St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak caused a stir over the weekend when he suggested that top prospect Alex Reyes might not be a shoo-in for the St. Louis rotation in 2017.
I can’t understand why people are so upset. In fact, I’d take it a step farther if I were in charge, saying that I’m not certain the Redbirds’ prized youngster should even be in the major leagues when spring training comes to an end.
First, the nature of professional sports is that is that it is a competitive business. I don’t think it does the team or the players any good to start passing out jobs before the first pitch of spring training has been thrown. Why should Mozeliak award any precious roster spots to players who haven’t earned them yet?
Former Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols used to say his first goal every season was to make the team in spring training. No matter how much money he was making or how many years were left on his contract, Pujols knew no one was above earning their place on the club.
Like Pujols all those years ago, Reyes is going to have to be undeniably good for the front office to consider putting him directly in the rotation.
Even if Reyes is dominant in spring training, there are other factors at work. There is no getting around the reality that he’s a kid who only pitched half a season last year. It’s not realistic to expect him to throw 200 innings in 2017 without a substantial risk that he’ll either run out of gas by the All-Star Break, or worse, injure himself.
As much as we’d like to see Reyes bust onto the scene instantly become a Cy Young candidate like Dwight Gooden 30 years ago, those results are far from typical and it will likely be best to ramp up Reyes’ innings gradually, asking him to throw a maximum of about 150 this year and then allowing him the possibility of becoming a full-time starter.
If a hurler is in the starting rotation of a major-league team from opening day until the end of the season, he’ll make about 33 starts. Six innings of work per game adds up to 198. Reyes needs to be limited to a maximum of 25 starts to stick around 150 innings. And that’s if he doesn’t do any relieving. If he starts 20 games, that’s about 120 innings and he could relieve another 30 frames.
Another fact is that the Cardinals could gain an additional year of contractual control over Reyes if he starts the 2017 seasons at Class AAA Memphis. He’d need to stay there 55 days and could be called up June 1 to start his big-league career in earnest.
What is one more year of control of an elite pitcher worth?
Finally, the Birds don’t NEED Reyes to be starter. As long as Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, Mike Leake and Michael Wacha are healthy, they have plenty of arms to go around.
If the Cardinals bring Reyes north when they break camp, I’d like to see him thrown into the bullpen mix as a middle-innings stopper. He could come off the bullpen bench when the starter gets in trouble in the sixth inning and you need a pitcher with dominant stuff to wiggle out of a two-on, one-out jam. He could fill the Andrew Miller role of pitching two or three innings at a time to build up his arm bridging the gap between the starter and the back of the bullpen.
Then, by the end of June, I’d start to stretch him out and have him ready to be a starter by the middle of July. Not only would these tactics preserve Reyes’ arm, they’d give the Cardinals rotation a boost when it needed it most – in time for a playoff push and a hopeful postseason berth.
Most importantly, let’s give the kid a chance to grow. It’s not easy to get big-league hitters out. So let’s not put too much pressure on a youngster to crash onto the scene and become the ace of the pitching staff. If he’s developed right, that will happen soon enough. But if he’s not, it may never happen at all.