Cards carrying a 'strong suit' of bullpen arms

March 23rd, 2021

Outside of depth, the Cardinals did not make any significant moves to their bullpen in 2021. Their priorities were with the offense, and with it came the splash acquisition of Nolan Arenado.

Part of that is because the club is confident this spring, more than perhaps in past years, in the depth it has in its arms -- a group almost unchanged from last season.

“We expect it to be a strong unit -- every reason to expect that,” manager Mike Shildt said before Tuesday’s Grapefruit League game against the Nationals. “We have very capable guys that have done the job, and it’s an experienced bullpen. … It's a position of strength for the club.”

Though no major signings were made, there is one big reintroduction to the bullpen. Jordan Hicks, who hasn’t pitched in a regular-season game since June 2019 (Tommy John surgery, 2020 season opt-out), has done nothing but impress this spring.

The Cardinals’ bullpen, a perennial strong suit, appears primed to take a similarly important role in 2021, especially given the uncertainty around starter health this season. What remains to be seen, though, is who closes and exactly how many pitchers the club carries north, deciding between 13 (five-man rotation, eight-man ’pen) or 14 (nine-man ’pen).

With that in mind, let’s take stock of where the bullpen stands, who might fill certain roles and how things could unfold over the year:

Why decide on one closer when you have four with past experience?

Reyes, Gallegos, Miller and Hicks are as formidable a back-end of the bullpen as it comes in the Majors. Hicks is likely to open the year with some lower-leverage roles to get his feet wet again, after almost two years out of Major League competition. Miller could very well get some spot save chances, but he likely profiles as the primary setup man.

Gallegos has had a slow start to camp, conceding 10 hits, six runs and an uncharacteristic four walks through 5 2/3 innings. But the track record (2.53 ERA over last 82 appearances, with five saves) provides little reason for long-term worry.

So who closes, at least to start the year? It may very well be Reyes, the former top pitching prospect who the club hopes can one day start but has been pinned to a bullpen role in 2021.

Does the club feel the need to decide its closer now?

“I really don't. I love the options we have,” Shildt said. “I think we'll get closer [and] we'll start to define roles. And good news is, we have multiple people that have done it and can do it.”

The Cards believe some of these middle-inning candidates could be closers if they were on other teams. That’s how much they believe in their depth.

It comes with some cause for confidence. Seven Cardinals pitchers recorded a save in 2020, Helsley and Cabrera included. Cabrera (2.42 ERA in 22 1/3 innings over 19 games as a rookie last season) and Webb are two of the club’s three lefties in the ’pen, along with Miller, and will be crucial out-getters.

Helsley is a name Shildt specifically alluded to as one who could get high-leverage chances over the season, while Whitley (St. Louis’ No. 11 prospect) turned heads in his rookie season.

All are known entities, and all give the Cardinals confidence their bullpen can step up when it’s called upon this season.

“I don't think there's a lot of surprises, at least from my end, in what's going to be in our bullpen this season to start,” Shildt said.

Truth be told, only one of these candidates -- Parsons -- remains on the active roster at camp. Parsons, an undrafted Division III product, is a great story this spring, coming into several tough situations and escaping unburned, for the most part, to earn recognition across the organization. Most of these names will be the first called if and when the Cardinals' depth gets tested.

This crop of pitchers could be used many different ways. For instance, with Miles Mikolas and Kwang Hyun Kim uncertain to open the year, Gant and Ponce de Leon are prime candidates for the rotation, with Gant essentially securing a spot to at least start the year.

Ponce de Leon is also trying to break into the rotation, but his future may be one of the more intriguing on the roster. Could he be used if the Cardinals opt to install a six-man rotation? Or does the club see him and Gant as piggyback options once the rotation returns to full health? The Cards remain committed to being creative in 2021, and there are few more golden opportunities than in this realm.

Oviedo and Woodford will pitch plenty for the Cardinals this season, but the fact that St. Louis still has options means both could start the year at Triple-A. But when the club needs a lengthier arm, look to this pair as one of the first calls.