Alexander Reyes, right, shown here with battery mate Steve Bean, is an 18-year-old with mid-90s velocity. (Dave Boyd/Johnson City Press)
Alexander Reyes moved to the Dominican Republic from his Elizabeth, N.J., home late in 2011 to concentrate year-round on baseball, and it paid off this past December when St. Louis signed him to a free-agent contract for $950,000.
The 18-year-old Reyes is slated to be the Johnson City Cardinals’ starting pitcher when they open the Appalachian League season Thursday night at Kingsport.
A 6-foot-3, 185-pound right-hander, Reyes can generate mid-90s velocity and the tight rotation that produces the so-called 12-to-6 curveball.
“He’s got an electric arm,” first-year Johnson City manager Joe Kruzel said Sunday afternoon at the Cardinals’ annual meet-and-greet. “He has a special gift of a right arm that he was blessed with.”
Reyes said the move to baseball-crazed San Cristobal was a family decision. He has family there, including aunts and a grandmother, and speaks English and Spanish.
Johnson City’s a long way from the Caribbean — Reyes smiled at a reporter’s reference to his hillbilly accent — but East Tennessee and the Dominican look a lot alike to a strong arm in the pitcher-friendly St. Louis organization.
“This is somewhere to stay focused on playing baseball,” Reyes said.
Growing up in Jersey, Reyes was “born a Yankees fan.” But it didn’t take long for a pitcher to appreciate St. Louis’ style. The Cardinals harvest much of what starts in their farm system, and much of that grows in the dirt on the mound.
“The Cardinals ... build from the bottom all the way up to the majors,” Reyes said.
A partial Johnson City roster was available Sunday. It included catcher Steve Bean, a first round pick out of Rockwall High School (Texas) in 2012 who split time last year in Johnson City and the Gulf Coast League. He hit .320 in the GCL after struggling at the plate in the Appalachian League.
“I feel a lot more prepared and a lot more comfortable with a year of experience,” said Bean, whose familiarity with Johnson City includes eating at Main Street Pizza Company.
Kruzel will be managing for the first time since he did so for Cincinnati’s Pioneer League affiliate in 2007. He spent the past five years as the Cardinals’ hitting instructor for Quad Cities in Davenport, Iowa.
Kruzel’s son A.J., an infielder this past season at Sinclair Community College, was drafted in the 37th round by St. Louis, but he’s likely to remain in college. Bean likes what he’s seen from the elder Kruzel.
“Joe’s a great guy,” Bean said. “He keeps a good atmosphere.”
Kruzel said numerous people in the St. Louis organization have referred to the beauty of Northeast Tennessee, and he wasn’t disapponited.
“It’s great they can start their professional careers in a beautiful city like Johnson City,” Kruzel said.
Bean and the other Cardinals players and managers signed autographs for fans Sunday evening. Children and a few parents played catch in left field.
“It is a neat experience,” Bean said. “When you’re younger you look up to guys like this ... and I’ve kind of switched places.”
The Cardinals roster includes Lance Jeffries Jr., an outfielder who had four triples and was 11-for-14 in stolen bases for Johnson City last season. Jeffries was drafted in the 10th round out of McCluer High School (Fergsuon, Mo.) in 2011.
Another high draft pick is infielder Kenny Peoples-Walls, who was selected in the fourth round in 2011 out of Los Angeles’ Westchester High School.
New Johnson City hitting coach Roberto Espinoza played for Johnson City in 2007.
Chuck Arnold is beginning his eighth season as Johnson City’s general manager after spending two years as an assistant to predecessor Brandon Cross. Arnold is pleased with the improvements that have been made (and continue to be made) at Cardinal Park. An expanded concourse area is certainly more fan friendly.
“We’re really excited about all of the work that’s being done,” Arnold said. “It’s definitely going to enhance the fans’ experience. ... The city’s done a great job.”
The Cardinals made the playoffs and finished second behind Elizabethton in the West Division last year in Oliver Marmol’s lone season as manager after Mike Shildt managed Johnson City to Appalachian League championships in each of his final two seasons (2010-11). Marmol is managing the State College (Pa.) affiliate this season. Shildt is in his second season managing Double-A Springfield (Mo.).