St. Louis Cardinals: Lack of sure closer cheapens team

MILWAUKEE, WI - AUGUST 30: Yadier Molina
MILWAUKEE, WI - AUGUST 30: Yadier Molina /

The St. Louis Cardinals have to date not added a reliable closer to their bullpen in the 2018 offseason, despite being tied to several by report and rumor. Are they standing pat? If so, it’s a huge error.

The St. Louis Cardinals have accomplished plenty during the Hot Stove League.  They’ve added a starter in Miles Mikolas; an outstanding power bat and superior corner outfielder in Marcell Ozuna; bullpen experience in Luke Gregerson; and more.

But stopping at this point, as was at least suggested during the weekend’s Winter Warmup, makes no sense. To do so would be like purchasing a luxury automobile without a sound system or cruise control.

What do I mean by that, exactly? Surely a franchise can decide to stop spending at a reasonable level and with a fair complement of players, right?

Well, sure. But it depends where they decide to skimp. And in this case, at least to date, the skimping has come in a place that is both necessary and affordable: namely, the bullpen.

Some will argue that the team’s pitching depth, both in currently-slotted bullpen arms and young talent, is sufficient to complement the team’s other strengths. Returning arms like Tyler Lyons, John Brebbia, Matthew Bowman, Sam Tuivailala, Brett Cecil, and Ryan Sherriff stand ready to build on their efforts from last year.

Add to those, at least at the beginning of the season, the prodigious talent, Alex Reyes. The team anticipates a bullpen placement originally, followed by a re-integration into the starter mix as he recovers arm strength more fully from last year’s surgery.

And then there are  the young guns, the ones considered either starters or key bullpen parts for the future. Jack Flaherty, John Gant, Dakota Hudson, Mike Mayers, Austin Gomber, and the Twin Torches, Jordan Hicks and Ryan Hersey, each who can top the 100 mph plateau.

Finally, there’s Gregerson, who is not without major-league closing experience. With 31 saves in 2015 followed by another 15 in 2016 for Houston, he has felt the ninth inning and to some extent has made it work.

So why not here? And why isn’t the current crop, as deep and potential laden as it is, adequate to fulfill the Cardinals’ deep-playoff aspirations?

Well, there are at least three reasons.

First and foremost, Gregerson did not have a great 2017. After a phenomenally consist eight years in which his ERA never topped 3.28 — and given the vagaries and relatively low-inning work of relievers versus starters, that is a magnificent record — Luke’s work saw some serious overall decline last year.

His ERA not only zoomed to 4.57 but his WHIP soared to 1.344, second highest of his career. His hits per nine innings were also near highs, and his walks were on the high side as well. And his FIP rose to more than a run per game above his highest previous total, with home runs exploding to more than double his usual in a similar amount of innings.

That’s not to say he won’t return; I believe he will. But to ask a pitcher recovering from his worst year to man the ninth inning for a contender is a stretch.

Which brings us to point two. It’s a stretch only because the team is making it a stretch when no stretch is necessary.

Right now the team’s financial commitments don’t appear to exceed the Opening Day 2017 level; in fact, they are a tad below at the time of this writing. Adding to this, the team is operating under a new TV contract with Fox Sports which should add at least $20M to their coffers, and each MLB team is getting about $50M for the sale of the national rights TV contract.

In other words, there’s little reason to gamble on the ninth inning. The team appears to either have had little interest in or was outbid on Addison Reed, who expressed an interest in playing in the Midwest and was signed by the Minnesota Twins for about $18M.

Reed is four years younger than Gregerson and has double the career saves. Not that he hasn’t struggled at times; he has. But to add him at essentially the cost of another Gregerson and giving either backup strength at the closer position or the ability to share among experienced pitchers seems a lost opportunity.

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Now, Reed is not the only one out there, but choices are rapidly dwindling. There’s still the young and talented Alex Colome of the Tampa Bay Rays, and the veteran Greg Holland. If the Cards are negotiating for either or both of these, and succeed, which I surely hope, then this column will become meaningless. And it won’t be the first time that the Cards have played it close to the vest on an acquisition.

The third reason is that the Cards have at times seemed to count too heavily on the development of their prized prospects, both pitchers and hitters. The team saw little progression, for instance, in Randal Grichuk, over three of his four major-league years. And Stephen Piscotty had a significant backslide in 2017, prompting the Cards to trade him as part of their outfield-clearing exercise.

The pitching depth for this team is quite something. It’s impressive. And it helps secure the “next man up” philosophy in a real, meaningful way. But it does not provide the need-it-now balance of an experienced, relatively sure thing.

I’m a big believer in developing young talent, and the Cards sure have it in volumes when it comes to pitching, as the above lists illustrate.

But potential is called just that for a reason. It sometimes arrives fully, sometimes in fits and starts, and sometimes not at all. And when one has built a roster that is intended to contend, it seems quite penny wise and pound foolish to not devote a reasonable amount of roster dollars to secure the proven ability to finish games.

Next: Waiting in the wings

We’ll see over the next four weeks if the Cards have a bullpen ace up their sleeve or whether they have been true to their word in planning to go into the season with Gregerson as the closer. If they stand pat, I will root for Luke and for this young-but-mighty roster of hurlers. But I will not be confident at all that they’ve made the right choice.