JUPITER, Fla. (AP) — As unhittable as Jordan Hicks’ 105 mph heater can be, a pitch clocked a little bit closer to the speed limit might ultimately be what makes him the St. Louis Cardinals’ closer.
Developing the slider, a pitch Hicks began to get a feel for late last season, into a reliable second option has been Hicks’ focus this spring.
“I felt like I needed to come in prepared, more ready to go with a better arsenal,” Hicks said. “Closers, they normally have pretty dirty secondary pitches.”
Hicks threw seven of baseball’s 10 fastest pitches last season, when 659 of his offerings were clocked at 100 mph or higher.
He only reached 102 mph Thursday in his spring debut, but that was plenty fast enough to keep Mets hitters off balance when the high-80s slider seemingly lumbered toward and dove away from the plate.
“He’s already an amazing weapon,” St. Louis manager Mike Shildt said.
If he could master the slider?
“Then he would be a force,” Shildt said.
Hicks earned six saves as a rookie last season, but Shildt isn’t in a hurry to anoint the 22-year-old righty the Cardinals’ closer.
In one of the offseason’s higher-profile, free-agent moves St. Louis signed Andrew Miller to a two-year, $25 million contract.
Known for his multi-inning shutdown performances, Miller could close for the Cardinals, reprise his multi-inning stopper role, or, as a left-hander, be the match-up call within a division teaming with potent left-handed offensive threats, most notably Chicago’s Anthony Rizzo, Cincinnati’s Joey Votto, and Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich.
Miller, 33, had 36 of his 53 career saves for the New York Yankees in 2015.
“I had a blast doing it,” Miller said. “It’s a pretty unique position to be in — your name and the game on the line.”
The physical progression of three players currently at different stages of recovery from injuries could also affect what the Cardinals do with the final innings. St. Louis signed Luke Gregerson to close games last season, but a shoulder issue limited the righty to only 12 2/3 innings last season, none of which resulted in a save.
Gregerson will throw his first bullpen in a couple of days.
The Cardinals also have to determine how they’ll handle top pitching prospect Alex Reyes, who’s only pitched in four innings over the past two seasons after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2017 and tearing his lat muscle last season. He’s impressed this spring and will make his Grapefruit League debut in the coming days.
The Cardinals consider Reyes to be a starter, but with a plethora of starting candidates in camp they could elect to ease Reyes into action from the bullpen, much like they did with Carlos Martinez last season.
Martinez saved five games late last year as he returned from a shoulder injury. He’s been shut down because of weakness in the same shoulder and will be re-evaluated on March 12. Martinez wouldn’t have enough time to make the opening day roster as a starter but could be ready to work out of the bullpen should St. Louis want him there.