It was about this time last February that Alex Reyes threw an offspeed pitch and cringed. The sensation he felt throughout his elbow was, as he later described it:
"A pain that I hadn't felt before."
That symptom led to a diagnosis, which left Reyes watching from the sidelines last season while he worked through his recovery from Tommy John surgery. It's a process that, now, is nearly complete.
Though the Cardinals won't hold their first Spring Training workout for another two weeks, Reyes is among those who have already relocated to Jupiter, Fla., where he is throwing off the mound and getting an early test against hitters in live batting-practice sessions.
Wanting to protect their top prospect as much as possible, the Cardinals have set a soft target of May 1 as a likely return date for Reyes. What hasn't been so explicitly defined, though, is what role he'll fill upon that return.
Long term, the Cardinals have every intention of using Reyes to anchor their rotation. MLB Pipeline recently ranked Reyes as the seventh-best right-handed pitching prospect, and he likely would have been higher on that list had he not just missed a full season.
But given the recovery process Reyes has undergone over these last 12 months, the Cardinals intend to be cautious in 2018. Their preference, as stated multiple times this offseason by president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, would be to have Reyes first come out of the bullpen.
"I think for us, it's going to be just managing his workload," Mozeliak said. "Part of it will be dependent on need. Part of it will be how we map out innings. And as a little reminder, that could be a pretty dynamic arm in the bullpen."
As for where Reyes could fit in the bullpen, the answer is just about anywhere. With a fastball that touches triple digits to go along with an above-average curveball and changeup, Reyes has the repertoire to be successful in a late-inning role. And with the back end of their bullpen still unsettled at this point, the Cardinals could consider Reyes as a setup or closing option.
The organization's biggest concern in pigeonholing Reyes into a specific role, though, would be that it could muddy its plans to be cautious with his workload. Pitching multiple days in a row is not necessarily ideal for a player who is not only coming back from surgery, but also one who has limited experience pitching in relief.
Another possibility the Cardinals have considered is utilizing Reyes in high-leverage situations that arise in the middle of a game. In that scenario, he could help a starter out of trouble and then throw multiple innings before handing the game over to the team's trusted late-inning relievers.
And, of course, the Cardinals will keep the option open to utilize Reyes as a starter should a hole arise in the rotation. That would be Reyes' preferred fit, though he does understand that there are some unique factors in play this season.
"Whatever it is, I'm here to help. Whatever they throw at me, I'm willing to take forward. For my career, yes, I would love to be a starting pitcher. But I want to be on a team contending for the postseason. We want to be in the playoffs, and I want to be a part of it."