VEB Annals: The Anthony Reyes Saga

Don Tony

Before Colby Rasmus became a lightning rod for all things wrong with Tony La Russa ...

Before Colby Rasmus became a proxy battle over team control ...

Before Colby Rasmus elicited the deeply divided reactions over coaching ...

... there was Anthony Reyes. It was the rise of the internet as a viable and credible source of journalistic reporting and analysis that gave credence to the Anthony Reyes debate. The debate wasn't new -- it was a debate and power struggle that had occurred in every MLB franchise ever. What was new was the assiduous documentation and rigorous, rational analysis from small corners of the internet that became havens for fans ... and became passionately involved in trying to decipher and predict what was good and right for a major league baseball club to do.

If that's grandiose -- and it is -- then term it something simpler. The internet gave smart people a place to commiserate with other smart people about how much smarter they were. Instead of this happening at a distant water cooler though, everyone could see it.

Whatever your opinion of the motives of whatever pocket of the internet you choose to discuss, for Viva El Birdos, Anthony Reyes was a big deal. For years.

Here is part of that story.

Anthony Reyes, born in 1981, went to USC in 2000. His time at the school would overlap with former Cub pitcher -- and equally polarizing player -- Mark Prior. Reyes would scuffle with nagging injuries during his college career before, as a junior, he'd was drafted by the Detroit Tigers but would elect to go back to USC for his senior year. After that, he would agree to terms with the Cardinals who selected him in the 15th round of the 2003 draft.

Reyes would begin his professional career in 2004 with the Palm Beach Cardinals and ascend to the Cardinals AA affiliate. It was a fast start for Reyes who struck out 140 in 111 innings that year against just 20 walks. Reyes' advanced college repertoire, which featured a plus fastball with velocity and a plus-plus changeup, was simply too much for the lower levels of the minors. He'd be slated for the Pacific Coast League with the Cardinals Memphis affiliate in 2005.

Prior to the season, Baseball America had ranked Reyes as the Cardinals top prospect. Here's what they had to say:

After just six starts at high Class A Palm Beach, he was promoted to Double-A Tennessee, where scouts and managers regarded him as the second best pitching prospect in the Southern League, behind only Jose Capellan.

[...]

Reyes has everything teams look for in a front-of-the-rotation starter, from his body to his stuff. His fastball was up to 94-96 mph by the end of the 2004 season -- after dipping into the high 80s during the worst stretches of his college career -- and he generally worked anywhere from 90-95 with running life. His breaking ball and changeup also made significant progress. His 81-83 mph slider shows good, tight spin at times, and his changeup bottoms out late. Command may be Reyes' biggest strength, however.

It was clear early on that Reyes occupied the top spot of a weak Cardinals farm system (Adam Wainwright was ranked #2 that year. Chris Lambert, #4). It didn't seem that the question was whether Reyes would pitch and pitch well in the majors but how soon that would happen. It wasn't long.

While Reyes began the year in the Memphis rotation, he would find himself in St. Louis before the year was over. It was a short major league stint in 2005 (just 4 appearances including 1 start) but, on balance, it was a success as Reyes recorded 12 strikeouts and 4 walks in 13.1 innings. Everything was on track.

Baseball America remained high on him, if equivocating a bit in exactly what hypothetical number in a rotation he'd be:

Reyes is looking more and more to be the steal of the 2003 draft. [...] He did get a spot start in August and allowed just two hits in 6.1 shutout innings against the Brewers, then returned to Memphis and struck out 15 in his next start.

[...]

While he's probably not a No. 1 starter, Reyes has the frame, stuff and command to pitch toward the front of a major league rotation. He makes hitters put the ball in play, trusts his defense and doesn't beat himself. He pitches consistently at 92-93 mph and occasionally reaches into the mid-90s, and his slider and changeup are effective complements to his fastball.

[...]

Reyes has no obvious flaws in his repertoire. [...]

The emphasis is mine and is vital to the context of the story. No one outside of the Cardinals had much a problem with Reyes. There were minor concerns about durability, mechanics and about occasional dips in velocity. That said, there was near universal agreement that while healthy, Reyes had everything necessary to compete in majors.

Near universal, because, apparently, Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan disagreed. In a 2006 article by former MLB.com beat writer Matthew Leach, things take the first step down a path from which they'd never return.

As a Triple-A hurler last year, Anthony Reyes had the stuff, the command and the presence to succeed in the Major Leagues. He didn't have the repertoire, though.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan have Reyes working on a two-seam fastball this spring, giving him another look in addition to his four-seam fastball, curveball and changeup. Duncan and La Russa want Reyes to pitch down in the strike zone more often.

