Spring Training is finally here! And right on cue, the Cardinals have their first injury to a starting pitcher.
Miles Mikolas experienced pain in his forearm at the end of the 2019 season and received a PRP – platelet-rich plasma – injection early in the offseason. When Mikolas arrived at Spring Training, the same irritation cropped up again. The club performed an MRI (results were positive) and team medical personnel prescribed a second injection in a different location in the forearm and rest for at least a month.
Opening Day is March 26 in Cincinnati. If Mikolas begins throwing just before the start of the season, it’s reasonable to expect him to need at least another month in minor league spring training to ready himself for live competition. The Cardinals need a starter to fill between 5-10 starts, depending on Mikolas’ recovery time.
Who should get these starts?
It’s my view that injuries such as Mikolas’ are opportunities more than obstacles. The Cardinals have a deep stable of starting pitchers and relatively limited available starts. While the first priority should be expected performance, the Cardinals should also consider upside and future development.
In other words, production and stability matter. But, so does potential.
For the purposes of this article, I am assuming that Carlos Martinez has already won a rotation spot. That leaves eight candidates for Mikolas’ role. I’ve dug deep into stats and video for the first five of these candidates and ranked them according to my preference.
1. Kwang-Hyun Kim (KK)
KK was signed for his versatility. Having already inked Adam Wainwright to a one-year deal, the Cardinals needed a swing starter to place in a competition with Martinez for the final rotation spot. In theory, KK could provide reliable innings with some upside in the rotation or lefty-killing stuff in the bullpen. Scouts love his slider, which you can see in the Tweet below. It is movement like this, along with impeccable control, that is the basis for optimistic projections from ZiPS. Szymborski gives KK 2.2 WAR in just 152 innings, with a 3.12 K/BB ratio.
This is an A-grade hard slider from Kim Kwang-Hyun (SK Wyverns). Kim is back from TJ surgery and is looking as nasty as ever. Was once one of the top international arms. #KBO pic.twitter.com/g6LejcR4ch— Sung Min Kim (@sung_minkim) March 14, 2018
Why is he the #1 choice? KK’s projection is virtually identical to Mikolas (2.2 WAR in 164 IP’s). It’s also better than both Wainwright (1.4 in 128) and Hudson (1.5 in 169). If you’re looking for someone who can replace Mikolas’ production and innings, KK is the obvious choice. There is also a chance that if KK excels in this role, he could force the Cardinals to continue to give him starts, displacing either Hudson or Wainwright, if either struggle. I described Mikolas’ injury as an opportunity. In this scenario, it’s an opportunity for KK to force his way into the rotation as the Cardinals #3 starter. Hey... it could happen!
2. Alex Reyes
It’s easy to forget that Alex Reyes is the same age as Ryan Helsley and Dakota Hudson. It’s also easy to forget that he was once the top pitching prospect in the game. His stuff was absolutely filthy. The following two videos feature his fastball and off-speed pitches from his breakout 2016 season:
The problem, of course, is that Reyes never really knows where any of his pitches are going. He’s struggled throughout his career with control issues. Health has also been a major concern. Reyes has only thrown 62 innings since 2016.
Why is he the #2 choice? Pure future upside. If Alex Reyes finally reaches his potential, he would impact the future of this club more than any other player currently on the roster. Unfortunately, Reyes is not ready for a full starter’s load this season. The 5-10 starts offered by Mikolas’ injury could be the perfect way to test his potential in a controlled environment before innings restrictions force him to the bullpen.
3. Daniel Ponce de Leon
I don’t think Daniel Ponce de Leon’s gets the credit he deserves for his pure stuff. You can get a better look at it here:
In 2019, Ponce de Leon threw his four-seam fastball over 70% of the time. His expected slash line (xBA, xSLUG, xwOBA) on the pitch was .188/.347/.280. (Spoiler: that’s exceptional.) It was even better in 2018. Ponce has the stuff to be really good, if he could learn to keep the ball in the strike zone. That flaw is the primary reason why Ponce has had consecutive seasons in a swing role. If you’re looking for more, check out the excellent work John LaRue has done on Ponce: “Evaluating Daniel Ponce de Leon, 2020 Rotation Option”.
Why is he the #3 choice? Ponce seems like a poor candidate to replace Mikolas’ role in the rotation. Mikolas provides consistent innings. Ponce can provide dominant stuff over short stretches. Control issues have limited his ability to average even 5 innings per start. The impact of these short starts is somewhat mitigated by the timing of Mikolas’ injury. The bullpen should be well-rested early in the season and there are more off-days built into the schedule. This could allow the Cardinals to let Ponce pump fastballs as a starter until he gets into trouble and then piggy-back him with a long reliever – KK, Gomber, Reyes or even Gant could be multi-inning options behind him.
4. Austin Gomber
I almost dismissed Gomber and listed him with the “other options” below before looking deeper at his stats. What a mistake that would have been! After missing much of the season with an injury, Gomber returned late in 2019 to provide 45 outstanding innings for Memphis. In 2 AAA seasons, Gomber has K’ed over 10 per 9 and walked less than 3. That’s production I should not have ignored. Neither is the 4.03 FIP he provided the Cards as a swing starter in ’18. While he’s not flashy, these are the kinds of performances the Cards could expect from the lefty:
Why is he the #4 choice? Gomber should be able to provide solid if unspectacular innings. He lacks the upside of Alex Reyes, Ponce de Leon or Ryan Helsley, but he will probably prove more stable. If Mikolas’ recovery progresses quicker than expected, the Cardinals might be able to skip the 5th starter spot early in the season and use a bullpen game when that’s not possible. Someone like Gomber would be a nice fit for those starts, as it would allow the other players on this list to settle into higher impact roles. Regardless, I expect Gomber to lock down a place on the major league roster and be a steady contributor all season.
5. Ryan Helsley
If we’re just talking pure stuff, it’s possible that Ryan Helsley has the second-best arm on this list. Helsley’s fastball averaged 97.8 mph last season, good for 7th among relievers with 30 or more IP’s. His fastball spin rate is among the highest in the league and the pitch has good downward movement. He also throws a hard cutter/slider with excellent horizontal movement. Like Ponce, Helsley struggles to throw strikes. I am also not certain that he can truly be classified as a starter at this point. In 2018, Helsley was limited to 13 starts. He only started 7 games last season, spending most of his time in AAA and MLB in the bullpen. I struggled to find usable video of Helsley pitching, but here’s a walk-through of his Spring Training apartment with FSMW’s Jim Hayes. That’s almost the same thing, right?
Why is he the #5 choice? He’s on this list because his stuff demands it. He’s low on this list because the Cardinals need him elsewhere. In addition to subbing for Mikolas, the Cardinals also need a fill-in for closer Jordan Hicks. Helsley has the stuff to make it hard for Hicks to take the role back from him when he returns in July or ever. I generally hate to type-cast a player into a bullpen role before they’ve made a single MLB start, but the most likely way for Helsley to have a long-term impact on the Cardinals is as a dominant, late-inning reliever. That could change with a tremendous spring as a starter.
6. Genesis Cabrera
7. John Gant
8. Jake Woodford