Alex Reyes news starts Cardinals season on a bleak note

JUPITER, Fla. -- The Alex Reyes news hits the St. Louis Cardinals right where they live.

Something wasn't right from the minute the team's hulking, baby-faced pitcher set foot in the clubhouse Tuesday morning. He politely declined an interview request, saying he had somewhere to be. That somewhere turned out to be an appointment with a doctor that led to an MRI tube that led to the grim realization that one of the brightest young talents in the game could be dimmed for at least a year.

Reyes has had a sore elbow for a few days, and word is the tear in his ulnar collateral ligament is severe enough that doctors will recommend Tommy John replacement surgery. Recovery from that operation figures to keep Reyes out of action until 2018.

Nowadays, the prognosis for injuries like this is pretty encouraging long-term. Reyes is only 22 years old. He'd be nuts to prolong what could prove to be the inevitable if doctors think it truly is inevitable. He might as well get it addressed now rather than wait until the prime of his career, his best earning years, when the team will need him the most. He and the Cardinals have known since the spring of 2013 that things could be heading this way. The first time doctors found a partial tear -- also known as a strain -- they were able to keep him on the field with an injection of platelet-rich plasma. Now, it looks as if they'll have to cut open his elbow and replace the ligament.

It stinks for Reyes and the Cardinals because he was one of their most dynamic players at a time when the team has a gap in high-end talent at the top of its minor league pipeline. The Cardinals are never going to say they're rebuilding, but this is pretty close to what that looks like around here. They failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2010 last season, and most of the projections haven't liked what they expect to see from the Cardinals in 2017. Losing the best prospect in the organization isn't going to make those prognostications any sunnier or make that 17 ½-game gap with the Chicago Cubs from last season get any smaller.

The only raw material the Cardinals have ever consistently used for their construction projects is the stuff Reyes is made of: homegrown talent. He's not just a guy who throws 100 mph; he's a guy who throws 100 mph with maturity and feistiness and adds a good aura about him in the clubhouse.

Short of something happening to Carlos Martinez, Tuesday's news was about as lousy for a Cardinals fan on day one of spring workouts as you could imagine. Reyes was one important adjustment -- pitch efficiency -- from being one of the team's most bankable commodities in preventing runs, the area where the team broke down in 2016. He struck out 52 batters in 46 major league innings last season. He also walked 23. He wasn't a finished product.

Yet Reyes was a big part of any best-case scenarios a Cardinals fan could build for this season. Teamed with Martinez, he could have given the team a high-octane young pitching duo that had the potential to make up for the power the team lost when it let Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss go. If the Cardinals wanted to limit his innings, he could have been a shutdown reliever, which he was for much of his month-and-a-half in the big leagues in 2016.

Now, Cardinals fans might have to confine those fantasies to two years down the road and, even with advances in medicine and physical therapy, major surgery still involves an element of mystery.

The Cardinals will now turn their hopes for the back of the rotation to Michael Wacha or, as general manager John Mozeliak was quick to point out, perhaps Luke Weaver, the team's second-best pitching prospect, the one whose high ranking didn't prove as predictive in 2016 as Reyes' did. Facts are facts. Weaver had a 5.70 ERA and 1.596 WHIP in 36⅓ innings. The 25-year-old Wacha had a 5.09 ERA and 1.478 WHIP in 138 innings and has had his shoulder give out on him late in each of his past two seasons.

The team has better starting pitching depth than it did a year ago, but that's not to say it has anyone with Reyes' ability -- or even close -- ready to step in. Few teams do, which is why anybody who roots for those teams dreads news like what the Cardinals received Tuesday. Reyes didn't even get a chance to put on his uniform before learning he might not have to bother with one this season.