As the Cardinals made a late push at a postseason spot this year, it seemed the club had finally sorted things out in the ninth inning — and done so for 2018 as well. Trevor Rosenthal, once the team’s lock-down closer, had rediscovered and even improved upon his former form.
The sense of certainty did not lost long. The grim UCL reaper came for the powerful righty in late August, knocking him out for most or all of the 2018 campaign. Whatever hope Rosenthal may have of returning late in the season to come, it likely won’t be sufficient for the team to tender him a contract at the projected rate of $7.9MM.
Seung-hwan Oh had taken over closing duties for Rosenthal when he faltered in 2016, but Oh himself stumbled last year and is in any event now a free agent. Brett Cecil rebounded from an ugly start to his time in St. Louis, especially in the peripherals, but was never really given a look in that role. Tyler Lyons turned in an exciting season but made way for Juan Nicasio, who was acquired despite the fact that he was not eligible for the postseason. And young flamethrower Sandy Alcantara continues to show eye-popping talent, but likely won’t be entrusted with such a key role early in 2018 after exhibiting some walk issues during his first MLB stint last year.
All said, it’s rather clear that the Cardinals will be looking for an outside acquisition to secure late-inning victories. The team’s leadership largely acknowledges as much, as Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. Looking around the rest of baseball, it’s hard to identify any other team with such an evident need in the 9th. Among hopeful contenders, there are a few other clubs with potential openings — the Cubs, Twins, Rockies, Diamondbacks, and Angels, especially — though some of those organizations may well look to internal options. Other organizations will consider adding high-leverage relievers, even if they already have ninth-inning options penciled in, so there is other competition. But the need for an established closer is more acute in St. Louis than anywhere else.
As the Cards begin mapping out an offseason strategy, here are some of the names they might be weighing:
Despite expressing a general aversion to “pay[ing] retail for closers,” GM Mike Girsch acknowledges a need to “evaluate the brand-name closers in the market.”
- Wade Davis has emerged as the top target, as he carried a 2.30 ERA through the regular season and has come up big thus far in the postseason. Davis is still pumping mid-nineties heat, even if it isn’t quite at his peak, and set a career high with a 15.4% swinging-strike rate.
- Greg Holland did not quite hold his edge for the entirety of a bounceback season, though surely his extensive absence also played a role. Holland also drew swings and misses on more than 15% of the pitches he threw despite a more significant velocity drop than Davis has experienced to this point. Though he got he job done for most of the year at altitude, Holland did end with a less-than-dominant 3.61 ERA.
- Addison Reed stepped into the closer’s role for the Mets before his mid-season trade to the Red Sox and has plenty of high-leverage experience in his career. He has yet to reach 29 years of age and, unlike the prior two names on this list, brings elite control to the table and also set a personal best with a 13.7% swinging-strike rate. There’s certainly a case to be made that Reed represents a more palatable long-term investment and can be trusted to handle the ninth.
- Juan Nicasio, as noted, ended up taking a surprising route to Cards late in the season. He ended up saving four games in 11 strong innings. Over the course of the year, Nicasio led the National League with 76 appearances and carried a 2.61 ERA with 9.0 K/9 against 2.7 BB/9. While the converted starter has relatively minimal experience in the late innings, he might represent a more budget-friendly possibility.
There are other free agents with ample late-inning experience, including Steve Cishek, Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, Koji Uehara, and Sergio Romo. Those and others could obviously be considered by the Cards, but likely wouldn’t be added with closing duties in mind.
The Cards will surely also look into trade possibilities. With Alcantara and other good arms on the rise, though, perhaps the focus will be on shoring things up for 2018 rather than securing a longer-term piece (at a much higher price, no doubt).
