By Jeff Jones
Twitter – @jmjones
JUPITER — One of the most tried and true traditions of the baseball season is figuring out which prospects will bring excitement and wonder to the minds of fans who are constantly looking over the horizon. Once a name is named, that player will stick with people interested in the team until something dramatic happens.
Like, say, a season-ending injury. When that happens, memories tend to get very short.
That’s the situation Ryan Helsley finds himself in as the Cardinals opened camp this week in Jupiter. A right-handed starting pitcher who turns 25 this July, Helsley was one of the two pitchers identified in the winter of 2017 by President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak as a potential contributor to the 2018 Cardinals season. The other was Jordan Hicks, whose high velocity deliveries left a searing impression.
Helsley didn’t a chance to make that contribution. A balky right shoulder never regained the necessary strength, and an abortive rehab attempt in the Gulf Coast League left him with only 13 starts and 70.1 innings pitched on the season.
“I just wasn’t feeling too great after my recovery phase and there was only like three weeks left in their season so they were like, we should shut it down,” Helsley said. “I’m feeling good now. I had a good offseason.”
That offseason didn’t contain any surgical procedures or any unusual alterations to his winter program. He enters camp at full strength and ready to perform as a starting pitcher, but a major league staff that’s overflowing with options is likely to leave some spillover in Helsley’s way at Triple-A.
“There’s a lot of good pitchers here,” Helsley said. “I think it helps everybody in here, helps the competition, kinda pushes everybody to the next level.”
One possible option for Helsley, who was placed on the 40-man roster this winter to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, is to emerge mid-season as a reinforcement for the bullpen. That path was tread last summer by Dakota Hudson, whose performance Memphis as a starter was strong enough to earn him honors as the Pacific Coast League’s Pitcher of the Year and the Cardinals Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt sees and understands the dilemma when it comes to creating the necessary opportunities for Helsley. “We’re using spring training to evaluate the depth and then put the pieces in the appropriate places and Helsley will be similar to that,” Shildt said.
“Everyone here has mostly got a relation with everyone around them into how things happen, into relational situations,” Shildt explained. “Bullpens are fluid every day based on who’s available. Same difference with Helsley. He’s in camp, he’s healthy, he looks good, he feels good, he’s being developed as a starter and we’ll evaluate as we go.”
Hudson is himself stuck in the lurch between starter and bullpen, major leagues and Triple-A. Despite his success last year, the Cardinals may view him as more valuable at Memphis, ready and waiting in case a starting pitcher suffers an injury or otherwise needs to be swapped out. Finding himself in a similar situation last summer, the roster jam wasn’t quite enough for him to expect an alternate route to the majors.
“I just kinda figured [my debut] would be as a starter,” Hudson said. “That was really the only kind of experience I’d had in the last two years besides my first buildup.”
If the Cardinals do eventually explore a shift of Helsley to the bullpen, he’ll find himself with a set of new challenges to conquer. Though Helsley’s shoulder injury is not believed to be as severe as the stress reaction Michael Wacha suffered in 2014 – nor is it believed to be as chronic – the club then expressed a preference to shield Wacha from the stresses of potential daily use in the bullpen. It was alteration of the standard schedule and adjustment of routine that created concern, and Hudson acknowledged that he had to make adjustments of his own.
“It’s just shortening down your routine and being able to replicate that day to day,” Hudson said. Figuring out a way to turn that five day routine into daily effectiveness is a task that takes some learning and, for Helsley, a task that he’s unfamiliar with.
Since being drafted in 2015, 62 of Helsley’s 65 appearances in the minor leagues have been as a starter. Two of the three relief appearances came for Johnson City at the rookie ball level. The third was for Class-A Palm Beach. Despite that unfamiliarity, though, Helsley seems ready for whichever path can bring him to the majors and allow him to be a contributor.
“I could definitely help the team [in the bullpen],” Helsley said. “It’s whenever the front office and Shildt feel like it’s my time, I’ll be ready.”
“You don’t try to think about that stuff too much, you know? But you definitely think about it. There’s a good opportunity for me and a lot of the guys in here. Spring training is the time for guys to kind of separate themselves and push themselves ahead of the pack, and I’m excited for games to start and get to work with these guys.”
That push and separation from the pack is the central theme of the way the Cardinals will be evaluating their pitchers this spring. With as many as a dozen pitchers who could contribute as starters at the major league level, the spillover to Memphis is undeniable. Innings will be at a premium and pitchers will have to show their contributions are earned, not given.
Helsley, for one, is excited for the challenge.
“That’s why you play the game,” Helsley said. “The game is competition and then there’s competition within the competition, so it’s a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to this year, and I think I’ll have a great opportunity.”