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Evaluating Alex Reyes’ Starting Rotation Candidacy

The former top prospect could become a solid starter when he eventually enters the rotation, but he likely needs another season before he is ready to take such a step.

San Diego Padres v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Alex Reyes just finished his first full major league season in which the season was not shortened, he was not injured, and he did not spend time in the minor leagues. This is a positive step for the 27-year-old with a checkered injury history. The former top prospect pitched his way to a 3.24 ERA and 4.40 FIP while throwing the 15th most innings of any reliever. The electric right-hander was difficult to hit but struggled with walks (16.4% walk rate).

Reyes rose through the minor leagues as a starting pitcher, and it is possible that he could return to the rotation in the near future. A Dominican source reported toward the end of the season that Alex Reyes will pitch out of the rotation with the defending Dominican Winter League champions (Aguilas Cibaenas). This is a decision that certainly needed to pass through the Cardinals front office, so if the St. Louis Cardinals are letting Reyes pitch out of the rotation, then it could be a sign that he will receive consideration for a rotation spot in the spring. A similar scenario took place with Carlos Martinez last winter as he pitched out of the rotation for the same Dominican team before entering the Cardinals rotation this year.

Alex Reyes has good enough stuff to be a starter. He throws five different pitches, had a 95th percentile whiff rate and struck out 30% of the batters he faced. His problem is control, and there are still question marks about his durability.

A 16.4% walk rate (6.47 BB/9) is simply too high. It is too high to be an elite reliever, and it is much too high to be a competent starter. In 2021, there was not a single starting pitcher who walked more than five batters per nine innings and threw 100 or more innings. There were just six starters who walked this many hitters while throwing 50 or more innings out of the rotation. None of them averaged five innings per start. Of those six, two walked more than six hitters per nine innings - Caleb Smith (6.34 FIP) and John Gant (5.02 FIP). The Cardinals traded Gant at the deadline due to his ineffectiveness. Thus, it is clearly difficult to be an effective starter with such a high walk rate.

Reyes did alleviate some concerns with his durability by lasting a full season and being used as often as he was. However, Reyes finished August with a 6.27 FIP and he finished September and October with a 5.26 FIP. His struggles down the stretch are cause for concern. Even though he was able to remain healthy all season, he needs to remain effective all season.

It is somewhat surprising that the Cardinals are letting Alex Reyes pitch at all this winter, much less in the rotation, considering Reyes’ workload this season and recent injury history. Allowing Reyes the chance to pitch will give him the opportunity to improve his control and learn how to keep his pitch count down. This is the next step that he needs to take, and by allowing Reyes this opportunity, the Cardinals will see if he can take that step in an environment that will not cost them any games.

This stint in the Dominican Winter League will likely have an impact on how the Cardinals view Reyes’ rotational viability. Despite how well he pitches, though, it is likely better to let him work out of the bullpen for another year.

It is unlikely that Reyes finds his control in a couple games in the Dominican. This will give him good experience and allow him to work on throwing strikes, but it will likely not do more than that. Additionally, it is unclear if Reyes’ arm will be able to handle a starter’s workload next season. The Cardinals should remain cautious with his arm and give him another season in the bullpen to prove that he has improved his control and that he can remain effective for an entire season.

After that, Reyes should be a strong candidate for the rotation in 2023. By that time, Adam Wainwright will likely have retired and Miles Mikolas will be in the last year of his contract. This should provide Reyes with an opening, and if he shows improvement in 2022, then the Cardinals former top prospect should finally be ready to take control of a rotation spot.

The Cardinals have plenty of rotation options next season, so they will not need Reyes to take a rotation spot. Adam Wainwright, Jack Flaherty, and Dakota Hudson are all strong starters, and Miles Mikolas should at least be a decent back-end arm. Besides these four, Jake Woodford pitched well at the end of the season, and Matthew Liberatore improved in Triple-A. Additionally, the Cardinals will have money to spend on starting pitching with Matt Carpenter and Carlos Martinez’s contracts coming off the books. As a result, there is no need to throw Reyes into the fire after he finally completed his first full major league season.

The right-hander’s high-octane fastball (96.6 mph) and nasty slider (55.8% whiff rate) give him a high ceiling as a starter. However, if the Cardinals risk putting him in the rotation too soon, it is possible that another arm injury or ineffectiveness could set him back. Clearly the team has high hopes for Reyes future as a future starter. Now it is down to Reyes making the necessary improvements in order to reach his ceiling.