Cardinals Are Saving Room in the ‘Pen for the Next Wave of Rookie Power Arms

Luke Gregerson as closer? Huh.

As we sit (and freeze) here today, that’s the the plan according to Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak.

I try to keep an open mind, but let’s just say I’m not sold on this one.

Gregerson was a very good reliever from 2009 through 2016, but his pitches were converted into rocket fuel last season. Warning lights were flashing all over the place.

To summarize Gregerson’s 2017:

— There was a drop in swing-and-miss rate, down to 15.6 percent from his 20.1% in 2016.

— His strikeout percentage went from 29.1 percent (2016) to 26.6% in ‘17.

— Gregerson’s strikeout-walk rate, 3.50, was his poorest since 20102.

— The hard-contact rate against Gregerson increased from 28 percent (2016) to 29.5 last season.

— After giving up 0.65 home runs per 9 innings in his first eight seasons, Gregerson may have needed his his neck to be placed in traction last season while getting drilled for 1.92 HR per 9 innings.

— When batters hit a fly ball off Gregerson last season, it left the premises for a home run 23.6 percent of the time. That was the second-highest FLY/HR rate against a MLB pitcher in 2017 … and nearly double the leage average.

— The overall contact rate against Gregerson increased substantially in 2017, to 67 percent. (Up from 58 percent in ‘16.) But in fairness, the career contact rate against Gregerson is around 68 percent. Not much difference from his standard … well, except for the rise in hard-contact rate and homers.

— After filing a 2.84 ERA for his first eight seasons, Gregerson’s earned-run average was inflated to 4.57 in 2017 … and his fielding independent ERA was even higher at 4.62. To put it another way, using a different metric: Gregerson’s adjusted ERA in 2017 was 13 percent worse than the league average; until last season he’d stayed above average every seas0n … between 2009 and 2016, Gregerson’s adjusted ERA was 30 percent above the league average.

— The slugging percentage on Gregerson for his first eight seasons was .332. And the OPS against Gregerson was .595. Last season, the corresponding figures were .477 slug and .790 OPS.

— Gregerson also had an unusually harsh home-road split in ‘17. Pitching at Minute Maid Park wasn’t an issue for him in the 2015 and 2016 seasons, with opponents posting a .603 OPS at Minute Maid compared to .548 when he pitched on the road. But last season … oh, my … boom … there was a .541 slug against Gregerson at home, with a .396 slug when he pitched on the road. He was detonated for an average of 2.41 homers per 9 innings at Minute Maid compared to a 1.32 HR/9 on the road. There was a huge gap between the road OPS (.692) and home OPS (.867) against Gregerson in 2017. His strikeout rate and ground-ball rate also suffered at home.

— And finally: according to Eno Sarris at FanGraphs, Gregerson had the second-highest drop in velocity (minus 2.5 mph) from the first half of last season to the second half. Gregerson averaged 90.4 mph before the All-Star break and 87.9 mph after the break.

In performing their analysis before signing Gregerson to a two-year contract for $11 million — with a club option for 2020 — on Dec. 10, Cardinals must have put Gregerson’s troubling 2017 in the “outlier” category. And I can understand that to a point; history tells us that a 23.6 HR/FLY rate is abnormal and highly unlikely to soar that high again in 2018. But that doesn’t explain away Gregerson’s other problems. It wasn’t all bad luck. There was plenty of bad pitching in his mix.

I was surprised when the Minnesota Twins signed RH reliever Addison Reed for the relatively low price of two years and $17 million. As the offseason got underway, Reed was widely viewed as the No. 3 late-inning reliever on the free agent market behind closers Wade Davis and Greg Holland.

The FanGraphs forecast had Reed in line for a three-year, $30 million deal. The excellent site Major League Baseball Trade Rumors put Reed’s open-market value at four years, $36 million.

Reed didn’t come close to that in settling for the Twins’ pitch. Sure, there were some concerns about over Reed’s 2.2 percent decline in strikeout rate in 2017, and his fastball lost a little sizzle. Given that Reed is an extreme fly-ball pitcher, any loss in velocity could be harmful.

That said, Reed has considerably more experience than Gregerson as a closer in the bigs. And he’s performed better than Gregerson in the role. Gregerson has converted only of his 112 save opportunities in the majors for an appallingly bad conversion rate of 58.9 percent. Over the last two seasons, Gregerson has a save rate of 64 percent. Reed blows all of that away with a career save rate of 81.6 percent, and he successfully closed out 19 saves in 21 attempts for the Mets in 2017.

