JUPITER, Fla. -- With a bullpen to restock and roles to sort out, the Cardinals have, in the words of one executive, “cast a wide net” and decided to throw a bunch of different options at the late innings, including a familiar addition Monday.
From quantity, they believe quality will emerge.
“Can you start off the season with some questions in it? I think the answer is yes,” said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations. “But in the end you’ve got to find an answer.”
The Cardinals did some last-minute shopping Monday by agreeing to terms with pitcher Bud Norris, the former starter who flummoxed the Cardinals when he was with Houston. The one-year, $3 million deal is spiked with incentives and can become official late Tuesday once Norris passes a physical. Pitchers and catchers are required to report to the area by the end of day Tuesday, and the Cardinals expect Norris to join the team Wednesday, the first official day of spring training workouts for pitchers and catchers.
Norris, who turns 33 in March, will be given a chance to start should the Cardinals decide any of the young pitchers counted on need more seasoning in the minors. But he arrives with the most saves in 2017 of any current Cardinals pitcher, and if he’s not needed in the rotation the Cardinals are eager to see how his reinvention as a reliever could solve one of their biggest unknowns at the start of spring training.
The Cardinals expect Luke Gregerson to open the year at closer, and all around him they have added relievers like Dominic Leone and now Norris to combine with Tyler Lyons, Brett Cecil, John Brebbia, Matt Bowman and others to sort out the late innings.
Rookie Alex Reyes, who had a 40-pitch bullpen session Monday, leads a wave of youth that the Cardinals will also test this spring to see if — and when — they can bolster the bullpen.
It’s not quite closer by committee, but from a committee the Cardinals seek a closer.
“I think you have to have some definition of roles,” Mozeliak said. “I think having some flexibility in those roles is OK. My experience is guys kind of want to know what they’re supposed to be doing. Closer by committee hasn’t seemed to be a great model, in terms of true success.”
A starter in his 20s, Norris has bounced between the bullpen and rotation the past three seasons, just as he bounced from team to team. A year ago, with the Los Angeles Angels, he went five for five in save opportunities in April. Before a knee injury sidelined him in June, Norris had finished 23 games, saved 11 of them, and struck out 42 batters in 33 1/3 innings. He took a 2.43 ERA and a .197 batting average against into his stint on the disabled list.
He finished the year with 19 saves and a 4.70 ERA as a reliever.
Of interest to the Cardinals as an indicator of the role he could play for them, Norris struck out 11.2 batters per nine innings. It’s similar success missing bats that has the Cardinals intrigued by Lyons in a high-leverage role and open to Reyes debuting this year as a reliever.
Reyes, 23, continued his steady return from elbow surgery with two sets of 20 pitches off the mound. He has yet to throw at full strength with his fastball. He has not thrown a curveball or a changeup off the mound. At this point, the medical team, not the coaching staff, is scripting his work. His next test will be throwing three sets of 15 pitches in a setting similar to Monday’s. A year removed from elbow reconstruction, Reyes is on a deliberately slowed throwing program with an eye on having him ready for May. His role, the team has said, is to be determined.
“It is early, but we start fast,” manager Mike Matheny said. “He’s going to be on a program that is suited to how his body is responding. We’ve made it very clear that we’re going to be careful with him. I think there is going to be a tendency when you have a guy with his kind of ability that you want to try and fast-forward what you need (for) the team right now. But it’s going to stay on track for what’s best for him, and when he’s ready and when they tell us he’s ready.”
“You start talking about how we’re going to be able to use him,” Matheny continued. “All of that is going to go hand-in-hand in what they see and what’s best for this particular player.”
Reyes’ current schedule is geared toward arm strength and starting.
“Whatever happens,” he said, “happens.”
As a young starter for the Astros, Norris bedeviled the Cardinals, causing them more trouble than some of the game’s elite pitchers did. He won his first four starts against the Cardinals, and Houston won five of his first six vs. the former division rivals. In his career, he was 8-7 with a 3.44 ERA in 19 games (16 starts).
Mozeliak said a goal for the Cardinals was to add some insurance for the rotation if one of the planned starters was hurt or, in the team’s evaluation, not ready to start in the majors. He said that for some candidates, “If they don’t earn a spot you still want them starting.”
Norris drew criticism two years ago for his comments to USA Today about baseball being “America’s game (and) if you’re going to come into our country and make our American dollars, you need to respect a game that has been here for over a hundred years.” His comments were viewed as culturally insensitive, and he apologized the day after they were printed. He told Post-Dispatch sports writer Jesus Ortiz on Monday that he had grown in recent years and he was “super-excited to go out and play meaningful baseball every night.”
The Cardinals considered any issues in the past.
It is previous seasons where the Cardinals are drawing evidence of their approach this season with the late innings. In many of their most successful seasons, the Cardinals reworked the bullpen on the go with an infusion of youth. From Adam Wainwright and Josh Kinney in 2006 to Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist, and closer Trevor Rosenthal in 2013, the jolt helped. Now it’s a strategy. As Reyes readies and Norris arrives, there will be musical chairs, relievers vying for roles – until spring stops.
“Well, I would like to think that we’re a little deeper than that,” Mozeliak said. “Picking up Leone, adding Gregerson, and all of sudden with the preexisting guys, it’s going to be a competitive camp, especially when you start thinking about that 12th or 13th spot.”
Or, they hope, the ninth inning.