With the Cardinals’ pitching depth already being tested, the team’s stock took another hit earlier this week when Major League Baseball announced left-hander Corey Littrell has been suspended for 50 games for violating the Minor League Baseball Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
This is the second time Littrell has tested positive for a drug of abuse.
The 24-year-old Littrell was an outlier acquisition of the Cardinals in the trade back in 2014 that sent Allen Craig and Joe Kelly to the Red Sox for veteran hurler John Lackey, who was a durable piece of St. Louis’s rotation for the year and a half following the trade.
After primarily serving as a starter for the first three years of his professional career, Littrell took up a reliever’s role in 2016 and performed well. Between Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis, Littrell logged 67 innings and pitched to a 3.90 earned run average in 53 games, 40 of them coming at Memphis.
Littrell’s 2016 performance — which was solid, considering he was making a transition that isn’t always made seamlessly — led to his invitation to pitch in the annual Arizona Fall League. As a member of the Glendale Desert Dogs, Littrell was roughed up for seven runs in 14 1⁄3 innings but showed light via the strikeout, as he whiffed eighteen batters in the span.
With Alex Reyes shelved for the entirety of the 2017 season after tearing his UCL and undergoing Tommy John Surgery, the Cardinals are having to tap into their pitching stock earlier than they had hoped.
As the spring exhibition season commences, the fifth spot in St. Louis’s rotation is vacated, though it seems most likely that it will go to Michael Wacha. Wacha, who was on pace to land a bullpen spot behind Reyes and the team’s other starters, will get a chance to prove himself in the starting rotation in 2017 after he, at 25 years old, has already accumulated about three months on the disabled list due to a recurring shoulder injury.
In terms of handedness, Littrell is one of a limited quantity of left-handed pitchers close to the majors. Zach Duke had Tommy John surgery himself and will likely remain out throughout the summer, Dean Kiekhefer and Tim Cooney were claimed off waivers earlier this offseason, and Tyler Lyons is still recovering from knee surgery.
Aside from relievers Kevin Siegrist and Brett Cecil, who are expected to make the 25-man roster, Marco Gonzales, Ryan Sherriff, Austin Gomber, Jordan Schafer, and Zach Phillips are the only lefties currently in the Cardinals’ big-league camp.
As for Littrell, his 50-game suspension will begin when Memphis’ season does (April 6) and run through May 27. For the duration of spring, Littrell will likely be transferred to spring camp and remain there on an extended-spring program until eligible to return to action.
Littrell offered an apology via social media earlier this week in wake of his suspension: