Cards ready to unleash Reyes: 'He's a phenom'

Young right-hander returns with healthy arm, refreshed mind

March 23rd, 2019

JUPITER, Fla. -- Pitching coach Mike Maddux had settled into his seat, a plate of breakfast in front of him, when he gathered a group of reporters around him to talk about a potpourri of topics and players. 

Much of it was light-hearted, with Maddux pointing out the “hang time” of Tyler O’Neill’s hair, the entertainment value of John Brebbia and the 50 years (slight exaggeration, of course) that Adam Wainwright had in the game. 

But as Maddux weaved between topics, he’d occasionally strike a more inquisitive tone, almost as if for dramatic effect. It surfaced when the discussion shifted to Alex Reyes.

“He’s a guy,” Maddux said between bites, “I’m really looking forward to seeing throw.”

That was on Feb. 12, two days before the Cardinals held their first workout of Spring Training. Within five weeks, the pitcher for whom expectations were uncertain and a fit undefined, had earned a place on the Opening Day roster.

Now it’s time to watch his impact.

“Every time you see him out there and you see the stuff that he’s got,” Jack Flaherty noted, “it’s like, ‘[Dang]. He’s special.’”

Ranked as the club’s top prospect for a fourth consecutive year, Reyes returns with a healthy arm and refreshed mind. Consumed by rehab programs for most of the last two years, the 24-year-old right-hander hopes to continue an ascension that was interrupted by a pair of arm surgeries.

He’ll open the season in the bullpen. He could finish it as a starter. What he can accomplish in either role, teammates insist, has the potential to be special.

“He’s a phenom,” Wainwright said. “I really believe that. I think he could be a No. 1 ace pitcher, and I think he could be a No. 1 closer. He’s just a complete phenom. He’s got ridiculous stuff, and he has got a great head on his shoulders. He wants to learn, and he’s a hard worker. We just have to keep him healthy. That’s it. Keeping him healthy is making him a superstar.”

In many ways, though, the expectations are both high and unknown as Reyes prepares for what he hopes will be his first full season in the Majors. No one questions the potential, which has stood out since Reyes signed out of the Dominican Republic as a teenager.

But he’s pitched four Major League innings since 2016 and had both his right elbow and lat muscle repaired in the last 25 months. How his body will respond to the stress of pitching regularly again isn’t certain.

Reyes’ first test will come in relief, where he’ll be available to do just about anything. Manager Mike Shildt will consider him an option to close, as well as fit when there’s a multiple-inning need. Reyes’ effectiveness against right-handed and left-handed hitters affords the Cards optimal flexibility.

So, too, does his growing repertoire. There were times this spring when Reyes featured arguably four above-average pitches -- a fastball, changeup, curveball and slider. Other relievers thrive with only one or two.

“It’s really special, right?” Shildt said. “You have the different speeds, but also the shape of the pitches and the action of the pitches. You’re talking about a legitimate weapon who I feel like, regardless the situation, can be effective.”

The Cardinals haven’t stated a specific workload limit that they’ll adhere to for Reyes. But there will be one. That’s one reason why the club wasn’t in a rush to push Reyes into the April rotation. Innings banked now are innings that could be available in October.

Those workload restrictions, health and team need will also be under consideration as the Cardinals weigh riding Reyes as a reliever all year against the potential payoff of moving him into the rotation at some point midseason.

Unchartered territory? Sure. But also welcomed new terrain for a player eager to finally pitch his way off the prospect list.

“It’s whatever the organization needs,” Reyes said. “If they want me to be in the bullpen this year and hopefully be a starter next year, then I’m all in for wherever I can help the team and contribute and hopefully help the team get to the playoffs.”