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Let's fix the bullpen

The Cards could improve their bullpen a lot by signing David Robertson to be their closer.

This is the 4th part of my series on remaking the Cardinals’ bullpen in 2019.

It’s clear that the current makeup of the Cardinals’ bullpen is simply unworkable. There are too many pressing needs and too few dependable arms currently employed by the organization. If you just look at the final 4 teams left in the postseason, 3 have really strong, deep bullpens and the other has a dominant offense, a dominant closer, and a dominant #1 starter. The Brewers’ run to the NLCS has been punctuated by more innings from their relievers than from their starters and if they plan to participate in their 2nd ever World Series, they’re going to need a lot more from their pen.

The 1st, most obvious need is a closer. The team tried to make do with the likes of Greg Holland, Bud Norris, and starter Carlos Martinez in the closer’s role in 2018. Holland has been excommunicated, Norris is a free agent, and presumably Martinez is headed back to the rotation where he belongs. In my 3rd part of this series, I outlined the relievers that the Cards can depend on in 2019 and the list just isn’t that long. Considering how poorly the bullpen has performed the last 2 years, I can’t see the powers-that-be turning to Jordan Hicks, John Brebbia, or Dominic Leone to close out games if they have other options.

Many will say that the team shouldn’t hand out “big money contract to relievers” and no one gets bigger money than closers but, unless we can see an obvious trade option for the Cardinals, the team has to be prepared to do exactly that. In fact, at this point, I would urge the Cardinals to make 3 free agent moves this offseason in order to rebuild the bullpen – add a closer, add a dependable lefty who can get other lefties out, and then add a righty for some depth behind the 3 righties I mentioned earlier.

As I pointed out in part 2 of this series, the most important peripheral statistic to look at when trying to determine a reliever’s effectiveness is his K-BB%. ERA, WAR, and WPA all matter, of course, but relievers who have low ERA’s and high WAR’s and WPA’s do so because they’re able to strike batters out and keep batters off base. No peripheral statistic measures a pitcher’s ability to do that better than K-BB%.

Right now, according to MLB Trade Rumors, there are approximately 45 free agent relievers who will be on the market this offseason. In looking around, I was able to discover 3 more, 2 of whom missed the entire 2018 season due to Tommy John surgery. About half of them unsurprisingly had a K-BB% above the 14% major league average K-BB%. Frankly, considering the fact that the Cards’ pen all season suffered from too few K’s and too many BB’s, the team shouldn’t be considering anyone who already suffers from that problem so that eliminates about half of these pitchers from consideration.

Some of the bigger names on this list of free agents include Craig Kimbrell, Andrew Miller, and Zach Britton. Former Cardinal Joe Kelly is on this list. For various reasons, I wouldn’t consider any of these 4 a realistic option for the Cardinals.

Kimbrell is the #1 name on the list and, as a result, will surely receive the largest contract. It wouldn’t surprise me if he got somewhere near $100 million. As great as he is and as much as the team needs a closer, the Cards can find a very good option for much less money which would allow them to save some for the hitter the team also desperately needs. Andrew Miller figures to get a ton of money as well and he actually slipped a little in 2018. He was still great, but I would allow someone else to pay him the money he’s likely to get. Zach Britton, for all the attention he’s gotten over the last couple of seasons, and despite the team’s need for a solid lefty, just doesn’t strike out enough batters anymore. His 20.1% K rate is the 9th lowest on this list. Joe Kelly, like Britton, just isn’t that good as he also had a below average K-BB% this past season. So as tempting as it will be to chase those 4 guys, I’d allow others to go after them.

So let’s find the team a closer.

As I noted earlier, I wouldn’t be inclined to pay the money that Kimbrell is going to receive and Britton doesn’t appear to be the same guy he was a couple of years ago. The team might decide to go with a guy who hasn’t been a closer before but I would guess that they’re going to go with someone with some experience in the role. There are 2 guys out there who are outstanding relievers and have some experience in the closer’s role. They are Joakim Soria, currently with the Brewers, and David Robertson of the Yankees.

Over the last 2 seasons, Robertson has struck out about a third of the batters he’s faced and his K-BB% in 2018 was 23% which is actually down from what it was in 2017. He was a closer for the Yankees in 2014 and for the White Sox in 2015 and 2016 before being traded back to the Yankees to set up for Aroldis Chapman. He’s never been known as one of the league’s best closers but he’s been an outstanding reliver for as long as he’s been in the league. In fact, he’s averaged more than a strikeout per inning every season he’s been in the majors. He’s tremendous.

Soria, too, has long been a great reliever and closer and has probably had his best 2 seasons in 2017 and 2018. Both seasons he’s had more than a 27% K rate and his K-BB% has been 19% and 23.1%, respectively. They both get lots of K’s, walk very few, and keep the ball in the yard. What more can you ask for from a closer?

There are a couple other guys with closing experience on the market – Kelvin Herrera, and A.J. Ramos – but I would avoid both of those guys. They’ve gotten saves before but don’t strike out near enough batters and so it’s difficult to count on them being very good going forward. I would estimate spending about $45 - $50 million over 3 years for either Robertson or Soria.

The next hole to fill is that of a strong lefty reliever. The team badly needs someone it can use to get Votto, Rizzo, and Yelich out in tough situations. Fortunately, there are several guys on the market who would fit the bill. They are Aaron Loup, Jake Diekman, Justin Wilson, and Tony Sipp.

All of these guys have a pretty solid history of success getting major league hitters out and all had a K-BB% last year that was better than major league average. Loup has been above 14% every year but one since 2015. Diekmann walks a few more than you’d like but he strikes out a ton of hitters with his filthy stuff as well. Wilson is another solid lefty with 4 straight years with a K-BB% greater than 14% and was frequently used by the Cubs over the last season and a third to get lefty batters out. Sipp probably has less of a track record than the other 3 – prior to last season he was just a serviceable guy – but in 2018 he increased his K-BB% from around 13% to over 19% and cut his homers from 8 to 1 mostly by throwing fewer sliders and more changeups. Any of these 4 lefties would substantially improve the team’s bullpen. I would estimate spending around $15 -20 million to add one of them.

The 3rd guy I would try and add would be a guy the team could add for a small salary and fit somewhere in for depth and there are lots of guys to consider. This is sort of the role I envisioned Bud Norris filling last season before he ended up being needed in the 9th. One of the guys I would consider for this role is…wait for it…Bud Norris. His K-BB% has been over 18% each of the last 2 seasons and it’s clear that, though he’s not really made for the closer’s role, he can be a solid depth guy.

Others I would consider include Shawn Kelley, who is an outstanding reliever who ended up being released by the Nats last season after a bad outing and what was perceived to be disrespecting manager Dave Martinez upon being pulled. He ended up with the A’s and did a great job there as well. Sergio Romo is just a really good righty who gets righties out year in and year out. He’s been around seemingly forever but he just keeps getting it done. Ryan Madson…same thing. He’s been outstanding each of the last 2 seasons. Adam Warren is an underrated guy that the Yankees sold to the Mariners because of their outstanding bullpen depth but he would surely be a solid middle innings guy for the Cardinals. Former Card Seung Hwan Oh was tremendous for the Jays and Rockies this past season after a lackluster 2017 for the Cards. He’s almost worth bringing back just for the great nicknames (The Final Boss; Stone Buddha…I can’t decide which I like more!).

In addition to those guys, there are 3 other guys returning from injury who should be considered. One is Tony Barnette, an outstanding reliever from the Rangers who had to be shut down late in 2018 with shoulder issues. He was set to become a free agent and so his injury was particularly unfortunate. I have no idea if he’ll be healthy. It’s possible he’ll have to end up accepting a minor league deal or might end up having to sit it out entirely. But the Cards should definitely check out his medicals and, if he appears healthy, bring him in. He’s good.

Two others the Cards should consider signing are 2 guys returning from Tommy John surgery. The first is David Phelps, a guy who’s been a solid, if unspectacular, reliever for the Marlins and Mariners and should be ready to pitch in the spring. The other is former Cardinal closer Trevor Rosenthal. I wouldn’t sign him to be the team’s closer but I would really like the team to try and bring him in with the possibility of him becoming an 8th-inning guy if he shows he’s healthy and pitches well.

Some may say that the team shouldn’t be spending money to bring in 3 free agent relievers. Maybe if the team can add 1 or more through trade they’re right but it’s clear that the team needs to be aggressive this winter in finding some solutions for a piece of the team that has been awful for 2 seasons. It’s fair to say that the team’s bullpen issues definitely cost the team a playoff spot in 2018. Serious changes must be made.

Stats come courtesy of Fangraphs.

Thanks to @cardinalsgifs for the fantastic David Robertson cover pic.

Thanks to all of you for reading.

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