Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Mike Matheny walks into a bar. “Bartender,” he says. “Give me a Matt Bowman.” The bartender is confused. “Is that some fancy cocktail? I don’t know it.” Matheny just looks at him, confused. “Look guy,” he says. “I order a Matt Bowman everywhere I go. I don’t see why this situation would be any different.”
While the above is a joke, it’s not really that funny, and it has informed the way the Cardinals bullpen is built for the last few years. We often talk about Matheny-proofing a roster, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the bullpen. The current Cardinals bullpen construction is absolutely unique. It’s absolutely flat top-to-bottom; every reliever is average or a little bit better. No matter what your favorite metric is, the Cardinals are the most homogenous bullpen in the league. Standard deviation of projected FIP? Lowest in the league by far. Same with projected ERA? Also lowest in the league, also not close. They have the lowest high-low gap in expected FIP. They have no relievers projected for negative WAR and none projected for more than 0.2 WAR the rest of the way, though Bud Norris could sneak by the latter barrier if projection systems were JUST a bit more bullish on him.
What I’m trying to say with all of this is that the Cardinals built their bullpen for maximum stability. It’s eleven deep with average relievers. If the manager rides a guy into the ground, there’s no step down. Just call someone random up from AAA and keep the line moving. I totally get why John Mozeliak and Mike Girsch built it this way. They were just being prudent. The thing is, though, this can change now. It’s okay to have a real bullpen again. The firing of Matheny has freed up some valuable tactical options, and I think the Cardinals would be remiss not to use them.
What follows below is a list of interesting relievers the Cardinals could pick up to make the bullpen interesting the rest of the year. In a traditional WAR framework, this won’t be worth much. We’re talking a win maximum, and even that might be on the high end. What it does, though, is roll the whole bullpen down. You think Bud Norris is a little underqualified to be a closer? He’s a great setup guy. Jordan Hicks underwhelm you as the eighth inning guy? Well, first of all, he shouldn’t. Second of all, as the third-best reliever in the bullpen he’s absolutely fearsome. I know, as I mentioned above, that the bullpen is really flat. What that does, though, is let the Cardinals sell from the bottom as they replace from the top.
Are the Mets and Cardinals good trade partners? At the beginning of the year, I would have said absolutely not. The Mets were deep at pitcher and in the outfield, just like the Cardinals. Now? I’m not so sure. A list of Mets outfielders this year runs the gamut from ‘sure I suppose’ to ‘he still plays baseball?’ Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto are exciting, but everyone else the Mets have run out there is both bad and old. Familia is a free agent after this year. He’s getting traded for sure, and the Mets could use an outfield infusion. Throw an outfield prospect and maybe some organizational depth their way, and the Cardinals are probably the high offer on Familia. Now, do the Cardinals want to pick up someone with Familia’s baggage when they’re on the outside of the playoffs looking in right now? Your mileage may vary, but I think I’d take a pass. He’s been great this year, though. He’s striking out a lot of guys, not walking any, and continuing his career-long suppression of home runs. If the Cardinals have surged into contention by the trading deadline, he should be a serious consideration.
Joakim Soria is just sneaky good. He’s been good for a while. He’s still good. He had one middling season, 2016, but even taking that into account he has a career ERA and FIP around 3.00, with no signs that he’s slowing down yet. Like Familia, he’s a free agent after this season, but he has a $1mm buyout for 2019 that would affect the contract somewhat (he has a $10mm mutual option for 2019 that I assume won’t be picked up, given how rarely mutual options are exercised). If you want to worry about his stuff, I totally get it- he’s lost a tick on his fastball this year, he probably won’t continue to run a career-low walk rate, and I always feel a little weird trusting relievers who throw so many pitches, just because it seems like the best relievers tend to stick to two or at most three. None of that is a huge issue for this year, though- he’s pitching really well right now, and nothing looks like it’s going to imminently fall apart. The problem with Soria is that the Cardinals and White Sox really don’t match up on prospect needs. The White Sox are likely to be looking for someone in the A-AA range to shore up their pipeline behind their current crop of AAA and in-the-majors talent, and that’s the donut hole of the Cardinals organization. It would really hurt to trade someone from an age range where the Cards are at a talent deficit for two months of a 34-year-old reliever. Maybe the Cardinals can work out a depth trade, but I think Soria will be in enough demand that it’s probably not going to be a fit. Next.
