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Where Do the Cardinals Go From Here?

Following the Alex Reyes injury, the Cardinals are in a precarious situation.

“Pitchers and catchers”: the three best words in baseball. The phrase signifies a day of innocent hope, the first pops of the mitt echoing the sweet return of the national pastime, the unblemished dirt mirroring the dawn of a pristine 0-0 season. It’s a day of gleaming sunlight and beaming smiles.

Sometimes, though, the baseball gods can be cruel. This time, on this particular baseball New Year, Valentine’s Day, they didn’t offer hope, but destroyed it. This time, they took Alex Reyes out of the warm embrace of Jupiter, Fla. and into the cold arms of Tommy John.

Reyes, of course, is the St. Louis Cardinals’ electric young talent. Baseball Prospectus called him the top prospect in the game, while Baseball America put him at number four as the only pitcher in the top 14. He was ticketed to start delivering on his massive potential as a member of the St. Louis rotation this season. Instead, he’s headed to the operating table, his 2017 over before it began.

Unfortunately, there’s no sugarcoating this one: this is a massive blow to Reyes and the Cardinals’ outlook, both for 2017 and beyond. As Adam Kaufman put it in doom and gloom terms, the Cardinals’ chances of contending with this current core may have been unceremoniously curbed. The Redbirds are swimming in murky waters now.

For Reyes, surgery significantly stunts his career prospects.

The injury is obviously most inauspicious for Reyes and his career. Though the medical procedure itself has become increasingly successful in recent years, every pitcher’s arm reacts uniquely. It’s difficult to say how Reyes will recover until we see him in action a year from now. Will he still have the 100 mile-per-hour bullet that he can fire with ease? What about the nasty power curve that leaves hitters staring?

And then there’s the issue of his (lack of) command. Reyes, even healthy, has always struggled to control the ball. In 395 innings at all levels, no small sample size, he’s managed an unflattering 4.6 walks per nine innings. Pitching with a reconstructed elbow after a full year off doesn’t exactly seem like the best recipe to cure that problem.

It’s also important to note that Reyes has yet to crack 111.1 innings in any season. In 2018, he’ll be coming off major surgery without a competitive pitch thrown since Sept. 2016. The Cardinals won’t push him hard out of the gate, and most Tommy John recipients aren’t at full strength in their first seasons back anyway. It could be 2019 or later until Reyes is finally able to contribute in a consistent, unrestricted manner.

It’s conceivable that Reyes’s stuff isn’t quite as filthy or his control issues persist upon his return. In that case, he could be destined for the bullpen. That wouldn’t be a terrible outcome–it isn’t hard to imagine the force Reyes could be as a reliever–but it’s more than a couple notches below the ace ceiling Reyes possesses, not to mention less lucrative. The missed season will also eat into Reyes’s arbitration earnings.

There also exists the possibility that no one wants to think about right now. As Redbird Rants explored, Reyes’s pitching motion puts non-trivial stress on his elbow. His mechanics could be conducive to re-injury, which would crater his career. Reyes will have to work his way back, and then he’ll be on thin ice the moment he takes a mound again.

The rotation takes a big hit, and the rest of the Cardinals need to step up.

In the immediate future, the Reyes injury leaves the Cardinals with a gaping hole on the roster. St. Louis was counting on Reyes to develop into a solid number two or co-ace with Carlos Martinez. Behind those two, the Cardinals don’t have another pitcher that can do what Reyes is capable of. In all likelihood, either Michael Wacha or Luke Weaver will take Reyes’s spot, and neither of those guys are as good as Reyes.

But let’s take a step back. From a strictly production perspective, the Cardinal pitching staff should still be better than it was last season. Reyes threw just 46 major league innings in 2016–46 quality innings, but 46 innings nonetheless. That three percent of St. Louis’s innings is replaceable. Reyes was never the key to the staff, collectively, improving its performance this year.

That onus falls on Adam Wainwright showing some semblance of his former self. Mike Leake needs to be league average, and Lance Lynn could easily be the Cardinals’ best starter outside Martinez. Wacha’s 2016 showing isn’t a high bar to clear, and Weaver should at least prove he belongs in the bigs. As a whole, the St. Louis starters provided so little a year ago that they’ll almost certainly be better this time around.

That’s not to say that the loss of Reyes isn’t significant; it is. Reyes’s value this season was that he could’ve taken the St. Louis rotation to another level. The Cardinals lose their most riveting player, but they’ve never needed thrill to win. It’s the other, boring guys who carry the burden of bringing it back to respectable.

Plus, the Cardinals have overcome similar losses in the past. On Feb. 24, 2011, they lost Wainwright off a second-place Cy Young Award finish to Tommy John surgery. The rest of the staff stepped up, and the Redbirds won the World Series. He missed most of 2015, too, after a third-place Cy Young campaign, and the team posted a historic 2.94 earned run average while winning 100 games. Chris Carpenter missed nearly all of 2007 and 2008, so other pitchers, including Wainwright, blossomed around him to shoulder the load.

The Cardinals are left with uncertainty in the future.

Needless to say, the Cardinals can no longer pencil in Reyes as a stud in the rotation going forward. Sure, he could still get there, but that’s not something St. Louis can count on. They gained some rotation certainty with Martinez’s extension, and can pivot a couple different ways in the wake of the Reyes news.

The reactionary suggestion has been to trade for the Chicago White Sox’ Jose Quintana. This would have been a perfectly defensible move even prior to Reyes’s injury, but understandably has become a magnified topic of discussion in the past week.

On one hand, trading for Quintana would give the Cardinals not only an immediate Reyes replacement, but an upgrade. He’d also be a bonafide co-ace to pair with Martinez for the next four years. Of course, a Quintana package would likely be required to begin with Reyes. It’s doubtful the Cardinals would have been willing to deal Reyes a week ago, but his injury might make them more amenable to doing so.

On the other, St. Louis might not even have enough to pull off a Quintana blockbuster. Quintana’s production and contract are similar to those of Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, so he should return a similar package. From the Cardinals’ perspective, that would mean some trio of Reyes, Weaver, Carson Kelly and Delvin Perez. Given that Reyes is now damaged goods, the White Sox might not be so thrilled with him as the headliner. Similarly, the secondary pieces they received in the aforementioned deals are better than anything the Redbirds have to offer. Plus, the White Sox know the Cardinals are desperate, which could raise the asking price.

The Cardinals could also take the free agency route. Obviously, there’s no one they can sign right now that can replace Reyes, though a flier on someone like Jorge De La Rose certainly couldn’t hurt. But for 2018 and beyond, they could go ace hunting with the likes of Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish and possibly Masahiro Tanaka or Shohei Otani set to hit the market. Given that they played in the David Price waters last offseason, they certainly have the money to do so.

In the meantime, this just sucks. There’s not really a better description of the situation. The Cardinals, and the rest of baseball, are down a fun-loving, exciting young player. Cardinals baseball will be a little less entertaining every fifth day, and that’s disappointing. They’ll just have to keep swimming, as always.

Image Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports