In general, bullpens are fickle. It doesn’t take long for a group considered an organizational strength in January to become the scapegoat for a would-be contender’s shortcomings in June.
Going back to the winter for the Cardinals, John Mozeliak had reason to feel secure about his team’s bullpen. Seung-Hwan Oh was entrenched as closer after posting a 1.92 ERA in his MLB debut season. Mo went out and won the $30.5 million bidding for lefty Brett Cecil to work alongside Kevin Siegrist as a late-innings southpaw tandem. Further fortifying the ‘pen would be a renewed Trevor Rosenthal, healthy again after injuries caused him to stumble to a 4.46 ERA in 2016.
Between those four arms and middle-innings contributions from Matt Bowman (3.46 ERA), Jonathan Broxton (4.30 ERA), et al, the Cardinal bullpen appeared robust on paper.
Then, the regular season arrived. That paper was promptly torn to pieces, lit on fire, and stamped out with dirty boots.
Despite the talking points of winter, the Cardinals bullpen has been habitually unreliable in 2017. With the exception of Rosenthal and Sam Tuivailala, every holdover from last year’s group has experienced a decline in performance.
Two of the group–Broxton and Miguel Socolovich–struggled enough to be shipped out from the 40-man roster.
Cecil has been bad enough for some Cardinals fans to wonder if anyone with the Toronto Blue Jays called ‘no givesies backsies’ on the lefty.
Earned run averages have ballooned for Oh (1.92 to 3.00), Siegrist (2.77 to 4.37), and Bowman (3.46 to 4.71). The strong, deep bullpen Mozeliak and company envisioned simply hasn’t played itself out thus far.
It’s disappointing, but unsurprising given the natures of bullpens. A club has to adjust, establish, and re-establish roles as necessary as the season goes along to find a successful mix for their relievers.
Tuesday offered, out of necessity, a chance for the Cardinals to really dive into that process. With two games in one day, Mike Matheny had the opportunity to get a look at a variety of arms. When one starter of a doubleheader needs 95 pitches for five innings and the other fails to make it through four, the bullpen is tasked with the cleanup; for the most part Tuesday, it thrived.
Though an uncharacteristic blip by Rosenthal led to a loss in game two, the bullpen was a bright spot on the whole. Outside of Rosenthal’s three runs, the St. Louis ‘pen posted 9.2 innings of scoreless baseball between the two games.
“When you can’t get through four in the second game, it was fortunate Tyler (Lyons) was able to do what he did that first game to give us a little more flexibility,” Matheny said.
After a solid appearance by John Brebbia, Lyons tossed three scoreless innings to earn the save in game one Tuesday. By taking the Cardinals through multiple innings, Lyons flashed his value as an important depth piece. The contributions of the rest of the relievers, if replicated, could afford the Cardinals the luxury of leaving Lyons in such a multi-inning role, rather than needing him to take on high-leverage spots for lefties in middle innings.
Can Cecil and Siegrist turn things around to fill those roles? Tuesday’s efforts would indicate: yes.
“We’re learning every time we put guys on the mound,” Matheny said. “In a bullpen that still is trying to define roles and what their usage is going to look like, big day for Brett Cecil, Kevin Siegrist, and Tyler Lyons. All of them took advantage of it, and did a terrific job, John Brebbia as well.”
Cecil breezed through two scoreless innings in game two–an opportunity he was afforded thanks to his efficiency in both frames. While the game wasn’t hanging in the balance on his every pitch (Cardinals trailed by three at the time), the Brett Cecil St. Louis saw pitch Tuesday is the one Mozeliak thought he signed in November. The Cardinals have to hope that low-leverage chance to hone his craft for multiple innings is what Cecil needed to get back on track.
Siegrist needed only four pitches to traverse his only inning of work Tuesday–for Matheny to have the luxury to confidently place him into leverage situations again would work wonders for a team that has lacked a consistent bridge to the eighth.
It could mean nothing; Cecil and Siegrist may struggle in their next outing. The Cardinals may need reinforcements from the minors (like Jack Flaherty or Sandy Alcantara) to or outside the organization (like Pat Neshek or David Robertson) to shore up their relief corps.
But if there’s an optimistic long-term takeaway from Tuesday’s doubleheader split, it has to be the bullpen–even if the bullpen is what cost the Cardinals a chance at a comeback winner in game two.