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The Cardinals Bullpen Has Potential. Is it Enough?

After a disappointing 2018, there’s promise for 2019 at the end of games.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

We all know the story of the 2018 bullpen by now. You no longer need the preamble rattling off their dreadful numbers. It was full Murphy’s Law last season. Free agent acquisitions Greg Holland, Luke Gregerson, and Brett Cecil performed as badly as any reasonable person could have expected. The same was true for Tyler Lyons coming off of a splendid 2017. Bud Norris quickly established himself as one of the most reliable arms... and then imploded when they needed him the most.

One of the mid-season charges of the front office was to fix the mess. That work has continued in to the off-season, culminating- to date- with the splashy signing of high-leverage weapon Andrew Miller. We’re still three months from the first game and there’s ample time for more moves. That said, there’s a lot of potential in what the Cardinals have in place. Is it enough for 2019?

What do they have?

John Brebbia was quietly one of the very best relievers the Cardinals had last year. It was no fluke, either. He did a tremendous job of preventing runs thanks to a high strikeout rate and a solid walk rate. Going even deeper, he racked up those tasty peripherals with a high spin rate, particularly for his velocity. He used it to great effect in the top of the strike zone. No reliever is ever a lock for any kind of performance, but Brebbia is as close as you can get.

Dominic Leone, who lost most of 2018 to a nerve ailment, is another option for right-handed set-up. His injury was sandwiched by a fine beginning and end of the season. It wasn’t up to his 2017 standards, when he was one of the better relievers in the game. If he’s healthy, he’s capable of upper quartile tunneling and above average velocity.

Completing the locked-in part of the right side of the bullpen are the Power Sinker Twins™- Jordan Hicks and Dakota Hudson. Hicks was solid last year, but everyone knows that there’s room for more. His power sinker bullies hitters into weak contact, but his average ability to procure swings and misses last season left him at the mercy of batted ball variance. He’s working with tools that nobody else has- elite velocity with late life, and a potentially dominant slider. If he ever harnesses that slider consistently, and tunnels a little better, he’s going to become an elite reliever. Hudson isn’t quite on the same plane of existence, but it’s easy to see why folks put faith in his arm. It sure feels like there should be more strikeouts in there, and maybe that never develops. Still, even if he replicates last season, he provides solid depth. At best, he would be the fourth righty out of the bullpen.

From the left side, they’ve added Andrew Miller- a tremendous weapon if healthy, and an upgrade even if he “only” replicates 2018. He pairs with Chasen Shreve, who is 95% of the way to being an extremely effective lefty in the bullpen. Unfortunately, the 5% where he has faltered is exclusively made up of outrageous homerun rates. He has wipeout stuff and almost great peripherals. If he ever finds a year in which he limits loud contact, he’s going to put up some incredible numbers. It’s a big if, but it’s there.

Two veterans are in the mix. Luke Gregerson hasn’t truly been effective since 2016, getting progressively worse in 2017 and then barely pitching in 2018. It’s hard to have much optimism about Brett Cecil right now. Because of how volatile reliever performance can be, it wouldn’t be totally crazy if either of them had effective seasons. The good news is that there’s no need to rely upon effectiveness from either one of them.

Depending upon how the rotation shakes out, there’s room in the 2019 bullpen for effective innings from Austin Gomber, Daniel Poncedeleon, Adam Wainwright, and/or John Gant to fill the Tyson Ross piggyback/swingman role from the end of last season, along with Mike Mayers as the lowest leverage version of that role.

Lurking in the minor leagues, there’s a plethora of exciting options, all with caveats. The question for Alex Reyes now and forever will be health, but he’s supremely talented and could segue back in to a Major League role as a shutdown reliever. Genesis Cabrera has the kind of stuff that drew a Felipe Vasquez comp from our own A.E. Schafer, though it hinges on further development. Ryan Helsley has racked up some impressive peripherals in his minor league career and was rocketing toward a Major League debut in 2018. However, he missed significant time with a sore shoulder. He’ll need to prove his health before reaching St. Louis.

Rounding everything out, the Cardinals have quietly amassed an army of low-risk, high strikeout options since last summer. Seth Elledge is probably too far away, but Ryan Meisinger, Giovanny Gallegos, and Tyler Webb have all demonstrated an ability to rack up swings and misses. It’s a trait that could come in very handy for a bullpen that desperately needs more swings and misses in 2019. They represent the kind of low-risk gambles that end up leading to an effective bullpen. All it takes is for one of them to replicate their minor league numbers at the Major League level.

The good news is that there’s a lot of potential in that mix. In the wide range of possible outcomes for 2019, Hicks, Miller, and Reyes could be electric. Leone is just one year removed from a very good season, Dakota Hudson has an exciting arm, Shreve is a diminished homerun rate away, and the volume of backup options is enormous. Employed appropriately, this could be a very effective bullpen.

Is it enough?

If you go to Fangraphs’ Depth Charts projections, you can find projections for each player. Just to clarify, this is what we’re talking about:

FanGraphs Depth Chart projections are a combination of ZiPS and Steamer projections with playing time allocated by our staff.

There’s still a lot of potential relief talent available in free agency. Despite that fact, Depth Charts is a really great place to gauge the overall talent level in place as of a certain date.

I’ve collected all of their current projections for pitchers, and then divvied them up as starters (100% of games pitched projected to be as a starter), reliever (less than 10% of appearances projected as a starter), and swingmen. There aren’t many swingmen- approximately 6% of the sample fall in the middle territory. I also eliminated any pitcher projected for less than 9 innings. Here’s how Cardinal relievers (no starters, no swingmen) rank, league-wide, for the coming season. I’ve also included their league-wide rank in 2018:

Cardinal Bullpen Ranks, 2018 vs. 2019 Projected (through 1/2/19)

Category 2018 2019 (proj)
Category 2018 2019 (proj)
fWAR 25 12
K/9 22 17
K/BB 28 17
HR/9 7 2
FIP 19 10

What we’re seeing here are two effects. First, the addition of Andrew Miller gives the bullpen a bump. Second, what you might call the bottom of the bullpen- the players most likely to serve as depth (Cabrera, Helsley, Webb, and Gallegos) all have very solid projections for pitchers at the bottom of a bullpen.

Is it enough? Not quite, but it’s a good start. Given how much talent is still available via free agency, some teams behind the Cardinals are likely to pass them. At this point, they have two options. They can add another arm to bring some stability to the situation, or they can gamble on upside (Hicks, Hudson, Shreve, Gallegos, Cabrera) or health (Miller, Reyes, Leone). Maybe they can get by on sheer depth alone.

With the way the market is going, there are sure to be useful arms available for reasonable prices late in free agency. It would behoove the Cardinals to grab one they like.