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System Sundays: The Bullpen Cavalry Report

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Looking to internal options to reinforce the best, but also most overworked, part of this year’s team.

New York Mets v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Michael B. Thomas /Getty Images

Okay, so the trade deadline was a bust. Lots of digital ink has been spent debating the merits of the Cards’ approach this year versus going aggressive; I’m not going to rehash all of that. Personally, I’m glad they didn’t give up the important part of the system, even if I’m frustrated they didn’t make even a modest upgrade to the roster. In the end, if the Cardinals were going to win this year I expected it would have to come at least as much from internal improvements as external upgrades, so I’m not really as upset as I might have been other years. In other words, if the Cardinals play like the team we thought they could be, I think they take this division. If the offense goes back to sleep and the rotation runs back off the rails, then I don’t know there was any upgrade short of Trevor Bauer (who, yes, I wish they had been in on, badly), that was going to save the day.

Anyhow, given the lack of moves, that means we’re looking at that old classic addition: Internal Options. That’s right, he’s back again; tanned, fifteen pounds lighter, and ready for action. Internal Options is the only option you need! Which is good, since he’s the only option we have at this point, given the reality of the One True Deadline.

The Cardinal bullpen has, still somewhat shockingly, been not only a strength but perhaps the greatest strength of this year’s team. That being said, there are some areas of concern. The workload carried by the relief corp all season is a little worrisome; John Gant in particular has been fantastic, but has shown some cracks of late compared to his May-June run. Given the innings he’s thrown, that’s not exactly shocking, but it still bears watching. John Brebbia has thrown just as many innings, had a rough patch, but seems now to have rebounded. The loss of Jordan Hicks has unsettled the back of the ‘pen, though Carlos Martinez has mostly taken care of business at the end of games. Giovanny Gallegos has emerged as a dominant force as the year has gone on, but has been leaned on even more heavily than the two Johns the last couple months. Andrew Miller has been a force of nature since the beginning of May, but there has really been no effective lefty complement this season.

My point is this: as good as the Cards’ bullpen has been, they could probably use a little reinforcing. Now, of course we could talk about the relievers moved at the trade deadline, and how that’s exactly the sort of player you can consistently acquire in July, but seeing as how it is now the 4th of August, that seems less than helpful. So we’re going to take a look at the potential reinforcements that could still be had, i.e. our old friend Internal Options.

The Obvious Choices

Junior Fernandez — Yes, Fernandez has cooled off from the crazy numbers he posted at Double A and in his first shot at Triple A earlier this summer. Whereas in Springfield he was running a strikeout rate close to 40% and walking below 10% of the hitters he’s faced, he has recently experienced some renewed control issues that have driven his overall Triple A numbers down a bit. His Triple A strikeout and walk rates are 26.9% and 12.8% respectively, which are good but not nearly in the class of what he was doing, say, a month ago. Even so, he’s running an ERA below 1.50, because even when not missing bats Junior Fernandez is extremely difficult to actually square up.

I can honestly see an argument for continuing to let Fernandez pitch in Memphis without pushing him, allowing him to hopefully consolidate his gains and hone the improvements he’s made this season. At the same time, he will have to be added to the 40 man roster this offseason or be lost to the Rule V draft, and given that Mike Mayers is still on the 40 man I think there’s at least one spot that could be made without hurting the current club. I would be more than a little disappointed if Fernandez doesn’t get at least a look at some point this August.

Ryan HelsleyHelsley has been ping-ponging back and forth between starting and relieving this season, and while I think his repertoire makes him a viable starter candidate, his previous health issues and questionable command would seem to push him over to the ‘likely reliever’ side of the ledger. I’m sure Helsley will be back before long, but it would be very helpful were he to harness that triple-digit heat and grab hold of a bullpen spot down the stretch. I would hope he’ll receive at least a look in a starting role come spring training of 2020, considering the open spots which may be available, but for now I would very much like to see him throwing 100 two innings at a time.

Genesis CabreraIt’s been a rough season for Cabrera, who came into spring training with a full head of steam (and hype), following a dominant winter league showing. Instead of building on that, though, he has regressed from where he was at this time last year in his breakout season. His strikeout rate has been solid in Triple A, and the walks haven’t been a hug issue. Rather, what has hurt Genesis in 2019 has been the same thing affecting many pitchers in a similarly negative fashion: home runs. His home run rate in Memphis is a ghastly 2.05 per nine innings, a number that even in this homer-happy era is not going to get you very far. At the big league level, Cabrera has been tentative, clearly not confident enough to attack, and the results have been predictably ugly.

Cabrera’s best quality right now, in terms of contributing to the 2019 bullpen, is the fact he’s already on the 40 man roster. Whereas Junior Fernandez would require a move be made to get him to the big leagues, Cabrera could be called up anytime with no further maneuvering needed. It’s tough to say whether his premium velocity and occasionally plus breaking ball will translate into success in short stints, but it’s probably worth giving it another shot at least down the stretch.

Alex ReyesThis is really the big one, isn’t it?

I don’t really know what to say about Reyes that hasn’t already been written multiple times at this point. I think back to a much earlier prospect crush of mine, a kid named Adam Miller who was the top prospect in the Indians’ system over a decade ago now. Miller was a big kid who threw incredibly hard, especially for the time, pushing up against triple digits back in the late 2000s. The thing was, he threw extremely hard without using his body whatsoever, working from a low arm slot and essentially throwing the way a middle infielder does when they have plenty of time and just sort of flick the ball over to first. That was Adam Miller’s delivery, except he threw 98 on pretty much every pitch. Not shockingly, he got hurt, then got hurt again, and then got hurt again. His career never really got on track; he was basically the Cleveland version of Mark McCormick. Both had absolutely unbelievable stuff, both had disastrous mechanics, and neither made it to the big leagues.

