Let’s flashback. It’s the summer of 2013. Top prospect Shelby Miller started the year in the rotation after just a cup of coffee in the majors the previous year. Then injuries struck, with Jake Westbrook and Jaime Garcia both going down in May. The Cardinals turned to John Gast for his MLB debut, who lasted just three starts before getting hurt himself. The team also called up Michael Wacha and Tyler Lyons, who both also made MLB debuts in 2013.
Joe Kelly debuted in 2012 along with Miller, but he would also enter the rotation for an extended period of time in 2013. Lance Lynn, Adam Wainwright, and Shelby Miller all stayed healthy, despite Shelby taking a line drive off his throwing arm at one point. Including a Carlos Martinez spot start (who also debuted in 2013), the team used ten starting pitchers throughout the season, and needless to say, went into 2014 with options.
The easy decision was to decline Westbrook’s option. 2013 would be his last as a major leaguer. Wainwright and Lynn were rotation mainstays. Miller had a poor second half, but his first half made a strong case for keeping him. Michael Wacha went from a draft pick to Major Leaguer in less than a year, and an impressive streak of September starts lead to an even more impressive streak of October starts. He was probably going to stay in the rotation too.
Jaime was not healthy to start the year, and Lyons was not good enough in 2013 to warrant an Opening Day rotation spot in 2014. That left Martinez and Kelly to a Spring Training "competition" in which Carlos pitched much better than Joe, but the team still decided to start the year with Kelly, relegating Martinez to the bullpen.
Like most of the VEB community at the time, I was very annoyed that Carlos didn't get the rotation opening. That’s not to say everyone was pro-El Gallo at that point; there was certainly parts of the fanbase and VEB that questioned whether someone with Carlos’ small frame could hold up over a full season. There was also questions about his pitchability, and whether he could be a pitcher rather than just a thrower.
Not only was I annoyed that Kelly won the rotation spot over Martinez, I was annoyed that El Gallo was in the bullpen. A season after using ten starting pitchers, you would think the team would have just assumed the team would need Carlos at some point at let him stay stretched out as a starter in Memphis.
Kelly made it just three starts into the season before landing on the disabled list. Still though, the team didn’t turn to Carlos. Lyons held the spot in the rotation warm before getting hurt himself, and then Garcia returned. Carlos made what was supposed to be a spot start for Adam Wainwright on June 16th, but when Wacha and Garcia both went on the D.L on June 23rd, that spot start turned into seven starts.
Carlos mostly fared well in his time as a starter that year, with a 3.60 FIP and 3.71 xFIP. He struck out more than a hitter an inning but gave some value back by walking about half a hitter an inning. He certainly looked better than Joe Kelly or Tyler Lyons. However, then the team made one of the best trades it’s made in recent history, dealing Allen Craig, who was looking increasingly broken, and Kelly, who was looking increasingly like a reliever, for John Lackey. Lackey was not only under contract for the rest of the year, but also had an option for the league minimum due to a unique clause in his contract.
With that, the team expressed that Carlos was more valuable pitching the late innings, and it stayed that way for 2014. Of course, just days after being eliminated in the NLCS, some tragic events happened to pave the way for a new trade: the team sent Shelby Miller to Atlanta for one year of Jason Heyward. The move not only turned the team’s biggest weaknesses into one of its biggest strengths, but it also opened a rotation sport for Carlos, and since then, he’s held on.
I wonder though now, whether Carlos missed out on developmental time in that 2014 season. Sure, he was pitching to major leaguers all season, but he was also relegated to just throwing two pitches the large majority of the time, when we see now how comfortable he is with four. It was also essentially a lost season for him in terms of banking innings and building up to the stamina of a starter. Even if you give Joe Kelly the job out of Spring Training, the team still could have made Carlos the 6th starter, and inserted him after Kelly’s injury. Even if the team still would have made the Lackey trade and pushed Carlos to the pen, he would have at least had a half a season of starts under his belt.
I wonder too, whether the same thing is about to happen to Alex Reyes. Unlike Carlos in March of 2014, Alex actually has some strong competition for a starter’s role. The Cardinals currently have six major league starters that are controllable next year, not even counting Reyes or fellow rookie Luke Weaver. Lynn will be ready after returning from Tommy John Surgery, and Jaime has a very affordable option for next year, which seems like a no-brainer as long as he’s healthy, given the market.
There’s also the fact that Weaver simply looks more ready to pitch in the majors than Reyes right now. Reyes has an amazingly high ceiling, but he hasn’t exactly unlocked it yet. Even if the team deals one of their six other controllable starters (or doesn’t pick up Jaime’s option), there's a strong argument to be made that at this point, Weaver is more ready for the majors than Reyes. The same could not be said in March of 2014 about taking Kelly over Martinez.
So Reyes would be the 6th starter, maybe the 7th starter on the depth chart, even if the team traded someone this winter. With that in mind, the team seems likely to put Reyes in the bullpen for 2017. That seems fine in the near-term: Reyes has already shown he can a force out of the pen, and could offer some stability to a chaotic situation. But what does it mean in the long-term? Will his secondary pitches suffer from throwing them less in the pen?
Is 60 innings in all you want in terms of development from Reyes in 2017? It seems like even if he was the 7th starter on the depth chart, he’d have a decent chance at getting the twelve or so MLB starts next year needed to reach that total. If he starts all season, in Memphis or St. Louis, he’ll simply have more time to work on his command, and more developmental time is pretty much what it’s going to take for him to improve at this point.
There’s also the service time issue. Reyes was called up on August 9th, so he’ll have somewhere between 50 and 60 days of service time by the end of the year. If Reyes was the seventh starter on the depth chart and the rotation had good injury luck in 2017, the team wouldn’t be wasting a Top prospect’s development or service time in the bullpen.
Ideally, the team wouldn’t need Reyes to start until two and a half to three months into the season, in which case the team would still have six years of control of Reyes following 2017. He would be a Super 2, but still, that extra year could pay dividends. If the team ends up needing Alex before then, they’ll be more than happy that he’ll already be stretched out as a starter.
Also consider 2018. I know, it’s far away right now but a big part of the Cardinals’ success is their long-term planning. Lynn and Garcia are not controllable in 2018, which is also Waino’s last year of control and Wacha and Martinez’s second to last.
After promoting Weaver and Reyes, the team does have a bit of a gap before it gets to its next top pitching prospect in Jack Flaherty, who hasn’t pitched at Double-A yet. And I know you guys are familiar with the acronym TINSTAAPP. While the team is loaded with pitching options right now, it could very easily be on short supply in a hurry. I wouldn’t bank on Mo making another miracle trade like the Lackey deal again to fill that void.
That’s all to say, Reyes could very well be an integral part of the Cardinals sooner rather than later. He absolutely has the natural gifts to be a top of the rotation starter, and I’d prefer to give him all the developmental time he can get to achieve that. It seems like a long-term assignment in the bullpen would hinder said development. That seems more important than a marginal upgrade in next year's bullpen.
It’s one thing to reinforce an imploding bullpen with a late season call-up, particularly when it’s done less than a month before the minor league season is over anyway. It’s quite another for a Top pitching prospect to spend nearly the entire season in the bullpen, like Carlos did in 2014. I hope Reyes and the Cardinals can avoid that fate in 2017.