The St. Louis Cardinals' decision to pull top pitching prospect Alex Reyes from the Arizona Fall League after the flamethrowing righty was announced as a starter in the AFL's All-Star game was a curious one. My immediate concern was that Reyes had a health issue of some sort.
My fear was based largely on the fact that Reyes missed a chunk of time this year due to a shoulder issue. Even though he returned to game action with as much heat to his fastball and break to his curveball as ever, I was still concerned that throwing in the AFL might have caused an aggravation of his shoulder problem or something worse.
Throwing triple digits with a 91-mph changeup over and over and over is not in line with the natural order. I was concerned that Reyes's otherworldly stuff was too much for his sinew to handle. "There's no such thing as a pitching prospect" or "TINSTAPP" is a common refrain among prospect hounds for a reason.
And so when I read that Major League Baseball suspended the minor-leaguer 50 games because of his second positive marijuana test, this was my inner monologue:
"Yes! Reyes is not injured! Woooooooooo!
"Major League Baseball is testing minor-leaguers for marijuana use in the year 2015 and suspending them 50 games because of a positive test? That's incredibly dumb. Reyes tested positive for marijuana twice!? That's somehow even dumber!"
Thankfully, Reyes is healthy. I'll take a suspension due to marijuana use over a shoulder or arm injury for a top pitching prospect any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Yes, testing positive for marijuana use twice demonstrates Reyes's stupidity. But after following baseball too closely for the vast majority of my life, I feel comfortable suggesting that most major-leaguers are fairly dumb human beings. So Reyes ought to fit right in once he makes it to the majors. Perhaps more importantly, if Reyes reaches the show, the MLBPA has collectively bargained privacy protections in place that will allow him to smoke marijuana if he pleases without punishment from MLB.
How will this suspension impact Reyes's development as a pitcher? That remains to be seen. But it's worth noting that we've gone from general manager John Mozeliak saying that Reyes will be "knocking on the door" when asked about the 2016 St. Louis pitching staff at the press conference that followed the Cardinals' NLDS loss to this:
Mozeliak on Alex Reyes contributing to #STLCards in '16: "That’s still a possibility but this [suspension] is certainly a large speed bump."— Jenifer Langosch (@LangoschMLB) November 9, 2015
How big of a speed bump has Reyes built up for himself?
According to MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch, AFL games count toward the suspension total for a positive drug test. Reyes will knock off ten of the 50 games for which he was suspended this month. That leaves 40 games worth of a suspension to serve in 2016. For a starting pitcher like Reyes, who pitches every fifth day, 40 games of the regular season works out to eight starts; or, about 28.6% of the highest games-started total for a Memphis pitcher in 2015 (Zach Petrick, 28).
Memphis will play its 41st game on May 19, 2016, and Springfield's will be on May 20. Reyes will be out till late May no matter which minor-league level the Cardinals place him in. That's a fair chunk of the season.
It's difficult to say what this means for Reyes's development. Obviously, the missed time early in the year hurts even though he'll be able to participate in extended spring training, according to Mozeliak as quoted in Langosch's article. It seems fair to say that Reyes won't have his starter's legs underneath him as the spring turns to summer for Memphis or Springfield. He'll be behind the curve due to his late start. How far behind is an open question.
Prior to injuring his shoulder last year, Reyes made 13 starts in High-A, tallying 63 2/3 innings. That's an average of 4.9 innings per start, which isn't terribly impressive. For comparison, top prospects Luke Weaver and Rob Kamisnky both averaged over 5 1/2 innings per start for Palm Beach last season. In Double-A, Reyes pitched 34 2/3 innings over eight starts for an average of about 4 1/3 innings per start.
Obviously, there was the shoulder injury to consider, which likely caused the Cardinals to handle the righty with care. But even before hitting the disabled list, Reyes was not consistently efficient enough to regularly work into the sixth inning. In fact, Reyes totaled less than five innings in half of his starts.
It should be noted that Reyes averaged a tad over 5.2 innings per start with Peoria in 2014. So he has established himself as capable of working deeper into games than Carlos Martinez had at similar points in their respective developments as a St. Louis prospects. It wasn't until Triple-A that Martinez consistently worked into the sixth inning, averaging a bit over 5.2 innings per start. It's fair to say the Cardinals hoped Reyes would make a similar leap in 2015 in terms of working deeper into games, thanks to better efficiency, effectiveness, and conditioning. And Reyes still might demonstrate such growth, but he'll do so with Joe appropriately termed on Twitter a "built-in innings cap."
Let's say that Reyes would have slotted into the top of the Memphis rotation, making the Redbirds' opening-day start and taking the ball every fifth day thereafter. If Reyes averaged approximately five innings per start, the suspension will cost him about 40 innings in the season's opening weeks. If he averages five innings per start over his 20 or so 2016 starts, he'll be able to total around 100 adversarial in games. With extended spring training included, Reyes ought to be able to reach if not surpass the 116 1/3 IP he notched overall in 2015 even without graduating to the majors in September.
Obviously, Reyes will miss development time. The righty will lose about eight adversarial starts in which to hone his command and control. This is the type of development opportunity he needs, as growth in these areas will help both his efficiency and effectiveness. Reyes can work on these facets of his game in extended spring training, but it just won't be the same as adversarial games against Double-A or Triple-A caliber lineups.
The good news is that Reyes did not suffer an injury. The bad news is that Reyes put himself in a position to miss about a quarter of his projected 2016 minor-league starts. Reyes created for himself a speed bump in his path to the majors that may hinder the gradual building up of his innings-pitched workload and development of command and control. This is a bad turn of events for the Cardinals and their top prospect.