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The road to a good bullpen using no outside help

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It’s not as hard to imagine as you’d think

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Through nearly two full months of the season, the Cardinals are in a highly irregular position, at least for the John Mozeliak era. Their major weakness is depth. The Cardinals streak of winning seasons can be partially attributed to their ability to patch holes internally when people get injured. It’s not so much that you don’t see a drop-off when someone gets hurt, but that the replacement is usually league average. That... has not been the case this season.

Because if you run down the roster, when healthy, it’s a good roster. They have above average regulars at every position and a pretty solid pitching staff with a strong bullpen. So far, though it’s early and they deserve a chance, the starting three outfielders are the only good outfielders on the roster. Their replacements have been a black hole of suck. Injuries to both Miles Mikolas and Jordan Hicks have hurt the bullpen (Mikolas because Gant has to stay in the rotation.). Edmundo Sosa has been the only replacement plan that has actually gone right.

Today I want to focus on the bullpen, which has been disappointing to say the least. Here’s what sucks about the bullpen. Aside from five pitchers, and they’d be the pitchers you’d expect, every other person who has thrown innings in the bullpen has pitched the equivalent of about two starts or less. If a starter had two bad games in a row, you would not give up on them. That’s the sample we’re dealing with here. That’s why bullpen is so volatile. They just don’t throw that many innings.

Let’s look at Ryan Helsley for example. He has had three very distinct versions of himself. In his first four outings, he threw 3.2 innings. He walked five, struck out three, and allowed five runners to score. He had a miniscule 28.6 GB%. There was no stat you could look to that would make him look good at all. In his next 11 appearances, he had a 0.79 ERA, 1.82 FIP, and 2.74 xFIP in 11.1 IP. In his last 4.1 IP, spread over six appearances, he has been arguably worse than his first four outings, with six runs in 4.1 IP.

Same pitcher. He had one bad start, then two good starts, and then a second bad start. His overall season stats come out fine, though not particularly good for a member of the bullpen. But if he went out and had the equivalent of two good starts again, his stats would look good. You just got to keep throwing him out there and hope he figures it out.

Also, the Cardinals have the very best kind of bad bullpen. They haven’t really blown games. Because they have a very good starting point for a good bullpen, which is the high leverage relievers. They have three of them and they look pretty good. This is the hardest part of making a good bullpen! I trust Giovanny Gallegos, and I’m still sort of in appreciation mode of Genesis Cabrera and Alex Reyes while not fully embracing them as the elite relievers they’ve been by ERA. But so far, nobody is trying to trade for an elite guy to replace them.

So if the Cardinals have a good basis for a good bullpen, how do they get one? If they don’t need to trade for an elite reliever, what’s the next step? It’s a tough question to answer actually. You don’t really want to trade for a perfectly acceptable reliever who might happen to stumble into a 15 inning period where he struggles and doesn’t pitch meaningfully better than internal options. It sort of feels like trading for a fine reliever is just hoping that you happen to luck into the right 15 inning performance they give you.

The Cardinals have what they have and the goal is to have a strong bullpen that you can trust when you enter October. How do the Cardinals achieve that with their current group of pitchers? Basically, how difficult is it to imagine having a bullpen that won’t screw up your chances at winning, and at best, actually lead you to a championship? If it’s hard to imagine with internal options, you make a trade.

But I would argue, it’s not that hard to imagine. We already have three members of the bullpen down that everyone would agree with: Gallegos, Reyes, and Cabrera. Those three are in the playoff bullpen. Those are, right now, the only guarantees. Everyone else is competing for the other five spots. Or four. It’ll probably be five? I’ll assume it’s eight people in the bullpen during the playoffs.

Okay, let’s refer to the current bullpen and right away we have a couple easy cuts. My playoff bullpen does not feature Tyler Webb. And it does not feature Jake Woodford. I don’t really understand Webb’s presence on the regular season bullpen, much less a playoff one. I do understand Woodford’s presence in the regular season, but he’s just here to soak up innings when the Cardinals are losing. That is not applicable to playoff baseball.

The fourth member, assuming health, for better or worse, is Andrew Miller. It’s possible there are eight better relievers than him on the Cardinals come October. Right now there aren’t. And he’s also on the roster simply because I don’t see the Cardinals jettisoning him. Like reality says he will be in the bullpen. So any attempt at a realistic playoff bullpen has to include him. He’s a better version of Webb at the least, except that he won’t throw 35 pitches when the Cards need innings - but again playoff baseball, that’s not necessary.

It’s here where I play a little game called “someone will emerge.” So in this game, you take a group of relievers, and by the end of the year, at least one of them will emerge as a viable bullpen threat. At least a competent middle relief pitcher, which is what we’re looking for. We aren’t dealing with some high bar. So mentally, I put a little percentage point on the odds of that pitcher becoming that, and then do that to a couple pitchers until the odds are such that one of them will surely become that.

For instance, the fifth spot will go to either Ryan Helsley or Jordan Hicks. Neither are at the stage of being comfortable assuming they will be what we need in October by themselves, but put them together, and you can feel reasonably confident in at least one of them. Which is not to say it can’t happen to both of them. Just that when planning ahead, don’t assume.

In the sixth spot, one of Kodi Whitley, Junior Fernandez, Seth Elledge, and Johan Quezada will be a guy. Whitley is the overwhelming favorite in this writer’s opinion. Don’t sleep on Fernandez though. He may be a AAAA pitcher, but in AAA he has 10 strikeouts to one walk in 5.1 IP so far. He has pitched 3.2 MLB innings. You can’t write a guy off because of that. He’s also only 24. Elledge and Quezada are more longshots, but we haven’t seen the latter yet, so maybe he returns from injury and dominates. And Elledge has truly nasty stuff. So between all four, one of them will emerge.

Who is #7? A current starting pitcher. Take your pick. Bernardo Flores Jr, Angel Rondon, Matthew Liberatore, Zack Thompson. Liberatore or Thompson may debut as starters later this year in the big leagues, but I have a feeling bullpen is how they’ll finish the year. And even if they are starting, are they really going to catapult themselves into the top 4 of a playoff rotation? Seems unlikely. If it happens great. Where I’m sitting, that’s a bit of a leap.

And lastly, #8. Since I don’t know the state of the MLB rotation at the end of September, it’s hard to guess, but my personal favorite pick would be John Gant. I think Gant in the bullpen would be HUGE for the bullpen. I want it to happen as soon as they can. I didn’t mention Johan Oviedo above, but he’s sort of blended into this group and that for me. Maybe Mikolas returns and Carlos Martinez goes to the bullpen. The 8th guy is a current MLB starter.

So to recap, here’s the bullpen:

1: Gallegos

2: Reyes

3: Cabrera

4. Miller

5. Helsley/Hicks

6. Whitley/Fernandez/Quezada/Elledge

7. AAA starter right now (Rondon/Flores Jr,/Liberatore/Thompson)

8. MLB starter right now (Gant/Oviedo/Martinez)

I did not mention Poncedeleon, and that’s not because I forgot or because he’s automatically out of the bullpen. He just doesn’t fit neatly into any of the categories. I can easily see him functioning as your 8th guy, the guy you have to throw multiple innings in case of emergency. That role could be filled by one of the former starters of course. But there are a lot of options.

So I said above that the Cardinals weakness is depth, and as I’m writing this article, I’m not really sure that’s true as it pertains to the bullpen. Because there are a lot of routes to a good bullpen from this group, and you don’t have to hope on too many specific things going right. So for now, I think the Cardinals should stick with what they have for the bullpen.