The Cardinals Get Their Closer. And Did It The Smart Way.

The Cardinals have an official closer, Greg Holland. It is now safe to leave your homes. The crisis is over.  The chaos has calmed. The St. Louis bullpen may now line up in orderly fashion.  May there be joy in the village.

The best thing about this move:  Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak made the Holland deal on his terms. “Mo” was patient. He waited. He correctly assessed the free-agent marketplace for Holland.

A three-year deal for Holland at, say, $52  million? Not smart. Not smart at all. But that’s what the Colorado Rockies threw at free-agent closer Wade Davis in late December.

A one-year deal for Holland at $14 million? Very smart.  About as intelligent as could be in these matters of commerce. But those simplest of terms formed a working relationship between Holland and the Cardinals. This partnership should benefit both parties. Maybe in a big way, for a big payoff.

Holland got a job for 2018. And if he protects ninth-inning leads like a nasty pit bull for the Cardinals, he can head on out for another excursion into free agency and try to rustle up a larger contract. The Cardinals secured their closer for 2018. And if Holland is in fine form, his volley of swing-and-miss fastballs and sliders could make a critical difference … a determining factor in the Cards making the playoffs instead of missing the postseason for the third consecutive season.

If you are wondering or maybe even fussing or complaining: why only one year for Holland? Why not lock him in, and have the closer job filled for several years?

Answer: Jordan Hicks.

If you saw Hicks against the Washington Nationals in Sunday’s exhibition game in Jupiter, and if you saw Hicks pitch his first major-league inning against the New York Mets on Thursday … well, it’s kind of obvious, no? Hicks … with that nasty, wicked, vicious stuff … THAT is your closer in training. Hicks, 21, had never pitched above the Class A level of the minors until zapping the Mets at Citi Field. With Holland in place (soon), this gives Hicks time to get acclimated to the majors. It gets him ready to be the Cards closer in 2019. And if Hicks isn’t the closer in 2019, another ridiculous heat-seeking fastball launcher, Ryan Helsley, could be.

Holland is 32. He’s one season removed from Tommy John elbow surgery. Holland’s velocity still has plenty of sizzle, and his slider is still a fearsome knockout punch … as evidenced by his 29.8 percent strikeout rate for Colorado last season. But when Holland was at his hideous-beast finest for the Kansas City Royals he averaged 96 mph with the hard stuff. Now, his heater comes in about 93.5 mph. Where will that velocity be two years from now, three seasons from now?

There is absolutely no reason to get tied into a multi-year deal with a closer who will be 33 next season, 34 in 2020, and 35 years old in 2021. Not when the Cardinals have drafted, signed and developed several young dragons who rush in from the bullpen shooting fire.

By having Holland as the ninth-inning guardian for 2018, the ripple effect will make the overall bullpen deeper and better.  Now instead of taking guys who are ideal for seventh-inning, eighth-inning setup duty and seeing if they can handle the psychological demands of closing. We put so much emphasis on getting the final three outs of a game, it’s easy to overlook the importance of the seventh and eighth innings.

The 2017 Cardinals are a great example. It wasn’t just the blown leads; it was the many tie games that got away. The Cardinals lost 15 games when taking a lead into the 6th. They lost 10 times when having a lead at the start of the 7th. And six times when leading into the 8th.

But we don’t talk enough about the Cards’ disastrous record in late-inning ties in ’17:

  • When tied going into the 7th inning:  16 losses.
  • When tied going into the 8th inning: 12 losses.
  • When tied going to the 9th inning:  11 losses.

That’s a glaring, glaring problem. With Holland standing watch over the 9th, the Cardinals have considerable firepower and flexibility to throw at the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. Hicks, Dominic Leone, Luke Gregerson (when he returns from the DL), Bud Norris, Sam Tuivailala … and, when he’s ready, Alex Reyes. There’s also the ground-ball guy, Matthew Bowman. John Brebbia and John Gant are at Triple A Memphis. And that’s just the right-handers. Lefties Tyler Lyons and Brett Cecil could also be joined at some point by Ryan Sherriff (now at Memphis.)

