Apparently I'm doing a bullpen thing at the moment; last Sunday I wrote about how crowded the major league bullpen looks like it may be; this week I'm going to add a couple additional scouting reports to the pile I've already written up this winter by taking a closer look at two pitchers who could be options for the Cardinals' relief corps in relatively short order. These are not top prospects, by any means, but are intriguing names to know and watch, just in case.
Arturo Reyes, RHP
Opening Day 2016 Age: 23 (barely; turns 24 the 6th of April)
2015 Level: High A Palm Beach, Double A Springfield, Triple A Memphis
So, what's so great about this guy?
It will be very, very hard for any Cardinal prospect anytime soon to succeed against longer odds than Kevin Siegrist. After all, the round in which Siegrist was drafted (the 41st, to be specific), no longer even exists. When baseball decides they should really just stop bothering earlier than the time your name came up, I think it's fair to say you qualify as an underdog.
However, somewhat amazingly (and also kind of an amazing credit to the Cardinals' amateur scouting staff), the same organisation that found a top-flight setup reliever in the 41st round may very well have another pitcher come from nearly as far down to reach the big leagues. Arturo Reyes can't claim to match Kevin Siegrist's 41st-round draft pedigree, but being picked nineteenth in the 40th and final round of the 2013 draft isn't that far off, either.
In the same draft in which the Cardinals selected Marco Gonzales with their first round pick, they took his Gonzaga teammate Reyes almost 1200 picks later. The fact the two may end up sharing a major league clubhouse is nothing short of astounding. And given the fact Reyes made it to Triple A, just one step away from the big leagues, in 2015 -- and did it as a starter, no less -- it seems pretty likely he's going to show up in St. Louis at some point in time.
Reyes's success is built on an aggressive makeup (I would say 'bulldog', but I try very hard to avoid that particular cliche, for whatever reason), on the mound and a two-pitch combo I personally see playing better out of the 'pen than as a starter, which is why he shows up here, in spite of having made exactly one non-starting appearance over the past two seasons, covering 48 games and better than 260 innings pitched.
Considering the draft history for Reyes, I find it very surprising watching him and realising he actually has plus fastball velocity. In fact, his fastball alone is good enough to have success much of the time, with consistent low- to mid-90s gun readings (more on that later), and what looks like a delivery that's difficult to track. He works from a slightly low arm slot and sort of short-arms the ball, and hitters just don't seem to pick the ball up very well. You would think a guy capable of rushing a fastball up to the plate at 94-95 at his best would have drawn more interest among teams, even if he's sub-six foot, righthanded, and pretty raw.
Reyes's other useful pitch is a hard, sweeping slider that is better off the plate and out of the zone than it is thrown for strikes, but has excellent movement and gets plenty of empty swings. It seems like he has to take something off the pitch to get it in the zone for a called strike, and it ends up much more hittable that way. So long as he's ahead in the count, though, the slider is a legitimate putaway pitch.
The changeup is nothing to write home about. He has one, and isn't afraid to use it, but it's not very good. Consequently, when I've watched Reyes he seems vulnerable to left-handed hitters, lacking an extra weapon to really go after them. Of course, there are ways for a pitcher to compensate for that kind of deficiency, but in the case of Reyes I don't believe that's the most effective way to utilise him.
When I watch Reyes, I tend to think of other 3/4 arm slot fastball/slider guys I've seen over the years, and how they were most effective. As a starter at Springfield, he topped out as high as 97 mph with his fastball, but the gun there is notoriously hot and I'd probably knock about two miles off that reading. Still, this is a guy who throws hard, with deception, and has one solid offspeed pitch. I think of Joey Devine, the Atlanta Braves' draft pick back in 2005, I think, who ended up with arm issues but had one of the most dominant college careers as a closer in recent memory. Or Josh Kinney, the former indy leaguer-turned hiking tour guide who ended up playing such a big role in the Cards' 2006 championship as a midseason relief addition. Or Huston Street, who's ridden a severe allergic reaction to walks and a sinker/slider combo to one of the better late-inning careers of the past decade.
