St. Louis Cardinals: Bench and bullpen philosophies clash in action

ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 11: Manager Mike Matheny
ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 11: Manager Mike Matheny /

The St. Louis Cardinals are one of the teams in Major League Baseball that often resorts to a 13-man pitching staff during the season, especially during tough stretches.  This choice puts pressure on the club to have a particularly strong group of bench players, as there are only four when the bullpen numbers eight.

Does the team fulfill this balance of big bullpen and hyper-competent but small bench properly? There are those who think the St. Louis Cardinals do not, and I for one am in this camp.

Let’s take a look at some reasons I believe are a mismatch between the way the team meshes these two concepts — or not.

The Redbirds presumably want 13 pitchers on the 25-man roster during much of the season for two reasons: First, it gives manager Mike Matheny more choices and matchups; and second, it would at first glance appear to save wear and tear on bullpen arms.

Let’s tackle the second first, as it’s the more fallacious rationale of the two.

The team made a decision to go with a slew of younger arms in the pen. That is of course their choice, but it’s often the case while youth may not have the finesse, the nuance and the experience, it does bring strength and resilience, particularly in the bullpen.

I wouldn’t make this claim as to starters, for whom coming to the bigs often presents more innings, against much more accomplished hitters, than they’ve consistently faced in the minors. But for relievers, moving up from, say, 55 to 65 innings is not nearly the drain younger starters are asked to bear as their workload increases.

The other reason the “freshness” argument is a rather weak one is there are always arms available at Memphis, particularly for younger pitchers, many who have three years worth of options. During that period, a pitcher can be brought here and back as many times as is needed each year.

The back-and-forth from AAA, or even from Springfield, is also enhanced  by the reduction of the disabled list minimum period (other than for concussions) from ten days to seven. So a reliever whose arm is facing soreness can be sidelined, even retroactively, allowing for more shuttles to take place.

So we’ve established there are ways to keep relievers fresh without a 13-man staff. Now let’s go back to the first point, namely, matchups with bullpen arms.

It is true another arm gives another choice. But more choices can also mean more substitutions during a game, and herein lies one of the main rubs — more subs means more pressure on a shorter bench.

By increasing the bullpen size, a team is already putting more pressure on the offensive side, especially in the National League, as double switches are commonly required.

And as with all teams, positional substitution options can be essential near the end of game.

So now we return to the glaring weakness caused by cutting one’s bench from five to four, a decrease of 20 percent. Backups are required to be better, more flexible and able to be used in a  wider range of situations.

This is something the Cardinals clearly have not been particularly adept at doing in recent years. And this year, the situation, especially vis a vis their main competitors, is even worse.

Look at the Chicago Cubs. With the likes of Ian Happ, Ben Zobrist and  Tommy LaStella, along with whoever is the ultimate backup catcher (probably Victor Caratini?) provides huge flexibility even if the team only carries four subs.

The Milwaukee Brewers have strong depth, in a different way. Right now, and this could change pre-Opening Day, they probably have more outfield depth than most teams.

Five guys — Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Ryan Braun, Domingo Santana and Keion Broxton — all provide oomph and threats off the  bench (Braun might shift to first but then what of Eric Thames?). One might well be traded for a pitcher to be sure. And they also have the excellent backup Hernan Perez on the IF.

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The Cards have right now, aside from Carson Kelly, and assuming that Matt Carpenter and Jedd Gyorko start at 1B and 3B, respectively: Jose Martinez, a fine hitter who’s a 1B and a challenged OF; Greg Garcia, a versatile, little-bat or WAR, middle and corner IF, or a similar replacement from down under; and either Harrison Bader or Tyler O’Neill, fine young guys but with little prediction of their value to a major-league team yet.

The point is, given the lack of reserve depth and strength, not having a fifth player on that bench for much of the season is FAR more injurious to the team’s outlook than having a 13th pitcher who, as indicated above, could be plucked from AAA or AA whenever needed instead of keeping them steadily in St. Louis.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate all these players and what they have contributed or can give in the future. But when the difference between a playoff spot and an also-ran is so tiny, every advantage one can get must be grabbed, and grabbed as often as possible.

Next: Plan B for 2018 Cards

It’s nice to have  the luxury of a 13-man pitching staff and an eight-man bullpen. But it’s not always desirable. The underlying composition of one’s talent requires analysis and flexibility in making the call. And in the case of the Redbirds, having that extra pitcher clashes enormously with what right now is a thin bench.