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Purely Optional

Taking a look at the Cards’ roster through a slightly different lens.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Not too long ago, I wrote a column that was mostly about relievers, mostly about the free agent market, and mostly about how hard it was to spot any actual, meaningful upgrades to the bullpen which were easily available for the Cards to sign, despite a whole lot of people seemingly convinced the Cardinals need to make a bunch more additions to the club. It was also a column that lacked any solid answers, any grand, overarching narrative conclusions, because building a bullpen in modern baseball is a confounding exercise at pretty much all times, it seems.

Late in the column, I did make a point upon which I would like to expound, at least briefly, this morning. The point was this: in signing more experienced major league relievers to create the appearance they are doing something, even if that something is unlikely to markedly improve the club’s actual situation, the Redbirds would be creating a situation where they have a distinct lack of any optionable relievers, leaving them with a dangerous lack of flexibility. I think it’s a point well made, and one that is too often forgotten in the consideration of rosters; minor league options are, in the modern game of baseball, a pretty big deal. That’s true of bench players, to an extent, but it’s really in the bullpen where a player’s ability to be optioned — or not — becomes a really huge factor in how a team can adapt and react to situations that could end up dictating how a season goes.

The simple number of innings a modern relief corps is required to soak up at times creates a stress factor for any ‘pen; how often have we seen two games in a row where the starter fails to get out of the fourth inning, one of the two contests ends up going 12, and suddenly the bullpen is dangerously taxed, with three or four relievers completely off-limits according to the manager, and another one or two only available because they’re marginally less burnt than those other three or four? Aggressive bullpen usage is a seeming necessity in the modern game — if only because, like nuclear deterrence, one side doing it forces the other side to do the same to survive — but it creates its own set of dangerous situations into which a team can easily stumble.

In the Tony La Russa days, those bullpen crunches were how we ended up with the occasional sacrificial starter, usually Jason Marquis it seemed like, who didn’t have it, but was asked to go 5 23 anyway, just to soak up some innings. (And punishment.)

In the Mike Matheny days, bullpen crunches were...well, bullpen crunches seemed to be about a twice a week problem, which was amazing given that Matheny somehow managed to leave starters in too long far too often, use his ‘pen in such a way there were never enough arms, and also lean so heavily on certain players as to burn them out midway through a season. It would seem, in any rational world, that doing two of those things would mean the third would be almost impossible, yet Matheny managed the trifecta of bullpen disasters pretty regularly. I suppose it takes a man of great faith to produce miracles.

We’ll have to wait and see how things go in the Mike Shildt era, but regardless of how he turns out (personally I think he’ll be quite a good manager, but what do I know?), you can rest assured that we have not seen the last of those days where half the ‘pen is listed as Break Glass in Case of Emergency, and you’re just crossing your fingers Carlos Martinez doesn’t walk three guys in the first inning. That’s just the way the game goes sometimes. A good manager can help maneuver through and mitigate those emergencies, but he cannot prevent them from ever popping up in the first place.

So with all that in mind, I thought it might be useful to take stock of where the Cardinals are heading into the 2019 season in terms of minor league options, particularly in the bullpen. The good news is that I’m focusing on the ‘pen because the bench, pretty much no matter what configuration the Cards go with, should be fairly optionable. Tyler O’Neill, Drew Robinson, Yairo Munoz, and Edmundo Sosa all have options, and all should be in the mix for bench at-bats. The downside? Neither Jose Martinez nor Jedd Gyorko have minor league options remaining, and at this moment both appear to be on the team, since the Cardinals apparently don’t understand how to clear limited players off a roster unless they happen to be named Tommy Pham.

The bullpen is more complicated, and worrisome. I’m going to go through the whole list of relievers and potential relievers on the 40 man roster right now, and determine who has a minor league option remaining, and who does not. If any of these are wrong, please correct in the comments; this information is not tracked, or at least not tracked well, seemingly anywhere I can find, and so I’m determining it manually. If I make a mistake, apologies.