Zach Britton and Brad Brach
This is somewhat of a package deal- maybe you can throw Mychal Givens into this mix. Now that the Orioles have sold off Machado, they’re talking a pretty good game about going into a full teardown of short-term assets, so these guys are all on the block. Britton has some serious red flags. You probably think of him as an elite reliever, and I do too. He really hasn’t been for the last two years, however. In fairness, he’s been hurt a lot. He pitched in only 37 innings last year and only 14 ⅔ so far this year. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of a deadline pickup, though, and I think that trying to work a hurt pitcher back into form is probably not the optimal play her. Brach is simply not good enough to be a huge upgrade to the Cardinals’ staff. That leaves Givens, who I’ve always expected to take the next step to dominance even as he’s been a perfectly good reliever. Some of this is aesthetics- I like short relievers who throw hard, and I especially like short relievers with good changeups, something Givens shows in flashes. Put him on the Cardinals and I’d immediately think of him as the best reliever (maybe excluding Jordan Hicks). I’m not convinced that the team would, though. By projections, he’d be only barely ahead of the rest of the pack, and when you consider the fact that he’s probably replacing Luke Gregerson or Sam Tuivailala, I just don’t think it’s enough of a pickup. Givens is an interesting pickup if the Cardinals want to hedge- he’s arbitration eligible starting next year, which offers three years of reasonably priced control. As a result of that, he’d be pretty pricey. For me, Givens is an option if the Cards sell some of their short-term assets but want to start building for next year. Given the flat nature of the team, they could maintain a puncher’s chance of competing this year, and replenish some assets they spend on Givens with, say, a Jose Martinez trade. It’s an intriguing option, but not my favorite.
This is my favorite option, and it’s not particularly close. I don’t know a better way to say it than to say that Iglesias is the kind of top end pitcher you can build a bullpen around. Here are his ERA’s over his three years of relieving: 2.53, 2.49, 2.36. There’s no wondering what you’re going to get with Raisel Iglesias. It’s just strikeouts and control, rinse and repeat. The aesthetics are there, tool. He’s got a gorgeous changeup, a lethal slider, and a high-spin, up-in-the-zone four seam fastball that hitters absolutely can’t touch. He’s running a swinging strike rate of 15% this year, truly elite territory. He’s under contract until the end of 2020. What’s not to like about Iglesias? Mainly just the price tag. Based on the rumors I’ve seen, the Reds will be looking for a top 100 prospect in exchange for Iglesias, and they’re probably right to demand it. This would be a pretty high price to pay for a guy who, at the end of the day, is going to allow something like 12 less runs a year than a 4.00 ERA pitcher. As grim as that sounds, though, I’d pay it. Assembling a bullpen is just a lot easier with someone like Iglesias to pencil in at the back of the pen. Those 12 runs are a win above replacement, but they’re worth more than that when you adjust for leverage. Great relievers also play up in the playoffs. Overall, if the Reds asked for Andrew Knizner or Carson Kelly, I’d probably bite my tongue and ship one over in exchange for two and a half years of Iglesias.
Look, writing about who the Cardinals should acquire at the deadline isn’t easy. It’s not clear whether the team should even be buying. In looking at the types of players the Cards can go after, though, I think it’s important to target somewhere where an upgrade would truly help. Position players aren’t moving the needle for this team with Machado over to the Dodgers. The teams out of the running just don’t have a player to move who matters enough in the race this year. That leaves the Cardinals with the option to buy relief pitchers, buy starters, or stand pat. I’m very much on the buy relievers side, but I’d like to see a top-of-the-market purchase instead of the same old window dressing. With the team in a brave post-Matheny era where the front office feels less like it needs to spend resources having a dozen above-average relievers to prevent burnout, I’m all for consolidating and aiming for a relief ace at the deadline this year. If I didn’t already give it away above, I’m all for trading for Iglesias, and if the Wild Card race is tighter by July 31 I’d even be willing to double up with Soria as well.
Post-script: I wrote this during Thursday night’s game. What a disheartening way to start the second half. Maybe we should just sell and trade for Givens.
Post-post-script: Reviewing this after Friday afternoon’s game. How glorious! Let’s get Iglesias!