BenFred: Inflated market, past puffs should keep Cardinals away from big bullpen spending

BenFred: Inflated market, past puffs should keep Cardinals away from big bullpen spending

Gas pump. Grocery. bullpen.

MLB teams this offseason are scrambling to throw big paydays at “proven” relievers, doling out huge contracts to volatile arms, driving up, up, up prices along the way.

The Astros gave Rafael Montero, 32, three years and $34.5 million after helping Houston’s power bullpen lock in a World Series championship. He had a 2.37 ERA this season, the first time in the right-hander’s eight-year MLB career that it was below 5.52 in a season in which he had at least 25 appearances. It’s serious confidence that he can repeat what he did in 2022, or at least come close.

The Padres gave Robert Suarez, a nearly 32-year-old freshman major leaguer, five years and $46 million, with the option to retire after three seasons and pursue a larger contract. What are the chances of him continuing to challenge the league well enough to use this opt-out?

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And then there are the Mets, who gave five years and $102 million to All-Star-like Edwin Diaz, making him the recipient of a recording contract. He is part of the elite. But stay…

“I was communicating with a number of agents yesterday,” MLB Network’s Jon Morosi said on a televised hit Monday. “And agents were like, ‘Wow, the relief pitcher market is great right now.’ When you have Suarez, who had no major league experience before last season, getting a five-year contract with an opt-out after three?And then Montero, who struggled in 2021, and you consider that he had an ERA over 6.00 a year ago at this time, and he gets a lucrative three-year contract? A number of agents have told me that this is a very good offseason to have a high leverage reliever as a free agent.

Translation: It’s a really risky offseason to bet a lot of money on bullpen plays.

I bring this up because the Cardinals, like all teams that want to be good in 2023, could benefit from an improvement in the bullpen. Their bullpen produced a 3.61 ERA last season, good for 11th in the game. Their 507 strikeouts by relievers ranked… penultimate.

The swing-and-miss stuff is in demand, and manager Oli Marmol’s backup body could use a little more whiff. If a reliever with high takedown potential starts slipping through the cracks in the market, great. Grab it.

But please don’t play at the high stakes table. The costs are too high. The other needs – receiver, alignment aid, spin star power – are too great. And, let’s face it, the Cardinals’ troubled record here has to be taken into account. Especially in this distorted market.

The good reality is that the Cardinals have done a very good job of cultivating key relievers within the organization and finding diamonds in the dust on the outside. Ryan Helsley, Jordan Hicks and Andre Pallante return after good seasons.

Helsley, 28, is the oldest of the three. Giovanny Gallegos, who played trade redeemer Chasen Shreve for Luke Voit, got his recent extension. Zack Thompson turned heads last season. Connor Thomas just dominated the Arizona Fall League. Gordon Graceffo and Tink Dors climb. There are plenty of other names that will be jostling for bullpen roles in spring training and if the Cardinals strengthen the top of their rotation, this competition gets even tougher.

The bad reality is that the Cardinals have made a long list of bad decisions when it comes to bullpen spending over the past few offseasons. Their formula for picking free agent replacements has been swirling around for a while now. Admittedly, that’s a tough thing to do, given the volatility of relievers, most of whom can fluctuate between everyone one season and below par the next, sometimes for no clear reason. But even with an understanding of the hot and cold nature of that specific position group, the Cardinals had more buyers’ remorse than most good teams could overcome.

Baseball Reference’s Adjusted Earned Run Average assigns pitchers a score based on performance while incorporating outside elements, such as ballpark factors, in an effort to determine league average production. The shortcut is ERA+. The league average is 100.

Brett Cecil (2017-18), Greg Holland (2018), Luke Gregerson (2018-19), Andrew Miller (2019-21) and Nick Wittgren (2022) have all come and gone as free agent additions to the Cardinals who failed to deliver even league average output during their time with the team. Add Drew VerHagen, who may or may not be back with the Cardinals after a disappointing, injury-hit first season in 2022, and that group represents 13 seasons of major league contracts handed out and nearly $100 million committed.

The best performance? Miller’s ERA+ of 95, which included an above-average season during the shortened 2020 campaign sandwiched between two below-average full lengths.

The safest and smartest way for the Cardinals to build a bullpen has become apparent as the organization has avoided free agent potholes. Give young and impressive arms a chance to contribute early as relievers. Keep performing artists around you; former Cards John Brebbia (Giants) and Luis Garcia (Padres) could have helped the club last season. Make small safe bets as needed to complete the group. And if you need a back-up assist at the trade deadline, trade for a blocked assist when it becomes clearer who’s having a good season.

Spending big on relief is risky business, especially when you combine the Cardinals’ struggles to predict success there with the current state of bullpen inflation.

Sports columnists Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon review some popular names in the free agent class and assess their potential compatibility with the Cardinals.

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