As Spring Training winds down for the 2018 St. Louis Cardinals and significant cuts are made, talks begin to turn toward who will earn a spot on the Opening Day roster. However, much of this depends upon whether or not the Cardinals decide to go with a 7-man or 8-man bullpen.
In general, most National League clubs use a 7-man bullpen and a 5-man bench, allowing for a backup catcher and four position players to (in theory) serve as an alternative for every position on the field. The ideal scenario is to have versatile bench players who offer a unique skill, such as power, speed, or superior defensive abilities. The St. Louis Cardinals, however, have often employed an 8-man bullpen under manager Mike Matheny.
When it comes to assessing the pros and cons of an 8-man bullpen, it’s important to consider personnel, specifically on the durability of the pitching staff, the number of minor league “options” possessed by pitchers AND position players, and the ways in which the manager takes advantage of the “extra” pitcher. In other words, the 8-man bullpen is best suited for teams with a strong, versatile bench, young pitchers, and a savvy manager.
While the general manager — now, Michael Girsch — is in charge of deciding who is on the major league roster, President of Baseball Operations (and former GM) John Mozeliak has historically deferred to Matheny’s preference for an 8-man bullpen…which…um…is like giving a college kid a helicopter…y’know, just in case it comes up.
Actually, this is the guy who, in 2013, notoriously referred to fireballer Joe Kelly as “a Ferrari sitting in the garage.” Yes, this quote implies Matheny’s reluctance in using one of his available arms…which he insists on having available. It further implies not wanting to use a good arm, which is kind of counterintuitive to the whole winning-baseball-games-thing. But hey, managers make mistakes and they learn, right?
The following year, Matheny became the guy who saw the 2014 season end in Game 5 of the NLCS on the fingertips of Michael Wacha — a guy who hadn’t pitched in 20 days — while his closer sat on the bench. Matheny’s defense of his decision raised even more eyebrows, but hey, at least he used the helicopter/Ferrari this time. It’s not his fault he crashed in The Bay, even though he had a speedboat.
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Of course, baseball is evolving, and 2015 was a year in which more managers were asked about using their closer — read: their best reliever — in situations other than “save situations.”
The idea here is the turning point of a game is often NOT the save situation, and it’s in these moments that a manager should recognize the need to deploy their best arm.
To that point, Matheny chose to defend his traditional approach by blaming contracts.
Nevermind that Matheny’s reasoning often ignores logic — like, say, one reliever’s contract being more important than another’s — the confounding decisions and seeming unwillingness to adapt on the fly is what makes giving him an 8-man bullpen (and more options to juggle) equally problematic. Why complicate a situation that hasn’t been mastered?
Still, managing a bullpen is one of the more difficult tasks a manager has, and it’s easy to second-guess someone else’s decisions from behind a screen or with the benefit of hindsight, but the aforementioned samples probably have more than a little to do with why Mozeliak brought pitching coach Mike Maddux aboard. There are rumblings that Maddux will be in charge of bullpen decisions, but even if he isn’t, the influence should be substantial.
Assuming Maddux is a stronger bullpen manager than Matheny, here are the pros and cons for the St. Louis Cardinals using an 8-man bullpen in 2018…
1) It’s insurance for THIS YEAR’S rotation.
More than any season in recent memory, this Cardinals starting rotation is full of question marks beyond Carlos Martinez. Is Adam Wainwright going to throw only 123.1 innings with an ERA over 5 again? Is Miles Mikolas going to prove to be unready for the transfer from Japan? How many innings can Luke Weaver provide, or Wacha for that matter? If it’s assumed that only one starter will regularly see the 7th inning, you’re gonna need a LOT of bullpen help.
2) It assures that a few assets stay on the team.
Although John Mozeliak has predicted a lot of traffic between the big league club and the minors, only so many players can be sent back and forth to Memphis without being offered freely to every other team through waivers. Those players without options include Tyler Lyons, Sam Tuivailala, and Miles Mikolas. Lyons should be a fixture for the back of the bullpen, but Matheny has never seemed to trust “Tui’”, and who knows what Mikolas will bring?
In other words, if Mikolas (“The Lizard King”) struggles or tires, you can’t send him to the minors to rest or regroup. He either has to pass through waivers or clog up a spot at the back of the bullpen. Also, if Matheny begins to trust and use Tuivailala, he can’t be part of the minor league refresh button. Suddenly, that extra arm seems useful.
3) It allows for Alex Reyes’ constant presence.
