In a Monday chat with readers, Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch addressed the approach of the Cardinals front office to upgrading the team’s bullpen — a known priority for the club. In response to a question regarding potential interest in longtime Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, Goold suggested that, during the free agent bonanza that preceded the lockout, the Cards had looked less for a closer per se than at other ‘high-leverage’ arms — “ones who could be used as a closer, but not only a closer.”
The 2021 Cardinals bullpen finished roughly middle-of-the-pack in most statistical metrics (11th in ERA, 8th in FIP, 24th in xFIP, 11th in fWAR) and could see some significant improvements without making a move. High-octane righty Jordan Hicks, who new manager Oliver Marmol will stretch out for an expected multi-inning role in Spring Training, is reportedly healthy after missing most of 2021 with elbow inflammation; and Ryan Helsley, who was shut down in mid-August with knee and elbow issues, is expected to regain a primary set-up role alongside Genesis Cabrera. Giovanny Gallegos will likely retain the closer role he inherited from 2021 All-Star Alex Reyes following Reyes’ substantial second-half struggles.
Goold notes former Cardinal Joe Kelly as a likely target and had previously cited interest in former Blue Jays, Cubs, and White Sox reliever Ryan Tepera; both relievers fit the bill of a versatile, high K-rate late-innings arm. Each is likely to seek a multi-year deal with a meaningful financial commitment (MLBTR projects Tepera to sign for two years and $12MM, for instance), though neither is likely to exceed the Cardinals’ budget — particularly if they remain committed to some combination of Paul DeJong and Edmundo Sosa at shortstop. Potential targets Andrew Chafin and Collin McHugh fall in roughly the same market stratum as Tepera and Kelly, while the club could also look for bounce-back candidates on one-year or minor league deals. The list of free agent relievers with a history of big-league success but who won’t command a significant investment includes Brad Hand, Chris Martin, Archie Bradley, Adam Ottavino, Sergio Romo, Yusmeiro Petit, Mychal Givens, Sean Doolittle, Pedro Strop, Richard Rodriguez, and Tyler Clippard.
Beyond Gallegos, Cabrera, Reyes, Helsley, and Hicks, the Redbirds will return journeyman and 2021 revelation T.J. McFarland (who re-signed on a one-year, $2.5MM deal in November) as well as Kodi Whitley and potential long-man Jake Woodford. Current minor leaguers Andre Pallante (who posted a 3.91 ERA in 99 1/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A in 2021, his age-22 season) and Jake Walsh (who’ll play at age 26 in 2022 but posted 2.86 ERA in 22 innings across the same levels) could also be asked to contribute at some point in 2022.
Should they add a high-leverage arm to what’s already a talented group, the Cards’ bullpen could prove a substantial strength in 2022, particularly if a starting rotation bolstered by the addition of Steven Matz can continue to eat innings at the pace it did in 2021 (the Cardinals’ bullpen covered 584 1/3 innings in 2021, 9th fewest in the majors). Indeed, St. Louis could showcase one of the National League’s deeper pitching staffs in 2022, particularly if Hicks and starter Jack Flaherty can both stay healthy and return to their respective 2019 forms. And though the Cardinals play in the comparatively soft NL Central, with a roughly league-average offense returning essentially intact from 2021, they’ll likely need their pitching staff to perform at a high level to return to the playoffs in 2022.