The Cardinals need to start Ryan Helsley before it's too late

The St. Louis Cardinals need to free Ryan Helsley from his bullpen shackles before he transforms into Jordan Hicks 2.0 for another squad.
Philadelphia Phillies v St. Louis Cardinals
Philadelphia Phillies v St. Louis Cardinals / Jeff Le/GettyImages

It's early in the season, but the St. Louis Cardinals look to have let another stud get away in the form of former flame-throwing relief pitcher Jordan Hicks. The San Francisco Giants granted Hicks' longtime wish to become a starter and have watched him flourish in the role.

Teams are routinely placing gas-throwing pitchers into the rotation and seeing how their stuff plays up in longer bursts. The Cardinals have actively resisted this approach, but Hicks' success should force the Cardinals to reconsider their philosophy. There's no better pitcher to do it with than Ryan Helsley.

Starting would not be foreign to Helsley. In the minor leagues, Helsely started 69 games between Rookie ball and Triple-A and in 2017 had a 2.72 ERA. After being converted to relief in 2019 and pitching unremarkably with the Cardinals from 2019 through 2021, Helsley broke out in 2022 and became one of the most dominant relief pitchers in the sport. But although Helsley turned into a different pitcher in 2022, the Cardinals haven't changed how they've utilized him.

The Cardinals assembled a rotation of veterans for 2024, but they might have glossed over a player who could possess ace potential by pigeonholing Helsley as a relief pitcher. The team has tried using pitchers with considerably less upside in the rotation than Helsley possesses — think Dakota Hudson, John Gant and Andre Pallante — and it's fair to wonder if the Cardinals should simply grab their most lethal arm and see what they can do by making him go as long as possible.

The bullpen is no longer a source of desperation for the Cardinals the way it was when Helsley debuted, so taking a different route and stretching out Helsley to start in 2025 could turn out phenomenally for the team. It's a low-risk move; if Helsley doesn't take to starting, the Cardinals could simply shift him back to the bullpen.

The concern is whether the Cardinals have the aptitude to transition Helsley into a starting role. The Giants had Hicks remove some of his trademark velocity, and they changed his arm angle. The Cardinals' pitching development issues have been well documented, and it's possible that the staff will be unable to unlock Helsley's starting potential. Still, with the future of the rotation full of question marks, there's no reason for the Cardinals to avoid giving him a shot in the starting five.

Helsley will be an unrestricted free agent after 2025, so the Cardinals are running out of time to optimize the use of their most talented arm. Successfully transitioning Helsley to a starter would massively mitigate the uncertainty of an aging rotation in 2025. and a strong season in the rotation could convince the Cardinals to sign Helsley to an extension.

The notoriously traditional Cardinals need to get up to speed with the rest of the league in modern pitching management. If the Cardinals don't give Helsley a chance to start, one can be sure that another team will be chomping at the bit to convert him and watch him wreak havoc across the league.