Cardinals' bullpen overhaul could be undone without adding more right-handed options

If the Cardinals want their bullpen to remain a strength, reinforcements from the right-side are much needed.
St. Louis Cardinals v Philadelphia Phillies
St. Louis Cardinals v Philadelphia Phillies / Tim Nwachukwu/GettyImages
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The St. Louis Cardinals did an excellent job rebuilding their bullpen after their disastrous 2023 campaign. And yet, as is the case with bullpen construction every season, they still need to invest more assets into their relief core.

Bullpens seem to be the most volatile part of any club. Rarely do you see a bullpen mix last the entirety of a season, let alone stand firm for multiple seasons on end. The best bullpens in baseball are built by a combination of established veteran arms, buy-low candidates, young arms who have yet to prove anything at the Major League level, and of course, a whole lot of luck.

Yes, a lot of luck goes into this as well. Not in the sense that it is impossible to know who could be good options - part of the reason this bullpen overhaul has gone over so well is the kinds of arms the Cardinals targeted - but because you just never know when a reliever is going to have an off year, and injuries always seem to happen.

Going into the 2023 season, Ryan Helsley, JoJo Romero, and Giovanny Gallegos were all already a part of their bullpen mix. Since the 2023 trade deadline though, the Cardinals have added a variety of arms, many of who have played significant roles (or were at least supposed to this season).

Bullpen additions since July 2023

Games pitched

ERA

FIP

K%

BAA

Andrew Kittredge

27

2.88

3.34

25.5%

.229

John King

16

1.50

3.64

18.1%

.188

Ryan Fernandez

20

3.04

3.14

28%

.244

Nick Robertson

8

4.38

4.51

26.9%

.300

Riley O'Brien

1 game (landed on IL)

9.00

5.14

33.3%

.250

Keynan Middleton

IL all season

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A

Andrew Kittredge, John King, and Ryan Fernandez have been huge additions to this bullpen, while Riley O'Brien and Keynan Middleton have been unavailable due to injury. Even Nick Robertson, who the Cardinals acquired in the Tyler O'Neill trade, has been a viable middle innings option, but he too is now on the injured list.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the Cardinals' bullpen usage and whether they can sustain the amount of times they have to go to their "Big 3" of Helsley, Romero, and Kittredge. What Monday night's loss to the Houston Astros reiterated to me is their need to go out and add more right-handed options to this bullpen.

Let me briefly run down the string of events that led to the Cardinals blowing the lead in that game...

  1. First, the Cardinals were coming off a game on Sunday where Lance Lynn only went four innings and the game went to extra innings, meaning the Cardinals' bullpen had to cover six innings of work that evening. It's also worth noting that some bad errors by the Cardinals' defense that game contributed to Lynn's shorter outing.
  2. On Monday, Kyle Gibson was unable to cover six full innings. There was a chance for the Cardinals to use Matthew Liberatore in the sixth inning with Jon Singleton coming to the plate, but if they had gone to him, the Astros would have gone to Jose Abreu off the bench, and Liberatore has been really bad against right-handed hitters (more on that in a moment).
  3. Gibson walked Singleton, forcing Marmol to go to Kittredge with the bases loaded to get right-handed hitter Yainer Diaz out, and then had to do an up-down for St. Louis by coming back in during the seventh inning.
  4. Kittredge did his job in the seventh getting the first two hitters out and then causing Mauricio Dubon to hit a ground ball to Nolan Gorman...who proceeded to boot the ball and keep the inning going. Again, now Marmol had to go to JoJo Romero against Yordan Alvarez an inning early, and then Romero did an up-down as well to pitch the 8th.
  5. Marmol could have brought in Leahy, Loutos, or Liberatore to pitch the 8th, but none of those options made sense over Romero. Romero has been excellent this year, Liberatore is bad against those right-handed hitters, and that feels like a massive spot for Leahy or Loutos to come in. Marmol kept Romero in the game, and unfortunately, he blew the lead.

Let's dive into the numbers a bit. Right now, you feel good any time they go to Helsley, Kittredge, or Fernandez from the right side, but after that, things get dicey. Here is how the Cardinals bullpen has faired against both RHH and LHH this season.

Reliever

BAA vs. RH

BAA vs. LH

Ryan Helsley (R)

.286

.188

Andrew Kittredge (R)

.169

.324

Ryan Fernandez (R)

.259

.229

Giovanny Gallegos (R)

.346

.333

Kyle Leahy (R)

.212

.250

Nick Robertson (R)

.250

.381

Chris Roycroft (R)

.214

.400

JoJo Romero (L)

.229

.162

John King (L)

.182

.212

Matthew Liberatore (L)

.270

.107

As things currently stand, you like your chances with Helsley, Kittredge, Fernandez, Romero, and King on the mound against a right-handed hitter. Leahy and Roycroft have encouraging numbers there, but I don't think either guy has earned enough trust yet to be counted on in a high-leverage spot.

Facing left-handed hitters though, the Cardinals' bullpen is dominant. Romero, King, and Liberatore have been virtually unhittable when facing left-handed hitters, and both Ryan Helsley and Ryan Fernandez have had good reverse splits.

The Cardinals need to add right-handed relievers to their bullpen to avoid overuse of their best arms and to stay in contention

Sure, the Cardinals can hope that Middleton, Gallegos, Robertson, or O'Brien come back and fill some of the voids they have in their bullpen, but there is no guarantee that they do, and what happens if more arms in their bullpen go down with injuries? Maybe Leahy, Roycroft, or Ryan Loutos can take on bigger roles, but again, I'm not sure that is the bet you want to take. I'm not at all saying those guys can't rise to the occasion, but that is a lot of hoping for my liking.

The Cardinals would be wise to try and add another right-handed reliever as soon as possible. That would at least buy them time until the deadline to see if they need to add more to their mix or like their depth, but this bullpen could quickly go from a strength to a weakness if more injuries occur.

Frankly, fans are right to be concerned about the usage of Helsley, Romero, and Kittredge as well., I don't blame manager Oli Marmol for going to them frequently, but I do have a problem with the front office not bringing in more reinforcements soon. I understand them waiting for Middleton, O'Brien, Gallegos, and now Robertson before, but there continues to be way too much uncertainty there, and it feels like it's time to bring in another right-handed arm to take the pressure off of the Cardinals' best bullpen arms.

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