WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE?
Maybe the Cardinals don’t need a closer, per se, because they have a number of pitchers who have closed games, including veteran lefthander Andrew Miller, who is in more of a setup role now.
Ideally, the answer is the fireballing Jordan Hicks, who blazed through National League hitters in 2018-19 before sustaining a torn elbow ligament pitching in a game against the Los Angeles Angels in June 2019. He has not appeared in a regular-season game since but is feeling no pain and still throwing at or near 100 mph with a crackling slider.
Manager Mike Shildt is leery about running Hicks out as his closer from the first day of the season but surely will use him among the chorus of pitchers who will get late-inning assignments in the bullpen early on. But once Shildt is convinced that Hicks can handle the closer’s workload, including pitching on back-to-back days, and the inherent pressure — the second part of which shouldn’t be a problem for the unflappable righthander — Hicks again might be the Cardinals’ ninth-inning man.
But the closer at the beginning of the year well could be a member of the 2022 rotation. Alex Reyes’ innings are being governed because he has worked so little since 2016 when he broke into the majors with a bang. But those innings might be the eighth or even the ninth. Next year Reyes projects as a starter, but until then he often will be pitching with the game on the line late.
Carlos Martinez, who ended the 2018 and 2019 seasons as the closer, is back in the rotation, even though he was good as the ninth-inning man, knowing he had only one inning to pitch. But the Cardinals are better if he’s in the rotation, which is more shallow than the bullpen.
There is more closer-type stuff coming, too, in hard-throwing Kodi Whitley. And Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Helsley, who already were here, have some experience at the back and the horsepower to do it.
WHAT IS THE LIKELY REALITY?
After decades of the club having a lockdown closer, from Al Hrabosky to Bruce Sutter to Todd Worrell to Lee Smith to Tom Henke to Dennis Eckersley to Jason Motte to Trevor Rosenthal, the Cardinals don’t quite know how the role will evolve. Do they have to have a closer? Ultimately, yes. But there are ways to go by matchups, whether it is by team or opposing hitter late in the game. And whoever is in the game generally is throwing at 95-plus.
The Cardinals have a high number of relievers who are effective against both righthanded and lefthanded hitting, which comes into play both with the rule that a pitcher has to face three batters and the ninth inning when the opposition will be pulling out all stops to get its best available hitters to the plate.
The key to making the bullpen work to its height of efficiency is for it not to have to use all its best weapons in the same game. The Cardinals’ closer shouldn’t have to work two days in succession often and almost never three in a row, given the depth of the bullpen.