Relievers with options remaining:

  • John Brebbia, R
  • Genesis Cabrera, L
  • Giovanny Gallegos, R
  • Austin Gomber, L
  • Ryan Helsley, R
  • Jordan Hicks, R
  • Dakota Hudson, R
  • Daniel Ponce de Leon, R
  • Alex Reyes, R (I believe this to be the case; he should not have used up an option in ‘17, instead being placed on the 60 day DL all year. Accumulated service time, but didn’t burn an option.)
  • Tyler Webb, L

Relievers without options remaining:

  • Brett Cecil, L
  • John Gant, R
  • Luke Gregerson, R
  • Dominic Leone, R
  • Mike Mayers, R
  • Andrew Miller, L
  • Chasen Shreve, L

Okay, so what do we think about this? As is pretty much always going to be the case, the club has more potential pitchers with options than without; that’s simply the nature of how players come up through the system.

However, there are two pretty significant problems here. In fact, we’re talking about serious, serious problems potentially. So let’s talk about them.

You will notice, first off, that there are seven pitchers the Cardinals could potentially use in the bullpen in 2019 who are out of options. I’ve chosen to include John Gant in this group and not Adam Wainwright, since it appears that the Cards are once again giving in to sentiment and handing a starting job to a player who hasn’t been healthy and effective since 2016, but if you think Gant is more likely to actually end up starting than Waino you can mentally make the switch. It doesn’t change the numbers. Now, the problem with seven pitchers sans options is that, you may remember, there are only either seven or eight spots actually in a major league bullpen. I assume the Cardinals are going to run an eight man ‘pen again this year since, again, actually cleaning up a roster is beyond them, but even at that extreme level, handicapping yourself with a bench that’s barely there in favour of endless reliever reinforcements, you’ve filled all but one spot in the bullpen already in this scenario.

Now, here’s the second, possibly even more serious issue: you may notice that the seven relievers without options are a mixed bag in terms of quality, which is to be expected. The real problem is that the Cardinals’ three best projected relievers (after Andrew Miller, I should point out), are all on the list of guys with options. John Brebbia, Giovanny Gallegos, and Jordan Hicks either figure to be important cogs in the 2019 bullpen or should be if we believe the projections, specifically in the case of Gallegos.

So here’s the problem: we have seven pitchers who cannot be sent down, and three pitchers who absolutely should be in the ‘pen on Opening Day, and given the lack of overlap in this Venn diagram, we have ten pitchers. For eight spots. And that’s ignoring the fact that Genesis Cabrera is getting a lot of buzz as a potential relief star, and Dakota Hudson will almost certainly be in the mix, and Ryan Helsley is pretty close to needing an opportunity of one sort or another. Oh, and Daniel PDL (I am not going to keep typing out that name now that he has purposefully and perniciously made it even harder), should probably be in a big league uniform in some capacity, wouldn’t you think?

Now, admittedly, some of this may not be an issue by Opening Day; pitching surpluses have a way of working themselves out. It’s possible Brett Cecil may not be healthy, or Luke Gregerson. After all, neither was healthy last season, and given time’s stubborn refusal to move any other way but one, it is at least possible one of the two hits the DL before spring training is over. And even if everyone is healthy, there will probably be some pitcher who struggles and is released. Maybe. Or is put on the DL with a phantom injury, more likely.

(I feel like this column is coming off more negative than I mean it to. If so, I apologise. I happen to be in a rotten mood this morning and am rushing to get this done before I have to be at the car dealership for my car’s 7500 mile scheduled service.)

But here is my point: even with a little attrition through the course of spring training, the Cardinals are in a tough spot as it relates to their bullpen and players with options. With eight spots available, seven pitchers who have to be on the roster and three who should be if you’re planning on trying to win is potentially a real issue. Ryan Meisinger was bumped off the 40 completely when the club signed Andrew Miller, and Meisinger’s minor league numbers would seem to dictate he should at least get a crack at a regular spot in the ‘pen this year.

At some point in time, the Cardinals really are going to have to do some trimming to this roster to clean things up, no matter how little they seem to want to. You cannot have a bench of four players with three who cannot be optioned, and one of whom likely just doesn’t have any position at all beyond hitter. Even worse, you cannot have a bullpen with seven pitchers locked in, room for only two of your best four projected relief arms, and multiple pitchers who missed well over half of the season last year seemingly locked in to jobs.

Yes, some of this will probably solve itself. But waiting for problems to solve themselves has become a disturbing and damaging trend for the Cardinals over the past several years. If 2019 is really as important as they claim, actual action is going to be necessary at some point.

And no, by actual action I do not mean go sign two more veteran relievers. So just quit asking.