As the St. Louis Cardinals worked the offseason for potential trade partners, a small handful of names surfaced from within their depth of minor league prospects.
Among them were right-handed pitchers Ryan Helsley and Jordan Hicks.
"I can tell you guys this: In any kind of deal that we every talk about or dream about, those names come up," John Mozeliak, the Cardinals president of baseball operations, said.
Helsley struggled in the five innings he pitched during spring training and was reassigned to minor league camp March 11.
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Hicks, meanwhile, punctuated an impressive spring by shutting out the Washington Nationals on one hit through four innings Sunday. That "emergency" start, made in place of the since-disabled veteran Adam Wainwright, was the final statement in his case to make the Cardinals' Opening Day roster.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold was the first to report Tuesday that the hard-throwing 21-year-old will, in fact, be with the team Thursday in New York. He'll take the place of John Brebbia, who has been optioned to triple-A Memphis to start the season.
"I think Jordan took a really huge step forward last year in understanding pitching, and I think Helsley did exactly the same thing," Mozeliak said. "Both guys can run it up there in the high 90s, and Hicks can even hit triple digits. But just because you throw hard doesn't make you great.
"You have to understand how to pitch, and I think Jordan took those steps."
Hicks suddenly finds himself in contention for late-inning bullpen duty.
Free agent Luke Gregerson was pegged early as the Cardinals' closer, but he was limited to three innings pitched with a strained oblique muscle. A pulled hamstring, suffered while running sprints last week, put him on the disabled list to start the season. Dominic Leone, Bud Norris and Tyler Lyons are presumptive candidates to share that duty.
Hicks gives manager Mike Matheny another option. In 7.2 innings pitched, he allowed two earned runs on five hits, while striking out eight and walking one. His fastball consistently reached 98 or 99 mph, and routinely hit 102 mph.
"I could be wrong, and he could end up fighting for a starting spot some day, but it's easy to imagine him as a closer," Mozeliak said. "He has the makeup, the bulldog approach and, obviously, the arm to go with it."
Hicks rates his slider the second-best pitch to his fastball and continues to develop a changeup. Before forcing his way into the big league bullpen conversation, plans were to allow him to work on those secondary pitches at double-A Springfield, where he would follow a more regimented starters' schedule.
"The easiest way to work on your secondary stuff is to know that every fifth day you're going to do that," Mozeliak said in January, during the Cardinals' annual Winter Warm-Up. "Why? Because two days later you can throw your side and work on it some more. It can be very consistent. When you're trying to do that in the bullpen, it just doesn't accomplish what you're trying to do."
To make room for Hicks and Francisco Pena, the Cardinals will have to move two players off their 40-man roster. Pena was a nonroster invitee who will open the season as the Cardinals' backup catcher.