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Too Early Trade Targets to Fix the ‘Pen

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Surveying the landscape of possible bullpen upgrades, from the very early perspective of mid-May.

Baltimore Orioles v Oakland Athletics Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

Good morning, all. It felt good to get back on the winning track last night, didn’t it? (By which I mean it felt good to play the Pirates instead of the Padres, but we’ll just stick with the winning thing...)

We’re just past the quarter mark of the season, and the Cardinals are in pretty good shape. Not perfect, mind you, but pretty good. They’re not the ‘27 Yankees, but they’re doing better than my crypto wallet this morning. The outfield has been good, but I have concerns about health. The infield has been half bad, half great, but I don’t really think any of those guys are getting bumped from a job. The starting rotation was terrible, then really good, and lately have mostly been walking the planet half the time out, which is less than ideal. And finally, the bullpen has been shaky, to say the least.

The Cardinals have one truly great reliever right now, and that’s Giovanny Gallegos. I have high hopes for Ryan Helsley, but he’s walking too many hitters right along with most of the pitching staff. Genesis Cabrera and Alex Reyes are both preventing runs at a high level, but Reyes in particular has built his house on sand, with a walk rate of nearly one per inning creeping around in the background, just waiting to jump out and cause a disaster. Cabrera has not been that bad, but his FIP is still over a run higher than his ERA, and he just feels shaky. I just don’t think Jordan Hicks is coming back, sorry to say. He went to the store for a pack of menthols, and just like when my dad did the same, we just don’t know where he went.

Of particular concern to me is the left side of the ‘pen. It is not, of course, absolutely necessary that a team have a cadre of lefties ready to go in relief, or even one lefty. It is, however, helpful, and the Cards are really thin on left-handed relievers at the big league level. Cabrera has been, as I said, pretty good, but there are signs he’s playing with fire. Andrew Miller is hurt, and did not look good at all in spring training and early this season before he went down with the foot injury. Tyler Webb is essentially a concession speech at this point. I don’t think Bernardo Flores is the answer, although he is at least an interesting option.

It’s worth noting there could be other help on the farm, as both of the Cardinals’ top pitching prospects are left-handed. I don’t think the bullpen is the way the club wants to introduce Matthew Liberatore, though, at least not until September; Zack Thompson, on the other hand, might be a name to keep in mind should the club need a relief arm from the left side with some real strikeout punch. Still, I’m going to assume the organisation would prefer those guys getting long-term development time in the minors this year, throwing innings and working on things, rather than trying to get outs any way possible for a dozen pitches at a time in the big leagues.

Here’s the thing: it is currently...(looks at calendar), May the nineteenth. The nineteenth part isn’t that important; the May part is. We’re still a couple weeks away from me penning my first annual trimester progress report for the team. In other words, it’s early. And teams don’t usually make a whole lot of moves this early in the season. Certainly, I don’t expect to see the Cardinals turning wholesale trades over the next week and a half to remake the bullpen, nor should they. However, I do think it’s worth looking around baseball and surveying the field, to see what sorts of names might be floating around as we move into the summer, and consider if there are relievers on the market who could come in and help what looks like about 80% of a World Series contender get the rest of the way there. Of course, given that these are all relief names, we won’t be covering the trade that will actually win the Cardinals the 2021 championship, which is Johan Oviedo for Max Scherzer, just as soon as all of the dozens of letters I’ve written and/or constructed from cut out letters from the newspaper find their way into the right hands down at Busch Stadium...

I am focusing on lefties here, mostly, since I see that as the easiest path to an upgrade; replacing Tyler Webb with a really useful left-hander could instantly make a real difference. However, there are also some right-handers in here, because in the end I’m less worried about handedness than I am getting quality arms into the fold. So let’s look around baseball, rapid-fire style, at useful relief arms currently toiling away for struggling clubs who may or may not be available to move this summer.

Sam Howard, LHP, Pittsburgh PiratesWe obviously know the Pirates are not going anywhere this year, as they currently have a 17-24 record, are already 6.5 games back of the Cards in the standings, and are in the middle of a rebuild. They have a tremendous farm system, but they aren’t worth worrying about until about 2023, I think. Meanwhile, Sam Howard is a lefty reliever with one of the most devastating sliders in baseball right now, leading him to a 39.6% strikeout rate this year, albeit with some wildness and walk concerns of his own built in.

Howard is 28 already, having been drafted way back in 2011, but only has a little over a year of service time, meaning he is cost-controlled for a couple years still and will be a little harder to pry away from the Pirates as a result. In fact, Howard will probably get old before he gets too expensive, considering his age and service time together. If you’re looking for a lefty who could come in and strike out nearly anyone, though, Howard is tough to beat as a potential target.

Paul Fry, LHP, Baltimore OriolesThe Orioles are in a similar spot as the Pirates right now, still in a rebuilding mode and dwelling in the basement of a very competitive AL East. Any short-term assets they have they should really be looking to move this year. And tops on that list has to be Paul Fry, who pitched like one of the better relievers in baseball last year, and has turned his performance up to an even higher level in 2021. Right now, Fry is sitting on a 1.17 ERA and 1.44 FIP, with a 22:6 strikeout to walk ratio in 15.1 innings. He’ll turn 29 this July and won’t be a free agent until 2025, so this is another arm who might run into age or injury before he actually hits a payday, and he probably won’t be super cheap to acquire. If this new level of performance is real, though, it’s basically like picking up Andrew Miller back in 2011, and maybe a decade from now teams (or at least fans), are looking for a Paul Fry Type.

