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Free Agent Relief Options to Bolster the Bullpen

The Cardinals can add strikeouts on a budget this winter. I take a look at a few names below.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

You all knew this was coming since I gave you a preview on Tuesday. My premise in that piece was that the St. Louis Cardinals need to add swing-and-miss to the staff but, considering the recent contracts given to relievers, they will likely get priced out of the higher-end market.

So, how can the Cardinals add strikeouts on a budget? Let’s take a look at a few names I like.

The first name I like is someone they already agreed to a deal with — Chris Stratton. In my preview article, I said that his role in 2022 was unclear but I’m glad the Cardinals brought him back into the fold.

I wrote about that on Twitter after the deal was announced.

Take a look at some stats percentiles I have selected from Stratton’s past 3 seasons.

Chris Stratton Percentiles

Season Chase Rate Whiff Rate Strikeout Rate
Season Chase Rate Whiff Rate Strikeout Rate
2020 66th 90th 80th
2021 60th 67th 62nd
2022 71st 57th 41st

This is a guy who can add swing-and-miss to the bullpen for less than $3 million. Oh, and he’s also good.

His fWAR last season was 0.7. That’s as much as Robert Suarez, who just signed a 5 year deal worth almost $10 million in AAV. This is a good deal for the Cardinals.

Sure his strikeout rate was down this season, but should it have been? My answer is no, and it rose over 3% after he came to St. Louis. He finished with a 23.5% strikeout rate with his new team, but I wouldn’t be shocked it it ticked above 25%, which is where it was the past two seasons.

This was a great start. Stratton is a solid and reliable middle relief option. And he gets whiffs. And he wasn’t expensive. This was a great way to start re-building the ‘pen.

With Stratton in tow, the Cardinals now have 5 strong right-handed options — Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos, Jordan Hicks, Andre Pallante, and Stratton.

Drew VerHagen, Alex Reyes, Jake Woodford, and Dakota Hudson are all options too but they may not survive the offseason, or, mainly in the case of VerHagen, still need to prove their effectiveness.

Let’s take a look at a few external options now. I’ll keep in in the Cardinals usual price range for relievers and look at two lefties and two righties.

RHP Seth Lugo

If I were the Cardinals and I was looking to fill out the middle relief part of my bullpen, this is who I would target. That’s because Seth Lugo looks like a pitcher who can fixed.

He still pitches like a starter despite not being a starter. But he once was a starter and he wants to be again. In fact, he’s said that on multiple occasions. That’s why I hesitate to include him here because there are reportedly a few teams who view him as starter.

Being a starter means getting paid starter money and the Cardinals certainly wouldn’t want to pay that much money nor would they want to give him that role.

With that being said, he’s not a starter. In his career, he has a 4,35 ERA as a starter and a 2.91 ERA as a reliever. If he wants to be a starter, he’s maybe a back-end kind of guy but I really don’t think any good team has interest in signing a 33-year-old arm coming off a 0.2 fWAR season in the bullpen to be a starting pitcher.

When I said he still pitches like a starter, what I meant was that he still mixes in 5 pitches (4 if you don’t count his 1.7% usage changeup) despite pitching out of the bullpen. And of those 5 pitches, only 2 really get good results.

Can you see why I said he’s fixable?

Here are the results against each of his pitches last year.

Seth Lugo Arsenal

Pitch Usage Rate wOBA xwOBA Whiff Rate
Pitch Usage Rate wOBA xwOBA Whiff Rate
Curveball 34.0% 0.199 0.255 30.8%
4-Seam Fastball 28.9% 0.248 0.258 22.8%
Sinker 21.9% 0.413 0.333 13.3%
Slider 13.5% 0.361 0.364 24.2%
Changeup 1.7% 0.000 0.180 14.3%

The good news for Lugo is that he throws his two best pitches the most often, but I think he could improve by throwing them even more.

His sinker has never really gotten good results so he definitely should not be throwing it almost 22% of the time. and his slider hasn’t yielded a wOBA below .337 since 2016. Neither of those pitches are great.

