Who’s Taking the Open Spot in the Cardinals Bullpen?
Alex Reyes is out for the season. We all know it, we all hate it, and we all get a little bit down when we are reminded of it. So let’s provide the smallest of silver linings from the situation: there’s now a real competition in Cardinals camp this year for a roster spot. Coming into the spring, the Cardinals Opening Day roster appeared to be pretty much set barring injuries or any major surprises. But the Cardinals’ seemingly yearly heavyweight bout with the spring injury bug provided an early knockout leaving an Alex Reyes sized hole in the pitching staff. His place in the starting rotation will (most likely) go to Michael Wacha leaving the open spot in the Cardinals bullpen. Here we look at the early spring results of the four most likely guys to fill the open role based on early spring results. Who’s leading the charge?
Notably Excluded: Luke Weaver, assuming he opens the year in Triple-A for consistent starts and isn’t being considered for a bullpen role.
Spring Statistics: 5.0 IP (1 W), 1 Hit, 1 ER, 1 BB, 4 K
Socolovich started this competition as the favorite to come away with a job due to his lack of minor league options. Over the past two years, he has impressed when called up to St. Louis with a low ERA of 1.89 in 47.2 innings pitched while striking out 43 and walking 15. His stuff isn’t overpowering as he sits at 89-90 mph, while relying on an average sinker coupled with a solid changeup and slider. But if he can maintain good command while getting ground balls with his sinker, then he can be a consistent producer in the ‘pen’, used when the club needs a double play in late innings. Think of a Seth Maness type role. The 30-year-old is looking to crack his first Opening Day roster and is right on track to doing so. He’s produced in every opportunity the Cardinals have given him so if they cut him, don’t expect him to pass through waivers without getting claimed. He’s leading the charge right now.
Spring Statistics: 5.0 IP, 3 Hits, 0 ER, 11 K, 2 BB
Perhaps no other relief pitcher in the league is putting people on notice quite like Tuivailala. Drafted by the Cardinals as a shortstop, his rocket of an arm led to a position change. The 24-year-old sits in the high 90’s with his four-seam while occasionally getting up to 101 MPH on the gun. The kid has a cannon which, as expected, has lead to a high K/9 rating of 13.89 in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League last year. Of course, the kryptonite for Tuivailala, like most young flamethrowers, is trouble commanding the heater. His BB/9 was really high at 4.24 last year which led to many struggles as his ERA was inflated at 5.21. His early spring numbers suggest he’s putting an end to his command issues while still racking up the K’s. He’s put many around the league on high alert and looks to be the next fireballer in line to light up the radar guns in the Cardinals bullpen. He still looks to be behind Socolovich but is at the least making things interesting in Jupiter.
Spring Statistics: 8.0 IP (2 GS), 3 Hits, 1 ER, 6 K, 0 BB
If the Cardinals opt to go with a swingman/spot starter in the final bullpen spot, then John Gant is the guy for the job. His odd delivery has produced nothing but consistency thus far in spring and is making it look like the Cardinals made out well in the Jaime Garcia deal. He’s probably not the next guy up in the rotation if an injury hits (Luke Weaver), but he’s still a decent prospect capable of stepping in the rotation for a spot start or possibly an extended period of time. Last year, the 24-year-old started seven games for the Braves and showed promise as a rookie by posting a 4.86 ERA. He won’t overpower anybody and doesn’t have a very high ceiling, but he’s looking like a sound fallback option and someone capable of eating innings out of the ‘pen. If the Cardinals still feel Wacha’s shoulder isn’t trustworthy when Opening Day comes around, then they might feel more comfortable with Gant in the final bullpen spot as an insurance policy. So far, he’s proving himself more than capable of that type of role.
Spring Statistics: 3.0 IP, 5 Hits, 2 ER, 5 K, 3 BB
He may be the biggest long shot on this list to make the team, but Jordan Schafer is easily the most entertaining option. His early Spring Training struggles are making it nearly impossible for him to crack the Opening Day roster but he must be included here simply because of his unique skill set. The possibility of bringing Schafer into the game to face lefties, pinch run, play the outfield, or even pinch hit (in any given order) is something that could pay huge dividends for the Cardinals if Matheny uses him right (that’s a big IF). The former top outfield prospect is a great defensive outfielder and would probably be the fastest guy on the whole team. But he’s a pretty bad hitter (for a position player) so he will only go as far as his left arm will take him as he converted to a lefty specialist to prolong his career. Think of him as a relief pitching Peter Bourjos to see how he fits on the club. Last year in the Dodgers system in his first year pitching, Schafer held his own with a 3.83 ERA in 49.1 innings which prompted the Cardinals to take a flier on him with a Spring invite. He probably needs to work on his pitching a little bit more in the minors, but once the Cardinals call him up, they’ll be getting a player and a half. If Schafer proves himself to be a competent Major League reliever then he will get the call. The question from there becomes whether or not Matheny can navigate the abundance of options he has with Schafer in the mix. That alone will be one of the biggest storylines of 2017.
*All stats courtesy of Fangraphs
Photo Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports