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Alex Reyes’s injury is a cruel start to 2017

The Cardinals wunderkind’s reported UCL injury is a sad welcome back to the routine of MLB.

Oakland Athletics v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

It’s important, first of all, to state that we don’t know exactly how the following happened. We know Alex Reyes — 22-year-old Cardinals pitcher, owner of 46 transcendent major league innings in 2016, deservedly hyped blue-chip prospect — had a physical Tuesday morning that turned up something, and that instead of throwing that afternoon, he had an MRI.

The dots weren’t hard to connect, but on Wednesday, the bad news came: Reyes is having Tommy John, and will miss the 2017 season.

We don’t know when it happened, or how, or whether it could’ve been avoided in any way. We don’t know if Reyes will need full-blown Tommy John, or if he’ll be able to benefit from the less-invasive “primary repair” method that fixed Seth Maness’s elbow in record time. We don’t know if Reyes will pitch in 2018, or if he’ll ever pitch again.

And what we do know doesn’t make this any easier. We know that Alex Reyes would’ve been a ton of fun to watch in 2017. His 2016, as said above, was outstanding; in five starts, he had a 2.20 ERA and a 2.48 FIP over 28 23 innings, and in ten relief stints, he had a 0.52 ERA and a 2.97 FIP over 17 13 innings. He ranked number one on Baseball Prospectus’s Top 101 Prospects, released on Monday, and the prospect team there had nothing but good things to say about him:

Reyes’s fastball is an 80-grade offering. It sits in the upper-90s, can touch triple digits, and features life to both sides. When he elevates it, the pitch is criminally unfair. His curve flashes plus-plus and dives off the deck with late 12-6 movement at its best. The change has made strides in 2016 and will flash plus with good sink at times. The overall arsenal is potentially one of the best in baseball—not the minors, baseball.

This wasn’t an isolated opinion; he ranked fourth on Baseball America’s Top 100, and sixth on MLB.com’s. All that was despite the knowledge that Reyes was a pitcher, a 6’3”, 175-lb beanpole of a pitcher, someone for whom injury could come any day. That alone should tell you how promising he was.

But again, Reyes wasn’t simply a prospect to dream on. He had already reached the Show, and in his 46 innings was worth as much as plenty of full-time starters — Yordano Ventura, Jason Hammel, and Jaime Garcia, just to name a few. He had already generated highlights like this:

and this:

and this:

We had every reason to think and hope that 2017 would’ve been great, and that Reyes would’ve emerged as another electric, deceptive, deeply enjoyable young pitcher. Instead, we have to postpone those hopes to 2018, and perhaps — hopefully not, but perhaps — bury them away forever.

And on the first day of Spring Training, no less, the first day on which one could plausibly say that baseball was back. Baseball is indeed back; through its history, a central part of the game has been crushed hopes, dreams deferred and dying, disappointment.

The game is progressing, thankfully; there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic that Reyes will recover, and go on to have a great career, thanks to all the medical advances that have been made in the last 15 years. On more fundamental questions of fair recourse and compensation, the direction of movement is less clearly forward, but by accumulating more than 43 days on a major-league roster, Reyes is guaranteed health coverage and a minimum pension for the rest of his life, even if he never throws another pitch.

Baseball would probably be better if it were entirely injury-free, or if we knew that every injured player was guaranteed to recover. Reyes’s injury was a sudden reminder that it isn’t, and that every player is still at the mercy of the capricious will of his muscles and ligaments. Welcome back, MLB.