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The Bullpen Depth Conveyor Belt

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Examining the players most likely to step up as bullpen options as the season goes along.

Peoria Javelinas v. Glendale Desert Dogs Photo by Jill Weisleder/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Afternoon, all. Apologies for my extended absence; the two-step authentication process required of site mods went all wonky on me and we had to go above the site level to get the issue solved. But now I have returned, much like Douglas MacArthur, only with a bigger ego and more eccentric taste in hats.

The news of the day seems to be that the Cardinals can’t score, but on the other hand, the good news is the Cardinals don’t let anyone else score either. The problem, of course, is that both teams are the Cardinals, and so it’s possible to believe either of those narratives, depending upon what sort of perspective you tend to bring to life in general.

The real news recently has been a string of bad luck that has impacted the Cards’ bullpen depth in a decidedly negative way. John Brebbia will miss the season after having Tommy John surgery. Jordan Hicks opted out of the season, both because of his own Type I diabetes (a risk factor for COVID complications), and, I have to imagine, a reasonable amount of conversation between he and the team on whether or not it was really worth him coming back from his own Tommy John procedure this year versus taking an extra long rehab period in the hopes of not going the Mark Wohlers route. Giovanny Gallegos is cleared to play, but has yet to do so. Brett Cecil is working in the low 80s. As I’m typing this, Daniel Ponce de Leon is grabbing the back of his neck and grimacing the way I do when I sleep wrong and then try to look over my shoulder too quickly backing out of the driveway.

Oh, my. Justin Williams just hit an absolute missile over the right field wall. I love his power potential, but I still wonder if he’ll do enough of, well, everything to really make any sort of impact at the big league level.

The long and the short of what we’ve seen in camp so far — particularly recently — would seem to suggest the Cardinals’ bullpen depth is going to be put to the test this year. That’s pretty much always the case, of course, and the good news is that John Gant looks healthy and ready to go, Andrew Miller just threw a very sharp inning, and Tyler Webb looks like he wants to be a really good scouting director in 2032. In other words, I’m not so much scared of what might happen with the ‘pen as I am fascinated to see what might happen with the ‘pen.

The thing is, though, is I couldn’t blame anyone who is way more scared than fascinated, because there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty surrounding the relief corps currently, and that can very much go either way. Some years uncertainty in the ‘pen works out well, and you end up with exciting options coming out of nowhere. Look at 2006, and how vital Tyler Johnson and Josh Kinney were to stabilising a rebuilt-on-the-fly bullpen, not to mention Adam Wainwright’s ascension late in the summer to replace the injured Jason Isringhausen. In 2011 Lance Lynn was one of the club’s most important weapons for shutting down the middle innings of games after pitching most of the season in Triple A. On the other hand, plenty of fans still remember 2003, when Walt Jocketty and Tony LaRussa tried to build a bullpen on the cheap, and it ended up being the summer of Esteban Yan. Or think of 2018, when Greg Holland imploded, Luke Gregerson and Tyler Lyons both got hurt, and you ended up with Bud Norris closing games for most of the year. The bullpen very likely cost the Cardinals a playoff berth in both of those latter seasons due to volatility going against them, while both championship seasons of this century featured huge turnover in the ‘pen, in both cases creating much, much stronger relief corps through attrition and roster churn. You pays your money and you takes your chances, and when the bullpen has the chance for high volatility, it can very much go either way.

As of right now, it appears the Cardinals are going to open the season with Kwang-hyun Kim in the closing role and Carlos Martinez returning to his former starting rotation spot. I love that Carlos is going to be a starter again, but I’m a little disappointed not to see Kim get a chance to show his stuff in longer outings. That being said, I do think the Cards have the horses to put together a strong bullpen, so long as a few dominoes fall their way. I think the club is hopeful Giovanny Gallegos will not be far behind schedule, John Gant has proven to be a strong asset (when not overworked, which did become an issue at times last year, I think), Kim has exciting stuff, and that goes double for Ryan Helsley. There is more than enough present stuff amongst the bullpen arms to believe a dynamic unit could emerge.

