Heading into the 2022 season and what is certain to be a shorter Spring Training, the St. Louis Cardinals in (my opinion) should entertain a “closer by committee” philosophy for their bullpen.
By definition, a closer by committee is a situation which a team does not have a designated closer to handle the work of finishing out victories in the 9th inning (especially in a save situation), but instead turn to a variety of relievers who are given the chance to do the job in turn, according to the circumstances.
While the Cardinals currently have guys that have slotted into that role in the past, I think it could be beneficial if they didn’t solely rely on the same arm constantly. I understand having some sort of set role for bullpen arms, but the beauty of a bullpen is that it doesn’t always need to be the same guy getting the ball in the 7th, the 8th, or the 9th. Yes, a closer needs that mindset and confidence to be able to finish off games in high leverage/pressure situations, but wouldn’t it be possible to share that duty and potentially alleviate some of that pressure?
We’ve witnessed in the past, some relievers being gone to too often. The running jokes of how Mike Matheny would have Matt Bowman pitching 8 days a week, or Mike Shildt going to Tyler Webb in a similar fashion, always seemed to turn fans off and burn out those arms.
The Cardinals have had a history of closer success (Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith, Todd Worrell, Jason Isringhausen) and they’ve had stints where the likes of Trevor Rosenthal and Jason Motte thrived in the role, but when you look at the franchise history of the closer role, only 5 pitchers amassed over 100 saves in a Cardinal uniform.
That doesn’t mean having an elite closer isn’t a luxury, but long-term… is that one arm a necessity?
Here’s a look at some of the candidates that the Cardinals could use in that role in 2022.
Alex Reyes -
The 27-year old starter-turned-reliever was once one of the Cardinals top prospects. In 2016 when he got his first taste of the big leagues, Reyes posted a 4-1 W/L record with a 1.57 ERA striking out 52 and walking 23 in 46 innings (12 games that included 5 starts).
Just as pitchers and catchers were reporting for Spring Training in 2017, Reyes was diagnosed with a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing arm which would ultimately lead to season ending Tommy John surgery.
Alex began the 2018 season rehabbing between Springfield & Memphis and once activated from the 60-day DL, pitched 4 scoreless innings and left the game with what was thought to be a lat strain. A week later, he underwent surgery for a torn tendon in his lat muscle which in turn ended his season.
2019 was another rehab-type of season for Reyes. While he did begin the season in the Cardinals bullpen, he only appeared in 4 games (3 innings) giving up 5 runs & 6 walks. He was optioned to Memphis on April 7th and went on to pitch for both the Cardinals high A and Triple A affiliates to a tune of 1-4 with a 6.03 ERA in 12 games (9 starts).
The pandemic-shortened 2020 season, saw Reyes getting acclimated into the bullpen. He did get 1 start, but appeared in a total of 15 games for St. Louis (19.2 innings) going 2-1 with a 3.20 ERA and 27 strikeouts/14 walks.
Due to a Jordan Hicks injury, Reyes was named the Cardinals closer going into the 2021 season. He took that role and ran with it, pitching to an incredible 1.12 ERA and 20 saves before being named to the National League All-Star team. He set an MLB record for recording 24 consecutive saves to begin a career. While the first half ERA was 1.52, his walk rate was a concerning 18.2% but was masked by his 30.7% strikeout rate. The second half of the season is where Reyes began to fade.
He finished the second half going 5-5 with a 5.52 ERA over 31 innings and was ultimately removed from the role of closer. Reyes had said in interviews that he still had a desire to be a starter, and at times it looked like when Mike Shildt called upon Reyes to warm up, that he was gassed. Only Reyes can speak to his mindset, but it just seemed as if the confidence he had early on had waned.
With Reyes still having aspirations to start and the Cardinals having their rotation pretty much set, Oliver Marmol will have to decide if Alex is more valuable in a flexible bullpen role, or if naming him closer in hopes of a repeated first half of last season is the most beneficial.
