I don’t think it’s a coincidence that three of the pitchers the Cardinals are sending to the Arizona Fall League are left-handed, especially considering the “southpawfulness” we have witnessed this season. (Yeah, that’s right. Southpawfulness. Sure it’s corny, but every time you say it, you owe me a quarter.) The Cardinals may as well audition their in-house options while monitoring the free agent market. From the looks of things, the Cardinals will need more than just one lefty reliever, because as we know in any La Russa bullpen, having two left-handed specialists is sine qua non. I could see them spending money on a Joe Beimel type B free agent over the winter to be the main lefty out of the pen and a poster at VEB has a detailed outline as to what other free agents could be available. Feel free to discuss the major league side over there, but for right now, let’s explore the internal options.
Justin Fiske – This year’s P.J. Walters, only left-handed and without the fanfare. Fiske had success at three different levels this past season, despite throwing slower than slow. The former Joliet Jackhammer has only 110.1 minor league innings to his credit, but some pretty nifty numbers: A K/9 rate of 9.71 and a FIP of 3.05. He has been used by the Cardinals as a reliever at first, but was switched to starting late July and took rather well to the change. It is a small sampling, but Fiske has held lefties to a .204 average and with a strikeout rate of 13 per nine innings. His career MLE against lefties is a 3.29 FIP. Fiske’s fastball is only in the mid-eighties. He also throws sinker and a “Bugs Bunny” change up.
Brad Furnish – Furnish may have the best stuff in the group, with a 89-92 four-seam fastball and a plus curve. He throws over the top, so he doesn’t really profile as a lefty specialist. The problem is since getting to the A ball level, Furnish’s numbers are pretty darn oogly. You can click on his splits page for yourself and find he actually has a reverse platoon split. He pitched surprisingly well once called up to AA, but there was some flaky stuff going on. His HR/9 rate in the power suppressing Florida State League was 1.07. In the much more power friendly Texas League, Furnish’s homer per nine rate was 0.40. Given the fact that he has a 42% fly ball rate, gopherballs are in his future. Going to the dry air of Arizona to face some of the best prospects in the game, Furnish will need to bring his A game to get attention.
Having seen Furnish pitch, I like him, but the stuff just has not matched the results. I have not seen him throw above the Quad Cities nor this year, and I know he had some bone spurs removed in the last off-season. Maybe that had some sort of effect on him…
Tyler Norrick – He was in and out of last year due to shoulder tendinitis, mostly out. Norrick’s biggest mark on the season when he was called up to Memphis to make an emergency start and pitching on nerves and adrenaline, Norrick turned in a gutsy eight K, two-hit 4.1 inning performance. From all the reports I’ve read, Norrick has long been viewed as a lefty reliever in the making. His fastball comes in at 90-93 and his slider is OK, but lacks two-plane break. In 67.1 professional innings he’s held left-handed batters to a .211 average with a K/9 rate of 9.09 and a FIP of 3.25.
There really isn’t an odds on favorite in this bunch. Furnish needs a lot of work, so I can’t see him really burgeoning into the lefty reliever the Cards are looking for. It should come down to Norrick and Fiske, two very different pitchers. Norrick is more of a “scout’s guy” with a pitchers body and a big league fastball. On the other hand, he’s raw and couldn’t stay on the field. Fiske was completely undrafted and not even a couple of seasons removed from pitching in the independent leagues. But, he has “pitchability”, that changeup and some nifty stats. I am rooting for either one of them emerge, but I think the Cards would be smart to hedge their bets and find a minor league free agent or three to bring to camp.