[...]

"He can't be successful without it," said La Russa. "How is that tough? It gives you your best chance. You can't pitch at the top of the zone -- I don't care how hard you throw.

"You don't get any points for trying. It will make him a better pitcher. He's a talented guy. He'll incorporate it."

It didn't take long for LBoros to question the message on Viva El Birdos. And there was ample evidence to support the idea that Reyes was succeeding just fine. Over the previous two years, he'd struck out 276 batters in 239.2 innings across three levels in the minors. Leaving aside the small sample size in the majors, Reyes hadn't shown flaws to date -- even in that questionably small major league sample size. He'd shown strikeout stuff, good command and the ability to just flat out get batters out.

Reyes, for all of the unwarranted criticism, seemed open to working through it their way:

"If that's what they want me to do, then I'll do it," said Reyes. "Whatever they want me to do, I'll do. As long as I get a chance to be up here. I think it is a pitch that you need. You need ground balls. So I'm going to stay with it and hopefully it will turn out."

"It's tough," said Reyes. "When I throw those pitches, they get hit. It's pretty tough to go out there and do that. But I know it's going to be a good pitch for me and I really want it to work for me."

It's clear that Reyes had at least the minimal sense to say what was necessary to the press -- I'll do whatever my coaches ask -- and equally clear that it was frustrating -- this isn't working, guys. But the two-seam fastball controversy was just beginning.

Not too long after those quotes -- about a month -- the pitching coach for Memphis, Dyar Miller, would deviate just a hair from the party line. Specifically, in an interview with LBoros, he would say:

"There are pitchers who can succeed throwing high fastballs. Darryl Kile did it -- he'd throw his fastball up and then drop that curveball on 'em. So there are examples, but in my experience they're few and far between.

"Reyes has been pretty decent at keeping the ball down so far. I think he's had more grounders than fly balls every start. His changeup is real good for him, real sharp.

Miller, every bit the grizzled baseball veteran at this point, is positioning himself in a way that clearly leaves daylight between his statements and those the major league staff. His nuanced, careful approach to the question would leave ongoing questions during the next few years whether Reyes was hearing the same coaching in Memphis that he heard in St. Louis.

The controversy was frustrating but was still mostly simmering. Reyes himself wasn't making much noise in the press but everything had a kind of self-fulfilling bent to it at this point and Reyes was easy to use as a bludgeon whenever things with the big league club were going wrong ... or right for that matter. That wasn't to say that there wasn't still lingering evidence of discontent. In August of 2006, LBoros asked Blake Hawksworth about his former roommate Reyes:

[LBoros:] he's an interesting case. there's been a lot of discussion about the transition he's had to make to the big league and the adjustments he has been asked to make.
[Blake Hawksworth:] yeah, they've been trying to get him to throw more sinkers.

do you hear anything from him -- is he frustrated about the things he's been asked to do?
i know he's been working on it, and he ultimately wants to help that team. he's gonna do whatever he needs to do. but anthony, ever since i've met him, he's been really confident. he's always thought, ever since he signed, that he's a big-league guy. so in that way -- i don't want to say he's stubborn, but he knows he's good, which is huge for success i think.

The end of the second question -- while well intentioned -- is the refrain that developed as the misunderstanding/disagreement between Reyes and the coaching staff metastasized. Reyes, the stubborn rookie, wouldn't listen to his wise, experienced coaches. He was, in a word, becoming uncoachable.

Despite it's happy ending, 2006 was a nasty regular season for the Cardinals who just eeked into the playoffs. Sniping began as the season was winding down and the Cardinals kept losing. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch articles are lost to the internet but Viva El Birdos notes the first he-said-he-said argument that would come to characterize the Reyes saga:

i don't understand the organization's misdirection -- to use a polite term -- re skipping anthony reyes' turn in the rotation. someone in the dugout -- the source is not explicitly named -- told the post-dispatch that reyes approached tony/dave to complain of a tired arm. i surmise that the source was la russa, who was quoted in derrick goold's blog post on the same subject: "This is exactly when we don't want to push it. We can give Anthony a little rest."

now, according to FSN and KFNS, reyes says he never told anyone his arm's tired (scroll down half a dozen comments or so) and is a wee bit yirked about missing his turn.

It was September and the Cardinals were clinging to an increasingly tenuous lead but this was a very public outing of clubhouse matters.