The key word is ‘could’.

What I’m really interested in here today, though, is not the group of arms the Cardinals will begin the season with. Or at least not the guys who will begin in prominent roles. What I’m interested in is who gets the ball if a late August ‘pen rebuild turns out to be necessary. In other words, these are the next up arms should things go wrong in 2020. The Redbirds have an incredible capacity to produce a seemingly endless stream of intriguing arms. These five are next up on the conveyor belt, just in case that endless stream becomes necessary again.

Johan Oviedo, RHP

Long term, Oviedo is one of the Cards’ more intriguing starting prospects, possessed of a mid-90s fastball and a pair of solid-average offspeed pitches to go along with a huge six-foot-six frame that gives him leverage, plane, and extension on his pitches. It is the shorter term, however, we are currently concerned with, and Oviedo’s defining characteristic in this nearer term is a simple one: power. Johan Oviedo has power on his side, and that’s something that tends to translate well in relief work. It’s not hard to imagine a guy who runs his fastball up to 96 as a starter pushing triple digits in relief, and even if he doesn’t quite get to that rarefied air, 98 coming from a dude who gets down the slope of the mound the way he does has a special look to it.

Oviedo is your best candidate to do what Lance Lynn did back in 2011, when Lynn came up to the majors with a simplified arsenal and proceeded to simply throw fastballs past hitters in the postseason, largely abandoning his offspeed stuff and more pitcherly accoutrements for the simple approach of hardball, the jackhammer of the construction worker over the tools of the sculptor. Oviedo could very much do that if called upon, and given how impressed the club has been with his performance since this summer training camp has kicked off, I expect to see him with the big club at some point this season, even if only as a quick fill in for a handful of innings.

Kodi Whitley, RHP

Whitley was one of the big losers of spring training being abandoned when it was, I feel; the fast-rising right-hander had made a strong impression in February, and March looked like more of the same. Sadly, just as rosters were beginning to get whittled down to the point the players still around could start making strong cases as maaaybe being a surprise inclusion on the flight to St. Louis, things went to hell in a handbasket and Whitley was left wondering what might have been.

Whitley threw maybe the most impressive inning of the game Sunday afternoon, fanning two in a scoreless frame, and it was pretty obvious no one was getting much of a look at him. Whitley made the biggest leap in the system last year, throwing at three levels and ending the year with a stint in the Arizona Fall League. He posted an ERA below 2.00 at all four levels. His fastball is the main attraction; it’s a high-spin job at the top of the zone with tremendous carry and solid mid-90s velocity. What has been most impressive about him this year to my eye is the improvement in his slider, previously a fringe-average pitch but which has looked like a legit swing and miss offering in both spring and summer camps.

Zack Thompson, LHP

Poor Zack Thompson. Well, not exactly poor Zack Thompson; he’s one of the most exciting arms in the Cardinals’ system, a farm system known for developing pitching prospects. Life could certainly be worse. On the other hand, kind of poor Zack Thompson, because he just happens to be one of the most exciting left-handed pitching prospects in the Cards’ system at a moment when both the big league club and the farm are, somewhat inexplicably, loaded with left-handed pitching depth. At the major league level you have Kim, Andrew Miller, Tyler Webb, and Brett Cecil all competing for spots, and just behind them you have the very exciting, if somewhat frustrating, arm of Genesis Cabrera, not to mention the guy who is actually coming up next on this list. Zack Thompson has the kind of stuff that could make him a tremendously impactful late season bullpen addition a la David Price or Chris Sale, and yet he is roughly seventh on the depth chart of lefties in line to get a shot at relief innings.

The story with Thompson is simple: he throws hard and has a dominant slider. His other pitches, a curveball and a changeup, are also solid, but it’s the fastball/slider combination that makes him so deadly as of right now. He and Cabrera are fairly similar pitchers, but Cabrera is much more likely to end up in the ‘pen long term, I think, while Thompson’s future is in the rotation unless something goes wrong. Still, he could be a force in short relief as soon as August if needed, I think.