Even if he doesn’t drop these pitches entirely, he should really be focusing on his four-seamer and his curveball. Simply throwing your best pitches more and your worst pitches less can be an improvement.

It goes beyond that for Lugo, though. Look at where he locates his four-seamer and his curveball.

The tunneling possibilities of a high four-seamer and a low curveball are incredible. But he doesn’t venture into the top of the zone with his heater as often as he should. He also has a perfect 6:00 difference between the spin of his fastball and the spin of his curveball, meaning that there are no perceptible spin differences to the hitter.

This is another area where he could improve.

The real question is, would he be willing to make these changes? If he thinks he’s a starter or wants to keep the possibility of starting open in the future, then I doubt he’s going to focus on his best two pitches.

Even if he keeps doing what he did this year, he’s a good option. He put up a 3.60 ERA, 3.76 FIP, 3.51 xFIP, and 25.4% strikeout rate. A few tweaks could easily get that strikeout rate to jump a few percentage points which would be a huge boost to a staff that struggled to get Ks last year.

Even better for the Cardinals, he may be better suited as a reliever, but he could certainly serve the swingman role the Cardinals wanted Drew VerHagen to fill last year. He hasn’t started a game in two seasons, but he did start 7 games in 2020 and has started 38 in his career.

He fits the Cardinals needs. He can be a swingman, can get strikeouts, can be effective, and shouldn’t be too expensive (unless he signs as a starter).

LHP Joely Rodriguez

In the past 2 seasons, Joely Rodriguez has posted ERAs of 4.66 and 4.47, so why is he on this list? It’s because his FIPs have been 3.43 and 3.23 in those same seasons. It’s also because his strikeout rate jumped to 26.4% in 2022.

Normally a reliever coming off a season with a 3.23 FIP and 26.4% strikeout rate would command a contract above the Cardinals price range. There are some reasons why I don’t think that will happen, though.

To begin with, his 4.56 career ERA may add an element of doubt to teams looking at him. On top of that, his fastball velocity dipped from 94.1 mph to 92.7 mph. That throws up a major red flag and may cause teams to not be willing to give him a multi-year contract or an expensive one.

A drop in velocity for a 30-year-old pitcher is always concerning. It could signal an injury, it could signal that he’s fading, or it could just be fluky.

That may be a red flag but it works in the Cardinals favor. He’s a lefty that can miss bats and has posted strong FIPs in recent seasons and he may not take a hefty contract to sign.

I’m hesitant about the velocity but I like the arsenal and that’s why I included him here. He’s mainly a sinker/changeup guy and both pitches have gotten great results. His sinker also gets a tremendous amount of run, which to me, is much more important than sink.

At 17.4 inches, Rodriguez’s sinker gets 14% more run than the average sinker. It also gets above average sink. It may not be a pitch that gets a tremendous amount of whiffs, but it does limit hard contact.

Among pitchers who use their sinker more than 25% of the time, Rodriguez’s sinker had the second lowest hard hit rate in all of baseball. It also allowed just an 82.3 mph exit velocity. That’s an effective pitch!

What really makes Rodriguez dangerous, though, is his changeup. He throws it almost 40% of the time and it generated a 38.5% whiff rate. This is where his strikeouts comes from.

The movement profile of the pitch isn’t remarkable but, when paired with it’s velocity, it really stands out. There is a 5 mph difference between Rodriguez’s sinker and his changeup and a 10 inch difference in vertical movement.

Let me explain why that’s ideal.

To begin with, hitters have a really tough time picking up on such a slight velocity difference. Secondly, Rodriguez throws these pitches in ideal locations that allow both pitches to play up.

Both pitches are thrown on the outer half of the plate (from a right-handed hitter’s view) but the changeup is thrown at the bottom and the sinker is thrown middle to up in the zone. That’s perfect because he can throw the two pitches in the same location and let their different movement patterns take them to those parts of the zone.

This is about as good of a pitching strategy as it gets for Rodriguez and it has helped his sinker stay off the barrel and his changeup stay off the bat.

