'This is the year!': Hence eyes big leagues

April 11th, 2024

This story was excerpted from John Denton’s Cardinals Beat newsletter. Subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. LOUIS -- This might come as news to his big league bosses, but Tink Hence has his sights set on doing whatever it takes to get to St. Louis and pitch for the Cardinals in 2024.

Never mind that Hence is just 21 years old and still about as wispy thin as a chalk foul line, despite working hard to hang 195 pounds across his 6-foot-1 frame. Also, never mind the fact that Hence -- the Cardinals' No. 1 prospect, per MLB Pipeline -- started the 2024 season at Double-A Springfield, and he’s never thrown more than 96 innings in three Minor League seasons after being purposefully brought along slowly.

All that is fine and well, Hence said, but in his eyes, it is time for him to make a major push in his career and get to a spot where he will soon be pitching in the shadow of the Gateway Arch at Busch Stadium. Hence has shown plenty of patience while seeing close friends and 2020 MLB Draft classmates Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn thrive in the Majors. Now, it’s time to show off the array of talent and massive potential that have made Hence the top pitching prospect within the organization for several years.

“I told myself, ‘This is the year!’” Hence said. “So, it’s just about keeping my word to myself, proving that I’ve put in the work and developed to the point where I’m ready for this. I have that mindset now that I’m going to be a big-league starter and I’m going to compete at the highest level. So, just telling myself that. I’m putting that on my shoulders for this season.”

Hence, a native of Pine Bluff, Ark., lived up to those high standards in his first start of the season when he held Arkansas hitless over five dominant innings on Friday. During that outing, Hence mixed four pitches perfectly and walked just one while striking out three.

It was similar to the advanced maturity that Hence showed in MLB’s Spring Breakout showcase in March when he struck out three hitters on three different pitches. Being able to throw any of his pitches for strikes is an area of growth that Hence has been grinding toward. It’s yet another reason, he said, that he believes he’s perfectly positioned to push for a big-league stint this season.

“I’m really getting my confidence up there and I feel like all my pitches are on the rise,” said Hence, who had six strikeouts in four scoreless innings while pitching for the Cardinals in Spring Training. “I’m trying to just build, build, build each time that I go out so that I have that confidence in all my stuff."

Purposefully held back by the Cardinals because they wanted him to add weight and muscle before overtaxing his right shoulder and right elbow, Hence feels he now has the strength and stamina to prove that he can be a workhorse who can push deep into games. He’s put on approximately 30 pounds since St. Louis selected him with the No. 63 pick of the 2020 MLB Draft -- not long after Walker and Winn were taken just ahead of him.

“The sky is the limit for Tink because he is so talented,” said Winn, who played travel ball with Hence years earlier. “Once that dude gets his chance, people are going to see how good he really is.”

Hence’s chance to zip through Double-A -- and potentially Triple-A Memphis -- could come this year if he stays on the same progression the Cards are hoping for. He almost certainly would have topped 100 innings last season if not for a chest/pectoral injury that slowed him, and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak recently said he’d like to see Hence shoulder a much greater workload this season.

In Springfield, Hence is paired with 22-year-old right-hander Tekoah Roby, the Cardinals' No. 2 prospect. Roby got hit hard in his first start, but he has the kind of swing-and-miss stuff that gives the Cards hope that he and Hence can be paired together for years to come.

Whether or not Hence’s MLB opportunity comes this season or not, he is vowing to be ready. Physically, he’s stronger than he’s ever been and he’s eager to show the Cardinals that he could be a serious candidate for a spot on the Major League roster in September.

“With the way I’m getting down the mound and the ball is coming out easier, I feel so much stronger now,” he said. “When I’m on top of my stuff and my fastball is riding like it is, I feel like it’s going to be a big year for me.”