St. Louis Cardinals: Alex Reyes was “always going to begin in the bullpen”

Sep 29, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Alex Reyes (61) pitches to a Cincinnati Reds batter during the fifth inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 29, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Alex Reyes (61) pitches to a Cincinnati Reds batter during the fifth inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

John Mozeliak casually let it be known this weekend that Alex Reyes wouldn’t have started for the Cardinals had he been healthy.

The St. Louis Cardinals invited bloggers and writers from non-traditional outlets to the ballpark this weekend, as they do on a yearly basis, to converse with general manager John Mozeliak, president Bill DeWitt III, and other team personnel. In an interesting twist, it sounds as if the GM was perhaps more thorough with the coalition of online writers than he’s been in any other interview this season.

As Cardinal70 of Cards Conclave wrote Monday, Mozeliak dropped an off-hand comment about the impact of fireballing righthander Alex Reyes’s elbow injury, which forced him to undergo Tommy John surgery in February and will keep him out for the entirety of 2017:

"When talking about the bullpen and its issues this year, Mozeliak said that the biggest factor wasn’t one that many people had talked about.  “When Alex Reyes went down, everyone thought that we had lost a starter.  Alex Reyes was never going to start the season in the rotation.  He was always going to begin in the bullpen.”"

While Mozeliak seems to be making this statement as a compliment to Reyes–insinuating that the Cardinals’ struggling bullpen would have been more effective if Reyes had been around as a setup guy or a multi-inning option–he’s also conceding that Reyes, who posted a 2.20 ERA with a .234 opponent batting average, 29 strikeouts, and 13 walks over the first five starts (28 2/3 innings) of his big-league career, would’ve had no chance of cracking the Cardinals’ starting rotation this spring had he remained healthy.

While Mozeliak said last October that Reyes had “probably earned a spot in the rotation,” he backpedaled on those comments by February, saying on MLB Network Radio that he was “surprised everyone has Reyes penciled in as a starter.” In light of those comments, his admission that Reyes was never going to start isn’t overly surprising.

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On the other hand, with as much pressure as the Cardinals have had put on them to be more like the Cubs over the past 20 months, it’s rather shocking that the front office had more or less decided to banish their most exciting young player to a relief role before spring training even got underway.

It’s understandable that Carlos Martínez and Lance Lynn (due to their recent track records), Mike Leake (due to his contract), and Adam Wainwright (due to his role as the face of the team and the fact that he’s established a strong reputation over 11 seasons) were guaranteed spots in the starting rotation. But it’s rather odd that Michael Wacha was in fact locked into a spot since he’d only been able to both stay healthy and perform effectively over the course of a full season once coming into the year.

He’s repeatedly been limited by a chronic shoulder condition, and he really wasn’t good at all in 2016, posting career highs in both ERA (5.09) and WHIP (1.48). He looked good in spring training and might have earned a starting spot regardless, but it’s weird that he was never even going to receive a challenge from the guy who was the Cardinals’ best starter for the last five weeks of the season.

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To Mozeliak’s credit, his methodology looked very smart during April. Wacha posted a 2.55 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP over four starts while lasting six innings or longer all four times. He continued to be sharp over the first three starts of May, posting a 3.00 ERA over that span (including a May 19 start where he threw six shutout innings) with a WHIP of 1.22.

Since then, however, the 25-year-old righthander has looked like the ineffective, easily-tiring pitcher that struggled for the entirety of 2016. He’s lasted past the fifth inning just once in his last four starts, posting an ERA of 8.83 with a WHIP of 1.96 over that span. If the Cardinals had a starter as capable as Reyes waiting in the wings, Wacha would certainly be feeling some heat right now.

It’s certainly possible that Reyes would have forced management’s hand at some point and earned himself a rotation spot, though it’s rather concerning that he wasn’t able to accomplish that task with the spectacular performance he delivered over the last two months of 2016.

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The Cardinals’ most fatal flaw this season may end up being their lack of five durable starters who are capable of bridging the gap to their only two reliable relievers, Trevor Rosenthal and Seung Hwan Oh. Aside from them not establishing enough relief depth this offseason, the biggest thing they have to blame for that problem is Reyes’s injury, so management should probably treating his ailment as the obvious setback that it was.