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Redbird Droppings: Keynan Middleton, Josh James, Matt Carpenter

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This time on Redbird Droppings: Keynan Middleton joins the pen while Josh James tries to join him and what role will Marp play with the team.

Redbird Droppings: Keynan Middleton, Josh James, Matt Carpenter

The Cardinals have brought in a couple of bullpen pieces while also bringing back a former fan favorite. We also check in with some other sites around the web.

The New Middle(ton) Reliever

The Cardinals signed reliever Keynan Middleton last week to a 1 year, $5M deal with a $6M club option for 2025 ($1M buyout); the team designated Guillermo Zuniga for assignment to clear a roster spot (check out the Salary Matrix for updated payroll). Middleton slots into the bullpen and, while he’s not the high leverage guy the Cardinals needed, he’s looking like a solid option.

Middleton took a step forward in 2023, throwing 50.2 innings of 3.38 ERA ball with a 133 ERA+ (he was 33% better than other pitchers). His K/9 jumped from 7.9 in 2022 to 11.4 in 2023. He threw primarily a change up (sitting at 88 MPH), slider (86 MPH), and 4-seam fastball (96 MPH). The change was part of the reason for the improvement; his wiffs against the pitch went up 1.57% over the previous year and saw his groundball rate sit at 66%. While the slider saw a downtick in swings, it did see a huge jump in groundball rates (39.29% in 2022 to 52.38% in 2023).

The downside of his 2023 might cause concern for 2024. While his ERA was solid, it wasn’t supported by his FIP, which was 4.20; this can mainly be attributed to his jump in BB/9 (1.6% in 2022 to 4.9% in 2023). Most of this is because his slider wasn’t as effective as in the past. He’s also 1 year removed from a string of subpar ERA+: 88 (2020), 84 (2021), and 78 (2022); relief pitchers are volatile and fluctuate often, so his good 2023 could be an outlier.

The key for Middleton to continue his improved numbers is pitch mix. He started to use his changeup 22.30% more in 2023, which allowed him to use his fastball 24.41% less often; the fastball became more valuable when it was in limited use. If he can refine the slider a bit (which he used 30.56% of the time), he should be able to lower the walk rate and move his FIP more in line with his ERA; it would be too much of a risk to drop the pitch completely because hitters would sit on the changeup or he’d have to throw more fastballs.

James Fights For Bullpen Spot

While Middleton is the safe guy, Josh James could be the more exciting signing. Coming to the Cardinals on a minor league deal, James is a flame thrower with arm problems; he’s been out since September 2022 and hasn’t pitched in the Majors since 2021.

James comes from the Astros, who drafted in the 34th round of the 2014 MLB Draft and signed for $15k out of Western Oklahoma State College. He wasn’t considered much of a prospect until 2018, when he discovered he had sleep apnea and started using a CPAP machine; with proper sleep, he recovered better and ended up adding velocity. His fastball would sit in the mid-to-high 90s, touching as high as 102. He mixed in a good changeup and slider. He was considered to have a back end rotation ceiling and a floor of a middle reliever.

James pitched well for the 2019 AL Champion Astros out of the bullpen, striking out 100 in 61.1 innings with a 3.98 FIP. It’s been all downhill after that. He missed time in 2020 after hip surgery, 2021 with hamstring and back issues, and 2022 with a lat strain that led to season ending flexor tendon surgery. He was non-tendered after the 2022 season and missed 2023 recovering from the surgery.

When he did pitch, the results were problematic. He could strike out guys (11.7 K/9), but he was a below average pitcher (62 ERA+ in 2020 and 85 in 2021) that allowed baserunners (1.70 WHIP, 7.7 BB/9) to score (6.85 ERA/6.32 FIP). Part of the issue was inconsistent mechanics; he would continually tinker with his throwing motion due to his struggles and/or injuries.

If James is healthy and throwing close to 100 MPH with his fastball, he could fit nicely with Middleton, Giovanny Gallegos, and Ryan Helsley at the back end of the bullpen. If he can’t, they’ll send him to Memphis and it won’t matter much.

Why Carpenter?

The Cardinals shocked fans by bringing back one-time fan favorite Matt Carpenter on a 1 year contract. There really isn’t room on the roster for him with a Nolan Gorman/Brendan Donovan split at DH (and second base) and Luken Baker, Alec Burleson, and Dylan Carlson all fighting for at bats on the bench.

Well, he wasn’t brought in for his lack of bat, but rather his leadership skills in the clubhouse; the front office noticed a lack of leadership behind Paul Goldschmidt. Nolan Arenado struggled on the field and, as a result, withdrew in the clubhouse; it’s something he’s not proud of and he believes it won’t happen again. Big ticket free agent acquisition Willson Contreras probably didn’t want the role after the rotation and front office turned their backs on him early on in the season. It also didn’t help that there were a lot of younger players on the roster.

(It makes you wonder about the impact of Adam Wainwright in 2023; he’s a guy that’s been a vocal leader in the past. Did his struggles impact his leadership? When things went bad, did he just focus on himself?)

The team was missing guys like Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina; guys who commanded respect from their teammates and were very vocal. We’ll see if Carpenter is that guy; the front office was told they needed a Matt Carpenter-type in the clubhouse, so they got him.

I just hope that the need for a clubhouse voice doesn’t come at the cost of at bats for Burleson, Carlson, and other younger, developing players.

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