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A Look at the 2024 Bullpen

The Cardinals rotation isn’t the only part of the staff that needs reinforcements.

Washington Nationals v. St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Even before the St. Louis Cardinals season went downhill there was a lot of focus on what next year’s rotation would look like, and rightly so. The Cardinals have only two returning starters - Steven Matz and Miles Mikolas - and will need to fill out the other 3 rotation spots, preferably with external acquisitions.

But that’s not the only place where the Cardinals need to add. The team is also light on relievers for the upcoming season so what I want to do today is look at how many relievers can be penciled into a bullpen spot next year and determine how many arms the Cardinals should add.

From there we can form a general strategy as to how the Cardinals could go about filling the open spots. This strategy is obviously market dependent but we can take a cursory look at it now before diving into the subject with more depth into the offseason.

The Incumbents

The Cardinals have a 3/4 split between lefties and righties already on the roster. The lefties are Zack Thompson, JoJo Romero, and John King while the righties are Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos, Andre Pallante, and Wilking Rodriguez.

With that group of lefties, the Cardinals should be good. Maybe they add another AAAA depth piece to be a fourth option or maybe Connor Thomas gets a chance to be that but regardless, Zack Thompson gives the team a swingman while Romero can be the go-to lefty option and King is the middle relieving depth guy. So I wouldn’t expect to see the Cardinals invest too heavily in lefty relief options.

From the right side, Helsley returns as the likely closer with Gallegos a lock to make the bullpen and Pallante providing length and a middle relief option. Rodriguez is perhaps most in danger of losing his roster spot of the four but he could easily make the big league bullpen too.

So, with that out of the way, let’s look at the different options the Cardinals have.

Option #1 - Sign 2 quality relievers

This is the big money approach. Let’s say the Cardinals are active in the trade market to add to the rotation. That could leave money leftover to be used on the bullpen. In that scenario, the Cardinals could have enough to sign more than just low-end relievers.

This could be a huge boost to the bullpen but this actually isn’t my preferred option, nor do I think it’s a likely option. For starters, the Cardinals likely won’t have the budget to invest in two of the more expensive relievers on the market. Even beyond that, though, the organization doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to signing expensive relievers. Brett Cecil and Andrew Miller come to mind here.

But that’s the thing with relievers. They tend to be volatile. A reliever who earns a $10 million AAV one year, could flop the next. The Cardinals are better off staying out of this side of the market, and it has nothing to do with cost. It has everything to do with finding the best way to add value. Splashing cash on relievers isn’t the best way to do that.

Option #2 - Sign 1 quality reliever and 1 cheap reliever

This options is a step down. The Cardinals can sign a bigger reliever and then a depth piece to fill out the bullpen. You get the idea here. This is more likely than option #1 but still not super likely and it’s still not my preferred option. Again, I don’t want the Cardinals attacking the expensive reliever market, I want them using most of their money to fill out the rotation with quality starting pitching.

Option #3 - Sign 2 cheap relievers

This is probably the option that is most likely. It gives the Cardinals a full bullpen without making them put more money into the reliever market than they are comfortable doing. I actually prefer this option to the other 2 as long as the Cardinals target the right players (more on that in the next section). The downside with this is that it doesn’t build a ton of bullpen depth as it only leaves the bullpen with 8-9 somewhat established arms.

If I were to guess, this is the route I expect the Cardinals to take because the front office will only have so much budget to work with but I do think the Cardinals should be adding even more arms.

Option #4 - Sign 3-4 cheap relievers

And that’s how I get to option 4, my preferred option.

The group of 7 relievers that I listed at the beginning of this article isn’t exactly a clear cut group for a few reasons.

For starters Zack Thompson could easily win a job in next year’s rotation. I don’t think that should happen but it’s possible. Andre Pallante could also find himself in the rotation just not in St. Louis. This may a surprising take about someone who’s basically been a full time MLB reliever for the last two seasons but I think that Pallante has starter upside and the Cardinals could put him in the Memphis bullpen next year to add rotation depth.

