The St. Louis bullpen has been on a bit of roller coaster ride over the last seven months, starting when professional flamethrower (and incumbent closer) Jordan Hicks suffered a season-ending injury on June 22. Hicks would go on to have Tommy John surgery and Carlos Martinez would step in to fill the void he left behind, with Martinez finishing the season with 24 saves in 27 chances. The void is even larger in the Cardinals pen this season, as Martinez is currently slated to join the starting rotation, and St. Louis has yet to make any definitive statements on who will be taking over his old role. How this decision will ultimately shake out looms large for fantasy players, as the value that can be extracted from the St. Louis bullpen has a wide range of potential outcomes, given the skill-sets of those in the running for the closer gig.
|Giovanny Gallegos||Andrew Miller||John Brebbia||John Gant||Tyler Webb||Brett Cecil|
Closer – Giovanny Gallegos
Take this label with the largest grain of salt, as manager Mike Shildt likely won’t be naming a closer anytime soon. The job is available, however, with Martinez moving back to the starting rotation and Hicks still recovering from his 2019 Tommy John surgery, unlikely to return until mid-summer. He might not get the first shot at the job, but we’ll start with Gallegos anyway, as he’s likely going to the be the pitcher fantasy players are most interested in, regardless of role.
Don’t look to his small sample of closing opportunities last season if you want to feel optimistic, as Gallegos blew three of the four save opportunities he received, all coming in September. Look instead to his 93 strikeouts in 74 innings, with a 33.3% K rate and a 0.81 WHIP, attacking batters with a strong fastball that sits in the mid-90s and a devastating slider he threw 44% of the time in 2019. The slide piece narrowly missed finishing in the money, posting a 42.5% zone rate, 38.9% chase rate, and an impressive 24.6% swinging-strike rate. Hey look, a data point!
Given the overall skill set, Gallegos seems like the most logical choice to close for the Cardinals, but logic doesn’t always come into play when deciding on bullpen roles. Gallegos will have to compete for Shildt’s attention with veteran lefty Andrew Miller. However, unlike Miller, Gallegos will still hold fantasy value even if he’s not the Cardinals closer, as his ratios and strikeout numbers will still be useful in most formats. But if Gallegos is handed the role completely for most of 2020, he’s a top 12 closer with top-five upside. OK, fine. One more:
Setup – Andrew Miller
Speaking of the wily veteran, Miller lurks in the bullpen, ready to steal away any thoughts of Gallegos ascending to the top spot. On the surface, it may seem Miller has the inside track, as his 11 save opportunities in 2019 were the third-most on the team, behind Hicks and Martinez, and was almost double those of the next person down. But this is not your father’s Andrew Miller; the elite setup man, seemingly waiting forever for his chance at the big job; the Miller who, between 2014 and 2016, pitched 196 innings with a 1.84 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, and 42.7% K-rate. That Miller also racked up 49 saves in 54 opportunities. This Miller blew five of his 11 save chances in 2019 and finished with a 4.45 ERA, 5.19 FIP, and 4.43 xFIP over 54.2 innings, with a 1.32 WHIP. He still finished with a 29.7% K rate, but that came with a walk rate that rose for the third year in a row and finished at an unseemly (for a closer, anyway) 11.6%. As a lefty with diminishing skills, I find it unlikely Miller will hold the job for a majority of the time, particularly seeing that St. Louis seems to already have a better option in Gallegos.
Setup – John Brebbia
If looking for a dark horse candidate to close, you might be able to squint and see a path for Brebbia. Like a lesser version of Gallegos, Brebbia also sits in the mid-90s with his fastball and has a potent slider that he uses at about the same rate. The slider doesn’t have as much whiff in it as Gallegos’ does — a 13% swinging-strike rate — but Brebbia only allowed a 3.7% barrel rate on the pitch in 2019. He also generated 50% more horizontal break than the average slider in 2019 and had a 66% first-strike rate that led the Cardinals’ bullpen, able to get whiffs both in:
And out of the zone:
Brebbia certainly isn’t a good bet to close for the Redbirds — only receiving one opportunity last season to do so last season — but there is a path, no matter how small it may be. If Miller continues his decline and St. Louis feels more comfortable using Gallegos as a high-leverage, multi-inning fireman, then an unlikely option like Brebbia could get his chance.
