By Rob Rains
Ryan Helsley says he doesn’t spend much time worrying about decisions that he can’t control but the Cardinals’ pitching prospect is well aware that one of those looming decisions could play a major role in determining his baseball future.
Helsley is one of several prospects who must either be added to the Cardinals’ 40-man roster before the Nov. 20 deadline or become available to be selected by another team in December’s Rule 5 draft.
“Obviously it’s a big time in my career,” Helsley said. “Either way I feel whatever happens it’s God’s plan for me and I’m excited to see what will happen. We will find out in about a week.
“I feel like I’ve done everything I need to do at this point. It just depends on what the Cardinals think they need and what the front office wants to do. I try not to think about it too much because you can drive yourself crazy going over every little situation and theory about what could happen … You can’t really control what the front office is thinking.”
Currently the Cardinals have only two open spots on the 40-man roster, but more spots could become available before the deadline by either not offering a player a contract or through a trade.
Helsley likely is one of at least six players who will need to be added to the roster or become a leading candidate to be selected by another team. The other five who would seem to be at the top of the Cardinals’ list are left-handed pitcher Genesis Cabrera, outfielder Lane Thomas, catcher Dennis Ortega, right-handed pitcher Junior Fernandez and infielder Ramon Urias.
“The off-season is always hectic,” Helsley said. “You can guess what they are going to do but something usually happens that nobody expected. It’s always an exciting time.”
A fifth-round pick by the Cardinals in the 2015 draft, Helsley was ranked sixth on the annual STLSportsPage.com list of the organization’s top prospects last summer.
The 24-year-old Helsley’s status is a little cloudy because of an injury that forced him to miss almost all of the second half of last season. After being promoted from Springfield to Memphis in May, Helsley was shut down in early June because of a forearm strain.
“My last two starts my forearm was bothering me and I just thought it was fatigue or something and tried to pitch through it but it didn’t feel very well,” Helsley said. “I went to the doctor and he said I had a flexor strain in the tendon. It just kind of kept lingering the rest of the season.”
Helsley pitched only once more, a 2 2/3 inning rehab start in the Gulf Coast League on Aug. 6.
“I felt fine during the game but when I threw a bullpen a couple of days later it just didn’t feel right to me and since there only was a couple of weeks left in the season they said just to shut it down,” he said.
“I’ve never had any arm issues in my life and it was just kind of crazy that it popped up. It was really frustrating. I was really looking forward to the rest of the year. It was just always there, kind of lingering, and it just bothered me too much when I was throwing.
“I could still throw, and I felt my velocity was fine, but I didn’t feel my command was where it should be.”
Before the injury, Helsley had been pitching really well as he transitioned from Double A to Triple A, including a start on May 28 against Colorado Springs when he allowed just three hits and one unearned run in seven innings, striking out 10 and issuing only one walk.
That start followed a game in which Helsley allowed just two hits and struck out nine in seven innings against Oklahoma City.
For the year Helsley struck out 82 and allowed just 49 hits in 70 innings.
Helsley said he did not have any procedure on his arm and that the rest has let it recover to where he resumed throwing this week as part of his off-season workouts. He expects to be 100 percent by the start of spring training.
He has spent the off-season working out at his former college in Oklahoma, Northeastern State.
“It feels good, I’m excited,” Helsley said. “I feel like if I can stay healthy next year can be a really fun year. I’m working my tail off to get my body prepared to stay healthy for the full season.”
Even though he has been a starter so far in his career, Helsley can see a path to the majors as a reliever, especially considering the abundance of young starters already with the Cardinals at the major-league level.
“Whatever is best for the team, I’m open to anything,” Helsley said. “I think I could definitely adjust, it’s something I could definitely do.”
The plan for Cabrera, acquired from Tampa in the trade that sent Tommy Pham to the Rays, also appears to be to develop the 22-year-old left-hander as a reliever. He is pitching out of the bullpen in winter ball.
In addition to Helsley and Cabrera, two of the prospects the Cardinals will no doubt be trying to add to the 40-man roster are Thomas and Fernandez.
Thomas, a 23-year-old right-handed hitter who can play all three spots in the outfield, led the minor-league organization with 27 homers and 88 RBIs this season while splitting time between Springfield and Memphis. It was his first full-season with the Cardinals after being acquired in a trade from Toronto in 2017. He was one of several prospects invited to play in the Arizona Fall League.
Fernandez, 21, also moved to a bullpen role in 2018 after missing nearly a year because of an injury. He finished the season at Springfield.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains