You know it's spring training in St. Louis when a pitcher feels discomfort in his elbow.
During a press conference Wednesday morning, John Mozeliak announced Alex Reyes, the Cardinals top pitching prospect, will need Tommy John surgery.
Spring isn't a kind time of the year for the St. Louis Cardinals and their pitchers. One could call it The Tommy John Blues. The feared elbow-ligament-related injury has rung up quite the tab for the Cardinals. It seems like every year, an important pitcher goes down.
In 2011, Adam Wainwright felt a pop in his elbow in the spring and missed the entire season. In 2013 it was Jason Motte. 2016 brought injuries to Lance Lynn and Marco Gonzales. Now, Alex Reyes.
The 22-year-old New Jersey native couldn't complete a physical Monday morning and, in return, his first scheduled throw of spring training was canceled. An MRI has revealed a partially torn right elbow ligament, according to ESPN.
This is terrible and career tragic news. Magnetic resonance images aren't ordered lightly, and are usually a very bad sign. Wainwright got a second opinion back in 2011, but ended up needing the surgery. A finding is a finding, and as Mike Matheny said Tuesday, this isn't what the team wanted happening today. The Cardinals didn't want this news for Valentines Day.
This will hinder the development of a prized prospect, a top-ten phenom according to the latest listing of MLB Pipeline. Reyes was expected to play a big part on this club and battle Michael Wacha for the fifth rotation spot in the spring. Even if he ended up in Memphis in April, Reyes was going to be making dents in the Majors by May. Reyes was a significant weapon for 2017 that now seems lost.
How long? The standard projection for a pitcher's return from Tommy John is 12-18 months. Here are a few examples with the Cardinals.
Adam Wainwright had the surgery in late February of 2011, and returned to start an MLB game in April of 2012.
Jason Motte had the surgery on May 7 of 2013, and returned to pitch on May 21, 2014.
Lance Lynn pitched with partially torn ligament for the second half of the 2015 season. He last pitched in an MLB game on October 4, 2015. He will potentially return in April this season.
Marco Gonzales had TJ last April, and is still in the final stages of a throwing program.
The sad but true idea here is slow and steady wins the race, but angers the fan base. The realization that is slowly settling in is that Reyes will most likely miss the 2017 season and part of the 2018 season. A hopeful comparison is Wainwright returning less than 14 months after the surgery, but he wasn't as good a pitcher in the 2012 season. It took a while before Wainwright could be great again, and he was 29 at the time of the surgery. Reyes is 22, and sits on the roster like a Ferrari with a hundred miles on it.
The Cardinals need to be cautious here, because rushing their top pitching prospect back from an elbow injury is a hazardous play for an organization that competes every single season. Reyes has all the tools to be a big deal in the Majors, but a rushed return from a major injury would damage those prospects. Reyes may not be tip top again before the 2019 season(he would be 24 that spring), and while that's disheartening news, the long term goal is keep the kid's future intact.
What happens now?
With Reyes sidelined indefinitely, the play now is Michael Wacha taking over the fifth spot in the rotation. Like it or not, he is the best guy for the spot right now. Luke Weaver needs more reps in Memphis,and Gonzales isn't ready just yet.
The Cards will take a look around, but won't make a move out of desperation. Wacha could have the bullets to get the team to midseason or at least through a couple months. After the arbitration hearing Tuesday, Wacha also has a chip on his shoulder the size of a beach ball, so that could translate into a statement making 2017 stretch of starts. He's the team's best bet. If not Wacha, you take a flier on Doug Fister, who may not be as good as Wacha(who the Cards are now paying $2.8 million).
For the Cardinals, Alex Reyes going down with an elbow ligament injury is a cruel Valentines Day present, but it's nothing new for the resilient ballclub. They've been dealt blows during this time of year before, and can deal with the punches.
For Reyes, this is the second setback in as many seasons. After missing 50 games in 2016 due to a second positive drug test, he will now miss a good chunk of the next two seasons. It's not the news he or the team wanted, but the last time I checked, the games still happen and the baseball will go on.
Spring Training is a bad news machine for the Cardinals, and while the Reyes injury leaves an impact, the injury will force the Cardinals to get answers on unknown talents in pitchers like Wacha and Gonzales.