Tanner Scott, LHP, Balitmore Orioles — Oh, look, another Oriole. Scott does not have nearly the recent performance pedigree of Paul Fry, but he does happen to be one of the hardest-throwing lefties in the game, capable of reaching triple digits on any given night. He’s limited runs well this year, with a 2.16 ERA, but he’s also walked nearly a batter per inning this season, and those control issues aren’t exactly new. Still, if a team believed they could help Scott find the strike zone a little more often (definitely an open question for the Cardinals right now), he could be a potential steal.

Tyler Alexander, LHP, Detroit TigersWe’re definitely dropping down a tier here in terms of performance and, especially, strikeout punch in pivoting to Alexander, but it’s possible more judicious use of the Detroit lefty could improve his results. He’s always had a serious home run issue, but also has pretty strong career splits, and has been much more effective against lefties than right-handed hitters. The three-batter minimum rule and modern roster construction have pretty much eliminated the LOOGY role, but deploying Alexander in a way that minimises his exposure to righties could bump up his effectiveness. At the very least, when Alexander is bad it’s because he’s getting hit, not because he’s not throwing strikes. Which is...good? I guess?

Mychal Givens, RHP, Colorado RockiesGivens has long been one of my favourite relievers, going back to his early days in Baltimore. He has not been very good this year in terms of results, but he’s also pitching in Colorado, where an occasional home run issue that plagued him in hitter-friendly Camden Yards has become a full-blown conflagration in the mile-high air of Coors Field. His stuff is undiminished, and he would be a half-season rental, so the acquisition cost would probably be quite low. I would love to see what Givens could do in a park that was not a launching pad, and his high fly ball rate could actually play to his advantage, rather than be a crippling issue. I really do believe Givens in Busch Stadium could be a dominant late-inning force.

Caleb Smith, LHP, Arizona DiamondbacksSmith is a failed starter who, once upon a time, was supposed to be a pretty big deal in Miami. Even last year he started four games in five appearances, but has served almost exclusively as a reliever this season in Arizona. He’s always been an extreme fly ball pitcher with good swing and miss ability, but has also struggled with a high home run rate and intermittent control issues. Some club is going to pick him up and rework him into a high-leverage reliever one of these years, I’ll bet; his high fastball is too good not to have some success somewhere, I think. Still, not a bet on current performance, but maybe a guy who’s a tweak or two away.

Alex Colome, RHP, Minnesota TwinsOver the past two years, Alex Colome was a run-prevention machine for the Chicago White Sox. This offseason, the Twins signed him away from their division rival, thinking to make him their closer and lock down the late innings of games with a couple of their other high-quality relief arms. Things have not gone at all to plan, and Colome has struggled so badly in Minnesota (where they are enduring a truly cursed season, in case you haven’t noticed), that he’s been moved out of the ninth inning and into lower-leverage work. The culprit for Colome has been a real struggle with his command this season, a surprising bugaboo for a pitcher who has always had the ability to put his cutter right on the corner fifteen times a night.

Colome has long been a guy whose peripherals belie his elite results; working in front of a high-quality defense is a must for a guy like this. He signed a one-year, $6.25 million contract with a mutual 2022 option this offseason, so he isn’t free monetarily, but the Twins might be glad to just not pay him in a season where everything has turned turtle on them.

Taylor Rogers, LHP, Minnesota Twins — The other reliever in Minnesota who may be effected by the Twins’ Hindenburg moment in 2021, Rogers is, to put it simply, one of the best relievers in baseball. He’s under team control for 2022, as well, so this would be an acquisition for not only October of 2021, but next year’s playoffs to boot. Rogers is currently running a 2.81 ERA despite a .385 BABIP and a 20% HR/FB%, which should tell you just how good his underlying performance has actually been.

How does a 34.8% strikeout rate, a 3.0% walk rate, and a 1.72 xFIP sound? Pretty good? Yeah, that’s what Rogers brings to the table. He’s as good as they come, and it’s very likely the Twins won’t really want to move him this summer, even if they don’t miraculously climb out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves. He’s also making $6 million this year and is due another arbitration raise this offseason, though, so a team that will have to be looking at extensions for a couple of players in the very near future (cough that sounds suspiciously like ‘Byron Buxton’), may consider moving what is an expensive luxury this year if a team comes calling with something that would be useful to them long-term. Rogers combined with Gallegos in the 6th-8th innings would be something truly special, if the Cardinals are serious about making a deep run in October this year.

