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The 2020 Bullpen Depth Chart

What the immediate and not-so-immediate future of the Cardinals’ bullpen looks like right now.

Divisional Series - Atlanta Braves v St Louis Cardinals - Game Four Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

One of the more interesting storylines this offseason, I think, is going to be how the Cardinals choose to try and bolster their relief corps. A unit which boasted the fifth-best ERA in baseball during the 2019 season would not seem to be a huge point of concern or emphasis this offseason, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned about bullpens, it’s that they are, by their very nature, inherently tough to predict.

My colleague wrote yesterday about the question of what to do with Dominic Leone, who has a checkered track record of both injury and ineffectiveness, and lacks a minor league option to allow the club any flexibility with his roster spot. I like Leone, and think there’s a decent chance he has a solid year in 2020, but if I’m being honest I’m also ready to move on from him. The Cards have, as I will be covering here in a moment or two, plenty of relief options to work through and utilise, and many if not most of them are, I believe, every bit as good a bet to be productive contributors as is Dominic Leone at this point. Then again, there’s a chance I may also be saying that just in order to stay #onbrand as the guy constantly advocating for the organisation to take a blowtorch to the roster. You decide.

The bigger issue than Leone in particular, though, is deciding how to build a better bullpen in 2020 than the club had in 2019. The Cards’ relievers were one of the club’s strongest suits this past season, but there were still points of concern. There were times when certain pitchers — John Gant and Giovanny Gallegos in particular — seemed to wear down due to being leaned on so heavily. It’s the Catch-22 of the modern bullpen; teams ask for less from their starters, because the times through the order penalty and other factors make the relievers better bets, but the end result is overwork for the relievers which erodes their effectiveness. If the Cards want their bullpen to rank among baseball’s best again this season, I think it would behoove them to build a stronger, more balanced unit this offseason. (Particularly since, as much as I like John Gant and wish he really would turn into a lockdown relief ace, it just doesn’t seem like the guy we saw in April and May of 2019 is a character we can count on returning.)

Before we can talk about improvements and additions, though, we have to understand what’s already in house. And so that’s where we’re going to start today.

The 25 Locks

First off, there are relievers who would seem to be, if healthy, ironclad locks to be on the Opening Day roster, to be in the mix all year, to be among the club’s primary relief options in 2020. For the purpose of this list, I’m considering Carlos Martinez a starter, though obviously we will have to wait and see how things work out there. But he is not listed here for that reason.

  1. Giovanny Gallegos RHP
  2. John Brebbia RHP
  3. John Gant RHP
  4. Andrew Miller LHP

I don’t think there’s a ton of debate regarding that group, right? Unless something goes wrong, those four guys will almost certainly be among your most trusted primary relief options throughout the 2020 season. There is an interesting additional question here, as well, in that Jordan Hicks may come back at some point during the regular season. Now, personally, I would probably encourage Hicks to rehab on a slower timetable and simply write off his 2020 season, shooting for a fully healthy and strong return to begin 2021, because I believe guys who get 15+ months to come back from Tommy John are in much better position long-term than guys who push back in 12-14 months, but I won’t pretend to be an expert here. If Hicks comes back in 2020, he would likely join this group once he’s ready to pitch.

The final question regarding this group is the presence of Brett Cecil. Obviously, Cecil’s contract has not worked out the way he or the Cardinals would have preferred, and the lefty spent the whole of the 2019 season on the disabled list with a very just-go-away feeling injury listing of carpal tunnel syndrome. If Cecil is healthy heading into 2020 and still on the Cards’ roster (which, why wouldn’t he be? this organisation is utterly incapable of recognising sunk costs and simply releasing the player, rather than hamstringing themselves by hanging on in the hopes of getting something, anything in return for the contract they signed), he complicates things significantly. No minor league options and two years of nothing since his last solid major league season? What could possibly go wrong?

The In-Betweeners

The next group down our depth chart here are the players less certain to be on the roster and pitching in 2020. These are your first up reinforcements in many cases, but also guys the organisation might be willing to include in a trade package, or who could be spring training cuts, or a hundred other things.

