New "it" prospect, Michael Wacha. - Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports
Furcal's elbow, the prospects on Sunday's mound and Wacha Wacha
There's a perfect storm scenario for the Cardinals this year. Established starting pitchers go down with injuries forcing the Cardinals to lean heavily on prospects. Simultaneously, Rafael Furcal's elbow finally explodes in totality and the clock strikes midnight turning Pete Kozma back to a pumpkin. With the Cardinals reliant on their rotational prospects, a trade for a legitimate shortstop becomes impossible and the Cardinals limp through the season with some combination of Ronny Cedeno at shortstop.
With about half a dozen fail safes built in to prevent the scenario above (from Michael Wacha to Ryan Jackson to the overlooked Carlos Martinez), it's certainly not time to panic yet but the first few dominoes have fallen. Chris Carpenter is done for the season having been officially moved to the 60-day DL and Furcal's elbow has inched closer to catastrophe requiring a cortisone shot this past week.
If the Cardinals decide to revisit the idea of a trade, guys like Elvis Andrus and JJ Hardy seem like the most likely targets. Both the Rangers and Orioles have top prospects ready to take over at shortstop and room for pitching on their rosters. The signing of Ronny Cedeno, however, has to be read as a signal that the Cardinals are ready to forge ahead without any kind of external replacement in the event of an injury to Furcal.
The drop-off between Furcal and any one of his replacements (Cedeno, Kozma or Jackson) isn't massive but projects to be about 15 runs per 600 at bats on paper. This isn't enough to end the Cardinals season but it's the kind of flesh wound that bleeds dry your margin for error. When these things pile up with the loss of Chris Carpenter and some hypothetical injuries to Carlos Beltran and Jaime Garcia, they take a toll. Even with backups in place, the Cardinals season on paper is going to end in a tight race for the wild card. (Cincinnati takes the division with some degree of ease on paper.)
When there isn't a big move to make, teams are left to fiddle and work to improve the margins. Making sure that bullpens don't wind up with a crappy "long man" in them or trying to jump start your season with lots of first inning bunts. Death by a thousand paper cuts is a terrible way to go. It's too early to panic. It's too early to even worry but you can see the path forward that has a season unravel from a bunch of small disappointments rather than one large one.
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At the bottom of Derrick Goold's psuedo-live blog of yesterday's action, the list of pitchers for today's game against Boston included a substantial number of prospects but none of the name variety. The list included left handers John Gast and Tyler Lyons, relievers Eric Fornataro and Michael Blazek as well as veterans Edward Mujica and Fernando Salas.
Gast and Lyons have both moved quickly though the system. While Gast made a name for himself with his pickoff move in previous Spring Training camps, Lyons had the statistically stronger 2012. Neither of them will show significant velocity on the mound. Lyons is a control artist who rarely walks hitters. Gast relies on a varied repertoire to get batters out without any single outstanding pitch. I'm higher on Lyons as a long term starter but both could hang on to the back part of a major league rotation for a while as a left hander.
Fornataro is an odd case. Like Blazek, he's a former starter who failed to progress past the low minors in that role. Moving to the bullpen reports had Fornataro's fastball into the mid-to-high 90s for much of the season. He's always had a heavy fastball with good sink. Best case scenario for Fornataro is something that looks like Mitchell Boggs career path. A heavy, hard fastball but curious lack of strikeouts characterized Boggs minor league starting career in much the same way it has Fornataro's. There's still a ways to go before believing that Fornataro reaches that point.
Blazek saw some stability in his role performance last year coming out of the pen as a multi-inning reliever. Like Fornataro, he added some velocity to his fastball in the move to the pen. Unlike Fornataro, that translated into actual strikeouts. Blazek's control is no better than average and he'll likely find himself in Memphis' bullpen to start the season but is worth keeping an eye on.
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There's been a lot of chatter about Michael Wacha this spring and how great he looks. There's no reason to believe that reporters aren't accurately relaying their assessment (or others assessment) of his performance but I get agitated when the new prospect du jour makes waves.
Part of this is shiny toy syndrome and I've criticized it more directly when looking at prospect ranking lists. Since there's far less reliable data on someone like Michael Wacha than Shelby Miller, it's easier for the imagination to run wild with grandiose possibilities. There's fewer objective checks and measures to temper enthusiasm.
Wacha also positioned himself well for this with some superb relief work last season in 16 innings. It's clear that Wacha has talent -- he likely wouldn't have been a first round draft pick without it -- but this is an all too common progression of prospect hype. I think I'll wait until he's made his first professional debut before deeming him big league ready.
Aside: I will forever think of this clip from Family Guy when Michael Wacha is announced.