This is probably less likely than Pallante staying in the St. Louis ‘pen but I could see it happening. And, honestly, I think I would support that because I think Pallante could be a good starter if he can improve his breaking ball command. (I wrote about that on Sunday.)

He also has options left so if the Cardinals need to send someone down to maintain their depth, Pallante could be a good option for that.

And then there’s John King. The groundball specialist has been impressive in 10.2 innings with the Cardinals but it’s only been 10.2 innings. He will have an option year next year and could easily be sent to the minors if the Cardinals want to improve on his spot.

Wilking Rodriguez will need to be on the major league roster according to the Rule 5 draft rules (correct me if I’m wrong) but his spot isn;t exactly a lock after an injury plagued year. The Cardinals should make him earn his spot in the winter and the spring by bringing in competition.

The good thing is that outside of Rodriguez, the Cardinals have flexibility with some of the arms who could be on the fringes. At most, there are 7 in-house relievers for next year’s team and at the least there’s probably 3 (Helsley, Gallegos, and Romero).

That means the Cardinals have the ability and incentive to add plenty of depth and see who comes out on top. That’s exactly what they should do. If it were me, I would think about trying to see what Pallante can do as a Triple-A starter and I wouldn’t use King’s small sample size success or Rodriguez’s lack of roster flexibility as excuses to not look for upgrades.

This approach would be a quantity over quality approach but that’s an approach I’m fine with when it comes to the bullpen market. Relievers are volatile and the Cardinals have been burned on their big relief signings before. I’m not exactly waiting on pins and needles to see who the next one will be.

Instead of trying to pony up a bunch of money to chase after Brett Cecil and Andrew Miller-like contracts, the Cardinals should save that money for the rotation. Then the Cardinals can use the leftover money to invest in guys with good pitch data who may not have had their best season in 2023.

This to me seems like the best way to build the bullpen. I’ll say it again. Relievers are volatile. Big relief contracts often backfire and the Cardinals have never been particularly good at giving them out anyways.

But there are a lot of teams who lag behind the curve in pitching strategy and that means that some pitches fall through the cracks because they aren’t used properly. Teams like the Dodgers and the Rays have always been good at identifying these talents but the Cardinals could try to follow a similar strategy to fill out the bullpen on a budget.

The benefit of this strategy is that it’s cheaper, meaning the Cardinals could sign more players to give themselves more chances at finding quality relievers instead of signing a few bigger contracts and hoping they don’t backfire.

I won’t have specific targets in mind until the offseason, so you can expect to read that article this winter, but there are free agent pitchers that fall into this category every winter.

Other options

The four options I listed above are the ones I see as most likely and making the most sense but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other options too. The Cardinals could rely on minor league depth and add some minor league contracts and then let everyone compete for the open spots in Spring Training. This isn’t the route I would go but it’s possible.

Maybe the Cardinals only bring in one reliever. That would make them a bit light on depth but, theoretically, it’s possible.

I hope the Cardinals bring in at least 2 relievers, and ideally 3 or 4, but the number of relievers may depend on how much money is spent on the rotation.


The organization has been clear in recent months that three starting pitchers from outside the organization will be added to the team in the winter. The front office has been banging that drum for a while now so it’s hard to see them doing anything else (though it is possible that they could deviate).

What hasn’t been addressed, at least publicly, is how the team will reinforce the bullpen next year. Personally, I’m interested to see the approach that they take because the bullpen market is difficult to shop in.

Let me know in the comments how you think the Cardinals will build the bullpen and what targets could fall into that strategy.

Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a great post-Labor Day Tuesday.

(Before I end, I’ll also mention that I will be on vacation for the next week and a half (and starting before this article posts) so I’ll be MIA on the site until I get back. You can expect open threads in place of my articles on the upcoming Sunday and Tuesday.)