LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. • There’s this sound Mike Shildt makes when he’s giddy.
It’s not quite a cackle. More of a chortle. Like a sneeze, stopped short.
That sound of excitement escaped Shildt on Tuesday. The day’s news about Alex Reyes had been delivered. A manager’s vision was emerging.
Shildt doesn’t just see the outline of what could become baseball’s best bullpen. He’s connecting the dots.
“There’s a positive to it, for sure,” Shildt said in the dugout of Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex.
Epcot was right down the street. A more thrilling attraction could be developing in the bullpen earmarked for St. Louis. Find a better way to finish games than a relief corps that could present the following arms in any sequence: lefthanded fire extinguisher Andrew Miller, human missile launcher Jordan Hicks and healthy, holding-nothing-back Reyes.
Challenge accepted. Here’s how.
Put Carlos Martinez in the same bullpen when he’s healthy, along with the runner-up in the race to replace Martinez in the Cardinals’ rotation, whether that’s reliable John Gant or groundball wizard Dakota Hudson. Hand games over to the best bullpen in baseball, bar none. Turn leads into lights out.
“It gets back to what is best for our team,” Shildt said about the pros of such an approach. “We obviously want what is best for our players. But it says Cardinals on the front. That’s what it’s about.”
Shildt had just spent more than 15 minutes delicately explaining in great detail why the Cardinals are positioning Reyes for a prominent relief role in his first year back from back-to-back season-ending injuries. Reyes later took less time to cut through an innings’ worth of Braves like a blowtorch.
“When you have a guy like that,” Shildt said, “you trust him in about any scenario.”
Shildt also shared that a Wednesday discussion between the team and Martinez will focus on his nearing return to throwing and his role moving forward. Martinez, headed for the injured list, will not be ready for the opening-day roster. When he returns, a convincing case can be made that he should pitch from the Cardinals’ bullpen as he attempts to throw his way out of it. Wasting his innings elsewhere makes little sense.
“Carlos wants to pitch,” Shildt said. “We need him to pitch.”
Hudson and Gant seem to have pitched their way to the front of the competition for the fifth spot in the Cardinals’ rotation, meaning the one who does not win the race could be shifted into the big league bullpen. If Hudson is the starter, it’s smart to move Gant to relief, since he is out of minor-league options and could get poached by another team if sent down. If Gant bests Hudson, the Cardinals would have to decide if they are better off stashing Hudson in Class AAA for starter depth, or putting perhaps their best groundball-getter back into a big league relief role he excelled in last season.
This discussion is made possible by the incredible pitching depth in the organization. The Cardinals have so many pieces, they can both prepare a Strike Force bullpen while stocking Memphis with reserves. Austin Gomber and Daniel Ponce de Leon, who are still making noise in the fifth-starter competition, could provide quality starting depth at Class AAA. Behind them are role-shifting types like Ryan Helsley, Jake Woodford, Genesis Cabrera and others.
The Cardinals have so many arms. They can weaponize them without being exposed. Will they?
“That’s the balance we are fighting, right?” general manager Michael Girsch said from the same dugout. “That’s the part of the decision that is the challenge. The opening-day roster, the question is not, ‘Who are the 12 best pitchers on our team?’ The question is, ‘Who are the 12 guys who are going to break with the team on opening day?’ Some guys have roster constraints, and other constraints that mean if they don’t break with the team, they are no longer part of the organization. Other guys have options, and can go to the minors. Someone has to be stretched out to pitch as a starter, because we are probably not going to get through the season with five.
“The challenge is, we want to maximize our pitching at the big league level — over the course of 162 games. That means we have to retain some depth. We have to retain some options down the road. We are not just trying to have the best 12 for day one, necessarily. Maybe those things will intersect in a way that all works.”
Shildt understands and respects the nuances. He’s also willing to take a stance. For those who have wondered how the manager will settle into his role, here’s an example. This is his finger pressing down on the scale. He wants the talent, and the trust to manage it properly.
“I want our best arms with our team, to compete here at the big league level,” Shildt said. “We are also not naive to the fact we need to have guys in Memphis ready to go, but we feel like we have a lot of those guys. We have depth in place for that as well. In a silo, the depth has impact. In a broader picture, the depth has residual impact.”
For what it’s worth, the Strike Force idea sounds pretty good to Reyes.
“Thinking about that bullpen, it’s scary,” he said. “Not for us. For other teams.”