Athletes prefer having a role heading into the season, because it gives them a sense of focus and structure, so a long season doesn't overwhelm them. Knowing where you fit on a team set to compete is important, but Michael Wacha enters spring training without a clear role.
He also enters the spring without a contract. The mist may clear up a little after today's arbitration hearing, where the Cardinals' 2.8 million dollar offer will go up against Wacha's 3.2 million request. It will be the first case for the team in 18 years, and while it is supposed to send a message on their future dealings, I don't think 400,000 dollars will help determine Wacha's role in 2017. Let's discuss this a little, because baseball is kind of happening in a few days.
Remember 2013? Wacha was a bright young phenom out of Texas A&M, and didn't get to properly unwind in the minor leagues before the Cardinals came calling. He started a couple games in June, and then returned to Memphis before coming back for good in late August. His reputation and the expectations built on top of that would never be the same after the following October.
After a great series defining start against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Divisional Series, Wacha went nuclear in the Championship Series. He pitched 13.2 innings in two starts, and refused the Los Angeles Dodgers to score a single run. He struck out more people(13) than he allowed to get a hit(7), and only walked 2. He out-dueled Clayton Kershaw in a series winning Game 6, and pitched admirably in the World Series before the David Ortiz tornado destroyed everything natural about the matchup.
2014 is where the phenomenon hit a brick wall, and its name was stress reaction. Wacha suffered the injury in his right shoulder, and the chronic nature of the ailment is what immediately hindered the future of the young pitcher. He only made 19 starts, but his stats were still strong. His fielding independent pitching(3.17), strikeouts to walks ratio(2.85 to 1), and batting average against were stellar. The health just broke down, and it all ended with Wacha serving up the season ending pitch to the Giants in the playoffs. In a single year, the Wacha dream crumbled, but it wasn't dead yet.
2015 was a strong season if you focused on certain eye catching statistics. Wacha won 17 games, but the fielding independent pitching(3.87) went up, and the second half wasn't pretty. After compiling an earned run average of 2.93 in the first half, Wacha's ERA rose to 4.01 in the second half, and his WHIP enlarged to 1.37. Late August and September were problem areas, and his fastball was suddenly very hittable as the playoffs arrived. After 181 regular season innings, Wacha had nothing left to give.
2016 was worse, as Wacha's ERA bulged to 5.09 and he couldn't execute past the All Star Break. He lost his spot in the rotation, and wasn't used much in the bullpen. Only Adam Wainwright's fastball was more flat in the warmer months of the season. Wacha was a man apart, after being labeled the man a few years earlier.
The 150 inning mark is the kicker for Wacha when it comes to durability, but he was serving up beach balls in April and May to hitters. He can't be a full season starter, so where does that leave him for this season. In December, I made a case for putting Wacha in the rotation and sending the 22 year Alex Reyes to Memphis for fine tuning and safe keeping. That is only one of the options, so I will explore all three of them again.
April and May contain eight open dates for the team, so the need for a fifth starter isn't crucial, so the Cards could go with Reyes and allow him to get more rest than usual. They could also use these dates to give Wacha a few starts. St. Louis Post Dispatch's Derrick Goold has reported that the team will open a competition in the spring for Wacha and Reyes to duel for the final spot, but based on history, those are rigged ordeals. If Wacha doesn't get shredded and stays healthy, the spot is his. A rotation spot could increase his trade value, and after a long period of rest, Wacha's right arm could surprise. After all, is the bullpen a valid place to get more value? As a trade component, the answer is no.
Wacha's biggest problem is innings, so a bullpen move helps aide the long season grind, but how effective can he be in a role that isn't pre-determined? A rotation spot allows a pitcher to prepare himself for a start, but the bullpen is more sudden. Wacha may throw three times a week instead of one, so how will a stress reaction patient deal with that. How much more effective can he be out of the pen? He's started for the past three seasons, and it's not easy for a pitcher to make that switch?
How about both? Wacha could be the sixth starter, and the long man. He could give the team a variety of tools; ready to order cook and occasional chef. Wacha has the ability to help the Cardinals find out how much seasoning Reyes needs, and how much value is left in Marco Gonzales and where Luke Weaver is at. Memphis isn't a place for Wacha to find anything worthwhile, so he needs a role here. With Tyler Lyons out for a few months, Wacha could assume his role of spot starting, mop up duty, long relief, and everything in between.
Here's what I know. Wacha is 33-21 with a 3.74 ERA for his career, and there's only 491 innings on that right arm. He is only 25 years old, and has time to determine his future. I don't think Wacha starts the 2018 season on the Cardinals, but he can gather a few more poker chips with a solid 2017.
It is in the best nature of the Cardinals and Wacha to use him for an everyman role this season. With Lyons out and the young bucks needing careful handling, Wacha can be that unique weapon. He can start a few games in the spring, relieve more in the summer, and possibly carve a new future for himself. He still has value.
Michael Wacha may be a man apart as spring unfolds and his arbitration hearing is set for today, but he can rewrite that price tag with a great first half to 2017. The Cardinals can benefit from it as well, as long as they find the right spot for him.