If you listened to me and the rest of the VEB crew on the most recent podcast episode that came out on Saturday, you’ll know that we think there’s really only one real position where there is competition for Opening Day roster spots and that’s the bullpen. I’ve already covered the left-handed options in my last article so now I’ll complete our look at the bullpen by covering the right-handed options.
I am going to assume that there will be 6 right-handed relievers on the team. Add 5 starters and 2 left-handed relievers to that and you have a full 13-man staff. And I feel comfortable saying there will be 6 right-handers instead of 5 because I think the St. Louis Cardinals have more quality right-handed bullpen arms than they do left-handed bullpen arms.
So, operating from that assumption, I’m going to knock 4 spots off the list right now. Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos, Jordan Hicks, and Chris Stratton will be on the Opening Day roster, barring injury. That leaves us with 2 open spots, and you’ll note that I didn’t include Andre Pallante as a lock, which might seem weird to you but I’ll get to him at the end.
The Cardinals have spent all offseason bringing in pitching depth and they’ve achieved that goal with a high degree of success. It sounds weird to laud the team for it’s pitching depth when it spent much of the last 2 years lacking it, but the organization has done a great job at refilling the pipeline. That’s evident from the fact that Andre Pallante, Dakota Hudson, Drew VerHagen, Jake Woodford, Wilking Rodriguez, and Guillermo Zuniga are all on major league contracts and may not have major league roles.
Of the 6 options, I think most people’s assumptions would be that Pallante and Hudson will take the last two spots. But I don’t think that’s the case. Let’s dive into why.
Out of Options
The Cardinals have two players who need to be on the major league roster or they will be at risk of leaving the organization, and that throws a wrinkle into the roster decisions. Since Wilking Rodriguez joined via the Rule 5 draft, he must be on the major league roster (or IL) all season or he returns to the Yankees and Drew VerHagen is out of minor league options. So, what should the Cardinals do?
I can tell you what I expect them to do, and that’s keep one or both of Rodriguez and VerHagen on the roster. Now, I know that some of you might scoff at that suggestion, but let me explain.
Generally, teams that load up on depth don’t give it away for free. Wilking Rodriguez will make the roster, even if he isn’t the best arm, unless he has a truly awful Spring Training experience. And that’s precisely because the Cardinals won’t give depth away for nothing.
By keeping Rodriguez on the roster, the team can send someone down to Triple-A to preserve depth while the Cardinals give Rodriguez a one month trial. If he’s bad, then give him back to the Yankees and bring a deserving pitcher up to the majors; but if he’s good then the Cardinals not only have a good arm, but they’ve also preserved their depth. There’s really no down side to this approach.
So, I expect to see Rodriguez on the roster. But VerHagen has a tougher battle. And that’s because he’ll earn $3 million this year. Now, you may think that a contract like that will keep VerHagen on the roster, but I see it the other way around. The Cardinals can almost certainly pass him through waivers and stash him in Triple-A because I don’t imagine teams will be lining up to pay $3 million to a guy with a 6.65 ERA last year.
With that being said, I do think the Cardinals still want him around and I do think they believe in him. And I don’t think that’s unreasonable.
VerHagen was certainly terrible last year but he does have a lot of untapped potential. I detailed that potential on the latest episode of the VEB podcast that came out on Saturday, but I’ll summarize my thoughts here too.
It all starts with the slider, which is VerHagen’s best pitch and a true out pitch. He threw it 92 times last year and allowed just one hit against it while generating a 43.2% whiff rate. Sure that’s a small sample size but it also passes the stuff+ test too at 117 (100 is average). What he really lacks is a good fastball. And that’s precisely what the Cardinals are working on with him. What I find interesting is that they want him to throw more four-seamers and ditch the sinker even though the sinker had better results last year.
I like that idea, though, because the pitch has the potential to be an asset with above average velocity (94.9 mph, 68th percentile) and an 81st percentile spin rate (2371 rpm). The problem is that it doesn’t have a ton of active spin (79%), which is the spin that actually creates the movement, so the pitch stays remarkably straight (only 3 inches of run) and has slightly below average rise.
I would imagine this is what the Cardinals are working on with VerHagen. If he gets more active spin, he can get that rising fastball that would really work well up in the zone.
Besides the lackluster fastballs (currently), the other problem is, to quote Jim Edmonds, that he tries to do too much.
What I mean is that he throws 6 pitches and really only needs 3. He doesn’t need a Yu Darvish-esque arsenal to get throw an inning of work. Rather, VerHagen needs to focus on his best pitches to get outs. And I say he needs 3 pitches because he really only uses his slider against right-handers. So he needs a weapon against lefties and that can be either his big breaking curveball or his hard changeup.
He could really improve by simply focusing on his 3 best pitches, including a plus slider and a potentially solid fastball, instead of throwing everything but the kitchen sink at every hitter.
