January 29, 2023

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Hicks willing to fill whichever role Cardinals need

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This story was excerpted from John Denton’s Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. LOUIS — When the Cardinals made the bold move in early April to shun the easy option and instead go with career closer Jordan Hicks as their No. 5 starter, it certainly seemed worth the risk because of the incredible arm talent that the 25-year-old Texan possesses.

After all, Hicks had incredibly thrown pitches of 105.1 and 104.3 mph in the past and he showed himself to be fully recovered from the 2 1/2 years of injury troubles that derailed his career in 2019, ’20 and ’21.

With Hicks having started seven games, curiously finding little success and on the injured list yet again, the Cardinals are trying to determine what the fireballing right-hander’s future will look like when he returns to the roster. With a 1-4 record, a 5.02 ERA and an inability to get deep into games because of walks and soaring pitch counts, the Cardinals must figure out if Hicks is best served to them as a reformed starter, a long reliever or a late-innings, high-leverage weapon out of the bullpen. The franchise put Hicks on the 15-day injured list — retroactive to May 25 — with a strained flexor tendon in his right forearm, so it has some time to figure out how to proceed when Hicks is healthy enough to pitch again.

“I’m not sure yet; it’s going to be whatever the club needs, and I can’t say that it won’t be as a starter because if that’s what we need, our hope is that [Hicks] comes back throwing strikes and starts,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “We’re less concerned with his ability to work out of the bullpen and not have to have a set schedule as we were in Spring Training. So, we’ll weigh all those options and see what’s best for the club and for Hicks.”

Formerly a max-effort pitcher who routinely broke triple digits in the past, Hicks has dialed back his velocity some as a starter. Still, he is first in all of baseball in highest average fastball velocity among starting pitchers (min. 100 fastballs) at 98.8 mph. Also, there’s this: Hicks has the fourth-highest strikeout percentage on sliders (75.9%) this season among all pitchers.

Why, then, the Cardinals wonder, hasn’t Hicks had more success with his overpowering fastball, a wipe-out slider and a puny .198 batting average against? Walks (20) have cluttered the bases and caused his pitch count to soar, and he’s been plagued by a lack of run support and three home runs allowed — one more than he surrendered in his first 105 innings as a big leaguer.

Hicks, a Type I diabetic who operates best when he has a set pitching schedule, looks at his forearm strain as a minor blip considering he’s been through Tommy John surgery and minor tear reinjury last season. Clearly, the injury isn’t as much of a concern as what his role will be going forward. Hicks’ hopes of being a starter have been voiced since he shockingly first made the Major League roster in 2018, and there is little wavering on that point. Having a set schedule of knowing what days he will throw is also a big point of emphasis to him, but for now, he’s saying all the right things.

What should the Cardinals do with Jordan Hicks? Whatever is needed, Hicks said.

“Obviously, there’s a little frustration there [with the forearm injury], but I know it’s more minor than in the past,” said Hicks, who is agreeable that a couple of Minor League starts could be beneficial to him. “I fully believe I can come back from this and be ready in a few short weeks. I’ll be ready for whatever the team needs or wherever we are at that moment. That’s my goal — just to be ready for whatever.”

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