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Cardinals Can Survive the Loss Of Alex Reyes In 2017, But What About the Future?

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.

The Cardinals announced Wednesday that Reyes will undergo Tommy John surgery and likely miss the 2017 season.

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.

–Bernie

More: Mozeliak and Matheny Are Seeking Optimism and Exploring Options Following Reyes Injury

  • LawrenceKScardsfan

    True dat – can’t count on the prospects. But the threat of Martinez and Reyes facing off in future years was certainly fun – while it lasted….

    Unlike Waino in 2011, when everyone was predicting a stellar season for the Cardinals, the injury to Reyes comes with everyone (or most everyone) is predicting a struggling season – struggling to make the playoffs with the division crown ceded to the Cubs in all but name. Of course we don’t know how this will work out. Pujols was on the team in 2011. As was a younger Molina. And let’s not forget Holliday, Berkman, Craig, and Freese. And the starters were anchored by Chris Carpenter, Lohse, Garcia, and Westbrook.

    Don’t get me wrong – this team certainly has talent. But just not enough. And now it loses a key cog in the rotation. I think this suggests more of a long season than a rewarding one. Still, I like baseball, so I’m not complaining. Play ball!!!

    • JeremyR

      It really depends on how you define talent. If talent means average players, this team is full of that. If you mean all-starts, well, this team probably doesn’t have any but the obligatory one per team.

      • LawrenceKScardsfan

        Yep – I agree – it depends on how you define talent. I think we still have some upsides to Diaz, Piscotty, Grichuk, Wong, and possibly Carpenter (more consistent excellence).

        I’d say that it would be interesting to see how Bernie might compare teams across the division to give us more clear insight into strengths and weaknesses of each club. The only three I’m familiar with are the Cards, Cubs, and Pirates. The Reds are a mystery as are the Brewers. I believe that the Cards will face a challenge for 2nd from some team but I’m uncertain who looks to be in the driver’s seat.

        • M W

          I don’t know how you can get any more consistent than Carpenter.

          • LawrenceKScardsfan

            In 2013, Carp had a great year. His Fangraphs WAR was 6.9. In 2014 it was 3.9, in 2015 it was 5.2, and last year it was only 3.2. Steamer is projecting a 2.7 this year.

            Don’t get me wrong – Carp is a great player. It’s just that in 2019 he was one of the best players in the league. Can he return to that level? That’s what I’m asking.

            They say that the average MLB player has about a 2 WAR. So you can see that in 2013 he was 3 and a half times better than the average player. That’s what I’d like to see but it may never happen again.

  • Garvin1987

    Good column, Bernie. This certainly makes the future more precarious.

  • Blake Rosser

    Something that I think is appropriate to keep in mind with respect to Reyes is that he wasn’t even a top prospect until he altered his delivery to get more speed. The alteration itself is probably what has led to the elbow injury.

    Reyes came into the system throwing low 90s, topping out at 96-7. He made adjustments over 2-3 years (in addition to his frame filling out I imagine) to became the absolute fireballer and rocket to the top of our rankings. The adjustments — eliminating his high kick, and delaying his arm action to use it more as a sling — are known to lead to worse outcomes for arm health.

    So basically, the only reason we were excited at all about Reyes was because he was on a quick path to injury. If he had kept his original delivery, with much better timing, he’d likely be healthy now, but only topping out as a 3/4 starter. Which do we prefer?

    • Jim Parisi

      Good point. I question the wisdom of having all your pitchers throwing for maximum speed as well. Way too many arm injuries today. I saw a documentary on Warren Spahn and he claimed playing long toss after a start kept him free of injury, maybe the pitching coaches of today should adopt it.

  • geoff

    Great column Bernie. My guess is that every team frets over all of their prospects, whether they be pitchers or position players. I saw Alcantra last spring and he threw so smoothly that it looked effortless. I saw the young center fielder Sierra and man, that kid looked really good. We haven’t had a CF who moved like him since McGee. I wonder where he will play this summer. Who knows for sure if he will be able to move up, or if he will tear one thing or another and languish? Prospects are just that.

  • Jeff Behrens

    His loss is disappointing in 2017 because he is one of the few Cardinals with a big upside, capable of far surpassing expectations. But I don’t think that it will really change how the club ends up too much. The 2017 Cardinals are deep and, in the word of Fangraphs, “infested with competence.” The majority of the players are projected (for what it is worth) to finish with between a 2 and 3 WAR. Reyes is one of the few Cardinals who had the potential to eclipse that threshold.

    But in the long term, it is better it happened now than later. Reyes will be in his age 25 season (2019) by the time is again ready to make a serious contribution to this team again, and that is when many of the Cardinals’ best prospects in the low minors may be ready to join him.

