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Evaluating Sam Tuivailala’s case for a roster spot

The right-hander has struggled to find the zone consistently during his brief stints at the big-league level, but might a full-time role help him iron out his flaws?

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

As of today, we are now less than ten weeks away from Opening Night at Busch Stadium between the Cubs and Cardinals and exactly ten weeks away from a twelve-game slate on Monday, April 3, featuring the 24 teams who won’t open up their seasons the day before.

A few weeks ago, I broke down Jose Martinez’s case for a roster spot, and noted it was the first in a series of stories that would do just that for several players. That series will continue today with a look at Cardinals reliever Sam Tuivailala.

Here’s what those who participated in a recent Twitter poll thought:

Tuivailala was drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 MLB draft by the Cardinals out of Aragon High School in San Mateo, California, as a shortstop, but his light-hitting bat and plus arm eventually led to a positional swap prior to the 2012 season, and the move has worked pretty well for right-hander; Tuivailala reached the Double-A level by 2014 and made his major-league debut at the end of the year as a September call-up.

He spent the majority of 2015 in Triple-A Memphis and thrived as the club’s closer, saving seventeen games in as many opportunities, whiffing 43 batters, and holding his opposition to a .176 batting average in 46 23 innings.

The Cardinals recalled Tuivailala five times in 2015, and he appeared in fourteen games for the big-league squad. As the case with most pitchers who can hit close to 100 MPH, Tuivailala exhibited a great strikeout rate — he punched out 20 in 14 23 frames — but the asset that helped him in that regard obstructed him another: his command.

The hard-throwing Tuivailala averages about 96 MPH on his fastball but can (and strives) to throw the pitch much faster, much harder (he even knocked Cody Stanley’s glove off), leading to his inconsistencies throwing strikes, hence the 124 walks he’s surrendered in his professional career, including six in nine big-league innings in 2016.

The 24-year-old, with construction aid from Lance Lynn, Marco Gonzales, and others, developed a cutter during spring training of 2015 and has tinkered with the pitch ever since. If Tuivailala learns to control the delivery and incorporate it into counts satisfactorily, it should, in theory, assist him as he works out the kinks in his fastball and allow him to dial it down, or not feel the urge to attempt to throw harder than he already does.

With a projected Opening Day bullpen of Seung Hwan Oh, Trevor Rosenthal, Jonathan Broxton, Matt Bowman, Kevin Siegrist, Brett Cecil, and Tyler Lyons, a role for Tuivailala on the Opening Day roster is virtually nonexistent, and a commencement of the 2017 campaign at Triple-A seems likely. He’ll likely be one of the team’s first fall-back options shall a reliever need a weekend or a roster spot need filled.

Nonetheless, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for him. Tuivailala is still young, younger than most 24-year-old pitchers in way, considering he has logged fewer than 230 professional innings. Along with the youthfulness is room for him to mature as a pitcher, work on his command, and find the perfect equilibrium of the pitches in his arsenal to develop into a reliable, big-league reliever.