Last season the Cardinals had a spotty performance by their left-handed relievers. Overall their bullpen lefties posted a 4.19 ERA that ranked 23rd among the 30 left-handed reliever groups in the majors. And their poor 18 percent strikeout rate was 27th.
STL’s lefty relievers weren’t dominant against LH batters, getting popped for a 3.90 ERA and a mediocre 22 percent strikeout rate. Manager Oli Marmol used his lefties for 419 plate appearances taken by right-handed batters, and the results were predictable, led by a 4.36 ERA in those matchups.
Because of the three-batter minimum rule, it isn’t easy to limit your LH relievers to the traditional “specialist” role that helped a manager avoid using them against right-side hitters. The way it is now, it’s important for a team’s lefty relievers to be effective against RH batters.
For now the Cardinals seem content to go with what they have including Genesis Cabrera, Zack Thompson and Packy Naugton. Two other lefties, JoJo Romero and Matthew Liberatore, could surface in the bullpen. But I’d expect the Cardinals to have Liberatore stay in the starter-depth category and that could mean a lot of starts and innings at Triple A Memphis.
I’ve written this about Thompson several times this offseason, but let’s do it again: the rookie was impressive in relief last season, sculpting a 0.61 ERA in 29.2 innings. But the rigors of relief led to arm fatigue and a shutdown. At least for now, his endurance is a question.
Cabrera had a terrible 2022, marked by fading velocity. “Cabby” must be viewed with skepticism until he shows he’s worthy of trust. Naughton did some good things, pitching to a 2.88 reliever ERA with a 2.59 FIP. But when he worked out of the bullpen RH batters hammered him for .509 slugging percentage to go with a .435 OBP. That’s trouble.
The Cardinals obviously could improve their bullpen by adding a quality left-handed reliever. It just happens that several notable lefty free agents remain unsigned including Andrew Chafin and Matt Moore.
Will Smith is still out there; he had so-so results for the Braves and Astros in 2022. Zach Britton is a prominent name, but he’s also a prominent risk, having been greatly limited by injuries over the last two seasons. Brad Hand is another semi-famous lefty, but his 2.80 ERA for the Phillies was deceiving in 2022. Hand’s performance had numerous warning signs last season including a substantial drop in strikeout rate (to 19%) and a glaring increase in walk rate (to 11%.) And Jose Alvarez had elbow surgery this offseason, so you can scratch him from the list.
Chafin is the most appealing candidate among the available free-agent lefties. He suppresses right-handed batters, and that gives him added value.
Over the last two seasons Chafin has turned in a sterling 2.29 ERA and 3.05 FIP 126 innings of work for the Cubs, A’s and Tigers. (The Cubs traded Chafin to Oakland at the 2021 deadline, and he signed a free-agent deal with Detroit before 2022.)
Chafin’s sinker-slider mix is potent, and the slider is loaded with swing–and-miss nastiness. In 2021 Chafin had a 54.6 percent whiff rate on the slider, and ratcheted that up to 60.4% in 2022.
Here’s the beautiful thing about this shaggy reliever: his slider punishes hitters from both sides of the plate. Let’s a quick look at his last two seasons and the effectiveness of Chafin’s slider:
* Against LH batters: .062 average, .154 slug, and a 54 percent strikeout rate in the 65 at-bats that ended with a slider.
* Against RH batters: .105 average, .186 slug, and a 62% strikeout rate on at-bats that ended with the slider.
Over the past two seasons Chafin has limited RH batters to a .204 average, .257 OBP and .310 slug with a 27% strikeout rate and low walk rate. This is simply outstanding, and his ownership of RH batters puts this 32-year-old lefty above the others that are still looking for a new home.
Chafin opted out of a $6.5 million guaranteed salary with Detroit for 2023 and obviously expected to cash in. It hasn’t happened, and we don’t know exactly what he’s seeking in a new deal. But no teams have signed him, and it isn’t because of concerns over his pitching health or effectiveness.
This must be about the price. Chafin undoubtedly has noted the top contracts signed by left-handed relievers this offseason. The Giants signed Taylor Rogers to a three-year contract that averages $11 million annually, and the Phillies gave Matt Strahm two years at an average of $7.5 million.
Chafin is better than those guys. But with pitcher-catcher reporting day coming up a week from now he may have to settle for a lesser contract.
I’m not saying Chafin-or-bust. Matt Moore had a high-quality 2022 for Texas, his career-best season as a reliever. But Chafin has a more consistent history than Moore in a bullpen role.
We know that the Cardinals have taken shelter in the payroll-limit mode, and aren’t in the mood to spend. Relative to his early-offseason demands and the anticipated cost after last season, Chafin could be a bargain.
Wednesday the Cardinals acquired left-handed reliever Anthony Misiewicz from the Royals. After coming over from Seattle, he had a robust 29.7 percent strikeout rate and a slightly above-average ERA+ in 2022. But he hasn’t many major-league innings over the past two seasons. There’s upside, but can the Cardinals really depend on him? He’s been splitting time between Triple A and the majors. The Cardinals already have dudes like that.
This was a typical move. Rather than pay up to sign an elite lefty reliever, the Cardinals gave the Royals some cash to get a depth piece in Misiewicz.
As recently as 2019, the Cardinals ranked 7th among 30 MLB teams in 26-man payroll costs and 7th in the 40-man competitive tax payroll.
In 2021, Bill DeWitt Jr.’s franchise ranked 10th in the 26-man payroll, and 9th in the 40-man.
In 2022, St. Louis dropped to 13th in the 26-man payroll costs and 12th in the 40-man.
They currently sit at No. 16 in both the 26-man and 40-man payroll rankings.
That didn’t take long, going from 7th in MLB in payroll down to 16th.
The money is there to sign Chafin.
The desire to spend it is the problem.
Thanks for reading …
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For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.