Could Tyler Lyons Provide a New Level of Versatility to the St. Louis Cardinals’ Bullpen in 2016?

Mar 3, 2016; Jupiter, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Tyler Lyons (70) throws against the Miami Marlins during a spring training game at Roger Dean Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 3, 2016; Jupiter, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Tyler Lyons (70) throws against the Miami Marlins during a spring training game at Roger Dean Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

The St. Louis Cardinals let both long reliever Carlos Villanueva and lefty specialist Randy Choate walk this offseason. Can Tyler Lyons replace both of them heading into 2016?

It’s been a long-standing tradition for the St. Louis Cardinals’ bullpen to be highly specialized. Mike Matheny‘s predecessor, Hall-of-Famer Tony La Russa, was perhaps more notorious for late-inning pitching changes than any manager in the history of the sport. Since becoming the Cardinals’ manager in 2012, Matheny has operated with a very traditional bullpen structure. He’s nearly always utilized one pitcher as a dedicated long reliever, whether it’s been Joe Kelly, Nick Greenwood, or Carlos Villanueva, and he’s consistently used lefty specialists such as Mark Rzepczynski, Sam Freeman and, most prominently, Randy Choate.

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With two steady members of the Cardinals’ 2015 bullpen, Villanueva and Choate, having departed this offseason, it’s highly possible that those two could be replaced this spring by just one pitcher: 28-year-old lefthander Tyler Lyons, who has spent the past three seasons as a spot starter and occasional bullpen member for the Cardinals, but now needs to find a full-time role. He’s out of options this spring and would need to pass through waivers before he could be re-assigned to Triple-A Memphis, where he has spent time during every season since 2012.

With Choate having been allowed to walk after the expiration of his three-year contract following 2015, Lyons was presumed to be the favorite for the role. After all, Choate was left off the active roster for the playoffs last season, while Lyons was included following a season where he held left-handers to a .232 average and threw for a 2.95 ERA, a .206 opponent batting average, and a 0.87 WHIP in nine relief appearances. A strong stint in the starting rotation following a late-season injury to Carlos Martinez only heightened Lyons’ stock, especially after he threw seven shutout innings and allowed just four hits to help the Cardinals clinch the NL Central on September 30.

Lyons didn’t see any action during the Cardinals’ four-game playoff series loss to the Chicago Cubs, but that didn’t lessen the intrigue surrounding him heading into 2016. His value seems to be quite high considering his versatility, as the Cardinals are still conditioning him for a starting role, even though he appears to be headed to the bullpen for the regular season. Lyons, who allowed one run on three hits and no walks over three innings of the Cardinals’ spring opener against the Marlins on Monday, could assume a more modern bullpen role for the Cards if he maintains that type of stamina throughout the season.

With the “lefty specialist” rapidly dying around baseball–Choate, the Giants’ Javier Lopez, and now-National Oliver Perez were the only lefthanders in the majors last season to pitch in at least 70 games and face more lefthanded than righthanded hitters–Lyons has the potential to fit into the mix as a guy who has favorable splits against lefties, but still has enough skill to pitch multiple innings and hold his own against righty hitters, too. While he doesn’t have the elite velocity of his counterparts, Lyons’ potential to match up against both lefties and righties could allow him to serve the same purpose as many of the successful emerging lefthanded relievers around the league, including Siegrist, the Yankees’ Andrew Miller, and the Rangers’ Jake Diekmann. Lyons, who has held lefties to a .199 average over the course of his big-league career, but has a 1.91 ERA, a 0.90 WHIP, and .197 opponent batting average over his career as a reliever, seems to be a great fit for that type of all-purpose role.

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It doesn’t exactly optimize the flexibility of a club to have a full-time long reliever, either. While Matheny appears to like having a guy like Villanueva who can go weeks without pitching and then throw three or four innings if a starter has a bad day, a pitcher like Lyons who has enough of a rubber arm to go multiple innings on a given day but still serve as a productive member of the ‘pen in competitive games could be a major asset to the team. If he gets overused, it could necessitate roster changes as the Cardinals seek to cover innings, but with teams making roster moves more frequently than ever throughout the season, that’s perfectly OK. They have guys like Tim Cooney, Marco Gonzales, and Dean Kiekhefer on the 40-man roster for a reason, and those pitchers would be well-equipped to take some of the load off of Lyons if need dictates.

It appears that Lyons is going to have to compete at least a little bit for a spot on the Opening Day roster. Assuming full health on the pitching staff over the next month (which isn’t exactly the safest assumption, by the way), the Cardinals will have five established big-league relievers who have spots completely locked up in closer Trevor Rosenthal, righthanders Jordan Walden, Jonathan Broxton, and Seth Maness, and lefty Kevin Siegrist. Though newly-signed Korean righthander Seung Hwan Oh has minor-league options, it would be an absolute shock if the 33-year-old did not begin the season on the big-league roster, as the Cardinals are paying him $5 million this season.

That means that there’s probably only one spot up for the taking in the bullpen, and Lyons will be battling during the spring with other relievers who have big-league experience. While his success during 2015 and his lack of options gives him an edge, he should be striving for a great spring performance if he wants to remain comfortable. Even if Lyons pitches better than his competition, Matheny mentioned the possibility two weeks ago of beginning the season with an 11-man pitching staff, which would likely leave Lyons as the odd man out unless Carlos Martinez began the season on the disabled list.

While Matheny’s recent discussion of starting the season with 11 pitchers is probably far-fetched–after all, it’s difficult to make the argument that the Cardinals even have six big-league quality bench players–their ability to consistently operate with a 12-man staff should be optimized by Lyons’ full-time conversion to relief.

It’s not as if Matheny really utilizes the back end of his bench anyway, so it’s difficult to understand why the Cardinals would even consider using a six-man bench. Utility infielder Pete Kozma was on the Cardinals’ active roster for all 162 games in 2015, but he played in just 76 and received only 99 at-bats. Tony Cruz, who served as Yadier Molina‘s primary backup in 2015, received just 104 at-bats while playing in only 57 of the Cards’ first 49 games before seeing action in 12 of the season’s final 13 after Molina got hurt.

Outfielder Peter Bourjos was left to rot over the season’s second half, playing in 51 of 81 games, but starting just six and collecting 46 at-bats. And backup catcher Ed Easley was on the Cardinals’ 25-man roster from May 27 to June 19, but he received just two at-bats over that period. Easley was on the roster again from September 11 until the end of the season, but he managed to get in just two games over that period, playing in both ends of the season-ending doubleheader on October 4.

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Especially after Walden went down for the season on April 29, the Cardinals went with a 13-man pitching staff for a solid chunk of the remaining schedule. Guys like Mitch Harris (26 games), Miguel Socolovich (28 games), and Sam Tuivailala (14 games) saw much more action than expected, and since all of them performed well, they made it harder for GM John Mozeliak to change things up. While it would make sense for the Cardinals to carry a pitcher from that trio on the 25-man roster, rather than taking backup infielder Greg Garcia north with the big club, the ability of a guy like Lyons to both cover innings and match up against lefthanders will definitely make it easier to roll with a 12-man staff throughout the course of the season.