Reyes has been solely a starter in the minor leagues, but I personally think his best way forward to the bigs is moving to relief, seeing if the velocity plays up even a bit more in short bursts, and distilling his arsenal to just fastball/slider. And probably being used mostly against same-handed hitters, it should be said. Even so, he's not so vulnerable to lefties I think he's unusable against them; his repertoire just lends itself better to a right-handed heavy relief diet, I think.
As crowded as the Cards' bullpen situation looks this year, it seems fairly unlikely that Reyes will necessarily force his way up to the majors, particularly as he struggled badly in a very limited sample after being promoted to Triple A. Still, he isn't far away from the big leagues, and a move to relief could, I think, accelerate his timetable even more.
Trey Nielsen, RHP
Opening Day 2016 Age: 24
2015 Level: High A Palm Beach
So, what's so great about this guy?
Nielsen doesn't have quite such an interesting story coming from the draft, in terms of being the very definition of 'unheralded' the way Arturo Reyes is, but he represents another potential success story for the Cards' scouting department, in a manner they've become somewhat accustomed to finding success: the position player to pitching conversion project.
Nielsen was a position player first and foremost in college -- and didn't exactly attend a college baseball hotbed, either, at Utah -- although he did pitch a little here and there his first two seasons. His junior year, he suffered an elbow injury, never saw the mound at all, and struggled to make throws across the diamond anytime he actually took the field at the hot corner. So when the 30th round of the 2013 draft rolled around, what did the Cardinals do?
Why, they selected Trey Nielsen as a right-handed pitcher, of course. Makes sense, right?
Well, following the draft, it was determined Nielsen would, in fact, need Tommy John surgery, and he missed all of 2013. He began 2014 rehabbing the injury as well, then made his way back a little after midseason. Since then, he's been healthy and has looked pretty good, rolling up groundballs at a tremendous pace en route to posting solid, if unspectacular, minor league numbers.
In terms of arsenal, Nielsen mostly begins and ends the discussion with his sinker. He works in the low 90s with the pitch, topping out about 94, and it's nearly impossible to lift. He doesn't miss a ton of bats with the pitch, but hitters just pound the ball into the ground against him, particularly when they happen to be batting from the right side. In that way, he's very Seth Maness-y.
There's a changeup that isn't too bad, also, coming in from a similar arm slot and speed, but fading down and to the third base side. I can't quite put a 50 on the pitch yet, but I could be convinced it might get there with a little more work. Maybe.
The biggest deficiency in Nielsen's profile has to be his breaking ball, which is just...oof. He throws a curve, somewhat unusual for a pitcher who leans so heavily on a sinker, and it's not at all good. Like, not really usable even at Double A, I don't believe, not at all good. If I were a coach in the Cards' system and Nielsen were to come under my care, I would immediately have him scrap the pitch and try to teach him a cutter or something. Or, better yet, just move him to relief and focus on the sinker, which would probably be my preferred approach.
My comparison of Nielsen to Seth Maness earlier wasn't by accident. He doesn't have the same kind of extreme control Maness brings to the table, but offers a similar kind of extreme groundball tendency, and better velocity as well. I'm as loathe to compare Nielsen to a pitcher as unusual as Derek Lowe as I was to make the same comparison when discussing Jake Woodford a while back, but I think there's a chance Nielsen as a reliever, just pounding the bottom of the zone with his sinker, over and over again, could actually look something like the version of Derek Lowe we saw relieving in Boston early in his career.
To this point, Nielsen has mostly been a starter, and he has yet to hit a wall in the minors that would suggest he should be immediately moved to relief work. Still, when you consider his position in the organisation, and look at the pitching depth above him, as well as the fact he was teammates at Palm Beach in 2015 with Luke Weaver, who is certainly the higher priority in the system in terms of starter grooming, and it becomes pretty obvious this is a player who is likely going to fall through the cracks following his current trajectory. For me, a future relief role for Nielsen, as with Arturo Reyes, could easily accelerate his timetable and also potentially boost his stock significantly.