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Winter Warm-Up

Winter Warm-Up Reveals Fragile Cardinals Bullpen with Potential…

By Kevin Reynolds (@deckacards)

Addison Reed is a Minnesota Twin. A pitcher once thought a perfect match for St. Louis is no longer on the market, leaving confusion among those expecting Mozeliak and Girsch to push for the reliever. His two-year, $17 million deal and reported preference for the Midwest only enhances the mystery.

Couldn’t the Cardinals compete with that? $8.5 million isn’t too hefty for a back-end reliever these days, right? Especially for just two years. And last time I checked, St. Louis IS in the Midwest. Just ask Giancarlo Stanton.

Of course, there are those that believe free agent pitcher Greg Holland is getting looks from Mozeliak and crew. Maybe – just maybe – the Reed and Wade Davis signings will finally provide enough projective structure for a team to close the deal for Holland. And then there’s that rumored deal with the Tampa Bay Rays for Chris Archer. Are the coals still hot enough to reignite talks? If so, dare we hope Alex Colome is still on the table in a package deal?

These are murky waters indeed.

As many as nine pitchers that made relief appearances for the Cardinals last season are no longer with the organization. That list includes:

Miguel Socolovich, Marco Gonzales, Juan Nicasio, Trevor Rosenthal, Sandy Alcantara, Zach Duke, Seung-hwan Oh, Kevin Siegrist, and Jonathan Broxton.

At least three of those pitchers served as Cardinals closer at some point in the season.

In response, John Mozeliak added one relief pitcher from the free agent and/or trade market.

Luke Gregerson.

Despite that 9-to-1 ratio, the St. Louis front office is giving off signals that they are done for the offseason. As always, they remain open-minded and vigilant for desirable opportunities, but after aggressively entering the market, they seem content to exit quietly, under the radar.

The fan reaction is understandable. It’s hard to look at this bullpen and feel confident. Of course, it’s also hard to name the pitchers in the bullpen. I honestly can’t remember the last time the Cardinals’ relief corps was so…blurred. It took me actually putting pen to paper and looking over the posted roster to come up with a projected group of relievers.

And you know what? In the words of The Old Man in A Christmas Story, it’s not bad…it’s not good either. Take a look:

1) Sam Tuivailala. Tui is out of options and appears destined for a long stint with the big league club. Nothing wrong with that, right? He’s a high velocity pitcher, and fans have been clamoring for him to get regular work for years now. It finally sounds like he’ll get it.

“Tui’s on our club,” Mozeliak said Saturday during a broader discussion about the pen. “He certainly took a positive step forward last year.” Positive step or not, Tui’s been, at best, unreliable. Despite all that velocity, he has a dangerous habit of giving up runs at inopportune times.

With that in mind, expect him to be in the mix for ninth inning duties if needed. Don’t expect his audition there to come with a long leash.

2) Matt Bowman. If his arm doesn’t fall off this season, look for more of the same from Matheny’s favorite weapon, his go-to guy. As long as overuse doesn’t lead to structural damage, a groundball specialist like Bowman can carry the load and retain effectiveness even when fatigued. And although he admits to feeling tired during last season, he’s taken steps to enter 2018 well-rested.

“I tried to take a little extra time from not throwing,” Bowman said. “So, I probably delayed my throwing program by two weeks, maybe. But then I got antsy.”

It’s possible that he, if healthy, could come out of this offseason stronger and better-prepared for the workload Matheny heaps upon him. It’s also possible he could throw an abbreviated season and develop ligament damage.

3) Tyler Lyons. Lyons may be the closest thing the Cardinals have to a sure thing – or as Mozeliak and Matheny have been known to call it, a known quantity. Most fans are so high on Lyons that they lamented the news of his one-year deal to avoid an arbitration hearing. They wanted Mozeliak to lock him up longer (which, in reality, makes very little sense).

He can be used in a myriad of scenarios and for varied durations, stretching multiple innings if needed. He can even start, but don’t expect to see him bouncing back and forth between the pen and the rotation.

“I see him more as a reliever, I really do,” Mozeliak said, noting his affinity for Lyons’ strikeout rate, especially late in games.

“The strikeouts came from trying to get strikeouts,” Lyons said, pointing to a more aggressive mindset versus a pitch-to-contact approach, a shift that started in 2016 but took until mid-2017 to fully emerge while his body recovered strength from previous injury. Such a strikeout-centered identity suggests a role not dissimilar to that of former Cardinals reliever Kevin Siegrist, although Mozeliak acknowledged, “I think he (Lyons) gets there a little differently.”

4) Brett Cecil. No way to sugarcoat it. Cecil was a train wreck last season. Most don’t truly believe that’s who the lefty is now or in the future, but it’s who he was in 2017, and that’s enough to make everyone nervous. He’ll likely rebound this year and be the pitcher the Cardinals thought they were signing when they locked him up for four years – for his part, Cecil reported throwing two weeks earlier this offseason, a move at least partially meant to get a jump start on developing a feel for his breaking ball – but there’s no guarantee, and that leaves the pen vulnerable in a fairly significant way.

5) John Brebbia. From independent league to Major Leagues, Brebbia has the potential to become a revelation. Until then, he’ll have to settle for being a sneak peek. His fastball/slider combination made him a natural fit in the ninth, logging 19 saves for the Laredo Lemurs in 2015 and three for the Memphis Redbirds in 2017. Look for him to capitalize on that experience and a bit of back-end momentum borrowed from his time spent in the big league pen last season. That time, according to Brebbia, taught him a lot about pitch location versus pitch selection (the former wins). He’ll spin those lessons into some significant late-inning appearances, possibly even in the ninth.

