Alex Reyes Is the Season’s First Injury Victim

Pitchers and catchers have been in camp for all of a day and a half, and the baseball gods may have already claimed the first pitcher to feed their insatiable hunger for elbow ligaments and heartbreak. Alex Reyes of the Cardinals, a top-five prospect in all of baseball — if not the best (keep an eye out for Eric Longenhagen’s final rankings) — is headed for an MRI after experiencing the dreaded elbow discomfort. According to Jeff Passan, there’s significant worry within the organization that Reyes will need Tommy John surgery.

That’s a massive blow to the Cardinals, who were almost surely counting on Reyes for major contributions in their rotation. The rest of the pitching staff is largely a patchwork of the old (Adam Wainwright), the ineffective (Mike Leake) and the recently repaired (Lance Lynn). Only Carlos Martinez stands out as a real candidate to turn in 190 or so genuinely good innings. Knowing the Cardinals, they’ll probably still get a few prospects to emerge out of thin air and provide value at the big-league level, but Reyes is Reyes.

His fastball is the sort of pitch that’s spoken of in hushed and reverent tones. The curveball isn’t far behind. He’s the prototypical über-prospect in the age of Noah Syndergaard. He’s what they look like. For a Cards team that’s projected to win just 84 games, he was going to be a vital cog. He may be gone for the whole season.

There are two major implications here: one for the status of the club this year and one for the status of Reyes and his career. The second is largely an unknown. Every elbow reacts differently. Reyes may not need Tommy John. He may need it, and then another one. The Cards are almost surely praying that he’ll just need rest and rehabilitation, and that the ligament is still somewhat intact. Ervin Santana and Masahiro Tanaka have been pitching with partial tears of their ulnar collateral ligaments. It can be done, but it would likely eat into Reyes’ titanic velocity. We don’t yet know what the damage is.

If he does require surgery, the prognosis isn’t excellent. Research by Jon Roegele suggests that, for pitchers who undergo a Tommy John procedure between ages 16 and 23 (Reyes is 22), the median figure for innings pitched after the surgery is just 221. Only 40% of pitchers in that age group reach the 500-inning threshold. That 221-inning mark is worrisome for someone of Reyes’ age. But again, we’re not yet certain if he’ll need surgery.

As for the team, the damage is clear. If Reyes misses any significant amount of time, the Cardinals are in trouble. I spoke about their concerning lack of reliable depth when I advocated that they pursue a trade for Jose Quintana. Their need is now even more desperate. If St. Louis has any designs on contention, they will need to plug the Reyes-sized hole. Because of their pressing need, they’ll have less leverage in any possible trade discussions, be it for Quintana or someone like Jake Odorizzi of the Rays.

Odorizzi may be their best bet at this point. Spring-training blockbusters are a rare breed, usually brought on by injuries like this. The White Sox already want a lot for Quintana, and they could be able to squeeze out even more value for him now. If the Cardinals don’t want to sink a boatload of prospects into a season that was already on the borderline of contention, they could opt for Tampa’s cheaper pitcher.

Pitchers break. It’s an unfortunate fact of life and of baseball. This will be the first of many forthcoming news items this spring about pitchers feeling bad feelings in their elbows and shoulders and forearms. Our joy at the return of baseball comes with a cost every year, a cost that we largely forget until reality returns with a vengeance and a scalpel. We don’t yet know the results of the Reyes MRI. We’ll likely find out by the end of the day.

The Cardinals will know before then, and the decision-making wheels will already be spinning by the time a reporter shares the news on Twitter. Barring a trade for a major arm, the NL Central may have just gotten a little easier for the Cubs, and for the Pirates. That projected 84-win total will likely shrink just a bit more. The Cardinals are a force of nature. They won’t be gone for long. Even if this year is one that may wind up being forgettable, it’s hard to envision a near future that doesn’t involve more confounding Cardinals Devil Magic. They’ll still be dangerous in the draft room, and in their player development. They’ll still always have more spending power than you think they do. They may yet find a way to stop Yadier Molina from aging. The future for St. Louis is bright, even if this year is lost.

And indeed, the Reyes injury shouldn’t be thought of as a definitive death blow for the Cardinals. An 84-win projection is a flexible mark, and one that can grow with luck and stagnation elsewhere in the division (say, in Pittsburgh). Perhaps Luke Weaver finds his stride, and perhaps Wainwright finds one last bit of gasoline in his back pocket. Stranger things have happened.

We can only hope that future involves a healthy Alex Reyes, or one who has healed up well. Prospects break your heart. Hopefully Reyes won’t be one of them.





Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.

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swingofthings
5 years ago

Assuming he misses the year, should the Cardinals now trade Reyes in a package for Quintana? Quintana provides four years of safe (for a pitcher) value. Reyes, meanwhile, probably only provides 4.5ish years of value after this injury. He was already an extreme risk, and that is only amplified now. For a team in win-now mode, seems like a smart move to make, but I don’t know what else they’d need to give up or if they could afford it.

swingofthings
5 years ago
Reply to  swingofthings

This is all based on the potential misguided assumption that Reyes would still be an appealing centerpiece to the White Sox.

rosen380
5 years ago
Reply to  swingofthings

Agreed– if he was worth x yesterday, he’s almost certainly worth like 0.85x now and somewhere between 0.5x and 0.98x depending on what the doctors come up with.

Momus
5 years ago
Reply to  rosen380

With the recent spate of misinformation about medicals – or at least the recent surge in that misinformation being revealed – and the Cardinals own ethics scandal involving the Astros, I think we can safely say that Reyes’ trade value is now more around 0.0x. Until he is back on the mound and throwing well no-one is going to risk anything on him in a trade.

Jon
5 years ago
Reply to  Momus

Really. You can “safely say” that Reyes is now worth zero? He isn’t worth any team’s 30th best prospect? @rosen380 had a reasonable range for his value. You’re either drunk or for some reason trying to pass off your hyperbole as fact.

The Ghost of Johnny Dickshot
5 years ago
Reply to  swingofthings

LOL, what? Who would trade for Reyes at this point, much less give up a guy like Quintana??

ChippersJonesing
5 years ago

He did say “in a package”.

Cool Lester Smooth
5 years ago

They probably couldn’t have put together a Quintana-worthy package with a healthy Reyes, haha.

stanmember
5 years ago

Really? He was the #1 prospect in baseball according to baseball reference’s list, ironically released two days ago. If the similarly-situated Moncada can headline a deal for Sale then surely Reyes can headline a deal for Reyes. Obviously that situation has changed but two days ago it would have been a cinch.

Cool Lester Smooth
5 years ago
Reply to  stan

Moncada headlined the deal. They also included Kopech, who’s pretty much a clone of who Reyes was at 20, along with a couple toolsy lottery tickets in Basabe and Diaz.

Kopech is a lot closer to Reyes than anyone in the Cardinals system is to Kopech. Chicago has another 4 years of control with Quintana — they’re going to have to be blown away to deal him, and I don’t think the Cardinals had the firepower to do that even before the Reyes injury.