Ian Kennedy, RHP, Texas RangersWell, it’s about that time again. Every couple years, Ian Kennedy reinvents himself in some way or another and suddenly becomes a relevant pitcher again. This time it’s as a high-end closer down in Arlington, where they seem to have hit upon something real in their mid-career-veteran-repertoire-revamp program. Basically what Lance Lynn and Mike Minor did in Texas as starters, Ian Kennedy has now done as a closer. The Rangers are still terrible this year, though, and Kennedy came in on a minor league deal this offseason, so there will be considerable urgency to flip him into a useful asset for the rebuild, I would think. Kennedy has shortened his arm action and now throws quite hard, averaging nearly 95 mph on his fastball, so we are talking about a complete reinvention here. The results are hard to argue with: a 2.12 ERA, 2.90 FIP, and a 21:4 strikeout to walk ratio. The Cardinals drafted Kennedy first, all the way back in 2003, so maybe it’s finally time to bring him to St. Louis officially.

Tony Watson, LHP, Los Angeles AngelsHey, guess who is bad again this year, despite having literally all the good luck in the world. That’s right, it’s the Angels! Again! You know who’s been pretty good, though, despite being almost 36 years old? Tony Watson, our old friend from Pittsburgh. He doesn’t throw as hard as he once did, but has fully reinvented himself at this point as an extreme ground ball pitcher who walks absolutely no one, and both his ERA (2.03), and xFIP (2.77), put him in pretty elite company. He’s on a cheap one-year deal, and I have no idea how motivated the Angels are to move him, because the Angels seem to pretty much Mr. Magoo their way through the world, just waiting on the next generational talent to fall in their laps, one way or another. (I hate the Angels, in case you can’t tell. They offend me in their incompetence.)

Alex Claudio, LHP, Los Angeles Angels — Can you tell by the way relievers are paired together that I just went through Baseball-Reference’s roster listings looking for good relievers on bad teams? ‘Cause I totally did.

Alex Claudio may not be the John Tudor-esque, super entertaining, whiffle ball-throwing, dominant late-inning force he was four or five years ago with the Rangers, but truth be told, he’s not that far off from those days. He struggled for two years in Milwaukee, and his ERA this season (4.60), would seem to indicate a guy past his expiration date, but that ERA is mostly the result of a very low strand rate (61.7%, with 75% being league average), while his peripherals line up to a 2.92 xERA, a 3.01 FIP, and a positively elite 2.45 xFIP. He’s striking out more hitters than ever (25.4% K rate), walking fewer (3.0% BB), and just isn’t seeing results commensurate with the quality of his actual pitching. He’s an extreme ground ball pitcher who would look awfully good throwing in front of a Goldschmidt/DeJong/Edman/Arenado infield.

Daniel Hudson, RHP, Washington NationalsSpeaking of guys who pop back up as going concerns every few years, Daniel Hudson hasn’t reinvented himself quite as many times as Ian Kennedy, but he remains one of those pitchers you completely forget about, until suddenly he’s closing out a World Series game and looks pretty damned good doing so. The Nationals are going nowhere this season (the reason why I can casually talk about a potential Max Scherzer trade), and Hudson is a fairly expensive luxury on a bad team. He still throws extremely hard (97.1 average fastball velocity in ‘21), and is punching out batters at a higher rate than any other point in his career, with a 32.6% strikeout rate this season. He’s on the back half of a two-year, $11 million contract he signed after the Nats won the title in 2019, so he’s strictly a rental, and a 34 year old one at that. He’s good, though, and bringing in either Hudson or Kennedy would have a similar effect on the bullpen’s ability to simply strike hitters out when needed in the late innings.

So that’s a dozen relievers, most of whom I assume will be at least somewhat available this summer. Not all of them will be moved, in all likelihood (Taylor Rogers in particular seems like a guy a team would hold on to if they expect to contend again in 2022), but at least a few of them will. The Cardinals should have a relatively easy path to the playoffs this year; I’ve seen all the teams in the NL Central, and I think the Cards are definitely the strongest top to bottom, even if the Brewers and Cubs will probably hang around most of the season. This should be a team with a strong motivation to make a move or two to bolster the club for October, and shoring up what looks like a pretty shaky bullpen would be an easy way to give themselves a punching chance against the monsters out West once the playoffs come around. A guy like Daniel Ponce de Leon is fine as a reliever, I think, but he would be even better as a trade chip to acquire one of these shorter-term but better-performing relievers I’ve outlined here. Would the Rangers do that deal for Ian Kennedy? Tough to say, and it would depend on what other offers they’re getting this summer. But maybe they would want to acquire a guy like that and see if whatever they’re doing with pitchers could turn him into an elite performer.

The Cardinals are a good team this season. Maybe a very good team. They treaded water to begin the year, when they were at less than full strength. Once their full lineup hit the field consistently, they took off. There is still some more upside to the offense, I believe, and we’ve seen how good this club can be at smothering opponents with their defensive abilities. They aren’t quite in the league of the Dodgers and Padres, but they’re not so far off that you can’t squint and see a path to October glory. With fans coming back through the gates, the revenue should be solid, if not quite up to the normal standards the organisation runs. The opportunity is there, I believe. Hopefully ownership gives the front office the okay to try and walk through that door, and just one or two additions could make a big difference.

(Still, though, go get Scherzer and I won’t complain that Alex Claudio isn’t a Cardinal. Deal?)