JUPITER, Fla. -- The Cardinals continue to spend significant time adding to their crowded bullpen picture from the outside, reuniting with Jason Motte on a Minor League deal Friday. That brings the number of (at least ostensible) late-inning options recruited since last season up to five, with newbies Luke Gregerson,
JUPITER, Fla. -- The Cardinals continue to spend significant time adding to their crowded bullpen picture from the outside, reuniting with Jason Motte on a Minor League deal Friday. That brings the number of (at least ostensible) late-inning options recruited since last season up to five, with newbies Luke Gregerson, Dominic Leone, Bud Norris and Connor Greene all offering their own strengths.
The stockpiling of arms is telling. The Cardinals don't truthfully know yet which they'll trust in high-leverage situations this season, whether that's in the sixth inning, the ninth or anywhere in between. A 2017 campaign over which it blew through two closers deepened the club's desire for depth.
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Cardinals brass knows it's just as likely their late-inning solutions eventually come from within. On that front, the club is already keeping a close eye on Tyler Lyons, who quietly reinvented himself into an exceptional reliever in 2017. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has watched Lyons' bullpen sessions closely this spring after leaning on him heavily late last summer, careful not to aggravate Lyons' surgically repaired right knee.
The ninth inning may feel like an unlikely landing place for Lyons after five mostly benign big league seasons. But it would actually bookend nicely a nine-year climb through the organization over which he's worn nearly every other hat, from depth piece to rotation option to long reliever, before emerging as a different pitcher last season.
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Armed with a new, wipeout pitch, Lyons dazzled: 50 appearances, 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.83 ERA. All were career bests.
"As my career has evolved into a short, relief-type role, it's best for me to go out there and lay it all on the table," Lyons said this week. "There is no reason to hold anything back."
That's mostly meant throwing his slider. Like, a lot. Almost overnight, Lyons became one of the few pitchers to throw his breaking ball more than his fastball. Two years ago, Lyons threw 46 percent fastballs and 37 percent sliders. Last year, he threw 52 percent sliders and 43 percent fastballs. The jump was one of the largest in baseball. (All pitch usage numbers courtesy of Statcast™ tracking.)
Only six relievers threw their sliders more frequently than Lyons in 2017, and only one, Andrew Miller, was left-handed.
"It's been the pitch I've been able to go to to potentially get more strikeouts," Lyons said. "That's the pitch I'm comfortably going to and getting beat on if I am going to get beat."
Lyons said an idea came to him watching Miller pitch in the postseason for the Indians in 2016. Still a four-pitch pitcher at that point, Lyons enjoyed his best big league season that year. But at age 28, he'd become a full-time reliever who was rarely trusted in high-leverage situations.
"How often [Miller] threw his slider got me thinking," Lyons said. "'Wow. That really opens up your fastball.'"
Miller might be the inspiration, but a better comparison is probably Brad Hand, the southpaw closer for the Padres who revitalized his career after making the slider his primary pitch.
Hand threw four pitches as a starter over five middling seasons with the Marlins, who cut him in 2016. In the two years since, his slider usage rose from 6 percent to 45 percent, and he was an All-Star in 2017. He became one of the most one-dimensional relievers in baseball, and that made him one of the best.
Ozuna a bat thief
As a Marlin, Marcell Ozuna worked up a reputation as someone who would borrow his teammates' bats -- and then hit home runs with them. Ozuna homered with bats owned by Ichiro Suzuki and Giancarlo Stanton, among others. He immediately went sniffing through his new teammates' lockers Saturday, his first day in Cardinals camp. The first bat he tested? One of William Fowler.
Oh ... no?
Former Cardinals closer Seunghwan Oh will not sign with the Texas Rangers after all, according to MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan. The Rangers had reportedly reached an agreement with Oh, who remains a free agent. Oh pitched to a 2.85 ERA over 138 appearances with the Cardinals from 2016-17, saving 39 games.
Just stopping in
Cardinals camp will host its share of celebrity appearances by the end of spring, with club legends and other industry notables stopping by to help guide, or just observe, the current crop of players. The first week of official workouts brought a taste of this, with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and longtime pitcher-turned-broadcaster Jim Kaat checking in.
Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.