  1. Dominic Leone RHP
  2. Junior Fernandez RHP
  3. Ryan Helsley RHP
  4. Tyler Webb LHP
  5. Genesis Cabrera LHP
  6. Austin Gomber LHP
  7. Daniel Ponce de Leon RHP
  8. Alex Reyes RHP

Obviously, the first name to question here is Leone, who may very well not be on the 40 man roster by the end of the day today. I’ll refer you back to stlcards4’s very good piece yesterday for the whys and whens and all that, but the bottom line is we just don’t know what the Cards should expect from Dominic Leone at this point. If he remains with the organisation, he’s probably in that top group, because you can’t really move him due to the lack of options. For now, though, he’s here in this group of uncertainty.

Tyler Webb is the other name here that stands out as most likely to make the Opening Day roster, for the simple reason the Cards are always a little thin on left-handed relievers. He’s probably first in line to be Andrew Miller’s complement, particularly if Brett Cecil remains eaten by wolves.

Beyond those two, we have an intriguing, if mixed, bag to consider here. Ryan Helsley and Junior Fernandez both made positive impressions down the stretch run of the season, with Helsley in particular taking a turn in the postseason that had to grab some eyeballs and attention both within the organisation and without. Given his previous starting experience, Helsley is also an interesting option for a multi-inning swiss army knife sort of role. Fernandez showed some definite strikeout punch, whiffing sixteen in just a dozen innings, but also showed why he was more of a fringe prospect before the season rather than a projected future relief ace. There’s exciting raw material to work with there, but the whole still needs some polishing.

Daniel Ponce de Leon is stuck in that limbo of being a starter the organisation it feels it could use from time to time, but also projecting well in relief work and thus not being used in either role as much as he could be. Personally, I think Ponce de Leon’s fastball/cutter combo plays best in a relief role, but I can see why the club likes him as a sixth or seventh starting option as well. It wouldn’t shock me if he were included in any trade the Cards might make this offseason, simply because he has some attractive qualities for a club looking to give opportunities to young players as part of a rebuilding project.

Austin Gomber’s primary question is health, while Genesis Cabrera’s primary question is whether he continues to try and develop as a starter or moves to the ‘pen. I would probably keep trying him as a starter, both because I believe he has the stuff and variety of pitches to do it and because I feel like I have more long term need in the rotation than the bullpen, but I could see it going either way. If Gomber is healthy, he’ll probably start in the minors, but I’ve always been intrigued by what his curveball could do to left-handed hitters in short stints as well.

As for Alex Reyes....who knows? He’s probably a reliever now if he ever pitches at all. That’s all I’ve got.

The Further-Offs

Finally, we have the group which represents the organisation’s reinforcements, particularly later in the 2020 season and beyond. I’ve already listed thirteen pitchers (not counting Jordan Hicks), for seven or eight spots, so at least to begin the season I would expect the bullpen to be comprised of names above this level. As the season moves on, though, these are names to keep an eye on, should the Redbirds need to patch some holes or see what they have in some dynamic young hurler in the minors. I’ll list the highest level each player has reached here as a point of reference.

  1. Kodi Whitley RHP (AAA)
  2. Seth Elledge RHP (AAA)
  3. Jake Woodford RHP (AAA)
  4. Zack Thompson LHP (High A)
  5. Ryan Meisinger RHP (AAA)
  6. Roel Ramirez RHP (AAA)
  7. Patrick Dayton LHP (AA)
  8. Jacob Patterson LHP (AA)
  9. Griffin Roberts RHP (High A)
  10. Tony Locey RHP (Low A)
  11. Bryan Dobzanski RHP (AAA)
  12. Tommy Parsons RHP (AAA)
  13. Connor Jones RHP (AA)

Now, obviously, not all of these names are equally important to pay attention to in 2020, and there are a couple pitchers in the upper levels of the minors I haven’t even included here because I don’t think there’s much chance they end up in relief work (Johan Oviedo, Austin Warner, etc.). However, if we’re talking about the whole of the 2020 season, at least a couple of these guys are going to see their stocks rise, to the point we may very well see them in a St. Louis uniform, or at least find ourselves writing angry columns berating the front office for not calling one of them up to replace (insert underperforming reliever of dubious familial background here).

