Hicks Contracts Minor League Time, But Is That Wise?

Apparently Adam Wainwright has been hanging out with the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations, because John Mozeliak threw one heck of a curveball at the roster yesterday.  Jordan Hicks, who was the first player demoted to minors camp, became the last person to make the opening 25.  While Mo and company had talked about all the Hs this winter (Ryan Helsley, Dakota Hudson, and Hicks), it seemed more in the vein of what’s coming.  Instead, Jordan Hicks is what’s here.

It’s interesting that Derrick Goold (or his headline writer) chose to look at this as “yielding to temptation“.  (Which may reverberate even more given that this is Holy Week.)  There’s no doubt Hicks is an exciting talent.  Kyle Reis and Colin Garner, in their merged prospect list, ranked him seventh in the organization.  He has a big arm that can routinely reach 100 and seemingly has the confidence that can go along with it.

However, this move worries me for a number of reasons.  Some big, some small, but I don’t know that the sudden ascension of Hicks is a reason for rejoicing.  Let’s take a look at a few of the issues.

First, there is this relevant passage from Kyle’s prospect writeup:

Just one year ago, RHP named Sandy Alcantara found his way into every Cardinals’ organizational Top 10 list. Often, he was in the top 5 of those lists. Alcantara was a flame-throwing, 21-year-old kid with a fastball that could reach the 100’s, secondary offerings that you could dream about, and a body to match all of the excitement with. Sandy was coming off of a season in which he impressed at Peoria and dominated over a short sample at the end of the season in Palm Beach. During the offseason, Cardinals brass gushed about Alcantara and teased the fans with his imminent arrival in 2017.

Fans rejoiced. They cried out to the heavens in praise of a mid-season savior to rotation or bullpen woes.

But Alcantara struggled mightily at Double-A. He was a shell of what we were told to expect. Now, I have my theories about why this happened (starting him at Springfield is one), but I’m trying to learn from it.

And that gets us to Jordan Hicks. Hicks is in the same situation. Everything that I just said about Alcantara applies to Hicks. There’s reason to get excited about this young man. He has top of the rotation potential. He’s electric in every sense of the word. But there are still concerns, and it’s unfair to put a kid that has only made 31 career minor league starts all of the way up at the top of a rankings list.

There’s a little bit of Luke-leaving-Dagobah here.  Luke, having seen the vision of Han and Leia in trouble, cuts short his training to help them.  Yoda and the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi try to stop him, leading to this exchange:

LUKE: But I can help them!  I can feel the Force!
OBI-WAN: But you cannot control it.  This is a dangerous time for you, when you will be tempted by the dark side of the Force.

Now, I don’t expect Hicks will be taking the mound and throwing Sith lightning at batters (though it is possible they’ll feel that way if he really gets behind a pitch), but just because you have a power doesn’t necessarily mean that you know how to use it.  There’s a reason most folks work their way up the minor league ladder, not just jump on the expressway to the bigs.  Learning the craft, learning how and when to throw hard and when to lay back, all these nuances are big to a developing pitcher and something that, if they are short-circuited, can be hard to go back and pick up.

Kyle’s invocation of Alcantara is a huge warning sign.  As he says, we were very excited about Sandy last spring, absolutely certain that he’d continue his dominating starting pitching at Springfield.  Instead, he did the opposite as the competition increased and he wasn’t ready for it.  I watched him in one start and his command wasn’t anywhere close to what you’d want to see out of a major league pitcher.  Alcantara did eventually shift to the bullpen and make his major league debut last year, but even then, he wasn’t what you’d think a big-armed reliever would be.

The trade of Alcantara to the Marlins (and, even with all their issues, they are still starting him in the minors this year for more development) could be the only thing that kept Sandy from a life in the bullpen.  Trevor Rosenthal‘s name is one that was also tossed around a lot yesterday with the Hicks promotion.  It’s true that Rosie made an immediate impact when he was brought up in 2012.  (It’s also true he came up mid-season from AA and made another trip to the minors before coming up for good.)  That irrevocably changed Rosenthal’s career.  Even with a lot of talk of stretching him out and returning him to the land of the starting pitchers, it never happened.

Now, you can argue that a lockdown reliever like Rosenthal mainly was during his time in Cardinal red is a legitimate role and there’s no doubt that it is.  However, if you can have a starter that can throw 102 plus has the offspeed pitches to go with it, isn’t it a waste to only get 45-60 innings out of him when you could eventually get 150-180?

The flip side of that is Wainwright and Carlos Martinez, who both made their debuts in the bullpen before taking their rightful spot in the rotation.  Which is a fair point.  There’s no guarantee that Hicks wouldn’t be able to eventually be a starter.  However, Wainwright and Martinez both had much more experience as a starter before being brought up and the rotations in 2007 and 2015 weren’t quite as hard to crack as this one is.  With Alex Reyes and Jack Flaherty coming, if you were to map it out there wouldn’t be an obvious need for a starter until at best the 2020 season, and that’s assuming Michael Wacha leaves when he’s eligible for free agency.  If Hicks spent all of 2018 and 2019 in the bullpen, he’d have more relieving innings than starting ones in his career most likely.  That’s the path of a Rosenthal.  Perhaps that’s the best way to get the most value out of Hicks, but it seems a little premature to think that after just a handful of minor league starts.

