With Topsy-Turvy 2 Years Behind Him, Alex Reyes Ready to Reclaim Star Potential

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistMay 23, 2018

St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Alex Reyes throws during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the New York Mets, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016, in St. Louis. This image was made with in-camera multi-exposure. (AP Photo/Billy Hurst)
B/R

St. Louis is his business address, and the Cardinals hope it will be for a very long time.

But Chicago is the place where the team learned that phenom Alex Reyes works with a fearlessness enjoyed by only the seriously gifted.

Yes, there were the three innings of shutout baseball he threw at Wrigley Field in his second major league appearance to pick up his first big league victory in August 2016. And another five innings of grace and poise in the same place a month later to seal his second win in two major league starts. It was in his Chicago hotel room that summer, however, when Reyes showed his teammates how chill a customer he can be when he thwarted teammate Adam Wainwright's attempt to make him the latest victim in the "Scare Game."

Whoa, wait. The…Scare What?

"Oh, sometimes we'll get somebody's key…" Wainwright explains, eyes twinkling, grin impish, and by "get," he means "surreptitiously obtain."

In this 2016 episode, Wainwright secured a key to the rookie's hotel room and rounded up Jonathan Broxton and Brandon Moss.

"Three pretty big guys," Wainwright says. "We hid in the room, and we jumped out to scare him."

Reyes had his back to his three teammates at the time while bending over to pick up one of his bags from the floor. He was as good a target as his giddy teammates could ever hope for when they leaped out from behind the bed.

"You would think he'd have been on the ground sucking his thumb," Wainwright says.

Instead, not only was Reyes unfazed, but he also taunted them.

"You didn't get me," he razzed.

"I want a rematch," Wainwright says.

Soon, he'll get his chance. Reyes, the Cardinals' No. 1 prospect and No. 17 in the game, according to MLB Pipeline, again is close to scaring up a spot on the St. Louis roster.

If all goes according to plan, Reyes, 23, will arrive next week and help pitch the Cardinals through the summer, across the stretch run and on into October, picking up right where he left off. In 12 games during the '16 season, he went 4-1 with a 1.57 ERA, striking out 52 in just 46 innings following his Aug. 9 promotion to the Cardinals. It was a meteoric ascent for a guy who less than a month earlier was starting for the World Team in the Futures Game during the All-Star festivities in San Diego.

But he blew out his elbow in February 2017 and spent the rest of the year recovering. And while the Cardinals cannot wait to get him back, they also are intent on resisting any temptation to rush him or overwork him. Initial plans called for him to return in early May, and the Cardinals considered regulating his pitching odometer by bringing him back in via the bullpen. Instead, they slowed down the rehab process and now plan to insert him into the rotation.

Says John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations: "The most important thing for us is his health, not putting our foot on the gas."


That Reyes doesn't rattle easily becomes less surprising the more you know about the sharp 6'4" right-hander whom the Cardinals discovered in the Dominican Republic by way of Elizabeth, New Jersey.

No, it's not everyone who picks up in the middle of his senior year of high school and moves in with his grandmother in the Dominican Republic to chase his dream. But as a baseball-obsessed teenager with a middling 87-88 mph fastball who had yet to hit his growth spurt, Reyes viewed it as his best option.

"I wasn't getting exposure," Reyes says. "I wasn't getting looked at by any organization or any big school."

If he moved to the Dominican, rules stipulated that he would not be eligible to sign as a professional for one calendar year. Still, the opportunity to showcase himself while throwing at an array of MLB academies and camps was too promising to ignore, so he left his high school and all of his friends in New Jersey on Dec. 2, 2011, smack in the middle of his senior year.

"One hundred percent," Reyes says when asked if it was difficult to rip himself out of his home cocoon in New Jersey. "You go from everything from graduation to prom to everyone goes down to the shore after prom…you miss all of those events. You get to high school as a freshman, that's the stuff everyone looks forward to. Not to be able to do that was really tough."

He didn't completely cut the cord at Elizabeth High School. His father has worked as a security guard for the past 23 years in the school district and is close with several teachers and coaches, including those in the baseball program. And when he moved in with his maternal grandmother in San Cristobal, "My parents did a good job visiting," he says. His father would visit one month, his mother the next, then his father again and so on. His two older brothers, Tomas, 30, and Adriel, 26, also visited frequently.

By the time he was texting all his friends back in New Jersey that spring as they took their prom pictures and planned graduation parties, Reyes didn't feel so bad about missing the tuxedos, pomp and circumstance.

"By that point, I had scouts looking at me, so it wasn't as tough," he says. "The first few months, it was tough. I would talk to my friends on the weekends, and they were all out having fun.

"But after the scouts started seeing me, I put all that high school stuff behind."

Meanwhile, he ate. His parents would send boxes and boxes of canned food and money. His grandmother would cook. He still can taste her specialty, la Bandera—which, translated, means "the flag"—red kidney beans, white rice and chicken. He smiles at the thought of it still.

"Absolutely," he says. "You can't forget your grandparents' cooking. That's where your parents come from."

By that spring—March 2012—a Cardinals scout had seen Reyes practicing in a small field near the family home in Palenque. The scout, Rodny Jimenez (who has since passed away), saw him playing some infield but liked him much better as a pitcher and sent word to his boss, Moises Rodriguez, the Cardinals' director of international scouting. The club then brought him to its academy for a formal workout.

"Raw talent, athletic," Rodriguez recalls. "Low-90s fastball, projectionable secondary stuff, curve and changeup. We knew he was from New Jersey and that he couldn't sign for a year.

"We started doing the math, started talking money that month with his agent. Then we talked about following up with him."

And then Reyes dropped off the radar.

It is not uncommon for this to happen with a hot prospect in what essentially is the chaos that is recruiting players in Latin American countries. Turned out, between March and August, as Reyes' game sharpened, the agent had him in and out of the academies of other organizations. While the Cardinals were on him early, other clubs now moved in as well.

"I was very worried because I thought we had found something special, somebody with a lot of upside," Rodriguez says. "We had to re-engage the agent and start the negotiations from scratch."

The Houston Astros, Reyes says, offered $180,000. Then the Kansas City Royals checked in at $800,000. Meanwhile, the Cardinals continued evaluating as the months passed.

"Now we had more history, and Alex was a little more polished," Rodriguez says of when the two sides reconnected that August. Soon after, Reyes accepted their offer of a $950,000 signing bonus. On Dec. 3, 2012, almost a year to the day he moved, he signed.

Few teenagers who skip prom get that kind of return on their investment.

All those meals were paying dividends too. Between 2012 and 2014, Reyes' long-awaited growth spurt finally hit: The fairly scrawny 180 pounds on his 6'4" frame eventually filled out to 245. His fastball hopped up from low 80s to 92 to, in his first full season in low Class A ball, 98.

In 2015, he was named the Cardinals' Minor League Co-Pitcher of the Year. Baseball America named him as the top prospect in the Florida State League. He was selected that autumn to the Arizona Fall League Fall Stars Game. He led all Cardinals minor league pitchers in strikeouts per nine innings (13.41) and was second in opponents' batting average (.197). His fastball cracked the magic 100 mph barrier in July.

And then…he tested positive for pot.

That earned him a 50-game suspension, which delayed the start of his 2016 season.

"Not only did I let the organization down, I let my family down," Reyes says. "It was a big hit for me. How could I explain to my parents that I made such a dumb mistake on something I could have easily said no to?"

Phoning his parents to deliver the news before it became public was one of the most difficult moments of Reyes' life. He is not a guy who likes attention for anything more than what he does on the field. He is not loud. And now, to have the spotlight shining on him because of this?

"It was terrible," he says.

He came back strong, though, earning a start in the Futures Game that July and a summons to the majors that August. And when he won his first big league game in Wrigley Field, his parents were in the stands.

"Which I hope paid them back for the disrespect I showed them," Reyes says. "I'm still really sorry for that mistake."

That August and September, Reyes went 3-0 with a 2.19 ERA against the Cubs. As the Cubs raced toward their first World Series title in more than a century, Reyes was the only pitcher in the majors to beat them three times that year. And he was the first St. Louis rookie pitcher to beat them three times in one season since Brooks Lawrence in 1954.


So come the spring of 2017, with those performances in their back pocket and Reyes ranked as the club's best prospect two years running by both Baseball America and MLB.com, the possibilities were endless for the Cardinals and their flame-throwing righty.

Then a physical examination as spring camp opened revealed a problem, and practically before the Cardinals' equipment truck had been unloaded, Reyes was having Tommy John surgery.

Which is why now, in May of 2018, it's like that moment for Reyes when the horses are being loaded into the starting gate at Churchill Downs. He cannot wait to go thundering down the straightaway.

"It just sucks when you wake up one day in a cast, and your season is stripped from you," Reyes says. "The positive is, I was able to take in the everyday grind these guys go through in the season from the clubhouse."

The Cardinals gave him the option last year: Did he want to rehabilitate from Tommy John surgery in St. Louis or at the club's spring training facility in Florida? Reyes thought it would be smarter to do his work around the big league club. Why put one foot into a vacation-like atmosphere in Florida when staying in St. Louis could be like taking a graduate course?

After missing much of the previous two seasons, Alex Reyes is expected to rejoin the Cardinals rotation this month.
After missing much of the previous two seasons, Alex Reyes is expected to rejoin the Cardinals rotation this month.D. ROSS CAMERON/Associated Press

So the first three weeks of last season, Reyes did his work but still was in his own little bubble. Then Cardinals starter Lance Lynn pulled him aside.

"I know you're hurt," Lynn, now pitching in Minnesota's rotation, told him. "But one thing that could help you is to come down to the bullpen and watch guys work in between starts."

Lynn had been through Tommy John surgery himself the year before, missing the entire 2016 season. He opted to do his rehab in Florida. And he told Reyes that maybe it was a mistake because he really missed watching the Cardinals starters and picking up tips. Don't make that same mistake, Lynn said.

"I really appreciated that," Reyes says. "Not a day went by after that that I wasn't out there watching. You need guys to push you."

Another who pushed was Mike Shildt, then the team's quality control coach and now St. Louis' bench coach. At some point each day, Shildt would make it a point to ask Reyes, "What did you pick up today?"

Now, Reyes is ready to put all those things learned—work habits, daily routines—while idling last year into action. And maybe it will all help him to play as if he'd never missed time because of surgery.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny thinks back to those moments in Wrigley Field in '16 as the time when he thought to himself, OK, this kid gets it.

"It's always intense there," Matheny says. "Our fans are excited, and you have a young prospect and have a chance to unveil him. And to do it in that scene, that's a tough place to pitch for a number of reasons. To watch how he handled himself and how he adapted…he started using his stuff differently and started responding to Yadier Molina's game plan that particular day.

"I think it was a light-bulb moment for him—You know what, I can do this. A lot clicked at one time, not just that I can do this, but I'm going to use my stuff a little bit differently. It almost opened up a whole new realm for him on how to pitch instead of just throw.

"To watch that happen in real time that quick was impressive."

As Wainwright says, talent like Reyes' would help any team in the big leagues. The Cardinals are thankful he's theirs.

"Can he throw 102? Yeah," Wainwright says. "And can he throw his pitches for strikes? Yeah."

And does he scare easily? Wainwright knows the answer to that too. And though he still wants that rematch, he loves what he sees.

                                                                      

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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