Cards relievers set to jockey for late-inning roles

Gregerson aims to lock down closer job as camp begins

February 13th, 2018

JUPITER, Fla., -- Pitchers and catchers are due to officially report to Cardinals camp today, but most already have. More than a dozen pitchers took to mounds Monday to throw bullpen sessions, looking to find some early feel under the Florida sun. So in a sense, the biggest positional battles of this camp have already begun.

The Cardinals enter camp with a stable full of high-upside -- if somewhat unproven -- arms in undefined roles. A focus of the coming weeks will be to identify who to trust in late-inning situations. Free agent acquisition Luke Gregerson is the veteran of the group and he'll get the first crack at closer. But even after acknowledging that on Monday, manager Mike Matheny made it clear the situation could change.

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"Come out and compete and help us make that decision," Matheny said. "We'll take a close look at what we have. To have a guy like Gregerson who's [closed games] before, that has value. That doesn't mean one of these other guys doesn't step up and take that opportunity."

As for other high-leverage situations, say in the seventh or eighth innings, Matheny will have options. Let's take a look at what projects to be a fairly open competition.

The favorite: Gregerson

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Signed to a two-year, $11 million deal with a vesting option, the nine-year veteran was regularly closing games as recently as 2016, when he notched 15 saves for the Astros. But he struggled in a setup role last season, pitching to a career-worst 4.57 ERA in 65 appearances. He totaled just one inning over seven games in the World Series, and underwent surgery to have the hamate bone removed from his non-pitching hand shortly after.

• Long road leads Gregerson back to Cardinals

Healthy again, Gregerson will enter camp as the club's nominal closer. The Cardinals value his experience in the ninth, and consider his career durability an asset. Gregerson has averaged 69 appearances per season over his Major League career, to go with a career 3.02 ERA and 9.1 K/9 rate.

Other candidates:, , , ,

The left-handed Lyons could have the inside track if Gregerson struggles, after reinventing himself and posting an 11.3 K/9 rate last season. Greene and Leone, acquired from the Blue Jays for , present high-velocity options. On Monday, the club reportedly agreed to a one-year deal with Norris, who closed 19 games for the Angels in 2017. He'll be added to the mix.

"I think we've got a lot of depth and a bunch of guys that have proven at some point the ability to pitch here," Lyons said. "Now it's about us going out and getting a job done and letting the roles take shape."

Dark horse:

The Cardinals hope the hard-throwing Reyes can return in May after missing last season following Tommy John surgery. Using him as a reliever could be a creative way to manage his workload while filling a team need.

• Reyes working on building up arm strength

"I'd love to be a starter. That's what I want to do in my career," Reyes said. "But however I can help the team, I will."