It seems that all of the attention has gone to Willson Contreras recently, and rightfully so. He has a potentially $100 million contract in hand and will play a huge role on next year’s Cardinals team. The St. Louis Cardinals have done more than sign Willson Contreras this winter, though. They have also brought in a pair of pitchers to join the bullpen.
These may have been minor moves but they signal something greater to me - a different roster strategy. Before I get into that, I first want to take a look at the two arms that were signed.
Guillermo Zuniga - MLB Signing
The first move was to sign Guillermo Zuniga on a major league deal. Now, if you’re a regular reader of VEB, you may have recognized that name. That’s because I already wrote about him this winter when I looked at minor league free agents I wanted the Cardinals to sign. Little did I know that he would actually sign a major league deal despite never pitching above Double-A, and posting a 5.95 FIP to boot.
This might be a curious decision to some, but I’m a big fan of the move even if it doesn’t pan out. I’ll start my explanation by pushing back against some of the criticisms.
Criticism 1 - The Cardinals should have signed him to a minor league deal and not a major league deal.
I’m sure the Cardinals would have loved to sign Zuniga to a minor league deal with a spring training invite tacked on, but that’s not how the market worked. If the Cardinals could have gotten away with a minor league pact, it’s a pretty good bet they would have. That makes me think that at least one other team was willing to offer Zuniga a major league deal. Thus, the Cardinals likely had to give him an MLB contract or see him go somewhere else. I understand the surprise at the deal but the team (I would imagine) did what they had to do to sign a player they wanted. That meant giving a minor league player a major league deal.
Criticism 2 - He’s bad.
That’s fair enough. His results have been bad. No argument here. But this is a move about projection. Zuniga has nasty stuff but he still needs to learn how to maximize it. If the Cardinals can teach him how to maximize it, then he could be a really good reliever. If they can’t, then it’s fine because I don’t imagine his contract is much over $1 million. It’s a low risk, high reward move.
So, with that said, I want to dive into Zuniga’s profile.
Nearly 50% slider whiff rate and a 97.7 mph fastball is a pretty great bread and butter combo. There's lots to work with here.— Blake Newberry (@bt_newberry) December 7, 2022
S/O @CardinalsReek and @WillSugeStats for the graphic. This is awesome! https://t.co/lcJpDbG7Ut
When looking at this graphic, it’s Zuniga’s fastball and slider that really stand out. And especially his slider. A 40% chase rate is crazy. So is a 47.1% whiff rate. When that’s paired with a fastball that touches 101 and sits upper 90s, it gives him better than plus stuff.
So, what gives? Why was he bad last year?
He had three main issues. The first is that he lacks command. The right-hander had a 12.4% walk rate last year and can really struggle to consistently throw in the zone. The second is that he’s susceptible to the long ball (1.98 HR/9), and the third is that lefties absolutely obliterated him.
Righties batted just .189 with a .547 OPS against him but that OPS nearly doubled against left-handed batters (1.062). That’s roughly the difference between Jonathan Schoop/Myles Straw and Aaron Judge.
As a right-handed specialist, Zuniga would likely be fine as he is. But he can’t simply avoid lefties. He needs to learn how to get them out or a single pinch hitter could derail his outing.
Zuniga is a pitcher with great stuff but some serious flaws. The Cardinals obviously think he can do a job at the major league level, though, so let’s see if we can figure out some changes that he might make.
I’ll deal with all of his issues together because they’re all connected. For instance, it seems that some of his struggles against left-handers are primarily due to his inability to consistently locate his changeup in the zone.
it’s a great pitch and it’s one that may help him with his struggles against lefties but only if he can develop more feel for it. The movement profile is good, he gets a lot of whiffs with it and he inexplicably gets hitters to chase at a 27.1% rate despite often throwing it nowhere near the zone. I think he could benefit from throwing it more often as it made up less than 16% of his arsenal in 2022.
Here’s the problem with that idea - he shouldn’t be throwing it more if he can’t locate it consistently. That’s why I think there’s another option.
In the graphic above, you can see that he threw 18 cutters last year. I think the Cardinals may try to teach him a cutter the same way that they taught Connor Thomas a cutter to help him get outs against righties.
The benefit of the cutter is that it splits the velocity difference between his fastball and his slider as it’s about 6 mph faster than his slider and 6 mph slower than his heater. That’s perfect. Since there aren’t drastic speed differences, it is harder for the hitter to identify which pitch is coming at him. The cutter worked wonders for Connor Thomas in the Arizona Fall League, and I have a hunch that the Cardinals are about to try the same thing with Zuniga.
They could stick with the changeup and maybe try to get him to throw it a tick or two harder but he really has a tough time locating the pitch. I like the profile of the pitch a lot but that doesn;t matter if he doesn’t have much feel to throw it. Maybe the Cardinals can help him get more feel for the pitch but it may simply be easier to teach him a cutter and use a four-pitch mix.