    The real downside is that the Cardinals are probably not going to be challenging for a division title for a little while longer now. The Cardinals need more star power, and Reyes is one of the few players that have star level talent. Realistically we are playing for the wild card for a few years unless the Cubs just implode. The loss of Reyes (and Oscar Tavares) widened that gap for the foreseeable future.

    • M W

      Deep is not the word I’d use to describe the 2017 Cardinals. In fact, they have very little depth. Virtually NADA in position players. The minors are currently woeful when it comes to position player talent.

      • Jeff Behrens

        The Cardinal bench is anchored by Gyorko, Adams and Pham — all of whom should, if healthy, see at least 350 PA. They will probably add a better fifth OF once the dust settles in spring training. We have to pray that Yadi stays healthy, but I think there are many players of similar talent on the roster.

        Many of the evaluations of the farm system I have read are summed up by ESPN’s Keith Law,

        “…the remainder of their organization is loaded with players who look likely to play in the majors as at least extra guys… its depth with starting pitchers and with position players who are likely to remain in the middle of the field,” Law wrote.

        John Sickels touted the organization’s mid-range depth. Baseball America agreed, saying it could crack the Top 8 by next season.. And most agree that the low minors have three or four possible impact players who should be close in 2019 or 2020.

        But for now Carson Kelly and Harrison Bader are the two closest.

    • LawrenceKScardsfan

      Yep – Taveras was a major blow.

  • JeremyR

    Honestly, I think the Cardinals plan to develop pitching and get by with wihatever they could scrounge in the way of hitters was flawed. It worked when you had Pujols and Holliday, but not so much with Grichuk and whoever is on first at the given moment.

    The plan the Cubs had of developing position payers who can hit, really hit, and then buying pitching seems much more solid

    • LawrenceKScardsfan

      Really great point.

    • andthenIsaid

      And with the Cubs’ super deep pockets now, they will have no trouble buying pitching.

  • JeremyR

    I think it’s also important for Mo to swallow his pride, admit this year is a lost cause (it always was) and be a seller at the deadline. Lynn and Oh are potentially very attractive players to move.

  • If the Cardinals don’t smarten up and realize their current downward trajectory, they will become the Phillies who’ve spent the last 5 yrs spinning their wheels going nowhere.

    Yes, losing Reyes is a huge blow. But I still believe the team wasn’t going to make the playoffs anyway. Thus, if they fix Reyes up good as new, he will come back middle of 2018 ready to be a star. I believe the sky is the limit for this kid, eventually. The question is, what will this team look like by the time Reyes returns?

    I don’t understand why winning players like Yadi and Waino would want to hang around for this mess. If they’re content on a losing team, that’s not all necessarily good news. It mean’s they’ve lost some of that fire. And they’re only interested in playing out their remaining yrs collecting the dough. You saw a lot of that on the Phillies ,with players like Utley and Ryan Howard.

    And this owner is scared, he fears going into full rebuild mode will take too big a bite out of those turnstile profits he holds so dear. He also refuses to raise payroll to a level where this team will once again become relevant. So this club remains stuck in neutral, in what amounts to baseball purgatory. And if you’re waiting for this manager to possess the talents needed to change the direction of this club, you can forget it. He’s been a screw up in recent seasons, just like the simpleton they call a G.M. Yet, the genius Cardinal F.O. believed Matheny was worthy of a 3 yr extension. That is insanity.

    And for all those counting on the Cubs to be significantly worse this season, they’re dreaming. They’re an extremely young club. Many of their players could be significantly better this yr, such as Schwarber and Addison Russell. Sure they might have some areas where they won’t be as good.

    IMO, the Cardinals are the more likely team to take a step backward this season. The Cubs may not be quite as good as last season, but they won’t have to be. They’re a club built for the playoffs. And in their minds the season doesn’t truly begin till Oct. anyway.

  • andthenIsaid

    Bernie, what will the Card’s do with Reyes during his rehab? Will he stay in St. Louis around the MLB club, or go to FL to be around the extended Spring Training folks, or some other option? I do hope he’s not left on his own to work this out. My fear would be the year away from pitching at the big league level could slow his maturity as a player. I would hate for him to fall back to, ahem, some of his former off-field habits.

  • ken

    when people subject their bodies, or parts of their bodies, to extreme stresses–the way that professional baseball pitchers do–the natural and reasonable thing to expect as a result is that those bodies/areas of the bodies will suffer significant damage. the surprise is that there are a relative few who do not.

  • Gene

    You know how many MLB teams have precarious, fragile pitching prospects? ALL OF THEM.