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Reyes focused on building up arm strength

Cardinals righty, recovering from Tommy John, throwing light 'pen sessions
MLB.com @JoeTrezz

JUPITER, Fla. -- It was tough for Alex Reyes to forget, at least at first. So of course Reyes thought about what could happen again after starting to toss, even lightly, this winter following Tommy John surgery.

"It took me a little while at the beginning," said Reyes, who is throwing off the mound again after missing all of 2017 to an ulnar collateral ligament tear in his right elbow. "You go through some growing pains."

JUPITER, Fla. -- It was tough for Alex Reyes to forget, at least at first. So of course Reyes thought about what could happen again after starting to toss, even lightly, this winter following Tommy John surgery.

"It took me a little while at the beginning," said Reyes, who is throwing off the mound again after missing all of 2017 to an ulnar collateral ligament tear in his right elbow. "You go through some growing pains."

Now, nearly a year removed from the operation, those doubts have evaporated entirely. The bullpen sessions Reyes has thrown at the Cardinals' complex over the past few weeks have been incomplete (no breaking balls) and light in terms of intensity. But he's throwing them, without hesitation or fear of his once-faulty right elbow.

"Once you get into a rhythm, it's about judging yourself, knowing your body and seeing how everything feels," said Reyes. "For me, one of those things is forgetting about surgery and forgetting about anything negative and let everything take care of itself. I feel strong. I feel ready. Let it eat and have a good feel for how my arm is flowing."

Reyes is not game-ready, not yet. He threw 40 pitches to Carson Kelly on Monday, split up into two sets of 20. All were fastballs. Every now and then, he'll play around with a few breaking balls when playing catch or throwing out of a staggered stance. But for now, when out of the windup, the workload increases are incremental and the goals are simple.

"Just get a feel and build endurance," said Reyes, who lost 15 pounds while rehabbing, mostly by cutting out soda and other sugary drinks. "We've just started to ramp it up."

How hard the Cardinals push Reyes, both this spring and going forward, will depend on how his body responds. They organization has mapped out a tentative return date of May 1 for the electric righty, still technically a rookie, but has yet to commit to a decision on his role. Reyes said his preference is to start. He made five starts down the stretch in 2016, along with seven relief appearances, excelling in both roles.

"We've made it very clear we're going to be careful with him," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "I think there will be a tendency, when you have a guy with his kind of ability, to fast-forward that for the need of the team right now. We're going to stay on track to what's best for him."

Video: Reyes looks to regain form after Tommy John surgery

Who hits where?
This time a year ago, Matheny hoped splitting up Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter would give the Cardinals their optimal lineup. Fowler, the thinking went, would bring speed and switch-hitting to the leadoff spot. Carpenter, hitting third, would drive him in.

But Fowler and Carpenter both struggled in April, the offense suffered and things were shuffled.

The initial plan isn't different this spring, but the hitters around Fowler and Carpenter are. With position players still a week from their first official workout, Matheny has "a template in mind" for what the top of the Opening Day lineup could look like:

1. Fowler
2. Tommy Pham
3. Carpenter
4. Marcell Ozuna

"We have an ability to adjust as we need to," Matheny said. "Looking at it from the top -- switch, right, left, right -- that's a pretty good group of guys for someone to look at the first time through the order."

Video: STL@PIT: Fowler plates go-ahead run on Pirates' error

Careful with arms -- in the outfield?
Opening Day comes early this year, with the Cardinals beginning regular-season play in New York on March 29. That's four days earlier than last year, part of a league-wide schedule designed to give teams more off-days during the year.

But it also means clubs get a truncated spring and must adjust. The Cardinals have already begun brainstorming ways to tweak pitcher schedules. Matheny also identified another group of players who could be impacted by the shortened Spring Training.

"Outfielders -- I'm concerned about," he said. "It seems like their arms usually develop the latest, because it's such a violent, long throw. It'll be a case-by-case situation. We'll be careful with some of them. It may be a situation where during games, we say just hit the cutoff man. Don't let this air out."

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com.

St. Louis Cardinals, Alex Reyes