St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak was a guest on MLB Network Radio yesterday, and while I have not been able to find a link to his full interview (given paywall restrictions, I don’t think one exists), he reportedly said the following, “I’m surprised everyone has Reyes penciled in as a starter.” Now, this certainly could be yet another edition of Mospeak™, but now that the internet has announced the official beginning of baseball season, it is interesting to consider nonetheless.
Particularly interesting because Reyes beginning the season in the bullpen is something I have advocated for pretty much all offseason, off the record in casual conversations with VEB buddy Drew Silva (before defeating him in shuffleboard) and finally, on the record (starting at the 16:53 mark) with Dan Buffa of 590 AM’s Daybreak Dose last Friday. Now, before any rash conclusions are jumped to — such as “Joe hates fun” — please hear me out as I won’t be too long in explaining my reasoning.
I, like all of you, want Alex Reyes in the starting rotation. Reyes possesses an electric, yet still-evolving repertoire. At 22 years of age, Reyes already has the second best repertoire on staff (behind Carlos Martinez). The repertoire is deep enough to face hitters multiple times per game. It’s a repertoire capable of producing starting rotation success for many years to come. However, and if you have read me enough, you knew a “however” was coming, let’s revisit the term “still-evolving.”
For as fun as it was to watch Reyes’ significant small-sample-sized MLB success (1.4 fWAR in 46 IP), it would not be correct to say his repertoire is polished at this point in his career. And that’s perfectly reasonable because he is still only 22 years old and has compiled a shade under 400 professional innings pitched.
Right now, Reyes’ fourseamer and changeup make up an extremely dangerous one-two punch. However, just as we have seen with Michael Wacha in the years since his dominant 2013, that combination can only go so far in the starting rotation, especially if command issues are present (as they are with Reyes). His curveball can be downright filthy, but concerns remain about its ceiling (i.e. can he throw it for strikes consistently?). Halfway through his debut season, he began throwing the sinker, particularly later in outings. And over his last four starts, he toyed with a slider (and we can just ask Ben Zobrist for his opinion of the pitch).
Thus, Reyes’ repertoire can go five pitches deep — well beyond the threshold necessary for being a long-term successful starter. However, beyond the fourseamer and changeup (don’t listen to MLB Pipeline’s underselling of the pitch), the rest of the repertoire remains a work in progress. Are the pitches good enough to be successful over multiple innings per start? Probably, but when you have a talent like Reyes and pitching depth like the Cardinals (Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake, Michael Wacha), you are afforded the opportunity of allowing the product to ferment a little bit more before full-time distribution (weird metaphor for starting in the bullpen before becoming a full-time rotation member).
Out of the bullpen, when he knows he won’t be pitching for more than inning or two, Reyes can focus on specific tasks to help refine his repertoire, mapped out by his comfort level as well as pitching coach Derek Lilliquist. Tasks such as getting used to the feel difference between his fourseamer and sinker, learning which situation warrants the high-70’s curveball versus the low- to mid-80’s slider, or knowing when to start a hitter off with a fastball versus offspeed stuff. I understand that these are all things Reyes can work on out of the rotation as well, but knowing you have to face a hitter multiple times in a game, the ability to toy with your repertoire is limited because matchups help define your approach.
Deploying Reyes out of the bullpen to begin the 2017 season may not be the most fun option, but it just may be the most beneficial long-term. Its purpose is two-fold: 1) refining his current repertoire and 2) conserving his arm through October. Now, wins in March are worth the same amount in the standings as wins in September, so the experiment may not last very long should any of the other rotation members falter. Or, as so often happens, pitching depth tends to take care of itself in spring training, and the Cardinals could have no other choice than to start Reyes. Honestly, I think Mo was just being Mo with his radio comments, but I don’t think it would be the end of the world if Reyes began 2017 out of the bullpen.