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The KK/Ponce/Helsley Closer/Rotation Kerfuffle

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With Mikolas out, the Cardinals have choices to make in the rotation and bullpen. To maximize their talent, they need to shift KK, Ponce and Helsley to new roles.

St. Louis Cardinals v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

How are we doing Cardinals fans? Everyone hanging in there?

The toughest year in memory is becoming the toughest baseball season in memory and we sit here on this Saturday uncertain of how much Cardinals baseball we’re even going to get.

Since we can’t do anything about the unknown, let’s focus instead on more … unknown. Hmm…. maybe this wasn’t the best topic for the day. The Cardinals exited Summer Camp with five starters and the potential for a good-to-great rotation. That lasted just a few days. Miles Mikolas’ spring forearm weakness became a summer forearm strain and the Cards didn’t waste any time in turning to the surgeons. He’s out for the season and the club now has an open spot in their rotation. Who fills it?

The Cardinals made the curious decision to give Daniel Ponce de Leon first crack. Growing up, when my parents would pick my friends and I up after our week at summer camp, one of us would inevitably called “dibs” and earn the right to ride home in the front seat. (In the curvy backroads of sweltering Southwest Missouri, the backseats were the “upchuck” seats, especially after a week of camp-cooked vittles.) That’s what I presume happened here. Ponce, knowing well the unwritten rules of Summer Camp, called “dibs” right after Opening Day and KK, wholly unfamiliar with such American youthful traditions, was forced into the bullpen.

You can’t argue with dibs.

Ponce was, well, Ponce in his first start of the season. He flashed the same tremendous movement on his pitches and sketchy command/control that has marked his major league career to this point. Ponce went 3 2/3’s innings, allowing 3 runs on 2 hits and 3 walks. He probably pitched better than his stat line. Then again, it’s hard to call a start that doesn’t get through the 4th and included 3 walks “better”. This is simply who Ponce is. And while I love his simplified delivery, the results are more of the same.

I called the decision to give Ponce the first start in Mikolas’ spot “curious” because it seems like that’s the exact reason that the club signed Korean hurler Kwang-Hyun Kim this winter. Kim came to the Cardinals as a proven starter overseas. Though the club did not have a rotation opening available to him, it seemed a foregone conclusion that KK would work his way into a starter’s role as soon as the inevitable injury struck.

His performance during both spring training and summer camp did nothing to change that. All reports indicate that KK was at times dominant, flummoxing opposing lineups, including Cardinals batters during recent intrasquad matchups. He drew rave reviews from the coaches and front office.

I watched as much KK content as I could this pre-season and I can’t say I disagree with the reports. KK features a bugs-bunny slider – a true Wham-O style Frisbee – that should play well against righties and be death to lefties. His fastball has some life and enough velocity, but more importantly, he can locate it for strikes and out of the center of the zone. He probably throws a half-dozen other pitches, including a loopy curve that’s not much more than a showpiece. He’s got MLB rotation stuff.

Which is why it was so odd of the Cardinals to immediately lock KK into the Certified Closer™ role. KK has no experience closing in Korea. He had not faced a single MLB batter in real competition before finding his way into the final bullpen spot.

It’s all just a bit bamboozling, isn’t it?

Wouldn’t KK, with his diversity of pitches and decade of experience as a starter, be the obvious choice to fill the role of Miles Mikolas? KK is essentially the left-handed version of Mikolas.

Wouldn’t Ponce, with his dramatic movement but inability to locate well enough to go deep into games be the obvious choice to fill an impact bullpen role? One where his fastball and curve repertoire could play up in velocity and focus?

Then there’s Helsley. The club doesn’t talk much about Helsley. Really, no one talks about Helsley and I often wonder why. Have you all seen this kid pitch? Jiminy-crickets that guy can sling it. He is disgusting. He has a fastball that nears 100, a sharp cutter, and a curveball that buckled my knees the other night and I was just sitting in my living room.

When Hicks opted out and with Gallegos still unavailable, it was obvious the Cardinals would enter the season without a proven Certified Closer™. I took it for granted that Helsley would fill the spot. He didn’t.

That’s why I call all of this a kerfuffle. It’s a problem well above your average contretemps but well below the need for fan-fueled fisticuffs.

No one is going to the mattresses over KK as the closer, Helsley in middle relief and Ponce de Leon earning rotation dibs. But this does matter as all three pitchers are miscast and the Cardinals would be better off if their roles were shifted.

The club should move KK to the rotation permanently, to see if he can sink or swim as a major league starter in the spot previously occupied by his right-handed doppleganger. Maybe the club is concerned about KK’s ability to trick batters three times through the order? That’s something to consider, but the same concern would exist with other alternatives – Ponce, Gomber, and Jake Woodford. Few teams can claim six starters that they expect to provide 7 innings a night.

The club will absolutely not regret allowing Ryan Helsley to assume the Certified Closer™ spot. It’s my well-educated opinion that if Shildt allowed Helsley to take that spot then no one – not even Hicks – will be able to displace him. That’s a good thing. A 2021 bullpen of Gallegos, Hicks, and Helsley is so attractive I would date it. (Do people date anymore? Ok… I would swipe right.)

And Ponce? If Helsley was a starter, consistently getting 4-5 innings an outing, we would be talking about his inconsistent command and control as much as his crazy movement. It’s far less noticeable in short outings in the pen where his velocity and movement “play up”. The same would be true of Ponce. He could slide into the fireman role that Helsley currently occupies and likely perform well there. Or the club could keep him stretched out in long relief to move into the rotation in the case of a second injury (or maybe upcoming double-headers).

See how easy it is? It takes just a little adjustment and each of these players can find their way to the role that best fits their stuff, upside, and future.

The Cardinals aren’t dummies. They didn’t verbally commit to Ponce as the long-term starter in Mikolas’ role. They have also left the door for KK’s return to the rotation ever-so-slightly cracked. The plan, as I outline it, could still happen as soon as Mikolas’ next spot in the rotation comes up.

Or the virus will have its way and none of this will matter. Let’s hope that’s not the case.