St. Louis Cardinals Would be Shortsighted to Rush an Alex Reyes Promotion

Jul 10, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; World pitcher Alex Reyes throws a pitch in the second inning during the All Star Game futures baseball game at PetCo Park. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 10, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; World pitcher Alex Reyes throws a pitch in the second inning during the All Star Game futures baseball game at PetCo Park. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports /

While it would be fun to get instant gratification with top pitching prospect Alex Reyes, the Cardinals would be better off developing him properly.

If you happened to tune into the first two innings of the annual MLB Futures Game on Sunday evening, you saw how unbelievably exciting St. Louis Cardinals pitching prospect Alex Reyes can be. While getting the start for the World Team (an interesting assignment considering that he spent the first 18 years of his life in New Jersey), Reyes looked like the Justin Verlander of his generation, throwing three fastballs at 100 MPH or higher while also displaying a nasty curveball and changeup. In a dominant 1 2/3 innings, Reyes showed an incredible mix of strong offerings, striking out Baseball America’s #9 Andrew Benintendi on a changeup, followed by #21 prospect, Clint Frazier, on a fastball, followed by #7 prospect, Dansby Swanson, on a curveball.

Reyes was recently ranked as the top pitching prospect in the sport by Baseball America, and he ranked only behind Lucas Giolito, Julio Urias, and Tyler Glasnow–all of whom have already made their respective MLB debuts this season–by MLB Pipeline. All of those guys’ teams have needed starting pitchers, and their minor-league dominance has enabled them to rise to the majors. In contrast, though, the rumors surrounding Reyes’s impending promotion to the big leagues have involved him coming up to pitch in a bullpen role. That way, Reyes would be able to take advantage of his triple-digits velocity and could provide in-house reinforcement to a bullpen that has suffered from the ineffectiveness of expected anchors Trevor Rosenthal and Seth Maness and the illness of top lefty Kevin Siegrist.

While Cardinals GM John Mozeliak has spoken about the attractiveness of using Reyes as in the bullpen this year, he’s previously spoken about the need to develop the 21-year-old as a starter. Back on June 21, Mozeliak said on FOX Sports Midwest that “The ultimate goal for him is to be a starter in the big leagues. When you’re only having the ability to go four or five innings at Triple-A, I don’t want to say that’s alarming, but it’s concerning. At his age, that’s something that we want him to work on…In the end, you’ve still got to be able to take yourself deep into a game, and once he can do that, the sky’s the limit.”

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Reyes has lasted an average of just 4 2/3 innings per start over his nine outings this year at Triple-A Memphis, and he has only gone more than six innings once this season (which, it should be noted, was in his last start). While certain Cardinals starters have taken unusual routes to becoming effective starters in the past–Adam Wainwright and Carlos Martinez both had long-term stints in the bullpen before moving into the rotation–it’s safe to say that a rushed promotion to the big leagues wouldn’t be ideal for Reyes’s development.

Despite the common assertion that Wainwright and Martinez “earned their stripes” in the bullpen before ascending to the rotation–and therefore, that Reyes should be able to do the same–there’s a difference in the way that those two pitchers were developed. Wainwright was averaging 5 1/3 innings per start at Memphis before being shut down after 12 starts with an elbow strain in 2004, then he spent a full season at Memphis in 2005 and lasted into the seventh inning on 12 different occasions. Even after coming up sooner than expected to help the Cardinals’ bullpen in 2013, Martinez ended up going back to Triple-A to start 13 games later that year, and he pitched into the seventh inning or later on two occasions.

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Reyes isn’t just going to become stretched out to the level expected of a major-league starter by osmosis while pitching out of the Cardinals’ bullpen. And since he’s such a highly-regarded prospect, more so than any Cards pitching prospect has been in recent memory, it’s going to be extremely hard to send him back down once he comes up. We saw Sunday that he’s got an obvious ability to make an impact no matter what role he’s cast into, and it’s probable that he’d succeed in a relief role if that’s where the Cardinals put him.

While the Cardinals have sent down guys like Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez after their highly-anticipated debuts, sending Reyes back after his first call-up would be a whole different animal. If Reyes succeeds in a relief role, it will create pressure for him to be kept in that type of role. It’s the same pressure that pushed former starter Trevor Rosenthal into the closer role three years ago, and since the Cardinals don’t have a closer of the future–their de facto closer of the present is Seung-Hwan Oh, who’ll be 34 in four days, lacks dominating stuff, and has almost 700 professional innings under his belt–it’s easy to see how Reyes could be backed into the closer’s role.

Perhaps the most applicable case that the Cardinals could consult in this situation would be that of Brandon Finnegan, a hard-throwing lefty who was thrown into the Kansas City Royals’ bullpen for the stretch run in 2014, just months after being drafted out of TCU, despite the fact that he was expected to become a starter long-term. After he had a successful run out of the bullpen in the postseason, Finnegan came back the next spring having no idea whether he’d be in the big-league bullpen or go back to the minor leagues to develop as a starter.

After they sent Finnegan to Double-A to begin the season and stretch out as a starter in 2015, the Royals called him up to join the bullpen on April 24. When he was sent back to the minors the next month, he was turned into a full-time reliever, and he went back and forth between the majors and minors six times before being traded to Cincinnati on July 26. Finnegan was pretty obviously shaken up by having to switch back and forth between jobs with no clear plan for his development, leading him to openly rip the Royals last fall for not giving him a clearly defined role. The lesson to be learned here is that while Reyes has great stuff that could play fantastically out of either the rotation or the bullpen, the Cardinals need to give him a plan. It’s best that the front office not even get the thought of turning him into a reliever long-term in their heads if they still harbor hopes of him becoming a dominant starter.

Then again, one could argue that Reyes isn’t going to have an opportunity to get into the big-league rotation for several years, so the Cardinals might as well take advantage of what he can provide at the major-league level right now. Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Lance Lynn are all under contract for 2017, and even though he’s posted rather mediocre numbers this year, Jaime Garcia‘s $12 million-dollar option will be quite the bargain if he stays healthy through the rest of the season. Even if Reyes were to fully devote himself to the bullpen next year, current injured guys Marco Gonzales and Tim Cooney, as well as star prospect Luke Weaver, could provide extra rotation depth. While that would obviously diminish the value of the top pitching prospect in baseball, it’d give the Cardinals one of the hardest throwers in the league and an immediate late-innings option.

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The point, though, is that Reyes isn’t going to develop stamina by making one and two-inning appearances out of the major-league bullpen, and if he’s really good, it’s going to be hard to send him back to gain that stamina in the minors. He clearly doesn’t have that stamina right now, so while it’d be really nice to have his help as a reliever right now, it’s best to hold off on putting him in the ‘pen, at least until late August or September, and be patient with his development.