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It’s not over for the St. Louis Cardinals until the standings say it’s over

The loss of rookie pitcher Alex Reyes to Tommy John surgery has thrown Cardinal Nation into a full-blown panic. But the team’s strength is depth of starting pitching. Michael Wacha will be among several to compete for Reyes’ presumed spot in the starting rotation.
The loss of rookie pitcher Alex Reyes to Tommy John surgery has thrown Cardinal Nation into a full-blown panic. But the team’s strength is depth of starting pitching. Michael Wacha will be among several to compete for Reyes’ presumed spot in the starting rotation. Associated Press

I can’t believe how quickly some St. Louis Cardinals fans have concluded that it’s time to pull the plug on the 2017 season.

People were literally ready to wave the white flag of surrender on the first day of spring training because one player got hurt. While that player, Alex Reyes, ranks as the Redbirds’ top prospect, it is worth noting, however, that he has exactly four major league wins and 46 major league innings on his resume.

Were we hopeful that Reyes would have a huge rookie campaign? Certainly. But if you’re a major league manager and you’re counting on a rookie to make or break your season, you don’t have a truly competitive team on your hands.

I was hopeful that Reyes would be a boost late in the season, coming into the rotation to give the Cardinals a power pitcher with a fresh arm that opposing hitters hadn’t seen too much up to that point. It was unrealistic to expect a guy who last year threw 111 1/3 innings to be able to pitch 200 plus frames as a wire-to-wire starter this year. As we all have been reminded, young players have fragile arms that must be treated with caution.

The Cardinals didn’t lose a pitcher that they could count on to win 18 games this year. What they lost was a year of development for a guy they hope in his third or fourth season could be an ace. That’s a bummer. But the major leagues are full of guys who had Tommy John surgery early in their careers and rebounded to be stars. Hopefully, by getting this out of the way now, Reyes’ elbow will be healthy for the next decade or so.

So, how do the Cardinals rebound?

Well, depth in the starting rotation was always their strongest suit as the calendar turned to 2017. While the club now has a little less margin for error, it still has more than enough able bodies to round out a starting five: Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake and Lance Lynn seem to have their names written on the roster in ink. Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver, Tyler Lyons and Trevor Rosenthal are all guys who will be in the mix for the final rotation slot.

I am hopeful Wacha is going to have a huge bounce back year after a lost 2016 campaign.

While Wacha’s questionable shoulder is likely to remain a concern for the rest of his career, the big righty pitched well in 2015 after bouncing back from the same issue, a stress reaction injury. He’s been working on a new exercise program designed to strengthen the shoulder and, so far — cross your fingers — seems to be back to his old self.

We know from what we have previously seen from Wacha that, if he’s healthy, he is capable of being a top of the rotation hurler. That means there is at least reasonable hope that the Cardinals could still have an excellent starting five. And an excellent starting five means the Birds are in position to compete for a playoff berth.

I said it with tongue in cheek, but there is some truth to the Twitter post I wrote yesterday: “On the bright side, now if the Cardinals decide to make a trade, they don’t have to deal with opposing GMs who hold out to get Reyes in exchange for a three-month rental player.”

When you have a top player, trade partners get stars in their eyes and it can paralyze your ability to make a deal. Now that Reyes is off the table, maybe other teams will be more realistic in their expectations for pieces that could help but don’t command a super star return.

So, at least for now, I’m going to hope that there are no other significant injuries this spring and that Wacha has a huge rebound and, for the next four years, we get to watch Martinez, Reyes and Wacha turn into Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine for the Cardinals.

I have been to spring training 19 times out of the last 20 years and one thing can be counted on every year: Things aren’t going to turn out exactly as expected when the final 25-man roster is set. Someone is going to flame out, someone is going to step up, someone is going to get hurt and someone is going to rebound when we thought they were toast.

There’s a reason they actually bother to play the games. And I’m not giving up until the Cardinals have been mathematically eliminated from contention — or they have a pile on the mound because they’ve won another World Series.

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