The Cardinals and their fans were jolted by the bad news concerning Alex Reyes, the top prospect and touted future ace who made a lasting, wow-factor impression in his MLB debut late last season. Either as a starter or a late-inning banderilla, Reyes, 22, loomed an enviable asset for the 2017 Cardinals. But instead of preparing for the season, Reyes is prepping for surgery to repair a ruptured ligament in his right elbow. He won’t pitch in ’17, and may miss a chunk of 2018.
Here’s what concerns me — and it isn’t about the Cardinals losing Reyes for 2017. Yes, that’s a blow. But there’s much more to it than that. This is isn’t about one season lost; we’ve seen the Cardinals and many other teams overcome an injury that wipes a good pitcher out for the year. Pitchers — like Adam Wainwright in 2011 — who, unlike Reyes, already had established themselves as fixtures — ranking among the finest in the game. It isn’t easy, but you can survive a one-season absence of a significant position player or pitcher.
No, my concern is over Reyes’ long-term future and what that means for the Cardinals.
The vision: Reyes teaming with Carlos Martinez to form a scary-good No. 1 and No. 2 combo at the top of the rotation. A one-two punch that would throw opponents for losses in 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 … and beyond. And they would be joined by another gold rush of pitching prospects. The names that we’ve already heard and talked about including Sandy Alcantara, Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Junior Fernandez, Luke Weaver, etc. I could roll out other names, but you get the point.
The bad break with Reyes raises questions about his viability in future seasons. Elbow surgeries tend to carry more risk for younger pitchers. This isn’t to say that Reyes is permanent damaged goods and will never reach the anticipated level of dominance and excellence. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t worry — because he’ll come back as good, if not better, than before. The point is, we don’t know…
The great Joe Posnanski did a swell job of explaining this in his piece at MLB.com. Poz looked at a list of young, heralded pitchers that went in for Tommy John elbow surgery early in their careers. And the results were mixed. Some of the young guns were disappointments after making comebacks, some simply faded away, and others returned to resume their exceptional brand of pitching.
Or to summarize this in another more relatable way, with a hat tip to Posnanski for coming up the applicable names: the Cardinals and their loyalists have to hope that Reyes isn’t Darren Dreifort or Dustin McGowan or Odalis Perez. (And you may be asking: who the hell is Dustin McGowan? Answer: exactly.) The dream, is that Reyes will recover and be Jacob deGrom … or Jose Fernandez, who was incredible in his 2016 comeback from TJ surgery before tragically losing his life in a late-season boating accident … or even Stephen Strasburg or Jordan Zimmermann.
Again … we just don’t know.
And really, isn’t that the way it goes, in general, with hyped pitching prospects?
Injuries or no injuries?
This is by no means any kind of formal study; it’s an off-the-cuff thing. But I went back to look at some of the “name” starting pitchers that arrived in the bigs, to at least some fanfare, to begin their career with the Cardinals during the current DeWitt Era (1996-present.)
How did they do? Did they meet or even approach expectations?
Here’s a list and my short-hand review:
Matt Morris: Yes. He was as good as hoped for.
Alan Benes: No. Injuries ruined what could have been a stellar career.
Shelby Miller: Yes. All in all, he pitched well for the Cardinals until the trade to Atlanta.
Rick Ankiel: No. We love the dude, but his aborted pitching career still makes us sad.
Bud Smith: No … but he did throw a no-hitter, and he was a prime trade piece in the deal for Scott Rolen.
Jaime Garcia: Not really. Good when healthy. But how often was he healthy?
Anthony Reyes: No, but a sincere thanks to him again for Game 1 of the 2006 World Series.
Lance Lynn: Yes. Really good as a reliever for the 2011 World Series champs, and made a successful graduation to the rotation in 2012. He was one of the more reliable and underrated starters in MLB between 2012-2015. Now Lynn is returning back from TJ surgery, and should be good to go.
Joe Kelly: he did OK here, maybe a little better than OK … and in fairness, it’s not as if he came to the bigs with future superstar status.
Dan Haren: Yes, but for other teams — after the Cardinals made him the centerpiece offering in the deal for Mark Mulder.
Carlos Martinez: Yes … for sure … at least so far … full disclosure: I fret over the injury possibility with El Gallo.
Michael Wacha: No … but 2013 will always be special, and it’s a freaking shame that he’s dogged by the scapula (shoulder blade) miseries. But we shouldn’t count him out.
Marco Gonzales: No. But still has a chance, I suppose.
Trevor Rosenthal: Yes. But as a reliever/closer. His 2016 season was a bust (with an injury as a factor) but he was one of the better closers in the game before that.
I may have missed a name or two, but I didn’t think it was necessary to include, say, Manny Aybar or Jose Jimenez.
The Cardinals, long-term are in a fragile situation. That’s because they are banking on so many young pitching prospects who are also fragile. Remember, young starting pitching is the one advantage they’re supposed to have over the Cubs in upcoming seasons. The Cardinals have several promising young starters in development, and in theory the Cubs aren’t as equipped (pitching) for the future.
But the Reyes calamity is a stark but helpful reminder: we get lathered up over starting-pitching prospects, and some even foam at the mouth over prospects. But prospects can go in a number of different ways. They can break down and suffer a career-threatening injury. They can flame out and cease to matter. They can be average — useful, but nothing special. They can be used as trade bait. They can be moved to the bullpen. Or they can live up to the hype. If you look back over the last 20, 25 years of Cardinals baseball, the Cards had hot prospects fit into each of the categories I’ve mentioned.
My friend Joe Sheehan refers to pitching prospects as “embryos” and he’s right.
Whether we’re talking about Alex Reyes’ post-surgery future or Sandy Alcantara’s considerable upside, or the fast-tracking Dakota Hudson … we never know how they’ll develop.
Thanks for reading.