A refresher on the Memphis shuttle: Why the Cardinals are rotating bullpen arms

Why are the Cardinals sending arms up and down from Memphis so often? Here is a reminder of why the "Memphis Shuttle" is prominent this time of year.
Jun 29, 2024; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Gordon Graceffo (67) makes his MLB Debut throwing against the Cincinnati Reds during the fifth inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Le-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 29, 2024; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Gordon Graceffo (67) makes his MLB Debut throwing against the Cincinnati Reds during the fifth inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Le-USA TODAY Sports / Jeff Le-USA TODAY Sports

St. Louis Cardinals fans got to witness the long-awaited debut of right-handed pitching prospect Gordon Graceffo on Saturday afternoon, and he looked really good in the process. His change-up was a real weapon and he upped his usage of it against right-handed batters, and he was ultimately able to cover 4.1 innings for a depleted Cardinals bullpen after a short start from Sonny Gray. I'm sure you were thinking to yourself, "Man, I can't wait to watch him pitch aga-"

Gordon Graceffo has been optioned back to Memphis.

I've seen a lot of Cardinals fans puzzled about that decision - if performance dictates who stays and who goes, how do you send down the kid who impressed us in his first-ever showing?

Let's do a brief crash course regarding the iconic "Memphis Shuttle" and how the Cardinals utilize some of their arms this time of year.

The Memphis Shuttle and MLB's rules regarding optioning pitchers

As much as fans may think the Cardinals just blindly make roster moves as they did on Sunday, there is a reason they have been shuffling the arms in their bullpen in recent weeks.

If you look at the month of June, the Cardinals started off the month by playing ten games in ten days, followed by another ten games in ten days stretch that ended with the Rickwood Field game, and are now in the midst of playing eighteen games in nineteen days, and the lone day off they have being a travel day to Pittsburgh. They also had to mix a doubleheader in during this stretch due to a rainout in the Braves series.

The Cardinals rotation has been much improved this year, but over the last month, they've been getting more of those short starts that really put pressure on the bullpen not only for that game but for the days to follow. While St. Louis could try to navigate this eighteen-game stretch by throwing out the same arms every game, they have opted to take advantage of Major League Baseball's option rules, which I'll explain here.

How options work

Every player on a 40-man roster is given three minor league "option" years, which basically means that if the player is optioned to the minor leagues, an option is burned. This game only happens for three seasons, and then if it happens in a fourth season, the player must pass through waivers in order to be optioned down to the minor leagues.

Here is where I think a lot of people get confused. A club only burns one option year per season, so if a player is recalled and sent down multiple times in a season, it only counts as one option. Now, there is a limit to how many times you can do that over a course of a season, as players can only be optioned five times before it requires passing them through waivers in that same season. Now, once a player is optioned to the minor leagues, they must remain there for 15 days if they are a pitcher or 10 days if they are a position player, unless a Major League player is placed on the IL and then they can be recalled immediately to replace them.

Why does this matter? Let's use Gordon Graceffo as an example. The Cardinals knew their bullpen was thin, so they called up Graceffo and placed him on the 40-man roster in case they needed length out of him. On Saturday, Gray could only cover 4.1 innings, and after King failed to shut down the Reds' rally, Graceffo was used for 4.1 innings as well, throwing 67 pitches in the process. Chances are, Graceffo is going to be unavailable for the next three games at least, maybe even four. For a bullpen that is already taxed, losing an arm for that long is painful.

Where the "Memphis Shuttle" comes in

You may remember seeing this more in past years before the rules changed, but the "Memphis Shuttle" got its name for how often certain players each season would go back and forth from Memphis to St. Louis and back to Memphis during a season. During 2018, 18 players were called up from Memphis over the course of the season, and that number was at 22 during the 2017 season. Now with the amount of time a player has to remain in the minor leagues after being optioned, it is not utilized to the same extent, but the Memphis Shuttle is still a very real thing.

So, using Graceffo as the case study again here, instead of him sitting on the roster and not being able to be used for three to four days, the Cardinals were able to option him back down to Memphis and replace him with reliever Jacob Bosiokovic. Graceffo's ability to cover 4.1 innings helped save other arms in the Cardinals' bullpen which was huge for the club, and now they have a reinforcement over the coming games in case they need him in Bosiokovic.

Guess what? If Bosiokovic is used in some games coming up, the Cardinals could option him to Memphis and call up a player on their 40-man roster like Nick Robertson, Sem Robberse, or Zack Thompson to replace him, or they can add another player to their 40-man roster to replace Bosiokovic.

What about some other names we have seen who've been optioned recently? When can they return?

On July 4th, Ryan Loutos can return.
On July 6th, Adam Kloffenstein can return.
On July 12th, Chris Roycroft can return.
On July 13th, Kyle Leahy can return.
On July 15th, Gordon Graceffo can return

Chances are, we will see most of those guys back with the Cardinals at some point this season, and maybe they end up sticking around for a while.

Now, it's also important to remember that guys like Giovanny Gallegos, Andrew Kittredge, and JoJo Romero cannot be optioned without passing through waivers. Ryan Fernandez also cannot be optioned as he is a Rule 5 pick and must remain on the roster the whole season. Matthew Liberatore and John King both only have one option year remaining, so if the Cardinals were to option them this year, they cannot option them in future years without passing them through waivers, so the spot in the bullpen that is going to be cycled through consistently is that fifth spot.

In the case of someone like Gallegos, it is fair to question if the Cardinals should roster him or just move on at this point, and I do think they'll be forced to make a decision on him soon if his play does not rebound. Having someone fill a mop-up role or low-leverage role with no option years is tough on a bullpen, so Gallegos needs to perform like one of their top arms to remain around the whole season.

If an injury were to pop up with anyone in the bullpen, which it will at some point, any of those names I mentioned can come back immediately to cover innings.

There has been a lot of talk about how much the Cardinals use their high-leverage arms. If they want to be able to give them more rest, then the other guys in the bullpen need to be available. They cannot afford to have the 7th or 8th man in their bullpen be unavailable for long stretches and not end up throwing their high-leverage arms more than we would want them to.

Now, this isn't to say you have to agree with who the Cardinals send down and call up, but the methodology behind the Memphis Shuttle makes a lot of sense for a team playing as many games as it has recently, so hopefully this helps make sense of some of the moves you have seen and will be seeing.