This past weekend was an eventful one for the Cardinals’ bullpen. At the team’s Winter Warmup, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said that Carlos Martínez was ahead of schedule in his return from offseason shoulder surgery, giving momentum to his push to become a starter again. Martínez was slated to begin his road back with a bullpen session on Tuesday, and barring a change in plans, bullpen roles are now up for grabs. Once Jordan Hicks was shelved by a torn UCL and subsequent Tommy John surgery last summer, Martínez took over as closer. He secured 22 of the Cardinals’ 30 saves after Hicks’ season had come to an end.
There was also news regarding Hicks. He is currently tossing on flat ground two or three times a week and could return by the middle of the season. While it seems unlikely that Mike Shildt would put Hicks immediately back in the closer’s role, it does complicate our calculus for determining who (if anyone) we should target from the Cardinals for saves in this year’s drafts. Even if there was a clear successor to Martínez as the team’s closer, that reliever could conceivably get pulled from the role if Hicks made a sufficiently early and strong return.
If skills were the only thing that mattered to Shildt, Giovanny Gallegos would be the most obvious choice to close to begin the season. Even before the Cardinals’ Winter Warmup, he was the third-ranked Cardinals pitcher in NFBC ADP, just 21 spots behind Carlos Martínez with a 211 NFBC ADP. In 2019, Gallegos had the best ERA (2.31), K% (33.3 percent), BB% (5.7 percent) and WHIP (0.81) of any Cardinals reliever with at least 20 innings pitched. Of course, he far exceeded that innings threshold, leading all Cardinals’ relievers with 74 innings.
Gallegos has a good mid-90s four-seam fastball, which he used for 55.2 percent of his pitches last season, but his biggest weapon is his slider. Out of 107 pitchers who threw at least 400 sliders last season, Gallegos ranked seventh in SwStr% on the pitch with a 24.6 percent rate. He didn’t get much slide on his slider, but he generally located it down and towards his glove side, where hitters generally had a poor contact rate when he threw the pitch.
Even though Gallegos was the Cardinals’ best reliever by several different measures, he was not clearly the next-in-line closing option for games where Martínez was unavailable. Gallegos recorded only one save, while Andrew Miller notched six of them, five of which came after Hicks tore his UCL. Miller also relied on a four-seamer and slider, though he threw his slider for more than three out of every five pitches. It was far inferior to Gallegos’ slider for whiffs (17.0 percent SwStr%), and it was also worse for called strikes. John Brebbia, who did not collect a save in 2019, had a nearly identical pitch mix to Gallegos. While his slider was a mediocre whiff-inducer (14.1 percent SwStr%), Brebbia was just outside the top 10 percent in four-seamer whiff rate with a 12.9 percent SwStr%.
Both Miller and Brebbia had strikeout rates just below 30 percent, so neither may be at a serious disadvantage to Gallegos in terms of ability to miss bats. However, Miller would have to improve his walk rate (11.4 percent) and HR/9 ratio (1.8) dramatically to pitch well enough to keep the closer’s job, should he win it. The former is particularly a concern, given that he now has had back-to-back seasons with a double-digit walk rate. Brebbia, on the other hand, threw more frequently in the strike zone and was better at getting first-pitch strikes than Gallegos, and both relievers were above average at getting out-of-zone chases. Though he is an extreme flyball pitcher, Brebbia has held opponents to a fairly svelte 91.4 mph exit velocity on flies and liners over the last two seasons, so it’s likely no accident that he has given up only 0.8 home runs per nine innings over that span.
Even though Miller was used like a closer-in-waiting last season, his skill profile is rightfully making early drafters averse to targeting him. Brebbia has a skill set that rivals Gallegos’, but he did not seem to be on Shildt’s radar as a substitute closer last season. John Gant (three saves) was on his radar in the first half, but he slumped badly after the All-Star break and saw far less high-leverage work down the stretch. None of these three relievers currently ranks within the top 500 in NFBC ADP. According to Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Alex Reyes and Ryan Helsley could be in the 2020 closer mix, too.
Early drafters are showing a clear preference for Gallegos over his rivals to replace Martínez, and while they are not having to sacrifice a high pick to get him, they may be bypassing safer options. Gallegos is typically getting drafted just ahead of Joe Jiménez, Mark Melancon and Scott Oberg, who have risks of their own but also have a clearer path for closing wire-to-wire for their teams, at least as of this early date. Unless the Cardinals’ closer situation gets clearer between now and draft day, I’d likely opt for either a safer option, like Jiménez, Melancon or Oberg, or hope that Nick Anderson (245 ADP) — an even more skilled reliever with a similarly uncertain role — continues to be available a little later than Gallegos. To be sure, Gallegos is the best of the Cardinals’ relievers to draft as of now, but I would want to see his ADP come down before I would be willing to take a flier.
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.