At this point, I’m starting to consider myself the Dominic Leone of STLBullpen. Early in the season I did some good things and some less good things. Point is, I was brought in from the outside (Cardinals blog-o-sphere wise), was just starting to find my groove, and then just vanished for awhile. For Leone, this has been because of injury. For me, it’s been because I was preparing for the bar exam, which itself is an injury to both the brain and the spirit. Leone is not back yet, but I am, and I am happy to see that our writing staff is not being gutted like the real Cardinals bullpen currently is (hopefully it isn’t as necessary). Also, hopefully Dominic Leone has not imbibed a six-pack of 4Hands this evening like I have.
The subject of Dominic Leone brings me to the much-discussed broader subject of the Cardinals bullpen in 2018. A true test of Murphy’s Law, the bullpen subsequently is finding itself in a state of flux at the moment, as John Mozeliak himself has hinted at- and we may not even be done yet. Earlier this season I wrote an article on whether it was possible to “Matheny-proof” the bullpen, and after several more disastrous weeks followed, it appears that the front office came to agree with me that the answer to that question is a resounding “no,” as Mike Matheny was given the boot (since I was in non-writing mode at the time it happened, allow me this opportunity to gloat about how long of a time coming this was for me). We now find ourselves in the Mike Shildt era, at least for the rest of 2018 if not longer. We have yet to fully learn what type of bullpen strategist Shildt is at this level, in part because of a small sample size, and in part because, well, the bullpen has performed so terribly that it has overshadowed Shildt’s individual moves. There have at least been encouraging signs, which is all we can really ask for at this point.
This article is less about Shildt, though, and more about the front office. More specifically, it is about how bullpens are constructed (or at least how they should be), the direction we are headed in, and the two trades the team has made this weekend.
The absolute, indisputable, central fact that every fan should understand about bullpen pitchers is that they are random. Relief pitchers can look elite for a season and promptly vanish off the face of the earth. This is why, from a roster-building perspective, investing heavily in the bullpen is such a risky proposition. When many of us talk about not wanting the Cardinals to spend a ton of money on the bullpen, it isn’t because we’re crotchety penny-pinchers or anti-labor petit bourgeoisie stooges, it’s because the performance of bullpen pitchers from year to year is incredibly hard to predict, and when you build your bullpen primarily around expensive veterans, you tend to wind up with a lot of pitchers who don’t pan out. It’s not our money, absolutely, but it is harmful to the on-field product we hinge our hopes on for reasons that have nothing to do with how nice of a car Bill DeWitt III can drive.
For an even more glaring example relating to a team whose mistakes we can actually enjoy laughing at, think back to the Cubs in 2016. Theo Epstein felt he needed to add a shutdown reliever to the bullpen midseason, so he traded away star prospect Gleyber Torres for noted garbage human Aroldis Chapman. Torres is now considered one of baseball’s most promising young players on one of baseball’s most promising teams. As for Chapman, he very nearly found himself as the final head on the Mount Rushmore of Cubs futility next to Steve Bartman, the goat, and the black cat, then went running back to New York in the offseason. The Cubs got away with it, but the process was unquestionably bad.
As for the 2018 Cardinals, the most significant failure was the Greg Holland situation. I and others on this site have written about this abomination of an idea by the Cardinals front office. Again, the problem with the Holland signing was not the money or time committed (it was essentially a glorified pillow contract) but how predictable it was that this was going to blow up in their faces. Greg Holland is unlike John Brebbia or Mike Mayers, not only in terms of performance, but in terms of the fact that Holland was stuck in the bullpen and there was nothing else to do with him other than spend time and energy finding places where he could get playing times in hopes of straightening himself out, even as it became more obvious that was never going to happen. The whole situation became an albatross, with one bullpen spot being filled by a pitcher who you could not trust to pitch in any high-leverage situation. That in turn weighed more heavily on both the starters and the offense to avoid having to resort to pitching him. It was a mess that was as bad as any I can recall in recent Cardinals history, but at least the two irredeemable elements of the situation are gone now. We also are still dealing with the Brett Cecil situation, which also could have been seen coming a mile away.
This brings us to the two trades the Cardinals have made this weekend. The first was a trade with our recent trade besties, the Mariners, shipping off Sam Tuivailala for relief-only pitching prospect Sam Elledge. Tonight, they moved again, this time sending local favorite Luke Voit to the Yankees for relief pitchers Chasen Shreve and Giovanny Gallegos (hard to imagine two baseball names father apart on the coolness spectrum than that). Really, both of these moves are rather inconsequential. The season is not necessarily over for the Cardinals, as 2011 proved that all it takes sometimes is a timely hot streak and some good old-fashioned dumb luck. That being said, the season is statistically likely enough to be over that any move made now should be analyzed first and foremost for how it impacts 2019 and beyond. Even if that was not the case, Sam Tuivailala and Luke Voit were not star players and were not in the long-term plans of the Cardinals, therefore getting something of value in return for them is good process.
