The biggest part to the Cardinals’ success in 2019 was their solid bullpen, which featured a mix of underrated arms, veterans, and young talent. The Cardinals spent the entire second half of the 2019 season without the services of flamethrower Jordan Hicks, who required Tommy John surgery midseason. In his absence, Carlos Martinez stepped into the closer role and was very good, posting a bullpen-best 2.86 FIP, along with a solid 3.66 SIERA. On Monday, Hicks announced that he would be opting out of the 2020 season due to his Type 1 Diabetes, opening the door for any pitcher to fill the void. Assuming that Carlos Martinez re-enters the rotation, there are a lot of paths that Mike Shildt and the Cardinals can take.
The obvious choice for closer would be Giovanny Gallegos, who broke out and was one of the best relievers in baseball a year ago. His 2.31 ERA and 3.05 FIP are both certainly impressive, with each ranking in the top 20 among all qualified relievers. There’s nothing not to like about Gallegos; he strikes out a ton of batters, doesn’t walk guys a whole lot, and has tremendous expected-stats-against. His .231 wOBA actually ranked in the top 1 percent of all pitchers in baseball in 2019. Great stuff from Gio in his first full year as a Cardinal.
Another option to close games could be veteran lefty Andrew Miller, who has had some experience closing games back in 2015. Miller is coming off of one of the worst seasons of his career, posting an ERA/FIP/xFIP line (we’ll refer to this group of stats as a slash in this article, for the sake of efficiency) of 4.45/5.19/4.43 and putting up a career low -0.4 fWAR. His strikeout numbers remained fairly consistent with 2018, hovering around 11.5 K/9, and his walk percentage didn’t take too high of a jump, either. Miller’s real issue in 2019 was his inability to keep the ball in the park, as his HR/9 jumped from 0.79 in 2018 to 1.81 in 2019. Having Miller close this season likely wouldn’t end up going too well for St. Louis.
The final guy who could possibly slide into that closer role for the 2020 season is young flamethrower Ryan Helsley. Helsley had a serviceable year in 2019 for St. Louis, posting a slash of 2.95/4.22/5.11. Not the prettiest peripherals, obviously, but he seems to have the tools necessary to succeed. Helsley has tremendous strikeout potential, with his fastball clocking in at upwards of 100 mph. Another promising sign is his .030 xBA and .024 xwOBA on the 37 curveballs that he hurled in 2019. Obviously it’s a small sample size, but if Helsley can mix that breaking ball in more to counteract his hard fastball and sharp cutter, this could show great results and could result in a lot more strikeouts. It’s also worth mentioning that in his 5.1 innings of work in the 2019 Postseason, Helsley posted a slash of 0.00/0.78/2.27.
With all things considered, the safest bet to close games for the Cardinals in 2020 seems to be Giovanny Gallegos. Although, I do think it would be beneficial to give a few of those save opportunities to Ryan Helsley, as his stuff is just too good. Mike Shildt seems to be open to any opportunity that presents itself, so it’s up to the players to prove themselves in the next week that we have left before the season is set to start. And who knows? Maybe Shildty feels more comfortable using Carlos Martinez in the back end of the bullpen instead of the rotation. That wouldn’t be a huge issue considering the great depth that the Cardinals have at starting pitcher. Is there a situation where a guy like John Gant or even Tyler Webb is called upon for the 9th inning of a game this season? I’d say that no possibilities are off the table. Regardless of what decision is made and who will be shaking hands with Yadi at the end of Redbird Winners in 2020, I’m extremely excited to get the season underway.