The Cardinals are trying to identify established and effective relievers in the free-agent market as part of the process to revitalize their beaten-down bullpen.
Business has moved at a relatively slow pace in the marketplace as front offices, agents and relievers wait for vending prices to settle. But president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and advisors can’t be flat-footed and expect to improve the bullpen.
In 2023 St. Louis relievers molded a rather unsightly profile:
* 25th among 30 teams with a 4.47 bullpen ERA.
* 18th in fielding-independent ERA, 4.16.
* 25th with an average of 8.73 strikeouts per nine innings – and 24th with an overall strikeout rate of 22 percent.
* A strikeout-walk ratio (2.33) that ranked 22nd.
* 22nd in Win Probability Added.
* An inflated 7.11 ERA in 98 and ⅔ high-leverage innings.
* 41 blown leads. A poor save percentage (56%.) When a starting pitcher left a game with a lead, the bullpen lost 19 times – the fourth-highest count in the majors. St. Louis starting pitchers took nine losses when turning in a quality start.
Though his dominance was less imposing in 2023, closer Ryan Helsley gave the Cardinals an imposing presence late in games, but his durability is an ongoing concern. Set-up reliever Giovanny Gallegos experienced a significant drop in strikeout rate and the startling hard-hit rate against him (46.2%) was in the bottom five percent of all MLB relievers. Andre Pallante went sideways in his second big-league season. Lefty JoJo Romero cranked up his strikeout rate to 28.6 percent, held left-handed batters to a .109 average – but wasn’t as effective when facing right-handed hitters.
The front office has been aggressive about collecting relievers from other organizations in low-key moves. They chose Boston’s Ryan Fernandez in the Rule 5 draft, traded for Seattle Triple A reliever Riley O’Brien, and obtained Nick Robertson in the trade that relocated outfielder Tyler O’Neill to the Red Sox. There are things to like about all three bullpen candidates but we’ll find out more during spring training. And to be blunt, the Cardinals need to do a lot more than this. Taking a chance on inexperienced relievers that have thin resumes is fine – but it can’t be a bankable strategy.
I spent a few hours Thursday morning looking at available free-agent relievers and so I could offer the information to you.
I’ll use the Stuff+ metric as a general measure of quality. Stuff+ uses the movement profile of each pitch in a pitcher’s tool box to estimate nastiness. A mark of 100 is the league average, so you want to have your relievers perform above 100. The higher the better.
Last season St. Louis relievers collectively had a 104 Stuff+ rating that ranked 12th among MLB bullpens. But that’s misleading. The only impressive pitch from the group was the slider; Cardinal relievers collectively had the third-best slider among MLB bullpens. Helsley was the best of the gang with an impressive 155 Stuff+.
Here we go …
Aroldis Chapman, LHP: Stuff+ 134. Chapman will be 36 next season. In 2023 he walked too many hitters but struck out 41 percent of batters faced. And he has four above-average pitches according to Stuff+. They are his four-seam fastball, sinker, split-finger fastball, and slider. The power sinker – 100 mph of fury – is 77 percent above average and especially vicious.
Josh Hader, LHP: Stuff+ 112. Interesting. I thought he’d be higher than 12 percent above average in his Stuff+ rating. And I thought his slider would have a higher rating than 109. But Stuff+ doesn’t take deception into account, and Hader is notoriously deceptive with his slider. Hitters struggle with their timing when he throws his go-to choice. Hader is clearly one of the best in the biz. Last season he had a 1.28 ERA and 37% strikeout rate for the Padres and held opponents to a .163 average and .224 slug. The hard-hit rate against Hader was among the lowest in the majors. Batters hit .100 with a .120 slug against his slider in 2023.
Jordan Hicks, RHP: Stuff+ 126. At age 27 and in the prime of his career, Hicks undoubtedly is seeking a lengthier contract for three or four seasons. Hicks came into his own last season and is absolutely one of the top relievers on the market. With the Cardinals and Blue Jays Hicks had a 28.4 percent strikeout rate with an exceptional ground-ball rate of 59 percent. As for Stuff+ last season he went after hitters with four above-average pitches: 166 changeup, 149 slider, 136 fastball, and a 116 sinker. Hicks got off to a horrendous start in 2023, but he regrouped to churn a 2.40 ERA and a 30% strikeout rate in his final 58 appearances of the season. And there are no platoon-split concerns; LH batters hit only .225 against Hicks in ‘23.
Ryne Stanek, RHP: Stuff+ 131. His performance for the Astros leveled off in 2023 with a 4.60 FIP and 24 percent strikeout rate in 50 and ⅔ innings. Stanek brings an average four-seam fastball of 98.2 mph to the party; that ranks in the top-four percentile. But even though Stanek’s slider had a strong 153 Stuff+ grade last season, opponents put up good numbers against the pitch. Stanek, who was born in St. Louis, will be 33 next July. He had a 2.70 ERA in 23 career postseason appearances.
David Robertson, RHP: Stuff+ 125. An experienced high-leverage reliever with multiple “plus” pitches including his cutter, slider and a knuckle-curve. He’ll be 39 next season and has already shown age-related regression. He still has a solid strikeout punch that registered at 28 percent in high-leverage matchups over the last two seasons. But the age factor shouldn’t be disregarded.
Robert Stephenson, RHP: Stuff+ 116. His fastball velocity (97.1 mph) rates in the top 10 percent of MLB pitchers. And Stephenson can really spin it. You want strikeouts? Stephenson qualifies. Last season – split between the Pirates and Rays – Stephenson had strikeout rates of 51% on his cutter, 36% on his slider, and 35% on his four-seam fastball. His four-seamer and slider were well above average via Stuff+, and Statcast put an excellent run-value grade on his cutter. He’ll be 31 next season.
