By Tyler Brandt, from Cardsblog.com
Baseball is finally (almost) back. Even though there are still enough free agents left to make their own spring team, the Cardinals' pitchers and catchers will report to Jupiter, Florida tomorrow. They will be joined by the rest of the position players on Sunday.
Over the next five days, you will hear a lot about what condition the Cardinals pitchers and catchers are in. Here is a list of what you need to keep an ear out for as we begin the first part of the preseason.
1.) When will Alex Reyes be ready to pitch?
According to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Cardinals are still set on May 1 as Reyes' season debut for 2018. However, we still have not gotten many real updates on Reyes' progress this offseason. Oftentimes no news is good news; we haven't heard of any major setbacks for the young right-hander. On the other hand, it would be nice to see it ourselves for some reassurance.
I doubt Reyes will pitch off a mound this month, but we will likely be able to see him throw for the first time in a while. Listen for the reports coming out of Cardinals camp to see how far along Reyes looks in his rehab.
We obviously will not know about things like velocity and movement until he gets in the bullpen. But we should be able to tell if he looks like he will be ready to pitch soon. I expect to get a more definitive timetable for Reyes' return over the next few weeks.
2.) Does Miles Mikolas look like he can pitch in the MLB?
Mikolas was obviously great in Japan over the last three seasons. He pitched 188 innings for the Yomiuri Giants last year, surrendering just 23 walks en route to a 2.25 ERA. I am not all that concerned about numbers "translating over" to Major League Baseball, but it would be nice to get a visual confirmation. Most Cardinals fans have not seen Mikolas pitch since his first MLB stint ended in 2014. Many probably didn't ever see him then, either.
This week we will get a live look at the man they call the Lizard King. Reports are that he refined his breaking ball in Japan, and that contributed to his success. It all sounds promising, and this spring may offer some proof.
Control was not a huge problem for Mikolas when he first pitched in MLB, so I wouldn't worry about that. Instead, focus on the reports about his movement, particularly on that breaking ball. He'll need his curveball to become a strikeout pitch to be successful. Ideally, you will hear that his curveball has late, sharp, and consistent break. Anything short of that is cause for concern.
Of course, Mikolas will be a little easier to gauge once hitters get there. What you really want to hear is that he is getting swings and misses. He only got batters to swing and miss on 7.6 percent of his pitches from 2012-14.
That number will not cut it in any league, and his improvement in that area is another big reason for his success in Japan. If he can carry that back to the United States with him, then the Cardinals will have their bargain starting pitcher. If you're watching the Spring headlines, see if he's able to get enough whiffs to be successful.
3.) Does Adam Wainwright have anything left?
As of right now, Adam Wainwright is penciled into the rotation. It has been a rough two years for the former ace, as he has posted ERAs of 4.62 and 5.11 in 2016 and '17, respectively. Wainwright is heading into the last year of his contract, and perhaps his last year in baseball. Barring a resurgence, the Cardinals don't expect him to be on the roster past 2018.
Wainwright didn't do much to instill any confidence in the Cardinals last season. I searched for positives in his numbers, and couldn't find any major ones. Depending on how much you think pitchers can control contact quality, you might think he got hurt by batted balls more than he should have.
However, the bigger problem is that his curveball doesn't dominate hitters anymore. He no longer has a dominant out pitch, and his strikeout and walk numbers are going in the wrong direction.
Having said all of that, the Cardinals still have him in their rotation. Perhaps it's because he is making too much money not to be, but perhaps they think he has something left. The team certainly has other options; Jack Flaherty will begin the season waiting in the wings, and they could push Reyes back a little faster.
Their bullpen features Tyler Lyons, who could make it through April starting 4-5 innings per outing and then hand his spot off to Reyes in May. With the exception of Flaherty, none of those options are too appealing, but they are all defensible to some degree.
If Wainwright is to be a better pitcher, he will likely need to recoup some velocity. This generally doesn't happen to pitchers age 36 and up, but at least sticking around 90 miles per hour would be huge. Wainwright's average fastball was 89.7 miles per hour in 2017, down nearly a full tick from his career average.
His cutter was much worse, at 84.4 MPH, which is two full ticks below his career norm. Losing any more velocity would be a big concern for the former perennial Cy Young candidate. Look for reports about Wainwright's condition and if he looks like he has lost anything in his arm.
4.) Is there a power reliever among us?
Look around baseball and you will see bullpens featuring several guys who can touch 100 MPH. The Cardinals don't seem to be trending in the same direction. Dominic Leone throws hard, but he doesn't really top out at 100. Sam Tuivailala is the only one who will consistently throw above 96-97 with his fastball.
That does not necessarily mean anything bad, but it's certainly different. The Cardinals are likely to feature a closer, Luke Gregerson, who averages below 90 MPH on his fastball. How many teams can say that?
Given the lack of power arms in the Cardinals bullpen, expect some inexperienced guys who can throw hard to get a long look this Spring. When Alex Reyes comes back, he may end up filling that void. However, they may end up needing him in the rotation. It's always nice to at least have different velocities to give hitters different looks. Trevor Rosenthal and then Sandy Alcantara were supposed to fill this role. Neither one will be suiting up for the Cardinals on Opening Day.
If there is a young guy to keep an eye on for this spot, it's Jordan Hicks. Hicks is just 21, and ideally would spend more time in the minors. But the Cardinals have indicated that they would be willing to use him in the majors as a reliever this season. He isn't quite a hard-thrower yet, but he has been steadily building up velocity.
He is generally in the low 90s right now, but if he had a good offseason, then he could have worked his way up towards the mid-90s. Going to the bullpen would also provide a velocity boost for the young right-hander.
If no power reliever emerges, then it isn't necessarily a problem. But expect there to be some buzz around the Cardinals looking for some hard-throwers this Spring.
5.) How does Carson Kelly handle the pitching staff?
Before the weekend, Tyler Jackson wrote an interesting piece on how the Cardinals can try to use both Yadier Molina and Carson Kelly this season. Unfortunately, the Cardinals have two players that they want to use at just one position. Nevertheless, Kelly is the future of the Cardinals catching position. They have refused to give him away in trades, and he will play sooner rather than later.
Kelly is a converted third base prospect that the Cardinals always envisioned behind the plate. During his six seasons in the minor leagues, Kelly has made great strides defensively. He has also worked with many of the young pitchers making an impact for the Cardinals now. Reyes, Flaherty, and Luke Weaver all have some degree of familiarity with the 23 year-old backstop.
You know that Molina will be great with any pitcher the Cardinals throw. What you want to hear is that Kelly will be great with the next generation of pitchers that the Cardinals throw.
Again, all indications are good here, but it's nice to see it in person. Kelly is an exciting catching prospect, and he would be a starter on many other teams this season.
Knowing that he can work with Reyes, Flaherty, Weaver, Hicks, and Michael Wacha is incredibly important for the Cardinals future. The Cardinals are confident that Kelly will be great in that area, which is why they have held onto him. The fans are just waiting to see it everyday, and you will get your first look this season starting tomorrow.