I’m introducing a new series here on Viva El Birdos that will tackle frequently mentioned topics around the Cardinals. As I scour the internet, searching for any content that will fill the dark night of the soul that is the baseball offseason, I frequently hear fans saying “I think the Cardinals should…” The statements that follow vary from well-informed and reasoned arguments to passionately defended but completely irrational hot takes. This space welcomes both types! I’ll even try to argue both sides. Then you all, the brilliant and beautiful Birdos, will all get the chance to tell me just how wrong I am. Should be fun!
So, here’s one I’ve heard a few times lately: “I think the Cardinals should … give up on Alex Reyes!”
To understand why this statement is frequently made, let me provide some background on Reyes’ turbulent career. Alex Reyes is probably the best pitching prospect the organization has seen since Rick Ankiel. While Carlos Martinez and Shelby Miller were both very well regarded by scouts and analysts, Reyes’ eye-popping arm talent prompted multiple outlets to name him one of the games top prospects as he neared the majors. His high-90’s fastball is rated by Fangraphs as a 70 on the 20/80 scale. His curve and change are also above average offerings.
The 2015 season was the turning point for Reyes. The young prodigy surged through A ball and reached AA as a 20-year-old. His combined 13.4 K/9 that season was off-the-charts. He had an FIP of 1.75 at A+ and a 2.32 at AA. That level of dominance against advanced talent at such a young age was truly unique.
The 2016 season was supposed to be Reyes’ break out season. Instead, the hurler was busted for a failed drug test and suspended for the first half of the season. Once reinstated, the Cardinals tried to play catch-up, throwing Reyes into the rotation at AAA Memphis where his results were mixed. Control problems plagued him, and while he got away with a walk rate over 4 in the low minors, the more mature hitters of the PCL were able to lay off pitches that moved out of the zone and punished mistakes. Still, a 3.72 FIP as a 21-year-old in AAA was encouraging, and it was enough to earn Reyes some late-season starts with the big club.
There, Reyes flashed the brilliance that has ghosted him ever since. In 46 innings spread between the rotation and the bullpen, Reyes produced a 1.57 ERA and 1.3 fWAR. The Cardinals believed they had a future ace.
That would prove to be the high point of Reyes’ career. In February of 2017 Reyes tore his UCL. Tommy John surgery stole the entire season. After a lengthy rehab, Reyes attempted to return for a late-May 2018 start against Milwaukee. 73 pitches into his start, Reyes’ velocity dipped and he displayed signs of discomfort on the mound. He finished the 4th inning, but Reyes would exit the game and later be diagnosed with a lat strain. This injury stole another full season.
Finally healthy in 2019, the club again expected the still-young hurler to carve out space on the roster. Instead, Reyes managed just 3 innings with the big club, walking 6 and allowing 5 runs. He was demoted to AAA. His frustrations spilled over to Memphis where the only strike he threw came when he punched a concrete wall in frustration over a terrible outing. He would break his pinkie on his throwing hand and only pitch 40.1 very forgettable innings on the season.
Immaturity. Self-inflicted career sabotage. Injuries. Control issues. Inconsistency. Increasingly, I see fans throwing up their hands, saying, “the Cardinals should give up on Alex Reyes!” These fans would argue that Reyes simply can’t be trusted, likely will never get it together, and is taking up a valuable roster spot. Surely some organization would be intrigued by his arm and the Cardinals would be best served by using Reyes to acquire talent that will actually impact the major league roster. He had his chance! Time to get what we can out of him and move on.
More numerous are the fans who have simply forgotten about Reyes. Jack Flaherty has emerged as the ace Alex Reyes was supposed to be. Dakota Hudson appears locked in a rotation spot. Daniel Ponce de Leon, Ryan Helsley, Austin Gomber, Genesis Cabrera, Junior Fernandez, and Jake Woodford (to name a few) are next in line for rotation and bullpen spots as needed. While there is no question that Reyes’ pure talent eclipses everyone on this list – with the likely exception of Flaherty – it has been so long since Reyes has done anything with that talent, he is simply the odd man out. The one-time top prospect is an afterthought for many.
So, should the Cardinals give up on Reyes? Should they try to get what they can for him in trade? Should they throw him to the back of the depth chart and forget him?
While I’m sympathetic to fans who are frustrated and apathetic toward Reyes, I think both views are misguided. Reports from the Post-Dispatch indicate that Reyes is completely healthy now and ready for his first normal offseason in a long time. The Cardinals talk about still having high expectations for him. Their hope and patience are justified.
Alex Reyes is barely 25 years old. He’s the same age as Dakota Hudson. He’s younger than Ryan Helsley. With just two years of service time, he won’t be a free agent until 2023. That’s a lot of time for Reyes to figure things out.
This whole question reminds me of another highly regarded Cardinal hurler who suffered a series of major injuries and was essentially forgotten by Cardinal fans. Former first round pick Marco Gonzales missed most of 2016 and 2017 with injury. He returned to a full roster and found himself behind a host of other young pitchers who were going to edge him out of playing time. The Cardinals gave up on him, shipping Marco to Seattle in a rare prospect-for-prospect deal that brought Tyler O’Neill over in return. While O’Neill might still muscle his way into a starting OF position, Gonzales has proven to be a very good starter for the Mariners. In two relatively healthy seasons, the lefty has provided 7.1 fWAR, about the equivalent of Jack Flaherty over the same time period.
Would the Cardinals rather have 2018-19 Marco Gonzales or 2018-19 Tyler O’Neill? There’s really no debate here.
The point? Patience with pitchers who have great stuff is probably a good idea. While Reyes’ stuff is not as stable as Gonzales’, it’s significantly more electric. The injuries and immaturity have not stolen Reyes’ elite velocity and movement. The Cardinals can afford to give him more time to see if he can harness it. As fans, we should hope that he figures it out. Because if Reyes finally puts it all together… well, we won’t miss Marco Gonzales anymore.
Should the Cardinals give up on Alex Reyes? Absolutely not.