If the Cardinals can snag him for under $4-5 million, he could be a really good signing that fits into the team’s budget.

RHP Miguel Castro

Last offseason Miguel Castro signed a 1-year, $2.6 million contract with the Yankees. Then he only threw 29 innings in 2022 after suffering a shoulder strain that put him on the 60-day IL. His FIP improved from 4.36 to 3.84, but suffering an essentially season-ending shoulder injury in a contract year doesn’t do a lot for a pitcher’s value.

I don’t imagine he will clear $3 million this season and he may be forced to take a one-year contract after his injury. It’s hard to judge the reliever market this year, but Castro is someone who should be in the Cardinals price range.

That’s good for the Cardinals because Castro has great stuff, which might not be immediately apparent from his 23.7% strikeout rate.

He’s a sinker/slider/changeup guy and the main problem for him has been his sinker. It simply hasn’t produced good results despite it’s velocity (98 mph) and above average movement in both directions.

Miguel Castro Sinker

Year wOBA xwOBA Average EV
Year wOBA xwOBA Average EV
2018 0.378 0.406 90.5
2019 0.424 0.405 91.6
2020 0.432 0.357 95.2
2021 0.385 0.436 89.0
2022 0.490 0.542 95.1

This is his big blemish. Well...that and the fact that he has a career 12.3% walk rate. Cheap relievers all have issues, but not all cheap relievers have his kind of stuff.

The fastball is explosive even if it’s not good and his slider has 10.4 inches of sweep, which is 58% more than the average slider. It comes in at just under 86 mph and looks like this:

It also has 2800 rpms of spin and a 40% whiff rate. This is his money pitch. He throws it almost 45% of the time and it yielded just a .261 wOBA last year (up from .205 last year).

His changeup is a clear third pitch in usage (19%) but definitely not in effectiveness. Like every other pitch in his arsenal, it moves a lot. It also allowed just a .273 wOBA and generated a 35% whiff rate.

He’s a fastball away from being one of the dominant relievers in baseball. Even without a fastball, he’s still an effective bullpen arm.

That’s a high ceiling for an arm that has a chance to sign for under $3 million

LHP Matt Moore

Full disclosure, Matt Moore may be the most expensive name on this list and he may be more than the Cardinals are willing to spend. But, if they are going to commit some extra money to a reliever, it should be to a lefty.

It’s still unclear how teams are going to value a 33-year-old reliever who went to Japan in 2020, came back to the majors in 2021 and flopped, but then turned in a sub-2 ERA in 2022.

In 74 innings, he posted a 1.95 ERA, 2.98 FIP, and 3.87 xFIP. That earned him 1.3 fWAR. That came after a year in which he was worth -0.2 fWAR. He wasn’t particularly good in 2017-2019 either.

Part of his turnaround in 2022 was due to dropping his cutter entirely. It had never been a successful pitch for him and since he moved into a full time bullpen role he didn’t need to throw all 4 of his pitches.

The other part of his turnaround was a better fastball. In 2021, the pitch allowed a .392 wOBA. In 2022, it yielded a .302 wOBA. Part of that improvement seems to have come from a different location and a velocity bump.

Namely, he threw his fastball higher in the zone and moving to the bullpen helped him gain 1.5 mph.

Here’s his heat map from 2022:

And here’s his heat map from 2021:

Teams must decide whether they think his fastball gains are real because they are a large reason for his increased strikeout rate (18.9% in 2021 to 27.3% in 2022) and increased effectiveness.

Spotrac’s estimation of his market value is $6.8 million over 2 years. With the way relievers have been paid, that seems a bit low, but he may still fall within the Cardinals price range.

If he does, he would be a good option for the Cardinals to bolster their left-handed bullpen options because, with the changes he’s made, it looks like the best part of his career may still be to come.

He made $2.5 million in 2022 and should be due for a raise this winter. The real question is how big of a raise it will be.


I have presented two righties and two lefties who I think could bolster the Cardinals bullpen this winter. Let me know in the comments who you think the Cardinals should be looking for.

As always, thanks for reading VEB.