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2019 Cardinals spring training

Cardinals pitcher Alex Reyes throws from the practice mound at spring training.  Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

JUPITER, Fla. • By the time Alex Reyes got to his hotel room in Cincinnati a few years ago, a teammate had already palmed his room key and left him with the wrong one.

A few tries at the door and Reyes, thinking nothing was amiss, returned to front desk for a new key. Adam Wainwright, prankster in chief, and teammates Jonathan Broxton and Brandon Moss slipped into Reyes’ room and ducked behind a curtain. The rookie returned, entered, and dropped his bag. As he started to unbutton his dress shirt, the three teammates sprang from their hiding spot with a shout.

Reyes did not flinch.

“I’ve made people dive on the ground with their thumb in their mouth before,” Wainwright said. “It was me and Brandon Moss and Jonathan Broxton jumping out to scare him. Should scare Superman. And he goes, ‘You didn’t get me.’ This guy’s got icewater in his veins. I want him.”

The Cardinals are still several weeks away from knowing where Carlos Martinez’s shoulder troubles leave him and leave their rotation plans, but as uncertainty swirls around one righthander, the creep of cautious optimism finds another. The same day Martinez stopped his throwing program, Reyes faced hitters for the first time since May — a live batting practice drill he did not expect to do until later this week, if not next. Coming back from shoulder surgery and a lost season, Reyes could have two more of those sessions before appearing in an exhibition game.

The Cardinals, once earmarking him for a mid-March look, are now penciling him in for an earlier appearance in Grapefruit League games. Reyes has forced them to take notice, now.

Asked if Reyes could get in enough work in March to open the season as part of the rotation, ready for a starter’s workload, an official said, “I would hope so.”

Presented that possibility, Reyes did not flinch.

“For me, that’s the goal,” said Reyes, 24. “It’s a goal for me to be healthy and to be ready to break with the club, wherever they want to stick me. I feel like I could go out there and throw 100 innings, 100-plus innings. I’m up for whatever the organization wants, and whatever I can do. I’m up to find out.”

For several pitchers, like Jack Flaherty and Jordan Hicks, the Cardinals have tailored their spring schedule to ready them for the season but not burn up innings the team would rather have them throw in the season. The team does not start the year with a fixed number of innings expected from Reyes, or an innings cap. They are being protective. On Tuesday, the hitters Reyes faced were instructed not to swing the bat. The Cardinals’ only overarching goals for Reyes: get the young righthander, who because of injuries remains a rookie three years after his debut, a chance to contribute this season and prepped to be in the rotation, full-speed, in 2020.

Reyes said for him to gauge his readiness he needs to pitch in games, and for the team to be comfortable with his durability and health he’ll have to pass what John Mozeliak called “March tests.”

“Spring is more based on feel and recovery,” the president of baseball operations said. “When you think about aggregate innings during the season, that’s going to be predicated on role and future role. There is no hard and fixed road map to that today.”

What has helped Reyes prepare for either role — be it starter or reliever — has been housing his rehab at Busch Stadium during the past two seasons and mingling with the major leaguers. Reyes’ elbow ligament split during spring training 2017, and he missed the entire season recovering from Tommy John surgery. In May 2018, he pitched four innings against Milwaukee before his shoulder came undone and after 73 pitches in the majors he had surgery to repair the joint. The recovery from each injury limited what Reyes could do at the ballpark, but not what he could learn from watching.

He studied the veterans’ habits, their workouts, and, he explained Wednesday, even took note of “their diet, their sleep habits, and when they rested.”

Those lessons give him a head start on the regimen the rotation requires and what it will take between starts to prepare his body for a starter’s innings.

If he had a question, he didn’t flinch.

“He’ll come right up to you and say, ‘Why do this?’” Wainwright said. “He does a great job of paying attention, of asking questions. If you’re not paying attention, if you’re not asking questions, your rehab may go fine, but you’re not going to get better in the game.”

Whether it was his unflappable smirk in the hotel back in 2016 or the time spent together in 2017 and 2018, Wainwright saw in Reyes the traits of a No. 1 pick. So he made him one, again, on Wednesday. With no throws scheduled, manager Mike Shildt’s staff organized a tournament of fielding drills for the pitchers. Teams of four pitchers would compete against each other in four different fielding drills, from grounders to pop-ups, covering first base to fielding the position. Two teams would advance from the preliminary rounds to a winner-take-all drill, and the champs would get an off day later in spring and their clubhouse dues paid.

Shildt named eight team captains, based on service time, and they drafted teams. Wainwright, the self-described “old guy,” got the first pick. He had it a few years ago for a similar tournament and took the same player: “Rey-dog.”

He decided 32 seconds after he heard about the tournament.

“My first pick,” he said. “I went Alex every time.”

With Reyes’ guidance, Wainwright selected Williams Perez and prospect Genesis Cabrera to complete their foursome. Perez proved to be a sleeper star, leading Wainwright’s team through the first round and helping it become the only group to win all four stations. Before each fielding drill, Wainwright and Reyes would huddle with the other two and discuss how they could get points deducted in the drill. For example, not checking the base after catching a popup was a chance to lose a point, so they didn’t.

In the championship round, Wainwright’s team faced Andrew Miller’s team in a groundball drill. They scouted the coaches hitting the grounders and put the better fielders, Cabrera and Reyes, at second base – where the coach was hitting harder. Team Wainwright won, 13 mistakes to 15, and took the title.

Reyes missed a few, but he didn’t flinch.

And as he listed the reasons Reyes was his first pick and a pivotal part of the team victory, Wainwright mentioned his smarts and agility, and not once did he mention Reyes’ arm.

“If we had a throwing competition he still would have been my first pick. That goes without saying,” Wainwright said. “The guy can throw 100 mph. People don’t even know. I keep telling everybody you don’t even know his potential. He’s got this electric arm. He’s got four – four! – great pitches. There are just not people who have that. Superstar.

“If the dude can get healthy, he’s going to win a Cy Young.”


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