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JUPITER, Fla. • Alex Reyes initially held the tears inside when he was informed last spring that his 2017 season was over before he threw even one pitch. One moment he was the top pitching prospect in baseball, the next he was headed for season-ending Tommy John surgery.

At only 22, Reyes had stalled on the road to stardom. His right elbow needed ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery, and the hard-throwing phenom was understandably worried and dejected. Even while holding back the tears, he cried inside. Or at least that’s how he remembers feeling until he returned to the privacy of his own condo.

“When I got home that day there were definitely some tears,” he said. “You know you’re away from the game you love for a complete year and there’s nothing that you can do about it but try and get back on the field for next year.”

Reyes is almost back and ready to prove that he is still one of the best young pitchers in baseball. Fourteen months after the surgery, Reyes remains the Cardinals’ top prospect. That’s a testament to his previous form and the fact that most big league pitchers who have Tommy John surgery return to form.

Per the Cardinals’ plans, Reyes isn’t expected to return to the majors until at least May 1. He has slowly worked himself back this spring.

Few Cardinals have more to prove than Reyes as he attempts to regain the form that prompted many baseball insiders to consider him a once-a-generation talent.

Judging by the early returns, Reyes may prove to be a difference-maker in the National League Central race. Few teams in baseball will have a pitcher at Class AAA who could be a frontline starter by the end of the season.

“I think he has the potential to be an ace-type pitcher his first year,” veteran Adam Wainwright said. “He’s got the mental maturity. He’s got the physical tools. If he puts it together, I don’t see a guy who needs four or five years of seasoning before he’s an ace.”

Wainwright knows exactly what’s ahead for Reyes. Wainwright was 29 when he had Tommy John surgery before the 2011 season. He returned in 2012 and threw 198 2/3 innings over 32 starts. A year later, he threw a league-leading and career-high 241 2/3 innings while also leading the league with five complete games, 34 starts and a 19-9 record during his second All-Star season.

Wainwright has earned two of his three All-Star berths after he had Tommy John surgery. Reliever Zach Duke, who was recovering from the same surgery last season, also proved crucial in helping Reyes go through the early rehab process at Busch Stadium. They drove each other during the rehab.

“I actually think that having surgery earlier in your career, like (Reyes has) done, it’s a good thing,” Wainwright said. “Get it out of the way. You’re not in any danger of being a free agent while you’re out there, especially with his talent. I think he has a long time with a healthy elbow to go out and prove himself. You’d rather do that on a healthy elbow than one that’s kind of dinged up and needs to be repaired.

“What I saw in Alex was a guy who took his rehab very seriously and is still continuing to take his rehab very seriously and works his tail off every single day. If he’s not in the weight room he’s in the training room or the film room doing something to try to get better. That is what separates an average pitcher from a great pitcher.”

Reyes didn’t waste his year away. In addition to rehab he paid attention to how veterans such as Wainwright prepared for each start and took care of themselves throughout an entire season.

Reyes, whose listed weight is 245 pounds, focused on improving his physique. He’s 15 pounds lighter than he was when he finished an impressive 4-1 with a 1.57 ERA over 12 appearances (five starts) during his big league debut in 2016.

Reyes also estimates that he has lost about 10 pounds of body fat since last August.

“I thought I would focus on putting my body in the right position to succeed for a long time,” he said. “I think I’ve done that for now and hopefully I’ll continue to do that for the rest of my career.”

Reyes has always appreciated his special talent, but he admittedly appreciates the game more after sitting out a season. He has a greater appreciation for the little things.

“Even giving up a base hit you don’t go through that pain, that emotion and stuff in the dugout,” he said. “You go through it with your team in the dugout but you don’t go through it personally as in getting that experience on the field.”

Reyes is hungry to truly feel an active part of the Cardinals again. On a team full of players with something to prove, Reyes is primed to prove that he can be an elite, front-line starter again.

He wants to validate Wainwright’s belief in him and repay the veteran for lifting him at his weakest moment a year ago.

“Now it’s about taking what (Wainwright) said and using it for the drive and putting it all in and trying to get the best out of me,” he said. “If he sees that, and he’s been in the game for a long time, I wouldn’t say that puts pressure but that puts something on me where it says I gotta exceed my abilities because if he sees that, I got to believe it and I gotta want it as much as anyone else.”


This column will be published Sunday in the Post-Dispatch's 40-page "Baseball Preview" section. 

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Jose de Jesus Ortiz

@OrtizKicks on Twitter

jortiz@post-dispatch.com