Jake Diekman, LHP: Stuff+ 141. A surprising name on this list. Diekman is your traditional lefty specialist and at 36 is coming off one of his best MLB seasons and is a Stuff+ star with his fastball (164) and slider (140.) In 45 and ⅓ innings with Tampa Bay, Diekman crafted a 2.18 ERA and struck out 28.7% of batters faced. He was very good against RH batters in 2023 – but that hasn’t always been the case.
Shelby Miller, RHP: Stuff+ 111. Can you believe the former young gun of the Cardinals rotation is 33 years old now? After years of trying to regain his velocity and form in the aftermath of shoulder surgery, Miller found his niche with the Dodgers last season. He had a 1.71 ERA in 42 innings and had life on his fastball, slider and splitter. All offerings were above average in Stuff+, with the splitter (124) being his best pitch. Miller displayed excellent extension on his delivery and struck out 26% of hitters faced. (His 11.8% walk rate was a problem.) Miller was tough on LH batters, which is always a plus. And he could be utilized as a swingman, working in tandem with another pitcher. The bounce-back season was good to see … but can Miller repeat it in 2024?
Keynan Middleton, RHP: 104 Stuff+. Middleton, 30, seems underrated to me. And last season, with the White Sox and Yankees, Middleton struck out 30% of batters faced and induced a preposterous 56.6 percent groundball rate. He logged a 3.38 ERA in 51 appearances. And I sure took notice of this: last season ranked in the 89th percentile or better in chase rate, whiff rate, strikeout rate, hard-hit rate and ground-ball rate. I don’t know what else you’d want in a late-inning reliever. Late last season Middleton went on the IL with shoulder inflammation but returned by in time to pitch again. In 12 games with the Yankees, Middleton pitched to a 1.88 ERA and had a 0.98 WHIP.
Phil Maton, RHP: Stuff+ 100. Granted, that’s only “average” stuff, but it helps to take a closer look at where he’s been successful for the Astros over the last two seasons. The answer: Maton is the quintessential middle-innings reliever who can calm the game when entering early to replace a laboring starter. Over the last two seasons Maton has a 2.55 ERA when he works in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings. He can cover plenty of innings for his team, and there’s value in that. His sweeper/slider is rated 23 percent above average in Stuff+. But Maton’s speciality is his curve ball; last season he used it on 40.4% of his pitches and got a 36 percent strikeout rate. Last season struck out 27% of batters faced and yielded the lowest hard-hit rate in the majors. Maton grew up in Chatham, IL near Springfield and went to the same high school as former MLB outfielder Jayson Werth.
Hector Neris, RHP: slightly below average with 99 Stuff+. Neris will be 35 in June, and there’s a lot to like about him. Over the past two years, Neris made 15 postseason relief appearances for the Astros and was one of their best dudes. He had one postseason blowup against the Twins in 2023 but allowed a run in only two of his other postseason turns. He’s used to pitching in big games and doesn’t rattle. In the last two regular seasons Neris gave Houston a 2.69 ERA and 29% strikeout rate and limited hard contact. His best pitches are the splitter and four-seamer. He had a 42.2% strikeout rate on the splitter last season. That’s his finest pitch, and his slider is solid enough.
Ryan Brasier, RHP: 106 Stuff+. He’s intriguing for this reason: after being traded from the Red Sox to the Dodgers, Brasier’s strikeout rate jumped to 27 percent in 38 innings. It had been only 19% in 21 innings for Boston. Brasier had three above-average pitches – four-seamer, sinker and slider – once he relocated to Los Angeles.
Austin Pruitt, RHP: Stuff+ 115. Last season he gave Oakland a 2.98 ERA in 44 innings. The 34-year-old doesn’t throw hard and isn’t much of a strikeout guy. But that 115 Stuff+ rating is based on two superb pitches, the slider (151) and curve (128).
Collin McHugh, RHP: Stuff+ 113. He was shut down by a shoulder ailment late last season, so let the buyer beware. Before the injury he had a 126 slider with an above-average cutter. He also had a 4.30 ERA, an alarming decrease in strikeout rate and will be 37 next season.
Shintaro Fujinami, RHP: Stuff+ 115. OK, his stuff has good movement. But this didn’t deliver positive results as a 29-year-old MLB rookie last season when he had a 7.18 ERA and 1.494 WHIP for Oakland and Baltimore. His wildness was a huge issue, and his only plus pitch was the cutter. Perhaps Fujinami will settle down in his second big-league season (2024.) He’s intriguing because of a 98.4 mph four-seamer that’s among the fastest in the majors. And that 115 Stuff+ tells us something is there.
Trevor Gott, RHP: 94 Stuff+. The journeyman pitched to a 3.20 FIP for the Brewers and Mets last season and struck out 24 %. He did have 1.0 WAR which is pretty good for a reliever. Serviceable.
Wild-card candidate: LH reliever Yuki Matsui: A star closer in Japan, Matsui had a career 2.40 ERA and 236 saves for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan. He became the youngest player in NPB league history to reach 200 saves this season. Over the last three seasons he has a 1.42 ERA with 36.4% strikeout rate.
The Cardinals were said to be interested in Matsui but I’m not sure if they’re serious or actively involved. In October a Japanese sports newspaper (Sports Hochi) said the Cardinals had made an “official offer” to Matsui. We’ll see.
I hope I didn’t miss any relevant relievers, but I’ve tried to give you a comprehensive look at potential candidates.
Please pardon my typos. Because of time constraints I was trying to do some extra-quick speed typing, and that’s never a clean experience for me.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible. Baseball Prospectus, Bill James Online or Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise noted.
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.