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A Prospect From The East


While I'm working on an article detailing the three players the Royals called to the Major Leagues before yesterday's game against the White Sox, here's a prospect report I put together about a month ago on one of the finest pitching prospects in baseball, the Cardinals' Anthony Reyes.

=========================================================

As a general rule, I don’t evaluate pitching prospects after seeing them play their game at the highest level just once; there are far too many ways for any young pitcher to fail in the major or high minor leagues. Some have above-average ability like Jason Bere, but never figure out how to consistently throw the ball over the plate. Former Kansas City Royal Jose Rosado looked like he was on his way to a successful career, but underwent two shoulder surgeries and didn’t pitch again after the 2000 season. Those guys were lucky compared to Brien Taylor, the first overall pick of the Yankees in the 1991 Amateur Draft. Taylor blew out his arm in the minor leagues and never threw one pitch at Yankee Stadium. In fact, the attrition rate in young starting pitchers is so high, Baseball Prospectus now warns its readers that the law of TINSTAAPP (There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect) should be taken into consideration before a fan gets excited about any 21-year-old fireballer who’s mowing down hitters in the Texas League.

One of the basic principles of TINSTAAPP is that pitching injuries happen with or without negligent behavior on the behalf of a manager or, in other cases, the pitcher himself. Whipping one’s arm forward 100-120 times at maximum effort every five days is not a natural (or healthy) motion by itself, and said arm doesn’t really need the "assistance" of overwork, bad mechanics, poor conditioning, or anything else. As a result, young pitchers can be rapidly ascending to the big leagues one minute but be rapidly raced to the operating table the next. But while TINSTAAPP is thoroughly ingrained in my mind, preventing me from making any brash statements about hurlers who can’t yet purchase alcohol (Rick Ankiel, anyone?), I’m going to buck that trend for one night to discuss Anthony Reyes, the St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher who made his major league debut in early August against the Milwaukee Brewers -- and may be the best prospect you’ve never heard of.

A product of the University of Southern California, Reyes -- who pitched in the shadow of Chicago Cubs star Mark Prior in 2000 and 2001 -- had a very run-of-the-mill college career, fighting repeated elbow problems and doing little that would lead anybody to believe that he’d be a top prospect in the coming years. In 312.1 innings of work, Reyes allowed 328 hits and posted a 3.89 ERA. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was a very-solid 2.77-to-1, but he survived on good control (2.74 walks per nine innings pitched) and created his own outs only adequately, averaging just 7.58 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. However, the Cardinals saw enough ability in the right-hander to make him their 15th-round selection in the 2003 Amateur Draft, giving Reyes the thrill of hearing his name called in the draft for the second year in a row (the Tigers chose him in the 13th round a year earlier, but didn‘t sign him).

Because of Reyes’ persistent elbow pain, the Cardinals shut him down for the remainder of the 2003 season. The rest the kid received proved to be just what the doctor ordered. In 2004, he made his pro debut at Single-A Palm Beach, posting this line:

IP SO BB ERA
36.2 38 7 4.66
.
While his ERA continued to be unimpressive and his hit rate remained high, Reyes made quantum leaps forward in improving his control and missing bats. After seven starts, the Cardinals thought so much of his performance and mental makeup that they promoted him to Double-A, skipping the 6-2, 215-pound Reyes over a level of competition. In some cases, that can be a recipe for disaster, but Reyes took full advantage of the opportunity as is detailed below:

IP SO BB ERA
74.1 102 13 2.91
.
That’s about as close to a perfect pitching line as you’re going to find, not counting Pedro Martinez’s absurd 2000 with the Boston Red Sox. For the first time in his professional and amateur career, Reyes allowed less than one hit per inning pitched. He also lowered his home run rate (0.36 per nine innings pitched), his walk rate (1.58 per nine innings pitched) and raised his strikeout rate to an absurd 12.35 per nine innings pitched. It was at that point prospect mavens like Baseball America began to take notice, because any pitcher who picks up 46 percent of his outs via the strikeout deserves to be talked about.

In 2005, the Cardinals pushed Reyes up to Triple-A Memphis, disappointing this Springfield Cardinals fan who was hoping to catch a glimpse of the organization’s top prospect at Hammons Field. I’m sure any minor league player would want to take the field at Springfield’s $32 million baseball facility, but by the looks of it, Reyes didn’t feel too slighted by being assigned to the Redbirds’ roster:

IP SO BB ERA
128.2 136 34 3.64
.
Despite nearly throwing a no-hitter for Memphis this year, there was no doubt some regression in Reyes’ performance from his amazing stint at Tennessee, but since it’s downright impossible for anybody to be that good in consecutive seasons, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. His ERA, walk, strikeout, home run, and hit rates all remained very encouraging and did nothing to hurt his Top Prospect label.

However, statistical performance can only tell a person so much about how much talent a baseball player has in his body. Needless to say, after hearing that Reyes would be called up to start against the Brewers, I made sure to plop down in front of the TV to watch his debut. Admittedly, I came into my amateur scouting experience with some preconceived notions.

First, I assumed Reyes was Latin American. I was very wrong, as evidenced by this picture. Second, I was expecting to see a smallish pitcher with a marginal fastball who got by on changing speeds and hitting his spots. Once again, I couldn’t have been more incorrect, although you couldn’t tell it from Anthony’s delivery. Using mechanics that are darned near perfect (this and his good mound balance will help him stay healthy), Reyes consistently tossed 93-mph fastballs all night long, topping out at 96. I’d describe the velocity on his heater as “easy gas,” meaning it doesn’t really look like he’s trying to throw so hard. Mariano Rivera, John Smoltz, and Royals rookie right-hander Ambiorix Burgos have also been blessed with this trait. Everyone knows the exploits of Rivera and Smoltz, but Burgos has burst onto the scene with 58 strikeouts in his first 50 big league innings.

Mixing a well above-average changeup with his fastball (his breaking pitch wasn't working that night), Reyes -- who irons the bill of his cap -- tossed 6.1 innings of two-hit, two-run baseball, and made only one mistake all night long: a mistake pitch that shortstop Bill Hall hit a long, long ways to left field. Conversely, Reyes completely dominated Hall’s double-play partner Rickie Weeks, striking him out twice.

After the game, Reyes was shipped right back to Memphis where he’ll complete his apprenticeship. Despite the fact that not many baseball fans know who he is or just how talented he is right now, Anthony will definitely change his anonymous persona in the future. It’s either that, or adopting a nickname.

How does Anthony “Don’t Call Me Al” Reyes sound?
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