Risky trade with Rays hopes to stabilize Cardinals bullpen

Hoping to put a poor 2023 firmly in the rearview mirror, John Mozeliak and the St. Louis Cardinals pulled off an aggressive trade they're hoping will pay dividends in 2024.
St. Louis Cardinals v Miami Marlins
St. Louis Cardinals v Miami Marlins / Rich Storry/GettyImages

With the first week of spring training games coming to a close, we’ve now gotten a look at the St. Louis Cardinals' re-worked roster for 2024. While the position player group should be largely the same as last year, outside of the addition of backup shortstop Brandon Crawford, the pitching group will look very different in both the rotation and the bullpen. While much has been made of the acquisitions of Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson, an underrated addition to the Cardinals pitching staff could be Andrew Kittredge. 

Acquired in the January 5th trade with the (gulp) Tampa Bay Rays that sent Richie Palacios to the Sunshine State, Kittredge is a very interesting option for the Cardinals bullpen in 2024. Kittredge’s last 4 seasons with Tampa Bay featured ERA’s of 2.25, 1.88, 3.15 and 3.09. In that time frame, Kittredge struck out 23.7% of batters while only walking a microscopic 4.8%, resulting in a well above average 18.9 K-BB%. 

Kittredge gets these results by utilizing a 3-pitch mix that consists of a sinker, a 4-seam fastball, and a slider. He'd also toyed with a changeup in the past but abandoned it after the 2020 season. The slider is his best pitch, eliciting whiffs 28% of the time and allowing a minuscule .174 batting average against, but his stuff is high quality across the board. While "stuff" is a hard thing to measure, The Athletic’s Eno Sarris’s (subscription required) Stuff+ attempts to do just that. It measures the physical characteristics of pitches (i.e. velocity, release point, vertical and horizontal movement, etc.) and puts them on a scale, where 100 is average and every point above or below 100 is equal to one percent better or worse, respectively, than league average.

Kittredge's Stuff+ of 118, or 18 percent better than league average, in 2023 would have ranked as the third best among Cardinals pitchers with at least 10 innings, behind only bullpen standouts Ryan Helsley (155) and Jordan Hicks (128). All three of Kittredge's pitches grade out as above average, with the four-seamer coming in at 112, the sinker at 111, and the slider at 124. Amongst the 2023 Cardinals, those numbers ranked as the third, second, and fourth-best individual pitches by Stuff+ on the team. With Hicks now pitching for the San Francisco Giants, Kittredge figures to have a chance to carve out a prominent role in the Cardinals bullpen alongside the aforementioned Helsley and 2023 standout JoJo Romero.

A pitcher who combines above-average stuff with the ability to consistently find the strike zone is certainly a valuable commodity to have in your bullpen. This may make you ask yourself why the Rays would consider trading him in the first place. That question can be answered in three parts.

First, the Rays always manage to find quality relief pitching seemingly out of nowhere - something the Cardinals are trying to recreate with the hire of Advisor to the President of Baseball Operations Chaim Bloom, a former Rays executive who was heavily involved in the development of the Rays pitching philosophy.

Secondly, the Cardinals paid a steep price to acquire Kittredge by sending breakout utilityman Richie Palacios and his 5 years of control in return, a move that could look lopsided if the Rays can work their magic on Palacios.

Finally, Kittredge comes to St. Louis on the heels of a 2022 Tommy John surgery that cost him the second half of his 2022 season and the majority of 2023. Although his previous success was enticing enough for POBO John Mozeliak to pull the trigger, Kittredge will have to prove that he can get both back to his pre-Tommy John performance, while also staying on the mound in 2024.

While there was certainly risk associated with the Cardinals' acquisition of Andrew Kittredge, it represents an aggressive gamble by the Cardinals' front office as part of an in-depth process to fix what was one of Major League Baseball’s worst pitching staffs in 2023. Whether that move pays off remains to be seen, but Kittredge certainly figures to be a player to watch in Jupiter this spring.