While the St. Louis Cardinals offense has been hit-and-miss this season, the bullpen has been mostly miss — or mostly hit, if you’re the opponent — and has proven to be the true Achilles heel of the team. Some pruning and improving could surely occur on the right-hand side, such as relieving Greg Holland of his duties. But there are at least a few somewhat reliable arms there, beyond Jordan Hicks and Bud Norris. Where the trouble really persists is with the lefties. This is certainly an area that they must address if they truly intend to remain in the playoff picture. With the deadline approaching, a trade is clearly one route they can take. However, it is not the only way to go. Internal options have emerged.
The Current Tandem
It comes as no surprise that Brett Cecil is having a tough year. After signing a 4-year, $30M contract prior to 2017, he has been a disappointment. He managed to be good enough most of the time in 2017 and posted solid enough numbers. But when he was bad, he was really bad. That trend has continued in 2018. Consider that from June 20th to July 14th, he threw 11 innings, allowing just 1 run and an opponent batting average of .184. Then he gave up 6 runs in .2 innings, across 2 appearances, against the Cubs. 17 of his 27 appearances are with the team trailing and 5 when ahead by 4 or more. Only 5 of 27 have been with the game tied or the Cardinals leading by 2 or less. He simply can’t be trusted. He has more walks than strikeouts and is getting hit hard by RH batters, at a .346/.469/.580 clip. He is also not successful enough against lefties — especially for a team lacking a reliable specialist — allowing a .256 average and .347 OBP. Outside the numbers, his body language on the mound does not show us a confident pitcher. All this to say, he is expendable. He won’t be easy to move and his value is minimal, but the Cardinals need to get out from under his contract.
Tyler Lyons was a breakout stud in 2017, but as so often happens with volatile relief pitching, he has found little to no success in the following campaign. He has had multiple stints on the DL and may not be completely healthy. However, he says he is and his lack of minor league options means the Cardinals must keep him on the big league roster or risk losing him. With a 8.64 ERA this season, it is probably time to take that risk. I understand that he is player that is still under team control for 2 more seasons, and that his 16.2 innings pitched is a small sample size, but it has been ugly. RH batters are mashing him at a .357/.394/.714 rate, and he isn’t getting lefties either, with an opponent slash line of .333/.429/.476. Woof. At best, he slips through waivers. At worst, you get a low-level prospect in return. Either way, change is due.
The Internal Options
Spending prospects on a rental LHP doesn’t make much sense for the Cardinals. With the 2018 club teetering between contender and pretender, they would need to target a pitcher that would at least be around for 2019, as well. Those are hard to find and more expensive to acquire. My colleague Graham Jacobi will be diving in to potential RP trade targets in an upcoming piece, so I’ll leave that to him. What I’m here to talk about are the options the Cardinals can turn to without trading a single prospect.
Austin Gomber: Fresh off carrying a no-hitter into the 7th inning, we can see how his stuff plays better as a starter than a reliever. We’ve seen him make 15 relief appearances with middling success, allowing a far too high .360/.467/.625 line vs. LH batters. This is bound to to correct for a pitcher with a good curveball. He also returned from Memphis sporting a cutter/slider that he was tasked with learning upon his demotion. Even as a show pitch, the new wrinkle could prove to be a different maker in a relief role. Personally, I would prefer he remain as starter — either in St. Louis or Memphis — and have the Cardinals turn to other options, but I do expect for him to get another run in the bullpen before the season ends, possibly before the week ends.
Tyler Webb: The Cardinals claimed Webb off of waivers on June 29th, after he was DFA’d by the Padres. He hasn’t had any success in MLB cameos, sporting an 8.31 career ERA, but he has also only pitched 13 innings over two seasons. Meanwhile at the AAA level he has been dynamite. Through 33.1 IP, he has a sparkling 1.35 ERA with a rate of 11.1 K/9. The only concerning number is that lefties have hit .314 against him this year. However, it could be a small sample outlier as, prior to this year, lefties hit .217 or worse against him in 4 of his 5 minor league seasons. Similar to Lyons, he is a player out of minor league options, but Webb is still under team control for 5 more seasons. Already being on the 40-man roster, he is sure to get a look in September. If they choose to clear the current lefties from the 25-man roster within the next few weeks, he should be on his way to St. Louis.
Tommy Layne: Who? I know, right? Just stay with me. As soon as the Cardinals bite the bullet and eat Cecil’s remaining contract (fingers crossed), this is the first internal option that the team should turn to over Gomber and Webb. The Cardinals signed Layne to a minor league deal in mid-June, after he had sat out the first few months rehabbing an injury. Layne is a proven major league LHP, with a solid track record. In 149.2 major league innings since 2012, he has a 3.61 ERA. The biggest concern with him is a high walk rate which sits at 4.3 BB/9 for his career. However, his platoon splits are very encouraging, holding left-handers to a slash line of .187/.286/.230, in his career, and RH to a .286 average, high but acceptable for a lefty specialist. Since signing, he has thrown 13.1 innings in the Cardinals system, allowing 0 ER and striking out 20 against just 1 walk. He is a super intriguing, veteran option for a team that badly needs help from the left side. He would also remain under team control for 2 more seasons.
The Cardinals have to address this area. The best route may prove to be through trades, but there are certainly 3 intriguing in-house options to take a look at. They can’t be any worse than what we’ve had…right?
To check out my thoughts on the Right-Handers, click here.