We’ll see what the Cardinals try to do with VerHagen, but I think they’ll give him a chance to win a spot on the Opening Day roster if he can make these changes. I see Wilking Rodriguez as the 5th righty but VerHagen could easily be the 6th and final righty in the ‘pen.
But there are other names that could keep VerHagen out of a bullpen role to start the year, and the first is probably the player that many of us expect to be on the roster.
It’s hard to see the Cardinals sending Pallante to Memphis after they liked him enough to have him skip in completely last year. He also pitched well, which makes it even harder to see him going back to the minors but I don’t think it’s all about production and talent with Pallante.
Essentially, I’m going to make the same case with Pallante that I did with Zack Thompson. The Cardinals have 4 open rotation spots next year and Pallante could fill one. But if he spends a full season in the bullpen, he may have a tough time adapting to the rotation. And that’s on top of the fact that the innings jump from the bullpen one year to the rotation the next is huge.
I don’t think the Cardinals want to close the book on Pallante starting by turning him into a full time reliever this year. And with only one spot left in the bullpen (operating on the principle that Rodriguez will make the team), the Cardinals can afford to use one of his 3 remaining options to let him stretch out as a starter and potentially provide reinforcements to the rotation when injuries inevitably happen.
A demotion to Triple-A wouldn’t be an indictment of Pallante’s talent but rather a signal of his potential to be a starter long-term.
I’m generally a proponent of the idea that a pitcher should remain a starter until he proves that he can’t handle it. Pallante hasn’t yet proven that he can’t handle it so I don’t think he should be pigeonholed into the bullpen this early.
As we look at the candidates for the final two rotation spots, I think Pallante might be the most talented option. But yet, because of other considerations (maintaining depth, long-term development), I would actually like to see him start the year in the Memphis rotation and serve as the 6th or 7th starter for the Cardinals.
So, right now, if I were building a bullpen, my right handed choices would be Helsley, Gallegos, Hicks, Stratton, and Rodriguez. That leaves room for one other player (unless the Cardinals keep 3 lefties, in which case the right side is full) and that player is not Pallante. That leaves Jake Woodford, Dakota Hudson, and Guillermo Zuniga. I’m going to discount Zuniga immediately as his 100 mph fastball and slider combo is interesting but he has yet to have success in the upper minors, much less the majors. He’s certainly intriguing but I don’t think he’ll win a major league roster spot yet.
That leaves Hudson and Woodford.
Those aren’t exactly exciting names but you could certainly do worse for a long reliever on the fringes of the roster. I fully expect Hudson to be the choice here but I’m not all that convinced that he’s a good pitcher. Or even an average one. He does have 3 option years left so he could be demoted to the Memphis rotation where he could serve as rotation depth while also keeping his service time below the 5 years that he needs to refuse a minor league assignment.
And here is where i’ll also point out that the Cardinals seem committed to Woodford as a reliever/swingman but they have yet to pitch Hudson anywhere besides the rotation. Between that and the service time factor, I could really see Woodford taking the last spot in the bullpen. And, honestly, I’m more convinced of Woodford’s talent than I am of Hudson’s talent.
For proof, here are the stuff+, location+, and pitching+ ratings of each pitcher’s offerings. I’ll start with Dakota Hudson.
Dakota Hudson Pitch Metrics
And now let’s take a look at Jake Woodford.
Jake Woodford Pitch Metrics
You’ll notice that neither pitcher has great stuff, which checks out. But you should also notice that Woodford can at least locate three of his pitches effectively and has a solid sinker/slider combo. Barring improvements for Hudson under new pitching coach Dusty Blake, I would give the final spot to Woodford.
As an interesting side note, Woodford and Hudson have remarkably similar career stats. Woodford’s career ERA/FIP/xFIP is 3.61/4.36/4.68 while Hudson’s...um...pitching slash line (is that a thing?) is 3.61/4.54/4.64. A notable difference, though, is that Woodford is coming off his career best season (2.23/3.13/4.18 ) while Hudson hasn’t really shown many gains.
Woodford does have one option left but it’s Hudson who should be going to Memphis instead.
To summarize, my choice of right handed relievers is Helsley, Gallegos, Hicks, Stratton, Rodriguez, and Woodford with Pallante, Hudson, Zuniga, and VerHagen going to the minors.
Feel free to pick that apart in the comments and provide your own choices. Honestly, I’m not confident that the Cardinals choices will match mine because I have a hard time seeing the team demoting Pallante or Hudson, but this is what I would do. I want Pallante to have a chance to be a starter and I prefer Woodford to Hudson.
While these are tough choices, the good news is that the Cardinals have built a tremendous amount of pitching depth and may even have major league caliber players pitching in the minors to open the year. That’s a great problem to have and it will almost certainly solve itself once injuries are added to the equation.
Thanks for reading, VEB. I see the bullpen as the biggest, and really the only, area of competition this spring and it will be fascinating to watch how things play out.
Enjoy your Sunday!