Alex Reyes won't throw a pitch during a game this season but he knows the lessons he is learning while watching will help him next year. (Bill Greenblatt/UPI)

By Rob Rains

Alex Reyes is about halfway through what he thought would be the longest year of his life, the first time he can remember when he was not playing baseball.

It has been frustrating, yes, but not to the degree that Reyes might have imagined when he learned in February he needed Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and would not be able to pitch this season.

What Reyes has found out the last few months is that just because he isn’t playing doesn’t mean he isn’t learning – lessons which he already knows will make him a better pitcher when he gets back on the mound next year.

Reyes has been able to take advantage of teaching moments he would not have had if he were consumed with his own personal pitcher versus hitter battles. Sitting on the bench, often next to either Adam Wainwright or Lance Lynn, both Tommy John survivors, he can see the big picture, and take a lot of mental notes.

He also is asking a lot of questions.

“For the few days when Yadi (Molina) wasn’t playing there would be some situations in the game that I would ask him, ‘What would you throw here?’” Reyes said. “He would tell me, and then I would ask him why. Those are things I am looking to take advantage of.”

Reyes has been able to study parts of the game he can’t focus on when he is pitching –
how the defense adjusts to certain hitters and situations; how hitters make constant adjustments. He has ducked into the film room during games, watching how hitters change their approach and pattern from one at-bat to the next.

“When you are not pitching you are able to watch the game,” Reyes said. “I watch the hitters. I’ve talked to John Mabry (the hitting coach) and watched how he dissects hitter’s swings. He’s explained how to do it, and reading swings is a big thing I’ve learned this year.”

Reyes was considered one of the top pitching prospects in the game coming into this season. In 12 games after he was promoted to the Cardinals last year, including five starts, he was 4-1 with a 1.57 ERA. He struck out 52 in 46 innings.

The hopes that he could be the NL Rookie of the Year, however, ended before he threw one pitch in spring training in February. Reyes hurt his elbow in an off-season workout, and learned the seriousness of his injury almost as soon as he arrived in Florida.

Reyes will still be just 23 years old when spring training begins next year, and there is no reason to expect he will be any less successful than he was before he was injured.

“I’m not throwing now, but I’m getting stronger and better,” Reyes said. “With pitching, a lot of times you learn from experience on the mound. But there are some things I can learn while not pitching.”

That was exactly what Wainwright learned when he had to sit out the 2011 season after his own surgery.

Even though Wainwright was at a different point in his career when he was injured, having already established himself as a successful major-leaguer with World Series experience, what he learned in 2011 were lessons he retained when he got back on the mound.

“Even though I had had several seasons in the big leagues, 2011 was one of my greatest learning years,” Wainwright said. “It wasn’t just learning about recovering and all that, it was mainly how to be more efficient as a pitcher and the ins and outs of pitching, the finer points.

“I watched Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter almost every start. I didn’t have much else to do when the team was on the road. I was either gardening or playing with my kiddos or watching one of those guys pitching. One thing that really stuck out to me more than anything was that those guys were on the attack all the time and when they walked somebody they scored. For me it was a lesson learned.”

Wainwright thinks Reyes will benefit from the lessons he is learning as well, both while standing next to other pitchers in the dugout or from observing the other starters when they are doing their work between games.

“He (Reyes) does a great job, but he did that when he was playing too,” Wainwright said. “It’s kind of the culture we want to create here with the starting pitchers. It may happen once every fifth side session, but there will be something that happens out there – with a grip or something – that helps you. Sometimes it only takes a couple of small things to turn a season around.

“He (Reyes) has done a great job asking questions. He will be on the bench beside you and he will ask, ‘What do you think about that pitch?’ I love that kind of stuff because that’s what I did. I was always asking questions.”

Another resource for Reyes for the first part of this season was veteran pitcher Zach Duke, who was also on his own rehab schedule after undergoing the elbow surgery last October. Duke has moved his rehab sessions to Florida, where he has more of a chance to pitch, and could be back in minor-league games sometime in August with the hope of pitching for the Cardinals before the end of the season.

Reyes knows he won’t do that. He hopes to begin throwing sometime after the All-Star break, with the goal and projection remaining that he will be cleared to pitch when spring training begins next February.

“It’s frustrating every day but it’s given me a different kind of drive for the game and respect for it,” Reyes said. “My arm feels great. I am excited and kind of anxious to get throwing.

“Not being able to pitch has made me work hard to get back where you want to be. It is an opportunity for me to get better.”

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains