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The Case for Alex Reyes as the Cardinals’ 2017 "Andrew Miller"

This past season on August 9th, Alex Reyes made his highly anticipated arrival in the MLB. Over 7 relief appearances and 5 starts, he was a shot in the arm for the bullpen and a rotation grasping for answers. General manager John Mozeliak all but confirmed expectations that Reyes would enter 2017 spring training with a spot in the rotation after posting a 1.57 ERA over 12 appearances and 46 innings.

But despite Reyes’ 2016 success, his minor league history and the Cardinals’ stockpile of veteran starters suggest he has a better fit in the 2017 bullpen: the Cardinals’ version of Andrew Miller.

The 2016 postseason showcased the importance of having a reliever who can dominate high leverage, multiple inning situations. Andrew Miller is the obvious name, but the Dodgers and Cubs used Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman in similar situations. Recently over on ESPN, Jim Bowden wrote about what it takes to succeed in this role: the stamina to handle multiple innings, the ability to get both righties and lefties out, and the mental fortitude to handle the uncertainty. This article will seek to expand on Reyes’ potential fit in this sort of relief role.

Alex Reyes is not ready to start

Looking ahead, it appears Alex Reyes would fit best as a multiple inning, high leverage reliever for the 2017 season. Following are his 2017 Steamer Projections, provided by Fangraphs:

Alex Reyes 2017 Projections

These are, at the very least, conservative. Current predictions have him starting only 6 games while spending most of his time in the bullpen. Most troubling for the idea of using Reyes as a starter in 2017 is his BB/9, projected at 4.49 per 9 innings after posting a 4.50 per 9 innings in 2016. Control has always been one of Reyes’ biggest question marks in his rise through the minor leagues, so his performance in the minors will give a good indication of the degree of success Reyes has had and the workload he has been able to handle given his high walk rate.

Alex Reyes Minor League Stats

Reyes spent the 2013 season in Johnson City, 2014 in Peoria, parts of 2015 in the Cardinals’ rookie league, A, AA, and Arizona Fall League, and the majority of the 2016 season in Memphis. As mentioned, Reyes has struggled with command throughout his minor league career, posting a BB/9 of 4.63 across his minor league stints. While a 3.51 ERA is not bad, it also isn’t phenomenal, or anywhere close to his initial success in the MLB. Therefore, the projected uptick in ERA and FIP for Reyes in 2017 seems reasonable, and the result would be a strong but not spectacular starting pitcher. More alarming, however, is the light workload Reyes has been able to handle with his walk rate, as he has averaged just under 5 innings per start. There has been no noticeable improvement in Reyes’ BB/9 from 2013 to 2016, and no progression in his innings per start over the same period. In fact, his most successful year was 2015, when he averaged about 4.5 innings per start. While it is possible that Reyes could improve his control heading into 2017, it is unlikely that he will see enough improvement to be able to manage an average between 5 and 6 innings. Short starts from Reyes would inevitably tax the bullpen, already an annual issue under manager Mike Matheny.

"Andrew" Reyes: the multi-inning reliever

The back-end of the Cardinals bullpen should be a relative strength again next year, with projections for Seung Hwan Oh, Trevor Rosenthal, and Kevin Siegrist as follows:

Late Inning Reliever 2017 Projections

Rosenthal looked much more like his former self following his DL stint, suggesting a return to form in 2017 is a strong possibility. Oh was very successful in his rookie campaign and will look to build on that success. However, these guys can’t throw in every game, or even every game with a lead. That’s where Reyes comes in. When the starting pitcher only goes 5 or 6 innings, Reyes could serve as a bridge for the 6-8th innings, occasionally finishing games when necessary. When the starter manages to go 7+, the Cardinals can rely on Siegrist, Rosenthal, and Oh in their traditional setup and closer roles. This strategy would limit the high leverage innings forced on starters throughout the season, since Matheny could rely on Reyes to preserve a lead or tie instead of traditional middle relievers. Ultimately, this would preserve the starters and allow them to maintain their effectiveness in August and September (and hopefully October). Alex Reyes would continue to develop as a major league pitcher, and would be exposed to an innings count that is more in line with his historical performance (think 125 to 140 innings and 2 to 3 innings per appearance). He would continue to be available for spot starts or DL stints when injuries arise. Perhaps most importantly, this would protect Reyes from an innings limitation or fatigue in the later months in the season in the case he needs to take on a more prominent starting role.

The Starting Rotation is fine

Starting Pitchers 2016 Stats

Many expected the St. Louis rotation to take a step back in 2016 from their historic campaign in 2015, but it is still tough to see how large that step was. After leading the majors with a 2.94 team ERA in 2015, the Cardinals ranked 12th in the majors and 7th in the NL with a 4.08 ERA in 2016. Every starting pitcher from the opening day roster not named Carlos Martinez significantly underperformed expectations. Luke Weaver performed well over his first 7 starts, posting a 3.21 ERA before crashing in his final two September starts. After making his first start on August 27th, Alex Reyes posted a 1.96 ERA across 5 starts and 2 relief appearances. Not to be forgotten was Mike Mayers’ lone unsuccessful and forgettable start.

While the end product from the starting pitchers this year was ugly, diving further into the numbers shows a more hopeful picture, with a focus on the seven main starters shown above. First, while the starters’ ERA was 4.28, their FIP comes in at 3.90 and their xFIP at 3.87. This indicates that part of the struggles can be attributed to poor defense. Sure enough (and as is well documented), the Cardinals’ defense ranked 24th in the majors, per Fangraphs. Club management has already made it clear that improving defense is a priority this offseason: Matt Carpenter is positioned to be the full time first baseman in 2017 and management is searching for a center fielder who could push Randal Grichuk to left. Aledmys Diaz will have a full offseason to refine his skills to play a strong defensive shortstop at the major league level. All these factors should improve the Cardinals’ defense and bring their ERA closer to or below their FIP.

Starting Pitchers 2017 Projections

Looking ahead to 2017, this is exactly what is expected to happen. Projections for the established starters in the Cardinals’ rotation predict their ERA to drop 3.72, essentially in line with their FIP projection of 3.76, down from 3.90 in 2016. Assuming all of these starters are bought back to the 2017 roster, the Cardinals should have a strong 5 man rotation with the 6th man providing insurance for the inevitable injuries. Further depth will be provided by Luke Weaver and a healthy Marco Gonzalez and Tim Cooney.

Ultimately for Cardinals pitchers, the road to success starts with fielding a better defense behind them. If healthy, the Cardinals have 6 veteran starting pitchers who can likely be relied upon to bounce back from a subpar 2016 season, as well as the depth to withstand injuries. In that case, the Cardinals can turn a "problem" into an advantage by putting Reyes in a relief role which limits his exposure while still allowing for his major league development and enabling him to make an immense impact on the season. For Reyes, this doesn’t mean putting an end to his development into a No. 1 or 2 starter down the road; rather, it is about applying his current skillset in the most effective way for the 2017 season. This will continue to allow him to develop the control and length he will need to head the rotation in 2018 and beyond.

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