Bullpen Is An Issue
Coming into the season, I felt one of the strongest areas the team had was in the bullpen. Going back to last season, the Cardinals added some nice pieces midseason in Luis Garcia, TJ McFarland, Wade LeBlanc, and Justin Miller. Only McFarland remained from that group entering the season. McFarland was arguably our best reliever in the final stretch of the season and that's why the Cardinals re-signed him to a 1 year, $2.5M deal with an additional $500K with incentives.
With McFarland's emergence at the end of the season, to go along with Giovanny Gallegos, Genesis Cabrera, I felt the Cardinals would have a formidable back 3 of the bullpen. Gallegos was and has been one of the better relievers in the game. When asked, he has been able to save games or be the 8th inning set up guy. For the better part of 2021, he was the setup to Alex Reyes, who is likely out for the entire season due to injury. Cabrera has been up and down the past few seasons but has been a guy you can count on for the most part.
Not only did they re-sign McFarland, they also signed a few free agent relievers. Nick Wittgren, Drew VerHagen, Aaron Brooks, Packy Naughton, Zach McAllister, & Blake Parker were all brought into the organization with McAllister & Parker signing minor league deals. Wittgren, VerHagen & Brooks all made the team out of Spring Training while Naughton, McAllister, & Parker were optioned or assigned to Memphis.
With the free agent additions, I expected young guys like Ryan Helsley, Junior Fernandez, Kodi Whitley, Angel Rondon all to step up and take a big role. As the season opened, the bullpen consisted of Gallegos, Cabrera, McFarland, Brooks, Wittgren, Helsley, VerHagen, Whitley, Jake Woodford, & Andre Pallante. Pallante was a guy many were surprised to see but he did extremely well in Spring Training and certainly earned that spot. As for Woodford, I anticipated him piggybacking Jordan Hicks. Hicks was being stretched out from a reliever back to a starter, which was his role throughout the minor leagues. I came into it thinking Hicks will likely throw 2-3 innings to start, and then you could have Woodford come in for 3-4 innings, leaving McFarland, Cabrera, & Gallegos to finish it out.
Oli Marmol, I feel severely mismanaged Hicks and the relievers following him. Not necessarily Hicks himself, moreso who came in relief. Hicks would only go 2-3 innings to begin, but only made it to the 5th twice and only once finished it. Marmol would then make it a bullpen game the rest of the way, which has now strained the bullpen. I think if you would have gone with my example of Hicks then Woodford, that would have been a much better route to go with since many of the relievers Marmol chose to use would only pitch 1, maybe 2 innings. A good example of this would be to look at how the Boston Red Sox have used Rich Hill & Tanner Houck. A slightly different circumstance, but they want to keep both Hill and Houck fresh. Hill only goes a few innings but then they bring in Houck after him. They have done this mulitple times with success. However, after hearing Marmol's blunt comments about Woodford, I'm not all surprised they didn't go this route.
So how have the relievers done this year? Well, Brooks has already been DFA'd off the 40 man roster after the rosters shrunk from 28 to 26 after earning a 7.11 ERA, allowing 11 hits, 8 earned runs, 3 home runs in 9.1 innings in 5 appearances. Brooks is now pitching in AAA, but hasn't improved much. Joining Brooks in Memphis is Whitley after posting an ERA north of 5 and a half. McFarland has done a complete 180. He currently has an 8.18 ERA and as that would suggest, he has been much more hittable. His hit rate has nearly doubled, his walk rate & home run rate has both increased by a point, but his K rate is also up nearly a point as well. It's getting to the point where they need to DFA him. VerHagen has been decent at best but has given the Cardinals innings.
Wittgren was expected to do well given his high groundball rate with the stellar defense behind him. His groundball rate has declined a touch, but his walk rate is what's hurting him most. Another thing going for Wittgren is that he is in the top 10 in the NL for inherited runners scored percentage as only 5 out of 20 inherited runners have scored. I would still like to see that number improve though. Wittgren I think has a chance to really bounce back and be a solid contibuting reliever and I believe Marmol is going to give him a chance to prove it since he is leading the team with 24 appearances.
Marmol seemily only trusts 4 relievers right now: Gallegos, Cabrera, Helsley, & Pallante. Each have seen 18-21 appearances. Helsley has been the Cardinals best reliever and it's much welcomed. I wouldn't say it's a surprise because he's shown this capability before. A major strength for him has been the inherited runners. Of the 11 runners he's inherited, he has only allowed 1 to score, which not only helps him and the Cardinals overall, it also helps the previous pitcher's ERA as any inherited runner that scores gets charged to the previous pitcher. Gallegos has been up and down himself, already blowing 3 saves but he has been heavily relied upon the past few seasons. The bane with Cabrera has been his control. That has seemily been improved this season, but many fans have a hard time trusting him. After not pitching in nearly a week, Cabrera threw 4 innings Sunday night against the Cubs. You can certainly count on him for more than an inning whenever he throws but I hope this isn't an indication that he could make a couple starts before Jack Flaherty returns. Pallante has seemily come out of nowhere. He wasn't a top 10 prospect entering the season, but he was a top 20. No one really expected him to come in and do this well. He is one that has quickly earned the trust from Maddux and Marmol.
Where do they go from here? Referring back to the Rick Hummel article (linked earlier), Marmol stressed that other relievers need to get outs. The game Wednesday night in Tampa did not feature one of our best 4 relievers. It was a bullpen game as this was the spot Hicks was in that Naughton has seemily "taken over". Can you name the only pitcher from Wednesday that did not allow a run? Yadier Molina. That's not a typo. This is the 3rd time this season the Cardinals have used a position player to pitch late in the game (Yadi twice and Pujols once). That can't happen anymore. The relievers outside of Gallegos, Cabrera, Helsley, & Pallante have to get something done.
The Cardinals are likely going to put Jordan Hicks back in the bullpen when he returns, which should give them much needed help. His repertoire is better fit for the bullpen anyways. Once he returns, it will give Marmol 5 guys to really turn to. I think he's going to conitnue to use Wittgren in lower leverage situations, but if he is giving the other 4 a day off, Wittgren will be the high leverage guy.
Should they go out and add someone? We are now approaching the middle of June, which means the trade deadline is just around the corner (Aug. 2). It seems like Mozeliak and company always add an arm or two at the deadline, but it seems like this year, it would be a higher priority given the current struggles. Some guys they might look at would be Josh Staumont (Royals), Michael Fulmer (Tigers), Jorge Lopez (Orioles), Daniel Bard (Rockies), or the duo in the desert of Mark Melancon & Ian Kennedy (both Diamondbacks). Each of those guys I mentioned are in the back end of their team's bullpen, but would likely be used in the mid-late innings.
Sure, right now, we're in a bit of a rut with the pen. I do think there is still the chance that it can be a strong point if we add one of the mentioned trade pieces, along with getting Hicks back and if Wittgren turns it around, the Cardinals bullpen could be a force to reckon with come playoff time. A lot of ifs, but the potential is there. Their big 4 relievers have been solid, but then the question is raised, what happens if those 4 start to falter. If that happens, you can kiss any playoff hopes goodbye. Time is ticking. The time to fix the issue is now.