Of this group, the only player who requires an immediate 40 man decision I expect to be added is Jake Woodford. I’m not very high on Woodford myself, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t reason to like what he brings to the table. He changed his approach late in the 2018 season, moving from a sinker-slider approach to move of a high four-seam fastball-heavy approach clearly geared toward generating more swings and misses. The results in 2019 were not especially encouraging, but the PCL as a whole was just a nightmare for pitchers this past season, so there has to be some recognition of that. The organisation has never tried Woodford as a reliever, and I do wonder how much he would gain from such a move. Regardless, he’ll almost certainly be added to the 40 man roster today, and could be included in trade talks this offseason as well.

At this moment, Kodi Whitley is my pick for a spring training breakout performance on the pitching side. Fresh off a dominant turn in the Arizona Fall League, Whitley gives the impression of a young potential relief ace just coming into his own. His fly ball-heavy nature is cause for concern, but the ability to miss bats and a steadily lowering walk rate, which edged into elite territory in both Triple A and the AFL this year, should make up for that issue. Seth Elledge and Roel Ramirez both also made big impressions in Arizona, and each could make their big league debuts in 2020 should arms be needed. (Narrator voiceover: They will be.)

The other pitcher the Cards sent to the AFL this October was Griffin Roberts, who I’ve listed here but will, I believe, continue to be developed as a starter for the foreseeable future. That’s much the same story I see with Zack Thompson, who should remain a starter going forward, but could prove enticing enough as a lefty strikeout artist to make his way to the big leagues initially in a bullpen role sooner than might be expected. I wouldn’t say that’s the most likely outcome, but it is a possible outcome.

Bryan Dobzanski made serious strides this year, enough that I worry a bit about some terrible team taking a chance on his arm in the Rule V draft this December. I don’t think that will happen, but I think there’s a non-zero chance a club could look at him a la Rowan Wick.

Ryan Meisinger had a very nice season at Triple A despite missing a stretch of time due to injury, and I’m surprised he didn’t get a chance at the big league level. Probably the timing of his IL stint torpedoed his callup shot, I would tend to think. He was the pitcher pushed off the 40 man last offseason to make room for Andrew Miller when the Cards signed the lefty, and really should have gotten more consideration for the big league ‘pen than he did, I think. I’m not sure if he’ll be in the Cards’ organisation when spring training opens or not, but if he is he should get every chance to earn a spot or an early-season callup position. As always, though, it’s a numbers game for these big-league-margin reliever spots, and certain players find themselves on the outside looking in through no real fault of their own.

The two lefties, Dayton and Patterson, have both shown serious strikeout chops and are beginning to get close enough to the majors they have to be paid attention to. Tony Locey was just drafted this year and is far away, but the strikeout numbers he put up after the draft were completely insane, and a guy who misses that many bats can move in a hurry. Plus, as we saw with Jordan Hicks, the Cards are no averse to pushing players if they think the talent will override the developmental process. Tommy Parsons is a control artist who is just a little too short on stuff to be successful as a starter, but could represent an interesting relief conversion candidate to see if the stuff would tick up enough for him to make an impact.

If the Cardinals see an opportunity to add a high-end relief arm this offseason, they should probably take it. All the pitching depth in the world doesn’t guarantee you end up with a strong staff, and it’s likely that at least one of the guys we’re currently counting on to pitch meaningful innings will fall victim to injury or ineffectiveness somewhere along the way. On the other hand, if we assume the four initial locks are, in fact, locks and add in one more lefty — like Tyler Webb, I would think — then we’re talking about two, maybe three bullpen spots available with between seven and nine pitchers in consideration for those spots. Never mind that whole list of thirteen guys in my further-off category; if just the guys who dominated in the AFL show up to spring training looking good the pressure on the coaching staff to whittle down the options to an Opening Day bullpen becomes enormous.

On the one hand, it’s always good to have depth. You can never have enough, really. On the other, at some point in time players need opportunities, and at the moment the Cardinals are a little short on those, considering just how many arms they have in the upper minors who could be intriguing relief options. One thing is for certain: the Cards may not have quite the depth of arms in terms of starters currently for which they have become famous, but if we’re talking about pitchers who could impact the big league bullpen in the relatively near future, the pipeline isn’t showing much sign of slowing down.