There were several things that did not turn out in the St. Louis Cardinals favor during 2017. The team was reliant on the ascension of Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty. The latter regressed. The former, while a good and useful player, did not become the fixture as hoped. Adam Wainwright did not bounce back in his 2nd season removed from an achilles rupture, and the bullpen — which was designed around high expectations for Seung-hwan Oh and Brett Cecil — failed to deliver in the biggest moments. There were many negative developments as the season went along.
But the biggest loss, the thing that hurt the most, happened at the very beginning. On the first day of spring training, before the team had taken the field for workouts or position players were even due to report, Alex Reyes was heading to the doctor for an MRI. The results of that test were unwanted, but not unexpected. The consensus #1 pitching prospect in all of baseball would require season-ending, Tommy John surgery.
Alex Reyes looks like a different person. He’s in crazy good shape compared to 2016.
— Adam Butler (@LanceDance1) January 13, 2018
And so we are left to speculate how his special talents will be utilized in 2018.
Starter? Reliever? Closer?
Start With a Blueprint
It’s been 18 seasons now, but back in 2000, the Cardinals had another high-end young pitcher returning from Tommy John. That man was Matt Morris. While he is best remember for being among the NL’s best in 2001 and 2002, it was his 2000 that we can look to as a template for Reyes.
Morris made 5 starts at AA and AAA to begin the year, building up to 21 IP. He then joined the big league club, making his first appearance on May 30th and throwing 53 IP across 31 relief appearances. Of those, 22 went more than 1 inning.
The tentative return date has been stated by the team to be around May 1st, which is slightly earlier than Morris. I do expect Reyes to start 4-5 games between Peoria, Springfield, and Memphis (depending on who is playing at home), until he has regained command of his pitches and is ready to face big league hitters.
The combined 74 innings pitched that Morris posted are what I would consider the low-end for Reyes this season. I imagine that the Cardinals will seek to get him to at least 100 innings this year. Depending on role and need, they may try to push him up to 120 IP, to set him up for growth to the 160 inning range in 2019. Conveniently, Wainwright’s expiring contract provides a clear path into the rotation for Reyes.
Like they were with Morris, the multi-inning appearances should also be commonplace for Reyes this season.
If the Cardinals line up their rotation something like this — Martinez, Wainwright, Wacha, Mikolas, Weaver — then there is a very logical way to utilize Reyes for the first few months. The key is separating Wacha and Weaver.
First, we know that Michael Wacha has had issues when he faces a lineup for the third time. He also has a history of stress reaction in his shoulder, which needs to be monitored. Luke Weaver will be in his first full major league season, and due to small injuries the past few years, he has yet to shoulder 140 innings in a season.
Both could benefit from a supplemental pitcher to help take on part of the innings load. This could be Reyes.
Imagine 4-5 strong-to-dominant innings from Wacha or Weaver, piggybacked by 2-3 dominant innings of Reyes. This tandem approach could be extremely effective in preventing runs. Wacha+Reyes over 7 innings likely plays as good as many high-end starters. This plan would also leave just 6-9 outs for the remainder of the bullpen to cover in those games. It keeps Reyes on a regular schedule (and not pitching consecutive days), feeds him 5-8 innings per week, and it keeps the early-season innings down on Wacha and Weaver, helping them sustain effectiveness late into the year.
After the All-Star break, the Cardinals can move off of this scheduled approach. They could then start deploying Reyes in higher leverage situations based on need, as well as using him for spot starts to keep the rotation fresh. This is assuming there are no injuries or performance issues in the starting five, opening a permanent spot. Should such a need arise, Reyes could be the first to step in.
Unless of course he has pulled a Rosenthal and become indispensable in the bullpen.
Reyes as closer?
This has been a very popular topic among fans this winter. A lot of the talk stems from the Cardinals opting not to go after a high-end, or even medium-end, closer. At the Winter Warm-Up, John Mozeliak stated that as of now, Luke Gregerson would be the closer. That could change. A different pitcher could still be acquired between now and opening day, but we can only talk about what is currently on the roster.
Gregerson can be a fine closer, assuming he bounces back to his pre-2017 form. He fits the mold of a steady-type closer, like Edward Mujica or Fernando Salas. The benefit of using Gregerson as the designated “save” guy, is that it frees up Matheny to use more dominant relievers — such as Tyler Lyons or, eventually, Reyes — to pitch in the biggest moments of the game.
The smart move is to let Gregerson take 85-90% of the opportunity, but give the other portion — the Bryant/Rizzo in the 9th of a 1-run game opportunities — to a more dynamic arm.
While a fire-breather of a closer like Reyes would be very attractive, it would be an incredible gamble to plan your season, relying on him to fill the role. We don’t yet know how Reyes will look in his return. His command could be off — and it’s not like he was a control artist prior to surgery. Also, its never clear how a young pitcher will react to high leverage moments (see: Mitchell Boggs).
Now, if he develops into a late-inning force, he could possibly supplant Gregerson later in the year, the same way the Jason Motte and Trevor Rosenthal entered the role. It’s also possible that another prospect rises up to seize the job (like Dakota Hudson or Jordan Hicks). Reyes could also be in the rotation by season’s end.
Could he be an option at closer at some point? Sure. But it’s best to just let the situation develop organically.
The Cardinals will be better off having Reyes in the fold this year, no matter the exact capacity. Healthy and right, every inning he pitches will be of a higher quality than any other pitcher on the staff (save for Carlos Martinez) can offer.
In his first taste of the majors, Reyes compiled a crazy impressive 1.4 fWAR in just 46 innings pitched. For reference, Lance Lynn had a 1.4 fWAR in 2017…in FOUR TIMES as many innings pitched. We are talking about a flat out elite talent.
“I was fortunate enough to play Jose Fernandez in high school. … Jose Fernandez is the only other guy I’ve seen in person that has that kind of stuff,” Gomber said of the late Marlins All-Star.
“It’s that echelon of stuff, and when (Reyes) is healthy, it’s electric. I’m looking forward to seeing him back and healthy this year.”
I think a year without seeing him pitch made many of us forget just how good this guy is. I’m ready for him to refresh our memories.
Thanks for reading!