BRADENTON, Fla. — Kevin Siegrist’s tenure in the majors started as well as possible, as he went from midseason promotion in 2013 to valuable member of the bullpen for the pennant-winning Cardinals.
The Pirates can personally attest to that, as the then-rookie Siegrist pitched against them twice in that year’s National League Division Series. Overall, Siegrist has faced Clint Hurdle’s club 26 times in the regular season, holding them to a cumulative .185/.286/.293 batting line.
“The success he’s had from the left side is hard to find,” Hurdle said after Saturday’s 13-5 win over Minnesota. “He’s a guy we’re going to take a good look at and give some time, what he needs to get in really good pitching shape.”
So there’s some serious benefit of the doubt for the non-roster invitee, but you don’t have to search too hard in the Bill McKechnie Clubhouse to find more endorsements for Siegrist’s ability.
“It’s better to catch him, because he was nasty in St. Louis,” said Francisco Cervelli, who claimed to be impressed by the left-handed Siegrist’s ‘crossfire’ delivery in seven career plate appearances against him. “This guy throws in and down and up. He’s a reliever that’s weird (to face).”
Last season was weird in a bad way for Siegrist.
Starting in spring training, the Buffalonian suffered through injuries to his forearm and neck, leading the Cardinals to release him in late August despite still holding two more seasons of club control. Turns out Siegrist’s 4.81 ERA and 1.55 WHIP were too hefty for a team desperate for wins.
“It’s just been a season of trying to get him healthy,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said at the time of the move. “It’s always been a challenge, and you’re fighting to get yourself right, but then it comes down to the business of the game, too.”
A brief stint with the Phillies in September bore no fruit for Siegrist, so he was off to free agency at age 28. Late last month, he agreed to a minor-league contract with the Pirates worth a reported $1.5 million if he makes the big-league team. Makes sense that Siegrist chose the Pirates, since there’s a legitimate opportunity here to lock down a setup relief role alongside George Kontos and Michael Feliz.
“I think it’s a very good (opportunity),” Siegrist told me Saturday morning. “I’ve shown these guys what I can do in the past, when I’m healthy. If I just show them that I’m healthy, that’s a decision they’re gonna have to make, so we’ll see what happens.”
Siegrist has been deployed just three times in Grapefruit League so far, counting Saturday’s scoreless inning against the Twins at LECOM Park. Only Joe Musgrove, who’s fought shoulder discomfort, has been used less in exhibition play among pitchers in camp.
But Siegrist has been impressive when he’s gotten the chance, striking out seven and allowing three hits in three frames. Not bad for a guy who’s working on ironing out some tweaks to his mechanics.
“The spot he’s working through is getting to a spot in the delivery where his arm is in a slot that feels strong and comfortable,” Hurdle said. “I think he’s getting closer. I think we still see him maybe cutting himself off, but you look at the numbers and he struck out a couple more guys (Saturday).”
Siegrist said he’ll be fully prepared for the opener, assuming he can navigate his scheduled back-to-back appearances at some point in the next few days.
“Once I can go back to back I’m fine, I’m good,” he said. “You know, it’s a long season and I’ve been one that, if I can make it through spring training, I can make it through the season. I’ve been feeling pretty good so we’ll see.”
There are a couple of reasons to be encouraged about Siegrist’s potential to be an above-average lefty option. For one, he has a 3.04 ERA and a 3.64 FIP in 276 major-league appearances. For another, after injuries curtailed his 2014 season, Siegrist rebounded with his finest year to date, as he posted a 2.17 ERA and a 2.91 FIP in 81 appearances for the division-champion 2015 Cardinals.
Speaking of St. Louis, it’s easy to detect a hint of an edge when Siegrist discusses the team that drafted him in the 41st round 10 years ago. He lauds the influence of Yadier Molina and veteran pitchers for aiding his transition to the majors, but doesn’t seem to have much love for management after they cut him loose last summer in favor of the likes of Zach Duke and Tyler Lyons.
For instance, when asked about the Cardinals’ sterling reputation for player development, Siegrist’s endorsement could be described as lukewarm.
“I think it’s a lot of hard work on both (sides),” he said. “I think the fit has to be right, too. That’s all I really have to say about that.”
A little emotion couldn’t hurt in Siegrist’s attempt to re-establish himself in the bigs, but the wars will have to be won on the mound. He’s a reverse-split guy — righties hit .194 with a .625 OPS against him, compared to .229 and .701 for lefties — who throws his four-seam fastball about three-fourths of the time.
Siegrist was adamant that his fastball is paramount, especially the inside heater to righties — “If that’s working, everything else is, too,” he said — but in the times when he hasn’t been at full health, he’s picked up the ability to lean on his changeup and curveball to get through some tough spots. His average fastball velocity was down a couple ticks last season, at 92 mph compared to 95 during his 2015 peak.
Hurdle conceded that he’d like to find an experienced counterpart to Kontos in his bullpen, to counteract some of the young pitchers that figure to end up there. That won’t guarantee Siegrist a spot on the opening-day roster, but it puts him in a better position than most.
“The velocity isn’t what we’ve seen in the past, but I think that’ll come as he gets work,” Hurdle said. “We’re investing in him so he can get healthy and feel good about himself. The experience he has is very, very hard to find.”
Siegrest said, with the help of Molina and others, he’s tried to take all the ups and downs as lessons.
“What’s crazy is I’ve had some really good years and I’ve had some years where I’ve dealt with some injuries and stuff like that,” Siegrist said, “but I feel like I still learn from the years I’ve been injured, whether it’s having to pitch, I don’t want to say backwards, but not to my strength because it wasn’t there. You learn how to incorporate that part into your game, so that once you are healthy and feeling good, it kind of completes your game overall.”
Add Siegrist’s track record to his wide-ranging experience and you have a bounce-back candidate. And, hey, if he wants to beat the Cardinals a little more than most, all the better.
In the meantime, the Pirates are giving their pickup some time to get his feet back under him.
“It’s a process, especially when you have some years in the big leagues,” Cervelli said, emphasizing patience with the process. “You’ve just gotta prepare yourself for the season.”