St. Louis Cardinals

It’s Gregerson for now, but Cardinals could still make change at closer

If the season were to start tomorrow, Luke Gregerson would the St. Louis Cardinals’ closer, President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak said at the team’s annual Winter Warm-Up Saturday.

But don’t put that in ink just yet.

Mozeliak left the door open to other options as well, selling the team’s depth of young arms to St Louis media as he reportedly did to potential trade partners over the recent months.

He specifically mentioned both Ryan Helsley and Jordan Hicks, two hard-throwing minor league right-handers who could “have a positive impact on our club at some point this year.”

And he didn’t rule out top prospect Alex Reyes fitting temporarily into a late-inning role as he rebuilds endurance from Tommy John surgery. Think Adam Wainwright circa 2006.

“We do have a lot of different faces that can end up doing that, and we think we have the ability to maybe take one of our younger, more dynamic arms and allow him to take that role as well,” Mozeliak said. “Someone like Reyes? Sure.”

Reyes said he sees a future in the starting rotation. For 2018, though, he’ll take whatever opportunity presents itself as soon as he completes his rehab.

“I want to be ready for spring training,” he said. “That’s a decision they have to decide. Whatever they want to do is obviously OK with me.”

The 6-foot-3 right-hander has been focused on conditioning since having the ligament replaced in his throwing elbow Feb. 16. He arrived in St. Louis 15 pounds lighter than the last time he put on a Cardinals uniform.

Reyes has been cleared to throw a baseball and expects to begin bullpen sessions when he arrives at the Cardinals’ spring training complex in Jupiter, Florida, next week.

Mozeliak says the club has “soft circled” May 1 as a potential return date for Reyes. Whether that’s as a starter, closer or somewhere in between remains an open topic.

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Alex Reyes throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds in St. Louis in 2016. Reyes missed last season after having Tommy John surgery. Jeff Roberson AP

“Really, we’ll know that based on how we treat the rehab because, obviously, if you’re coming back as a starter, you’re going to have to be stretched out,” Mozeliak said. “I don’t want this to be one of those where we’re pushing him because of a need. If we’re pushing him because he’s ready and everything is going well on his account, then it’s a little different. I also don’t want to wake up in September and find out we can’t use him.”

Reyes made his major-league debut in 2016, going 4-1 with a 1.57 ERA in 46 innings pitched. He figured as a challenger for a rotation spot at this time in 2017, but he was lost for the season before spring training even started.

Gregerson is the incumbent closer as of today, Mozeliak said, primarily because “he has experience doing it.”

The 33-year-old right-hander signed with the St. Louis as a free agent out of Houston on Dec. 14. Pressed into the closer role in 2015, Gregerson saved 31 games for the Astros. His ERA ballooned to 4.57 in 65 games last season.

Still, the Cardinals’ bullpen led the National League with 17 blown saves in 2017, including six by left-hander Brett Cecil and four by Seung Hwan-Oh, who opened the season as the Cardinals’ closer and is currently on the free-agent market.

“There’s no doubt last year was a disappointment when you think about a lot of the blown saves and close games that we lost, but we also feel like this year we have a group of guys ready to take that next step up,” Mozeliak said. “In terms of who, it might be faceless today, but I think by the time we leave Jupiter, I think we’ll have a good idea of what those roles look like.”

Houston Astros' Luke Gregerson, right, is checked after being hit by a Chicago White Sox's Tim Anderson hit during the eighth inning of a baseball game Sept. 20 in Houston. The Cardinals signed him as a free agent on Dec. 14. David J. Phillip AP

Could that role be filled via free agency or a trade? The Cardinals have been connected as potential trade partners with Tampa Bay and closer Alex Colome, but that talk cooled once the Rays dealt third baseman Evan Longoria to San Francisco. Addison Reed, 28, who saved 19 games last season with the Mets and 40 with the White Sox in 2013, was signed for two years and $17 million by Minnesota on Saturday.

That leaves free agent Greg Holland, who had a National League-best 41 saves for the Rockies last year.

Mozeliak didn’t rule out acquiring another arm for either the bullpen or rotation, but didn’t seem to endorse the idea either, citing the value of the Cardinals’ youth relative to what’s known to be available.

“When you start to think about the arbitrage to go out an acquire somebody you may have for two years or three years, it’s going to cost us players we think we’re going to have under control for six or seven. The math, for us, just doesn’t work,” he said. “For us, of all the things we’re looking at, I think our highest level of confidence is some of the assets we have internally.”

Sports Editor Todd Eschman: 618-239-2540, @tceschman