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Cardinals did a good job building the 2018 bullpen

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The Cardinals avoided high-priced free agents and proven closers in trades, seeking good value

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at San Francisco Giants Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

If we are being honest, much of the energy and topics of debate during the offseason is somewhat wasted. We spend months on speculation regarding deals that don’t actually happen. At the beginning of the offseason, this site spent considerable time worrying about how the Cardinals would construct their bullpen. It turns out, they did fine.

At the beginning of free agency, Derrick Goold detailed how finding relief help was going to be a priority for the Cardinals.

The Cardinals, their need for relief imperative, spent time this past weekend reaching out to the agents of relievers and, come Tuesday, can begin talking cash and negotiating contracts. They intend to chase a closer, such as Colorado’s Greg Holland, and could keep going, adding a setup man, like Juan Nicasio, Anthony Swarzak, Bryan Shaw, or any of the handful of legit relievers available. The market meets their need.

In a slow-moving offseason, relievers proved to be the exception. Arm after arm signed multi-year deals averaging close to $10 million per year. This was the market the Cardinals were expected to be a part of. They stayed away even as players like Nicasio and Swarzak signed for “reasonable” deals.

They made one free agent signing for a reliever, signing Luke Gregerson to a two-year deal for about half of what many other relievers signed. Gregerson certainly has some concerns, but relievers are very volatile year to year, and a bounce-back to previous seasons isn’t a ludicrous bet.

Gregerson wasn’t the only bullpen-related move the Cardinals pulled off near the beginning of winter. The team also signed starter Miles Mikolas to a two-year deal worth $15 million. Not much has been made of how the Mikolas signing affects the bullpen given he is very likely to be a starter. However, adding a cheap, back-end starter frees up other talented arms to relieve.

In many organizations Tyler Lyons would have gotten a longer look as starting, and perhaps he deserves one, but Lyons was fantastic out of the bullpen last year and has positioned himself for a high-leverage role this year. Signing Mikolas helps free up Lyons for the bullpen. The same could be true for John Gant and Dakota Hudson. It might be true for Jack Flaherty at some point. It hopefully won’t be true for Alex Reyes, but adding starter depth makes for a better bullpen.

Even after the Gregerson signing, the Cardinals still seemed to be chasing bullpen help. Wade Davis got more than $50 million from the Rockies, but Addison Reed was available for a small sum, and Greg Holland is still out there. If the Cardinals were going to sign a free agent reliever, Addison Reed made a ton of sense, especially at just $17 million over two years.

After passing on Reed, A.E. Schafer wondered just what was going on given the Cardinals stated preference to improve the bullpen.

The Cardinals, having failed to pay with pitching for the final piece of the puzzle I think they were going for this offseason, seem to have decided, at least implicitly, that they would be better served hanging on to those resources and trying to build a bullpen as the season goes along, rather than spending talent capital on a marginal (but more ‘proven’!), upgrade, or spending financial capital and potentially blocking the path of a more valuable resource coming up.

Now Greg Holland was still out there, as was Alex Colome. The former is going to cost a bunch of money while the latter was going to cost a bunch in prospects. The Cardinals opted for neither of those options, instead trading Randal Grichuk for another good bullpen piece in Dominic Leone.

While the Cardinals might lack a traditional closer, in Gregerson, Leone, Lyons, and Brett Cecil, the Cardinals have three relievers who put up at least one fWAR last season and one (Gregerson) who had done so the two previous years. That’s four potentially very good relievers, and compiling a bunch of relievers who have the potential to be good at low cost is better than paying a lot in prospects or cash for a prooviness that doesn’t actually exist or make much difference in future performance.

In addition the four relievers above, Sam Tuivailala is out of options and will likely make the club. After that, Matt Bowman, John Brebbia, John Gant, Ryan Sherriff all have options. Mike Mayers, Josh Lucas, Rowan Wick, Derian Gonzalez, and newcomer Conner Greene are all already on the 40-man roster, potentially allowing for a mix and match of a Memphis shuttle to manage workloads, keep players fresh and allow performance to dictate role, managerial caveat aside.

This is exactly how Ben Godar thought the Cardinals should build their bullpen at the beginning of the offseason. That’s just what Ben Markham advocated for, as well. Maybe we didn’t see the Gregerson signing coming. Maybe we had to look up just who Dominic Leone is. Maybe we don’t think about how Mikolas affects the bullpen, but those are exactly the moves that help build a good bullpen. Focus on cheap upside because paying for it doesn’t get better results.

The Cardinals payroll is still really low right now compared to expectations, and hopefully they find a good use for that money and prospects they have. That isn’t a reason to waste money on relievers. Thankfully, the Cardinals have built a better bullpen and wasted little money this offseason doing it.