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Opportunity Abounds in the Cardinals Bullpen

The 2020 season could bring the emergence of a number of pitching prospects.

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at New York Mets Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 season has yet to begin, and the Cardinals already have four gaps in their bullpen. Giovanny Gallegos and Alex Reyes are not currently in camp and John Brebbia and Jordan Hicks will not play during the 2020 season. These are four impact arms that will be missing from the Cardinals bullpen. Alex Reyes has barely pitched in the last two seasons for the Cardinals and Jordan Hicks was injured last year. However, Gallegos and Brebbia combined to throw 146 23 innings out of the bullpen last year. This is a big loss for the team. It is possible that Gallegos will pitch this year, so the Cardinals may not completely lose him for the season. However, it will take him some time to get back to game speed when he meets up with the team, so it may be awhile before he is ready to pitch.

Due to these circumstances, the Cardinals bullpen will be short-handed, especially at the beginning of the season. However, this will provide opportunity for other players to potentially take some high leverage innings and establish themselves in the team’s long term plans. Perhaps the player who stands to benefit the most is Daniel Ponce de Leon who now looks much more likely to receive a regular role with the team. The right hander has impressed in the big league stints in each of the last two seasons, and at 28 years old will be looking to establish himself with the team before he reaches his 30s. He is somebody who may not have seen too much action without the previously mentioned group of pitchers being unable to play for the team.

Additionally, two young pitchers that reached the majors last season and looked ready to compete for regular roles are Junior Fernandez and Ryan Helsley. However, now due to these circumstances, there are high leverage innings up for grabs, and this pair of right handers will be looking to claim them. Each player is impressive as Helsley has an average fastball velocity of 97.8 mph as well as a fastball spin rate in the 93rd percentile (2510). Fernandez, is also a power pitcher who posted a strikeout rate of 26.5% or above at the top three levels of the organization in 2019. The 23-year-old struggled a bit in his brief MLB stint last season, but this is somewhat understandable since he began the season at the A-Advanced level. After playing at four different levels in the organization, Fernandez will be looking to solidify his position in the Major League team and he appears to have the arsenal that will be required to do this.

The right-hander struggled to get positive results with his sinker, which averages nearly 97 mph. However, he is comfortable throwing his slider and his changeup in any count and he typically relies on his slider to be his put out pitch. These two pitchers were solid last season as he allowed a .204 wOBA with his changeup while generating a 55.2% whiff rate. His slider had an even more impressive whiff rate (73.3%), but he allowed a solid, but slightly higher, wOBA of .261. This nearly 50 point increase in wOBA was simply because he allowed one home run with the pitch and threw nine more changeups. Fernandez threw just 11 23 innings in the majors last season, so these numbers have an extremely small sample size. However, Fernandez certainly flashed his ability in the majors last season after dominating every level from A-Advanced to Triple-A.

Another pitcher that may be ready to take on an important role with the Cardinals this season is Kodi Whitley. The 25-year old has yet to reach the majors, but he dominated the A-Advanced, Double-A, and Triple-A levels last season. Like Helsley and Fernandez, Whitley is capable of racking up the strikeouts. However, unlike that pair he only walked 1.52 players per nine innings last season while fanning 10.27 per nine innings in Triple-A. His performance last season in the minor leagues was nothing short of dominant and despite being a 27th round draft pick in 2017, he appears ready to pitch in St. Louis.

Even though the Cardinals will be without four candidates for high leverage innings at the beginning of the season, there are plenty of young players looking to establish themselves, who could even be capable of taking the ball in key situations. The injury to Brebbia while Hicks sits out the season due to health concerns creates two more open bullpen spots. Additionally Gallegos and Reyes will need time to get up to speed when they finally join the team and this gives players such as Ponce de Leon, Helsley, Fernandez, and Whitley to carve out roles on the team and make significant impacts.