The Cardinals can contend in 2017. The starting rotation has been the best in the major leagues by a considerable margin, and the offense–while arguably inconsistent–has provided ample production for the Cardinals to stick around in the playoff mix.
But if there’s one area of the roster that could keep the Cardinals out of the postseason for the second consecutive year, it has to be the bullpen. As it stands, St. Louis carries eight relievers–but substantially fewer that Mike Matheny can trust in tight games on a nightly basis.
St. Louis rosters two relievers with ERAs above 6.00–Miguel Socolovich and Jonathan Broxton, at 6.87 and 6.28 respectively. Brett Cecil’s 5.06 ERA doesn’t fully encompass how detrimental his performance has been to the success of the Cardinals. Though he has inherited more runners (23) than any other pitcher in baseball, Cecil’s inherited runners scored percentage (47.8%) ranks below most of his peers. In other words, Cecil is still receiving ‘fireman’ duties, but instead of dousing the flames with water, he throws some kerosene on the blaze.
Critics of Mike Matheny for using Cecil so frequently in those situations have strong arguments, but let’s be fair to the skipper: reliable relievers aren’t exactly banging down the bullpen door.
Trevor Rosenthal is probably the only guy Matheny can feel total confidence in when he motions for him to enter a game–even Seung-Hwan Oh has been shaky at times this year. Matt Bowman and Kevin Siegrist have answered the bell most of the time of late, but occasional hiccups have been more frequent than desired. Even then, a lack of consistent availability for Rosenthal and Siegrist has shortened Matheny’s list even further (though Matheny definitely needs to loosen the reins on Tyler Lyons for leverage situations–otherwise, why is he even here?).
John Mozeliak isn’t one to freely part with potential assets–though Luis Perdomo and Allen Cordoba make for fair counterexamples–but how long can the Cardinals afford to stick with their current bullpen alignment? When you’re clinging onto guys who make the team demonstrably worse, how long until you have to cut bait and try something new?
They’ve waited long enough.
Cecil has probably been the most frustrating reliever for Cardinals fans this season, but there are 30-million reasons he's not going anywhere any time soon. For that reason, the biggest shake up Matheny can use for Cecil is to stop using him when it matters.
Still, there are a couple ways the Cardinals can immediately improve the bullpen that don't involve dumping Cecil.
By this point, the Cardinals know what Jonathan Broxton is. For stretches, he does a good impression of the successful big-league closer he used to be–but it always seems to fade away just as soon as Matheny gives him a chance with a game hanging in the balance. St. Louis is on the hook for the remainder of the $3.75 million Broxton is owed for 2017, but the Cardinals can afford a little dead money far more than they can afford another blown lead by the bullpen. A few million bucks can’t get in the way of improving this team.
As for Socolovich, what is the deal with the angst about another team possibly claiming him off waivers (since he is out of options, the Cardinals would have to expose him to waivers before sending him back to Memphis)? It’s not like he’s a touted prospect with room to grow over time: Socolovich is 30 years old, and hasn’t been good this season. Sam Tuivailala would give the Cardinals a better chance to record outs than Socolovich right now–what are they waiting for?
It’s not like the Cardinals don’t have any better options in the minors. As mentioned, Tuivailala has already shown flashes at the big-league level this year, so give him the opportunity to sink or swim. Beyond him, there are several guys that could match the contributions of Broxton or Socolovich, and whose ceilings have not yet been discovered.
Luke Weaver and Marco Gonzales have looked good in Memphis; Sandy Alcantara has struggled in Springfield (2-3, 7.12 ERA), but Jack Flaherty has dominated (7-1, 1.26 ERA). Dakota Hudson (2-2, 3.11 ERA) is another name that has been projected as a future big-league reliever.
Even if the Cardinals don’t like the idea of truncating a prospect’s potential by removing him out of a starter’s role to put him in the St. Louis bullpen, someone like Mark Montgomery (2.53 ERA, 31:4 K:BB in the Memphis bullpen) could give the Cardinals some help.
If the Cardinals don’t actively explore ways to improve the primary deficit of a pretty good club, it could cost them another opportunity at October baseball. Developing talent for the future is important, but when it comes at the expense of compromising the present for a contending team, it might be time to adjust the matrix.