Alex Reyes Injury Shakes Up the 2017 NL Wild-Card Picture

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 17, 2017

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 29: Starter Alex Reyes #61 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches against the Cincinnati Reds in the first inning at Busch Stadium on September 29, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Alex Reyes didn't throw a major league pitch until August. He didn't start a game the St. Louis Cardinals won until September.

He still nearly carried the 2016 Cardinals into the postseason.

Inserted in the rotation for the final two weeks of the season, Reyes started three games, and the Cardinals won all three. The Cardinals eventually fell a game short in the National League wild-card race, but the just-turned 22-year-old kid gave them plenty of hope heading into the winter.

He was supposed to be one of the big stories of the spring and perhaps the early favorite to be the National League Rookie of the Year. He was going to help the Cardinals back to October baseball—the close miss in 2016 followed five straight playoff seasons—and maybe he could even help them dethrone the rival Chicago Cubs.

Now, it won't happen.

The part where the Cardinals get back in the playoffs could happen. But it won't be with any help from Reyes, who found out this week he'll need Tommy John surgery on his prized right elbow.

It's more bad news for a game that has been hit repeatedly by injuries to young pitchers (and by the tragic deaths of Jose Fernandez and Yordano Ventura). Pitchers get hurt at alarming rates, we're reminded again, and as the Cardinals know all too well.

Adam Wainwright's April 2015 injury looked devastating to the Cardinals, but they still won 100 games that year.
Adam Wainwright's April 2015 injury looked devastating to the Cardinals, but they still won 100 games that year.Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

The other thing the Cardinals know is that pitching injuries—even big pitching injuries—don't necessarily derail seasons. They lost ace Adam Wainwright to Tommy John surgery in spring training and still ended that year with the franchise's most recent World Series title. They lost Wainwright to another injury in April 2015 and still won 100 games and their third straight division title.

The Cardinals of 2017 still have Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake and Lance Lynn. They still have Michael Wacha, who was once as prized as Reyes. They have Trevor Rosenthal, the ex-closer now competing for a spot in the rotation.

They can still build a rotation, and they can still compete in an NL race where there are almost as many playoff spots available as there are teams legitimately chasing them.

What has changed is that Reyes offered more. He offered the promise that comes with a triple-digit fastball and a nasty curveball. MLB.com ranked him third among all the pitching prospects in baseball, and there are scouts who would argue he should top the list.

His injury won't be the only one a contending team deals with this season, but it is the first big one of the spring. It hurts a Cardinals team happy to come to camp having signed away Dexter Fowler, the Cubs' center fielder and leadoff hitter.

After missing out by a single game last year, the Cardinals understand how much every win matters. There are a bunch of NL teams you can already write off as playoff contenders—start with the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers, just from the Central Division—but there are still more contenders than there are available spots.

Just as last year, the Washington Nationals and New York Mets both have playoff-worthy teams in the NL East, and the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants can say the same in the NL West. Those four teams and the Cardinals and Cubs from the Central were the only NL teams with winning records in 2016.

It could well be the same six teams that fight over five spots this time around, although the Colorado Rockies worked to improve, and the Pittsburgh Pirates expect better than their 78-win season from a year ago.

Not much that happens in February and March will change that picture, but significant injuries can. That's why there was attention paid Wednesday in Port St. Lucie, Florida, when Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen told reporters Zack Wheeler had been pushed back because of "tenderness" in his right elbow.

Whether or not Wheeler's tenderness turns into anything more significant, the Mets right-hander provides a cautionary example for the Cardinals and Reyes.

Wheeler needed Tommy John surgery in March 2015 and was expected to return at midseason last year. He never did come back to the major leagues in 2016, so the surgery has already cost him two full seasons.

The hope is Reyes will be more fortunate, that he'll return strong in 2018.

"Hopefully he'll be back better than ever," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak told reporters.

No matter what, he won't be back this year. And thus, the race for the 2017 playoffs has already seen its first shake-up.

                  

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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