There will be a competition for the St. Louis Cardinals’ closer role in 2020 and while there are favorites, Alex Reyes and Ryan Helsley may be underdogs for the role.
In 2019, the closer role was a bit of a roller coaster that actually ended up doing quite well. Beginning the year, Jordan Hicks resumed his 9th inning role for the St. Louis Cardinals but was placed on the IL at the end of June after he tore his UCL. The timing of this injury was about as bad as possible because not only did Hicks miss the last half of the season, but he will be out until after the All-Star break most likely this season.
The bullpen did a pretty good job of absorbing this injury as Carlos Martinez stepped into the closer’s role without much of a hitch. Subsequently, Giovanny Gallegos stepped up and excelled in high-leverage situations, Tyler Webb held up his own weight, and overall the bullpen was a strength for the Cardinals.
In 2020, the situation isn’t so clear.
Carlos Martinez is heading back to the rotation (where he belongs) and that leaves the closer job wide open. The favorite to start in the role right now is likely Andrew Miller as he has done it in the past. He had a down year in 2019, but he has been dominant in the role before.
There are, however, two names that are dark horse candidates for the role.
2020 could finally be the year that the Cardinals get consistent production from their former top-10 prospect in baseball. After years of injury, suspension, and setbacks, Reyes finally had a normal offseason where he wasn’t rehabbing any injuries or trying to get back in shape. He just prepared like normal and is ready for the season.
Reyes is taking a leadership role at camp this year which is fantastic to see, but the greater excitement could be in games for Reyes. He will likely compete in at least some capacity for the starting role that opened up when Miles Mikolas went down with injury, but assuming he doesn’t jump in the rotation, he’d look awfully good in that closer’s role.
In his only extended look in the Majors, Reyes pitched out of the bullpen and did it very well. Back in 2016, Reyes threw 46 innings in the MLB and while he made five starts, he came into seven games as a reliever.
This was a super small sample size, but in seven relief appearances, Reyes allowed just a .497 OPS against him with a 0.52 ERA. Reyes also had an 11.9 K/9 which is fantastic.
This small sample size can’t be law for how Reyes would do in the reliever role as this was from 2016 when Reyes was just 21. Now 25, Reyes has had a lot of things happen since then.
It’s a clean slate in 2020 with zero expectations for Reyes, but he’s still the same pitcher who was touted so highly for his pitch arsenal. This is assuming again that Reyes doesn’t make the starting rotation, but he should be in the conversation for closer if he’s in the bullpen.
Ryan Helsley is another pitcher that will likely be in the competition for starter but based on how the Cardinals used him last year, it’s likely he will end up in the bullpen. If he does, the closer role could be a spot where Helsley excels.
While he was a starter for the majority of his minor league career, Helsley transitioned into a relief role last season. In doing so, Helsley was able to work himself into a seventh-inning role pretty regularly and made the postseason roster as well.
In his 36.2 innings in 2019, Helsley excelled at stranding runners with an 84.6% strand rate. His 2.95 ERA was great, but his 4.22 FIP and 5.11 xFIP suggest Helsley was better than he should’ve been in 2019.
The odd thing for Helsley in the MLB last season was that he wasn’t striking guys out anywhere near as much as he did in the Minors. His sub-8.0 K/9 in the MLB was drastically different from his 9+ K/9 rate that he had at all levels of the minor leagues.
Helsley is a better pitcher than what his advanced metrics say about his 2019 and with his four-pitch mix, he could dominate at closer. His fastball averages 98 mph, then he can attack hitters with an 87.7 mph changeup, 81.1 mph cutter, and an 89 mph slider.
Reyes might be the better pick for closer, but either he or Helsley should get at least some chances to prove they can be viable relief options, even if they aren’t in the closer’s role.
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Hicks will be back at some point in 2020 but until then, the Cardinals are going to have to find an interim closer. Helsley and Reyes can both hit triple digits regularly and that alone should garner them some attention for closer duties. If they aren’t in the rotation, they deserve a chance at closing.