The winter of 2015-16 wasn’t the greatest one for the St. Louis Cardinals. Much of it was spent talking about big name, high dollar free agents and how they chose to sign with other teams. Media coverage has been largely focused on the baby bears up north and the young bats who will be depended on in St. Louis this season.
My question is: Has the media mob that follows the Cardinals—the team now has three full-time beat writers following it after ESPN moved St. Louisan Mark Saxon from the Dodgers beat to cover the Cardinals full time—overlooked what could be a great strength for the 2016 Cardinals? Call me crazy, but I’m going to look at the bullpen in February.
It’s true: The Cardinals are going to need the likes of Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk and Tommy Pham to make a difference in 2016. Each made significant contributions in limited opportunities in 2015, and the Cardinals are confident they could do more when given more at-bats.
Like everything this winter, these young hitters have been compared to the young players Chicago is putting on the field. Seriously though, I think half of the offseason headlines from Cardinals writers have had something about Chicago in them. I guess the narrative is just too easy.
I’m more than ready to talk about something else. Today I’m going to dig into the Cardinals’ bullpen and why it may be getting overlooked.
To begin, I want to acknowledge the point that many writers have gone out of their way to make. Yes, the Cardinals are not going to post the historic pitching numbers they did last year. Bernie Miklasz put last year’s numbers in context for 101espn:
The 2015 Cardinals led the majors in total-staff ERA, 2.94. Since the mound lowering in 1969, only nine teams have crafted a lower earned-run average (minimum 150 games) in a season than the 2015 Cards.
Like the ridiculous hitting with runners in scoring position in 2013, the Cardinals used another outrageous statistic to cover a huge weakness in their 2015 team. As I often stated last season, the Cardinals’ magic number was four. If they could scratch out four runs in a game they would win the contest.
To keep this ‘magic number’ where it was, the Cardinals will need more than a few things to go their way. Adam Wainwright’s return will put a true ace at the top of the rotation, and the acquisition of Mike Leake should fill the void left open by Lance Lynn’s absence. The success of the rotation will hinge on the health of the young arms of Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez as well as the injury-prone arm of Jaime Garcia. Tim Cooney and Marco Gonzales should be next in line if any of these arms falter.
Now it is time dig into what I’m here to discuss. These starters will be handing the ball off to a bullpen full of experienced and talented arms. I will start at the end of games and work my way forward to hopefully display the depth this ‘pen has.
Trevor Rosenthal –> The team’s closer has posted 93 saves the last two seasons and sports a 2.66 ERA in 233 career games. After struggling with accuracy in 2014, Rosenthal was much more efficient in 2015. This efficiency, often coming in the form of strike one, resulted in his ERA dropping a full point from 2015 to 2016, to an incredible 2.10. In 23 postseason games he has 7 saves and a 0.69 ERA. Nice. All jokes aside, there’s not much to talk about here. The Cardinals have their closer. May health stay on his side.
Kevin Siegrist –> The hard-throwing lefty was nearly impossible to hit off of when he entered the league in 2013. He posted a 0.45 ERA in 45 games. However, the sophomore slump hit Siegrist hard: His ERA ballooned to 6.82 in 37 games in 2014. The New York native didn’t let this performance faze him; he put together a terrific 2.17 ERA in an outrageous 81 games in 2015. Which Siegrist will the Cardinals see in 2016? Will the huge workload of last season catch up to the lefty this year? Time will tell. If he’s right, the Cardinals have a dominant lefty to set up for Rosenthal.
Jordan Walden –> If you think Matheny used Siegrist often last year, Walden may have been used even more had he not been injured. The 6’5″ right-hander with a unique delivery pitched in 12 of the team’s first 20 games in 2015. In those 10.1 innings he only gave up one run. He then went down for the rest of the year with a serious shoulder injury. The 28 year old elected to not undergo surgery, and he claims he’s ready to go for 2016. If his health can hold up the Cardinals are gaining a powerful weapon. In 243 career games his ERA sits right at 3.00. He sports 39 career saves and 58 career holds. Walden is one of the guys to watch as the 2016 season plays out.
Seung-hwan Oh –> The fresh face walking around Cardinals camp in Jupiter is fresh off of a plane from Korea. His numbers overseas are impressive. In 11 seasons split between the Samsung Lions and Hanshin Tigers, the right-hander posted a 1.81 ERA in 571 games. “The Final Boss” or “Stone Buddha,” whatever you want to call him, also has an incredible 357 career saves. Obviously it’s unclear how the 33 year old will perform when facing the world’s best talent. He’s another key member of the bullpen to watch in 2016. If he can at least keep his ERA under 3.00, the Cardinals will have another terrific addition to the back end of their bullpen.
Jonathan Broxton –> While Oh adjusts to Major League Baseball, the Cardinals have a wily veteran to show him around in the form of Jonathon Broxton. The 300-pound 31 year old stands in at 6’4″ and has pitched in 608 games. He sports a 3.23 ERA and 118 saves. After posting a career-low 1.86 ERA in 51 games with Cincinnati in 2014, Broxton was traded to Milwaukee where he regressed; however, he rebounded well after being traded to St. Louis last season. He posted a 2.66 ERA in 26 games with the Cardinals. This winter the veteran agreed to a two-year contract to stay in St. Louis. If he can stay healthy and keep his ERA around 3.00, he will be another dependable guy for Matheny to use.
Seth Maness –> The 27-year-old double play machine is back for 2016. Maness sports a career 21 percent double play rate, a full 10 percent higher than the league average. His knack for getting out of jams has made him Matheny’s fireman, often sent in with runners on base. Of his 76 games last season, Maness entered the game with runners already on base in 35 of them. He has 7 saves in 12 career opportunities; he also has 46 career holds. Expect to see Maness in the fifth or sixth inning when a starter is in trouble.
Mitch Harris –> The Naval Academy graduate should play a role in the Cardinals’ bullpen again this year. The 6’4″ right-hander had a few flashes of brilliance last season. His 2015 numbers ended as a respectable 3.67 ERA in 26 games. Harris will be a solid middle relief arm with potential to grow. It will be interesting to see how his sophomore year treats him.
Sam Tuivailala –> In only 14 games in 2015, Tuivailala posted a 3.07 ERA. The hard-thrower twirled 12.3 strike outs per nine innings. The 23 year old should see more opportunities in 2016, and many believe he has the skill to stay in the major league bullpen for the whole season. In 43 games in AAA Memphis last season, Tuivailala posted a 1.60 ERA and 17 saves. The potential is there; time will tell how his skills will translate with more opportunities.
Miguel Socolovich –> This 29-year-old Venezuelan has 68 major league appearances between three different teams. He was 4-1 with a 1.82 ERA in 28 games with the Cardinals in 2015. In AAA Memphis he pitched 32.2 innings with a 2.48 ERA. Socolovich has bounced around quite a bit in his career, but if he pitches like he did last year he will be a solid addition to this bullpen.
Tyler Lyons –> Joining Siegrist as the only lefties in the bullpen, Tyler Lyons should have a solid opportunity in 2016 because he’s out of minor league options. Lyons has posted mixed results as a starter in his career, but his numbers out of the bullpen are quite impressive. In 2015, Lyons was 3-1 as a starter with a 4.10 ERA. When coming out of the bullpen it was a different story. Lyons posted a 2.95 ERA as a reliever with a .206 opposing batting average and 8.8 strike outs per nine innings. It seems as though he wants to start, but with the rotation full, Gonzales & Cooney ready if a starter goes down, and Lyons out of options, it looks like the lefty will make a home in the bullpen. If he can continue those outstanding numbers as a reliever I don’t see why he wouldn’t want to serve as the left-handed long reliever.
Wild card: Alex Reyes –> Hear me out here. The Cardinals were very disappointed when Alex Reyes, their top prospect, was suspended 50 games after failing a drug test. Not only does this potentially set back his progression, but it also shows an obvious inability to make good decisions. However, this suspension may actually end up helping the Cardinals in the long run. How? Reyes will return around the middle of the minor league season, giving him just enough time to potentially be ready for a September call up. The Cardinals could call him up in September and not have to worry about the mileage on the young arm because of his suspension. This means their top prospect would be free to let loose his electric stuff at the most important time of the season. Am I saying he will for sure be ready to go come September? No, but the possibility is there.
Summary –> I’m not a huge fan of arithmetic, but we need to do some here. The Cardinals bullpen will enter 2016 with (approximately): 263 MLB saves, 359 international saves, 48 minor league saves, 283 MLB holds, an average 2.70 MLB ERA from last season (leaving Oh out), and their top prospect potentially ready to break onto the scene in September. That’s impressive any way you cut it. What might hold them back? Injuries are always a concern, obviously.
Plus, Matheny’s over-dependence on certain guys—namely Rosenthal, Siegrist and Maness with 225 games combined last season—may lead to more injuries. If Matheny can more evenly spread out the innings with the likes of Oh, Walden and Broxton in the mix then the whole bullpen should benefit. The young guys—Harris, Tuivailala and Socolovich—should be given more opportunities from Matheny as well; we will see how willing he is to do that.
Matheny’s bullpen decisions are well documented. Grantland used baseball metrics to rank managers’ bullpen decisions; Matheny was dead last. Last summer Matheny gave Derrick Goold a look into what goes into his decision making. This spring Matheny told Benjamin Hochman that he’s not all that concerned about what people have to say. Meanwhile, fan sites write about how to “Matheny-proof” a bullpen.
In the end, having a plethora of experienced arms for Matheny to choose from should (hopefully) make it impossible for Matheny to choose incorrectly. I’m excited about the talent the Cardinals have in their bullpen. It should really help a team that has so many offensive questions.
That’s all for now.
Derrick Goold wrote this terrific article about Carson Kelly, who is being carefully molded by Mike Matheny to serve as Yadier Molina’s eventual replacement. Two generations of Cardinals catchers are helping prepare the next in line.
Bernie Miklasz takes a look at the proverbial window and if it really is closing on the Cardinals.
Statistics from baseball-reference.com | Featured Picture by: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports