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Why the Cardinals are building an Astros-like bullpen

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For 2018, the Cardinals are emulating the defending World Series champions without having to lose 111 games in a season.

MLB: Spring Training-Baltimore Orioles at St. Louis Cardinals Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 St. Louis Cardinals entered the season with what seemed like a fairly strong closer to rack up saves throughout the year. Seung Hwan Oh, initially a run-of-the-mill reliever without the shiny closer designation when his Cardinals career began in 2016, took over when incumbent closer Trevor Rosenthal had easily his worst professional season. And in 2017, when Oh began to falter, Rosenthal took the role over again and pitched more like the excellent reliever he was from 2012 through 2015 rather than the disaster he was in 2016.

Seung Hwan Oh and Trevor Rosenthal were volatile relievers from one year to the next, but this is hardly unique among MLB relievers. For every Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman, excellent closers who are consistent performers on a year-to-year basis, there are hundreds of relievers seemingly on borrowed time as soon as their careers begin.

In 2011, the Cardinals began the season with Ryan Franklin as closer. It went disastrously, and Fernando Salas eventually assumed the job. He was more good than bad, but eventually his performance started to decline, and Jason Motte took over for the end of the regular season and throughout the postseason. In 2012, following an injury to Brian Wilson, the San Francisco Giants went from Santiago Casilla to eventually Sergio Romo on their way to a World Series championship. The 2013 Boston Red Sox went from Joel Hanrahan to Andrew Bailey to Koji Uehara. The 2014 Giants went from the aforementioned Romo back to the aforementioned Casilla. The 2015 Kansas City Royals withstood Greg Holland suffering a season-ending injury in late September to rally around Wade Davis as closer. The 2016 Chicago Cubs acquired their final closer, Aroldis Chapman, via trade near the deadline.

For six consecutive seasons, the World Series champion ended the season with a different closer than it had began the season, and in all but one case, the final closer was somebody who had been in the bullpen all along. Despite the rise of “the closer” as not only a role but an archetype of a 21st century baseball hero, it was not a defining characteristic of World Series champions.

This was as true as ever last season, when the Houston Astros won the World Series. For most of the season, the Astros’ closer was Ken Giles, a bit of a prototype of the much-coveted closer, as he was acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies for an impressive group, including former #1 overall pick Mark Appel and starting pitcher Vince Velasquez. Giles had a mostly strong 2017 season for the Astros, managing a 2.30 ERA and a 2.39 FIP in 62 2⁄3 innings. But following several shaky outings to start his postseason, Giles was relegated from the closer role he held throughout the season.

Two other pitchers earned saves for the 2017 Astros during the postseason other than Giles—Lance McCullers and Brad Peacock. McCullers not only has zero career saves—he has zero career relief appearances. While Peacock had made MLB relief appearances, he had never accumulated a save in Major League Baseball until the one he earned in Game 3 of the World Series.

There is some randomness to the Astros, of course—the Los Angeles Dodgers, with superstar closer Kenley Jansen, came one game away from completely breaking the trend of teams without traditional big-name closers throughout the season winning the World Series. And nobody is going to argue that having a good closer is a bad thing, because that argument doesn’t make sense. But what the Astros proved, and what the World Series champions before them proved, was that if a team is solid in other areas of the game, a bullpen can be secondary.

Some of the higher profile Astros bullpen moves are not necessarily reflective of larger trends in bullpen management—for instance, veteran starter Charlie Morton pitching the final four innings in Game 7 of the World Series really only happens under circumstances in which there is no tomorrow and thus there is no reason to preserve the stability of the starting rotation. But the formula of an assembly of arms, a hodgepodge of non-star relievers and starters by trade who couldn’t earn a starting role and thus went all-out in the bullpen, is a fairly proven one. Even though the Astros had a bona fide star reliever in Ken Giles, they didn’t miss a beat once he stopped pitching like a star.

The closer in name (whether he will also be the closer in practice remains to be seen) entering 2018 for the Cardinals is Luke Gregerson, ironically formerly of the Houston Astros. Gregerson’s poor 2017, in which he was exactly replacement level by both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs WAR, may have been at least somewhat of an aberration, as his xFIP, which scales his high home runs allowed per fly ball rate to a league average level, makes the story of his season far more presentable. But while Gregerson may be acceptable as a bullpen arm, he hasn’t had a truly great, lights out season—the kind considered so valuable a team would trade a vaunted prospect like Gleyber Torres to acquire 2-3 months of his services, like the Cubs did for Aroldis Chapman.

The Cardinals have gone out of their way to acquire a few parts of their bullpen—trading for Dominic Leone and signing Brett Cecil, Bud Norris, and Gregerson over the last two off-seasons. But none has been a particularly lucrative free agent signing—Cecil comes closest, but the Cardinals didn’t pay top dollar for a Wade Davis or (as of the time of publishing) Greg Holland.

The most immediately obvious case of a homegrown starter-turned-reliever in the current bullpen is Tyler Lyons. He wasn’t quite able to stick in the rotation, but when allowed to pitch mostly one inning appearances, he has thrived. Matt Bowman, though not homegrown, fits similar criteria—he was a Rule 5 selection after a stagnant career as a New York Mets minor league starter, but once allowed to attempt a bullpen role, he was able to carve a niche in Major League Baseball. Even Mike Mayers, previously known for his disastrous cameos as a secondary rotation option coming up from Memphis, is sporting a high-90s fastball and may factor into the bullpen mix in St. Louis this season. And that’s not even to mention top starting pitching prospects who could see themselves following the Adam Wainwright or Lance Lynn path of bullpen-to-rotation assimilation, Alex Reyes and Jack Flaherty.

Baseball has taken a few turns on bullpens. For most of its history, baseball used bullpens as a last-ditch landing spot for failed starters and nothing more. In a movement popularized by Tony LaRussa, teams began to distribute more innings and more talented pitchers into the bullpen. With the popularization of advanced stats in the early 21st century, bullpens became unfashionable as the sheer math of “relievers pitch less and therefore matter less” became the popular wisdom. But as bullpen usage has increased, relievers need to be capable of pitching multiple games in a row, even as the size of bullpens has increased.

The Astros won the World Series in 2017 not because they had a great bullpen (they had a fine bullpen) but because they had Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander, and a whole host of other elite baseball talent. But the Astros approach in the postseason went beyond the “Randy Johnson coming in as a reliever in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series” appearances. Much like pre-LaRussa bullpens, the bullpen was filled with failed starters; unlike most pre-LaRussa bullpens, those starters were so talented that they became exceptional out of the bullpen.

To be clear, the Cardinals do not have the upside that the Astros have. They probably don’t even have the upside of the Astros’ 2017 reality. But their bullpen has that kind of dynamic potential not because they coveted the biggest free agent relievers but because the Cardinals have high-upside starters by trade capable of bullpen roles.