Sunday's game against the Phillies falls on the sixth day after Carlos Martinez's first start of the 2014 season. The game also coincides with Michael Wacha's turn in the rotation. The Cardinals have decided to skip Wacha and give Saturday's start to Martinez. The club's decision is an interesting one, though perhaps not all that surprising.
Last season was Wacha's first full year as a pro. The righthander received an invitation to spring training, where he turned heads. The Cardinals then assigned Wacha to Triple-A to start the year and, throughout the season, moved him between the Memphis rotation, St. Louis rotation, Memphis rotation, St. Louis bullpen, and St. Louis rotation (in roughly that order). After Wacha played a pivotal role in the Cardinals winning a division title and National League pennant, general manager John Mozeliak revealed that the seemingly helter skelter way the organization used Wacha was part of a plan to bank innings, so that the former Aggie could contribute down the stretch and in the postseason as a starter.
The deployment of Wacha as a starter during October coincided with the relegation of fellow rookie righthander Shelby Miller to the bullpen—apparently due to Miller experiencing shoulder soreness late in the season and the fact that he was approaching an innings-pitched limit the club had set for him. So, naturally, at the start of spring training, folks were curious about how the organization would handle its bevy of young pitchers this 2014 season. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported with quotes from Mozeliak that the Cardinals had no set plans to limit Miller or Wacha's workload this year:
With the potential of both Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha in the rotation to open the season, the Cardinals do not have a plan in place to limit the young righties’ workloads, preferring instead to improvise if there are signs of fatigue.
Neither is going to enter the year with scripted breaks.
"Very comparable," general manager John Mozeliak said. "If I had to say who would likely get the nod as far as a few extra innings, it would probably be Shelby. But we’ll see. I would characterize it as something that we will pay attention to. ... Wacha is still a young pitcher, but as far as we manage (his workload) it is something we could audible at any time."
With the announcement that the Cardinals will skip Wacha's scheduled turn in the rotation on Saturday, the club has called an audible in their usage of the righty. Might a recent dip in Wacha's velocity be the reason? Two starts ago, Wacha took the mound against Tampa and lacked the zip we've grown accustomed to seeing on his fastball. This after a similar mph dip against the Giants two starts prior to that. Consider Wacha's velocity chart from Brooks Baseball:
I feel it necessary to point out that I'm a worrywart when it comes to player injuries. I'm still concerned about Yadier Molina's health. I'm scared that Kolten Wong's shoulder will plague him throughout the rest of the season. So it should come as no surprise that I'm a bit worried about what the slowing down of Wacha's fastball in two of his last four starts means. And apparently the Cardinals are at least a bit concerned as well. As MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch reports:
"There have definitely been times over the last couple starts where I was maybe getting a little bit tired," said Wacha, who has allowed eight runs on 16 hits and seven walks in his three June starts. "Obviously, I want to be out there every fifth day. But we have Carlos in a situation where he's able to fill in; he's already stretched out a little bit. I guess it's that time to do it."
Langosch elaborates further with a quote from manager Mike Matheny:
It was Wacha's start in Tampa Bay last week -- a start in which Wacha allowed a season-most four runs while searching for fastball command -- that prompted the Cardinals to look for an opportunity to rest the right-hander sooner rather than later. They probably will do so again, too, in what is Wacha's first full season in the Majors.
"I doubt it's the last time," Matheny said. "We're going to be looking to get him time. That was part of the plan when we walked into this thing."
In the same Goold article from the preseason on how the Cardinals planned to manage their young pitchers' workloads, Mozeliak shed light on how the organization viewed Martinez:
The most likely pitcher to enter the season earmarked for a break at some point to conserve innings would be Carlos Martinez, the righthander. If Martinez wins a role in the rotation, Mozeliak said "he would have to be managed different." He spent last season as a starter in the minors and reliever in the majors, and the Cardinals would like to avoid a spike in innings pitched for the 22-year-old. The Cardinals also are likely to commit to a role for Martinez and not have him float from bullpen to rotation because of the difficulty of regaining stamina during the big-league season. If he returns to the eighth-inning role he had in October this season, the Cardinals would have to return him to Class AAA to build strength to start.
"It would be hard to lengthen (a pitcher) out to get him ready to start," Mozeliak said while watching Wacha and Adam Wainwright face hitters for the first time Friday. "You can’t just take a guy who has maybe stretched out in spring and think you can stretch out again in July. You have to commit. It’s a very difficult place to stretch out in the big leagues."
Difficult, but not impossible.
Given Matheny's mid-April comments regarding how the club viewed Martinez—that they didn't want to yo-yo him between the bullpen and rotation over a two-week span, as reported by Goold at stltoday.com—this is an interesting development.
"If we needed somebody for an extended period of time, it would make sense to give (Martinez) the ball," manager Mike Matheny said Thursday afternoon. "You’d be looking at stretching him out (now) just to slow him back down again. … If we knew this was something we knew was going to create a spot for a long time, we would definitely take that into consideration. Right now we’re going to stick with our ’pen how it is."
To be sure, things have changed since that mid-April quote. Martinez is no longer in the eighth-inning role. Adam Wainwright is suffering from tendinitis. The Cardinals don't have a starter in the minors ready to fill-in at the major-league level. Wacha is tired. But given the club's stated pre- and early-season plans, one wonders whether the Cardinals are grooming El Gallo* for a rotation spot moving forward. Perhaps Miller will be the next starter to get some time off from the rotation.
*Santiogish dubbed Martinez "El Gallo" in his recap of Monday's game and embedded a gif. Martinez then posted the gif on Instagram with his trademark "Ussssssss" as commentary and has since taken to referring to himself as El Gallo on social media. Who are we to argue with Martinez's nickname choice? El Gallo it is.
Correction: This post inaccurately stated that Martinez would start in place of Wacha on Saturday. He will do so on Sunday.