Predicting surprise: Young players who could shine for Cardinals, Rays in 2018

Sporting News
The Cardinals need their pitching staff to be strong to return to the postseason after missing out the past two seasons, and in Alex Reyes they have a solid candidate to make that happen. Meanwhile, the Rays were part of a three-team deal a year ago that brought them Mallex Smith, a quality hitter and base runner who could lead off and play left field for them for years to come.

Predicting surprise: Young players who could shine for Cardinals, Rays in 2018

The Cardinals need their pitching staff to be strong to return to the postseason after missing out the past two seasons, and in Alex Reyes they have a solid candidate to make that happen. Meanwhile, the Rays were part of a three-team deal a year ago that brought them Mallex Smith, a quality hitter and base runner who could lead off and play left field for them for years to come.

The Cardinals need their pitching staff to be strong to return to the postseason after missing out the past two seasons, and in Alex Reyes they have a solid candidate to make that happen. Meanwhile, the Rays were part of a three-team deal a year ago that brought them Mallex Smith, a quality hitter and base runner who could lead off and play left field for them for years to come.

Here’s a closer look at both:

Cardinals: Alex Reyes, RP/SP

2016 stats: 46 IP, 33 H, 8 ER, 23 BB, 52 K, 1.57 ERA (missed 2017 to elbow surgery)

Reyes wowed in his 12 appearances at the end of 2016, and then just as spring training was beginning a year ago he learned that he would need Tommy John surgery and that he would be shut down for all of 2017. Now ready to return to the mound, Reyes is the pitcher with the most potential on the Cardinals staff. Though used primarily out of the bullpen in 2016, he did make five starts, three of which were quality starts, so Reyes can make an impact whether he works out of the rotation or in the bullpen.

It’s fair, however, to approach Reyes with some skepticism. He’s only 23, has a very small sample in the majors, and will be returning from an injury that often requires pitchers a season of live throwing to get fully reacclimated. But if he is at all close to the potential he flashed two seasons ago, fans in St. Louis have cause to be optimistic.

Why he could break out: The two biggest questions for Reyes will probably be how he’s used and whether he can find his form again. He has shown that he can pitch well both in relief and out of the rotation, at least during his short stint in August and September 2016. Reyes was exclusively a starter as a minor leaguer, when his four-pitch mix of fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup played nicely, especially because of the sizzling fastball that flirts with triple digits.

Even if Reyes isn’t at his best in 2018, he’s still likely to be an exciting pitcher. Though his walk rate was a bit high at 12.2 percent, Reyes effectively limited potential damage. During his time in the majors, he stranded nearly 88 percent of runners and struck out 27.5 percent of batters. He also allowed a .199 batting average and gave up little hard contact.

Without the surgery that cost him all of last season, Reyes would probably have already had his breakout year, but there’s plenty of reason for high hopes in 2018.

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Rays: Mallex Smith, OF

2017 stats: .270/.329/.355, 256 AB, 2 HR, 8 2B, 62 K, 23 BB

Smith was a centerpiece of the trade that sent Drew Smyly to the Mariners a year ago, and going into 2018 the Rays hope they have their full-time left fielder. He lost some time to a hamstring injury last April and then alternated between Triple-A Durham and Tampa Bay for much of the season. But this is the year for Smith to solidify his place with the Rays.

Tampa Bay is his third organization, after the Padres drafted him in the fifth round in 2012 and then traded him to the Braves in December 2014 in the deal that sent Justin Upton to San Diego. Still only 24, he has time to develop further with the Rays.

Why he could break out: Smith hits well and has impressive speed. Almost half his plate appearances in 2017 came in the leadoff spot, where he hit .283 and hit both of his home runs. He also stole 16 bases and struck out only 22 percent of the time.

The fault in his plate approach is his walk rate. He drew a base on balls only 8.2 percent of the time, good for just a .329 on-base percentage. Neither mark is all that bad, but there’s room for growth. He walked at a much higher rate before reaching Triple-A in 2015, so if he can adjust, it’s easy to see him walking closer to 10 percent of the time at the major league level.

Aside from that, Smith is a polished hitter. He does not hit for power and likely never will, but he sprays the ball to all fields and has been consistent in hitting for extra bases at every level. He makes medium or hard contact close to three quarters of the time, and the longer he spends in the majors, that stands to improve even further.

Next week: A look at who has the best shot to break out for the Brewers and Angels.

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