One of the things the St. Louis Cardinals have said they wanted to improve going into 2024 is their bullpen. They already have multiple arms they like in their current group, but they know it has room to grow if they want to be contenders in 2024. At the end of the day though, the success of their bullpen begins and ends with their flamethrower, Ryan Helsley.
Like almost every member of the Cardinals during the month of April, Helsley struggled to perform up to expectations, posting a 4.50 ERA and coming out as the losing pitcher in two games during that stretch. May was significantly better for him as he posted a 2.77 ERA in 13 innings of work, but it's his performance after returning from his injury that is most encouraging.
In his last 11 appearances of the 2023 season, Helsley had a 0.77 ERA with a 0.86 WHIP and 19 strikeouts in 11.2 innings of work. He pitched like the best reliever in baseball during that stretch and was proving that his performance in 2022 was not just a flash in the pan.
One of the main reasons the Cardinals' bullpen struggled so much in 2023 was the lack of innings the rotation was giving them. The bullpen was taxed far too much to remain fresh and impactful, and it made it very difficult for them to keep the Cardinals in ballgames. But the amount of time Helsley had to miss last year cannot be overlooked as well.
Being able to turn to Helsley for 55+ appearances in 2024 rather than the 33 they got in 2024 makes a huge difference for this bullpen. Helsley is virtually lights out whenever he's on the mound, almost ensuring a Cardinals victory or extending their chance to take the lead by another inning. Being able to turn to him out of the bullpen is not just a luxury in today's game, it's necessary to be a true contender.
Not only did they just miss his individual performances, but his presence will also allow them to deploy other arms in different spots. Whenever Helsley is available, Giovanny Gallegos, JoJo Romero, or any other high-leverage arms they bring in can slide into the 7th or 8th inning roles, and they can cover for Helsley on days he is unavailable. This then slides other names lower on the bullpen depth chart, creating depth that is needed for 162 games and strengthening the middle-inning roles as well.
By the second half of 2023, the Cardinals were deploying names like Casey Lawrence, James Naile, Jacob Barnes, Andrew Suarez, Ryan Tepera, Jake Woodford, and Kyle Leahy to cover innings for them out of the bullpen. That is not a winning formula, and the Cardinals have already gone out and made several lower-profile bullpen additions to create stronger depth for when injuries or rest days come into play. Even so, the Cardinals need a healthy Helsley if they want their bullpen to be a strength rather than a weakness in 2024.