The Cardinals have major issues with the bullpen and bench depth. They need to do something about it! Ok. Like what?
Let’s start with the good news. When I’m writing this, it’s Tuesday morning, May 25th and the Cardinals are in first place in the division. At 26-21, they are a game and a half up on the Cubs. They just had a stretch where they played really excellent, consistent baseball.
Then the wheels came off.
It started with injuries. Paul DeJong fractured a rib. Tyler O’Neill fractured a finger. Dylan Carlson dealt with back issues. I wrote an article about Miles Mikolas, which is apparently a death sentence for the poor guy. (I’ll never mention him again. I promise.) He’s off to Dr. Andrews getting a second opinion. According to reports, the team is “optimistic” that Andrews will agree with the initial diagnosis of club doctors. No word on what that diagnosis is, but if you’re looking for tiny silver linings in the growing thunderstorm, find it in their use of the word “optimistic”. Now Harrison Bader might also miss some time after being removed from Monday night’s tilt against the very angry (and awesome) Lance Lynn and the White Sox.
All of those issues have opened up playing time for a whole bunch of people the Cardinals don’t really want to play.
Sure there’s Edmundo Sosa, who is Bo Harting his way into the hearts of Cardinals fans. He’s fun to watch and at least the defense is real! The hitting isn’t. Sosa’s BABIP is .481. His ISO is only .118. He’s a speedster singles hitter who doesn’t walk and has limited contact ability. The BABIP gods are smiling on him at the moment, which is fantastic. If a player is going to time his unsustainable breakout in the majors, it might as well be when the All-Star player ahead of him is on the IL.
Then there’s Justin Williams, who has been thrust unwillingly back into a starting spot. I say unwillingly because he has been swinging like he wishes he could be doing anything else. Williams has a 51 wRC+. He has a .238 wOBA. His fWAR in 117 is -.7. Ouch. But, hey, he can draw a walk or two!
Honestly, you can look at his Fangraphs page and then flip over to Matt Carpenter’s and wonder if the page didn’t load. With the DH in play for this series, Carpenter is sure to get some extra time. That would mean more of his 52 wRC+ and .239 wOBA. That’s a -.3 fWAR.
That’s right, the two Cardinals reserves getting the most playing time have cost the team a cumulative win in the standings. Lane Thomas’ stats are pretty much the same.
On Monday night, I found myself wondering, “why can’t we get Andrew Knizner and his … (checks Fangraphs) … oh… 52 WRC+ and .238 wOBA, for a -.3 FWAR into the lineup more often.” Sigh.
The Cardinals bench has been equally bad and, collectively, they are as terrible a unit as I have ever seen.
The Cardinals should do something about it!
The immediate alternatives from the 40-man roster aren’t encouraging. The club did recall Max Moroff, who is hitless in 8 plate appearances, with 4 strikeouts entering Tuesday night’s game. John Nogowski isn’t with the club. In his brief stint in StL, he had just one hit and a walk in 14 PAs.
Austin Dean has been relatively productive – a 101 wRC+, with a solid walk rate and a little bit of power. The Cardinals coulda shoulda brought him up for the AL DH series, but when Austin Dean is your shining white knight, you’ve got real issues.
The pandemic continues to create issues for baseball front offices. Normally, if the Cards were in this situation, they would start to dip into their experienced, AAA depth. Outside of the players already mentioned, there isn’t much of that available. We have already seen Scott Hurst. I detailed his unlikely path to the majors earlier this season. A player like Lars Nootbaar would likely be major league ready had he followed a normal, non-COIVD developmental path. He got 33 games in AA in 2019. Last year he would have tested himself at Springfield and Memphis, and would be ready for a debut.
I’ve seen some fans calling for Nolan Gorman. Gorman is in AA, a pretty good sign that the club doesn’t think he should be near a major league roster.
Simply put, COVID, some failures, and (mostly) an offseason where they refused to spend anything have created a significant readiness gap between the replacement-level (or below) role players currently on the 40-man roster and the players in the next wave. The Cardinals really want to wait as long as possible before they bridge that gap.
That brings me to the bullpen.
The Cardinals have half a bullpen. Shildt has Reyes, Cabrera, Gallegos, and (sometimes) Helsley on a “we are winning and we will try to win” schedule.
The rest of the names have varied. The performance has not. Shildt has Ponce, Whitley, Woodford, Miller, Elledge, Webb, and Junior Fernandez on a “we’re losing and probably can’t win” schedule.
