By Rob Rains
Three weeks before the Cardinals begin spring training in Florida, one of the most intriguing aspects to the team’s performance has become very apparent – how manager Mike Shildt wiil align and deploy his bullpen.
The one thing Shildt will admit in mid-January is that the plan will change on a daily basis.
Gone will be specific designations for pitchers who will be used in the seventh inning, the eighth inning or even the ninth. Shildt wants to employ a more matchup driven plan for who gets the ball in what situation.
That plan all centers around Andrew Miller, who will usually draw the assignment of retiring an oppionent’s key left-handed batter in the late innings. If Christian Yelich, Joey Votto or Anthony Rizzo is batting in the seventh, that’s likely when Miller will be on the mound. If it is in the ninth inning, then that becomes Miller time.
It’s a role Miller embraces, and Shildt hopes the rest of the bullpen falls right in line.
“It’s nice at some level to say this is the seventh inning guy, this is the eighth inning guy and this is the ninth inning guy,” Shildt told the media Sunday on day 2 of the Winter Warmup. “You have to evolve in this game. It’s another way to look at it and to find how to get the best out of everybody.
“We need to be aware of how to best use our resources.”
For a group of people – relievers – who traditionally say they want to know their specific assigned role, this will be a departure of that philosophy, but Shildt is confident it will work.
“I don’t want guys in the bullpen flipping coins out there wondering what’s going on,” he said. “It’s about communicating and have them understand and be ready for the opportunities today and know when their spot may be coming up.”
The combination of Miller and Jordan Hicks would seem to be the most logical ninth inning choices for Shildt, but he knows getting key outs before the ninth inning can have as much as to do with winning or losing a game.
“My job is to put guys in position where they have the best chance to be successful,” he said. “The way it shakes out one day could be totally reversed two days later.”
The Cardinals will most likely carry an eight-man bullpen and trying to pick the eight that will open the season won’t be an easy task for Shildt and pitching coach Mike Maddux. Their decisions will be compounded by the fact two of the candidates, Mike Mayers and John Gant, are out of options so they cannot be sent back to Memphis without clearing waivers.
“The ball is in my court for the first time in my career,” Mayers said. “They can’t send me back down anymore. It’s time to do it. I know what I’m capable of doing.”
Also unknown is what role Alex Reyes will have to start the season, as a starter in Memphis or in the big-league bullpen. While Dakota Hudson likely will be in that bullpen, it also would be understandable if he becomes the best sixth starter option and is in the Memphis rotation waiting for that opening.
It also remains a strong possibility that the eight relievers who are on the roster to begin the season will change over the next several months. Top prospects Genesis Cabrera, a lefthander, and Ryan Helsley, a righthander, will try to show early in the season at Memphis that they are ready for that promotion.
Another wildcard choice also will be back on the mound starting in February in the next stage of what could be a remarkable comeback.
Rick Ankiel was at the warmup on Sunday signing autographs, and admitted he is still determined to see if he can pitch again. He underwent surgery on his left elbow in October and believes his rehab is nearing the point where he can resume throwing.
Now 39, Ankiel’s last pitch in the majors was thrown more than 14 years ago, on Oct, 1, 2004.
Once he resumes throwing, Ankiel said he will be better able to gauge where he is on that comeback trail, but his expectation now is that he can be pitching competitively by June.
He has talked to the Cardinals but other teams as well.
“When I announced it (the comeback) I had plenty of interest,” Ankiel said. “Now we will have to wait and see. Everything has to pan out.”
The Winter Warmup will conclude on Monday.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains