The Cardinals rotation has featured a series of guest stars and few regulars this season, with 12 different pitchers taking a turn and only 40-year-old Adam Wainwright logging enough innings to qualify. As a group, they’re 13th in the Majors in terms of starters’ innings, and 12th league-wide by measure of ERA (4.02 ERA). By measure of FIP, however, their 4.46 FIP ranks 20th in the game, and if we look ahead to 2022, there’s more than enough uncertainty to make nervous thinkers in Redbird Nation fret.
The five guys currently taking hill turns for manager Mike Shildt have an average age of 36.5, so it’s not a sprightly group. Except for Miles Mikolas, they’re all heading towards free agency at year’s end, too. In fact, of those 12 players who have started a game in 2021, six will be free agents, and John Gant has already been dealt to Minnesota. All of which is to say, the Cardinals have their work cut out for them before Opening Day 2022.
The cupboard isn’t barren, however. For starters, there will be the annual Wainwright retirement question. But with Yadier Molina coming back for one final season, isn’t it almost too perfect for Waino to do anything but follow suit?
Jack Flaherty raises the ceiling of the group, and they’ve made clear that priority one is getting their ace ready for next season, even if that means shutting it down the rest of this year. Dakota Hudson will be an interesting wildcard as he returns from Tommy John. Mikolas is also trying to get healthy, having made just three starts this season. The Cards are on the hook to pay him $17MM in each of the next two seasons, so if the 33-year-old can get healthy, he should have a rotation spot.
Not to mention, any of Jake Woodford, Johan Oviedo, T.J. Zeuch, Matthew Liberatore, Zack Thompson, or Angel Rondon could be given a look. There are definitely arms floating around in the organization that could ramp up to earn rotation minutes.
But there’s another familiar name that’s going to be given a chance to win a rotation spot: Alex Reyes.
Reyes turns 27-years-old tomorrow, and the former top prospect is in the midst of an establishing campaign. In what’s really been his first full season in the bigs, Reyes has a 2.50 ERA/3.90 FIP over 57 2/3 innings. His usage has certainly been consistent: of his 55 appearances, 50 of them have finished the game, a mark that leads the Majors. Simply put, he’s gone from a high-ceiling rotation question mark to an All-Star closer.
But next season, Reyes will follow Carlos Martinez in the Cardinal tradition of yo-yo-ing organizational expectations from starter to closer and back again. Let’s be clear, for this season, Reyes is the Cardinals closer and that’s the end of it. But next year is a different story, said Shildt on MLB Network Radio. Reyes will be given the opportunity to compete for a rotation spot in 2022.
Reyes has maintained a starter’s arsenal in the bullpen, throwing his fastball, slider, and sinker with almost equal usage rates. He’s been even more diverse against lefties, mixing in an occasional curveball or change-up as needed. His heater has averaged 96.5 mph, which is right around what he was averaging when he first came up as a starter. It might be, then, that he’d lose a tick or two if spread out to a starter’s workload.
The concern relates to his injury history and whether or not the Cards should risk losing another valuable bullpen arm by risking a move to the rotation. There’s more upside in the rotation, of course, but there’s something to be said for letting Reyes stay where he’s been successful. After all, if there’s a desire to get him more time on the mound, the Cards could ramp up his usage with multi-inning outings instead of making a full-scale switch to the rotation.
However many innings Reyes finishes with this season will be his most in a single year since the 2016 campaign. He threw between 100 and 110 innings from 2014 to 2016, which is pretty typical for a young arm on the rise. Whether one healthy season is enough to make Reyes ready for that kind of workload again is unclear.
As a starter, of course, the hope would be that he’d surpass even those totals. That said, it’s looking like only Wainwright and Kwang Hyun Kim will accumulate more than 100 innings from the Cards’ rotation this season, so there’s space to make an impact even without posting an 150-inning season.
Even tempering expectations, the Cards could expect 40-50 more innings from Reyes if he can stay healthy in the rotation. Considering his injury history, however, it’s tempting to take the money on the table now and settle in with Reyes as the closer of the next few years.
Of course, Cardinal closers haven’t been any more immune to arm injuries than their starters have, so there’s an argument to be made that whichever course they take with Reyes, there’s risk. If that’s the case, why not pursue the upside of a rotation slot?
From the beginning of the year, the Cardinals have maintained that this season would be an opportunity to inch Reyes’ workload closer to that of a starter and look ahead next season. He’s been much closer to a traditional reliever than the multi-inning firearm we might have expected, but he’s still likely to finish with something close to 70 innings.
The last consideration is timeline. Even though this will be Reyes’ first full season in the Majors, he has just two years of arbitration remaining, so it might be now or never to see if Reyes can be a starter before he hits the open market. Two years as a starter might make Reyes too pricey for the Cards, but it might also give them enough certainty to lock him up at the right rate, knowing he could be a starter moving forward.
Wainwright believes Reyes can make the jump, per Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who provides this quote from Reyes about Wainwright: “He always looks at me and tells me, ‘Hey man, you’re a starter. You know I was there, and I was able to do it. I believe you can. Just those words of encouragement, they make me feel good. And also, they give me the thought. Someone like Adam Wainwright, who has had such a long career here and has been pitching for so long, if he thinks like that of me?”
Let’s give the St. Louis brass some help and point them in the right direction.
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