JUPITER, Fla. — After one of his final workouts before the official start of spring training and a search with Carlos Martinez’s family for daycare options, Alex Reyes’ evening meandered to Martinez’s home and the conversation took a U-turn into the past. The two Cardinals pitchers, both prized prospects in their teens, talked about how long it had been since Reyes made his big league debut, in 2016.
Martinez was between his All-Star seasons and completing his second consecutive season with an ERA teenier than 3.05. Reyes was one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball, another year into his reign as the Cardinals’ top prospect, and he had raged his way to the big-league bullpen to throw 46 innings and start five games in a playoff pursuit.
He’s thrown seven innings in the majors since.
“It feels like a long time ago and it also feels like yesterday,” Reyes said. “Now we’re here in 2020 and it was four years ago, things happen, and time flies.”
Their time stalled.
Four long years ago, Martinez was the established starter, Reyes the next big thing, and Jack Flaherty was the rising comet eclipsed only by these two young supernovas ahead of him. The Cardinals looked into the future and saw a rotation led by these three lions — all under control and all primed to be unleashed together, in trio, by 2019, at the latest. They’d be franchise fixtures by 2020. Injuries said otherwise. The imagined rotation remained just that, imagined. While Flaherty starts this year in the Cy Young Award conversation, Martinez and Reyes return from injuries that have redefined their place on the team. Martinez’s shoulder troubles have kept him out of the rotation for the past 1 ½ years, and Reyes has had three years vaporized by elbow surgery, shoulder surgery, and a fractured hand.
Once the dynamic duo of the Cardinals’ young pitching machine, Martinez and Reyes start spring training with guarded expectations, but no limits. They still have time to prove their stardom is delayed, not stardom denied.
Martinez aims to reclaim his role as starter.
Reyes’ goal is simpler, succinct.
“To break with the club,” he said, repeating it thrice.
“Carlos was able to get the hype removed because he was able to go out and produce and perform, and then the expectations become we want more of that,” manager Mike Shildt said. “But we’re unsure what we were going to get or what he was capable of got eliminated. With Alex, he hasn’t had a chance to prove that, and I’m pretty sure … that would be something that he would want to do.”
Martinez, 28, completed his first official bullpen session of spring Thursday morning, speeding through 30 pitches and delighting in the rope the Cardinals tied tight to represent the bottom of the strike zone. He said using that as a target gave him “focus.” The Cardinals say he’s had that all offseason. Martinez has cut 15 pounds, thinning his face and torso after several years of carrying excess weight. He said he feels “light” on the mound. He has a new regimen of stretching and flexibility work between starts to aid shoulder health. The righthander threw five bullpens before camp, and in his first throws Thursday did not unleash at full strength. He said that’s preparation, not hesitation like he had a year ago with a tender shoulder.
Reyes, now 25, completed his first bullpen Wednesday without any restrictions. He too has slimmed down as he’s grown up. Since his elbow came apart three years ago in spring training, Reyes has become a father of two, dealt with the illness of a child, and spent almost twice as many months rehabbing his arm to pitch as he’s used it to pitch. The righthander has packed a lot of life into the years when he didn’t have many innings. Martinez, who has known Reyes since he was a teenager, sees those experiences reflected in his eyes, in his posture.
“I just want to say that he needs to take those years to be more mature, to be smart, to be like a different person, to work hard, to prepare his body, his arm, and his mentality, to come together as a new guy,” Martinez said. “I think he is different. He always shows up ready to work. But he’s shown up a different person, walking around here like, ‘I can be the man.’ He’s ready to compete again.”
Said Shildt: “There are not a lot of people who can share his journey that Alex has had. … Not a lot of people can relate to and talk to about basically three years of setbacks. Frustration is understandable. I do think now it’s a point of motivation. Alex really didn’t have to feel like he has to live up to the hype of being Alex Reyes.”
The Cardinals have entered this season with parallel possibilities for both pitchers, and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said the “way we prepared our club was not with (Reyes) in mind for necessarily taking a key role.” Martinez will get the chance to start that he wants, and if his performance or his health wobbles he’ll return to close. Reyes will get every opportunity to be in the majors — most likely in the bullpen — but if his arm rebels or control strays, Class AAA awaits. The Cardinals have purposefully kept options open for both pitcher to determine his role.
They get to start with health and go from there.
“I do like having a level of expectations, but I don’t want those to be a ceiling,” pitching coach Mike Maddux said. “I think we expect you to be healthy. OK, we’ve done that. Now we’ve got to raise the expectations. So we set a goal. And we set an attainable goal. But we’re not limited to that goal because that goal keeps getting higher. Once they’ve reached it, OK, what’s next and what’s next, what’s next and what’s next? We build.”
Two springs ago, his first with the Cardinals, Maddux saw Reyes throw and joked that he didn’t want to see him again — his talent was too tempting, and the righthander needed more time on rehab. He got more than both imagined. Four innings into his lone appearance for the Cardinals in 2018, Reyes’ velocity vanished and his shoulder came undone, ending his season. The next season, repurposed as a reliever, Reyes had trouble commanding his pitches, walking six in three innings. A hand fractured in a fit of frustration interrupted his year. Shildt has been constant support for Reyes, and hasn’t hid his interest in having the power arm in relief.
Outside the clubhouse this past week, Maddux mentioned how he never really did get to see full-strength, talent-blowtorch Reyes.
“I would love to see Alex healthy,” he said.
“Everybody remembers seeing when he was good,” Mozeliak said. “He can be a dominating force.”
Tandem forces was the idea back in spring 2018. From 2015-2017, Martinez’s 3.24 ERA was the 13th-best in baseball among starts, snug beside Justin Verlander’s 3.24 and ahead of David Price’s 3.26. Of the 20 starters with at least 75 starts and ERAs lower than Gerritt Cole’s 3.52, Martinez was the youngest, by two years. When he reported to camp, bullpen catcher Jamie Pogue and taped a picture to his locker. On it was a bull and a calf. The calf had Reyes’ new number, 29, superimposed on it, and the bull wore Martinez’s No. 18. Pogue’s message was it’s time for Martinez to lead and for Reyes to become the “Torocito” of the bullpen. Reyes isn’t sure where those pictures went — just where the years have.
That was back when they had all the potential on their side.
Now they need health.
“How’s it feel?” bullpen coach Bryan Eversgerd asked Martinez during his bullpen session Thursday morning.
“Everything is good,” Martinez said, grinning.
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