The St. Louis Cardinals have undergone several major roster and coaching staff changes thus far this offseason, including the major acquisition of outfielder Marcell Ozuna from the Miami Marlins in early December. Other changes that include adding Jose Oquendo, Willie McGee, and Mike Maddux to the coaching staff have left Cardinals fans hopeful for a 2018 rebound following a disappointing third place NL Central finish in 2017 and a second consecutive year of missing the playoffs. Despite this, many fans and team personnel alike are still sharing one major concern: who will close for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2018?
The question mark surrounding the all-important closer role has remained unanswered since the loss of Trevor Rosenthal to Tommy John surgery in August of last season. While Rosenthal earned a reputation for being rather shaky during many stints, the former closer still amassed 121 saves during his time in St. Louis, including a single-season franchise record 48 saves in 2015.
After Rosenthal’s injury, the Cardinals and manager Mike Matheny undoubtedly struggled with who to consistently put on the mound in a save opportunity. Seung-hwan Oh, Tyler Lyons, and late season acquisition Juan Nicasio all took a crack at the closer’s role, with Nicasio eventually earning most of the opportunities by the end of the season. Despite expressing interest in rejoining the Cardinals long-term, Nicasio instead signed a two-year deal with the Seattle Mariners this offseason. Oh also seems highly unlikely to return to St. Louis next season.
The Cardinals could elect to look to add an experienced closer or late inning reliever via trade or free agency. Earlier in the offseason, rumors around Tampa Bay Rays closer Alex Colome seemed to have some potential, but still no deals have been struck. Free agent target Wade Davis is off the market after signing with the Colorado Rockies. Another free agent, Greg Holland, remains available. But with the current market and high price of signing a free agent closer, it seems worth questioning whether the Cardinals may have a good enough option internally.
Lost in much of the early-December Giancarlo Stanton saga and subsequent Ozuna acquisition was the signing of reliever Luke Gregerson to a two-year contract. Although fresh off a World Series victory with the Houston Astros in 2017, Gregerson, for the most part, was a forgotten man on the Astros roster. Prior to a rather mediocre 2017, the now 33-year-old Gregerson experienced several phenomenal seasons going back to 2014, including a 31 save season for Houston in 2015. Despite having lost the closer’s role in Houston to flamethrower Ken Giles, it should not be forgotten that the crafty, slider specialist Gregerson is not far removed from converting save opportunities with consistency.
Another internal option includes Tyler Lyons, who, as mentioned, saw minimal time as closer near the end of the 2017 season. Despite having a phenomenal season last year, Lyons’ versatility and ability to assume the role of either a spot starter, long reliever, or left-handed specialist has led to some speculation that his outstanding 11.3 K/9 may not be enough to land him the closer’s role in 2018.
Perhaps the most talked about internal option recently, however, has been now long-time prospect extraordinaire Alex Reyes. Reyes, who was sidelined all of 2017 with elbow surgery, has been expected to play a big role this upcoming season. In limited Major League experience in 2016, Reyes showed signs of dominance both while starting and in relief. Despite having Tommy John, the 23-year-old will likely still feature a fastball that touches triple digits for years to come.
While team medical staff and President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak have been rather blunt in saying that Reyes will likely not see big league action until at least May and is still preparing for a starter’s role, it is worth wondering whether a need for a hard thrower at the back end of the bullpen and the quick rehab and recovery shown by Reyes will lead to a nearly normal spring training and more opportunities as a reliever as a way of limiting his innings. With this in mind and if all goes well from a health standpoint, Alex Reyes may very well be the lead candidate for the closer’s role entering 2018 if the Cardinals elect to fill the role from within.