The Cardinals lost a big piece in their bullpen at the end of their 2016 season. How will they cope going into 2017, and, eventually, 2018?
After the Cardinals picked up Zach Duke from the Chicago White Sox this summer in exchange for minor league outfielder Charlie Tilson, it looked to all of baseball as if the Cardinals had found an important pice to fortify their right-handed heavy middle of the bullpen.
Duke, a 12-year veteran in the league, with a 2009 All-Star Game appearance on his resume, has been a staple of consistency in the national league, pitching 10 years with the Pirates, Diamondbacks, Nationals, Reds, and Brewers, before going to the American league and the South Side of Chicago in 2015. Clearly, having been a part of three NL Central staffs, the Cards knew him well, and were excited to get him in the midst of arguably his career year in 2016, posting a 2.63 ERA with Chicago in 53 appearances before the deal.
With the Cards
This dominance would only further once Duke reached St. Louis, as in 28 appearances with the club, he pitched to the tune of a stunning 1.93 ERA with 26 strikeouts and no home runs allowed. His performance made the Cardinals look like absolute geniuses for picking up the 3 yr/$15 million contract, which he was awarded by Chicago after a redemptive season as a newly created bullpen force.
But then, tragedy struck. Duke was diagnosed with a tear in his left ulnar collateral ligament, leaving him to face Tommy John surgery. On October 14th, the veteran underwent the procedure, as well as some work on his flexor muscle, causing him to be out for the 2017 season, and putting doubt in the 33 year old’s career, as he becomes a free agent in 2018.
So, a couple questions have been posed by this injury. Let’s start with the obvious one. What do the Cardinals need to do, if anything, to fill the whole left by the loss of their best left-handed reliever? Well, I don’t see the Red Birds going out and making a huge splash on an expensive left-handed middle relief pitcher, if such a thing exists, when they are still obligated to pay Duke 5.5M in 2017.
So, my idea would that they would move Kevin Siegrist into a more pronounced role, possibly making somewhere around 80-85 appearances this year with close to 90 innings, not just as a lefty specialist but as a 7th or 8th inning man against teams with heavy set left handed lineups.
As well, the late season emergence of one Alex Reyes may have, unbeknownst at the time, really alleviated some of the stress that could’ve come with Duke’s injury, as it allows for Jamie Garcia to move down into a long-relief role. Of course, that is all dependent upon the Cardinals’ front office picking up Garcia’s club option, which, with the loss of Duke, I think should, I repeat, should, be a no brainer.
Then, what do the Cardinals do with Duke once the 2017 season comes to a close, and he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Well, I suppose that would depend a lot on how well whatever plan John Mozeliak and Mike Matheny chose to implement next year plays out, but keep this in mind. Duke, in 2018, will be entering his age 35 season, which, in this day and age, is already a high number. Add a Tommy John surgery to the mix, and we’re looking at a tough task in terms of trying to get Duke to log as many innings as he has in the past, and as many as the Cards are trying to get out of his role in the pen.
Although Duke may feel the tides turning on his career, and settle for a lower offer, I doubt if he is worth it for a contending Cardinals club with needs in the left-hand bullpen department. Looking at the free agent class going into 2018, he will be the second oldest left-handed reliever behind Oliver Perez, and while being the most proven, he is the only one who will be coming off of a Tommy John surgery into the 2018 season. As well, the Cardinals have a few lefties in their farm system who they hope can make a splash come 2018, including Austin Gomber, who, in 127 innings in 2016, posted a 2.69 ERA and held opponents to a .220 average spanning Single and Double A.
So, Zach Duke’s injury opens some questions. How do the Cardinals replace him in the 2017 season, while keeping in mind that they still owe Duke $5.5M? And looking forward to 2018, should they resign Duke, or look for a younger, more healthy lefty force to carry a heavier load? Only time will tell, but these are my ideas.