The latest rumors have the Cardinals connected to Brandon Kintzler. Should the Cardinals go after another free agent reliever?
As is becoming an offseason tradition, the Cardinals are looking to upgrade the back end of their bullpen. The team is unlikely to re-sign Seung-hwan Oh, and they just released Trevor Rosenthal. They could re-sign Juan Nicasio, but as of today, Brett Cecil has the most recent closer experience of anybody on the Cardinals roster. The Cardinals could certainly use another arm to add to their back end, and they are reportedly looking at Brandon Kintzler. Kintzler may make a fine addition, but I am unconvinced that he moves the needle much.
First and foremost, the Cardinals aren’t looking at saves, and you shouldn’t, either. If the Cardinals are really going after Kintzler, it has nothing to do with his 46 saves over the past two seasons. No Major League Baseball team uses saves to evaluate its players anymore. If a pitcher is good in one inning, he can be good in the next. The Cardinals are likely looking at Kintzler’s ground ball rate more than anything.
Keep it in the park
If you have watched Kintzler pitch, you were probably unimpressed. He doesn’t have the electrifying stuff of today’s elite relief pitchers. And he won’t make anybody look bad at the plate. In fact, hitters will look like they are getting good swings off him. But while Kintzler may not get batters to swing and miss, he will get them to hit the ball in a downward trajectory.
Kintzler is an anachronistic, low strikeout, high command reliever who excels at getting ground balls. He throws a sinker more than seventy percent of the time. Kintzler is remarkably similar to what Doug Fister would be as a relief pitcher. He ranks above the 90th percentile in ground ball rate and walk rate, but below the fifteenth percentile in strikeout rate. In some sense, Kintzler is the anti-Trevor Rosenthal. He does not have overpowering stuff, but hits his spots and keeps the ball on the ground.
Brandon Kintzler has been an effective reliever over the past two seasons because of his ability to avoid the big hit. Since he doesn’t get strikeouts, he will give up a relatively high hit rate. But because batters rarely hit the ball in the air against him, Kintzler limits most of the damage to singles. The Cardinals gave up the third lowest home run rate in the majors last season, and they were in the top ten in avoiding walks. Kintzler certainly fits their pitching philosophy, but you would like to see some more upside.
Not Your Best
I can easily envision a scenario where Brandon Kintzler has a good year for the Cardinals bullpen. But I can’t see him being a good top reliever for the Cardinals. If Kintzler is part of the plan, then the full plan needs to include something bigger. Perhaps the Cardinals have correctly identified the lack of stellar relievers in the free agent pool this year and are going after multiple second-tier guys. Kintzler is part of that second tier, but he isn’t at the top of it.
Aside from Wade Davis, none of this year’s free agent relievers are not going to make a huge difference for a bullpen (yes, that includes Greg Holland). However, that doesn’t mean that certain guys won’t help more than others. As the league moves towards using your best relievers when runners get on base, it’s important to make sure that your best relievers can get out of those situations. Brandon Morrow, Mike Minor, and Addison Reed all have the ability to get a much-needed strikeout. If Kintzler comes into the game, you are hoping for a ground ball, not a strikeout.
— Michael Girsch (@GMGirsch) November 19, 2017
Again, there is still a place for pitchers like Kintzler in the game. In fact, if first base is occupied, then that ground ball could be more valuable than a strikeout. But it’s hard to bank on double plays. And when the opponent has a runner on third base, you definitely don’t want to see the ball put in play. Of course, the Cardinals may be looking at Kintzler as an inexpensive option. The three names that I mentioned will all command decent money for a reliever. Since Kintzler’s upside is severely limited by his inability to generate strikeouts, he may not cost as much.
The other options
I doubt that the Cardinals spend a lot of money on Kintzler. If his price tag increases at all, they will likely pass. While they would like to have a ground ball pitcher, spending a lot for a slightly above average reliever doesn’t make sense. They have been trying to shed bigger contracts, and Kintzler isn’t good enough to warrant big money. If the Cardinals decide not to pursue Kintzler, here are some replacements that could work just as well.
Quick: who are the only two relief pitchers with at least three seasons of 80+ innings pitched since 2012?
OK, one of them is Craig Stammen. And congratulations if you guessed Anthony Swarzak correctly (also a free agent). Stammen spent 2016 in the minors and rehabbing from injury. He then re-surfaced in San Diego last year to pitch 80.1 innings with a 51.6 percent ground ball rate. Stammen is actually similar to Kintzler in that he is a ground ball pitcher who won’t overpower you. But he is a little better in that second regard.
While Kintzler is around 5 strikeouts per nine, Stammen will get up to 7, and even reached 8.3 K/9 last season. Stammen also leans heavily on his sinker, throwing it around 50 percent of the time. He can clearly hold up over the course of a season, and his 3.14 ERA from last year was not a fluke. He did give up an unsustainably low .263 batting average on balls in play, but he also got very unlucky on fly balls. Stammen allowed 17.4 percent of fly balls to leave the yard against him. Since most pitchers tend to regress towards the mean (13-14 percent), Stammen should see fewer homers in 2018.
Stammen didn’t possess the pinpoint control that Kintzler did in 2017, but he has shown the ability to pitch to the corners in the past. In 2014, he walked a career-low 4.6 percent of batters, and he walked a respectable 8.6 percent of batters in 2017, coming off of a major elbow surgery. He will be one more year removed from the injury in 2018, and could end up getting even stronger.
Longtime reliever Joe Smith has always kept the ball on the ground, and is coming off another strong season. The sidearm righty set career bests in strikeout and walk rate. Like Kintzler and Stammen, he throws a sinker most of the time. He also uses his slider as his only other pitch. Smith is getting up there in age (33), so he wouldn’t be a long term solution. Then again, Kintzler probably isn’t, either.
Smith would provide a stable option out of the bullpen for the Cardinals. His ERA has been below 3.58 every year since 2011, and ERA indicators support his run prevention. His only bad season according to FIP was 2016 (4.99). However, Smith followed that up with a career-low 2.17 FIP in 2017, so there isn’t too much to be worried about. He’s another solid but unspectacular option that can help the Cardinals bullpen without costing a fortune.
The name you heard was Kintzler, but that might not be the name you get. There are many ground ball options just like him on the market. For the Cardinals to pay more money for one of them doesn’t make much sense. Perhaps the Cardinals just take whoever is willing to sign earlier, but don’t expect any bidding wars. This is just another attempt to fortify the bullpen before all the options are gone. The real question is about what happen next.
Just one of Kintzler, Stammen, or Smith doesn’t change much for the Cardinals. It barely adds one win to the team in a best-case scenario. If the Cardinals want to strengthen their bullpen, they will need to set their sights higher. Brandon Kintzler does not make a good bullpen on his own.
Photo Credit: Brad Mills – USA TODAY Sports