Over the past two seasons, Cardinal relievers have registered a total of 81 saves. Of those 81, only seven were earned by players still with the organization.
Yet on the same day free agent closer Addison Reed signed with Minnesota, Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak expressed confidence in his team's plans to attack the back end of games with guys that are already here.
And as Mozeliak said Saturday, that plan currently starts with the new Cardinal closer... Luke Gregerson.
"I think going into the season right now it will be Gregerson," Mozeliak said. "He has experience doing it. I do think, when you look at our bullpen, there’s going to be opportunities to see people take on more responsibility or more roles.”
When Gregerson signed for two years, $11.5 million in December, it seemed like a fine move. St. Louis had several holes to fill in the bullpen, and Gregerson was a low-cost way to begin that process. But the Cardinals have since added no other MLB-caliber arms to help replace Trevor Rosenthal, Juan Nicasio, Seung-Hwan Oh and Zach Duke. On top of that, they’re banking on Gregerson to start the season as closer—and they feel good about all of it?
That comes straight out of (Matt Adams starting in) left field.
"There’s no doubt last year was a disappointment when you think about the blown saves, close games lost,” Mozeliak said. “But we also feel like this year we have a group of guys that are ready to take that next step up. In terms of who it looks like, it might be faceless today, but I feel like by the time we leave Jupiter, we’ll have a pretty good idea of what those roles look like."
This plan might’ve been reasonable a couple years ago. Gregerson converted 31 of 36 save opportunities as Houston's closer in 2015, and the next year added 15 more saves while recording a sub-1.000 WHIP for the second straight year. But in 2017, Gregerson's stats went cliff diving—and forgot a bungee cord.
After eight straight seasons posting ERAs below 3.30, Gregerson saw his ERA balloon to 4.57 last year. His WHIP shot up to 1.344. For the FIPster crowd, his woes shouldn't be attributed to bad luck—his FIP (4.62) was even worse than his ERA. The only pitcher Houston called on less frequently than Gregerson during its postseason run was Francisco Liriano. No part of this screams lockdown reliever.
In-house challengers for late innings opportunities consist of lefties Tyler Lyons and Brett Cecil, plus a bunch of guys who would just be happy to make the roster again. Out of options, Sam Tuivailala is still looking to cement himself at this level. John Brebbia came out of nowhere last year to fill some good innings—a leap to big-league closer this year would be equally surprising. Matt Bowman thrives in the fireman role when Mike Matheny doesn't overwork him, but his pitch-to-contact style isn’t a great fit for a closer.
So the job is probably Gregerson's by default, but that doesn't make anyone feel any better about it. Aside from Mozeliak, that is; rather than swing another major trade with the team’s attractive chips, Mo plans to use those assets for roles with St. Louis in the not-to-distant-future.
“One of the things we’re most excited about from an organizational standpoint is the depth we have in our system,” Mozeliak said. “When we define minor-league depth or prospect depth, we’re speaking about players that were at High-A, Double-A, Triple-A that we think will make an impact on our club sooner rather than later."
"When you start to think about the arbitrage to go out and acquire someone you may have for two or three years, it’s going to cost us players that we think we’re going to have under control for six or seven," Mozeliak explained. "So the math for us just doesn’t work out. Right now, with all the things we’re looking at, our highest level of confidence is some of the talent we have internally.”
Mozeliak named Jordan Hicks and Ryan Helsley as two pitchers from that pool of prospect depth that he expects to contribute positively to the big club in 2018. With a fastball topping out at over 100 mph, Hicks could be a strong candidate for meaningful relief innings down the road. But right now? If your Plan A expects Gregerson to hold down the fort until Alex Reyes is healthy, while anticipating Hicks and Helsley to come to the rescue mid-season, you're playing a dangerous game.
It’s understood that prospects evolving into cost-controlled stars is how savvy front offices construct winning teams, but ‘internal options’ is right up there with ‘low-hanging fruit’ among phrases that put Cardinals fans on edge. Still, the desire to retain young talent is not unique to St. Louis.
Even in accepting Mozeliak’s explanation on trade costs, here’s where the frustration lies: the Cardinals don't have to trade away the future to make the kind of improvements that could help stabilize the pitching staff. Reed’s deal with the Twins is all the proof needed to show how St. Louis could use free agency- a cash-only arena- to add affordable quality pieces. His two-year contract with the Twins will be worth only marginally more than the one St. Louis handed Gregerson—and Reed was actually good last year.
Though they’ve boasted dry powder and payroll flexibility for years, the Cardinals lack urgency in filling positions of need even after watching the postseason from their couches the past two years. Their contentment to commit so much to unproven players seems imprudent considering how painless it could be to shore up these spots via free agency, with their young depth intact behind emergency glass.
The Cardinals have the ammunition to compile a roster capable of providing the Cubs with legitimate competition for the NL Central. In favor of a gamble on the unknown, it doesn’t feel like they’ve done it yet.