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A Petition to Put Andre Pallante on the Wainwright Plan

The MLB bullpen is a great place to prep young arms for the rotation, but there are a lot of risks with that approach. Still, Pallante is a talented arm and success in the bullpen shouldn’t preclude him from a starting job in the future.

MLB: MAR 25 Spring Training - Nationals at Cardinals Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Let me open with this — I’m a huge fan of Andre Pallante making the team. Actually let me qualify that. I’m a huge fan of Andre Pallante making the team if it doesn’t change his long term outlook. He has shown big league stuff all spring with a fastball velocity that can touch 99/100 in shorter stints and nasty breaking pitches with high spin rates. That’s certainly an enticing profile.

Now, statcast readings can sometimes be wonky in Spring Training, but Pallante’s other appearances showed similar numbers, though they were just a touch lower. Between his performance and pure stuff, it’s clear that the St. Louis Cardinals chose the best available arm for the final roster spot. I appreciate their boldness to do this in spite of the potential development concerns that come with Pallante basically skipping Triple-A.

Obviously, the former 4th round pick is talented. He made his full season debut last year in Double-A. That’s crazy! He skipped Single-A and High-A entirely and only had 35 23 innings under his belt prior to last season, and yet the Cardinals were still aggressive with him. You would think that he might have struggled, but he still had a solid 3.82 ERA and 4.34 FIP in the rotation.

That’s certainly not outstanding, but it’s more than respectable for somebody who was challenged so much. After dominating the Arizona Fall League in the winter and then showing out in Spring Training, Pallante has been considering a rising prospect in the system. Though he only struck out 19.4% of the batters he faced in Double-A, he got groundballs at a rate of 59.1%. Now that his stuff has ticked upward, I wouldn’t be shocked if the strikeout rate followed. For reference, Dakota Hudson had a 57.6% ground ball rate in his first exposure to Double-A and Connor Thomas (another ground ball artist) had a 61% ground ball rate at Triple-A last year.

As we all know, getting ground balls gives you a one way ticket to St. Louis. Sure enough, according to John Denton, this is something that the Cardinals were impressed with about Pallante. That’s the cherry on top for Pallante that makes him an even better starting pitching prospect. Note that I said STARTING pitching prospect.

With good stuff, ground balls, and four pitches (FB, CB, CH, Slider/Cutter), all Pallante really needs to do is develop his control if he wants to be a starter in the future. His 10% walk rate in Double-A wasn’t terrible considering how he inexperienced he was, but it definitely leaves room for growth.

I want to emphasize that Pallante should not be considered a reliever at this point in his career. Sure, he’ll be a reliever in 2022, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t be a starter. What has me concerned is that a move to the bullpen now might see him stuck there for the rest of his career. Plenty of talented arms before Pallante moved from a minor league rotation to the major league pen and never moved back. I don’t want Pallante to follow that path.

I am not the first Cardinals fan to make this observation, but players like Jordan Hicks, Genesis Cabrera, Ryan Helsley, and Alex Reyes, to name a few, have all gone from a minor league rotation to the MLB bullpen and only Reyes and Cabrera ever started a game again.

At least the Cardinals have seemingly backtracked on pigeonholing Reyes and Hicks in the bullpen, but that is attached to the idea that pitching on a regular schedule will keep them healthy. If they didn’t have injury problems, would the organization have been content leaving them in the bullpen where they had already proven their worth? I don’t know but I don’t want Pallante to fall into this trap.

Adam Wainwright proved a while ago that a young arm can get some seasoning in the bullpen before moving into the rotation. It’s well known by now, but Waino posted a 3.12 ERA for the World Series winning 2006 team before moving into the rotation the following year and putting up a 3.70 ERA. The rest is history. It’s not the most common way of becoming an MLB starter, but logically beginning in the bullpen and graduating to the rotation makes sense. Putting Pallante in the bullpen gives him exposure to MLB hitters while limiting the risk if he can’t handle it. Bouts of wildness are more tolerable in the bullpen, just ask Alex Reyes. Also, if he can’t get outs then it’s better to depend on him for one or two innings instead of five or six.

It’s by no means a foolproof plan. There is risk attached but there is also risk associated with putting a talented minor league starter in the major league rotation the next year because you don’t know how he will fare against MLB hitters. If he has already had a year in the bullpen, then you know he can get MLB outs.

Pallante can use this year to prove that he can get outs at the highest level. Sure pitching in the rotation is different from pitching in the bullpen, but if Pallante proves that he is good in the MLB bullpen, it’s not that large of a leap to expect him to at least be fine in the rotation.

