February and March are for lovers. The endorphins rush through our system, sending the body and mind into a euphoric dervish that screams for the possibilities of the future. Lovers care little for the past; they barely stay seated in the present moment. Desire speaks only to what lies ahead, because it remains untainted, ripe and limitless. Anything can happen. Lover and beloved believe it will.
Spring training is nothing but New Relationship Energy. Every player is in The Best Shape of His Life™. Teams and fans damn the projections. This will be their year, no matter what the numbers say. Pitchers find new pitches. Hitters find new swing planes. That guy who was never very good might suddenly become good! The future is unwritten, and everyone has a pen and paper.
So many players could be poised for a comeback when one views the game of baseball through this lens. Yet today, I wish to argue for a player who didn’t throw a single major league pitch last year. His name is Alex Reyes, and it is on his shoulders where much of the St. Louis Cardinals’ success will sit.
Baseball Prospectus declared Reyes the best prospect in baseball just one year ago. In the most savage bit of cruelty in the baseball prospect universe, Reyes popped his UCL the very next day. He likely won’t return to the Cardinals’ rotation until May at the earliest, with some potential relief appearances in the back end of April.
There’s nothing to make us believe that Reyes can’t be what everyone thought he could be–except for that reconstructed elbow. Be that as it may, Reyes will still be only 23 when he returns to the big leagues. He’ll still throw insane gas. He’ll still have that delicious curveball. He’ll still have the changeup that was making great progress the last time he was a Redbird.
He will still the the guy who has “ace” scribbled across his ceiling. Reyes struck out nearly 28 percent of the hitters he faced in 2016 while allowing a measly .242 xwOBA on contact against a .362 league average. Guys couldn’t square him up, and usually couldn’t make contact at all. The 12.5 percent walk rate suggested an effectively wild profile, but his control got better across his 46 innings. That garish walk rate didn’t stop him from earning a 3.07 Deserved Run Average. Reyes was fantastic in that first cup of coffee.
He stands to be better again. Projection systems price in the injury history along with age and past performance, and PECOTA still thinks Reyes will be good for a 3.26 DRA this year. The question remains: How much of a chance will he have to pitch?
It’s odd to say, but Reyes couldn’t have gotten Tommy John surgery at a better time. He didn’t have to worry about a midseason return, with the extra pressure that brings. He is already back in spring training, getting his reps just like everyone else on the Cardinal staff. At a slower pace, he is seamlessly integrating into the structure of a major league team.
With that said, most depth chart projections don’t think the Cardinals will risk pushing him too hard. Baseball Prospectus thinks Reyes will toss only 50 innings. Fangraphs is more optimistic, pegging him for 104 frames. Both agree that Miles Mikolas will fill out the rotation, at least initially.
But let’s be adventurous. If Reyes joins the rotation in mid-May, he still has the potential to start as many as 25 games. Conservatively, he could log anywhere from 120-150 innings. Is that reaching a little high? Possibly. It’s just as possible that Reyes could fulfill those goals.
If he does, Reyes could be a two-to-three-win pitcher this year. He suddenly wouldn’t be the wild Tommy John survivor the coaching staff must handle with kid gloves; he would instead make the Cardinals a wild card certainty and a legitimate playoff threat.
We’re dreaming big here. The fortunate thing for the Cardinals is that they’re already wild card favorites without a big contribution from Reyes. They don’t have to rush him along if they think he needs to slow down and space his return out. If he is a horse, though, he and Carlos Martinez can suddenly stand up to Yu Darvish and Jon Lester as the best one-two punch in the NL Central.
Tommy John surgery isn’t the death knell we once thought it was. Pitchers will certainly take it over most serious shoulder injuries, given what can happen after pitchers try to extend careers. Alex Reyes was at one time the most exciting pitching prospect in baseball. If he can stay strong throughout the season, his comeback would be complete, and his road to acedom will continue apace.
Springtime is for lovers. Desire consumes as the world opens up in every direction before us. Alex Reyes lives in that liminal world; now, we wait to see if he decides to pick up the pen and fill out the next pages of this story.