On the Bubble
Matt Bowman, Jonathan Broxton, Zach Phillips, Jordan Schafer, Miguel Socolovich, Sam Tuivailala
Let’s get the most obvious information out there right away–Bowman and Broxton are much more likely to make the team than the latter four guys on this list. Both spent the entire 2016 season in the big-league bullpen, and in Broxton’s case, the Cardinals owe him $3.75 million this season and are desperate to get some value out of him.
The debacle with Broxton is that he was bad last year and hasn’t been consistently good for a full season since 2012. The Cardinals owe him nearly $4 million in 2017, but if he has an absolutely terrible spring and two of the final four guys on this list look like lights-out bullpen contributors, it seems possible that Broxton would be pushed out. With that said, the Cardinals are very unlikely to jettison him before the start of the regular season.
Bowman, on the other hand, might be a bit more vulnerable. While the 25-year-old did a very good job of inducing ground balls last year as a rookie, he wasn’t exactly dominant, posting a 3.46 ERA in 67 2/3 innings. Bowman definitely seems to be penciled into a spot entering the spring, but if a guy like Socolovich–who is out of options–looks spectacular in exhibition games, perhaps it’s possible that the Cards could send down Bowman–who has all three minor-league options remaining–and keep him in reserve until they have an injury on the pitching staff.
Beyond those two spots which are almost surely guaranteed to Broxton and Bowman, there’s one spot that’s totally there for the taking following Alex Reyes’s unfortunate season-ending injury. It’s possible that a guy like John Gant or Luke Weaver who is currently expected to be a depth starter could earn a spot as a long reliever. However, with rotation depth an increasing concern now that Reyes is already down and Michael Wacha is brittle, it seems more likely that the Cardinals will want to keep those guys stretched out in Triple-A.
That’s why the battle will probably come down to two guys who have been riding the shuttle between Memphis and St. Louis for the past two seasons–Socolovich and Sam Tuivailala–and two newly-signed minor-league free agents, Zach Phillips and Jordan Schafer.
Socolovich has a major edge based on merit, as he’s been fantastic over the past two seasons in St. Louis. Through 47 2/3 innings, he’s got a 1.89 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP. Last season, he held hitters to a minuscule .086 average over 18 big-league innings. The Cardinals’ front office has been hesitant with giving him opportunities–and when he’s reached the majors, Mike Matheny seemingly has been hesitant to use him–presumably because of his below-average velocity, unimpressive strikeout numbers, and relative age (he’s 30 years old). At some point, though, his numbers will become too impressive to ignore if he keeps pitching like he has when afforded the opportunity.
Despite his 5.47 ERA and 1.87 WHIP over 28 big-league appearances, the 24-year-old Tuivailala obviously is still well-liked by the front office because of his high-90s fastball velocity. The 30-year-old Phillips, a veteran of 27 big-league appearances over four seasons, brings a deceptive three-quarters delivery from the left side, while the 30-year-old Schafer–a longtime big-league outfielder–has just one year of professional pitching experience but provides intrigue because of his ability to contribute in three ways: as a lefty bullpen arm, a defensive replacement in the outfield, or a pinch runner.