Sometimes I get a slap on the face when I realize most fans don’t think like me (or most VEB commentators) when it comes to roster building. For example, I have been completely caught off guard about how much desire there is for substantial bullpen arms. Thinking about it, it should really have occurred to me, but it didn’t. Which is not to say that the concept of needing a pitcher or two in the bullpen didn’t occur to me - I have added bullpen arms in my trade scenarios.
But I treat the bullpen as an afterthought. I’m not saying I don’t want a good bullpen. I’m acknowledging the futility in building a good bullpen and just throwing up my hands to the randomness of it all. You could build a bullpen of entirely waiver wire pickups and minor leaguers in your system - and it could be top 5 in the league. I’m sure I could find multiple examples of exactly that in just the last five years.
Does very basic research
Annnd I’ve already found two examples in 2023 alone! The Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds had the 2nd and 5th most fWAR out of the bullpen this past season. The Reds got Lucas Sims as part of a three-player package for Adam Duvall way back in 2018, they traded their 18th best prospect for Sam Moll, and then you have the drafted guys, waiver guys, and even an independent league ball signing. The Orioles invested even less than that - you have a Rule 5 guy, two waiver guys, a guy purchased from another team, three guys who were drafted, an international free agent whose been in the organization since 2016, and a guy who was traded as part of a four-player package for Jorge Lopez. I genuinely did not think it would be this easy.
So why spend money or resources on such a volatile and unpredictable thing? That’s why I treat the bullpen as an afterthought. Not saying they will or should do this, but the Cardinals are completely capable of rolling out with the arms currently in their system - making no outside additions - and they could be an elite bullpen in August and September. In fact, it’s very easy to imagine.
Picture this. A starting pitching prospect gets promoted midseason to get some MLB exposure and starts his MLB career in the pen and pulls a Lance Lynn in 2011. Candidates for this role are Tekoah Roby and Tink Hence, both of whom whose innings may need to be managed anyway and an easy way to limit innings is to put them in the bullpen. Or it could be Gordon Graceffo, Adam Kloffenstein, Sem Robberse, or if he survives the Rule 5, maybe even Ian Bedell.
A better bet of essentially the same thing is Matthew Liberatore being a good reliever out of the bullpen. We saw an inkling of it last year, as his K% rose from 15% to 24.5% in the bullpen. Would anybody be surprised if Matthew Liberatore was a good reliever? A third plausible thing is a reliever in AAA emerges as a threat. Again, we have a good slate of candidates for this: Riley O’Brien, Andre Granillo, Guillmero Zuñiga, Ryan Loutos, recently acquired Matt Svanson, hell maybe Logan Sawyer.
I’m just trying to make a point, not say these are guaranteed. There’s a term on the OOTP Reddit boards called TCR, talent change randomness. Basically, there’s a player in your system who suddenly becomes a top prospect out of nowhere. Doesn’t need to be a prospect even. Just all of a sudden, a ho-hum player becomes something. In real life, this happens all the time to relievers. It’s not truly random, but it seems random. JoJo Romero is a good example of this. Just a whatever reliever, something clicks, he’s got a 2.22 FIP in 36.2 IP.
Plus, I actually think the bullpen is starting at a good place. The starting rotation is not starting a good place. The Cardinals are desperate, everybody knows they’re desperate. They need a high-end option. But there’s a good framework for the bullpen already: they have the equivalent of the #1 starter in the bullpen: the lockdown reliever. Ryan Helsley quietly had a very good season last year. He’s the real deal.
They certainly don’t need a left-handed reliever. There’s still a question of if JoJo Romero can continue what he’s started, but even if he’s not as dominant as he ended up being, he can always fall back on being an extreme groundball pitcher - his career GB% is 57.2%. I am fairly confident in Liberatore being a strong option. And John King, so long as he’s not used as an 8th inning guy next year, is a perfectly cromulent option in the middle innings.
They also have Giovanny Gallegos, who up until 2023, was one of the steadiest relievers in baseball. There’s a question on if what happened last year is more of what’s to come or if he can bounce back. And that’s fair. But even in his down year, he belonged on an MLB bullpen. And I’m personally still a believer in Andre Pallante longer term. And like I said, they have a decent amount of candidates for the TCR bump.
There is one thing missing I think: just one more reliable arm. There’s enough doubt about Gallegos not being elite anymore and with JoJo Romero having so little of a track record, that to cover their bases, another good to great reliever would help so, so much. And depending on someone in the system to become that is probably not wise. But I think that arm can probably be acquired in a trade and paired with a SP or maybe in return for Tyler O’Neill. And since this arm will be presumably under team control, I doubt they’ll cost more than a few million.
I don’t know if I have a point to all this except to say that I am not worried about the bullpen. Not even a little bit. The Cardinals will probably do something to address the bullpen, whether that’s taking more players like Riley O’Brien and hoping one sticks, trading for a reliever, or signing a reliever to a (hopefully) short-term deal.
Whatever they do, baseball is going to baseball. Bullpens are going to bullpen. I have surrendered to that. Let’s hope the pendulum of randomness swings in the Cardinals’ favor next year.