The St. Louis Cardinals bullpen has been reliant on the trio of Giovanny Gallegos, Alex Reyes, and Genesis Cabrera, especially where the team has a lead or is playing in a close game. These three pitchers have all done well, but outside of them, the Cardinals have not found much reliability. This is why all three pitchers rank in the top 25 of all relievers in innings pitched, with Gallegos throwing the 3rd most innings, Reyes throwing the 18th most, and Cabrera throwing the 23rd most. These pitchers have combined for 2.3 fWAR. The Cardinals bullpen as a whole has combined for just 1.7 fWAR on the season. As a result, it is clear that there is a real problem when the Cardinals need to use any other relievers.
This explains why Mike Shildt is willing to risk overworking his top relievers. It does not justify the decision, but it is easy to understand why he is unwilling to risk using other relievers in games that the Cardinals have a chance to win.
This is simply not a sustainable strategy for the Cardinals, though, and the playoffs are already extremely unlikely. As a result, the team should give another chance to its young relievers in order to see if they can have better results this season, and to see if they can be dependable options next season.
It is unlikely that any of Andrew Miller, Justin Miller, TJ McFarland, or Luis Garcia will be on the roster next year. All of them, with the exception of Andrew Miller, were waiver wire/in-season free agent acquisitions, and none of them appear to have fully earned the trust of Mike Shildt. As a result, it would be easy to replace them with any or all of Kodi Whitley, Seth Elledge, Junior Fernandez, and Austin Warner.
Each of these young pitchers has shown promise in Triple-A Memphis with high strikeout rates. Except for Warner, who has yet to debut, they all had some struggles in St. Louis early in the season, but they have had some more time to work things out in Triple-A and each pitcher has improved his walk rate in his time in Memphis.
With the playoffs being a remote possibility for this season, the Cardinals need to begin anticipating their roster next season. As of now, the 2022 bullpen consists of four names – Gallegos, Reyes, and Cabrera. Helsley can likely be penciled into the fourth spot, but he has not been overly impressive this season. At most, this is only half of a bullpen. The Cardinals should, and likely will, pursue options in free agency or the trade market following the season, but now is the time to see if youth can fill that gap as well.
Despite their previous struggles, Whitley, Elledge, and Fernandez all have the potential to be solid bullpen arms with exciting swing-and-miss potential. There is something to be said for letting them mature in Triple-A for the rest of this season, but that does not help the Cardinals much with roster planning for next season. Warner also has 145 innings of Triple-A experience and has been a solid reliever for Memphis this season.
Therefore, these players should be given a chance to prove themselves in the second half of this season to see if they can earn a roster spot in next year’s bullpen. Additionally, if any of them can impress, then it could ease the heavy workloads of Gallegos, Reyes, and Cabrera. If they continue to struggle, then the Cardinals will know that they need more bullpen reinforcements heading into next season, and that these young players should be considered depth and not MLB relievers.
The rest of this season offers the Cardinals a chance to see what they have on their roster, and what more they need to do in the offseason. They now have a chance to do that with the bullpen without having to lose anyone of importance, or anyone that will be on the roster next season. Thus, Whitley, Elledge, Fernandez, and potentially Warner deserve a chance to force their way into the bullpen plans for next season and even help the team win more games in the second half of 2021.