Jordan Hicks -
Hicks was drafted by the Cardinals in the 3rd round of the 2015 draft. He made his professional debut at the low levels during the 2016 season posting a 2.97 ERA and 6-2 record in 12 starts
In 2017 he pitched between Peoria & Palm Beach going 8-3 with a 2.74 ERA striking out 95 batters in 105 innings pitched over 19 starts. His fastball was garnering attention, as he was hitting over 100 mph even into the Arizona Fall League at seasons end.
Hicks was a non-roster invitee to the Cardinals 2018 Spring Training even though he had not pitched past A-ball. His rookie campaign that season ended in a 3-4 record, a 3.59 ERA, 70 strikeouts in 77 2/3 innings, 6 saves and threw the fastest recorded pitch in MLB history at 105.1 mph.
The following season, Hicks started the year as the team’s closer. After averaging over 100 mph per fastball thrown, Jordan would wind up sidelined with a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament (an injury similar to Reyes) and ended his season with Tommy John surgery. He was 2-2 on the season with a 3.14 ERA, with 14 saves. He struck out 31 batters in 28 1/3 innings.
Hicks decided against playing the 2020 season due to being a Type-1 diabetic, during the Covid-19 pandemic.
2021 was yet another setback for Hicks, as he only appeared in 10 games (10 innings) for St. Louis. Due to elbow inflammation he was transferred to the 60-day IL and didn’t make another appearance for the Cardinals last season.
St. Louis hopes that 2022 can be a season that Hicks bounces back and can contribute, be it in a multi-inning relief role or setup. But if an opportunity presents itself, he may occasionally see a save opportunity.
Giovanny Gallegos -
Gallegos was acquired by the Cardinals back in July of 2018, when St. Louis sent 1B Luke Voit over in a trade for him & fellow reliever Chasen Shreve. He was assigned to Memphis and joined the Cardinals bullpen in late September.
In 2019, Giovanny started the year in Memphis but was called up in early April and spent the majority of the season in the Cardinals bullpen. In 66 relief appearances, he went 3-2 with a 2.31 ERA and struck out 93 batters over 74 innings. He was an arm that then-manager Mike Shildt relied on and became a mainstay on the roster heading into 2020.
The 2020 season was a tough one for Gallegos, as he missed a majority of the season after testing positive for Covid-19 and suffering a groin injury. He went 2-2 with a 3.60 ERA in just 15 innings.
He came in and was a pivotal piece again in 2021, finishing with a 6-5 record, a 3.02 ERA, struck out 93 in 73 games (80 1/3 innings) and also earned 14 saves.
Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch suggests that Gallegos is the front-runner to be named the Cardinals closer for 2022, with both Alex Reyes and Jordan Hicks stretching out to be multi-inning relievers.
He also mentioned that the Cardinals may look to bring in the likes of a Joe Kelly, Ryan Tepera, Robert Gsellman, Brad Boxberger, Andrew Chafin or Colin McHugh when free agency resumes to solidify the bullpen.
So while the Cardinals still have several in-house options for filling out the pen in Jake Woodford, Ryan Helsley, Kodi Whitley, T.J. McFarland, Genesis Cabrera, Junior Fernandez & Johan Oviedo… the front office may want to add some veteran stability like they did a season ago.
Personally, I do like that Gallegos is likely to begin the season as the team’s closer. But again, I don’t like to anoint one pitcher to that role and would rather see the Cardinals “throw the kitchen sink” at teams so to speak, and keep arms as fresh as possible without feeling they have to trot the same 7,8,9 inning guys out there regardless of score.
Marmol may have a different philosophy than Shildt when it comes to managing the bullpen, and with “philosophical differences” being the reason for Shildt’s firing, it’ll be interesting to see how Oli & pitching coach Mike Maddux tackle & slot the bullpen situation this season.
Who would you like to see take the closer role for the Cardinals in 2022? Let us know in the comments, and as always thanks for reading and Go Cards!