The St Louis Cardinals have had quite the good fortune over recent years when it comes to stocking up on pitching talent in their system. Seems like they always have some young gunslinger just biding his time in Double-A or Triple-A, waiting for his moment.
In 2013, another potential ace was added to the deck in Alex Reyes, a New Jersey native but signed as an international free agent. After his junior year of high school, Reyes moved to the Dominican Republic to live with his grandparents in San Cristóbal. This allowed him to train yearlong, on occasion with the Royals shortstop Raul Mondesi, as well as attract the attention of the buscónes while avoiding the exorbitant costs of showcases here in the States. Perfectly within the rules, and a shrewd business move, as it turned out.
While Reyes was working his way through the low minors, then-future first-rounder Luke Weaver was finishing up his first season with Florida State University. During his college career with the Seminoles, Weaver appeared in 49 games, striking out 244 batters in 245 innings. He made 37 starts with the team and compiled a 16-6 record with a 3.05 ERA. St Louis rewarded his outstanding performance by selecting him 27th overall in 2014, and since then he has done little more than dominate.
What do these two pitchers have in common? Each made his MLB debut this year, within four days of one another, and each figures significantly in the near-future plans of the Cardinals. However, there are key differences between them, differences that may flip the script on which of them will be the more consistent pitcher.
Let's start with Reyes. He's 6'3", 175, just turned 22 on August 29th, and works off of a wicked fastball that sits around 96 but he gets it up to triple digits with relative ease. He's known for throwing a heavy fastball low in the zone and gives up homers rarely. Reyes doesn't live and die by the fastball, however; he also throws a 12-6 curve that already grades at least plus, and could become one of the best breaking balls in the league, in time. He does have trouble locating with it, but it's so good in terms of its late movement that its mere presence makes the hitters think twice about sitting on the heat. His changeup is even better, much more so than should be expected of most pitchers his age, and that was true of him at the time of his draft. Sounds like an arsenal, doesn't it?
Well, it's not so much what you have as how you use it. Reyes has a thing for walks. Over four seasons in the minors, he issued 170 free passes in 334 innings. That comes out to 4.6/9 IP, and it's not a good thing. His K/BB ratio wasn't awful (2.64), but that's the result of his 449 strikeouts (an astonishing 12.1/9 IP). While he only allowed 269 hits over those innings, he walked so many that his WHIP ballooned (1.314!).
Those are the basic numbers, and they tell only part of the story. His mechanics tell another part. Reyes has a bit of a cross-fire motion, which works well for some pitchers but may be contributing to his control issues. He usually squares well with the batter and doesn't "spin off", so it may be better to leave it alone (if it ain't broke...) Then again, he did walk a batter every other inning in his 12 appearances in the majors this year (4.5/9 IP), and his other numbers were a virtual mirror of his minor-league stats. There is an inherent risk in altering a pitcher's mechanics, especially the younger ones, even if it is meant for the better. While his tools and obvious talent make him a potential ace, both he and the Cardinals might be better served by placing Reyes in a short-relief role for a while.
Now let's look at Weaver. Now 23, he is only one year older than Reyes, but he has college experience behind him. He's not the same type of pitcher as Reyes; he doesn't have the high-90's heat, though he sits around 92-94 and can push it higher at times. He's a "fastball first" type of pitcher, pitching to contact, and he works at keeping hitters off-balance by mixing in a solid changeup and curve.
Weaver broke his wrist shagging flies in spring training and he didn't make his first start until June 5th, but he dominated the Frisco RoughRiders over 7 1/3 in that start, and it's even possible that the time off did him some good. After one Triple-A start the Cards had seen enough, and he made his ML debut on August 13th in place of the injured Michael Wacha against the Cards' mortal enemies, the Chicago Cubs (at Wrigley.) Weaver is a fly-ball pitcher, and demonstrated as much in his next appearance, allowing 3 runs on 9 hits, striking out six and walking none, and allowing 14 fly balls against two grounders. Of note is the fact that Weaver, for all his fly balls allowed, gave up an astounding seven HR in his 197 2/3 minor-league innings.
While Busch Stadium slightly favors pitchers, one only plays half one's games at home. That's one consideration, but I doubt it will matter much.
Although it seems that Reyes has the most hype surrounding him, Weaver was ranked St Louis's 2nd-best prospect as of the mid-season rankings on Baseball America. Weaver has the benefit of college experience behind him, but Reyes has totaled 110 innings at Double-A and Triple-A, combined. It would be easy to say that, all things considered, Reyes would be the better pick. However, Weaver's control has been far better, throughout his minor-league experience (35 walks in 197 2/3 innings), is less of a max-effort arm, and thus far seems to be more advanced in his approach to batters.
Now, sometimes, young pitchers with big fastballs can be more "thrower" than "pitcher", since having high-90's heat can often lead to a "rock and fire" mentality that has less to do with strategy and more to do with just overpowering batters. Reyes has a fantastic fastball, but shaky control. Weaver has low-90's heat, college experience (which shouldn't be discounted), and a seemingly more advanced approach in dissecting hitters. At least, up till this point.
How far Reyes is able to take his game will rely a great deal on his gaining consistent command on his off-speed pitches. Either way, he's at least a dominant arm in the 'pen, and he could be a special one at that. Weaver could be slotted into the rotation right now, and probably wouldn't struggle much. Weaver's floor may put him in the 'pen, but it's unlikely; I see him as a strong #3 in the rotation, maybe a #4 at worst.
Again, this is all with the caveat that it's VERY early in the game, for both of them. At least for the next 2-3 years, if both remain starters, I see Weaver having less trouble adjusting his game to MLB bats than Reyes, and it's likely that Weaver will remain the more consistent of the two, based on the skill set of each at the moment.