St. Louis Cardinals: What to watch for in Spring Training part two

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 17: Luke Gregerson /

As the rest of the St. Louis Cardinals make their way to Jupiter, let’s take a look at what to watch for in Spring Training.

Last week, starting with the St. Louis Cardinals‘ rotation, I started my “What to watch for in Spring Training” series. If you missed it, check it out here. Part two will still focus on pitching, but this time we head to the bullpen.

By now you should know the St. Louis Cardinals intend to enter the 2018 season with Luke Gregerson as their closer. Also potentially vying for the role are Tyler Lyons, Bud Norris, and a couple of other young guns headlined by Alex Reyes (at least until May). I think we were all surprised to see Gregerson be named closer for this team, especially after the front office’s desire to find a top closer this off-season. But, here we are.

Return to form?

When the St. Louis Cardinals signed Gregerson to a two-year deal, many wondered why. Gregerson is coming off a regular season in which he pitched 61.0 innings with a single save, a 4.57 ERA, and a 4.62 FIP with 70 strike outs. Gregerson’s up-and-down season saw him miss out on a single relief appearance for the Astros championship run. It’s hard to imagine the Cardinals being so interested in him, but Gregerson pitched exceptionally well in 2015. He tallied 31 saves in 61.0 innings pitched with a 3.10 ERA, 2.86 FIP, and 59 strike outs.

Now obviously Gregerson’s signing also came down to the fact his contract is cheap, but the Cardinals are taking a pretty big risk on leaving names like Greg Holland and Alex Colome on the table. If Gregerson is to be a success in St. Louis, he needs to find out what was working for him in 2015 and bring that back for the 2018 season.

One of things that stood out to me when looking through Fangraphs was Gregerson’s elevated fly ball percentage. In 2015, Gregerson’s FB% drifted right around 23%, the lowest in his career. Coincidentally, his HR/9 was less than one (0.74). Going back to 2017, Gregerson’s FB% shot up all the way to 32%, which is closer to his career average. However, his HR/9 swelled to almost two (1.92).

Related Story: Mozeliak doubles down

Part of the problem for the Cardinals last year, especially in the late innings, was the tendency to give up the long ball. If Gregerson is to succeed as closer, look for him to make a concentrated effort to keep the ball down in the zone.

Another thing to keep an eye on is hitters getting good contact against Gregerson. Last year Gregerson had a BABIP of .306. In 2015 and 2016, Gregerson combined for a BABIP of .251. Part of that may be due to the reduction in the speed of his pitches, but he needs to make an adjustment with the location of his pitches in order to be successful as well.

Of course I would be wrong not to talk about the backlash of Gregerson not finding success in the closer’s role. I think most people will say just stick to the he came cheap camp, but is that really good enough? I mean the Cardinals sought a top closer, had options available to them, and still went with Gregerson.

If the Gregerson struggles early on in Spring, Mike Matheny shouldn’t hesitate for a second in bringing the next man up. After blowing thirty-five games in the last two season, the St. Louis Cardinals do not have the luxury of falling behind the Cubs or Brewers because of a renaissance project.

Either way, Gregerson represents a big time gamble the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s crazy that everything the bullpen does hinges on Gregerson’s success. One can only hope it goes our way. If not, then Mozeliak and Co. will have some explaining to do.

Next man up

Outside of Gregerson, the competition in the bullpen should be pretty intriguing. The Cardinals have some veteran pitchers in Norris and Lyons who would figure to be the next men up in case Gregeson doesn’t pan out. However, they do have some impressive arms in Reyes and Ryan Helsley waiting to make their contributions to the big league club in 2018.

I think the most logical choice would be Bud Norris. Norris is coming from a tale of two halves. Norris, in the first half of the season, pitched 36.1 innings with 13 saves and 47 strike outs. He posted a 2.23 ERA and held opponents to a .183 batting average. His second half, however, was not so kind.

In 25.2 innings pitched, Norris only recorded six more saves with 27 strike outs. His second half ERA was 7.01 and his opponents hit .302 off of him. His second half did consist of some injuries too. The second half of the season is similar to that of Greg Holland’s. I don’t think Norris is better than Holland, but Norris came cheaper to the Cards.

Norris’ experience in the closer’s role gives him the slight edge of Lyons, but not by much. There is also the possibility Norris may start some games as well should someone get injured. It’ll be interesting to see how they use Norris out of the bullpen. You can imagine, like Lyons, Norris could also be used in extended relief as well.

More from Redbird Rants

As far as Tyler Lyons is concerned, I think he makes a great option out of the bullpen as a set-up man. He pitched extremely well last season out of the bullpen, especially late in games.

For a second I thought the St. Louis Cardinals might actually consider him for closer. It wouldn’t have been stretch, but I think Matheny would like to use him more in the 7th or 8th innings.

However, if he looks better than Norris, I’d imagine he will get his fair share at a chance to back up Gregerson.

The wild cards of the competition will be Reyes and Ryan Helsley.

Reyes is scheduled to return in May, but the big questions are his health and where would he pitch. His health is honestly what I am watching for this Spring. If he suffers any kind of setback, then forget about seeing Reyes pitch for the Cardinals this season. At most, he would probably pitch late in the season, but that might just be it. There is no denying the impact a healthy Reyes would mean to the St. Louis Cardinals, but where would the impact be the greatest?

The Cardinals’ front office stated they wanted to limit his innings, so my best bet is the bullpen. I would envision his role being something similar to what he did when he called up in 2016. However, I think most wonder what he could do out of the closer’s role. With his high-octane fastball and good secondary pitches, he could be a serious closer option for the Cardinals in 2018. I think he would be immediately better than Gregerson.

Helsley is also very intriguing option for the Cardinals. He quickly rose through the minors last season, seeing all three levels of minor league ball. I expect him to see some time in games during Spring Training, but I don’t expect him to break camp with the big league club. Consider this Spring an audition for him, but if he shows he can pitch to major league hitters, it won’t be long till he is with the club.

Next: What to watch for in Spring Training part one

I think the competition in the bullpen will be one of the bigger story lines in Spring Training. I know Mozeliak said Gregerson is the closer, but let’s wait to see what happens in the upcoming weeks. Who knows, maybe Gregerson’s struggles prompt a call to Holland late in Spring Training.