Austin Gomber, LHP

Gomber is, without a doubt, the most accomplished pitcher on this list. It is also unclear at this moment, though, where his skillset fits best. The tall lefty has one of the best breaking balls in the Cardinals’ system, not to mention a sneaky fastball and a couple other usable offspeed offerings, and would seem to be an easy decision to keep as a starter long term. However, that description also fits John Gant pretty well, and we have seen the Cards gravitate toward using Gant as a multi-inning swiss army knife of a reliever as much as possible, leading me to believe that sort of role could very easily be in the offing for Gomber. His past health issues could point toward relief work as well; he missed substantial time in 2019 with a sore shoulder, and it wasn’t the first time he’s ever hit a health-related speed bump in his career.

Gomber has looked outstanding in summer camp, as well as having a very strong spring training this year. I don’t see much chance of him breaking camp with the big club (actually, considering how the roster is going to be structured, it’s possible he could make the 30 man roster, but probably not the 25 man version), but I think he’s maybe the best current bet of any pitcher in the Cards’ high minors to get seven outs in the middle innings of a game right now. Maybe his arm or his stuff doesn’t quite hold up to 80-100 pitches every fifth day, but I’ll bet you could get 30-40 great ones from him twice a week.

Jake Woodford, RHP

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a huge fan of Jake Woodford, and a lot of that has to do with the fact I simply don’t know what kind of pitcher he is most of the time. When he was drafted out of high school as a sinker-heavy Derek Lowe type, I totally got it. I like Derek Lowe. I loved Brandon Webb. Jake Westbrook had his days. Even Jason Marquis had that one amazing start in Washington when he threw 86 sinkers and like six changeups. Guys with awesome sinkers can be tons of fun to watch. In 2018, though, Woodford really started to change the type of pitcher he is. He went away from the sinker that had been his calling card and switched to a four-seamer up in the zone, trying to generate more velocity and empty swings in accordance with the new orthodoxy of pitching. He ditched his slider in favour of a bigger, overhand curveball. The idea was to get more swings and misses, which would be great in theory. The problem, sadly, is that isn’t really what happened for Woodford in 2019. Woodford’s strikeout rates as a sinkerballer were in the ~15% range; his strikeout rate throwing a high fastball and curve went up only to a little over 20%. Worse still, his walk rate went from 9.5% in 2018 to nearly 12% in 2019.

I liked the sinker version of Woodford better, even if he wasn’t the flashiest or most exciting pitching prospect. Then again, he does still have the stuff and pedigree of a former first-rounder, and maybe airing out his new fastball in short stints could give him a boost to his results. I don’t think he would be the first pitcher from the Springfield camp to get the call if the Cards need a reliever, whether that’s for short work or longer stints. Gomber has the wide base of tools and starting background to get six to eight outs, while Kodi Whitley would seem to be the guy right now you would most want to see condensing his stuff into a single innings’ work. But Woodford has big league makeup and the stuff to back it up, so if a reckoning is coming for the Cards’ bullpen in August or September, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him riding in as part of the cavalry.

The question is not, I don’t think, whether we will see any of these pitchers throwing for the big club this season. Even in this weird abbreviated season the Cards will need some bullpen depth. Actually, maybe because of this strangely condensed schedule the Cards will need bullpen depth. So I can say with a fairly high degree of confidence that I believe we will see a couple of these guys in St. Louis this summer. The real question is how many, and how important will they end up being. The Cardinals got a whole lot of mileage from a shutdown ‘pen last season; if they are going to have a real hope of contending for a division title and perhaps make a postseason run in 2020, that will almost certainly have to be true again. The horses are there to make the bullpen a strong, dynamic corps to begin the season, particularly if Alex Reyes, whose shadow hangs over this column, is healthy and throwing the way he has occasionally done in the past. But when things go wrong — and they almost certainly will, even if only in short bursts or minor ways — who from this group answers the bell, and how well, will have a potentially huge impact on the direction the season goes. Let’s hope there’s a Lance Lynn or Trevor Rosenthal in this group, rather than an Andy Cavazos or Blake Hawksworth.