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The Cardinals Have Learned Their Lessons

Pitching depth? Check. Avoiding expensive relievers? Check. The Cardinals have learned from the mistakes of the past while fortifying the team.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Cardinals seem to have learned their lesson and have avoided higher priced relievers this offseason. Earlier in the offseason, I wrote an article examining expensive reliever signings since 2016 for both the Cardinals and the majors in general. To summarize, these signings have an overwhelming tendency to disappoint. The Cardinals decided not to risk a high-end bullpen signing and instead brought Drew VerHagen and Nick Wittgren to St. Louis. They could have signed Joe Kelly ($8.5 million AAV) or Brad Hand ($6 million AAV) or any of the other ten relievers who signed for an average annual value above $5 million.

Relievers are volatile. Cheap relievers can become stout back-end guys and expensive relievers can flop and both of these things happen quite often. If a cheap reliever isn’t good, he is easy to get rid of. But if an expensive reliever is good, he tends to stick around for a while despite not adding value (see Brett Cecil, Andrew Miller, etc.). The Cardinals have clearly learned from their mistakes this year, and I, for one, am glad they didn’t break the bank on any relievers.

The Cardinals have also learned their lesson when it comes to pitching depth. Both VerHagen and Wittgren can fill out the bullpen while VerHagen can be stretched out if needed after being a starter in Japan for the last two seasons. Additionally, Aaron Brooks can sit in Triple-A and provide depth when injuries inevitably occur and he can also work in the rotation. New minor league signing Zach McAllister is another guy who can sit in Triple-A but has plenty of MLB experience. Besides the five starters, VerHagen, Jake Woodford, Brooks, Matthew Liberatore, Johan Oviedo, and potentially Connor Thomas can all come into the rotation if necessary. This is a lot more quality rotation depth than the organization had last year.

In the bullpen, there are also plenty of options. Wittgren and VerHagen are both out of options so they will need to make the team out of Spring Training or be exposed to waivers. They are all but guaranteed roster spots. Genesis Cabrera, Giovanny Gallegos, Alex Reyes, and Jordan Hicks should all have roster spots if healthy. That’s six guys for eight bullpen spots (rules stipulate that a team can only carry 13 pitchers). T.J. McFarland will also be in St. Louis. Really, if everybody is healthy, that leaves one spot up for grabs. Ryan Helsley probably has the inside track but I would prefer Kodi Whitley. Jake Woodford and Junior Fernandez also have claims to make.

There is a legitimate chance that Whitley is left off the roster after he posted a 2.49 ERA and 2.97 FIP last year. I want to see him pitch in the big league, but that’s how you know this team has depth. There will be legitimate MLB caliber pitchers that open the year in Triple-A because the Cardinals simply can’t carry all of them on the roster. Alex Reyes is apparently dealing with some shoulder soreness, so that is a situation to monitor, but if he isn’t ready to go by opening day, the Cardinals have pitchers who will be.

The last two signings prove that the Cardinals have learned from past mistakes. I like both of the moves and think they help the team. My only gripe is that neither Wittgren nor VerHagen have options left. This decreases the Cardinals’ roster flexibility a bit but if either of them are bad enough to get sent down then it probably won’t matter if they get claimed on waivers.

In total, the Cardinals will spend $6.2 million next season on the trio of Wittgren, VerHagen, and McFarland. That is $2.3 million less than Joe Kelly will make next season. It’s also less money than eight other (now former) free agent relievers will make in the upcoming season. The odds are pretty good that at least one of the Cardinals’ three signings will work out while more than half of the expensive signings will struggle. Expensive relievers often aren’t worth the risk and by bringing in a few cheap relievers, the Cardinals have greatly increased their odds of finding a good bullpen arm.

Of the three, it’s hard to predict who will have the most success. VerHagen is a bit of a wild card since he is coming from Japan. McFarland pitched well last year, but he benefited from a career low .261 BABIP, a left on base rate more than 9% above his career average, and an truly unbelievable amount of double plays. It’s not likely that he repeats all of those things. Wittgren has been a decent reliever in his career but he really struggled last year. He needs a bounce-back effort.

Playing half his games at Busch stadium should help Wittgren. He has fine strikeout numbers and he doesn’t walk a ton of batter, but he was prone to the long ball last season. In fact, ever since he went to Cleveland in 2019, he has seen his home run rate skyrocket. Last season, the right-hander surrendered 13 home runs. If he had played all of his games at Busch Stadium, he would have conceded just 9. That’s a big improvement.

It’s Wittgren’s fastball that has gave him problems in Cleveland. In three season in Miami, Wittgren threw 127 23 innings and allowed six home runs against his four-seam fastball (eight if you include his sinker). In three years with Cleveland, he yielded 19 home runs against his four-seam fastball in 143 23 innings. That’s a rate of 0.42 HR/9 against his four-seamer in Miami and 1.19 HR/9 against his four-seamer in Cleveland. That’s nearly three times as many home runs! If Wittgren gets his fastball back on track, then he should have a strong season.

Another weird thing about Wittgren is his changeup. It’s really good some years and really bad in other years. Fortunately, his changeup is like the Giants of old - it’s only good in even years. In 2016, the pitch had a .173 wOBA. In 2018, it allowed a .244 wOBA. And in 2020, his changeup had a .242 wOBA. In 2017, the pitch had a .527 wOBA and was his least used pitch. In 2019, it had a .350 wOBA and in 2021, it also had a .350 wOBA. It’s a good thing 2022 is an even year. His changeup is due for some success.

Nearly 80% of Wittgren’s pitches last season were fastballs or changeups, so he will need to have these two pitches working if he wants to impress Cardinals fans this year.

If I were to choose which reliever will be the best this year, I would choose Wittgren. He has a history of being a good reliever and if he can find his fastball then he should return to form. It is too easy to see McFarland sliding a bit this year and it’s hard to get a read on someone who hasn’t pitched in America since 2019. The Cardinals’ track record in Asia makes me think that VerHagen could be a solid pitcher and it’s hard not to love McFarland after the job he did last year, but Wittgren does have the longest history of success at the Major League level.

It’s also possible that all three relievers could pitch well next year and there are reasons to believe this will happen. However, trying to predict the success of free agent relievers has proven to be a fool’s errand as McFarland and Luis Garcia, for example, were much better than Cecil and Miller despite being cheap and unheralded signings.

At the very least, one of these pitchers will hopefully be solid. Four major league signings (including Steven Matz) plus Aaron Brooks, Zach McAllister, and the Triple-A pitching staff gives the Cardinals plenty of pitching depth this year. Instead of going all-in on a big relievers, they spread a bit of money in three different directions. That strengthens the team this year and shows that the organization has learned from it’s mistakes in the past.