JUPITER, Fla. -- With Jordan Hicks recovering from right elbow surgery and Carlos Martínez vying for a rotation spot, the Cardinals are in the market for a closer. A versatile group of relievers is largely returning, so St. Louis intends to rely on someone in-house to emerge as a ninth-inning
JUPITER, Fla. -- With Jordan Hicks recovering from right elbow surgery and Carlos Martínez vying for a rotation spot, the Cardinals are in the market for a closer. A versatile group of relievers is largely returning, so St. Louis intends to rely on someone in-house to emerge as a ninth-inning protector. And it has a variety of options.
Some are on a starter’s schedule this Spring Training, and their roles will be dictated in part by what the Cardinals do with their two open rotation spots -- especially now that Miles Mikolas will open the season on the injured list with a right flexor tendon strain. That emphasizes the importance of Martínez returning to the rotation and leaving the ninth inning open.
Many of the candidates made their case for closer last season, when the Cardinals' bullpen had a 3.82 ERA that ranked fifth in baseball. Many will make their cases this spring.
Two of the candidates made their spring debut Wednesday at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium. John Brebbia and Giovanny Gallegos followed starter Kwang-Hyun Kim -- who, despite competing for a starting spot, could also be considered for the ninth inning -- with Tyler Webb, who could emerge as a high-leverage reliever, sandwiched between.
Gallegos, Brebbia, Andrew Miller, John Gant, Ryan Helsley and even Alex Reyes -- if he can show good command and health -- are all candidates to close. One could emerge as a lockdown ninth-inning guy -- or many could.
“It would be nice to have one guy,” pitching coach Mike Maddux said. “That would be nice. It’s also nice to have options to negotiate a lineup and spot guys where they match up the best, or who we feel is the best for it. So it’s good to have the options, and somebody is going to step up and go ahead and I think solidify themselves in that role.”
Here's whom the Cardinals are considering:
The Cardinals’ most reliable setup man last year with a 2.31 ERA and a 0.811 WHIP, Gallegos could take another step forward in the bullpen this season. Gallegos had an 11.9 strikeout rate against a 1.9 walk rate, and if his walk rate stays down, his fastball-slider combo could be lethal in the ninth.
His steadiness and durability are what make him intriguing for the ninth. Brebbia had a 3.59 ERA in 66 games and 72 2/3 innings last season, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.22) didn’t vary much from 2018 (3.75). Hitters make contact with his fastball -- but they don’t hit it very hard.
The two-time All-Star has experience as a closer, with 59 career saves. Inconsistency with his slider led to a 4.45 ERA last year, and getting right-handers out will be a focus for Miller. It could be that the Cardinals will use the veteran lefty to neutralize left-handed hitters in high-leverage roles, but that could very well be in the ninth inning.
He was a National League All-Star candidate with his 2.22 ERA in the first half, and he racked up 11 wins while being used in high-leverage situations. Walks led to his struggles down the stretch and cost him a shot at the postseason roster. Gant is being prepped as a starter this spring, but if he shows control and efficiency, his fastball-changeup mix could do well in a closing role.
He’s also being prepped as a starter or for a multiple-inning relief role, but Helsley’s velocity is what makes him stand out in this group. He has a four-pitch mix and can hit 100 mph. The 25-year-old didn’t allow a hit in 5 1/3 innings of postseason pitching, and his use in October shows the trust the Cardinals already have in him.
The 25-year-old former top prospect must show improved health and command to be considered for a spot in St. Louis. The Cardinals are managing Reyes' innings after three injury-plagued years, so it’s likely his role will be in the bullpen. His raw talent is enough to want it in the ninth inning.
The Cardinals have options in the bullpen. They have versatility, too, from different looks to veteran and young talent. Spring performances will decide who will see the ninth, and it could be a different pitcher frequently until one emerges as the closer.
“Closer by committee,” Brebbia said. “And to me, that just means we’ve got four really good arms. Let’s put the most fresh arm in this situation; let’s put who we would deem our best pitcher in this situation. The Cardinals are pretty fortunate to have 12 guys that can throw a ninth inning. It’s a dynamic position, and we have a lot of really good options for it.”
Anne Rogers covers the Cardinals for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @anne__rogers and on Facebook.