Hicks is the key consideration here. Mozeliak clearly has grand plans for Hicks, but why rush him into one of the most pressure-filled responsibilities a player or pitcher can have in major-league baseball when a proven closer, Holland, can take care of the emergencies for a season? Don’t forget, Hicks was a starting pitcher in the minors. A starting pitcher at two levels of Class A ball. So not only is Hicks making a huge leap — bypassing Class AA Springfield and Triple A Memphis — but he’s switching from starting to relief.  Holland gives Hicks the value of time. And I imagine that Hicks will learn a lot from Holland.

I realize there’s a percentage of the fan base that will never praise a Mozeliak transaction unless he’s stupidly throwing $100 million at a player, just to prove that Cardinals management is committed to winning.  That’s a terrible reason to make a move. Something like that would actually prove another point: Mozeliak should be committed to an institution to rest his brain, and maybe have his head wires reconnected.

“The urgency is always there,” Mozeliak told MLB.com. “Just because we didn’t get to the postseason the last two years, we’re not going to become irrational overnight.”

I also realize that most Cards fans understand and appreciate it when a front office makes smart moves, good-value moves … moves that get done for the right reasons.

Let’s review the notable transactions from the offseason through the Holland signing:

— Traded four prospects, but no elite prospects, to Miami for left fielder Marcell Ozuna. Gold glove award, silver slugger award, power, personality, etc.

— Knowing that the Cardinals have a surplus on top of a surplus of outfielders, Mozeliak flipped Randal Grichuk to Toronto in exchange for Leone, a highly effective reliever for Toronto last season. (The Cardinals also received pitching prospect Connor Greene, who is ranked No. 21 on the organization’s Top 30 list by MLB.com Pipeline.)

— Mozeliak moved outfielder Stephen Piscotty to Oakland for prospects Yairo Munoz and Max Schrock. A surprise of camp, Munoz made the Cardinals’ opening-day 25-man roster and can play three infield positions and all three outfield positions. He can run and has power. Schrock, an infielder, has a live bat. He’s already No. 10 on the STL prospect list. And as part of the deal, Oakland absorbed the remaining $30 million on Piscotty’s contract.

— Signed Gregerson to a two-year deal that averages $5.5 million per season. Gregerson lost a few fly balls into the Crawford Boxes at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, and got roughed up after some strong seasons for the Astros. But his plus slider remains intact. A calculated gamble, backed by the Cardinals’ analytics department, and I believe it will work out.

— Signed Norris to a one-year, $3 million contract. Closing for the Angels, Norris had 15 saves in 17 opportunities and torqued up for a 32 percent strikeout rate before the All-Star break last season. An inflamed knee messed up his second half.

— Signed starting pitching Miles Mikolas for two years at an average of $7.75 million per season. Several MLB teams, including the Cubs, pursued Mikolas after his excellent three-season career reinvention in Japan. Mikolas was out of whack early in spring training, made corrections with pitching coach Mike Maddux, and looked great  the rest of the way. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mikolas had a surprisingly good season. We’ll see. But the potential for a low-investment, high-value return is definitely there.

— And now Holland, at a year for $14 million. Led the NL with 41 saves in 2017. Was named to the All-Star team. Struck out 11 hitters per nine innings. Had a 15.2 percent swing-miss rate. But didn’t Holland have a poor second half? Didn’t Holland fade after the All-Star break? No, he didn’t. Holland had an awful eight-game stretch in August, getting punished for 14 earned runs (including four homers) in 6.1 innings. He struck out only four, and walked six. After that … until the end of the regular season … Holland had a 1.69 ERA, was touched for a weak .361 OPS and averaged 11 strikeouts per nine innings over his final 11 appearances.

If you look at the offseason body of work … that’s good work by the front office.

As an extra, should the Cardinals need to make a significant roster upgrade via trade during the season their most attractive and tradable assets are still in place.

Thanks for reading and have a beautiful weekend…

–Bernie

More – Mozeliak Interview: GM Says Fireballer Hicks’ Promotion Due in Part to Yadi’s Assessment