The Cardinals must do something because his struggles at a platoon disadvantage are the root of all of his issues. Remember, I said that Zuniga gives up a lot of homers? Well, Zuniga surrendered 12 home runs this year and 10 were hit by lefties. He also had an 11.3% walk rate against righties but a 14.0% walk rate against lefties (I would guess that’s because he throws his changeup more often to lefties).
He also had a 33.3% strikeout rate against righties but that dropped to 19% against lefties.
All this goes to show that his stuff plays but maybe just needs a tweak to get fully unlocked. If Zuniga were to only face right-handers in 2023, I would have no concerns about his ability to pitch in the major leagues. How well he ends up performing will simply be a matter of how effectively he can pitch when at a platoon disadvantage.
Wilking Rodriguez - MLB Rule 5 Selection
I have a lot less to say about this move because it’s basically impossible to find video and pitch data for his time in Mexico. All I have are these:
These recent reliever moves by the Cardinals are super interesting. Wilking Rodriguez pitched in the independent league last year and had a 2.01 ERA with 73 strikeouts in 44.2 IP.pic.twitter.com/TDaixlnNPf— Kareem (@KareemSSN) December 7, 2022
❗️Alerta de alta velocidad❗️ Wilking Rodríguez explotó el Trackman del Estadio "Revolución" al marcar las 100 millas por hora (MPH) con este pitcheo para dominar a Jhoan Ureña.— Tecolotes de los Dos Laredos (@LaredosTecos) May 8, 2022
En su salida de hoy, tuvo 2 pitcheos de 100 MPH.#DosNacionesUnEquipo #TecosNation pic.twitter.com/Aixhli05S0
Clase ‘e perreo— El Fildeo ⚾️ ´tamos ready (@elfildeo) December 22, 2021
A lo apache Wilking Rodriguez dejó viendo visiones a Astudillo pic.twitter.com/WDrJfmTKec
Wilking Rodríguez poncha a Flores y Tecos sella el triunfo pic.twitter.com/quTA5q0YKS— AYM Sports (@AYMsports) August 13, 2022
As you can see, he touches 100 and sits in the upper 90s, has a curveball with good depth, and throws a changeup. What you didn’t see in those videos was his mid-90s cutter. That may be his money pitch.
Wilking Rodriguez throws his Cutter at 95.2 MPH (would be 4th hardest FC in MLB) with 2.8” of sweep— Eli (@eli2722) December 7, 2022
The only player better in both velo and glove-side horizontal movement is Emmanuel Clase
The arsenal speaks for itself but I’m going to list his 2022 Mexican League stats anyways.
For someone with such an electric arsenal, this is an incredibly low risk move. If he can’t stick in the majors all year then he’ll just go back to the Yankees. I LOVE this pick.
It’s one thing to dominate the LMB and it’s another to dominate the MLB but Rodriguez’s arsenal is tantalizing and he looks to have solid command too. That puts him ahead of Zuniga for me.
The Cardinals have made a bunch of minor pitching moves this winter, but you’ll see a trend if you’ve been paying attention. The Cardinals are chasing players with loud arsenals. That’s a marked difference from last winter.
Rodriguez throws 100 with a crazy cutter, Zuniga throws 100 with a nasty slider, and minor league signing Logan Sawyer can throw 100 with a nasty splitter.
Last year, the Cardinals signed Nick Wittgren, T.J. McFarland, Drew VerHagen, and Aaron Brooks. Those are pitch to contact guys. None of them were really going to raise the Cardinals strikeout totals by much and all of them flopped when they weren’t able to manage the contact they allowed.
I can tell you which strategy I prefer. It’s this year’s and it’s not even close. The Cardinals have stuck to low risk moves but these low risk moves have the potential to work out in a big way. The kinds of arms the Cardinals are bringing into the system are the kinds of arms that have the potential to turn into strikeout machines.
They have talked about wanting to add swing and miss to the staff and now they are doing it. It may not be high profile swing and miss but it’s swing and miss nonetheless. The way the Cardinals (don’t) spend on relievers means that they need to think outside the box, so they have looked to Mexico, the minor leagues, and Indy ball for MLB contributors.
Instead of bringing in guys who are limited by their arsenals, the Cardinals are bringing in guys with huge ceilings because of their arsenals. It almost feels like a Dodgers strategy the way they are looking for explosive arms for cheap and then trying to tweak them into having MLB success.
That doesn’t mean every arm will pan out but it does mean the Cardinals may unearth some gems. Zuniga, Rodriguez, and Sawyer are the first three attempts at this new strategy. Even if none of them pan out, I love the new direction the Cardinals have taken and I hope it continues.
I think I’m actually more excited about this than I am about the Contreras signing and that’s nothing against Contreras, but rather it’s because I think this new pitching strategy will be a positive change for a pitching staff that has mediocre for too long.
Some people have pointed to the Cardinals signing Contreras as a shift from their usual M.O. in the free agent market but I think that’s a little overblown. The shift we’re seeing in pitching strategy right now is far more impactful on the organization as a whole.
Thanks for reading, VEB. Let me know what you think of the new arms and the new strategy below. Happy Sunday!