Bolstering the bullpen high on Cards' priority list

November 14th, 2018

ST. LOUIS -- While the Cardinals' search for an impact bat may be monopolizing most of their Hot Stove headlines, the club continues to operate with multiple offseason goals in sight.

High on that list is improving the bullpen, which, even after a midseason overhaul, still has glaring holes. With the team deep in the hunt to find additional relief help, let's examine some of the questions surrounding that pursuit and potential paths the Cardinals could take to reach their desired end.

Why the need?

While the Cardinals' bullpen performed well during a historic August run, the end-of-season numbers underscore the need for improvement. The unit finished 12th in the National League in ERA (4.38) while posting the league's second-highest walk rate (4.34 per nine innings) and fourth-lowest strikeout rate (8.31 per nine innings).

That underachievement was the byproduct of several factors. Free-agent signings of Greg Holland, Luke Gregerson and offered no positive return. Injuries to key pieces interrupted potential momentum. And regression from previously reliable arms like and left the team scrambling.

What is the biggest hole?

Left-handed relief. The Cardinals cycled through lefty relievers again last year and never found one who could consistently neutralize the biggest left-handed bats in an opponent's lineup. That's especially key in a division in which left-handed hitters such as Joey Votto, and will always loom as late-inning threats.

In two seasons, Cecil has given the Cards no reason to believe he will emerge as that answer. was underwhelming in his first exposure with the organization, too. The Cardinals are committed to augmenting this area before next season and, if necessary, will make a sizable financial investment to land that perfect fit.

Who gets the ninth inning?

This is as much a question now as it was 12 months ago. is the most obvious internal candidate, though the Cardinals are not ready to hand the job over just yet. It could be that the club enters Spring Training with several pitchers competing for the job. The team has also not ruled out adding a closer this offseason.

"Do we have confidence in somebody like Hicks being our closer? The answer is yes," president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said. "Does that mean he will be? No. I think as the offseason plays out, we'll definitely try to understand if there is an arm or two to help that bullpen to where we're not reliant to just have to stick a younger flamethrower in that role."

A potential dark horse candidate for this job? . The Cardinals haven't defined what role he could fill upon returning from surgery, but utilizing him as a late-inning reliever would allow the team to maximize his talent while being conservative with workload.

Will the past influence the present?

Without question, the Cardinals have had too many misses in the free-agent relief market in recent years. In Gregerson, Cecil and Holland, alone, the team has already invested $35 million for a negative return. But those mistakes haven't given the organization stage fright when it comes to dipping into that market again.

"I think we understand the volatility of the relief market probably as well as anybody," Mozeliak said. "Sometimes you have to take chances. That's not going to create some paralysis for us now. Trying to get it right is what we're going to continue to do."

It is worth noting that the club has made some shrewd Minor League signings -- Pat Neshek (2014), ('15) and ('18) -- and will continue to seek out these low-risk, high-return type moves.

What free agents are available?

The top tier includes , Zach Britton, , , Joe Kelly and . , , , , , and are also free agents this winter.

What key pieces return?

If there's a strength in the Cardinals' bullpen, it's in the team's depth. The Cardinals hope to get contributions from several relievers still under team control, including Hicks, , , Cecil, Gregerson, , and Shreve. The team's plethora of rotation options will also impact the bullpen, as those who don't snag a starting spot could be considered for a relief role. Such candidates include , , , , Reyes and even .

Could the trade market be fruitful?

That would multiply the number of directions the Cards could go to address this need. In the past year, the Cards executed trades to acquire Shreve and Leone, both of whom were expected to be key contributors. The Cardinals have assets on their Major League roster that they can deal (i.e. and ), and they are willing to part with prospects for the right return. This might be the offseason the club seriously considers dealing top catching prospect , for instance.