All winter, chatter surrounding the 2017 St. Louis Cardinals considered select aspects of the club as foregone conclusions.
Leadoff controversies would become a thing of the past: Dexter Fowler would be the definitive table setter. Though another year older, Adam Wainwright couldn’t possibly struggle as mightily this season as his did the one prior. Both were relatively standard viewpoints.
Another key assumption was consistent among armchair general managers: Alex Reyes would have a full season in the big league starting rotation. And most thought he would shine.
While the first two hypotheses remain likely, we now know the final prediction will not occur. Reyes is recovering after Tommy John surgery, and will miss the entire 2017 season. It’s a jarring blow that could hinder the season’s potential–and it came mere hours into spring training.
As frustrating as it is, the timing of the Reyes shutdown benefits the Cardinals; as opposed to losing Reyes closer to Opening Night, this early knowledge gives the team ample time to consider alternatives.
John Mozeliak has said publicly the fifth spot in the rotation is Michael Wacha’s to lose. Trevor Rosenthal will also get a look as the Cardinals have expressed a willingness to experiment with the flamethrower in a new role. Both have a major league pedigree, but neither will get first crack at making a positive impression in seeking that final rotation spot.
That opportunity falls to Luke Weaver, the 23-year-old righty who made his major league debut late last year following a rapid rise through the minors. Weaver will take the ball Saturday afternoon when the Cardinals face the Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium in the first game of Grapefruit League action–his first real chance to prove he belongs on the MLB roster out of camp.
Weaver went 1-4 with a 5.70 ERA in 36 1/3 innings for the Cardinals last season, but don’t let those mediocre numbers dissuade from Weaver as a factor on the 2017 pitching staff. Though Weaver had obvious difficulties managing pitch counts and limiting damage in several of his eight MLB starts in 2016, it’s important to recognize context: Before 2016, Weaver had never pitched at a level above High-A Palm Beach.
By August, he was battling the soon-to-be world champions at Wrigley Field.
Making his ascent through the system more impressive, Weaver was delayed in starting his minor league season on a normal schedule after fracturing his left wrist during a workout last spring. Despite the late start, Weaver dominated upon joining the rotation at Class-AA Springfield.
Weaver’s sparkling 1.40 ERA and 0.948 WHIP in 77 innings earned him a promotion to Class-AAA Memphis. Another dazzling start and a Wacha DL stint later, and Weaver found himself on the St. Louis roster.
Though Weaver's time in the bigs didn’t reflect his boundless success in the minors, his upside remains firmly intact.
In December, Baseball America listed Weaver as the No. 2 prospect (beyond Reyes) in the Cardinals system. His 88 strikeouts to 10 walks in Springfield convey the type of power and control that if consistently replicated would render him a force in the majors.
Weaver’s arsenal features a fastball in the low 90s and a complementary change up. Over the winter, he focused on developing a legitimate breaking pitch to keep major league hitters honest–something he felt he lacked last season.
“Being able to have those three established pitches that all can be weapons is huge,” Weaver said at January’s Winter Warm-Up. “When guys get up there, and maybe you have three or four pitches but only two of them are working–well, you’re a two-pitch guy at that point. I think that’s maybe where I ran into a little trouble. I just needed to establish the breaking ball stuff and that’s something that I’m going to continue to develop on, and hopefully have this year."
Weaver mentioned spring games as the optimal setting to test out progress on new pitches, so the breaking ball could be a focus in his start Saturday. Baseball fans in St. Louis have longed for game action to resume, so even in an exhibition, interest will be intense when the Cardinals finally take the field.
If the Cardinals this season can take the combined efforts of Wacha, Rosenthal and Weaver to squeeze out a competent starter, Mozeliak should be pleased. Weaver is first up to stake his claim.
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