Even though the Cardinals bullpen should be fully healthy for the 2021 season, almost nobody is projecting it to be a top-10 group in MLB this season. MLB.com has the Cardinals bullpen ranked outside the top-10, while Fangraphs projects the team’s bullpen to be the 14th best in terms of WAR in 2021. While this is slightly above average, it does not seem to do justice to the Cardinals bullpen, which performed admirably in a difficult 2020 season.
In 2020, the Cardinals bullpen finished 18th in fWAR, despite dealing with COVID, pitching players like Nabil Crismatt and Ricardo Sanchez, and not having Jordan Hicks or an effective Carlos Martinez. While an 18th placed finish is not great, this was a unit that was projected to be among the 10 worst bullpens after Jordan Hicks opted out. Additionally, this 18th place finish occurred just one season after the Cardinals bullpen posted the 7th highest fWAR total in the league in 2019.
With many of the same relievers from the 2019 team still on the roster, it seems that last season was simply one below average year, and not the beginning of a trend.
In 2019, some of the top relievers for the Cardinals (in terms of innings pitched) were Carlos Martinez, Giovanny Gallegos, John Brebbia, Tyler Webb, Andrew Miller, and John Gant. Additionally, Jordan Hicks and Alex Reyes combined to throw just over 31 innings.
In 2021, the only player that the Cardinals have not retained from the aforementioned group is John Brebbia. Additionally, Andrew Miller had a much improved 2020 season, even if Carlos Martinez’s 2020 season was a disappointment. However, Tyler Webb, Giovanny Gallegos, and John Gant have remained consistently solid, or dominant in the case of Gallegos.
To make things even better for the bullpen, Jordan Hicks and Alex Reyes should both begin the season healthy, while Carlos Martinez has been throwing in the Dominican Republic in order to rebound from his poor season in 2020. There is a chance that Martinez ends up in the rotation, but Ponce de Leon may also end up in the bullpen full time. Additionally, the Cardinals have players like Genesis Cabrera (33.3 K% in 2020) and Kodi Whitley (debuted in 2020) who seem ready to take on bigger roles for the team in 2021.
Beyond the group of Gallegos, Reyes, Hicks, Martinez (maybe), Miller, Gant, Webb, Cabrera, and Whitley, the Cardinals also have Ryan Helsley, who struggled in 2020 but still has a strong reliever’s profile, and other players like Austin Gomber, and Ponce de Leon.
This seems like a strong bullpen on paper, and it is very similar to the bullpen that finished 7th in fWAR in 2019. Obviously there is some risk in this group as the performance of Martinez is a question mark, and Hicks and Reyes need to prove that they can last a full season. However, if all of these players can stay relatively healthy over the course of the year, it would not be surprising to see the Cardinals’ bullpen to outperform its projections.
The Cardinals also have a history of getting solid performances out of their upper level pitching prospects, especially in the bullpen. This should allow the Cardinals to provide cover for any injuries that occur throughout the season.
Once again, there is clearly some risk involved with this group of relievers. However, there is always risk involved with relievers, and this group certainly seems to be a better than average group. Because of this, it seems like the Cardinals’ bullpen deserves some more respect, as it may be capable of finishing the season as a top 10 group.
Also, with the Cardinals having yet to make a major league acquisition, the pitching staff will be tasked with carrying the team to success and covering for an offense that might struggle to perform at anything more than an average level. Thus, if the Cardinals could get a top 10 performance from the bullpen, it may be enough to help the team win the division.