The St. Louis Cardinals took two more bullpen losses over the weekend in Pittsburgh. Now more than ever, the relief corps looks to be in utter disarray.
Bullpen struggles have plagued the St. Louis Cardinals throughout the first three and a half months of the 2017 season. In April, middle relief issues ballooned the pen’s ERA and forced Mike Matheny to lean heavily on the likes of Matt Bowman, Trevor Rosenthal, and Seung-Hwan Oh.
Jonathan Broxton and Miguel Socolovich got the boot. The organization shuttled Sam Tuivailala back and forth between St. Louis and Memphis before finally realizing he’s been one of the better relief arms on the roster this year.
Eventually, the turbulence in the middle innings gave way to a disaster at the back end of games. Oh is nowhere near as sharp as he was a year ago. Rosenthal still struggles with sporadic loss of command.
As it stands after the All-Star Break, the St. Louis Cardinals don’t have any relief role set in stone. Oh and Rosenthal rode the carousel of closers for the last month, but Brett Cecil has received the last two closing assignments.
As for set-up duties, Kevin Siegrist pitched a 1-2-3 eighth inning on Monday night in New York. If Matheny can’t trust Oh or Rosenthal to pitch late in games, he has a big, big problem. He doesn’t even need both to be surefire late-inning relievers. But he needs at least one at this point.
The Cardinals can’t expect to go forward, hands tied with Cecil penciled in for the ninth inning, and expect the bullpen to improve. Cecil is most valuable when he pitches in middle-to-late innings in close games, gets out of jams, and strands runners. This is something he’s done with frequent success this year, save for the month of April.
If Matheny doesn’t want to use an Oh/Rosenthal committee in the ninth inning, why not give a guy like John Brebbia or Tuivailala a chance? They’ve been used sparingly in low-leverage roles for most of the year, but have delivered with great results.
Their ERA’s of 1.89 and 2.25, respectively, are the two lowest in the Cardinals’ bullpen this season. But each has appeared in only seventeen games.
The problem with the relievers is none of them have had the opportunity to settle into solid roles yet this year. This is something Cecil acknowledged after his blown save on Sunday in Pittsburgh:
"“That is our fault because we haven’t really solidified any roles for anybody. Just kind of grind and be ready when the phone rings. I think it all starts with that last inning. Once we get that solidified no matter who that is, the rest will take care of itself. That’s really what needs to happen. Need it. Definitely need it.”"
If Matheny is willing to give Brebbia and Tuivialala a chance and acknowledge their success in a results-oriented business, it’d be a step forward. Of course, there’s no guarantee that they’d have the same success in the latter innings. But at this stage in the game, it’s worth a shot.
At the same time, simply rearranging the bullpen roles with the makeup of the current roster isn’t likely to transform the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen into a gauntlet of dominance. The Washington Nationals are a team that has struggled with its bullpen all year, and over the weekend they pulled the trigger and showed what it looks like to go out and fix your pen.
They acquired Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle from the Oakland Athletics, two guys who will instantly figure into the back end of games for the Nats. If the Cardinals still believe they can make a push for October this season, they should consider doing the same.
For all the talk surrounding the Cards about landing a big bat for the lineup, the bullpen is where they must begin. If they’re going to try and improve both, they might consider taking a good look at the farm system for internal bullpen help. That way, they could avoid putting even more prospects on the trading block.
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In Memphis, reliever Mark Montgomery has excelled all season long with a 2.05 ERA. Lefty Ryan Sherriff earned a second consecutive All-Star nod this year. Zach Duke is rehabbing from Tommy John last fall and figures to be back before long.
The Cardinals also have multiple minor-league starters that they could turn to for relief help. We’ve already seen John Gant and Luke Weaver get brief stints in the big league bullpen this year. At double-A Springfield, righties Sandy Alcantara and Dakota Hudson are exactly the types of high-octane guys who could make a difference late in games.
Given the season-long struggle that has been the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen, it is fair to say that what this pitching staff is missing is Alex Reyes. He’s a guy who could go multiple innings in high-leverage spots to take the load off of other late-inning guys. If Reyes were in the rotation, Michael Wacha could be the same type of bullpen weapon.
But for this season, the Cardinals must determine what their chances are at making a postseason run, and examine their bullpen accordingly. Guys like Oh and Rosenthal could be potential trade pieces, but their struggles haven’t helped their value on the market.
If the Cardinals are going to make a blockbuster deal for an offensive piece, they should look at making internal bullpen improvements. The pieces are there in the system to fix the problems the relief corps has had. That is, if they don’t get traded away for that impact bat.