Around the horn: Closer duties may be split

Cardinals hope Miller can find All-Star form; Bullpen looks to cut walk rate

February 17th, 2019

JUPITER, Fla. -- This is the final piece of a six-part Around the Horn series in which is taking a position-by-position look at the Cardinals' projected starters and backup options heading into the 2019 season. After examining the position players and starting rotation, let's close with the bullpen.

Projected 'pen: , , , , , , ,

Addressing the bullpen was one of the Cardinals' two primary objectives this winter, and they met that challenge by signing Miller to a two-year contract in December. If Miller can turn back the clock, he'll be the late-inning, left-handed complement to Hicks, who rose to the top of Statcast™'s velocity charts in his rookie year. Brebbia and Leone project to factor into the team's late-inning mix as well. The Cards have five experienced left-handed relievers in Spring Training and could go with three in their seven- or eight-man bullpen. The roster decisions will be further complicated by the fact that Shreve, Mayers and Gant are all out of Minor League options.:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Other candidates/reserves: , , , , ,

How things shake out with the Cardinals' rotation will have a direct impact on the composition of the team's bullpen. Pitchers like Gomber, Hudson, Gant and Ponce de Leon enter camp prepping as starters, though not all (if any) will open the season in the big league rotation. Reyes remains a wild card, as the Cardinals want to watch him throughout spring before determining where he best fits in his return from two major arm surgeries. Gregerson enters camp still slowed from a series of injuries in 2018, and therefore projects as a candidate to open the year on the injured list.

Prospect to watch: Genesis Cabrera

After joining the organization in last summer's trade, Cabrera grabbed the Cardinals' attention with his strong showing this winter. Pitching in relief, Cabrera struck out 21 while walking two and allowing two runs in 14 1/3 innings. He has been a starter for most of his career, and the Cardinals aren't ruling out having Cabrera remain in that role to open the season. But when it comes time to pluck midseason reinforcements from the Minors, he is a candidate to come as a reliever. Perhaps most intriguing to the Cardinals is the velocity jump they saw in Cabrera's fastball when he pitched out of the 'pen.

Biggest lingering question: How will the ninth inning be handled?

The Cardinals have refrained from designating someone as the closer, and that doesn't seem likely to change between now and Opening Day. In a perfect world, the Cardinals will split opportunities between Hicks and Miller based upon need, matchups and availability. Not pigeonholing either in the ninth inning will also free both up to be deployed in earlier higher-leverage spots. For this to work, though, Hicks will have to be as effective as he was his rookie season, and Miller will need to revert back to pre-2018 form.

Notable number: 4.34

Only one big league bullpen (Atlanta's) had a higher walk rate than the Cardinals, who also registered one of the lowest strikeout rates (8.31 per 9 IP) in the National League. Their walk rate was also more than a full point higher than 12 other teams, including four that advanced to the postseason. The club had seven pitchers make at least 15 relief appearances and average at least five walks per nine innings. Six of those pitchers -- Cecil, Hudson, Shreve, Martinez, Hicks and Gomber -- could be on the team's Major League pitching staff again this season. It's by design, then, that the Cardinals will target ways to begin correcting this in spring.

Statcast™ note: 3

Of the 216 balls put in play against Hicks last season, opponents "barreled" only three of them. According to Statcast™, that ranked in the top one percent of the Majors. A barreled ball is defined as one that has an exit velocity and launch angle that has led to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage since 2015. Of those three barreled balls off Hicks, two went for homers and the other a double.