By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – Jordan Hicks knows one of the biggest questions the Cardinals need to answer this spring is what his role will be when the season begins.
But in his own mind, there is a much more important question that Hicks needs to prove to himself and the team first: Is he healthy?
For the first time since undergoing Tommy John surgery almost three years ago, Hicks thinks the answer is finally yes.
“I just want to be healthy. I want to show that and come out here and earn a spot … I’m excited to be here,” Hicks said. “All I know is I’ve been gone for a while. I’m healthy, I feel good and I think they should expect a full season. … I feel 100 percent right now, it’s just a matter of creeping up to 96 then 98 then 100.”
Hicks threw his first bullpen session of the spring on Tuesday, working at what he estimated was about 75 percent for his approximately 25 pitches. He was working around 94 miles per hour, which was what was planned for the day.
“I wanted to have a clean bullpen,” he said. “I started off with like three balls in a row and then I locked it in and said allright, I’ve got the jitters out. After that it was really good. It was probably one of my better bullpens of the year.
“I can tell the difference from last year to this year in spring training because of the inflammation. I knew last year I was not 100 percent. I thought the inflammation over days would slowly go down as I built up.”
Hicks said that he knew he was not healthy even as he tried to pitch last season. He was shut down after throwing just 10 innings the first month of the season, and on Tuesday said he had suffered a partial tear in his right elbow.
“There was no damage where they had to go back in and reconstruct,” he said. “It was just rest and treatment.”
Unfortunately, the rehab route was all too familiar to Hicks following his 2019 surgery. He then missed all of 2020 while recovering and also because of covid concerns. Then last May, it was back to the trainer’s room.
Hicks’ trainer joked with him that at one point last year, he had seen Hicks on 101 days out of a span of 104 days.
“We kind of butt heads at some point seeing him every day and he’s pushing you,”Hicks said. “You don’t have a great day every day, but it’s part of the rehab process.
“This past year was really hard because I worked so hard to get back and then you have another injury. But now I feel like everything is clean, my arm action is good. I have no inflammation in my arm.”
Hicks came back to pitch at the end of the Triple A season in 2021 and then made two appearances, covering 4 2/3 innings, in the Arizona Fall League.
“I built up to about 45, 50 pitches, then shut it down, had some good rest in the offseason then picked it up from there,” he said. “As I started to build up, now I don’t feel what I felt even a couple months ago. I feel really good.”
The Cardinals have said that they believe Hicks might benefit physically from being on a starter’s routine instead of coming out of the bullpen, but both Hicks and the Cardinals know he would have to sacrifice some velocity if he were to do that.
“I can’t really talk about roles right now, we haven’t had that discussion,” Hicks said. “Right now it’s just about building up, bullpens and lives, and see how we feel. Just have that communication. We’re getting there. We can’t really make decisions right now.”
The Cardinals would seem to have more of a need for Hicks in the bullpen right now, considering they have five solid starters, assuming they are all healthy. Manager Oli Marmol admitted he likes the idea of having a healthy Hicks there too, at his disposal, in late innings.
“it’s neat to have 104 in the pen,” Marmol said. “He’s someone who can add a lot of value to what we’re doing.”
Said Hicks, “As a starter I wouldn’t be pumping 100 every pitch. It would probably be more than 96 to 100 max. In the pen it’s all out, game on the line. It’s hard to hold back when you have it in the tank. But as a starter, I feel like you can manage that throughout a game, kind of figure out when you need to juice it up a little bit.”
In his first two seasons in the minors, 2016 and 2017, Hicks started 31 times amid his total of 34 appearances.
Marmol also acknowledged, however, that the team also has an obligation to do what is best to keep Hicks healthy.
“Part of it is figuring out a way to have him on a regular schedule,” Marmol said. “From a health standpoint it could be beneficial to him. In an ideal world we can figure out a way for him to have scheduled off days and not going back-to-back all the time and being on that reliever’s schedule.
“If it’s going to benefit us this year and for him moving forward being healthy then we will figure out a way.”
Both Marmol and Hicks agree that the decision about his role can come later. How his arm feels comes first.
“I’m happy with where I am,” Hicks said. “I’m a competitor at heart and it’s tough that I haven’t been able to be out there and show that. The want is always going to be there. I just want to be out there competing. It’s more about getting healthy so I can be out there.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains