The St. Louis Cardinals begin their 2016 regular season in three days, and after yet another shoulder-related setback, 28-year-old relief pitcher Jordan Walden will not be making the trip to Pittsburgh as an active member of the opening day roster. Walden's unavailability subsequently clears a path for Matt Bowman, the Cardinals' rule-5 draft pick from the New York Mets, to make the team. Now, one must note that, as a rule-5 draft pick, Bowman must remain on the 25-man roster for the entire season if the Cardinals want to keep him in the organization, and he cannot be placed on the disabled list until he is an active roster member for at minimum 90 days.
If Walden was able to prove his health this spring, given his contract status, he would have certainly been awarded the last open bullpen spot, and Bowman's time with the Cardinals would have been over before it even had a real chance to get started. As the red baron referenced yesterday, it would have been disappointing for a promising relief pitcher in Bowman, who turns 25 in May, to miss the opening roster (and subsequently be shipped back to the Mets) for someone as unreliable as Walden, a pitcher who, at most, was going to provide a handful of early-season appearances before making another extended trip to the disabled list. Cynical as that last statement may sound, it has become a near inevitability since the day Walden and the medical staff opted for the non-surgical route of recovery for his ailing shoulder.
Now, before getting into specific benefits Bowman can provide over Walden for the Cardinals bullpen in its current state, let's first take a look at how Bowman has performed in the minor leagues while with the Mets:
Minor League Statistics
Up until last season, Bowman was quite successful at multiple levels within the Mets farm system. Unfortunately, after a solid, but brief stint at the highest minor league level in 2014, Bowman faltered mightily during his first full season at the Triple-A level in 2015, seeing his strikeouts plummet, his walks balloon, and his home runs allowed nearly double from his previous career average.
Yet, talent evaluators within the Cardinals organization looked beyond Bowman's 2015 stat line and selected the 24-year-old righty on the belief that he could return to his pre-2015 form, and that he would benefit from the tutelage of pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and the guidance of catcher Yadier Molina. Bowman's pre-2015 form consists of pummeling the strike zone and inducing an abundance of ground balls, not dissimilar to what we have seen from Seth Maness over the last three seasons.
That being said, while Maness' floor is clearly higher than Bowman's (he already has three MLB seasons on his resume), Bowman's reliever ceiling is slightly higher than Maness', based on his ability to strike out hitters more frequently (in every season but 2015, that is). On-the-ground contact pitchers like Maness are undoubtedly valuable, but they will always be susceptible to bouts of BABIP-driven bad luck, something that can be suppressed by a more than occasional strikeout.
Specific Bullpen Benefits Provided by Bowman
As a starting pitcher for virtually his entire professional career, Bowman has proven capable of pitching multiple innings per outing. If Walden would have made it as the last member of the bullpen, lefty Tyler Lyons would have served as the only true candidate available for long-relief, mop-up duty, an underappreciated role filled almost exclusively by Carlos Villanueva last season. While Maness is capable of going multiple innings, it is difficult to envision manager Mike Matheny utilizing him very frequently in those types of situations given his role in each of the last three seasons.
With Bowman now in the mix, Matheny will no longer have a reason to be hesitant on when he can or cannot use Lyons. Before having Bowman as an option, I viewed this as a similar scenario to what we have seen with Matheny's use of backup catchers in the past. He never seemed to pinch hit with his backup catcher (then again, it was Tony Cruz) because he wanted to make sure he was available in the case of an emergency. If Lyons was the only reliever capable of going multiple innings at a time, Matheny may have been hesitant to use him in a close game, even if the perfect situation presented itself (i.e. runners on base with potent a left-handed hitter like Joey Votto, Anthony Rizzo, or Kyle Schwarber at the plate).
While it may not be considered a "sexy" role, Bowman as the primary long-man, mop-up reliever will be very beneficial for the rest of the bullpen (and even the starting rotation should one of the five be "off" every once in a while). Even with Villanueva doing a fine job as the mop-up reliever last season, each of the three main relievers (Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, Maness) showed signs of being overworked. Just imagine what it would be like if the Cardinals entered 2016 without a true long-man, as would have been the case should Walden have proven health this spring.