100-inning cap for '21 pins Reyes to 'pen

March 9th, 2021

would like to start. The Cardinals, in an ideal world, want the same.

Unfortunately, it's not an ideal world.

Reyes will be a bullpen arm in 2021, a plan the Cardinals teased before and affirmed after Tuesday’s 5-3 Grapefruit League loss to the Mets, during which their tantalizing righty shoved to continue an impressive, head-turning spring.

“If it was all things being equal, this would be a guy in our rotation,” manager Mike Shildt said. “But it’s not.”

On Tuesday morning, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak laid out a plan of 100 innings for Reyes this season, not ruling out the chance of getting starts as the season progressed but tossing cold water on Reyes’ rotation hopes. Tuesday evening, Shildt provided clarity.

“Clearly, we'd like to have him in any role. He's an elite guy,” Shildt said. “But starting this year doesn't make a lot of common sense.”

So ends the speculation of how the Cardinals might use their highly talented right-hander in 2021. Reyes’ lengthy injury history and the fact that he hasn’t hit the 100-inning plateau since '16 have given the Cards pause when it comes to burning him out too quickly. And they also know patience could provide benefits down the road.

Reyes, 26 and a former top pitching prospect, already has had three season-ending injuries in his career, including one that required Tommy John surgery.

“Ultimately, I think we just want to make sure we position him so a year from now he will be in a position to compete for a starting job,” Mozeliak said. “But he's looked great. Imagining him as a starter isn't too hard, but it's just how much could you really get out of him if you put your foot on the gas from Day 1?”

It’s a tough reality for the Cardinals to minimize one of their most talented pitchers into one- or two-inning bursts throughout the season. But Reyes has done it before to stay in the Majors, making 14 relief outings last year and ultimately finding himself closing games by the postseason.

Mozeliak kept his options open on how Reyes might hit his 100-inning mark, not ruling out the piggyback method -- starter-type pitchers behind each other in the same game -- as an organizational approach. Baseball is coming off an unprecedented season, with pitcher ramp-ups and injuries under an intense microscope.

Reyes has kept his options open, too. Most pitchers would tell you they prefer to start, but he also said he thrived on the adrenaline of closing out games last season.

Doubly tough is that Reyes has done nothing on the surface to lose a starting role at Spring Training. While Cardinals pitchers struggle, after Tuesday’s outing, Reyes has now completed four clean innings in Florida, striking out six. There’s an audible zip emanating off the ball this spring.

As much as the Cardinals would love to extend his innings, they are conscious about Reyes’ health -- and they know they could get even more down the road.

“I'm fairly confident we can figure out a way to do this and ultimately put him in a really good position for 2022,” Mozeliak said.

There remains the possibility that the Cards could marginally stretch out Reyes as the season goes on, keeping him as a reliever to manage his innings at the start of the year and then getting him into more prolonged outings in the latter half of the campaign. For now, though, his focus will be solely on relief.

“You can start to do things a little bit differently, as the season starts to shrink from the calendar standpoint,” Mozeliak said. “We'll just try to be smart about this, see how things are going for him, but obviously we're really excited about what we're seeing from him.”

Stowing Reyes in the bullpen is an interesting decision for the Cardinals, especially with Miles Mikolas set to miss the start of the season and other inauspicious showings from potential starters early in Grapefruit League action. But the Cards could also use some reassurances in their bullpen, with Jordan Hicks’ role uncertain once he returns and Andrew Miller slightly delayed to start camp.

Regardless, the Cards are bursting with confidence in their bullpen, and Reyes is just another flamethrower to enter the fray.