Spring training is supposed to be a feel-good awakening, a pleasant morning stretch to loosen up for the regular season. It is supposed to be a worry-free time, with doubts and dark clouds overtaken by optimism and sunshine. A hard rain may fall in the coming months, but the spring is should be a haven.
The Cardinals were zapped by a lightning bolt of reality on Tuesday when their top pitching pitching prospect and potential future ace Alex Reyes quietly left camp with a damaged right elbow. He’ll undergo Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery. Reyes’ popping triple-digit fastball and malicious curve will be dormant for the entire 2017 season. Reyes, a babe of 22, will make his comeback a year from now. Many pitchers have overcome this. But this was a complete rupture, and there is simply no guarantee that Reyes will be the same.
For now, you just hope for the best. You just hope that what we saw late in the 2016 campaign — an imposing physical presence who blew away hitters with a 28 percent strikeout rate and 1.57 ERA — was a preview of coming attractions. And that Reyes, after this troublesome interruption, will return and resume and be more powerful than ever.
Here are 10 thoughts on the Cardinals’ first setback — and it’s a biggie — in 2017:
1. I’m not trying to downplay Reyes’ loss. But I think we need to remind ourselves that his role for 2017 was uncertain. He could have been in the rotation. He could have been in the bullpen. He could have gone back to Triple A Memphis for more sharpening of his command.
The Cardinals almost certainly would have put a cap on his innings. And while Reyes was extremely impressive in his major-league debut, he’s still in development. He was no sure thing for 2017, not in the way that an established ace is a sure thing. Or to put it another way: there is never a good time for a significant pitching injury. There is no upside. But if his elbow wiring was destined to snap, it’s better to get it out of the way now, at the front of Reyes’ career, rather than lose him in a few seasons, when he’s a true ace, thriving in his career-peak phase.
2. Best-case scenario for the Cardinals’ 2017 rotation: Adam Wainwright improves on his 2016 performance … Carlos Martinez continues on his exciting career arc elevates him to industry-elite status … in his comeback from elbow surgery Lance Lynn is a grizzly who will supply close to 200 innings and strikeout wallop … Mike Leake, ground-ball pitcher, will benefit from a defense that should be more reliable in ’17 … Michael Wacha fills a slot and puts his shoulder troubles behind him … if the Cardinals need to tap into their depth for another starter, young Luke Weaver will be a helluva lot better in his second tour of the big leagues … Trevor Rosenthal gets his long awaited crack at a rotation spot and makes the best of it … After two lost seasons, lefty Marco Gonzales is physically primed and ready to answer the call … the Cardinals receive an unexpected surprise from an unexpected source — like a talented prospect (Sandy Alcantara, maybe Austin Gomber) fast-tracking his way to the bigs by the second half of the season… John Gant, acquired from Atlanta in the Jaime Garcia trade, is a sleeper candidate … and Tyler Lyons is gearing up to pitch again after rebounding from last year’s knee surgery, but he still has a ways to go.
2a. Another word on Luke Weaver: if he ends up as your fifth starter … well, take a look around MLB, and with a few exceptions, there are many teams that would be satisfied to give Weaver the No. 5 slot in their rotations.
3. And now the worst-case scenario: Another rotation injury or two … Wainwright, 35, endures more age-related erosion … Martinez’ rise is halted by a downturn … Lynn is OK, but not the bear that the Cardinals need right now … Leake’s defense lets him down again … Wacha’s right shoulder blade fails to cooperate and he fades in the second half of the season … the Rosenthal-as-starter experiment fizzles … Weaver doesn’t progress, and there is no help on the way from the minors … GM John Mozeliak can’t swing a trade for an impactful starting pitcher.
4. OK, what about a trade? The price for good or even decent starting pitching is outrageous if not prohibitive.
After getting a ludicrous bounty for Chris Sale, the White Sox will hold out for close to the same to deal Jose Quintana … Tampa Bay may be a more palatable trade partner for, say, Jake Odorizzi. But the price will still be very expensive. Timing is another question. Does Mozeliak sit tight and let this play out a while, then make his move later in the season, when the Cardinals have a much better read on the state of their rotation? Again: just about everyone assumed that Reyes would be in the 2017 rotation, but that wasn’t certain.
The Cardinals may have opened the season with the same five starters — Waino, Martinez, Lynn, Leake and Wacha — that are in line right now. So a case can be made for rolling out this group of five to see what transpires instead of making a panicky trade. It also makes some sense to see if Rosenthal can reinforce the rotation before rushing out to declare that the sky is tumbling.
5. For the record — and I’ll include their 2016 ERAs — the most recognizable unsigned free-agent starters are Doug Fister (5.74), Jered Weaver (5.06), Jake Peavy (7.74), Jorge de la Rosa (7.25) and Jon Niese (6.55.) … Colby Lewis, age 37, wants to continue pitching after parting ways with the Rangers; he had a 3.71 ERA in 116 innings last year. And I guess Tim Lincecum is still out there, somewhere. By the way: Mark Buehrle is retired… he retired after the 2015 season… repeat: MARK BUEHRLE IS RETIRED.
6. Before this injury, a recharged Wacha would have been a bonus. Now Wacha’s status is more important than ever. His shoulder issue is problematic. I know Wacha has worked hard to build up muscles around the problem spot, but MLB starter Brandon McCarthy has dealt with the same condition for many years now, and he too has tried the strength-training method. Nothing has worked. McCarthy, unfortunately, has endured frequent shutdowns and DL stays. To this point, Wacha’s shoulder-fatigue issues are real, and it’s premature to assume he’s found an answer.
7. Back to Rosenthal for a minute … this talk of “stretching him out” for a Andrew Miller type of role, or maybe even a spot in the rotation? I wasn’t sure what to make of it, and I didn’t really see Rosenthal as a contender for the rotation. But his performance in spring training warrants much closer scrutiny now. In speaking with reporters Wednesday, Mozeliak alluded to Rosenthal’s opportunity to make a case for starting. Game on. This will be near the top of the list of “Things to Watch” in Cards’ camp.
8. For the ultimate optimists: The Cardinals lost Wainwright to spring-time elbow surgery in 2011, and he missed the entire season, and the Cardinals won the World Series. In 2006 the Cardinals’ postseason rotation had Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver and Anthony Reyes in 2006 — and won the World Series. So cling to that if it helps, even if it’s an overreach to compare the 2017 Cardinals to the ’06 and ’11 versions. (The 2006 team, for example, won only 83 games and only got into the postseason by winning a horrible division — and they barely managed to do that. In the ’06 postseason the healthier Cardinals caught fire and came through with an epic surprise. As for 2011, the Cardinals made an admirable charge down the stretch but needed Atlanta to go 8-18 late — including a five-game losing streak to end the season — to grab the NL wild card in the last hour of the regular season. But yes, teams can surprise and inspire by overcoming injuries, adversity and odds.
9. With all due respect to Reyes, I don’t think this comes close to representing a fatal blow to the Cards’ postseason chances in ’17. This team can make up for his absence in ways that have nothing to do with pitching. Better defense. Better base running. Smarter overall play. Smarter use of personnel. A deeper lineup. The Dexter Fowler factor. So much more. If losing Reyes means being out of the playoffs, then the team isn’t very good and doesn’t deserve to be in the postseason.
10. I feel bad for Reyes, Mozeliak, Mike Matheny, Cardinals players. Injuries happen, but this was a cruel way to begin spring training.
Thanks for reading …