The St. Louis Cardinals need a closer. If you have Mike Matheny down there making hair-trigger decisions, this baseball team needs a set closer ready to roll when the regular season opens in New York tomorrow afternoon.
Here's the thing: closer-by-committee doesn't work. Just ask Tony La Russa about the Pedro Borbon experience in 2003. It's like playing with a stick of dynamite with a team bound to play a ton of close games this season. Don't kid yourself, folks. Handing Matheny a bullpen without set roles is like handing the guy a grenade with the pin barely hanging in. Catastrophe.
No, I'm not being dramatic. All Cardinals fans can hope for is Mike Maddux telling the manager to be more like Mike, only the one that has a Maddux at the end of his signature. However, that isn't very likely. Matheny abuses bullpens like I abuse a keurig machine before noon.
So, let's find him a closer.
Apparently, Greg Holland is toxic waste for opposing teams. It's 24 hours until the kickoff of the season and no team has taken a chance. Holland is coming off a 41 save season with the Colorado Rockies and was an All Star last year. He had a rough second half overall, but he finished well in September, saving five games and striking out 10 in 9.2 innings.
However, teams will have to surrender some sort of draft pick in order to acquire Holland's services, and he missed 2016 with Tommy John surgery. He's also turning 32 years old, so a two year deal could make a team squeamish. A few months ago, I wrote about saying no to Holland, but that's when he wanted 3-4 years. Now is a different story. Perhaps, he will wait for when a team really needs someone in June or July. Resting an older arm may work, but it's still risky.
Let's look in-house now and give some positive and negative feedback on each option.
YES: The newly arrived Cardinal righthander recovered from career mediocrity in 2017 with a stunning season in Toronto. He went from a guy the Blue Jays picked up on the side of the free agent road and inserted with zero expectations. Leone was the tiny indie film that no one saw coming, becoming Toronto's go-to setup guy in the American League East. He narrowed his pitch arsenal from four pitches to two offerings and flourished. There's a great arm there.
NO: Leone and I have the same amount of career saves, and one wonders if he is best-suited for setup or a bridge role. Going with no experience usually happens with a guy under 25 years of age. Great arm or not, he's a risk.
YES: He throws 102 mph, which is almost as fast as the Millennium Falcon if you ask Chewy. Hicks can also break off a 99 mph heater with some cut to it and follow that up with a slider that bites. There's a breaking ball in the arsenal too, but a closer doesn't need more than two great pitchers. Hicks was demoted a couple weeks ago when he missed a team meeting and practice, but as Matheny said this week, "talent is talent". Hicks was a reason the Cardinals abruptly sent John Brebbia to minor league camp and will make a roster move today. He's exciting and very young, falling right into John Mozeliak's plan.
NO: Does he have control of his pitches? Fiery arms with cheddar finishes are sweet and all, but no one wants to see the leadoff batter take a free walk to first base. Hicks has refined his pitches this spring, but don't swallow those stats whole just yet. He hasn't pitched in the Majors. He's not a sure thing and could blow up. Easing him into a less complex role may be smart.
YES: "Tui" showed a lot of improvement last season, with more control offered in front of him and higher efficiency shown behind him in the field. After walking six batters in nine innings in 2016, Tuivailala only allowed 11 free passes in over 42.1 innings last year. The strikeouts per-nine innings were down, but the WHIP was lower and the sharpness was there. He got outs easier and connected good outings together. He wasn't a liability and at 25 years old and parts of four years spent in the big leagues, Tui could be lightning in a bottle for the Cards.
NO: Seeing Tui's strikeouts go down isn't completely appetizing. Whenever a guy relies on his defense more, you wonder if the ball will roll a different way the following season. Tuivailala benefited from a .258 average on balls put in play, which will rise. He threw his secondary pitches more, which induced more grounders, but that could change very quick. Via Jeff Zimmerman at Fangraphs, regression could be coming. Also, I'm also tied with Sam for career saves with zero. You are going with a zero experience option. Tuivailala has blown saves without collecting any, which will leave a guy worried.