- Kelvin Herrera could represent an interesting target. The Royals dealt Davis away last year for a talented player (Jorge Soler) who had fallen out of favor with his contending team. St. Louis has quite a few intriguing assets (Aledmys Diaz, first and foremost) that could fit a similar description. Herrera is just 27 years old but will be entering his final season of arb control at a projected $8.3MM. He’s also coming off of a tepid 2017 season in which he managed only a 4.25 ERA with 8.5 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 while permitting a sudden jump in home runs (1.37 per nine on a 14.5% HR/FB rate). Herrera is still throwing pure heat but did slip to an 11.5% swinging-strike rate. And some late-season forearm issues are a bit concerning from the perspective of an acquiring organization.
- Zach Britton might also be a one-year bounceback target, though he could be in line for a $12.2MM payday and had some fairly worrying health and performance issues in 2017. Plus, the O’s presently insist they aren’t interested in dealing him. There’s still time for that stance to change, however, and the Cards would be one of many teams that could dream on a revived Britton. Teammate Brad Brach is also a quality late-inning arm and is set to earn just $5.2MM, though as with Britton it remains unclear whether he’ll truly be available at any kind of reasonable price.
While price tags figure to remain high for sought-after young relievers, there are quite a few interesting names to consider.
- Brad Hand is earning a reasonable $3.8MM in his second-to-last season of arb control. Though the Padres’ 27-year-old only just stepped into the closer’s role in the middle of 2017, that change didn’t seem to bother the breakout reliever, who worked to a 2.16 ERA with 11.8 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9 over a healthy 79 1/3 frames. Hand can work deep and deliver top-line results, though his status as one of the game’s best southpaws will no doubt also lead to broad interest.
- Raisel Iglesias continues to dominate and is still 27 years old. The Reds hurler will earn $4.5MM this year, as his contract calls for, and will likely opt into arbitration beginning in 2018 — when his salary figures to ramp up quite a bit. Still, with control through 2021, Iglesias has huge value. Plus, he may yet be on the come, as he boosted both his average fastball velo and swinging-strike rate in 2017.
- Alex Colome will take home a projected $5.5MM from the Rays with two more years of control remaining. It’s still not clear what kind of course Tampa Bay will take this winter; though it seems more likely than not that the team will keep trying to contend, it’s still possible that Colome will be shopped around a bit. The 28-year-old failed to sustain his 2016 breakout, though, tallying a 3.24 ERA with a pedestrian 7.8 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9 in 66 2/3 innings.
- Arodys Vizcaino has had plenty of ups and downs for the Braves, who may prefer simply to hold onto him rather than trying to secure what may not be an exciting return. But Vizcaino did manage a 2.83 ERA last year while closing 14 games, so could hold appeal. He is slated to earn something in the realm of $3.7MM and can also be tendered arbitration for 2019, so there’s also somewhat less contractual upside than with some of the other pitchers discussed here — perhaps lowering the ask on Viz. In his favor? A blistering 98 mph heater and career-best 14.7% swinging-strike rate. Beyond questions about his ability to reliably handle closing duties for a full season, we’ll also need to wait to see what course the Braves take once their current front-office mess is resolved.
- Dellin Betances could be an intriguing buy-low target if the Yankees decide to move on. While he has often been absurdly dominant, Betances showed a concerning loss of the strike zone down the stretch and into the postseason. But his overwhelming stuff and upside are undeniable. With a projected $4.4MM arb salary and another year of control, he’d draw big interest despite the struggles. Of course, there’s also good reason for New York to hold and hope for a rebound, and the risk may be too great for a team like the Cards to trust the ninth to Betances coming out of camp.
Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has also reported that the Cards have some interest in right-hander Yoshihisa Hirano — the longtime closer for Japan’s Orix Buffaloes. It seems unlikely that a big league club would sign the free agent and immediately hand him the keys to the ninth inning, though if he impresses early in his MLB tenure he could emerge as a closing option, as Oh did in his 2016 debut campaign.
There are a few other young names that could conceivably enter the mix here — most notably Roberto Osuna of the Blue Jays, Edwin Diaz of the Mariners, and perhaps the Phillies’ Hector Neris. But all indications are that there’s no significant likelihood of these players being moved; Toronto and Seattle insist they will try again to contend, while the Phils probably won’t have much motivation to part with a pre-arb relief talent as their competitive window begins to re-open.