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Luke Weaver’s new opportunities in 2017

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A bittersweet side effect of the Alex Reyes injury news could be the oft-overlooked Cardinals prospect stepping up in 2017.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

According to MLB.com, St. Louis Cardinals pitching prospect Luke Weaver is the 68th best prospect in baseball. Baseball America regarded the twenty-three year-old even more highly, ranking him 50th.

For most teams, Weaver would be an incontrovertibly acclaimed prospect. On many, he would be the the top pitching prospect in the organization. But because of the presence of Alex Reyes, the top pitching prospect in baseball according to both the aforementioned MLB.com and Baseball America lists, Luke Weaver has been, if not quite lost in the shuffle, placed in a somewhat secondary role in the hopes and dreams of Cardinals fans.

Luke Weaver made his MLB debut in 2016, making eight starts as well as an additional relief appearance. His results were mixed—a 1-4 win-loss record, no matter how much you may want to disregard the statistic (and you should), certainly looks unappealing, and his 5.70 ERA left much to be desired, but things looked quite a bit better for him when considering some of his peripheral statistics—a batting practice pitcher is unlikely to allow Weaver’s .386 opponent batting average on balls in play over the course of a full season, and his whopping 21.2% home run to fly ball rate is almost certainly exaggerated.

xFIP, which adjusts for a league-average HR/FB% and focuses on strikeouts and walks, rather than BABIP-related factors, puts Weaver at 3.34—hardly Clayton Kershaw, but clearly somebody who was exhibiting promise in his age-22 season. But entering 2017 Spring Training, Weaver didn’t have an obvious role with the St. Louis Cardinals. The rotation of Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Mike Leake, and Michael Wacha looked somewhat solidly in place, as each of the five has established himself as no worse than an average MLB starter when healthy, while uber-prospect Alex Reyes looked poised, whether from the bullpen, Memphis, or extended Spring Training to step into the rotation if and when something happened to one of the initial five starters.

And then came yesterday’s bombshell that an MRI on Alex Reyes revealed that he will miss the 2017 season with Tommy John surgery. No matter your opinion on Luke Weaver, or any other prospect for that matter, this was bad news for the Cardinals—there is no silver lining here, as having multiple good young pitching prospects is better than having one fewer good young pitching prospect. But the news does mean that Luke Weaver will get an opportunity to break through in Major League Baseball that he may not have otherwise had.

A big part of the explanation of Luke Weaver’s mediocre 2016 MLB results is that his final two outings of the season were especially pitiful—his five earned runs in 23 of an inning in relief in a 15-2 bloodbath against the Cincinnati Reds on September 26, and his six earned runs in two innings at Coors Field against the Colorado Rockies on September 21.

But in examining his first seven starts of 2016 at the MLB level, we see a pitcher who, despite a so-so record of one win and three losses, pitched well by any measure, yielding a 3.21 earned-run average, a 3.41 fielding-independent ERA, and a 2.87 xFIP. His closest comparisons among qualified starters last season were, respectively, Julio Teheran, Jon Lester, and Noah Syndergaard. This is excellent for anybody, much less a 22-23 year old just getting his feet wet against MLB hitting.

Luke Weaver is a less obvious candidate for the Major League bullpen than a healthy Alex Reyes was, namely because of velocity. While Weaver’s velocity is certainly not a problem—his fastball topped out at 96.4 miles per hour last year and averaged 91.9 MPH—Alex Reyes’s fastballs, both of the two and four-seam varieties, topped out over 100 MPH in 2016, while each averaged over 96. Reyes’s average four-seamer velocity exceeded Luke Weaver’s peak four-seamer velocity.

While Weaver could wind up in the Cardinals bullpen at some point in 2017, unlike with Reyes prior to his injury, the odds that he begins the season there are fairly slim. Rather, the more sensible course of action seems to be that Weaver begin the season in Memphis as the AAA club’s de facto ace while serving as the next man up in case of injury in the rotation, and with the rotation including Lance Lynn, coming off of Tommy John surgery, and Michael Wacha, recently vulnerable to DL stints and ineffectiveness resulting from health struggles, probability suggests that Weaver would eventually get his chance.

There will be other candidates for the title of sixth starter—Marco Gonzales will be returning from Tommy John surgery, Tyler Lyons has made 20 MLB starts and could theoretically fill in as a member of the rotation once he returns from knee surgery, and John Gant, acquired from the Atlanta Braves in the Jaime Garcia trade, made seven starts with the MLB club (a 93-loss MLB club is still an MLB club). But no pitcher not currently in the rotation has the clear upside, in 2017 and beyond, as Luke Weaver. And while the Alex Reyes news is understandably still very disappointing for both the Cardinals organization and Cardinals fans, the direct beneficiary of this opportunity opening may be ready to step up to the challenge.