Alex Reyes was ready for the spotlight.
The 22-year-old right-hander showed up at Busch Stadium last August with a 97-mph fastball, a mature curveball whose command was improving, and a changeup that played off the fastball with remarkable alacrity. Reyes struck out 27.5 percent of the batters he faced in 46 innings of work as a starter and reliever with the Birds, and managed to post a 2.98 Deserved Run Average.
The future looked impossibly bright. Over the last couple weeks, Baseball America, Keith Law of ESPN, MLB.com, and our own Bernie Pleskoff have all declared Reyes a top-10 prospect in the game. Baseball Prospectus said he was the #1 prospect, full stop. It didn’t seem like anything could stop Reyes from becoming the next great Cardinals ace.
Something did. On Tuesday, Reyes had an MRI conducted on his right elbow; on Wednesday, the team announced that he needed Tommy John surgery. Before spring training had even formally kicked off, Reyes’s season was over.
It’s a gut punch for the Cardinals and their fans. Reyes’s floor was likely as a mid-rotation starter, with “ace” firmly attached to his ceiling. A player who has so much velocity and movement on his fastball, combined with a developed changeup and a biting 12-6 curveball, is destined for the front end of a pitching staff. Reyes breathed life into a Cardinals team that, while not exactly struggling, faced an uphill challenge to make the playoffs this season. Reyes helped rejuvenate their chances.
Moreover, the rest of the rotation looks increasingly volatile. Carlos Martinez and Mike Leake were league-average last year; Adam Wainwright was worse. Michael Wacha struggled with his shoulder and more or less collapsed on the mound. With Jaime Garcia gone, and Lance Lynn a question mark after returning from his own UCL reconstruction, it was Reyes who was to anchor the staff during a year of transition.
No more. As it stands, Martinez, Leake, Wainwright, Lynn, and Wacha will be the Opening Day rotation. Wacha won’t even be a guarantee, after everything he went through with his shoulder last season. The Cardinals starters won’t be striking fear into the hearts of Kris Bryant and Andrew McCutchen, I shouldn’t think.
As for Reyes, now begins the most grueling year of his life. He won’t be able to pitch, but he won’t be able to rest, either. Tommy John rehab is notoriously monotonous, the grind wearing on you physically and psychologically. When he does return, he may lose some velocity on his fastball. He might take awhile to find the groove again, meaning that it may not be until 2019 that we see him get fully back on track.
Or maybe he looks more like Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez on their respective comeback trails. Harvey clocked nearly 200 (controversial) innings of 3.13-DRA ball in 2015, while Fernandez posted a 3.03 DRA in 64.7 innings of work that year. Fernandez then barnstormed his way through the league in 2016 before his tragic death.
Reyes could easily do the same thing. He’s got the stuff, the work ethic, and the intelligence to put it all back together in 2018. He’s certainly hoping that he can do it; the Cardinals are hoping so, too.