Michael Wacha, the St. Louis Cardinals 2012 first-round pick didn’t take long to make his presence felt within the organization, as he piled up 40 strikeouts against just 4 walks over 21 innings in his first professional season.
Wacha has split time between AAA and the majors in 2013, and while the results have not been eye-popping, his performance could be the difference between a deep playoff run and an early exit.
Wacha’s 2.81 ERA may be a little deceiving (the .257 BABIP, 79.4 LOB% and 6.9 HR/FB ratio are all bound for regression).
Expect Wacha to split time between the bullpen and the rotation. The Cardinals have managed his innings strategically, allowing him to keep pitching into September and beyond. While Wacha has been serviceable as a starter, he has been dominant in the bullpen. Though the sample is very small, it is worth noting.
As you would expect, his velocity has been in the 94-95 range as a reliever, compared to 92-93 as a starter. Furthermore, his fastball-changeup mix is more effective out of the bullpen. As the Cardinals starting pitching has been struggling mightily since the All-Star break, they have needed Wacha in the rotation, and his performance in that role has been serviceable.
If the Cardinals win the Central or the Wild Card game, expect them to limit their rotation to three starters with Wacha available if a fourth is needed. In the bullpen, he will likely fill a multi-inning, high-leverage role, as the Cardinals are likely to dip into their deep pen early in the game.
The Cardinals have taken an unorthodox approach in promoting prospects. They like to have their young players gain seasoning by playing important, if not full-time roles in a pressure atmosphere.
Think Adam Wainwright closing in 2006 or Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter filling a plethora of roles in 2011-12, and Kolten Wong getting a late season callup this year. Whatever Wacha’s role down the stretch for the Cardinals, expect a spot in the starting rotation to be his to lose once the 2014 season rolls around.