There was no fuss made over the Tuivailala trade (I will admit that as someone with a soft-spot for fantastic Polynesian surnames, it did sting a bit that he never panned out) but there has been some grumbling about the return for Voit. Voit’s local ties- as well as giving us the single greatest picture involving a Cardinals player in recent memory- likely colors this quite a bit. I wish the best for Voit and he’s a fun player, but in all honesty, it isn’t a huge loss. As for the return, Shreve has, well, kinda stunk up the joint this season, although Gallegos looks genuinely promising. Sam Elledge, the return in the Tui trade, is also not a star prospect by any means, but has the potential to eventually fill the Seth Maness/healthy Matt Bowman ground ball specialist role. Objectively speaking, these are pretty boring trades. No star power is being exchanged, and there isn’t even a guarantee that any of these players will make much of an impact with their new teams. If that’s the case, then why am I writing this increasingly long-winded article about them?
In my Matheny article, I talked at some length about the concept of a “progressive” bullpen, both in management and construction. Earlier in this article, I pointed out the inherent randomness of bullpen pitcher performance. These two observations converge at the point of the Tui and Voit trades. The progressive way to build a bullpen is to, rather than investing a lot of effort and money into one or two bullpen options, stock the organization with as many options as is feasible at the upper levels. This way, not only is there greater potential for someone to find their groove and become a go-to option in high-leverage situations, but there is more margin for error when relief pitchers expected to be relied on randomly have bad seasons (or get injured). If there is a more artful way of saying “throw crap at the wall and see what sticks,” then mentally insert that here. This naturally comes easier for the Cardinals than most organizations because of their success at developing pitching talent- if it comes to it, there is almost always a stock of starting pitchers in Memphis or Springfield that can be plugged into the bullpen, as we saw heading into the season with Jordan Hicks, have seen periodically with Austin Gomber, and are apparently now seeing with Dakota Hudson and Daniel Poncedeleon. The other method is to make shorter-term, lower-key signings of veterans who your scouts see a reason to believe could have a good enough season for you to bet on. In those cases, if the team gets unlucky, the expectations are lower and the commitment is lesser so we avoid albatross situations like Holland and Cecil. As loathsome of an individual as Bud Norris is, that signing did fit this strategy like a glove and has paid dividends for the Cardinals.
The third method is via trade. By shipping off any significant amount of talent in your system for relief pitchers, you often find yourself in the same boat as you do when you make big free-agent relief pitcher signings. Not all trades are on the same scale though, of course. The Tui and Voit trades were not the same sort of process as the Cubs’ trade for Aroldis Chapman. The Randal Grichuk trade for Dominic Leone and Connor Greene was, in all senses, just a sexier version of this same concept. What the Cardinals are doing with these trades is acknowledging the randomness of bullpen performance, understanding that it serves them well to have as many options as possible, and giving themselves more of those options in exchange for players who were not part of the future plans of the organization. For those of you who play Dungeons & Dragons, the Cardinals are essentially allowing themselves to roll at advantage every time. For those of you who don’t play Dungeons & Dragons, please forget that I just said that.
At the end of the day, it’s resourcefulness. When seeking out pitching talent to aid the bullpen down the road, one of the most valuable factors is player options. Being able to send a pitcher to Memphis if he isn’t doing well avoids the sort of albatross situations that the 2018 bullpen has been haunted by. Sam Tuivailala actually would fit the progressive strategy fairly well, but he was out of options, so he was stuck in the major league bullpen at the expense of a John Brebbia, a Mike Mayers, or even a Dakota Hudson. Is there any guarantee that Sam Elledge, Chasen Shreve, and Giovanny Gallegos will be productive bullpen pitchers for the Cardinals? Definitely not. As with all bullpen pitchers, they’re rolls of the dice. There is a reason why all the pitchers who can be lock-down good for many years on end all wind up in the Hall of Fame. They’re the exception, not the rule. Until a team finds itself a Mariano Rivera (getting back to the Dungeons & Dragons analogy, having a Rivera in the bullpen is rolling a natural 20) the smartest strategy is to give themselves as many dice to roll as possible. With the Voit and Tui trades, this is what the Cardinals are doing, and if we hope to see the Cardinals’ bullpen not be a hindrance if and when they get themselves back into contention in the next few years, these are the types of moves that we should approve of. The process is essentially buying luck for the cost of a player whose time in the organization was limited anyway.
The trades are definitely “boring,” and are not especially consequential either. There is no real reason for us as fans to get excited about them. The point is, though, that the moves and strategies that make a team successful are often not exciting. We have the luxury of only needing to focus on the product in the aggregate, while these types of trades are made with focus on the nittier-grittier aspects. And yes, it may not be fun to trade away a smiling, giant knife-wielding beefy boy like Luke Voit. It may also not be fun to read twelve paragraphs analyzing these trades (too late now, suckers). That being said, these sorts of boring moves have their place, and while it isn’t necessary to applaud them, they are, purely process-wise, helping to trend the future of the bullpen in a much less bleak direction.
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