What I don’t want is for Pallante to pitch well this year and then be a victim of his own success. Matthew Liberatore, Connor Thomas, and others have their promise, but they shouldn’t be given a leg up because they succeeded in the Triple-A rotation.

Libby is obviously the top pitching prospect. I would expect him to be the first choice for a rotation opening anyway. But, I don’t want to see Pallante taken out of the running simply because he’s experienced success in a different role. It’s not good enough to say that he needs to stay in the reliever because he pitched well there. Pallante is a talented arm. He deserves a shot at the rotation. If he comes up short then so be it, but the Cardinals would be doing themselves a disservice by not even giving him the chance to prove that he can be more than a good reliever.

Of course, this all depends on Pallante being good, and that’s no guarantee. He reached the majors fast. Like really fast. Like he only threw 135 minor league innings fast.

Do you remember when Jordan Hicks made the leap to the big league ‘pen because of his explosive stuff? Do you think Hicks threw more innings or fewer innings than Pallante in the minor leagues? Don’t bother guessing. I’ll spoil it for you — he threw more. And he did it by 30 innings. Sure Hicks jumped from a lower level (High-A), but he actually had more professional experience, which is crazy to think about.

It was a bold move putting Pallante on the roster. It’s a big jump for him, so he may not stick for the full season. I mean, the Cardinals only get to use the two extra arms for a month so maybe they want to give Pallante some exposure to the majors before sending him back down in May to work in the Memphis rotation.

I don’t think that’s the case though. If the Cardinals only wanted to keep the final pitcher up for a month, then it would have been much easier to choose Jake Walsh. Walsh is already on the 40-man, so he wouldn’t have required a corresponding move to be on the roster. Keeping Pallante, on the other hand, means that someone must be removed from the 40-man roster and exposed to waivers. I don’t know if they do that for one month of a player. I could be wrong, but I am expecting Pallante to be given a serious shot at staying with the big league club all season. If he pitches well in the first month, I don’t see him going down to Memphis.

If it isn’t clear, the organization regards Pallante very highly. This gives me hope that they will give him a shot at the rotation in the future, and there will be openings.

This may be Wainwright’s final year. Mikolas has this year and next year left on his contact. Flaherty’s final year of arbitration is 2023. The fifth rotation spot is already insecure. That’s a lot of opportunity for new starters in the coming future. I, and probably everyone else, expect Libby to claim a spot. Connor Thomas also looks like a serious contender. Don’t forget about Johan Oviedo and Angel Rondon either. They are still solid prospects even if they lost some of their prospect luster last year.

It would be really easy for the Cardinals to decide that Pallante is fine in the role he’s in and let everyone else fight it out in the rotation. As I mentioned earlier, it’s happened to other pitchers before. It’s pretty easy to rationalize. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix” it is pretty straightforward, but there’s also other considerations.

Firstly, there’s the obvious thing, which is that Pallante would need to stretch out his arm again. I’m not too worried about that though. The bigger considerations are that getting three outs is a lot easier than getting 15-18 outs. Being a starter requires better control and more advanced pitch sequencing. Pallante may not learn these things as well if he’s gassing up for 100 and only throwing two pitches. That’s another thing. It’s really tempting for a reliever to limit his arsenal to his two best pitches when he pitches in the bullpen. That’s not helpful for Pallante who will need to develop all four of his pitches if he ever wants to start another game.

These are the things that I am most worried about. When Pallante pitches this year, I want to see him use all four of his pitches and learn how to throw strikes consistently and hit his spots. Don’t get me wrong. I love seeing the radar gun light up. But Pallante isn’t going to throw 98-100 as a starter. He’s just not. He’ll sink back into the mid-90s range when he will need to rely on command more. If he wants to be a starter long term, then he needs to not be tempted into shortchanging his development.

This is perhaps the weakness of the ‘Wainwright Plan’. It sounds great theoretically, but it’s not always so easy to pull off. There are temptations that can pull a pitcher into the darkness of the bullpen without a road to come back into the light. Is it bad if Pallante peaks as a solid reliever? Certainly not. But if he has more to give, then it would be wasteful to not give him the chance to be more.

I am excited about Pallante this year. I have loved watching him pitch in Spring Training, especially when his slider/cutter made Nelson Cruz look foolish, and I can’t wait to watch him pitch in games that count. I still consider him a starter, and I think the organization does too at this point. Hopefully, the organization puts him on the ‘Wainwright Plan’ and doesn’t turn him into another Jordan Hicks or Ryan Helsley. There’s nothing wrong with these players but after entering the bullpen, they’ve been unable to escape. Past history makes me nervous that this might happen with Pallante, but I hope the Cardinals stay the course and use this year to prepare him for a run at the rotation in the future,