“I’ve definitely had dreams about it,” Brebbia said about closing out games. “I’ve had dreams of being ‘The Greatest Closer of All Time!’ since I became a reliever.” But with new acquisition Luke Gregerson, the eventual return of Alex Reyes, and the possibility of a closer not yet on the roster, expect Brebbia to settle in to a role not unlike that of fireman instead, entering games to bail the Cardinals out of messes made by other pitchers. An ascension to such a defined role would have at least one positive secondary effect. It could drastically reduce the load put on Matt Bowman’s arm, and that could elevate the entire pen.

6) Luke Gregerson. The lone free agent acquired to fortify the Cardinals bullpen to date, many fans feared Gregerson would be named the closer, a move that could be used by the front office to justify sitting on their hands when all the established closers on the market started jumping off the board. Saturday, minutes before the Reed to Minnesota deal was made public, John Mozeliak announced that Gregerson, “going into the season right now,” is the closer.

Fear. Realized.

Sort of.

It should be noted how fond Mozeliak is of qualifiers in such statements. While names like Holland and Colome still hang in the air, Mo was careful to leave himself a path of retreat. “Right now” – meaning, if we acquire someone or someone is injured, this could change. “Going into the season” – meaning, an acquisition, an injury, a closer by committee, the return of Alex Reyes, or flat-out failure by Gregerson in the ninth could all – cumulatively or individually – lead to a different outcome after Opening Day.

Put simply, Gregerson’s role, and the closer mantle, is far from settled.

But for now, viewing Gregerson as he is – an effective, experienced reliever looking to rebound from an out-of-character season in 2017 and stabilize an erratic St. Louis pen – should be enough. Like a healthy and less-used Bowman, Gregerson’s presence and performance should elevate the other relievers around him.

If he’s the closer for long, however, he could have exactly the opposite effect – more strain and pressure on the other arms in the pen.

7) ?????????? This is where things get interesting and will likely lead to one of the most watched competitions in camp. If the Cardinals leave Jupiter with just 12 pitchers – John Mozeliak’s preference – then there’s a good chance this spot will be filled by one of the following hurlers. If Mike Matheny elects to go with 13 instead, a roster make-up he has historically favored, then two would go north.

Ryan Sherriff. Assuming Tyler Lyons is used as an ambiguous lefty – meaning he is deployed with little regard for which side of the plate a hitter bats from – then Sherriff has a real chance to be a left-handed specialist. In 26 plate appearances against lefties for St. Louis last season, Sherriff allowed just 2 hits – both singles – and struck out 7.

John Gant. While the Cardinals would prefer to stretch Gant out as a starter every fifth day in Memphis, his performance in spring training a year ago thrust his name into the major-league bullpen conversation. The vulnerability of this year’s group of relievers means Gant should get another shot to make the big league club for 2018. He’s a big, strong right-hander who can mix pitches, throw hard, and cover multiple innings. His uses, if effective, are nearly limitless.

PTBNL. And then there’s always the chance that Mozeliak could bring in another proven arm to round out the bullpen. A closer, perhaps? Or maybe just another established, consistent pitcher to firm up such a questionable pen? Either way, such an acquisition could stretch into spring training as the club first tries to get a look at the first six or seven names on our list.

Ultimately, the 2018 bullpen, as currently constructed, is a hodge-podge of what-ifs and if-thens.

Gregerson is an improvement, IF he can regroup and return to his pre-2017 self. But what if he can’t? Then the Cardinals are left with a gaping hole in their pen.

Bowman and Lyons should be reliable, flexible, and effective IF Bowman can avoid fatigue and injury from overuse and IF Lyons is more his 2nd-half-of-2017 self than his first half in 2018. But what if Bowman hits a wall and goes down? Or if Lyons’ second half turns out to be an anomaly? Then the Cardinals are going to have a large bucket of innings to fill.

And John Brebbia should develop into a threat, a weapon capable of putting out fires IF he can build on 2017, learn to locate his pitches in key counts, and maintain his velocity. But what if he can’t? What if he’s an independent league pitcher masquerading as a major-leaguer for half a season? Then, everyone’s role gets recast on the fly as Bowman’s use goes up and pitchers are deployed in unpredictable situations.

What if Brett Cecil really is a bust?

If this group of relievers catches a little bit of luck and takes two or three critical steps forward, they can form the foundation of a surprisingly sound and stable big league bullpen. But what if they can’t? Then the Cardinals are going to lose quite a few games in the first half of the season.

Maybe Alex Reyes can save the day when he returns May 1st (or so), but relying on a 23-year old pitcher with just 46 big league innings under his belt – and just 17.1 of those as a reliever – in his first year back from Tommy John surgery to save the day…?

That feels like betting the farm on a handful of magic beans. As it stands, winning 90 games with this bullpen already feels like a challenge of gigantic proportions.

Kevin Reynolds has covered the Cardinals for About.com, Yahoo! Sports, and various other entitiesHe’s been writing and podcasting about the Cardinals since 2004 at Stl Cards ‘N Stuff. Follow him and chat baseball on Twitter (@deckacards), and check him out on Facebook.

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