Cardinals prospect Sandy Alcantara has the arm, but what about everything else?

The Cardinals have a handful of exciting pitching prospects right now. You know many of them, such as Alex Reyes and Jack Flaherty. Another, Luke Weaver, recently graduated from the prospect list. Sandy Alcantara is a name that you have likely heard, but you’ve only seen 8 innings of him.

You have heard of Alcantara because everyone talks about his high ceiling. Early reports dreamed of him having a ceiling as high as that of Reyes, but I think that was overambitious. Every scout’s take of Alcantara will tell you the same thing: he has the stuff, but not the command. In particular, he has a fastball that averages over 98 miles per hour. He sometimes throws a sinker around 96-97 that gives him some movement, but his fastball attracts attention.

Alcantara fits the bill of your typical hard-throwing right-hander that lacks everything besides velocity. His curveball has some nice break to it, but he doesn’t consistently generate swings and misses with it. He also has a changeup, but his changeup is in the low 90s and a hitter ready for the fastball probably won’t miss that. His slider also screams “work in progress.”

Alcantara is now 22 years old, which means the Cardinals are going to have to put him on the roster for good at some point, but it’s unclear how he will be able to fit. His high ceiling will make teams want to use him as a starter, but there is case for putting him in the bullpen. Since the Cardinals have a decision to make, let’s look at their options and see where Alcantara fits.

Starting Rotation

The Cardinals need to answer one very important question here: can Alcantara throw strikes? As of today, the answer would have to be “no.” Alcantara has walked at least 3.8 batters per nine innings at every level of the minors since rookie ball. In a tiny sample, Alcantara walked more than 15 percent of batters he faced in the majors. In fact, he threw more than 55 percent of his pitches outside of the strike zone.

None of that means that Alcantara can’t be a starter, it just makes it harder. After all, Robbie Ray is still figuring out his control, and he will likely finish in the top-5 for National League Cy Young. But Alcantara isn’t Ray. He doesn’t have a great second pitch yet, he just has a lot of potential. The Cardinals could keep Alcantara a starter in the minors next year, but how long can a starter rely on a fastball? Until Alcantara develops a consistent second pitch, he will struggle anywhere in the majors. But as a starter, he will likely need three pitches.

I am pretty confident that Alcantara can develop his curveball into an above average pitch. But I can’t say the same for his changeup or slider. I haven’t seem him throw two sliders that look the same yet (that’s not a compliment), and his changeup isn’t that deceptive. For a pitcher with such high upside, Alcantara also has a lot of red flags.

The last problem I have with Alcantara as a starter is that his motion requires a lot of upper body movement. Much of this stems from where he lands, as he tends to rotate if he isn’t centered. His control will give him some long innings, and I think Alcantara will struggle to keep throwing with the same motion for 25 pitches in a short amount of time. You likely won’t get too many long outings from Alcantara, so the Cardinals should consider the bullpen.

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The Bullpen

I really like the potential that Alcantara has with his curveball. When he isn’t bouncing it in the dirt (this does happen a lot), you can see the big movement. It’s pretty close to 12-6, which makes the pitch effective against hitters from both sides. He hasn’t been able to get the right movement every time he throws it, but if he can, then Alcantara will have another plus pitch in his arsenal.

The key with moving Alcantara to the bullpen is that he will only need two pitches. I see his curve as the pitch that can make him a lights out reliever on just two pitches. He certainly needs more time to get there, but the path to a good career is more clear through the bullpen. Too much has to change for him to be a good starter, but only one thing has to for him to be a good reliever.

Alcantara will still need to cut down on the walk totals, but it won’t be as big a problem as a reliever. He will strike out more batters from the pen, so escaping base runners will be easier. Alcantara will never have above average control. He may never even have average control, but he can get away with it more in relief. You only saw 8 innings of Alcantara in relief in 2017. I expect the Cardinals to use him a lot more in that role when they bring him up for good.

Traded

The third option, of course, is to trade Alcantara. The Marlins always need pitching, and they have a certain right fielder of interest. The Cardinals recently said that they are willing to part with top pitching prospects. I don’t think that’s really new news, but they might have been talking about Alcantara. The Cardinals potentially view him as a piece with higher upside than will ever come to fruition. In that case, trading him makes a lot of sense.

If the Cardinals are trading Alcantara to get a big bat, then it makes sense. But I don’t think the Cardinals should be actively shopping the young righty. A pitcher with his stuff should have a career in the majors. I can absolutely see a scenario where Alcantara never becomes much, but the potential is there. As much as I see the bust scenario, I also see the all-star reliever scenario.

Alcantara won’t be ready next year, but he will be in two or three years with good coaching. And if he makes the move to the bullpen, and finds a better feel for the curveball, then he might instantly become the Cardinals best reliever. The Cardinals are looking for relievers every year, and they may have one in Alcantara. They just need the right coach to work with him.

There is also the issue that other teams might not see Alcantara as a starter. If nobody else sees him as a starter, then Alcantara might not fetch much in a trade. We have seen how much major league relief pitchers go for in trades. The same cannot be said of minor league relief pitchers. The Cardinals should at least hold onto Alcantara until he gets to the majors as a reliever. But if they still view him as a starter, then they’re probably getting the least value out of him.

Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas – USA TODAY Sports

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