oh was this past year compared to his rookie season? That’s roughly the fall Colome took. His slide toward mediocrity was camouflaged by an extremely low home run rate, which was nice, but I’m just not sure Alex Colome is the sort of pitcher you should be trading away serious assets for.

Sergio Romo is out there, but he’s almost 35 and had a shaky 2017. He’s also been homer-prone the last couple seasons. Fernando Salas is available, but 2011 was a long time ago. Francisco Rodriguez is still looking for a job, but is 36 and looks like he might be toast. Is anyone interested in Huston Street? Tyler Clippard has been passed around like a carelessly rolled joint the past few seasons, but in spite of a still-healthy strikeout rate just hasn’t been that good. Matt Albers doesn’t even have the potential of bringing lots of Effectively Wild mentions anymore; now he’s just a mediocre late-inning reliever.

Trevor Cahill. Jesse Chavez. Josh Collmenter. Jeanmar Gomez. Neftali Feliz. Dustin McGowan. Stop me when I get to a name you’re really interested in. Bruce Rondon is still young and throws incredibly hard, so maybe he’s worth a flyer. One has to assume Shane Greene of the Tigers would be available in a trade, and he’s fairly intriguing. Overall, though, there just isn’t much left out there on the relief market that screams out to a potential contender, “Yes! I am the missing piece of your team!”

As of today, the Cardinals’ bullpen stacks up something like this:

  • Luke Gregerson, R
  • Tyler Lyons, L
  • Brett Cecil, L
  • Matt Bowman, R
  • Sam Tuivailala, R
  • John Brebbia, R
  • Ryan Sherriff, L
  • John Gant, R not a very inspiring group. Lyons is good, I believe, and Brett Cecil should be able to rebound from a 2017 that was mostly bad timing, but there’s not a whole lot of actual firepower in that bunch. Tuivailala is probably the most exciting arm of the bunch, but he’s also still looking to establish he can actually miss bats at the major league level.

As it stands right now, I feel like there’s a pretty good chance the bullpen is once again the Achilles’ Heel of the Cardinals in 2018.

Now, to be fair, there are arms on the way which could change that equation, but very few of them are already on the 40 man roster. Austin Gomber could bring a great curveball and excellent location to the mix, and Josh Lucas was outstanding last year in Triple A. Alex Reyes could very well make an impact in the big league ‘pen at some point this season, but the hope is still going to be for him to be starting games, not finishing them, as 2018 comes to a close.

On the other hand, Mike Mayers is still on the roster somehow, and Rowan Wick pretty much tanked in 2017, so there are probably a couple of 40 man spots one could make fairly easily.

So again I ask: what’s the deal? What happened that the Cardinals missed out on Addison Reed and Yoshihisa Hirano and Tommy Hunter and Juan Nicasio and Pat Neshek and Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith and Anthony Swarzak, any of whom could probably have helped out this bullpen? How is it that the Cardinals, who absolutely should be right in the thick of things in the NL Wild Card race, if not the Central division race, are going to count on that collection of talent above to hold leads this coming season?

Well, I have no inside information, but I do have a theory, and it’s that the Cardinals, originally, had one more big move on their radar, but have found themselves utterly stymied by this deadlocked market we’ve seen this winter. Not that I’m saying the one other big move was going to be for a reliever, mind you; what I mean is that the Cardinals were going to make one more big move and then sign a reliever.

See, the Cards coming into this offseason were crazy aggressive right off the bat. They sign Gregerson, whose strikeout rate suggests he’s still a solid late-inning reliever capable of missing bats, for what looked like a good value play. They picked up Miles Mikolas coming back over from Japan, again on what looked like an interesting value play with some real upside. They missed on Stanton due to his no-trade clause, but then immediately pivoted to Marcell Ozuna and got the deal done. So that was one solid setup reliever, one #4ish starter (with a little more upside, it would seem), and one middle of the order bat added, all before the end of the Winter Meetings. The Cards sent Stephen Piscotty to the A’s, recouping ~70% of the prospect value they spent in the Ozuna deal, and it seemed like they were poised to strike one more time for a sizable upgrade, and push the offseason from solid effort over into huge success territory.

And then....nothing. Not just nothing from the Cardinals, either; basically just nothing. Nothing has happened in baseball for the past month, essentially. A couple relievers have signed. Jay Bruce is going...somewhere. Oh, right, back to the Mets. Umm, good job, I guess?

I think the Cardinals, at the end of the Winter Meetings, had their eyes on one of two big moves: either Josh Donaldson or Chris Archer. They talked to the Rays a lot, and Derrick Goold has intimated of late that the discussions seem to have actually been more about Archer than Longoria/Colome as was previously believed, and we know that they’ve essentially badgered the Blue Jays into a no-transfer clause and then blocking any numbers beginning with 314.

The idea was to make one of those two big trades, paying in outfield prospects and pitchers, and then sign a relief arm to finish off the offseason. Once the market curled up and died, though, the Cardinals couldn’t get any of the deals they thought they would get done, done. The Jays just don’t want to move Donaldson, and the Rays are probably asking for the moon and stars and maybe someone else’s moon as well for Archer, even beyond the point the Cards would be willing to go for him.

So now the Cardinals are coming into the home stretch of the offseason, with only part of what they wanted to accomplish actually accomplished. Because they didn’t make that last big deal, paying with pitching, they have all of their pitching resources still in place. And meanwhile, the market has moved around them, with all the most useful arms having been snatched up, since relief pitching is essentially the only place anyone has spent any money yet this year. The Cards have made most of the upgrades they needed/wanted to, but not all. And because they were waiting to make the last big move before they pivoted to finishing the bullpen, now there’s very little left with which to finish said ‘pen.

The other aspect of that is the question of whether or not anything left on the market at this point is really an upgrade over what the Cards have coming in the system. We can talk about ‘proven’ relievers all day long, but does anyone really think Greg Holland in 2018 is a good bet to be markedly better than what a guy like Ryan Helsley could offer midseason? And even if you do believe Holland will be significantly better, is he going to be enough better to justify a $40 million+ commitment?

The Cardinals, having failed to pay with pitching for the final piece of the puzzle I think they were going for this offseason, seem to have decided, at least implicitly, that they would be better served hanging on to those resources and trying to build a bullpen as the season goes along, rather than spending talent capital on a marginal (but more ‘proven’!), upgrade, or spending financial capital and potentially blocking the path of a more valuable resource coming up.

Will it work? I don’t know. It’s an incredibly risky strategy, it would seem, and one likely to get the club crucified in the court of public opinion if the bullpen once again costs the team a bunch of close games early in the season, leading to an underwhelming record.

But then, that seems to be how the offseason is going for a lot of teams this year. The Angels did what they wanted, and good on them for that, but basically every other team out there seems unhappy with how things are going. The market eventually has to shake itself loose, but an awful lot of what the Cardinals really could have used, at least in a relief pitching sense, is already gone.

So what’s the ‘pen plan? Seems like we’re looking at it.

Doesn’t mean we have to like it.