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How Might the Cardinals Bullpen Shake Out?

MLB: NLCS-Washington Nationals at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

While left field appears to be the only position in question this spring, the pitching staff will need to get sorted out as well. The questions begin in the starting rotation. Jack Flaherty will be the unquestionable ace of the staff in 2020, while Miles Mikolas, Dakota Hudson, and Adam Wainwright also appear likely to appear every fifth day as well. That leaves one open spot in the rotation, and regardless of who claims that spot, it will have a serious impact on the Cardinals bullpen orientation.

The top options for the fifth rotation spot are Kwang-Hyun Kim and Carlos Martinez while Daniel Ponce de Leon seems to have an outside shot as well. The bullpen will likely contain eight or nine pitchers with the new 26-man roster taking effect this season. With the likes of Andrew Miller, Giovanny Gallegos, Ryan Helsley, Alex Reyes and John Brebbia seeming to have guaranteed roles on the team in 2020, there will be around a maximum of three available spots open in the bullpen as either Kim or Martinez will take a spot as well. This leaves Ponce de Leon, Tyler Webb, John Gant, Brett Cecil, Genesis Cabrera and Junior Fernandez to compete for the final spots. More spots may become available if anyone gets hurt as there is always potential for that to happen in Spring Training; however, it seems that there will be six players competing for three spots. Also of note is that Jordan Hicks will likely return to the team in June or July so someone may only have a big league role for a couple months.

Among these top contenders, Cabrera and Fernandez can likely be eliminated due to the fact that they did not see much MLB action least season, and they still have minor league options. While both players are exciting and will almost certainly see time in the Majors next season, it seems likely that they will begin 2020 at AAA in order to prevent a roster crunch leading to the release of another pitcher. Now that there are four options left, things become a bit clearer. The Cardinals will likely try to keep two left-handers on the roster, meaning at least one of Cecil and Webb will likely make the team. Of the two, I believe that Cecil has the inside track simply due to his contract. The Cardinals will likely want to give him another chance to justify the investment that the team made in him, especially after he posted solid results in 2017, the first year of the contract. If Cecil is retained then that might put Tyler Webb on the fringes of the roster. John Gant will likely make the team as the Cardinals chose to tender him a contract. He also had strong first half numbers before fading in the second half, so the team will likely give him another chance to show what he can do.

This leaves the final spot between Ponce de Leon and Webb. Even though Ponce de Leon can return to Memphis, he has spent parts of the last two season in the MLB, and he has done well in each stint. I believe that the Cardinals would be more inclined to give him the final spot in the bullpen and stick with two southpaws instead of three. Even though Tyler Webb has been a decent contributor to the Cardinals in each of the past two seasons, his numbers are not irreplaceable. There is a case to be made that he could provide a buffer for the Cardinals in case Cecil has a bad start to the year and gets released. However, if this happens, it seems more likely that the Cardinals will turn to Genesis Cabrera or Austin Gomber instead. Gomber spent much of the 2019 season on the injured list, and will likely return to AAA Memphis in order to keep his arm stretched out in the rotation. However, he would surely be a bullpen candidate in Cecil flops next season as would Cabrera, who spent some time with the Cardinals last year. If the Cardinals do not want to get rid of Webb, then they can decide to either carry nine relievers or send Ponce de Leon to Memphis.

Ultimately, it seems that Webb will be the odd man out, with Fernandez and Cabrera beginning 2020 in Memphis. However, it is not difficult to envision either of the young member of the young duo making a large impact on the team’s bullpen. it is inevitable that there are going to be injuries and unexpected circumstances that will require promotions from the minors. When this happens, Cabrera and Fernandez will be first in line, unless they have poor starts to the Pacific Coast League season. Both of these pitchers have dynamic arms that are capable of hitting the upper 90s on the gun and they appear to be highly regarded by the organization. Now all they need is their chance, and it might come in 2020. Even without these players in the mix, there are plenty of stories to watch in the Cardinals bullpen. Can Brett Cecil come back healthy and effective? Will Ponce de Leon get a chance to be a consistent contributor? How will Hicks look when he returns? Who will be the late inning options? What young player will emerge this season (if there is one)? The answers to these questions will be revealed soon as Spring Training is rapidly approaching.