It has been widely reported that the St. Louis Cardinals will give Alex Reyes and Jordan Hicks the chance to earn roles as starting pitchers in 2022. Both of these pitchers were starters in the minor league system, but there are simply too many reasons to not start them next year.
For starters, both have struggled to stay healthy. Reyes managed to throw 72 1⁄3 innings out of the bullpen this year, but with his past, that is not a guarantee that he will make it through the 2022 season, though it is a positive sign. Besides injury issues, Reyes simply does not hit the strike zone enough. Hicks has also had a checkered injury history, throwing just over 40 professional innings in the last three seasons, including just 13 this year (10 in MLB). It remains to be seen how well he will pitch when he returns to the mound, and if his arm can hold up for an entire year. The risks involved with both of these players mean that they should not be in the rotation in 2022.
One reason cited by the Cardinals for the potential role changes is that they believe a regular schedule may benefit the oft-injured arms of Reyes and Hicks. This is an interesting idea, and there may be some merit to it. However, there are better ideas than giving both pitchers a starter’s workload and expecting them to pitch well in longer stints.
One other option is piggybacking them with another pitcher, or potentially with each other. This is an idea that the Cardinals may be unlikely to try, especially considering that they did not try it in 2021 despite all the injuries to pitchers. This could mean having two different pitchers (one being Reyes or Hicks) throw around three innings each. The team could also try an opener and follower strategy with the opener throwing two innings and either Reyes or Hicks following with four.
Such a strategy would allow them to pitch on a regular schedule while also limiting them to just three or four innings per appearance. Not only would this help preserve their arms for the entire season, but it could also help them slowly adapt to being starters, which could prove valuable if the team sees their long-term futures in the rotation.
The Cardinals are reported to be involved in the starting pitching market this offseason. With only one rotation spot open, any additional signing would seem to block Reyes and Hicks from the rotation. This obviously depends on who is signed, and how many pitchers are signed, but the Cardinals could also consider moving a back of the rotation starter into the bullpen or using such a starter to piggyback with one of Reyes or Hicks.
Piggybacking Reyes and Hicks together would allow both of them to work regular, longer stints, but pairing one of them with a back-end starter could also be advantageous by providing a significant change in velocity from one pitcher to the next.
A final option, which is less ideal but could still allow the duo to be effective in roles they have proven capable of handling, would be to pitch them in a regular schedule in the bullpen. The team could pencil each pitcher in for an appearance every three days regardless of the score. The problem with this is that they may be used in low leverage situations, and they would not be readily available in other games where they might be needed. If the Cardinals want to get them on a schedule, though, this may be an option.
Ultimately, how this duo is used may come down to how comfortable new manager Oli Marmol is with getting creative. Mike Shildt was content with traditional roles for players, but Marmol may be willing to experiment more, especially since he has a pair of pitchers who could be perfect for non-traditional roles.
The idea of piggybacking was something that was discussed a lot here at VEB this season, but with Marmol, there may actually be a chance of the Cardinals trying the strategy. Hicks is pretty clearly not ready for a role as a starter. He has barely pitched in the last three years and has not started a game since 2017. Reyes also needs to throw more strikes before he can be an effective starter. The duo should stay out of the rotation next year, or at least stay out of the traditional starter roles.
It would be interesting to see how Hicks and Reyes would fare in regularly schedule three or four inning stints. If they proved they could stay healthy and pitch effectively, then the Cardinals could make a midseason move and push them into starter roles. Ultimately, I do think these pitchers have bright futures as starters, but with money to spend and more proven starting pitching depth, there is no reason for the Cardinals to force these pitchers into the rotation.