The St. Louis Cardinals are still looking for bullpen help after filling out their rotation with Steven Matz. Realistically, there a signing or two would fill out the big league staff and leave some prospects on the fringes of the roster but not in an immediate impact role.
At this point, it looks like both Ryan Helsley and Kodi Whitley will be in the bullpen to start the year. With Gallegos, Cabrera, Reyes, Hicks, and McFarland, that gives the team seven relievers. A swingman would fill out the 13-man pitching staff. Any other signings would then be competing with Helsley or Whitley for a spot in the ‘pen. Another possible name is Jake Woodford, but it is still unclear where he stands on the depth chart.
The Cardinals pitching staff is a bit fragile. And by a bit, I mean that it’s basically a glass vase sitting on the edge of a table. Maybe nothing happens, but it’s a dangerous situation.
We saw in 2021 how pitching injuries ravaged the team, but the team may need to be prepared for the same eventuality this year. Adam Wainwright is 40 years old. Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty only returned from injuries late last season. Alex Reyes made it through a full year but his high usage and history of injuries still leave him as a major risk. Jordan Hicks threw just 10 innings in 2021 as his own checkered injury history was extended.
Hicks injured his throwing elbow. Mikolas injured his throwing elbow and his right forearm. Flaherty dealt with a shoulder injury. Matz has his own history of shoulder and elbow issues, and we all know about Alex Reyes. Those are a lot of damaged (and fixed) arms. Beyond these risks, there is always the fact that injuries just happen. Even durable players get injured and no team is able to get through a year without some injuries to the pitching staff. The Cardinals staff appears likely to be more prone to such developments, though.
The good news for Cardinals prospects is that it opens the door for them to make a mark in St. Louis. Here are a few that I think will have the biggest impact on the Cardinals season.
It is possible that Woodford claims an MLB role to start the year, but I don’t know if he will. It depends on Spring Training, how the organization views him, and how many other players the Cardinals sign.
Still, he filled in admirably last season with a 3.99 ERA in 67 2⁄3 innings. His 4.50 FIP was not super exciting, though. He worked as a starter and a reliever and was often called upon as the emergency reliever when a start went off the rails and the team needed innings coverage.
Such a multi-faceted role may work in Jake Woodford’s favor this year. He may not edge out Helsley or Whitley or a free agent signing based on pure talent, but his ability to fill any role that is thrown at him is something that will give him the chance to make an impact in 2022.
Even if he doesn’t make the opening day roster, I wouldn't expect him to be in Memphis for very long. He should be the first pitcher on call to the big leagues (if he doesn’t start there) and once he comes up, he may not go back down. The right-hander will almost certainly be required to fill a variety of roles once again, and this is how he will add value to the team.
Calling Kodi Whitley “fringe” may be cheating a little bit, but he’s super interesting so I’m going to talk about him anyways. The right-hander went from 27th round pick to the majors in three years, but despite his fast rise, he will play the 2022 season as a 27 year old. It is time for him to lay a firm hold on a bullpen job, and if he replicates his performance last season, he may even move into the back-end of the bullpen.
I am considering Whitley a “fringe player” because he threw just 25 1⁄3 innings last year and split the season between St. Louis and Memphis. He was really good at both levels and that should be enough to give him a full time bullpen role this year, but his 30 major league innings still make him an inexperienced arm.
Whitley tallied a 2.97 FIP in St. Louis last season and throughout his career he has paired high strikeout rates with low walk rates. That changed a bit in 2021 as both moved in the wrong direction, but he was still plenty effective, and he could see those rates trend in the right direction again in the upcoming season.
Whitley has a three pitch arsenal that includes a ‘rising’ fastball, a changeup that he throws to both sides, and a high whiff rate slider. That arsenal gives him plenty of promise on top of his production in both the majors and the minors
One of the most interesting things about Kodi Whitley is his willingness to throw same-sided changeups.— Blake Newberry (@bt_newberry) January 21, 2022
This goes against conventional baseball wisdom but it worked for him in a small sample.
Whitley threw 57% of his changeups to RHBs and RHBs had a .196 wOBA against the pitch.
Whitley’s ability to throw all of his pitches to both left-handed hitters and right-handers should also prevent from being hidden from a certain kind of hitter.
I think the team wants to keep Liberatore in a starting role in both the minors and the majors. If a starter gets hurt, then Liberatore and Woodford might battle for the spot in the rotation. If Woodford begins the year in the bullpen, then the team might be aggressive and let Liberatore take the spot. If relief innings open up, Liberatore will probably be kept in Triple-A while Woodford or Junior Fernandez fills the role.
Liberatore was challenged at the Triple-A level to begin the year, but he vastly improved during the season. After July, the southpaw threw 57 1⁄3 innings and allowed 17 runs (2.67 ERA) while fanning 57 and walking just 17. This was remarkable improvement from the first month of the season. VEB’s own J.P Hill recently wrote a great summary and preview of Liberatore after Baseball America ranked him the 50th best prospect in baseball. Basically, he has good velocity and should be a solid mid-rotation arm with the potential for more.
The 22-year-old led all prospects in the Cardinals system with 124 2⁄3 innings in 2021, with all of them coming at the Triple-A level. With a full year of Triple-A experience and a second half with a 2.67 ERA, Liberatore is knocking on the door of the major leagues. He will get his shot during the 2022 season, and if he plays up to his potential, then he won’t be returning to Memphis.
Johan Oviedo may also get another chance to pitch in St. Louis, though he is probably behind Liberatore, especially if the Cards top pitching prospect starts the year well. Junior Fernandez is another possibility in the bullpen, while Connor Thomas could also see time if he builds on his strong 2021 effort.
If I were to guess, I would say that the Cardinals are going to be patient with Oviedo. He debuted too early and has looked overwhelmed at the major league level. He needs more time in Triple-A, and he could even more into a relief role if he struggles in the Memphis rotation. A move to the ‘pen might help him improve, but he really just needs some stability so that he is not constantly jumping between the majors and the minors while trying to develop.
When pitching injuries inevitably happen, the Cardinals are going to need young arms to step up. Having pitchers with the versatility of Woodford, the early success (to go with plenty of promise) of Whitley, and the nearly-MLB ready, top-50 prospect status of Liberatore should help the team fill gaps where they arise during the season. Another free agent arm or two could certainly help, but the Cardinals’ young pitchers on the fringes of the roster will certainly get their chances this year.