The St. Louis Cardinals are still looking at different ways to tweak and tune the team before the 2019 season. What free agent bullpen options are still out there?
The St. Louis Cardinals pursued the market for both free agent lefties Andrew Miller and Zach Britton and were able to land Miller to a two year, $25M guaranteed contract in a much needed move to fortify their bullpen. After reportedly being in the market for Britton as well, he ended up signing a three year, $39M deal with an opt out and fourth year option with the Yankees.
In a poll on our Twitter account, 57% of voters thought that Britton’s deal was either too much money or too many years which I tend to agree with. That being said, the Cardinals continued interest in Britton even after acquiring Miller reveals that they are still very interested in upgrading their bullpen further. As they should be.
Last year, the Cardinals’ bullpen ranked 25th in the league while earning an abysmal 0.5 combined WAR on the year. Looking ahead to 2019, the current bullpen will feature eight of the following names: Andrew Miller, Jordan Hicks, Dakota Hudson, John Brebbia, Chasen Shreve, Dominic Leone, John Gant, Brett Cecil and at some point, Alex Reyes. This does not even count Austin Gomber, Daniel Ponce De Leone and Luke Gregerson who was out for most of 2018.
When looking at that list, there is a lot of potential, but as far as pitcher’s you trust as a staple, there’s probably only the first two in the list. So it makes a lot of sense to try and add another name that the Cardinals can give Mike Shildt to trust in the bullpen. As usual I’m not going to pretend to know the trade market so for this list, we are going to look at two of the remaining free agents who I think would fit the Cardinals bullpen.
Craig Kimbrel has been one of the most dominant closers in the league since he came up. Over the past three years, all he’s done is keep it up combining for 108 saves during that time. Acquire him, he’s your closer from day one. Since Kimbrel started saving games in 2010, his lowest number of saves in a single season is 31, and, for reference, Bud Norris saved 28 last year for the Cardinals. Kimbrel is the Cardinals best single ticket to becoming a super-bullpen team like the Yankees or Dodgers.
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After Scott Boras was reportedly seeking a six year deal for Kimbrel earlier in the offseason, the market for Kimbrel seems to have been pretty quiet according to Evan Drellich. Very surprising for arguably the most dominant closer in the league right now. At 30 years old, Kimbrel is in the prime of his career and even though his market is quiet right now, whoever signs him is still gonna have to pay a big ticket.
Adding Kimbrel would give the Cardinals a perfect 7th-8th-9th inning gauntlet of Hicks-Miller-Kimbrel. A possibly better option, play the seventh inning by ear and just let Andrew Miller be the firefighter who Shildt can save for when he’s in a pinch. That’s the role Miller played during his days in Cleveland and he has said that he doesn’t care about the specifics of his role with the club.
The Cardinals haven’t had a truly tenured and fortified closer since Trevor Rosenthal in 2015 when he saved 48 games. Since then, the closer position has been a revolving door between Rosenthal himself, Seung Hwan Oh and Norris. As I have mentioned before with the benefit of Miller, Kimbrel has appeared in postseason games in six seperate seasons.
With so many rookie pitchers on the team, having the depth of knowledge combined between Kimbrel and Miller about how to pitch in high leverage situations is not quantifiable. Especially if the Cardinals want mentors around for potential future closer Jordan Hicks. Pay the man.
Between Tony Sipp, Oliver Perez, and Luis Avilan, Avilan is the pitcher that I would sing. These three pitchers are the best remaining left handed pitchers based on WAR last year. Avilan is also only 29 while Sipp is 35 and Perez is 37, which I believe makes him the most attractive of the three. Will Smith from the Giants is a good trade candidate to watch in my opinion, but again, we are sticking to free agents only here.
Normally, it would be sensible to think the Cardinals wouldn’t be interested in another lefty after adding Miller to Chasen Shreve, Brett Cecil and Austin Gomber, but their continued interest Britton after getting Miller suggests they might still be looking. The Cardinals’ continued interest also could mean that if they signed another lefty, either Shreve or Cecil will get cut which is a move that has my vote every day of the week.
Last year, Avilan was solid pitching for both the White Sox and the Phillies finishing the year with a 3.77 ERA over 70 appearances. As a lefty specialist he only pitched 45.1 total innings in 2018 and has a career .581 OPS against lefties. Adding Avilan would give Shildt an intriguing option for what to do with Andrew Miller. Miller is loosely slated into that LOOGY role right now but bringing in a true LOOGY would allow him to be used as a situational bullet by Shildt. The value of which cannot be understated.
Chasen Shreve has a career LHB/RHB OPS of .746/.779 and Brett Cecil’s is .786/.674. Avilan presents a definite upgrade over both of them and is in the prime of his career as a 29-year-old. Avilan has never made more than $2.5M and would be a cheap option (maybe saving money to stomach cutting Cecil??).
Putting it all together
The St. Louis Cardinals have stated they want to add better strikeout pitchers after finishing 22nd in the MLB last year with an average of 8.31 K/9. Avilan and Kimbrel finished 2018 with a 10.1 and 13.9 K/9 respectively. In all reality, the Cardinals should probably make both of these moves and cut a couple of the dead weight pitchers that they have.
Year after year, it is proven that strikeout pitchers in the bullpen wins championships and last year was no different. The two lowest ranked K/9 teams that still made the playoffs, the Cubs and the A’s, were the first two teams eliminated. The two world series teams, the Dodgers and the Red Sox sat at numbers five and six in the strikeout rankings proving how correlated strikeouts and championships are.
In my opinion, the Cardinals should cut Cecil and Shreve and add in Avilan and Kimbrel. That is going to be way too expensive for what the Cardinals are willing to do, but from my arm chair that seems like the best way forward. A Miller-Hicks-Kimbrel back of the bullpen could take this team far and help the Cardinals join the ranks of dominant bullpens winning a team a World Series.