Five free agents who could eventually join the Cardinals bullpen

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ST. LOUIS – The St. Louis Cardinals completed several deals to retool their starting rotation in the early weeks of the offseason, but they haven’t made any major moves yet for the bullpen as the new year draws closer.

Sure, the Cardinals acquired a few potential pieces during the Winter Meetings and through the recent Tyler O’Neill trade. However, those new arms are ones without much MLB experience. It’s not optimal to bank on them to turn around a bullpen among the league’s in ERA (4.47) and blown saves (28) last season.

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There’s a growing sense the Cardinals will need to add at least one experienced bullpen piece, or perhaps multiple MLB-ready relievers, if they intend to bounce back from a rare losing season.

The Athletic’s Cardinals beat writer Katie Woo confirmed this superstition, reporting Saturday that the Cardinals met with at least two pitchers this week, including one rising star out of Japan.

Who might be joining the Cardinals bullpen next season? Five current free agents would make plenty of sense in St. Louis.

Jordan Hicks

MLB experience: Five years
2023 season: 3-9, 3.29 ERA, 65.2 IP, 13 holds, 12 saves

Wait a second, Jordan Hicks just pitched for the Cardinals last season and pretty much his whole career up until a trade deadline deal to Toronto. According to New York Post MLB Insider Jon Heyman, Hicks is drawing interest from several teams, including the Cardinals on a possible reunion deal.

If there’s mutual interest and an understanding of what his relief role might be, why not at least consider it? Hicks and the Cardinals were reportedly discussing a potential contract extension just before he was moved. Hicks is likely around his athletic prime at 27 years old, and he’s still very capable of hitting 100 mph on the pitch clock consistently. The heat could be a game-changer to back a rotation of guys mostly in their 30s.

Shelby Miller

MLB experience: Eleven years
2023 season: 3-0, 1.71 ERA, 42 IP, 3 holds, 1 save

The Cardinals already reunited with Lance Lynn and might consider Jordan Hicks, so naturally, the possibility of adding another former Redbird is not off the table. Shelby Miller has been a serviceable starter for much of his career, but found a groove last year with the Dodgers in a relief role. Many of his outings came in lower-leverage situations, but he proved capable of tougher assignments and longer outings as the season progressed.

Now 33 years old, Miller could help bridge a gap between starters and back-end pitchers like Ryan Helsely and Giovanny Gallegos. His pitch arsenal isn’t as strong as when he started in St. Louis, but his decreased rates in hits and homers certainly make him a flyer candidate.

Yuki Matsui

Nippon Professional Baseball experience: Ten years
2023 season: 2-3, 1.57 ERA, 57.1 IP, 39 saves

The Cardinals met with Matsui earlier this week in St. Louis, according to reports from’s Mark Feinsand and St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Lynn Worthy. A deal does not appear imminent at this time, but the discussions are certainly encouraging.

Matsui, a five-time NPB All-Star relief pitcher, offers a dynamic left-handed presence and strong strikeout abilities. At 28 years old, he’s proven very durable with at least 50 games and 30 saves in all but two of his Japanese baseball seasons since 2015. Fiensand described Matsui as “one of the better free-agent bullpen options.”

A few considerations are in play here. The Cardinals have explored the international market for relief pitchers before, most recently with Seung-hwan Oh in 2016. St. Louis would also need to decide if Matsui or Ryan Helsley, or perhaps a committee approach, would be most valuable for closing tight games.

Jake Diekman

MLB experience: Twelve years
2023 season: 0-3, 3.34 ERA, 56.2 IP, 8 holds

Although there haven’t been reported talks between St. Louis and Jake Diekman, he’s an option that makes plenty of sense. For one, he’s left-handed, and fits the bill of several veteran southpaws the Cardinals in recent history (Andrew Miller, Randy Choate, etc.). Also, he’s developed a “journeyman” reputation with experience on eight different teams, including six in the last six years.

As the Cardinals’ bullpen stands now, JoJo Romero and John King are likely the only left-handed hurlers with big-league spots if they’re healthy out of spring training. Diekman is more of a situational pitcher than a big-innings guy, and projects as a short-term option, but having one more left-handed insurance arm coming off one of his strongest seasons couldn’t hurt.

Phil Maton

MLB experience: Seven years
2023 season: 4-3, 3.00 ERA, 66 IP, 10 holds, 1 save

There were some unexpected rumblings that the Cardinals might swing a deal with Phil Maton in the Winter Meetings, but that didn’t materialize. However, St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Derrick Goold reports the Cardinals indeed have interest in adding Maton, who grew up close to St. Louis near Springfield, Illinois.

Maton is kind of a jack-of-all-trades in bullpen situations. Throughout his career, he has commonly used as a glue guy between starters who exit early and the back-end bullpen pieces. But the 2022 World Series champion isn’t a stranger to high-leverage situations either. Maton’s curveball is his specialty pitch, also a plus for a bullpen that profiles to have many high-heat guys.

Also of note…

The Cardinals have shown interest in former Phillies closer Hector Neris, according to Goold’s report on Maton. Both were teammates last season in Houston, though there haven’t been any substantial developments on trying to bring either to St. Louis yet.

Two former All-Stars with flame-throwing abilities and lots of closing experience remain on the market in Josh Hader and Aroldis Chapman. Both are also left-handed. But the Cardinals haven’t been particularly aggressive on free agent closers under John Mozeliak, so it’s best to temper expectations here.

“Scoops With Danny Mac” writer Bernie Miklasz recently published a list of 16 different options he sees as potential options for a Cardinals bullpen makeover, including many of the previous aforementioned players.


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