Reyes is travelling down a similar path, I fear. The stuff is undeniable, and one would think that in a relief role he could be a truly dominant force. We are now three years removed from that tantalising autumn of 2016, though, when Reyes came up to the big leagues and posted a 1.57 ERA over a dozen appearances. Three lost seasons since then, including a 7+ ERA in Double A this year before more injuries hit. What can you say about Alex Reyes at this point? He’s as talented a pitcher as there is in baseball. And he is neither healthy, nor especially good at this point. We can hold out hope, but I don’t think the Alex Reyes we were hoping for is walking through that door anytime soon.

The Less Obvious Choices

Seth Elledge — The return for Sam Tuivailala, Elledge has gone largely unremarked upon in most Cardinal prospect circles since that time. That’s because he’s been solid, but not great. He is currently struggling in Triple A, to the tune of a 6.61 ERA and 5.89 FIP, but that’s over 16 innings, so obviously small sample size warnings apply. It looks to me like standard growing pains, sprinkled with just enough of that magic MLB ball dust to be a little concerning. His K rate has fallen from just over 30% in Double A to just over 25% in Memphis, while his walk rate has seen a big spike. His home run rate has doubled as well, which not only makes his numbers look bad but probably has at least something to do with his sudden hesitance to pitch aggressively in the zone.

Elledge is still talented, but adjusting to the highest level of the minors, not to mention a ball that has played havoc with pitchers everywhere. He’s also not Rule V eligible until December of 2020, so it’s not yet necessary to roster him. With all that in mind, it would surprise me greatly if the Cards pushed him as a potential solution this season.

Jake Woodford — This one feels like a longshot, given that Woodford has been a starter, and nothing but a starter, throughout his minor league career. Still, he is in Triple A, and while he hasn’t been very good at all this season — 4.20 ERA, 5.49 FIP — it’s possible he could ramp up his stuff in shorter outings and get better results. Personally, I don’t have much confidence in Woodford at this point; I was never a big fan, but after reinventing himself as a pitcher last year I was at least willing to entertain the idea there might be something more there. The reinvention did not go well, and the Cards are now faced with a former first round draft pick who will need to be protected this offseason despite decidedly mediocre numbers.

Johan Oviedo — Oviedo is in a similar boat to Woodford in terms of having only been a starter throughout his minor league career, and thus feeling like an unlikely solution to the bullpen reinforcement problem. The difference is that Oviedo is having a productive year, while Woodford is running in place. Oviedo came into the season having lost a lot of his lustre, but pitched brilliantly at High A ball, then moved up to Double A at age 21. He has found tougher sledding there, but much of that is due to an elevated BABIP and low strand rate, neither of which look systemic when actually watching him pitch. Oviedo isn’t ready yet, but he’s made real strides this year, and I don’t see any reason to mess with his timetable in the hopes he could do something crazy as a reliever.

Jacob Patterson — A former late-round pick, Patterson is a lefty with a big, sweeping breaking ball and what appears to be a terrible home run problem in Double A. He’s still striking out a good number of batters — though not a huge percentage that makes you immediately want him to jump up to the big leagues — so there’s clearly still potential, but a guy running a 6+ ERA in Double A is likely not going to come up to the majors and be part of the solution.

Patrick Dayton — Even further away that Patterson, Dayton is still in Palm Beach, but he is at least still doing Patrick Dayton things in the Florida State League. He’s not destroying the league the way he did with Peoria in 2018, but he’s still been very good. All the same, three-level jumps are extraordinarily unusual, and I don’t believe Dayton, even with a really good breaking ball and excellent splits against lefties, is a candidate for an in-season Jordan Hicks treatment.

Zack Thompson — And finally, in what feels like the least Cardinalsy move of any of these, we should at least consider the Cards’ first round draft pick this year. No, this does not feel likely at all, but we have seen pitchers — most notably certain lefties, a la Chris Sale — come up to the majors in their draft year and have a role out of the big league bullpen. Thompson has pitched very sparingly since beginning his professional career, throwing an inning or so about every four days, and is currently on the Palm Beach roster. It would seem exceedingly unlikely the organisation would have any interest in Thompson making a three-level jump of his own, particularly considering that jump includes the MLB ball, but it’s worth at least noting that Thompson is striking out roughly a third of the hitters he’s faced so far in the FSL. His overall numbers are pedestrian, but he has serious strikeout punch in pro ball, same as he did in college.

So what have we learned here today? Well, the cupboard is not bare, not yet. I didn’t include Daniel Ponce de Leon here because he’s been up and down so many times this year he really feels like more of a major leaguer at this point than a minor leaguer, nor did I include Austin Gomber because I have no clue what kind of timetable there is on his shoulder woes, or if there even is one. But there are potential options, we can see, pitchers who might come up and contribute something in relief before the season is done. Junior Fernandez seems the most likely bet, but he’s not the only one.

The bad news is there are no sure things here. Adalberto Mejia, the scrap pile lefty the Cards claimed off waivers, is probably as good a bet as any of these guys at this point. Or at least as sure a bet. There is talent to be had, but no certainty. And given the Cards have now fallen out of first place, it feels like we could be watching the season start to slip away.