I also wonder how this plays with some of the relievers Hicks leapfrogged over.  Let’s take a look at a few spring stats:

Pitcher Innings ERA K
Josh Lucas 11.1 0.00 12
John Gant 13.1 1.35 14
Jordan Hicks 7.2 2.35 8

We’ve talked all spring long about not necessarily relying on spring stats.  However, when a four-inning start against the Nationals is seemingly the deciding factor for Hicks’ promotion, it seems fair to look at what everyone did in the spring.  Both Lucas and Gant are on the 40-man roster and did everything they could to make this team, only to see the Cardinals actively make room for a kid that pitched less than they did and, arguably, not as well–definitely not as much.  What message does that send to those guys?  Does it send one?  I don’t know.  I just think I’d be pretty frustrated if something like that happened, especially after such a strong spring.

Which, in a way, leads me to the final question I have about this move: Why? John Brebbia goes down in this transaction and, fine, maybe Hicks is better than Brebbia.  Brebbia has the experience and Joe Schwarz believes Brebbia can be even better than he was last year.  Even if you think Brebbia was due for some regression, the Cards originally planned on him going north, only to reverse course at the last second.  Right now, the bullpen doesn’t seem like it’s a major problem.  You can argue over whether Bud Norris will provide value (I think he will) but he’s still there with or without Hicks.  You have Lucas, you have Gant.  Heck, you could even go with one of the other Hs if you wanted given their proximity to the bigs.  Why are you overreaching to pull a rabbit out of your hat when you are standing next to a cage of them?

Matheny was quoted as saying, “we have a need in our bullpen, right?”  Obviously Matheny and Mozeliak and company know their needs and personnel much better than I do.  So if Matheny feels there’s a need, perhaps there is one.  It just doesn’t feel to me like the need was all that great, definitely not great enough to gamble so wildly.  If there wasn’t Brebbia or Gant or Lucas, maybe I’d be more understanding, but those guys are there and have been doing well.  Not believing that they can do it because maybe they’ve had issues before but trusting Mike Mayers because he’s reinvented himself seems a bit of a stretch.  Again, I’m not anything close to an expert, but I was pretty high on what the pen brought to this team.

Last year, we talked to John Mozeliak at Blogger Day and he mentioned that what San Diego had done, snatching folks like Allen Cordoba from A ball and immediately putting them in the majors (given their Rule 5 status) was something that influenced them when they brought up Magnerius Sierra last year, arguing that what is good for the goose is good for the gander.  Yet we talked about Cordoba with the Padres bloggers this year and it doesn’t feel like Cordoba is what you call a major cog for them.  There’s a strong argument that his time wasting away on the Padres’ bench permanently impaired his development and lowered his ceiling.  While it’s unlikely that Hicks, being a relief pitcher, will have that sort of rust and they can always demote him if they want, it feels like that mindset has taken hold in the organization.

We saw what it did for Sierra last year.  Sierra held his own in the handful of games he played, but he didn’t spend much time in St. Louis.  I don’t know that it hindered his development, but it was obvious that he wasn’t ready for full-time work in the majors.  In fact, we saw that he’s still not, as the Marlins optioned him out as well.  The spark he provided was nice last year, no doubt about it, and the whole thing worked better than it had any right to work, but I think the jury is still out on if it was a good thing for Sierra.  (Sierra was at least on the 40-man–in fact, one of the only outfielders on there at a time when the club needed one–so it wasn’t costly in player talent like Hicks’ promotion will be.)

Now, hopefully Hicks comes up, dominates everyone like he did against the Nationals on Sunday, and this whole article looks even more foolish in a few weeks than it probably does right now.  The organization has been very good at knowing what they have and developing talent, so if they believe he’s ready, there’s some basis for that.  It just feels like this was based on four good spring innings and that’s not exactly the most solid base from which to jump.

This also means that two players are losing their 40-man roster spots today and could be ex-Cardinals soon.  There was talk of backdating a 60-day DL slot for Reyes but multiple sources yesterday pointed out that the 60-day can’t be used outside of the season and, as such, backdating into the spring isn’t possible.  Unlike in past years, there’s not a lot of dead weight on the 40 to make the decisions easier.  I guess depending on how they feel Luke Gregerson‘s hamstring is going to heal, they could put him on the 60-day but that means he wouldn’t be available until almost June.  I doubt he’s hurting that bad.

So that means two players have to be put on waivers to make room for Hicks and Francisco Pena.  Given the lack of shortstop depth, I can’t imagine that the club would risk losing Edmundo SosaDerian Gonzalez was just added to the 40-man this winter and you have to figure a Cardinal pitching prospect wouldn’t last long on the wire.  Breyvic Valera might slide through like Alex Mejia did over the winter given the lack of hitting he’s shown in the big leagues.  If there is any interest in him, you’d like to think Luke Voit might get dealt to somebody for an A ball prospect given that he seems to be a player that can contribute in the majors but there really is no way for him to spend much time in St. Louis with Matt Carpenter and Jose Martinez.  Then again, I don’t know who plays first at Memphis should Voit not be there, unless they want to transition one of the outfielders to that position.

It just almost had to be Valera and Voit, which would be somewhat disappointing.  Valera didn’t make much impact for me but you have to like the Voit story, a St. Louis guy getting to play for his home team, his grandma paying money for every home run.  Baseball is a business, of course, and good stories only give you a tiebreaker, not a job.  Again, this may be the cost for Hicks.  Let’s hope it’s worth it.

Cardinals have the day off today, most likely having a light workout in New York before they get ready for the Mets.  If you are still with me this far, why don’t you put in your picks for what’s going to happen in that Mets series over here?  We’ll be doing The Cardinal Six all season long.  We’ve even got a season overview one, if you’d like to fill that out.  Also, I was part of a roundtable podcast with the Team of Rivals Podcast last night.  You can find that on YouTube but don’t worry, I wasn’t on camera.

The season is almost here.  Let’s play ball!

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