It’s Wacha Time

You can knock ’em down, but you can’t knock ’em out.

The St. Louis Cardinals’ pitching staff has been decimated by injuries early on in 2013, but the club continues to receive strong performances from rookie pitchers thanks to one of the deepest minor league systems in the game. The next pitching prospect to throw his hat into the ring will be 2012 first round draft pick Michael Wacha, who will face the Kansas City Royals in his big league debut tonight.

If you read my pre-season Cardinals Top 15 prospect list (where Wacha was ranked second behind outfielder Oscar Taveras, and one spot ahead of fellow RHP Shelby Miller) or my overall Top 100 MLB prospects list (where he was ranked 24th overall) you already know I’m a big fan of the 6’6” hurler. In fact, here’s a quote that I wrote after watching him pitching during his pro debut in 2012, albeit in shorter stints out of the bullpen:

His fastball, which was hitting 96-98 mph out of the bullpen, showed late movement – including arm side run – and he commanded it on the corners. I saw him throw a nasty changeup with good arm speed and outstanding fade, which K’d Top 100 prospect Nolan Arenado of the Rockies. Wacha’s breaking ball remains a work-in-progress.

Earlier this season, I watched Wacha’s first start of the 2013 season and, while I came away impressed with his long-term potential, I did temper my enthusiasm for the here-and-now.

He constantly worked up in the zone and survived thanks to the overpowering stuff. Although he attacked the zone early in the… Because he was behind in the count so often, he was unable to utilize his changeup as a strikeout weapon. The breaking ball has a long way to go to become a go-to pitch against big league hitters. …Wacha has a ways to go before he’ll be ready to assume a regular big league job.

Fast-forward through May and Wacha has continued to work up in the zone with his fastball and he’s been an extreme-fly-ball pitcher at Triple-A. The right-hander has the stuff to survive up in the zone if his command and control are working but it will be important for him to have a go-to pitch to change hitters’ eye levels. Wacha’s curveball doesn’t have enough of a consistent break right now to get the job done but he does a nice job of placing his changeup at hitters’ knees.

His lack of strikeouts (5.81 K/9) tells us that he’s not overpowering Triple-A hitters even with his two plus pitches (fastball-changeup), so he’s not going to suddenly start dominating hitters in The Show. Hitters are putting a lot of balls in play against him and — with most of them in the air — Wacha is going to be susceptible to the long-ball.

For another opinion on the prospect, I asked Jason Churchill of Prospect Insider and for an opinion on Wacha’s potential. He recently saw the hurler take on the Seattle Mariner’s Triple-A club in Tacoma.

I believe he can contribute at the big league level, but the key for these young arms and their chances to stick is staying out of the middle of the plate, keeping the ball down, and having more than one major-league caliber pitche to offer. You can’t have off nights with command in the big leagues and survive for very long, and Wacha is certainly no exception to that,” he explained. “He doesn’t have the raw stuff of [Baltimore’s] Kevin Gausman, but he has improved his breaking ball, flashing an above-average curveball when I saw him a few starts back in Triple-A. His 90-94 mph fastball had life, too, and he knew which hitters he could challenge with it up and rarely left it up in a dangerous quadrant. The changeup is a weapon, too — it’s his best pitch — which will help him get through the lineup and battle versus good left-handed pitching.

I believe Wacha has the body, actions and athleticism to eventually develop at least an average breaking ball, which will give him a sufficient weapon to combat big league hitters, when mixed in with his other two weapons. He has the potential to eventually develop into a No. 2 starter but, currently, he should be able to hold his own as a No. 4 starter.

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Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects, depth charts and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

18 Responses to “It’s Wacha Time”

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  1. tehzachatak says:

    “system’s”, might wanna work on that

    -16 Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. Jabronies says:

    If you redid your list today, would he still be your #2 guy on the cards?

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  3. That Guy says:

    “susceptible to the long ball”

    good thing he’s throwing against the Royals.

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  4. The Real Joey Votto says:

    I am now officially confused about their long-term plans for Trevor Rosenthal.

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    • Anon says:

      Bullpen RoS. Bullpen/closer for 2014+ is likely with all the starting options the Cardinals have, but starter is possible (look at Wainwright for a successful bullpen to starter transition by the Cardinals).

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Dude, Wainwright was a starter all through the minors. He came up as a closer/reliever when Isringhausen went down in Sept 06.

        Wainwright was a starter the next year. TB did something similar with Price.

        But, the plan wasn;t to introduce wainwright as closer, then have him start. It was an emergency type deal where they had lost their #2 starter (Mulder) for the season and 6 other big injuries and just put their a quality pitcher in that role.

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        • Anon says:

          Rosenthal was a starter in the minors as well.

          Wainwright had 61 relief appearances in 2006, hardly a September call-up.

          Yes, he became closer because of injury (as would Rosenthal if Mujica got injured now).

          +7 Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. Cargo2 says:

    “The St. Louis Cardinals’ pitching staff has been decimated by injuries early on in 2013”

    Decimate means to reduce by 10%.

    -18 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • TangoAlphaLima says:

      Definition of DECIMATE

      1: to select by lot and kill every tenth man of
      2: to exact a tax of 10 percent from
      3a : to reduce drastically especially in number
      3b : to cause great destruction or harm to

      +7 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Jon L. says:

        Merriam-Webster is hopelessly out of date. That’s where “decimate” used to mean. What it means today is:

        1 : to cause great destruction or harm to
        2 : to reduce drastically, especially in number

        But even “2” is rarely used unless it also means “1.”

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    • thehotteststove says:

      I tried to decimate cargos’ comment, but it only let me reduce it by one…

      +11 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • chuckb says:

      Someone’s either really bad at math or hasn’t been paying attention to the Cardinals at all.

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  6. zipperz says:

    Projected rotation:

    Current rotation:

    Projected bullpen: Motte, Boggs, Rosenthal, Mujica, Rzeprzcinksi, Choate, Kelly/Salas
    Current bullpen: Mujica, Rosenthal, Choate, Maness, Kelly, Boggs, Marte/Blazek

    Semantics can be kicked around… but “decimated” seems apropros.

    35-17 record.

    +11 Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. Dan Greer says:

    Fozzie Bear’s favorite player.

    +7 Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. Lanidrac says:

    7 IP, 1 ER, 2 H, 6 K, 0 BB, 0 HR, 1 for 3 at the plate
    Probably the best starting pitching debut since Strasburg. Too bad Mujica and Rosenthal were unavailable, leading to the second-string relievers blowing Wacha’s chance at a win. Hopefully, the offense can salvage the game with a 9th inning comeback once this rain delay is over.

    Now the question is: When Westbrook comes back, does Wacha or Lyons get bumped out of the rotation?

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