Reed is a work maniac who ranks sixth in the majors for most innings pitched since 2012. He went more than an inning in seven relief appearances last season. His home-run rate was on the high side last season at 1.3 per 9 innings … but Gregerson was punished more often. And Reed had a 2.84 ERA over 76 innings with two teams in 2017.

Unless there is some physical damage we don’t know about, Reed seemed to be a nice value, considering that (A) he signed for less money than a bunch of free-agent relievers this offseason including Wade Davis, Tommy Hunter, Jake McGee, Brandon Morrow and Bryan Shaw … and (B) signed for about the same money or slightly less than Juan Nicasio, Pat Neshek, Joe Smith, and Anthony Swarzak … and (C) as a bonus, the team that signed Reed did not have to pay draft-choice penalty as compensation. (That’s because he was traded by the Mets to the Red Sox at the July 31 deadline last season.

After last season, the Cardinals seemed to require an extensive bullpen makeover. And that point was underlined when the team decided to part ways with multiple relievers including Kevin Siegrist, Nicasio, Seung Hwan Oh, and Zach Duke. (I didn’t mention departed closer Trevor Rosenthal because he’s rehabbing from elbow surgery and wouldn’t be in the STL bullpen this season.)

The Cardinals went into the offseason with a bullpen (mostly) consisting of Matt Bowman, Brett Cecil, John Brebbia, Tyler Lyons, Sam Tuivailala, John Gant and Ryan Sherriff. And they’ve added only one big-league reliever, Gregerson, to the cast.

I just expected a more aggressive bullpen refurbishing for 2018.

Especially considering that the 2017 Cardinals blew 41 leads and were zapped for seven walkoff losses. The Cards were a mess late in games last year, losing 15 times when taking a lead into the 6th inning, losing 10 times when carrying a lead into the 7th, losing six games when leading into the 8th, and five times when having a lead as they went to the 9th. Extra innings were a disaster.

Even at his best, Gregerson won’t cure that.

“There’s no doubt last year was a disappointment, when you think about the blown saves, close games lost,” Mozeliak said during the annual Winter Warmup. “But we also feel like this year, we have a group of guys that are ready to take that next step up. In terms of who it looks like, it might be faceless today, but I feel like by the time we leave Jupiter, we’ll have a pretty good idea of what those roles look like.”

And that explains why the Cardinals stayed out of the free-agent market (at least for now) after purchasing Gregerson. They’re clearly anticipating assistance from within their system. This is nothing new; there was rookie Adam Wainwright closing out a World Series win in 2006, and fellow rookies Tyler Johnson and Josh Kinney supplied excellent set-up relief that fall. Home-grown closer Jason Motte locked down the 2011 World Series.

More recently, young power throwers Rosenthal, Siegrist and Carlos Martinez punched their way through the 2013 postseason as the Cardinals won the NL pennant.  In 30.1  postseason relief innings in 2013 Rosenthal, Siegrist and Martinez allowed seven earned runs (2.07) and struck out 32.

Speaking on my Tuesday radio show, Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. was clearly enthused about his team’s prospects. And that wouldn’t be the case unless he believed they were on the fast track to the bigs.

“You’ll recall that Jason Motte was an internally developed closer, Trevor Rosenthal came up initially midseason from Double-A, and we have those kinds of arms in the minor leagues,” DeWitt said. “We have some internal options that can be pretty dynamic, big arms, and is that better than going out and getting someone who is remain (on the free agent market?)

“That remains to be seen, and we’re still open for business. I am not going to rule anything out in terms of the free agent market or even a deal, I know Mo and (GM Michael Girsch are working the phones so we will see how it works out.”

If the Cardinals don’t add a veteran reliever of significance who can deliver reliably in high-leverage situations, then get ready for the march on … because power arms are coming. Alex Reyes already is here, and we saw his blow-away pitching in 2016. Reyes isn’t alone. The approaching rookie relief cast includes Ryan Helsley, Dakota Hudson, Jordan Hicks, Austin Gomber.

I can’t predict when they’ll arrive, but they are on the way.

The Cardinals are banking on this proposition: the young arms will emerge and perform a rescue. Management is counting on a repeat of the history, the trend, we saw in 2006, 2011 and 2013.

Will Mozeliak and DeWitt proven to be right in their calculations?

The Cardinals’ 2018 season could depend on it.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: DeWitt Isn’t Ruling Out More Cardinal Moves; Feels Gregerson Will Have ‘Really Good Year’