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How will Cardinals use top prospect Reyes?

Club wants to balance consistent role with reasonable workload for righty returning from TJ surgery
MLB.com @JoeTrezz

JUPITER, Fla. -- For months, Cardinals officials have only been specific about Alex Reyes' role when outlining how the club's No. 1 prospect won't be handled. In this arena, the club has employed some hard and fast rules.

The Cardinals won't accelerate the rehab program of the 23-year-old Reyes, now 13 months removed from Tommy John surgery, to mollify a team need. They won't -- at least, they would rather not -- constrict him to an opportunity-based role -- let's say closer -- at the risk of hindering his future development. And they won't push him irresponsibly after he does return, no matter the urgency following two consecutive playoff misses.

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JUPITER, Fla. -- For months, Cardinals officials have only been specific about Alex Reyes' role when outlining how the club's No. 1 prospect won't be handled. In this arena, the club has employed some hard and fast rules.

The Cardinals won't accelerate the rehab program of the 23-year-old Reyes, now 13 months removed from Tommy John surgery, to mollify a team need. They won't -- at least, they would rather not -- constrict him to an opportunity-based role -- let's say closer -- at the risk of hindering his future development. And they won't push him irresponsibly after he does return, no matter the urgency following two consecutive playoff misses.

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So what will his role look like?

It's a hard question to answer with so many factors at play. The challenge will be finding a way to keep the 23-year-old in a consistent role without having him finish too far short or beyond his career high of 111 1/3 innings by the end of the season.

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"If starter is that path, the start date might be delayed," president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said Tuesday. "If bullpen is the path, it would be easier to do."

Mozeliak said he prefers Reyes to return in either one capacity or another, rather than shuttle back and forth between roles as he did during his 12-game big league debut in 2016. He's floated the idea of a "hybrid" role in media sessions and fan forums alike. It's a term used around the league to describe several different types of pitcher.

Video: Reyes looks to regain form after Tommy John surgery

If Reyes is a hybrid, is he the type he was in 2016, when he started five games and finished three? Is he the Andrew Miller type, who can come out of the bullpen to throw in the middle of the game as well as the back end and on varying days of rest? Or is he more along the lines of Chris Devenski and Brad Peacock, deployed to get through vital middle innings when the lineup turns over a third time?

The short answer is: probably that last option.

The Cardinals hope to keep Reyes between approximately 70 and 100 innings, a workload that would land him somewhere between full-time starter and traditional reliever. Devenski threw 80 2/3 innings exclusively out of the bullpen last year, averaging around 1 1/3 innings per appearance. Michael Lorenzen racked up 83 innings for Cincinnati in a similar role. Peacock proved to be a valuable weapon during the Astros' World Series run while being unleashed in this manner.

"At the end of the day, what do you hope Alex Reyes' season looks like? You hope it looks somewhere near 100 innings. We don't want to blow by [his career-high]," Mozeliak said.

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"What we don't want to see happen is, say he ends up being someone we stick in the bullpen, and then at the end of the year we wake up and he has 70 innings. What is he going to be next year? It would be hard to envision him being a starter every fifth day because the workload is going to put him back at a risk."

The Cardinals carefully managed Reyes' innings throughout his Minor League career, avoiding spikes in workload they feared could put his high-octane arm at risk. Reyes threw 109 1/3 innings in 2014, 1161/3 the following season, then 111 1/3 between Triple-A Memphis and the Majors in '16. He got hurt anyway.

Those numbers once represented a floor. They're now more of a ceiling -- one he'd reach quickly if used exclusively out of the rotation. Tossing 100 innings would give Reyes approximately 16 starts -- four months of regular work. Assuming a May 1 season debut, such a schedule would require the Cardinals to either transition to a six-man rotation for parts of the year, shut Reyes down late, or both, assuming injury doesn't strike their five-man rotation. And if it does spring a leak, Jack Flaherty and John Gant would likely be the first two summoned from Memphis.

Reyes is scheduled to throw to hitters again Wednesday, his sixth such back-field session at the club's Roger Dean complex. He said he's "anxious to compete again" in whatever role he's given. Reyes is scheduled to throw three innings of 15 pitches each on Wednesday, a workload segmented differently from previous sessions, in which he was given 40 pitches to simulate two innings. Three innings could ostensibly constitute a short start -- or a long relief appearance.

"The role is going to be based part on team need," Mozeliak said, "and part what makes the most sense for him."

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.

St. Louis Cardinals, Alex Reyes