Since most of you know the broader story already, I’ll keep the background brief: The St. Louis Cardinals did a lot to improve this winter, adding to their outfield (Marcell Ozuna), starting staff (Miles Mikolas), and bullpen (Luke Gregerson), among some other complementary moves. But despite the overall improvements, most of us around here feel they stopped just short of fully re-stocking.
Last season, for example, the Cardinals’ bullpen ranked 12th in WAR (4.4 according to FanGraphs), but that group has since lost Trevor Rosenthal (he was released this offseason after undergoing Tommy John surgery) and the 1.6 WAR he brought to the table, as well as Seung Hwan Oh (who’s since signed with the Blue Jays), among others.
On top of that, their pen’s big offseason addition, Luke Gregerson, is going to start the season on the disabled list, where he’ll be joined by starter Adam Wainwright. Although Wainwright was probably not going to be pitching out of the pen for any serious length of time, Jack Flaherty is taking his spot in the rotation, which means he probably won’t be used out of the bullpen the way the Cardinals like to do with many of their young arms. And, of course, Alex Reyes, the Cardinals top prospect who’ll likely also pitch out of the pen this season (when healthy), will also be out until at least May 1 (Tommy John surgery).
Needless to say, the Cardinals needed bullpen help from the start of the offseason, and that need has only grown since then.
So … why exactly haven’t they signed free agent reliever/closer Greg Holland yet?
Holland, 32, was (is?) one of the top free agents on the market this winter, but has yet to find a home for 2018. Given the Cardinals’ needs and the fact they have Marcell Ozuna under team control for just two more years and a roster with some aging former stars (Yadier Molina, Wainwright, Matt Carpenter, etc.), now sure seems like the time to indulge.
Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports seems to agree: “The Cardinals may be the most logical spot for Holland since they are clearly trying to win and have just as clear an opening at the spot. They were looking toward Luke Gregerson, who’s been a closer in the past, before an oblique injury sidelined him. They mentioned Dominic Leone, acquired from the Blue jays, as another possibility. And Bud Norris, a late signee, filled that role decently for the Angels last year in a surprise. The Cardinals haven’t suggested they feel a great need to add a closer, though folks around the camp are perplexed by the stance; they wonder if could be posturing.”
But whether they’re posturing or not, their true intent not all that clear. In that same post, Heyman also reports that the Cardinals, Diamondbacks, and Braves are among the teams to have “at least had contact with star closer Greg Holland,” but he admits that the extent of their interest (any of them) is unknown.
It’s worth pointing out that signing Holland would cost the Cardinals a draft pick and some IFA bonus money*, so it’s definitely not just about money. But, like the Brewers, the Cardinals’ early moves and then sudden silence is fairly perplexing.
Ultimately, I’m expecting the Cardinals to be the final landing spot for Holland, and I don’t really think they’ll regret it. Holland may be aging, but a move out of Coors Field and another year removed from Tommy John surgery makes him seem like a fairly strong bet. In fact, if the Cubs weren’t so close to the luxury tax threshold, I wouldn’t mind a reasonable deal to bring Holland to the Cubs. Alas, that’s probably not in the cards.
Perhaps, then, the Cardinals really are playing with fire, and are just trying to get him on the most team-friendly deal imaginable. Perhaps not. With just a few days until the first game of the season, we might find out soon enough.
*If Holland waits until after June to sign with a team (at this point, it’s not unlikely), he’ll no longer be attached to draft pick compensation. But by then, Wainwright, Reyes, and Gregerson could all be back in action, and the need for Holland might not be there.