ST. LOUIS -- When Alex Reyes threw the final pitch of the Cardinals’ postseason clincher in September, it was hard not to point out the symbolism of the former top prospect finishing his first healthy season in three years.
Teammates found Reyes to congratulate him after the save because they knew how much it meant to him. Three days later, he made his playoff debut as the club's closer.
Pitching again was an opportunity Reyes expected in 2019, but he certainly didn't envision the ninth-inning role -- such was the nature of the Cardinals’ '20 season. A coronavirus outbreak led to 151 total transactions throughout the season, which led to St. Louis leaning on players in roles the club maybe didn’t foresee at the start of Spring Training. The Cards had 13 players make their big league debut in '20, and they enlisted 19 rookies. Many non-rookies, like Reyes, found themselves in roles they’ve never been in and handed an opportunity with big implications for themselves and the team.
What did all those debuts in 2020 tell us about '21? It offered a peek into what’s possible as St. Louis shapes its roster -- and especially as it looks to cut payroll this offseason.
Let’s start with Reyes, who is arbitration-eligible this winter for the first time but not expected to receive a substantial raise after the shortened season. He emerged as a valuable bullpen arm, even in multi-inning appearances, and he was often used in tandem with lefty Génesis Cabrera, who will also be a valuable piece next season. Reyes flashed his potential with his health, striking out 27 in 19 2/3 innings.
The Cardinals will have to figure out how to take Reyes from so few innings over the past four years to a starter’s workload -- or if they should. He showed how valuable he could be in the bullpen, so if he’s not needed in the rotation next season, building up in relief is an option.
“I like getting outs,” Reyes said before the National League Wild Card Series, when he finished two games with one save. “If those are the final three and I’m in the bullpen, that’s what I’m doing.”
Austin Gomber was another non-rookie in a new role. The lefty came back after missing most of the 2019 season and helped the team as a long-inning reliever, then in a higher-leverage role and later as a starter due to their influx of doubleheaders. He finished the season in the rotation and pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings in the Wild Card Series. The Cards have at least two open spots in the '21 rotation, and Gomber leads the list of candidates to fill one.
Rookie Dylan Carlson found himself in a new role by the end of the year. The Cardinals’ No. 1 prospect began September with a demotion to the alternate training site and ended the month as the team’s cleanup hitter in the postseason. With his 1.016 OPS in the playoffs, Carlson positioned himself as an everyday player and part of the plans to fix the struggling offense. He didn’t have much experience hitting cleanup in the Minors, but that didn’t limit him in the postseason.
Johan Oviedo had not pitched above Double-A before 2020, but he made five starts in the Majors. He’ll head to Spring Training vying for a spot in the rotation, and while there might be others ahead of him, the Cards like what they've seen from Oviedo. The 22-year-old made impressive strides in the spring and the summer to get to a spot where the club felt like it could turn to him for needed innings.
Jake Woodford made his debut by starting the second game of the Cardinals’ first doubleheader after their shutdown on Aug. 15 and gave up one run three innings. He’ll join Oviedo as part of the Cards’ rotation depth next season.
These auditions allow the Cardinals to evaluate these young players for the 2021 roster beyond stats and makeup. As manager Mike Shildt often brought up last season, there’s no substitution for experience in real time.
“Experience is the best teacher,” Shildt said in September. “Guys find out about themselves. What plays, what doesn’t play. You hope you always grow from it. And then you get a chance to see how guys react to it with the opportunities. It’s invaluable for a lot of the guys who have gotten the experiences they’ve been able to receive.”