At the end of the day...what about Wacha?

6:09 AM, May 28, 2013   |    comments
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How DO you look at your riches, half full or half empty?

The way the Cardinals have lost pitchers, re-armed from their minor league stockpile, and kept on winning, it is an embarrassment of riches.

Check off the names:  Lohse, Carpenter, Westbrook, Garcia; all a piece of the starting rotation whose spot has been filled by one of the young guns: Lynn, Miller, Gast and Lyons. 

You know what they say, don't you?  Injuries expose a team's lack of depth, and you can't expect them to be as good because if the second wave was as good as the first they'd be playing anyway, right?

In many cases, yes.  But in the case of this year's Cardinals, not so.  They were 21-12 after Westbrook made his last start on May 8, 12-5 since then; 27-14 when Garcia went down, 6-3 since then.  Not a lot of drop off, though it would be unfair to ignore the offense averaging four-and-a-half runs a game since May 10.

Historically, the Cardinals have benefited from the insertion of rookie pitchers; John Stuper and Dave LaPoint combined to win 18 games for the 1982 champs, for example.  But as has been chronicled repeatedly for the past few months, the Cards have put together the best farm system in the majors, and their stockpile of arms has been more than ready to fill in the gaps.

And the best of the bunch may be yet to come.

The team's management is still holding their breath, closing their eyes, plugging their ears and chanting, "na na na na na na na" with every suggestion that they call up skyrocketing phenom Michael Wacha.  He may end up making his debut on Thursday - is it a coincidence that he was scratched from his start for Memphis on Monday? - but the best-laid plans by the Cardinals brass is to let him learn and progress at his own pace in Memphis.  He is only a year out of starting Friday nights in college baseball, after all.

But I don't worry too much about young Wacha suffering from the shellshock of being called up too early, and here's why:  unlike a Stephen Strasburg, Wacha won't be expected to carry the weight of a franchise on his shoulders.  Unlike a Tim Lincecum, a Trevor Bauer or a Will Smith, he's not expected to rise from Triple-A and vault high into the rotation from the beginning.  And unlike the names I previously mentioned, Wacha will join the Cardinals with an established hierarchy to help him grow into his anticipated greatness; not have to be great from his first start.

You go back to 1996 and there has been a veteran leader to set the tone and give the younger guys a mentor to help them get how to be a big leaguer.  Andy Benes started the chain, and then he gave way to a Todd Stottlemyre, a Darryl Kile - then Kile got help from Woody Williams until Matt Morris morphed into the role, and then it was Chris Carpenter taking the reins, and now it's Adam Wainwright as the established keeper of the tradition. 

Look at the way the Cards rotation has existed the past few years.  They all hang out together in the dugout, they watch each other's bullpen sessions and take active roles in helping to make each other better.  Shelby Miller has been hyped as the ace of the future, but he came up and has been allowed to develop as a number three or four starter - and without the pressure of the eyes of a nation on him every time out, or having his innings publicly measured each season like Strasburg has, he's been terrific so far this season. 

It's a healthy form of competition, this rotation.  The veterans show the youngsters how it's done at the big league level, and nudge them into a better routine if necessary.  Then, as each guy goes to the mound for his turn, it's an unspoken goal to do at least as well, and preferably better, than the guy who started the day before.  And when they're not starting, they're rooting and encouraging the guy who is.  It is a system built to breed success.

And then there's the ace card (or Card, if you will):  catcher Yadier Molina.  You don't have to prod a Cardinal pitcher long to get him to extol the virtues of Yadi and his ability to call a game.  Miller has already been on the record this year of saying he makes it a point to not shake off the pitch Molina wants him to throw.  How can you not feel comfortable entrusting a young pitcher to the best catcher in the game?

Oh, and do I need to mention that the manager has his own reputation, dating back to his playing days, of being a pitcher's best friend?  Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist has settled nicely into the role Dave Duncan occupied for so many years, taking the foundation of Dunc's system and adding his own nuances.

Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.  Wacha will surely take his turn in the leadership chain one day, but as a Gerrit Cole develops in the Pirates' system, it is an unspoken expectation that when he comes up, the former number one overall pick will ascend to the top of the Pittsburgh rotation.  When Wacha does take his place as a regular Cards starter one day, he'll have a Lance Lynn and a Shelby Miller already there, progressing and learning.  What a trio to look forward to.  Oh, I am getting too far ahead.

Garcia won't be back until 2014, but it looks like Westbrook, and more and more possibly, Carpenter, can fill spots in the rotation by the stretch run of the season.  And won't the Cards' stockpile of arms have benefited by getting a taste of the bigs?  Which would indicate the strong getting even stronger.

Half full?  At least, these days.

Until next time...


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