Why Dominic Leone should be the Cardinals closer.

The struggles of the St. Louis bullpen were an obvious concern in 2018.  The lone highlight being the emergence of Jordan Hicks as a force in the 8th inning.  The Cardinals went into the offseason looking to add some depth to the bullpen and potentially a closer.  To this point the only impact piece that has been added is the versatile lefty Andrew Miller. Miller and Hicks will create a two way highlight reel of nasty pitches that will undoubtedly be a boost, but neither have performed as a closer in their careers for more than a few weeks. Another writer on this sight suggested John Brebbia, I too saw Brebbia as a potential closer going into 2019 but after digging into the numbers a different player stood out to me.  Someone that most of us have most likely forgot… Dominic Leone.

Let’s first work under the assumption that Miller and Hicks will most likely be middle to late inning relief.  Let’s also work under the assumption that the competition will be between Brebbia and Leone.  Brebbia’s career has taken off the last two seasons in the majors but he was actually drafted in 2011 by the New York Yankees while Leone was drafted by the Blue Jays in 2012.  Both have paid their dues in the minors to establish themselves of as more than effective relievers.  Both have great strikeout potential, Brebbia (10.66 K/9), Leone (9.75 K/9) in 2018.  Both have average fastball velocity of 95 MPH. Both have similar WHIP’s, BB/9 and so on and so on. 

Basically, they have very similar traits.  Leone was hampered by an injury in 2018, ironically his injury is one of the many reasons that Brebbia was recalled from Memphis during the season. A place that he should not have ever been, but that is an argument for a different day. Cardinals fans that will play recency bias will look at Leone’s start to 2018 and not see the real pitcher that Leone can be when healthy. In 2017 Leone excelled for the Toronto Blue Jays in the stacked American League East. In 70.1 innings, Leone held hitters to a .202 average and a skeletal .360 slugging percentage. He inherited the fourth-most runners in baseball, 54, and stranded 42 of them (a mark which put him among the very best in the American League).What stands out the most to me was his exceptional numbers against lefties, holding them to a slash line of .183/.261/.366.  Leone features a premier secondary pitch with his cutter which generates an extremely high number of swings and misses compared to other pitcher’s cutters. It is especially stingy against left handed hitters. His effectiveness against lefties is the reason he has the advantage over Brebbia whose line was not on the same level .250/.330/.455 in 2018.

Leone is not a standout closer with tons of experience but if given the chance in the backend he has shown to be effective against hitters from both sides of the plate. Going into spring training I believe all relievers will have a chance to close, assuming we don’t have another Greg Holland late signing type situation.  Leone has the velocity, secondary pitch and hopefully the opportunity. 

St. Louis Cardinals- New Year’s Resolutions

Marcel Ozuna- Get myself paid.

Contract years are always a great way to inspire a player to be his best.  He is not only playing for his team but he is playing for himself and his future. Ozuna wasn’t the player the Cardinals traded for in the winter of 2018. He wasn’t the power hitting impact bat that would make the Cardinals lineup a force to be reckoned with.

Ozuna spent most of the season injured, putting together a respectable season but not one that is going to get him the contract he will be looking for. Fans won’t be excited to see a player that will clearly be inspired by the all mighty dollar, but that will be the story for Ozuna in 2019.  I expect Marcel to return to MVP level performance, 35 homers will be a guarantee.

Paul DeJong- Play 150 games

Paul DeJong will enter the 2019 season as one of the most intriguing candidates for a breakout season. At just 25 years old, DeJong is still developing a major league shortstop.  A broken hand on a wild pitch as well as a few different prolonged slumps caused his stats to take a bit of a dive.  Still finishing with an impressive 3.8 WAR DeJong will now have the luxury of a stronger lineup around him. 

DeJong does not have any logical replacements on the bench outside of the versatile Yairo Munoz, who would be a preferred utility player.  DeJong will not only need to continue his progression as a player but he must also find his way into the lineup on a daily basis.  The more he plays the better the Cardinals will be.

Carlos Martinez- Become the Ace I think I am

The time for development is done for Carlos Martinez.  As he enters 2019 he will be looking to take over the role of rotation leader. Adam Wainwright has signed on for another season but it is time for Carlos to be the best pitcher in the rotation or if needed in the bullpen. 

Martinez is entering his 7th season for the Cardinals, he is still just 27 years old!  The attitude he brings out to the mound is one of dominance.  He believes that he is the best player on the field and now it is time for him to prove it. Two straight season Carlos has been the opening day starter for the Cardinals, it would be safe to assume that he and Miles Mikolas will be dueling for that honor in spring training. 

Martinez’s mediocore season accompanied with him now history of injuries has put him in a place where he has to prove himself.  That will be his goal in 2019, he will prove he is an ace.

