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Closer to impact: After generating buzz all spring, Oviedo's rise could gain velocity in audition for relief

Closer to impact: After generating buzz all spring, Oviedo's rise could gain velocity in audition for relief

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To quicken his fluency in English, Johan Oviedo tuned in for television shows and music videos and, whenever possible, turned on the Spanish subtitles. But where he most enjoyed these language lessons was leaning back and looking up to a silver screen.

“I’m all about the movies,” said Oviedo, an accelerating Cardinals pitching prospect. “Even in Cuba, it was all playing baseball, hanging out with the boys, and watching movies. That’s a good way to learn (English). I would go to the movies, just into the cinema, and watch. Action. Thrillers. All of it. If there’s a lot of action, that’s my stuff.”

The bigger the ending, the better.

Oviedo’s progress from big-budget bonus teen to a scene-stealer in major-league camp this spring has followed a familiar plot and is leading toward the predictable twist. Torch-bearing arms like his often play bigger and better at the ending of games. The Cardinals intend to continue Oviedo’s development as a starter and, internally, see the 6-foot-6 righthander’s potential as a broad-shouldered bulwark for the middle of their rotation. That, however, is not his swiftest way to the reach the majors. A scout with a rival team described Oviedo’s potential “as a high-leverage reliever.” Read: Closer.

Originally cast for a debut at Class AAA Memphis this season, Oviedo could ride his wicked slider and fastball

into being a factor for the Cardinals in a shortened season. Inevitably, he’ll arrive as a reliever — and like similar starter prospects before him (see: Rosenthal, Trevor) excel at the role and never leave it.

The trickle down from the Cardinals’ pitching depth is an oncoming resurgence in relievers, headlined by the 23-year-old flamethrower the Cardinals expect to be their closer for many saves to come: Jordan Hicks. Flanking him, to the left and right, are Genesis Cabrera and Ryan Helsley, respectively. Helsley elbowed his way into a setup role last fall and had dibs on some save opportunities if this season started as scheduled. Snug behind them on the depth chart is longtime top-prospect Alex Reyes, whose way to the rotation could be a detour through the late innings, and Junior Fernandez with his beast slider. Oviedo, 22, stands out from this power pack because of his height and he’s yet to reach the majors.

Last summer, Oviedo went 7-8 with a 5.56 ERA in 23 starts for Class AA Springfield. His 10.00 strikeouts per nine innings led the Cardinals’ system, and his 163 strikeouts in 146 2/3 innings were the 13th-most in all of minor-league baseball. But, his 76 walks tied for most by any minor-league pitcher. Only Cardinals Class AAA starter Jacob Woodford threw more pitches in all of the minors than Oviedo’s 2,570, according to Oviedo’s durability and swing-and-miss slider fed the starter notions, just as his inconsistent, varying command hints at a relief solution and place for his 98-mph fastball.

In shorter bursts, the fastball sizzles hotter and gives him greater margin for error if he tumbles into deep or backward counts.

“Fastball, slider, and curveball – those are the pitches I can throw at any time in any count,” Oviedo said. “The changeup, I’m still working in it. I can get more from it.”

He asserted that confidence this spring.

Oviedo added strength to size in the past year and the improved fitness allowed his athleticism to coordinate and duplicate his delivery. He generated buzz all spring, and two scouts that saw him during Grapefruit League play described an “identity change.” Cardinals assistant general manager Moises Rodriguez, who was part of the scouting and signing of Oviedo, said it was a triumph for the player development staff because he “turned the corner last year into what we envisioned upon signing him.”

It’s an area all conversations about the future that is too often overlooked, and yet it’s an area where rivals, such as the Cubs, have scrutinized the Cardinals for clues on their success: pitching development. While so much attention is paid to drafting or signing and then when a player will debut, the longest part of a prospect’s pro career before the majors is in development. Oviedo signed for a $1.9-million bonus with the Cardinals, and he described how much it meant to him, as a Cuban teen, to have a club “that was there when I was 15 in Colombia, was there three years later to see me in the Dominican Republic, was there to watch me and wanted me and followed me.” That was a three-year scouting process.

This is his fifth year of development.

A former pitcher turned scout once said the Cardinals’ cultivation of pitchers “should be analyzed, evaluated, and then emulated.” An emphasis in the system is having leading pitchers — regardless of their future role — start, when possible. Rosenthal made 48 starts in the minors, including 39 at Class A or Class AA levels, and he harbored hopes of a rotation return even as he had back-to-back 45-save seasons. Seth Maness had 27 starts in the minors to figure out his sinker. Helsley, Cabrera, and Reyes combined to make 32 starts at Class AAA Memphis last summer, and even Hicks accumulated innings and experience and opportunities to experiment making 31 starts in the minors before zooming from High-A to the majors. Those 2,570 pitches Oviedo threw to figure out his changeup, to find command of his fastball — they don’t happen in relief.

And some of the advancement doesn’t happen on the mound.

Oviedo became so intrigued during a meeting about nutrition that he asked for all the handouts and went to work on his diet. Less rice, more fruit. Less fast food, more substance. The Cardinals gave him the info. He provided the discipline. Oviedo cut his body fat from 27 percent to 17-18, he said. He said he could feel it running and pitching because his “stamina is up, up, really up.”

All of those innings in games and all of the commitment off the field has Oviedo poised for a summer premiere in the majors — with the makings of a blockbuster. Whether the back end of the bullpen is only the beginning or where he becomes a star is still unscripted.

But it’s a good place to start.

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