Cardinals: Identifying Offseason Needs – Relief Pitching

Apr 29, 2019; Washington, DC, USA; St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Giovanny Gallegos (65) throws the ball against the Washington Nationals during the seventh inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

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As we move into the offseason, it’s time to look at what comes next for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Over the next few days, I will review all aspects of the roster that the team will be carrying into the offseason — who is leaving, who is returning, who is ascending from the minor leagues — and try to identify the true needs for the team. Of course, my takeaway will be my own opinion, but hopefully the breakdowns will be informative and allow you to form your own.

Yesterday I looked into the Starting Rotation, today I make the call to the Bullpen.

2019 Summary

Much like the rotation, the bullpen proved to be a strength in 2019. The 3.88 ERA from the relievers ranked 3rd in the NL and 6th in baseball. Their 52 saves led all of baseball. In the NL, they had the 2nd highest K%, 2nd lowest WHIP, lowest opponent batting average, and 4th highest Win Probability Added — as a few highlights. Believe it or not, despite Andrew Miller’s 11 bombs, they allowed the fewest homeruns of any relief corps in baseball.

In short, not much really went wrong with the bullpen in 2019. Jordan Hicks was lost to elbow surgery, but was replaced by Carlos Martinez — who collected 24 saves in 27 chances, being as efficient as a close can be in that regard. The one knock I had most of the season was that they could do better than Tyler Webb as the 2nd lefty. Webb then went off and posted a 2.92 ERA and held opponents to a .119 average in the 2nd half, proving that even he wasn’t an issue.

Moving into 2020

Healthy Returns: Righties: John Brebbia, Junior Fernandez, Giovanny Gallegos, John Gant, Ryan Helsley, Dominic Leone, Mike Mayers

Healthy Returns: Lefties: Andrew Miller, Tyler Webb, Genesis Cabrera

Injury Returns: Jordan Hicks (2nd Half), Brett Cecil

Free Agents: None (Though Dominic Leone & Mike Mayers are candidates to be non-tendered)

Other Internal Options: Daniel Ponce de Leon, Austin Gomber, Alex Reyes, Carlos Martinez, Jake Woodford, Connor Jones, Angel Rondon, Kodi Whitley, Roel Ramirez, Seth Elledge


The team brings back the same group that made up one of baseball’s most effective bullpens in 2019, so the foundation is there to be good again, though I will warn that relief pitching is extremely volatile. A good season from a reliever in 2019 does not mean he will repeat in 2020. However, the options are plentiful if a few relievers do regress.

Aug 20, 2019; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Ryan Helsley (56) gets his sign as he pitches during the fifth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Helsley is an ascending pitcher who looked great in the playoffs. Fernandez had a couple bad outings at bad times, but was mostly good with electric stuff. Cabrera has the potential to be a dominant lefty. Brebbia and Gallegos should both continue to be good. Miller is fine. Personally, I think Ponce de Leon’s stuff would play up as a reliever. All of this before we get into the minor league arms that could ascend in spring training. A name to watch is Kodi Whitley, who dominated across three levels of the minor leagues in 2019 while posting a 1.60 ERA in 50 games overall.

Of course, there will be the last ride of Brett Cecil. If he is good then it’s a bonus. If he is bad then he will likely be released and irrelevant.

The only question revolves around the closer. We know that Hicks is out for at least half the year, and his effectiveness and command upon returning remains to be seen. Carlos Martinez — based on things said in the past and the money remaining on his contract — will go to Spring Training with the opportunity to prove he can be a starting pitcher again. So who closes? Going into spring, you may consider Gallegos as the default, or a tandem of him and Miller. Ryan Helsley has the stuff to push into that role as well. I believe the Cardinals have enough to make a closer, rather than buy a closer.

Adding to the bullpen would be a luxury, but it does not need to be done.

It’s always worth looking around for some bargain relievers — especially ones that can be brought in on minor league deals — but there is no need for the Cardinals to pump money into relievers this winter. They have spent heavily in this market over the last few years on Cecil, Gregerson, Holland, and Miller. Only Miller — and he’s not what he once was — looks to be even reasonably close to worth the money.

A couple free agent relievers returning from injury that could be interesting at the right price would be Arodys Vizcaino, Brandon Morrow, or Dellin Betances. Morrow’s age and injury history could force him into a minor league deal, or a really cheap major league deal.

I would be reluctant to guarantee a bullpen spot to any free agent signing, so a minor league deal would be my target. Despite the injuries, Vizcaino and Betances will likely get guaranteed contracts.

What I Think They SHOULD Do:

Let the kids eat.

Check the market for an experienced reliever/closer trying to rebound, but don’t lock up a bullpen spot on an average veteran reliever.

What I Think They WILL Do:

Let the kids eat.

They may explore a Bud Norris type of deal — keep an eye on Sergio Romo — in order to have a fallback closer option at a low cost. I wouldn’t expect much beyond that, as they have a lot of upside in their reliever pool and a chance to have a very flexible bullpen.


Offseason Need: None

No hot takes here. Based on what they did this past season and some of the pitchers I see on the cusp of the big leagues, I think there is plenty in-house to build a strong bullpen. The closer question will be intriguing, but those tend to emerge organically more than they are pre-determined. There are several candidates in this group.

Unlike recent years, there is no pressing need in this area. That’s probably a good thing with the poor success rate of free agent relievers.

Thanks for reading.

Thanks to FanGraphs for the stats, Spotrac for the free agent tracker.

Check Out The Rest of this Series:
Starting Pitching
Catchers – November 2nd
Infielders – November 3rd
Outfielders – November 4th

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