JUPITER, Fla. -- When Alex Reyes showed up to Spring Training in early February, pitching instructor and former Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter pulled him aside. He wanted to share some advice with the Cardinals’ former top prospect who was coming off his first healthy offseason in three years.
“He just said, ‘You go out there on the mound and forget about any expectations,’” Reyes recalled. “Forget about everything. It’s pretty much whatever you have in your control, go out and show it. Don't feel like you have to prove yourself, just be you and you’ll be fine.”
With three years of injuries having allowed him to pitch in just 53 Major League innings, the 25-year-old has shut out the noise of any expectations that follow him. His goal is to stay healthy this year and prove -- only to himself -- that he can compete in the Majors.
In his spring debut Tuesday against the Nationals, Reyes took the first step -- getting the first outing, and the nerves that come with it, out of the way. After warming up multiple times before entering in the fourth inning, Reyes threw 24 pitches and recorded only one out -- a swinging strikeout. He struggled with fastball command but touched 95 mph with it.
Reyes hasn’t faced opposing batters in a game since June.
“There’s definitely butterflies,” Reyes said. “That might have gotten the best of me, trying to do too much and not staying within myself.”
The good news? The stuff is there. Even through all the injuries Reyes experienced, he still has the talent that made him a top prospect in the first place. Perhaps the best example of that on Tuesday was his changeup, which got Nationals young star Juan Soto to swing and miss before he later drove a fastball to left field.
“It’s filthy stuff,” manager Mike Shildt said. “It’s really a testament to Alex that he’s been able to be diligent about what that looks like. Because if he misses steps or doesn’t go through the process, he doesn’t come back to the level of stuff that he had. But he’s clearly been able to recover.”
Even though Reyes has had a normal winter instead of a rehab-heavy offseason -- he was able to live in the Dominican Republic with his family instead of arriving in Jupiter in early January -- he doesn’t want to try to make up for lost time. Instead, his focus is on the present.
As a long-awaited top prospect, Reyes debuted in 2016 and had a 1.57 ERA in 46 innings in the rotation and the bullpen. But then he missed the entire '17 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. He returned to St. Louis on May 30 of '18, and a day later, he was placed on the injured list with a right lat strain. He missed the rest of the season.
Last spring, Reyes’ throwing program was delayed coming off a rehab offseason. But he and the Cardinals thought 2019 was going to be a breakthrough year, especially when he broke camp as a reliever. Then Reyes struggled with his command. In three innings (four games), he allowed five runs and walked six.
After missing two years, the Cardinals might have rushed him into the expectations that had preceded him.
“Ultimately, how fair was that expectation for a guy that’s missed two years to come in with that amount of time missed at the highest level, to go through a healthy spring and be ready to go in however many innings he had to compete at the big league level?” Shildt said.
He was optioned in April to work on the command. Three weeks later, he punched a wall out of frustration and broke his left pinkiy finger. After rehabbing that and returning to Triple-A Memphis, he suffered a right pectoral strain in June and stopped throwing.
Through it all, the Cardinals kept their faith in Reyes. Shildt texted him almost every day in the second half of the season and kept in contact during the offseason.
“He’s got the mindset of a big leaguer in a sense of how he goes about it. And then, it’s just got to be -- I can’t imagine,” Shildt said. “I can’t imagine knowing you’ve got the ability to pitch in the big leagues and then you have a setback, physically. And then have it take place for three years. It’s kind of uncharted. Really just more about being there for him. Try to encourage him the best I could.”
But the command must stabilize. It’s something that Reyes has struggled with throughout his career, not just returning from injury. If he can harness it, he has a chance to contribute in St. Louis.
The Cardinals are opening a path for him to do that, even though the public expectations for Reyes are to simply see what he can do this year. Shildt emphasized that an overreaction to Tuesday’s outing would be premature, and Reyes said that the excitement of being in a game got to him.
“Personally, I think I was just overthrowing,” Reyes said. “Not really trying to impress anyone but myself. I wasn’t myself out there. I was trying to do more than I probably should have.”