The assumption, I think, shared by most of us is that Michael Wacha will be banished to the pen in 2017. Not a huge surprise there. First, there was the shoulder injury in 2014, which has nagged him ever since (and nagged all of us, too, if we want to be completely selfish about it). He was ineffective down the stretch in 2015, and was worse last year for the duration of the season.
For the five Cardinals starters who threw at least 100 innings in 2016, Wacha had the worst ERA (5.09) of the bunch, which is pretty telling since only Carlos Martinez came in under 4.62. Like the rest of the staff save for Jaime Garcia, Wacha’s 2016 FIP (3.91) suggests he might not have been the luckiest pitcher on the planet but no one was confusing him with early-2014 Wacha. Add in the return of Lance Lynn along with the addition of budding superstar Alex Reyes, subtract only Garcia, and Wacha is the obvious odd-man out (contingent on the crazy idea that the pitching staff will be healthy).
That’s a bummer for Wacha but the bullpen could be a nice place for him re-invent his career, or at least prolong it, and a question from Derrick Goold’s most recent chat illustrates why.
Q: If Michael Wacha is a reliever this year, do you think his fastball velocity will increase, and do you think he will use any of his pitches more or less in that role?
A: He'll be more fastball/changeup based and, yes, his fastball will leap in velocity. There's a growing sense around the team that he shouldn't be counted out as a starter. I'm going to explore that more in tomorrow's Post-Dispatch.
Wacha’s a righty but even so, a fastball with more zip coupled with what had once been considered Wacha’s best pitch in his repertoire seems like a nice addition to a bullpen that will be missing both Zach Duke and Tyler Lyons. But then there’s that second part of Goold’s answer, and to give an idea of what he was talking about, here’s an excerpt from his column today:
The Cardinals intend to give Michael Wacha a chance to win a starting job as he returns from injury and plan to “stretch out” former closer Trevor Rosenthal early in spring training. The innings the club can use for both of those pitchers could come from the innings Carlos Martinez and rookie Alex Reyes won’t fill while they pitch for the Dominican Republic in the international tournament. For Wacha, it’s a chance to prove his health and re-establish himself as a starting option, in direct competition with Reyes.
Wacha has not heard any directions from the club about his role, so the righthander and former NLCS MVP will arrive at spring training ready for a starter’s program. He expects to throw off a mound before the official opening of spring. His mindset, he explained, “is going 200 innings this year.”
(Allow me to go a bit off-topic, but from a selfish standpoint I’m looking forward to the World Baseball Classic because I plan on attending a few games here in San Diego. That said, I also plan on becoming livid if Alex Reyes or Carlos Martinez return to Florida in any sort of diminished capacity let alone injured.)
Skipping to the very end of the quoted section from Goold’s column, if Wacha landed a spot in the rotation and was able to throw 200 innings that would surpass all expectations. And not just from a health and durability standpoint, but likely production, too. Adam Wainwright has stated in the past that his goal was to lead the league in innings pitched because it’s a good indicator of success. The same applies to pitching at least 200 innings. Going back ten years, there have been 332 instances of a pitcher logging at least 200 innings and approximately 72% of those seasons resulted in a season of three wins or better by fWAR. Last year only Jeff Samardzija pitched 300 innings and was below three wins (2.6).
So pitching 200 innings is a great goal for Wacha, but what more caught my eye because it’s hard to envision the 200 innings happening with his injury history and his unknown status for 2017, is just that: his apparent unknown status for 2017.
Craig touched on this earlier today on Twitter, but as an outsider I find it unfortunate that Wacha hasn’t been told what’s expected of him in the coming year with pitchers and catchers reporting to Florida in the near future. If “has not heard any directions from the club about his role” is allowed to be taken literally, he hasn’t been told he’ll be in the bullpen, he hasn’t been told he’ll be starting, and he hasn’t been directly told that he’ll be competing for a spot in the rotation.
I try to consume as much baseball content as my job and other obligations allow, which ends up meaning about 90% of what I read is Cardinals related. Maybe these sort of “status up in the air” quotes are typical with every club, but we’ve now seen Randal Grichuk stating that the club never told him he would be vacating center field (to be fair, one might say the implications were obvious), the Cardinals kicking the tires on Brian Dozier after Kolten Wong had invested in city (and to be fair here, John Mozeliak implied recently that there was little-to-nothing there regarding the Dozier rumors), and now this quote from Wacha.
It would be nice if the team and players could publicly be on the same page, if for nothing else to prevent these silly sound bites that give off the impression of an existing disconnect. This potentially petty worry aside, Michael Wacha’s role in 2017 is shaping up to be one of the more interesting subplots of the season.