Reyes is the Ferrari in the garage getting a tuneup…and a full detail…and a wax… and another wax. The St. Louis Cardinals want to be cautious with him following last year’s Tommy John surgery, but they also want him to pitch! An 8-man bullpen allows Reyes to contribute to the major league club while his arm is being strengthened for a starting role. With an extra reliever, you can afford to have someone who is regularly “off limits.”
4) It (theoretically) prevents overuse of arms.
The greatest indication of the Cardinals’ allergy to high-inning relief arms could be found in their offseason strategy. Mozeliak and Girsch continuously passed on adding pitchers like Addison Reed and Greg Holland to their bullpen, apparently due to discomfort over how many innings these relievers threw in 2017. In recent years, Matheny has shown a tendency to overuse certain relievers, and an 8-man bullpen should help prevent this practice.
5) It helps with adaptation to the new mound visit rule.
This shouldn’t be an issue. After all, these are professionals we’re talking about. Yet, with Matheny’s history of bullpen mistakes, the Cardinals’ reliance on Yadier Molina as a de facto second pitching coach, and a sudden limitation on Molina’s mound visits, it might be easier at times for Matheny to make a pitching change if, say, a young pitcher needs to make an adjustment and Matheny doesn’t want to burn a mound visit.
1) It limits the bench.
This is by far the biggest issue with an 8-man bullpen, and it should give Cards fans nightmarish memories of relief pitchers batting with runners in scoring position in extra inning games. With a 4-man bench, one of whom is a little-used backup catcher, there remains 3 position players available for every pinch-hitting opportunity, defensive double-switch, or injury substitution. It also makes it more difficult to truly give a regular a “day off.”
2) It limits the ability to replenish with youth.
We’ve already noted how the Cards plan to utilize the “I-55 corridor” to keep the bullpen fresh in 2018, so why can’t they just use the same plan for the bench? For one, presumptive bench mainstay, Greg Garcia, is out of options, so he can’t be used in this manner without being offered to every other team in the league first. Then there are the catchers. With Carson Kelly needing regular ABs in Memphis, you won’t see much turnover at the catcher position.
This leaves Jose Martinez — whose presence in the minors would be a harbinger of greater issues — and a backup outfielder like Harrison Bader or Jose Adolis Garcia…or possibly Yairo Munoz in a super utility role. While it’s expected to see some of the team’s young contributors change hands, this is hardly a major infusion of youth. This is just one new guy filling the same role as the others.
3) It allows for the opportunity to tinker.
Matheny loves to make the traditionally “correct” move, whether that be — ahem — saving his closer in a tie game on the road — or going for lefty-lefty/righty-righty matchups regardless of reverse splits or how well a pitcher is throwing. If there’s a “by-the-book” move to be made, and Matheny has the arm available, he’s going to make that move. This also goes for double-switches, which Matheny will be tempted to do with a short bench.
4) It confuses the message.
Let me explain. For two consecutive off-seasons, the Cardinals have placed an importance on the closer role and the need to have “that guy” you can rely on to shorten a game. Furthermore, Matheny has often discussed the benefits of a relief pitcher having a “role” that they can rely upon. In other words, a pitcher will know how and when they’re likely to be used, and therefore can be more consistent with their preparation.
However, the 8-man bullpen approach — coupled with the front office’s inability/unwillingness to add a proven closer this offseason — is inherently an effort in going with quantity over quality. The plan, it seems, is to throw numbers at the problem, ride the hot hand (yikes, see: overuse), and mix and match until the bullpen sorts itself out. In one way, an 8-man bullpen is almost a tacit admission that the roster has been built upon questions without answers.
5) It’s completely unnecessary in 2018.
For all of the talk about shuttling players to and from Memphis, the desire to rely on bullpen arms to help limit the innings of young starters, and the “flexibility” an 8-man bullpen provides, it’s so unlikely that the Cardinals will ever find themselves in a situation in which they’re regularly short on pitching. Sure, you might come across that odd 16-inning game in which a position player has to pitch, but those are the exception, not the rule.
In all likelihood, the occasions in which the entire bullpen is taxed are the exact occasions in which the Memphis shuttle will be used! You don’t need both! If the St. Louis Cardinals organization has any strength, it’s pitching depth. If the starting five wear down, that’s what Jack Flaherty and John Gant are for. If the bullpen is gassed, well…the front office sure seem convinced that the organization’s young arms are better than anything on the market!
CONCLUSION: With a creative manager gifted with the Midas bullpen touch and a bench full of Ben Zobrists (or Yairo Munoz…es?), an 8-man bullpen could be a thing of beauty…an endless reservoir that refills itself. But with this club and this manager? Give me a full, 5-man bench every day of the week. Who knows, though? Maybe Mike Maddux will prove to be the answer. Until then…you’re behind the 8-ball.