The St. Louis Cardinals have had quite a bit of turmoil in the late-inning relief corps this season. Jason Motte is injured and Mitchell Boggs has fallen flat in his attempt to lock down the ninth inning role. As the bullpen woes continue for the parent club, the clamoring for reinforcements has already begun.
Combine those struggles with the success being enjoyed by top prospect Michael Wacha and the natural curiosity is whether the Cardinals would consider promoting Wacha to help out in relief. Though he’s rocketed through their system, the Cardinals would be unwise to sacrifice Wacha’s development as a starter for a late-April promotion.
It’s too early for that kind of desperation.
Wacha has been one of the hottest names in professional baseball since the Cardinals made him the 19th overall selection in the 2012 draft. He signed in time to make 11 appearances across three levels for the Cards last season and put up staggering numbers. Wacha struck out 40 hitters in just 21 innings of work, almost all of it in relief.
If that wasn’t enough, Wacha was beyond dominant during Spring Training, where he was easily the most impressive pitcher I saw in the Grapefruit League. Not only did Wacha do the almost unheard of and work 11.2 innings in Major League camp without allowing an earned run, but he held opponents scoreless in 13 innings in Minor League camp as well. In total, Wacha allowed just 10 hits and a single unearned run while striking out 28 in 24.2 innings during Spring Training.
Despite being less than year removed from his college days at Texas A&M, Wacha was assigned to triple-A Memphis to start 2013. If he continues the success he’s having there, it will be awfully tempting for the Cardinals to bring him up to the big leagues. And soon.
A cursory look at the numbers would suggest that Wacha has little left to show in the minors. Posting a sub-2.00 ERA and 3-0 record in his first four starts, Wacha has gotten better since struggling a bit early on. Wacha walked five batters while striking out just three in his first two starts spanning nine innings. In his last two outings, however, Wacha has worked seven inning each time and allowed a mere three hits apiece while striking out a total of nine and walking four.
The one thing that jumps off the page at you in looking at the numbers is that Wacha has struck out just 12 batters in 23 innings of work thus far, which equates to just 4.7 per nine innings. Certainly he has gotten better in that regard of late, fanning six through seven innings in his last start, but the early-season peripherals suggest a pitcher who’s been much more lucky than good. In fact, Wacha has pitched to a FIP of 4.46 this season, and his success has been largely fueled by an incredibly low BABIP of .177.
In other words, don’t look at his won-loss record and shiny ERA and assume Wacha has it all figured out. At least not yet.
The Cardinals are well-positioned to maintain their Major League success for years to come, both because of the talent already in St. Louis and the depth of their farm system, and Wacha is among the headliners in terms of prospects. A potential rotation that includes Adam Wainwright, Wacha, and Shelby Miller has fans drooling, as it should.
Late-game losses are always the toughest on fans and can lead to knee-jerk reactions by organizations as well. But instead of rushing a pitcher who clearly still has some work to do in the minor leagues and risk stunting his development, the Cardinals, and their fans, would do well to exercise patience with Wacha.
When his time comes, he’ll be a good one.