World Series, however, can salve many a wound. 2006 was a major part of Tony La Russa's legacy and you have to wonder if it didn't simply improve the overall tenor of everyone's relationships in the clubhouse. Note how things have softened entering spring training in 2007. There seemed to be some agreement that Reyes was "less resistant" to the two-seamer and that he was better about his pitch selection in regard to the two-seamer.

This all seems absurdly farcical given the knowledge of what is about to happen. Both sides, for whatever concillatory remarks they were prepared to make in spring training, were getting ready to double down. And the controversy was busy spreading to other prospects in the system.

2007 would see Anthony Reyes cast down into AAA for multiple starts. It was perplexing in an apoplectic way. To wit:

reyes may be stubborn and stupid and all the other things his detractors say about him, but the cardinals are just as stubborn and stupid if they keep him off the roster. he's one of their five best starting pitchers, and it's not a close call --- and they're desperate for starters. anthony has pitched well in both his starts down at memphis, including last night's (in which, cruelly, he was yet again denied his first win of 2007). stop screwing around and get him back up here already.

It's an important element to why this saga was so frustrating for fans. Even if you concede that Reyes was pig-headed and would never live up to his potential without a two-seam fastball, the Cardinals continually employed pitchers in the majors who showed little evidence of being better than the pig-headed, failure. It was as if both sides were determined to cut off their nose to spite their face. The evidence that was publicly available was, however, almost universally in support of Anthony Reyes and exposed the weird, nonsensical decisions the Cardinals made.

While it's easy to look at Reyes now with disregard, after a trade, multiple trips to the DL and surgery, even as his time in St. Louis was winding down, he still showed all the statistical evidence of being a good pitcher. PECOTA liked him. VEB was still committed to him and other projection systems seemed to agree.

Still, things dragged on and on. Given the protracted nature of the tumultuous relationship between Reyes and the coaching staff, it was inevitable, especially in the wake of Jocketty's firing, that Kremlin watchers would make this a proxy war.

i would no longer characterize this as merely a proxy debate; it really is about the future of the organization --- about whether or not personnel decisions will be guided by any semblance of a long-range strategic vision; about stats vs scouting; about how to get maximum yield from the organization’s assets; ultimately, about who's in charge. i cite two quotes from today’s post-dispatch article:

Mozeliak: "As far as asking whether I position it as the manager's team or the organization's, I'd say ultimately it's the organization. That's who we all work for."

La Russa: "The decision of who gets in uniform is ultimately placed with the front office and/or ownership. I just appreciate the coaches and I having input in that. I also understand that at some point the decision is theirs. But once you get them, the decision how to play them is mine and the coaches'. . . . ."

the disagreement among the cards’ decision-makers isn’t just about reyes; it’s about priorities --- about how, and by whom, organizational decisions will be made. this argument has been going on for at least a year and a half; it cost jocketty his job. and it's still unresolved. that's the issue of greatest interest here, an issue far larger than the composition of the opening-day rotation or bullpen.

And in 2008, it looked like that proxy war had come to an end. Anthony Reyes was traded to the Indians. The Cardinals would receive a relief pitcher in return. It was a frustrating end to a pitcher twice ranked as a top 100 prospect by Baseball America. It was only salt in the wound when the Cardinals let Perdomo be taken in the Rule V draft the following year.

There's one lingering question that I'll never quite be able to get away from when it comes to Reyes. Ignore all the nonsense that was going on with him and the coaching staff. Ignore his post trade performance -- which has been either poor or injury ridden. I wonder how many quality or even superb major league starts the Cardinals wasted in 2006 and 2007 while everyone was playing politics. I wonder what his career looks like if, for better or worse, he gets to pitch without any additional coaching in those years. The easy response is that he pitches well but there's just no way to know. It does show the potentially short life expectancy on pitching arms. When they're ready, call them the eff up.

The lasting memory I'll have of Reyes, however, isn't any of the behind the scenes bullshit that spilled out into the public square. It's none of the endless mental gymnastics trying to understand the club's handling of him. No, for me, the lasting memory I'll have is one of the most incredible and painful games I've watched as a fan of the Cardinals. On June 22, 2006, Anthony Reyes pitched a complete game 1-hitter. He lost. Jim Thome hit a home run for the White Sox giving Anthony Reyes a loss despite an otherwise perfect outing. (He didn't walk anyone either.)

It's one of those games that, for me, is indelible. (Mark Mulder's 10 inning duel with Roger Clemens being another.) Anthony Reyes was once a huge part of the Cardinals' future. It seems that, now, he's just an interesting foot note in their past.

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