NEW YORK -- Though he was the first player cut from camp, Jordan Hicks was clearly still part of the Cardinals' plans. Few reasons were given when the club reassigned the 21-year-old right-hander to Minor League camp less than a week into Grapefruit League play, an oddly early dismissal.
Club officials only spoke of Hicks' demotion -- for multiple latenesses to team functions -- in hints and whispers. But they considered his return more a matter of "when" than "if."
The Cardinals reinvited Hicks to big league camp last week, three weeks after his departure. Then, they decided Tuesday, before a 1-0 loss to the Blue Jays in Montreal, to include him on the Opening Day roster. Multiple sources told MLB.com of the decision, a dizzyingly last-minute move that clears up the club's cloudy bullpen picture and marks an extraordinary ascent for Hicks, who last season reached only Class A Advanced Palm Beach.
The club confirmed the move on Wednesday, when it finalized its Opening Day roster. Hicks takes the place of right-hander John Brebbia, who was optioned to Triple-A Memphis on Tuesday. Infielder Breyvic Valera and right-hander Josh Lucas were designated for assignment to clear room on the 40-man roster for Hicks and backup catcher Francisco Pena.
All spring, the Cardinals refused to designate late-inning roles or sign any big-name free-agent closers. The hope was that candidates would emerge from within, and now, several have. Hicks, the club's No. 7 prospect per MLB Pipeline, is the second young, hard-throwing righty to make the roster in a week, joining Mike Mayers. Both could factor into the club's late-inning picture, along with Dominic Leone and Tyler Lyons. Bud Norris, Matt Bowman, Brett Cecil and Sam Tuivailala will round out the club's eight-man bullpen, with Luke Gregerson starting the season on the disabled list.
On Sunday morning, the club pivoted. It decided Adam Wainwright's strained left hamstring would place him on the disabled list to start the year, opening a rotation spot for rookie Jack Flaherty and a Sunday start for Hicks.
Hicks sizzled in Wainwright's place on a sunny afternoon against the Nationals, dominating a lineup full of Washington regulars. He breezed through four innings, allowing just one hit. Cardinals evaluators noticed the swings -- from Bryce Harper to Anthony Rendon to Trea Turner -- that Hicks' high-octane arsenal elicited.
"Boy howdy, he showed that he can compete at the top level on the big stage," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "And we loved what we saw. It was outstanding. A lot of firepower. He throws velocity, but it's easy velocity and he commands the baseball, a lot of movement, so the kid's got a bright future."
It was the same stuff -- a fastball clocked as high as 102 mph, running in to righties, plus a swing-and-miss slider -- Hicks showcased briefly earlier this spring. Drafted by the Cardinals in the third round of the 2015 Draft, Hicks entered camp perhaps the highest touted of a cadre of power pitching prospects. Crowds gathered for his initial batting-practice sessions, after which, coaches, catchers and veteran sluggers alike spoke of him in superlatives.