Almost as soon as he declared Luke Gregerson the Cardinals’ closer for 2018, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak offered a qualifier.
“We do have a lot of different faces that can end up doing that,” he said, “and we think we have the ability to maybe take one of our younger, more dynamic arms and allow him to take that role ...”
The Cardinals possess a depth of dynamic arms which, as this offseason began, was believed to give the team the flexibility to swing a big deal. It looks now like those young fireballers will be counted on to stabilize a bullpen that last season coughed up 41 leads and allowed 32 percent of inherited base runners to score.
That pool got deeper — but no more established — with Friday’s addition of right-hander Dominic Leone by way of a trade with Toronto. The Redbirds sacrificed spare outfielder Randal Grichuk for Leone, who is coming off a strong season as a late-inning set-up man for Toronto closer Roberto Osuna.
He is just 26 years old, throws hard and can’t be a free agent until 2022.
That fits the profile favored by principle owner Bill DeWitt Jr. and Mozeliak, who have each conveyed an organizational belief that cost-controlled young talent represents a lesser financial risk than long-term deals to more established free agents.
“Closers are not guarantees,” is how DeWitt put it.
With that in mind, here’s a look of who could wind up in the Cardinals’ closer role, and the one person it won’t be:
Greg Holland, rhp
Let’s just get this out of the way up front: Greg Holland won’t be coming to the Cardinals.
Holland, 31, was dominating through July last season in Colorado. He had a 1.56 ERA by the time he picked up his 34th save on Aug. 4.
But having missed all of 2016 with Tommy John surgery, Holland ran out of gas down the home stretch and a disastrous October bloated his ERA to more than double.
He finished the season with a league-best 41 saves, but it’s telling that the Rockies elected to move on from Holland to instead sign Wade Davis, 32, for three years and $52 million.
Dominic Leone, rhp
Leone mixes a fastball in the middle 90s with a slider and a sinker. Last season, that repertoire produced a 3-0 record with a 2.56 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 70.1 innings, all in relief and most in the seventh inning or later.
But Toronto claimed Leone off waivers from Arizona after consecutive seasons in which he went a combined 0-6 with a plus-7.00 ERA in just 42 big league innings. According to the Toronto Star, Leone figured big in the Blue Jays plans for 2018, but the team was pressed to make a move for a power bat to replace free agent outfielder Jose Bautista.
His only real experience as the ninth-inning guy came in 2013, when he had 16 saves across three levels of the Mariner’s minor league system.
Luke Gregerson, rhp
As previously mentioned, Mozeliak crowned Gregerson the closer because, he said, “he has experience doing it.”
Gregerson was picked by the Cardinals in the 2006 amateur draft and later traded to the Padres for shortstop Khalil Greene. The Cardinals brought him back with a two-year contract worth $11 million in December.
He had 31 saves for the Houston Astros and 2015, but lost the closer’s job the following season after blowing five save attempts in the first two months.
Gregorson had a career-high 4.57 ERA last season for the World Series champions. Though he managed 70 strikeouts in 61 innings, he also gave up 13 home runs.
Alex Reyes, rhp
Reyes is the Cardinals’ top prospect and was rated one of the top five in baseball before losing the 2017 season to Tommy John.
Mozeliak projects a May 1 return for Reyes, though the pace of his recovery will determine his role.
For now, rehab has gone well for Reyes, who showed up at the Winter Warm-Up having shed 15 pounds and began throwing bullpen session at the Cardinals’ training complex in Jupiter last week. While his future likely remains as a starting pitcher, Mozeliak conceded Reyes could be used as a late-inning specialist in 2018, or at least until he regains his stamina.
Yes, just like Adam Wainwright in 2006.
Caution will be the rule for Reyes, however, whatever decision is made.
“I don’t want this to be one of those where we’re pushing him because of a need,” said Mozeliak. “If we’re pushing him because he’s ready and everything is going well on his account then it’s a little different. I also don’t want to wake up in September and find out we can’t use him.”
Reyes has been impressive in five big-league starts, going 4-1 with a 1.52 ERA and 52 strikeouts.
Tyler Lyons, lhp
Lyons, 29, made his big-league debut in 2013 and made 20 starts over the next three years. But Mozeliak likes Lyons as a reliever because he averages more than a strikeout per inning over his career.
Last season, he had a 2.83 ERA, struck out 68 batters in 54 innings pitched, and picked up the first three saves of his career.
As things stand, Lyons, Brett Cecil and rookie Ryan Sherriff would be the only left-handers on the staff. That doesn’t necessarily rule him out as a closer candidate.
“One of the things I think is really attractive about him is his strikeout rate,” Mozeliak said. “When you’re looking at trying to identify somebody late in the game, I think he can have that opportunity.”
Jordan Hicks, rhp
Hicks, 21, will be starting just his third season in professional baseball and has yet to pitch beyond class-A Peoria. He’s worth a mention since Mozeliak is the one who brought up both him and triple-A pitcher Ryan Helsley while discussing of the Cardinals’ bullpen.
“I hate saying this because I feel bad if it doesn’t happen, but I feel like both of those guys are going to have a positive impact on our club at some point this year,” he said. “They both have electric arms.”
Hicks lacks a secondary pitch, but has a fastball that touches triple digits. It’s closer stuff, Mozeliak says.
“I could be wrong and he could end up fighting for a starting spot some day, but it’s easy to imagine him as a closer,” he said. “He has the makeup, the bulldog approach and, obviously, the arm to go with it.”
Mozeliak said both Hicks’ and Helsley’s names frequently come up in trade talks with other teams.
Closer by committee
With all these options, could Manager Mike Matheny spread the late-inning assignments around? Not likely, Mozeliak said.
“We tried to build flexibility into our bullpen this year, first and foremost,” Mozeliak said. “I do think that the Memphis-to-St. Louis corridor may be a little more active than we’ve seen in the past. Having said that, I do think managers in general like to have somebody they can count on in the ninth.”
Hmmm ... Don’t we all?