YES: Going into the 2017 season, Lyons was a decent fill-in starter and bullpen asset. He was the guy you could use in a pinch, but didn't hedge your bets on. Then, he became something else last summer. Once he was fully healed from a knee injury and intercostal strain, Lyons refined his arsenal of pitches, throwing his slider more than his fastball. Lyons was a fastball-breaking ball arm for awhile, but the slider gave him better results and weaker contact. The home run rate against Lyons was cut in half (from 1.02 to 0.50), and the fielding independent pitching finished at 2.86. Lyons struck out 68 batters in just 54 innings of work, which is straight filth. He is extremely hard on right-handed and left-handed hitters, with neither carrying a slugging percentage over .319.
NO: Lyons could best serve the Cardinals in a multi-inning role. The guy could be a your sixth inning rescue guy or handle the seventh and eighth innings. Being a former starter, Lyons can handle more than three outs. Lyons also has more blown saves in his career than saves. Little experience is a common infection of this team, especially without Luke Gregerson's Cosco-bland totals.
YES: If you think about where fans stood with Cecil a year, it's a 180 degree flip from where they are today. The high-priced southpaw didn't get out to a great start last April, and most fans believe that a Kyle Schwarber home run at Busch Stadium hasn't landed yet. Cecil improved over the course of the season, but was more rocky in the consistency department than people could handle. However, you can't dismiss his work before 2017 in the tumultuous A.L. East, Cecil put together four straight seasons where his average FIP was 3.00 and he averaged over ten strikeouts per nine innings. In nearly 200 innings split between 2013-16, Cecil only allowed 16 home runs. This guy can strike guys out and doesn't allow home runs, so he may be a dark horse.
NO: Cecil being able to adjust to the National League will be one hurdle in 2018, so stacking the closer role on top of that may be a little too much to ask or hope for. Cecil admitted the adjustment took a toll, so it may be best to let him handle the seventh or eighth innings instead. Let him walk before you ask him to run in high-leverage situations. His 12 saves are more than most the candidates listed above, but still far from sexy.
YES: A revelation this camp, Mayers has turned all kinds of heads and gotten attention. Everyone remembers July 2016 where the guy was ripped harder than a trucker's levis after a three day drive, but Mayers is completely different arm this spring. He's struck out 12 in 13 innings this month with only seven hits allowed. Mayers can amp the heater up to 98 mph and while there are other pitches, that is his juiciest offering. He could get outs in the ninth.
NO: As promising as Mayers has been this spring, it's hard to disregard his MLB stats. He'd like to burn them, but they exist. Mayers is a converted starter, so he has zero career saves and could be a candidate for the everyman role that Lyons once owned. A safer test could be wiser for the Cardinals with Mayers.
YES: Norris has more career saves than any option on the team who doesn't carry the last name, Gregerson. Before a knee injury crippled his season, Norris had 19 saves for the Los Angeles Angels. Notoriously tough on the Cards as an Astros starter, Norris has bounced between pitching roles for a number of teams, but one thing is certain: he can make guys swing and miss.
NO: Knee injuries don't just go away and the hamstring injury this spring makes one worry if that will creep back up. Also, the options above all seem like better ideas with a higher ceiling. Norris could be a human mop for Maddux's pitching staff, doing a few different things and moving between roles. While has the most saves among contenders outside of Gregerson, Norris may not be the best man for the job.
Anybody else? Sure, there are other guys, but these are the real contenders. Brebbia was a guy I liked last year for it, but the Cardinals can't even find a spot on the team for him right now. Also, he needs to grow the big beard back. Matt Bowman will pitch in every other inning, so he isn't an option.
The Wrap-Up: The Cardinals need a closer. I'd give Leone a real shot while seeing if Hicks can control his stuff and show maturity in the off-field matters in low-leverage situations. Lyons and Cecil can serve a couple roles, but are ninth inning threats as well. After Cecil, see if Tuivailala is ready or check on Hicks. Pick a cannon and attach your bet to it.
Whatever they decide, closer by committee shouldn't be the answer. It doesn't work. If you are guarding against your manager's worst instincts by not giving him a closer, you should rethink your manager choice.
Who do you go, Cardinals fans?
Thanks for reading,