Middle – John Gant
John Gant, another arm in the middle of the Cardinals’ pen who could be an even unlikelier choice to fill in as closer, struggled when given the opportunity in 2019. He picked up three saves in six chances but really struggled in the second half, posting a 6.65 ERA and 2.03 WHIP after the break, compared to a 2.22 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in the first half. Even with his struggles down the stretch, Gant still finished with a 2.9 % barrel rate that was in the top 2% of baseball, getting it done with a well-distributed four-pitch mix of two- and four-seam fastballs that sit at 95-96 mph, a cutter around 90 mph, and a devastating changeup that’s pure money. The change had both a 37.3% zone and chase rate, with a 24.6% swinging-strike rate that was the seventh-highest in baseball among pitchers who threw at least 200 changeups in 2019.
Middle – Tyler Webb
Unlike those arms already covered, there isn’t much flash to Tyler Webb. If he ends up closing for the Cardinals in 2020, then things have likely gone very, very wrong for the Redbirds. Webb gets it done with two fastballs that sit a shade under 90 mph and a mix of changeups that the lefty mostly throws to right-handed batters, and curves that are reserved primarily for lefties. For the most part, Webb holds his own against left-handed bats, but struggles against right-handers, with a 5.41 FIP almost two runs higher than against lefties. While he finished with a 3.76 ERA in 55 innings, Webb’s already troublesome splits and a 4.49 FIP, 4.89 xFIP, and 4.62 SIERA don’t bode well for success in 2020.
Middle – Brett Cecil
Making over $7 million in the final year of a deal originally signed in Toronto, Cecil will probably still be trotted out by the Cardinals, even though he had a 6.89 ERA for St. Louis in 32.2 innings during 2018 before missing all of 2019 with a variety of injuries. Cecil also swept his peripherals the last time he pitched, posting marks above 6.23 in FIP, xFIP, and SIERA, stamping the horrible season in a definitive kind of way. But once again, $7 million, so… looks like Cardinals fans will be seeing a lot of this stinky cheese in 2020:
Just kidding! It’ll be $7 million worth of this:
Right-hander Ryan Helsley should log some innings. The 25-year-old had a 2.95 ERA over 36.2 innings last year, but just a 20.9% K rate, 5.11 xFIP, and a 4.52 SIERA. If any Cardinals fan tries to tell you something along the lines of “Hey, what about Alex Reyes? He’s finally healthy!,” quickly distract them with toasted ravioli, and calmly remind them that Reyes might as well be starring alongside Bruce Willis and James McAvoy because he’s basically Mr. Glass. In fact, Reyes staying healthy for an entire season would be a bigger twist than anything M. Night Shyamalan has ever put out, including the fact that he managed to return to prominence after releasing the worldwide atrocity that was “The Village.” And that’s saying nothing about the one where Mark Wahlberg was mad at trees or something. Simply breathtaking.
The real watch list is the one Jordan Hicks occupies all by his lonesome. Hicks last pitched on June 22 last year and is expected to return to pitching for the big club sometime this summer. The current timeline has him returning around the All-Star break, but Hicks and the Cardinals are baking in some flexibility to his timeline, as his type 1 diabetes is a risk factor in regards to slowing recovery. However, right now everything is going smoothly, and Hicks is already back to throwing on flat ground. It’s unknown how quickly manager Mike Shildt will slide Hicks back into the closer role once he returns, but when he does, he’ll immediately go back to being a reliever with top-tier fantasy potential.
103 mph hotness that moves? Come on down!
Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)