Harrison Bader- Win the Gold Glove

Asking a second-year player to go out and win a prestigious award is not like asking your coworker to make sure they up their sales.  Bader showed the ability to take over games defensively.  He will now have the chance to play every day and showed the world that he is that good.

Bader finished sixth in the Rookie of the Year Ballot in 2018 and should have won a Gold Glove. In 2019 Bader will take his next step forcing the baseball world to take notice and give him the award. 

Jordan Hicks- Establish my slider

Since his first pitch in the majors Jordan Hicks has been a force in the league.  Hick’s first pitched was 100.8 MPH sinker that immediately grabbed the attention of players, media and fans.  While Hicks was showing he could throw the hardest fastballs in the league, he was still not getting the strikeout numbers that a player of his caliber should be.

Averaging just an 8.1 so/9 in 2018. Hicks has a rocket for an arm, but has still now established a secondary pitch that is effective enough to make him an elite level reliever. In April, 175 pitchers threw at least 50 sliders, and only four got fewer swings than Hicks’ 28.6 percent. It was worse outside the zone, which is where you really want sliders to induce swings and misses. Only two pitchers got fewer chases then Hicks did.

 Then all of a sudden in June, Hicks began to establish his slider. Hicks was able to go from a 30% swing and miss rate to a 60% swing and miss rate, doubling his strikeouts from the month before in three less innings.  When Hicks has a slider working he is a pitching that can be a potential closer.  Start the season dominating with a slider.

Mike Schildt- Don’t be Mike Matheny

This one is easy.  Don’t be Mike Matheny.  Trust your young players and make changes when you need to. Don’t be like Matheny.

Dexter Fowler- 2019’s Most Important Player?

The saga of Dexter Fowler is sickening to pretty much all Cardinals fans.  His 2018 regression was historically awful, his perceived love of the Chicago Cubs is inexcusable.  Nevertheless, entering into the 2019 season, he may be the most important piece to a team that seems primed to get back to the playoffs. 

Fowler is not what Cardinals fans want, he’s not Bryce Harper. It’s time to accept the fact that most likely the Cardinals will enter the season with Fowler as the projected starting right fielder. He will play the role of either #2 hitter setting up for offseason pickup Paul Goldschmidt or he will be batting in the 6th spot protecting the bigger bats.  .180/.278/.298 are numbers you expect to see from a Starting Pitcher rather than your $16.5 million per year starting outfielder.  But to say that he repeats those numbers is almost unfathomable. In Fowler’s worst season outside of 2018 the lowest OBP he recorded was .364 in 2015, his lowest OPS .757 also in 2015. Whether it was the reported depression, injury or who knows what else, regression of that level is unheard of in major league history. 

While the Cardinals may never have the man to live up the contract that was signed in the offseason of 2016 realistically they don’t need the Fowler that posted an .840 and .851 OPS in 2016 and 2017.  They need a Fowler that can be at his career average at best to be successful. Despite his dreadful 2018 Fowler still has a career OPS of .780 nearly 60 points higher than the MLB average was in 2018.  Looking at the 2018 playoff teams worst OPS player you can see that all the Cardinals would need is a below average season from Fowler to get what they need.

Rockies, Ian Desmond, 160 games, .729 OPS

Brewers, Ryan Braun, 125 games, .782 OPS

Dodgers, Chris Taylor, 155 games, .775 OPS

Braves, Ender Inciarte, 156 games, .705 OPS

Combined average = .747 OPS

Fowler would need to be at just a .747 OPS to be where the Cardinals would need him to be. As previously stated only one time in his career has he posted an OPS below that mark (last season). While they were small, Fowler did show signs of life before his foot injury raising his OPS to .659 when compared to his June .412.  He added three homeruns in 64 at-bats in July compared to the zero he had in 55 at-bats in June.  Signs of life were there but quickly faded after getting hit by a pitch in early August. 

His defense has been the subject of criticism as well last season, but he was never touted as a Gold Glover before being signed.  With the addition of Paul Goldschmidt the Cardinals now have at least four potential Gold Glove winners, Bader, Wong, Yadi, Goldy and a past winner in Marcell Ozuna.  Any issues Fowler has in the field should be covered by the play of those around him.  He isn’t worse than Jose Martinez and the Cardinals were fine with risking their defense for the bigger bat. 

I want Bryce Harper, I want Tyler O’Neil to get more at bats.  But seemingly that is not going to be a guaranteed option unless the Cardinals are willing to eat $41 million over the next two seasons.  The Cardinals are not going to do that, they are going to ride with Fowler until they are forced to realize that he has nothing left.  This team now has its cornerstone bat in the middle of the order, they have the pitching staff that can give them a chance to win every night. All they need is a small piece of the player they believed they had signed to be successful.  It’s there, hopefully we see it.

@italksportsti