Baseball’s top pitching prospect, Alex Reyes, was to play a key part in mending the starting rotation this season before requiring Tommy John surgery. Cardinal starters had a collective 4.33 ERA in 2016, a far cry from their Major League leading 2.99 ERA just a year before. Although Reyes never had a defined role, and General Manager John Mozeliak adamantly proclaimed he had to earn a starting job, the 22-year-old phenom still would have brought out the best in his teammates also vying for the fifth and final spot in the rotation.
The show must go on.
Reyes was hardly the only contender to join the likes of Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, and Mike Leake as starters.
Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Tyler Lyons, Marco Gonzales, Mike Mayers, John Gant and Luke Weaver all are viable options with something to prove.
Michael Wacha deserves strong consideration despite a disappointing 2016 campaign. His health has been the leading culprit for his shortcomings. Recurring shoulder troubles resulted in a swollen ERA of 5.09 last year in just 138 innings. Often getting blown out of games, serving up meatballs on a silver platter, Wacha’s injury hindered his ability to be productive. However, if healthy, that story changes.
Once regarded as one of the best up-and-coming pitchers in baseball, spring training will prove to be a critical time to shine in front of his manager. Wacha’s simple fastball, change-up combo may do the trick. If he can channel his inner 2013 self when he astounded the baseball world in the postseason, he’s a safe bet as the fifth starter. He certainly has the most miles logged as a starter in the big leagues compared to his counterparts.
If experience matters, and it typically does, another familiar face could land the open job.
The days of Trevor Rosenthal wrapping a bow on a Cardinal victory are in the past. Sueng Wan Oh has assumed the closer role. Instead, he has a chance to open the door rather than slam it shut. The 26-year-old has long sought a starting role since joining the big league club in 2012. Perhaps what has held him back isn’t a flaw, but a strength. His fastball hovers around 100 mph, and before 2016, could hit any target Yadier Molina set up. That single pitch was awarded with All-Star honors in 2015. Between 2014 and 2015, he saved a Major League best 93 games. Why fix something that isn’t broken?
Well, in 2016, Rosenthal seemingly broke. He lost his closing duties, and the precision accuracy he once pitched with was nowhere to be found. While Rosenthal’s fastball gets the spotlight, its supporting cast consists of a circle change, slider, and curveball. That repertoire would fit like a glove as a starter. If a bounce back season is in the cards, he may be dealt a starting job.
After Wacha and Rosenthal, the other candidates have little track record to fall back on. Their youth and raw talent must shine through.
Lyons has dipped his toes in the water, but has yet to make a meaningful splash. Often used as a stopgap starter, the southpaw has 197 2/3 innings under his belt since 2013. Those innings equate to a full season in the majors, where he boasts a respectable 4.05 ERA for a young pitcher. Although his 7-9 record may be misleading due to a combination of being a reliever and starter, he has proven he can handle the pressure of playing at baseball’s ultimate level. The problem now isn’t his arm, but his knee.
The former Oklahoma State Cowboy underwent knee surgery to repair damaged cartilage in November of last year. He is expected to miss all of spring training recovering. His return, although not cemented, is set for April or May. Short on lefties, the Cardinals would gladly welcome him back if all goes well with his rehab. Furthermore, depending how the first month of the season plays out, the fifth spot in the rotation may still be available upon his return.
A few darkhorse candidates still remain. Gonzales, Mayers, Gant, and Weaver have at least gotten a taste of the majors, although never sustaining a long-term role.
Drafted by the Cardinals out of Gonzaga in 2013, Gonzales has made six starts with St. Louis. He owns a record of 4-2 with a 4.82 ERA. Dealing with both shoulder and elbow injuries for much of 2015, the 25-year-old underwent Tommy John last year, and missed 2016 in its entirety. Likely to start the season in the minors barring an extraterrestrial-type spring training, Gonzales isn’t far off from making a big league impact.
Mayers and Gant are in the infant stages of their major league career. While Manager Mike Matheny may throw them in the mix for the job, the competition ahead of them is daunting to overcome. Still, anything can happen in spring training. Mayers made one start for St. Louis in 2016 and appeared in 4 total games. He racked up a .500 record at 1-1 but an ERA just short of 30.00 doesn’t exactly sit well. Certainly more grooming is needed.
Gant was brought over from Atlanta in the Jamie Garcia trade. The righty pitched 50 innings for the Braves last year, making seven starts. Faring better than Gonzales in his young career, he too would benefit from more time to grow. He gave up 54 hits during his short stint with the Braves, including seven long balls, thus proving he may not quite be ready to face the elite level of hitters in the Majors.
Finally, there is Weaver.
Behind Reyes, Weaver is the best pitching prospect the Cardinals have to offer. At just 23-years-old, sooner rather than later he will be making a meaningful impact for the big club. While his numbers with the Cardinals only reflect a brief stint last year, he was impressive enough to be considered for the postseason roster if the Cardinals would have made it last year. Since 2015, he has yet to record an ERA over 2.00 in the Minors, relying on mostly his fastball and changeup. He mixes in a cutter and curve, and can surprise hitters with a sinker and slider to boot.
Weaver has a history, however, of getting injured during spring. Most recently he dealt with a wrist injury that sidelined him last year during baseball’s preseason. With the injury to Reyes, it is critical the Cardinals can develop Weaver without any major setbacks. If healthy, 2017 could be the year he breaks through and plays a role with the Major League club.
Losing Reyes is difficult to stomach, but his loss is certainly not the end all be all. The Cardinals have the depth to remain competitive. Credit that to Mozeliak, who could also consider free agency as an option, although, the answer is more than likely in-house.
In the end, someone will emerge as the fifth starter in Jupiter, and come April, will be starting with the Birds on the Bat across their chest.
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