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.