By Cliff Corcoran
On Monday, Alex Reyes was named the top prospect in all of baseball by Baseball Prospectus. On Tuesday, Reyes reported to Cardinals camp, took his physical and was sent for an MRI that discovered a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. On Wednesday, the team announced that Reyes will miss the entire 2017 season following Tommy John surgery scheduled for Thursday. That is a roller coaster, awful week for a young player.
Coming off an impressive Major League debut late last season, in which he posted a 2.20 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning in five starts plus a 0.52 ERA in seven relief appearances, Reyes was expected to compete for, and likely win, a rotation spot in Cardinals camp this spring, and to be a National League Rookie of the Year Award contender during the regular season. The loss of that player for the season surely feels devastating to the Cardinals and their fans. However, the impact of that loss may actually be felt more acutely after, rather than during, the 2017 season.
Again, despite ranking baseball's fourth-best prospect by Baseball America and sixth-best by MLB.com, in addition to his top spot on BP's list, Reyes was going to have to compete for a rotation job this spring. That's because, even after trading fragile walk-year lefty Jaime Garcia to the Braves, the Cardinals have enviable rotation depth. Even without Garcia and Reyes, the Cards should have little trouble fleshing out a rotation that currently projects to include Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha.
True, Lynn is coming off a year lost to Tommy John surgery himself, but he had his procedure on Nov. 10, 2015, meaning 15 months have already elapsed since. That extra recovery time should allow him to start the season at full strength, as was the case for the Mets' Matt Harvey a year ago. Wacha, who was expected to be in that battle with Reyes this spring, has been plagued by chronic shoulder problems since suffering a scapular stress fracture in June 2014 and was moved to the bullpen last August just before Reyes' arrival. Still, when healthy, he is better than a typical fifth starter, and he is far from the Cardinals' last option.
Indeed, Reyes was not the only Cardinals pitching prospect to make his Major League debut last year and make top-100-prospects lists this month. Righty Luke Weaver, who made eight Major League starts down the stretch last year, ranked 50th on BA's list and 68th on MLB.com's list and will be Wacha's primary competition for the final spot in the St. Louis rotation this spring. St.Louis' top pick in the 2014 draft, the lanky 23-year-old Weaver has an excellent changeup, can reach the mid-90s with his fastball and pitched well in his first six MLB starts last year before stumbling in his final three appearances.
As bright as Reyes's future was before his UCL tear, it is not difficult to imagine the combination of Wacha and Weaver equaling and perhaps even surpassing what Reyes might have given the Cardinals this year. After all, Reyes posted a 4.96 ERA in 14 starts in Triple-A before being called up to the Majors last year, walked 4.4 men per nine inning between the two levels, and had a 3.72 deserved run average in the big leagues. Reyes may be a future ace, but it was unrealistic to expect him pitch at that level in his age-22 season. Beyond the quality of his performance, Reyes was likely to be on an innings limit having never thrown more than 111 1/3 innings in a professional season, a total suppressed by his 50-game suspension for marijuana use at the start of last season. As bullish as Baseball Prospectus may have been on Reyes long term, its PECOTA projection system only anticipated 122 innings of a 4.05 ERA from him this season. He might have thrown more innings than that, but the ERA seems entirely fair.
Weaver may have workload limitations of his own-due to a broken left wrist last spring, his career high thus far remains his 124 2/3 innings in 2015 -- but the fifth spot in a rotation typically only requires about 180 innings per season. Weaver and Wacha should be able to provide that in combination. If not, the Cardinals have additional depth. The team's most compelling mid-season replacements might be lefties Tyler Lyons, who had knee surgery in November that will delay the start to his season, and Marco Gonzales, who is targeting a mid-season return from Tommy John surgery in April 2016. In the meantime, they have swing man John Gant, acquired from Atlanta in the Garcia swap, and righty Mike Mayers, the latter of whom got beat up in his brief Major League opportunities last year but could also be the sixth man on the fifth-starter depth chart by mid-season if Lyons and Gonzales make smooth and timely returns to the mound.
None of that makes the Cardinals any more likely to catch the Cubs in the NL Central than they were with Reyes, but, given that depth, Reyes' injury seems more likely to complicate matters after the season. That is when the team will need to make decisions about its rotation in 2018 and beyond, including whether or not to extend or re-sign pending free agent Lynn.
While 2017 was likely to be a year of adjustment and growth at the Major League level for Reyes, it was expected to produce a Reyes who was ready to take on a full workload as an established starter in the Majors in 2018. Now, he will not only have lost that year of development, but in having his Tommy John surgery at the start of this year's spring training, he is unlikely to be on pace with the team's other starters next spring. That means that, at best, the Cardinals might get 130 to 150 innings out of Reyes in 2018, perhaps not all out of the Major League rotation, with those growing pains very much a part of that season. If they are lucky, that will lead to Reyes being a properly established major league starter in 2019. Yet, even then, his adjustment may be more gradual than it might otherwise have been given the difficulties of recovering control and command after Tommy John surgery, the possible loss of velocity or stuff, and the accumulated rust from the extended time off at this early stage of his career.
With Lynn, Wainwright and Wacha due to hit free agency over the next three offseasons -- Wainwright after his age-36 season in 2018 -- the Cardinals were hoping be able to build their rotation around Martinez and Reyes. However, Reyes' injury adds an extra layer of uncertainty that could make the Cardinals more aggressive in acquiring outside rotation help as early as this year's trading deadline. Whether it be via a significant trade or a big free agent contract, such a move could create further ripple effects from the Reyes' injury, either by further draining the Cardinals' farm system, tying up a significant portion of their future payroll, or both, ripples which, again, are more likely to be felt beyond this season.
We'll never know for sure how much Reyes would have contributed to the 2017 Cardinals, but St. Louis seems likely to do nearly as well without him as it might have done with him. The impact of his surgery on the team over the remainder of the decade, however, is another matter entirely.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on the MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.