Cleto measures up major role change

The St. Louis Cardinals' expectations for right-hander Maikel Cleto haven't changed, though his role has.

On Thursday, 22-year-old right-hander Maikel Cleto was listed on the Cardinals minor league pitching schedule for the day as a one-inning reliever, following starter John Gast.

While it is not uncommon to see pitchers moved from starting to multi-inning relief roles on an almost daily basis in spring training camp, the decision with Cleto is more formal. The hard-thrower from the Dominican Republic will no longer be a starting pitcher. He will be a reliever until further notice and is expected to open the season in the Triple-A Memphis bullpen.

Cardinals farm director John Vuch made it very clear that this is not rooted in a problem or that the organization lacks confidence in Cleto's capabilities. It is about having him prepare for the major leagues in the role at which he will most likely be deployed.

"We think he has the ability," Vuch said on Thursday. "He has three pitches that he ran pretty well such that he could have started. But in talking with the big-league staff, they look at him – at least in the short term – as a reliever."

Cleto had been a starter in the Cardinals system since arriving in the Brendan Ryan trade in December 2010. Our 14th-ranked prospect in the Cardinals system showed both his power arm and spotty command as he rose all the way from Palm Beach to a pair of brief stints with St. Louis.

Conditioned to start, Cleto was asked to relieve in St. Louis last summer and struggled. He yielded six earned runs in 4 1/3 innings (12.46 ERA). He fanned six, but walked four and served up a pair of home run balls.

Vuch wants player development to do what they can to help avoid that result in 2012.

"We definitely don't want to have it like last year, where he was a starter all year for us but that isn't how the big-league staff saw him," the farm director recalled. "Due to the fact that when he came to the big leagues, he was asked to pitch out of the bullpen. He hadn't done much of that in the minor leagues."

This spring, Cleto began with St. Louis before being optioned to Memphis/reassigned to minor league camp on March 14. He was charged with five runs, four earned, over 3 2/3 major league frames in two games. That works out to an unimpressive, but small sample ERA of 9.82. Cleto struck out two but walked four while opposing hitters batted .357 against him.

Clearly more work is required, which Cleto should be receiving on the back fields in Jupiter before reporting to Memphis to start the 2012 regular season. On Thursday against lower-level minor leaguers, Cleto allowed two hits, walked two and one score in just 2/3 of an inning.

"If comes down to how to learning how warm up and the mindset of a reliever," Vuch said. "By doing that, it is really the most fair thing for him, rather than have to do one role in the minor leagues and come to the big leagues and do something he has never really done in the past."

A return to the majors could be as close as a series of strong outings plus an injury to another. If everything goes as planned, Cleto will be better prepared next time he is needed in St. Louis.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Look for his minor league content during the season at Follow Brian on Twitter.

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