It’s so bad. The walk rate is historic. When these players aren’t walking guys, they’re giving up hits and homers. Jake Woodford has a pretty terrible 4.66 ERA. That’s fourth-best among all relievers used by the club this season.
A few nights ago, I thought to myself, “Where’s Jake Woodford? The club really needs to use him more.”
(Hang on… I just got a little sick to my stomach thinking about that. Whew… but I’ll be ok. Just keep reading while I go lie down for a few minutes…)
The Cardinals need to do SOMETHING! Don’t they?
Mozeliak has already run through most of the club’s 40-man roster depth. Bernardo Flores was recently added and given a cup of coffee while adopting the bullpen’s current strategy of “walking everybody.”
Then there is Seth Elledge, who was Friday’s sacrificial offering. Johan Oviedo is the official 6th starter so they can’t use him… more on that below. Johan Quezada was a pretty early cut in Spring Training and I think he’s on the Memphis IL.
Angel Rondon is on the 40 but hasn’t sniffed the majors yet. He’s in Memphis, where he has 14 innings and an ERA just under 8. He’s another player that lost a year of development to COVID. Instead of being rotation-ready, he’s just now getting a taste of AAA/AAAA caliber hitters. If his early stats are to be believed, it’s not going well.
Like the offense, the pitching depth is caught between worlds. The pandemic slowed the development of some vital organizational pieces and the team wants to give those players time to catch up. Rondon qualifies here. So would Tommy Parsons, who has just 17 starts at AA or above since 2019. If they had a normal 2020, Zack Thompson and Matthew Liberatore would probably be knocking pretty hard on the MLB door. Instead, they’re locked behind a glass wall labeled “break in case of emergency …. a really BIG emergency … and not before August.”
That’s 1000 words to sum up what probably only required eight: there just isn’t much the Cardinals can do.
Their choices seem to be: Continue with who they have, hoping that these players who really should be halfway acceptable options for the bench and bullpen get right quick. Or digging into not-yet-ready depth and taking their chances younger players, all while wrecking their 40-man roster.
More than a few people have called for Matt Carpenter to be released. Same with Tyler Webb. I hear many asking why Williams is playing? Why does Shildt keep going to Whitley? Why is Ponce out there again? Why didn’t they use Gallegos or Cabrera today?
There are lots and lots of loud calls for immediate change – in roster formation and usage — but I am seeing very few workable suggestions for change.
I guess I’ll offer you one. It’s the best I have at the moment. And, yes, I realize that it’s not going to satisfy anyone or change very much.
First, I would give up on the 6th starter concept for now. I know the club wants to limit innings for its starters, particularly early in the year. The reality is, though, that the guys that they are setting aside for the 6th starter role could help in the bullpen. The club needs them more than 3-5 innings every few weeks.
I’m talking about Oviedo. Is it really going to hurt his development as a long-term starter if he spends the month of June in the major league bullpen? No, it isn’t. With his stuff, it’s likely (not certain) that he would be able to fill at least a Helsley-like role out there.
Second, I would re-work the bullpen to better use the long-inning relievers the club has. I would probably go ahead and promote Tommy Parsons, who really doesn’t have a future in the major league rotation. I would use Woodford more often, probably when the club is losing. To make space for some of these moves, I would go ahead and DFA Tyler Webb and then cycle Whitley back down to Memphis until he can get right.
In that arrangement, essentially the entire pen could be used for up to 2 innings (or at least into a second inning) at a time, including Reyes, whose stuff is really being underutilized in a 1-inning closer role.
Any of those arms could step in for a spot bullpen start if the club wanted to use a 6th starter role. Later in the summer, the club could go ahead and tag Rondon, Liberatore, or Thompson for those moments. Those last two would have to be added to the 40, but there might be holes that open up by then.
What about the offense? I have very little for you. The club needs to get healthy and stay healthy for a lengthy stretch. Then, they should try to reconfigure its depth after the All-Star break when trade season opens. The Cardinals could use a legitimate 4th outfielder and a utility player. If Carpenter isn’t showing more by then, he is going to have to be replaced.
I know that’s not much. It’s just shuffling the deck chairs. But it’s the best I have for the moment. Make your own suggestions in the comments.
Or you can do what I’m doing: go fishing. You’ll feel a lot better about things if you do.
It’s rough right now. Hang in there!