ST. LOUIS (AP) — As one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, Alex Reyes was expected to play a vital role for St. Louis last season.

That was before Reyes suffered an elbow injury during spring training and missed the regular season after surgery.

After a year of rehabilitation, the 23-year-old Reyes is back and ready for spring training for St. Louis — and he's in the best shape of his career. Thanks to a year's worth of physical conditioning while away from the game, Reyes has dropped 10-15 pounds, and he's already in Florida doing some light throwing in preparation for camp in a few weeks.

Reyes is hoping the off-the-field work helps him regain the form that led to a 1.57 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 46 innings while splitting time between the starting rotation and bullpen in his first go-around with the Cardinals in 2016.

"Our goal from the beginning was just to get as strong as possible, and do it in a way where it's going to help me in the future," Reyes said. "I think we've done a great job this offseason, and throughout the year I had off with not pitching, and focusing on my strengthening program."

St. Louis President John Mozeliak has set a "soft date" of May 1 for Reyes' return to the staff, though he's not sure yet if the right-hander will work out of the rotation or bullpen this season.

Mozeliak is wary of putting unreasonable expectations on such an important part of St. Louis' present and future, a key reason he's keeping the options open.

"I don't want this to be one of those where we're pushing him because of a need," Mozeliak said. "If we're pushing him because he's ready and everything's going well on his account, then I think that's a little different. But I also don't want to wake up in September and find out we can't use him."

For his part, Reyes still wants his career to be defined as a starting pitcher, though he's on board with the idea of possibly working out of the bullpen this season as a way to ease his way back to the full workload of a starter. Mozeliak said Reyes could even work his way into the role of closer, a fit which would seem ideal in the short term for someone whose fastball regularly approached 100 mph before his elbow injury.

Working out of the bullpen is something Reyes did for the Cardinals in 2016, making seven relief appearances before making his way to the rotation. It was a transition he quizzed teammates about, most notably long time St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright.

Like Reyes, Wainwright began his career with the Cardinals in the bullpen. He also watched closely this offseason as Reyes' name was often reported as being a possible trade candidate in the pursuit of former Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton and then Marcell Ozuna — who the Cardinals did acquire last month .

"I think when I looked at all the trade negotiations I was reading about, I was thinking, 'Please don't trade Alex Reyes,'" Wainwright said. "The guy can be a superstar in this league ... I think he has humungous talent and will be one of the best pitchers in the game."

How quickly Reyes returns to his dominant self will depend on his well his recovery goes over the next few months.

"My arm feels good, my body feels great and I feel like I learned a lot throughout this year just being able to watch and read hitters and read approaches and just being able to dissect video," Reyes said. "Once I get the ball, we'll see where it goes from there."

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