New year, new staff: Meet Cards' new arms

February 5th, 2024

This story was excerpted from John Denton's Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

When the Cardinals inked hard-throwing reliever to a deal that could be worth $11 million over two seasons on Saturday, it most likely became the final addition of an offseason pitching makeover so thorough and dramatic that it probably made Fredbird blush.

As the old saying goes, “You can’t tell the players without a program.” Well, how about this for shuffling the deck and hitting the reset button on their pitching staff: The Cardinals' 40-man roster now includes 10 pitchers who weren’t with the club when the offseason began. There are also seven hurlers signed to Minor League deals and four others who arrived in early August at the 2023 MLB Trade Deadline.

Name tags might be standard issue when pitchers and catchers report to the club’s headquarters in Jupiter, Fla., on Feb. 13 and then hit the field for workouts on Feb. 14. To better familiarize themselves with one another, maybe the new pitchers could exchange Valentine’s Day cards or candy hearts, with sayings such as, “Be Mine (Teammate)” or “I’m Yours (For the Season)” or even “Luv Ya (Like a High-Leverage Reliever).”

In totality, this wasn’t so much a makeover as it was a complete reconstruction, all the way down to the cheekbone implants, rhinoplasty and lip injections. And it was very much in order after the 2023 pitching staff had its fingerprints all over the 71-91 record that was the club’s worst in 33 years. Last season, the Cards finished with baseball’s 24th-ranked overall ERA (4.79), 26th-ranked starters ERA (5.07) and 23rd-ranked relievers ERA (4.47).

Change was in order, and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak left no stone unturned in revamping a staff that was woefully without much swing-and-miss stuff outside of fire-balling closer in 2023.

The Cards traded cash to the Mariners for Riley O’Brien on Nov. 5 -- the first day of the GM Meetings. They landed St. Louis resident Kyle Gibson and former Cardinal Lance Lynn on Nov. 21, and then made their biggest addition of all -- 2023 American League Cy Young runner-up Sonny Gray -- almost a week later in free agency.

Partially on the advice of new advisor Chaim Bloom, formerly the baseball boss in Boston, the Cards plucked out of the Rule 5 Draft and then landed Nick Robertson and Victor Santos in a trade for Tyler O’Neill -- all of them coming over from the Red Sox.

On Jan. 5, the Cards pulled off what might go down as their most underrated move of the offseason by dealing for right-hander Andrew Kittredge. While talent evaluators usually regret doing deals with the uber-savvy Rays front office, the Cards merely had to give up their sixth outfielder, Richie Palacios, for a 2021 AL All-Star who seemed close to returning to form by the end of last season.

This past week, nearly a full three months after they traded for O’Brien to get the ball rolling on their reliever restoration, the Cardinals landed Middleton, the 30-year-old right-hander they stayed in touch with throughout the offseason and pounced on once the market settled. Mozeliak has said repeatedly that assembling a deep and diverse bullpen is the most difficult part of his job -- insert the obligatory Brett Cecil, Andrew Miller and Greg Holland jabs here -- because of the volatility of the position. But the Cards feel like they have nabbed relief gems in Kittredge and Middleton.

Like most of the other newcomers in the Cardinals' bullpen beautification project, Middleton is a right-hander who throws gas. The irony, of course, is that one of his best seasons in his seven-year big league career came when he backed off the gas and changed speeds more often.

After throwing his changeup 17 percent of the time in 2022, Middleton leaned on that pitch 43 percent of the time in 2023 -- when he pitched 51 games for the White Sox and Yankees and had an impressive 64 strikeouts in 50 1/3 innings. That new pitch mix had hitters all mixed up as Middleton’s strikeout rate ranked in MLB’s 91st percentile, his hard-hit rarity rate was in the 92nd percentile and his ground-ball rate registered in the 93rd percentile, per Baseball Savant. Post those kinds of numbers again, and Middleton could give the Cards some closer insurance on days when Helsley isn’t available.

In 2023, the Cardinals were often a victim of short starts and their bullpen getting overexposed and eaten alive late in games. This time around, the club is hoping historically dependable workhorses Gray, Lynn and Gibson can team up with incumbent starters Miles Mikolas and Steven Matz to eat innings and keep the bullpen fresh. And while the renovated relief corps isn’t necessarily loaded with big names, the club is hopeful that the sheer number of electric arms from an active offseason of work will help them avoid bullpen breakdowns over the course of the long season.

Of course, another pitching move could still exist, if the Cards so desire. Blake Snell with the birds on the bat across his chest? A reunion with lefty Jordan Montgomery? But they’ve already done lots in their busiest offseason in decades. Now, they are confident that a makeover that has lasted from early November to early February will have them grinning from cheek to cheek once the playoffs start in October.