The Cardinals had a firetrap bullpen last season, and responded by making moves to clear the smoke away. This particular gashouse gang blew 41 leads in 2023, and that can’t happen again.

With the assistance of new consultant Chaim Bloom, the front office brought in several relatively unsung relievers who have plus “stuff” and good upside. The list includes Andrew Kittredge, Keynan Middleton, Ryan Fernandez, Riley O’Brien and Nick Robertson. They’ll bring more swing and whiff capability to late-inning settings.

An obvious goal is to increase the bullpen putaway rate after St. Louis relievers ranked 26th in the majors with an average of 8.73 strikeouts per nine innings. That said, the relievers did a pretty good job of limiting walks and home runs. And after yielding a .311 batting average on balls in play – among the highest in the majors – the bullpen crew will need more help from the defense in 2024.

Here are a few important situations to monitor:

1. Will closer Ryan Helsley be available more often? Last season he missed 82 days with a forearm strain. And the Cardinals took a more conservative approach to using him. In 2023 Helsley appeared in 21 fewer games and pitched 28 fewer innings than he did in 2022. Helsley still showed dominant form but it wasn’t the same. From 2022 to 2023, his ERA went from 1.25 to 2.45, the strikeout rate dropped by nearly four percent, and the opponent OPS against him increased by 100 points up to .538. If healthy and ready to pitch, Helsley can be one of the best relievers in the game.

2. Can Giovanny Gallegos rebound? This is a big one. The setup-role righthander dropped in effectiveness last season. The Cardinals need him to summon the consistent excellence he gave them from 2019 through 2022.

* From 2019 through 2022, Gallegos had a 2.84 ERA, a 32 percent strikeout rate, and allowed a .356 slugging percentage. He also gave up only 0.9 homers per nine innings.

* In 2023, Gallegos had a 4.42 ERA, a 25.8% strikeout rate, allowed a .467 slugging percentage, and was rocked for 1.8 homers per nine innings.

Most glaring was an opponent’s hard-hit rate that jumped to an alarming 46.2 percent in 2023 – which put Gallegos in the bottom five percent of all MLB pitchers. His four-seam fastball and slider were diminished. In 2022, both pitches had a plus 11 run value according to Statcast. But in 2023, both pitches were graded at below average. That’s a startling drop. This all raises questions on what we should expect from Gallegos in 2023.

2a. Can Gallegos suppress left-handed hitters? That’s another item on our list of concerns. Here’s a year-by-year slugging percentage by LH batters against Gallegos since 2019:


LH batters have clobbered Gallegos hard over the last two seasons. He’ll have to put an end to that or his decline will continue.

3. JoJo Romero: Can the lefty do it for a full season? We’ve seen Romero deliver in short, impressive bursts during his big-league time with the Cardinals. Last season JoJo had a 28.6 percent strikeout rate and held LH batters to a .105 average and .447 OPS. And he did an above-average job against RH batters. As an increasingly important piece of the bullpen, Romero’s stuff has to last over six months.

4. Matthew Liberatore: is he meant to be a reliever? It’s the proverbial small sample, but Liberatore was nasty when used out of the bullpen last season. He appeared in 11 games, worked to 49 batters, pitched 12.2 innings. And hitters batted only .146 against him with a 24.5% strikeout rate. He also had a 26.7% strikeout rate when facing RH batters. (One problem: too many walks.) As a reliever Liberatore has a more aggressive, attacking mentality. He could make a big difference for the bullpen in 2024. He could be a wipeout reliever. But we might want to reduce the hype a little. We just haven’t seen enough of him in the role.

5. Andre Pallante: I’ll keep it short. Is this for real? Pallante, a righty, is known for getting LH batters to hit the ball on the ground. And if the Cardinals play better defensive behind him, that’s a huge plus. But Pallante has to improve against RH hitters. He’s trying by throwing a tighter curve with less loop, and keeping RH batters off balance by changing the way he works them. The pitch mix has been altered. A power sinker reached 96.2 mph in a recent outing.

As Pallante told Derrick Goold: “I have completely reversed how I pitch to righties, and it’s a whole different thing now. I was half a foot into doing it my first year, and I didn’t really buy in. I didn’t feel like I could do it. I tried to go about it a different way, and that showed no success. I’ve completely bought in now to the pathway.”

After pitching to a 4.76 ERA in 2023, Pallante is finding a new way and seemingly has momentum. There’s a lot to like. But now he has to take it into the regular season.

I’ve raised questions here because some skepticism is necessary. There’s more talent, depth and variety in the St. Louis bullpen for 2024, and that’s positive. The bullpen strikeout rate should rise, and that’s another positive. I think this bullpen has a chance to be really good, but manager Oli Marmol will have to be more adept in how he uses his relievers. Over the course of a long season, he’ll have more choices – and must be sharp in handling the arsenal.

The X Factor: If starting pitchers can go deeper into games – which is the plan – then the bullpen can settle into a more stable usage pattern. And that should benefit the relievers. They like a steady routine.

An Independent View

FanGraphs ranked the Cardinals No. 9 on the 30-team list of best bullpens.

“The Cardinals have a great three-arm backend of their bullpen (Helsley, Gallegos, Romero) and a unique weapon in Andre Pallante (who garnered a 79% groundball rate last year), but after that this group is more pedestrian,” Eric Longenhagen wrote. “Helsley is one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in the game — his fastball averaged 99 mph last season. Gio Gallegos doesn’t throw as hard as the typical set-up man, but his slider generated a 28% swinging strike rate last season, which is elite. I championed Jojo Romero as a prospect and it was great to finally see him healthy and used in a regular role last year, as the fiery three-pitch lefty has the tools to get hitters of both handedness out.

“Rule 5 draft pick Ryan Fernandez seemed like one of the likeliest draftees to stick on their big league roster when he was selected, and he’s barely walked anyone this spring. He’s a rock solid middle inning option. He and Nick Robertson, who has been walk prone and was optioned, both got squeezed off of Boston’s roster and happily acquired here, which tells you a little bit about St. Louis’ roster.

“The Cardinals’ activity in free agency (they signed several veteran starters) also created a huge raft of starting pitching depth at Triple-A (Gordon Graceffo, Sem Robberse, Mike McGreevy, Matthew Liberatore, Connor Thomas, Adam Kloffenstein), and there are a couple other more reliever-y prospects right behind them (Tekoah Roby, Tink Hence, arguably Cooper Hjerpe) who could all be ‘penned and fast-tracked this year if the Cardinals contend for the division crown and are motivated to make such a move.”

The Cardinals made two moves that weren’t mentioned by FanGraphs: trading for the RHP Kittredge and signing the RHP Middleton. Kittredge, 34, seems fully restored from Tommy John elbow surgery after missing most of the past two seasons. Middleton (forearm) will begin the season on the and could be there for a while. In his career Middleton has missed 423 in-season days during his MLB career – including 98 over the last two seasons combined. If healthy, both can provide a major upgrade to the 2024 bullpen. But even though bullpen volatility is normal, the Cardinals would prefer a lot less of it.

Thanks for reading …


A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, 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 grab the show podcast on or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.

Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb

For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.

All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Sports Info Solutions Spotrac and Cot’s Contracts unless otherwise noted.

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 36 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. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, 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.