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Building a bullpen: throw tennis balls at the wall

The Cardinals signed two relievers who could become John Brebbia.

Japan v MLB All Stars - Game 4 Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

Though it may not seem like it, the Cardinals have made moves to improve their bullpen in recent days. There are two ways to improve a bullpen in the absence of obvious internal solutions, The first way is to spend your way to a good bullpen. The second way is to throw a bunch of... tennis balls at the wall. We’re family friendly here folks. Mostly.

The Cardinals have used both approaches in the past. To say spending hasn’t worked out would be an understatement. There’s Greg Holland, Brett Cecil, and though the jury is still out on him, Luke Gregerson. In terms of tennis balls at the wall, you could count Bud Norris, but this post is more about a guy like Preston Guilmet. Guilmet was terrible, but he pitched 2 innings. Holland pitched 25 innings. Expensive players will get more chances than guys grabbed off the scrap heap.

A better example of a tennis ball who has worked out is John Brebbia. Brebbia was drafted in the 30th round by the New York Yankees as a reliever only prospect in 2011. They released him two years later. Brebbia turned to Independent League ball. He pitched good, but unspectacular in his first year. At 25, he played another season and utterly dominated the league with a 0.98 ERA, 79/15 K/BB ratio, and 34 hits allowed in 64 innings pitched.

The Cardinals took a flyer and sent him to Springfield. His ERA of 4.06 is nothing special, but he struck out 38 and walked 6 in 37 innings. They sent him to Memphis midseason and he faltered. But they liked what they saw enough to bring him back to Memphis for 2017. His numbers improved, he ended up playing a half a season for the MLB team and he most recently had a 0.7 WAR season in 50.2 innings pitched. The Cardinals signed him not because they expected that but because he might do it and they saw signs he could. Same reason they signed Guilmet before this year.

On December 10, the Cardinals claimed Ryan Meisinger from the Baltimore Orioles. I do not follow the Orioles, but I know they have had good bullpens in the past. I do not know how they couldn’t find room for this guy. Meisinger started 2018 in AA at the age of 24 and ended up pitching 21 innings in the big leagues. They weren’t very good innings, but plenty of players have been aggressively promoted to hit a wall in the big leagues. Some figured it out later, some didn’t.

Meisinger has amazing minor league stats at literally every single minor league level he’s played. He’s a reliever who’s been old for his level most of the time, so that isn’t quite as much of a positive as it seems, but it’s still a positive. His worst season by ERA (4.42) is his 18 inning stint in AA in 2018 when he had a .346 BABIP against and a 3.05 xFIP. His next lowest is a 3.00 ERA (also in AA - does Baltimore’s AA team have a hitter’s park?).

Meisinger goes into 2019 as a 25-year-old who will probably start the season in Memphis. In 27.2 IP in AAA in 2018, Meisinger struck out 32.1% of hitters while walking 8.9%. In his major league struggles, he still struck out 24.1% of hitters. He had a bit of a walk problem and a really big home run problem. Since he had a 24 HR/FB%, it’s very possible he was just unlucky. His xFIP was 4.56 and his SIERA was 4.14.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals drafted John Fasola in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft, so he’s even less of a risk than Meisinger, who takes a 40 man roster spot. Fasola was drafted in the 31st round of the 2014 MLB Draft and quickly rose his way through the Texas Rangers’ system. He made it to AAA just two years after being drafted. He only pitched 9 innings but they were a good 9 innings.

At 25-years-old, he look well-positioned to make the major league roster in 2017. He ranked 20th on John Sickels’ top 20 Rangers prospects following the 2016 season. He had this to say about Fasola, who he consistently ranked in the “Others of Note” section prior to 2017, which is saying something for a reliever-only prospect drafted at 22-years-old.

posted 3.18 ERA in 51 innings between High-A, Double-A, Triple-A, 58/12 K/BB; then posted 2.00 ERA in nine Arizona Fall League innings with 9/0 K/BB; 31st round pick in 2014 from Kent State; middle relief type with mid-90s fastball but was especially sharp late in the year with 20/1 K/BB in 18 innings between Triple-A and AFL; doesn’t have ceiling of the younger C+ guys but could get to the MLB bullpen soon. ETA late 2017.

Then, Fasola got shut down for elbow trouble in late March and soon needed Tommy John surgery. He started the 2018 season on the DL. The Rangers sent him to AA and his season began, statistically, on April 28. He was having a solid season, though not as good as pre-TJ surgery. On July 15, he tore his ACL and was out for the year again.

Pre-Tommy John surgery, Fasola posted consistent K rates of 25% or higher. His highest BB rate was 7.2%, which was still just 2.79 BB/9. The combination of the two made him look like a sure bet to at least make an MLB bullpen and probably succeed in one. Injuries have derailed his career, but lucky for him, he’s a reliever. Relievers get good out of nowhere all the time after 25. He has a better excuse than most. Again, there’s absolutely no risk, but the upside is a good reliever in the majors, possibly as early as this year.

This is how you build a good bullpen. You take chances on these guys. The Red Sox signed a guy named Ryan Brasier, who was presumably expected to be AAA filler when signed. In 40 innings, he had a 1.34 ERA for Pawtucket, they promoted him, and by the end of the year, he had the highest WPA of all Red Sox pitchers in the ALCS and pitched the 7th inning in two different World Series games. Maybe we could say the same thing about John Fasola or Ryan Meisinger.