ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- The first step in solving any problem is acknowledging there is one.
The Cardinals, and the legion of disgruntled fans who followed their tumultuous 2017 season, are well aware there are holes to be patched. Where then, do they start?
After their third-place finish in the NL Central, a continuation of worsening results year-over-year since 2013, no one transaction appears to be enough to right the ship. The Cubs are still entrenched atop the division and Milwaukee’s ahead-of-schedule arrival as a contender means the Cards have more than just a dragon to slay; they have to outrun the rest of the knights just to get a chance to draw their sword.
To fully grasp the needs of the franchise, a detailed audit is needed. What are the true strengths and weaknesses of this team?
Through a mixture of patchwork innings coverage and, later, a heavy dependence on certain arms in the relief corps, the Cardinal bullpen managed the fourth-best ERA in the NL in 2017. In fact, they were close to being second-best. Their 3.81 mark was a couple whispers away from Arizona’s 3.78, which trailed only the Dodgers (3.38).
A great deal of that success was due to Tyler Lyons and John Brebbia, who each appeared in 50 games and each posted an ERA below 3.00 (Lyons 2.83, Brebbia 2.44). Sam Tuivailala produced 37 innings at 2.55 and Juan Nicasio’s nine-game run yielded a sparkling 1.64 mark.
None of those players are officially under contract for next season.
To be clear, Lyons, Brebbia and Tuivailala are all expected to be back, but none have a contract in place until they make the roster. Tuivailala and Lyons are out of options, which means if they fail to break spring camp on the 25-man roster, they’d have to clear waivers before being assigned to the minors; an unlikely proposition given the league-wide need for relief arms.
Nicasio is a free agent, and while he expressed interest in returning to St. Louis, he’s not a known quantity until the ink dries on a deal.
Zach Duke is also a free agent, as is Seung Hwan Oh (who is almost certainly gone after a dismal year), and Trevor Rosenthal will be missing for much of the season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.
Currently, the only active bullpen member with an honest-to-goodness contract in 2018 is Brett Cecil.
This isn’t wildly unusual across baseball, but it’s certainly notable. While rookie minimum contracts pepper bullpens all the time, to enter an offseason with only one known financial quantity (and one arm with more than two seasons of relief appearances on which to predict future performance) is a precarious position.
Matt Bowman has two productive years of work under his belt, but his escalating use is certainly something to monitor. He’s thrown more than 126 innings in two years (75 appearances in 2017) and was used 25 times on no rest and 49 times with just one day off during that span.
Over the two-year period in which Kevin Siegrist was heavily leaned on, he pitched 136.1 innings (81 appearances in 2015) and had 36 appearances with no rest and 56 with one day off.
Siegrist eventually fell victim to a litany of injuries and was claimed off waivers by Philadelphia this September.
Bowman has been the rubber-armed go-to for Mike Matheny thus far, but his body may not be able to withstand such usage in the future.
Elsewhere, John Gant, Josh Lucas, Sandy Alcantara and Ryan Sherriff could be in contention for spots. Besides Gant, none of those names have more than a handful of major league innings. This bullpen accomplished a great deal in 2017, but repeatability is king when it comes to relief. The Cardinals’ best ball this season came when they knew their closer. Their eight win streak in August came when Rosenthal was healthy and dependable and he closed out four of those victories. Their 8-2 run in early September saw Nicasio as the back-end stopper.
Before they begin assessing internal options beyond Tuivailala and Lyons, they need to secure sure arms. Nicasio is the easiest move to make as he’s available, willing and cheap. Bonafide closer Wade Davis will hit the market. There’s a handful of teams looking to trade relief depth (Red Sox, Royals and Rays at first blush) for prospects, of which the Cardinals have plenty.
Before this grade can be raised, there has to be something to grade.