ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- With the indication from Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak that the team won’t aggressively pursue starting pitching this offseason, discussions have turned inward. The Cardinals must do an honest evaluation of their own rotation inventory this offseason, and no name is a bigger unknown than Michael Wacha.
At 25, Wacha’s career has been a seesaw of production already. In 2013, he reached the majors just a year after being drafted. He started nine games, finished with a 2.78 ERA and took a no-hitter to two outs in the ninth against Washington in his final outing of the regular season.
In the NLCS, he won the MVP award after three starts totaling 21 innings and an ERA of 0.43.
“When we got Michael, it was almost a man among boys in the fact that he had the velocity and he could pinpoint it exactly where he wanted to when he wanted to,” Mike Matheny said at Wednesday’s press conference. “He’s had some injuries that have set him back a little bit, so we’re hoping to have a real strong offseason.”
The reference to “injuries” concerns a single health issue; a peculiar shoulder malady that manifests in something called a stress reaction. It’s essentially a precursor to a stress fracture in his throwing scapula, and it creates a sensation of tightness that makes it difficult to get loose before starts and between innings and compromises his control.
“It would cause me to cut some balls off and not get through them. Not finish out with extension out in front. It would affect my command for sure,” he explained this year when the injury resurfaced.
The problem cut his 2014 season short in mid-June, as he was completely shut down to allow his body to heal. He returned in September, but threw just 16.2 innings with an ERA of more than 5.
In 2015, the team built in preemptive rest, giving Wacha extra time around the All-Star break (he was selected to the NL’s squad) and again at the end of August. Unfortunately, over his last five starts he cleared six innings just once and had an ERA of 7.88.
This offseason he embarked on an ambitious conditioning program to combat the injury, working on targeted exercises to build up the supporting muscles. The thought was if he could find a way to stave off a recurrence, or even the need for scheduled rest, he could avoid suffering the fate of the only other pitcher with the issue, Brandon McCarthy. The 33-year-old has suffered multi-week shutdowns in at least four seasons, either due to a stress fracture or in pursuit of its prevention.
Unfortunately for Wacha, the plan failed. In early August, after a lackluster year (7-7, ERA of 4.45) the injury flared again and he was shut down for a month. The training hadn’t worked, and the idea of Wacha as a 200-inning starter shifted much closer to a fantasy than an expectation moving forward. Mozeliak vocalized as much this season, saying the team was “not comfortable” betting on a front line starter’s workload for Wacha moving forward.
This is an issue for St. Louis as it assesses its assets for 2017. Lance Lynn will return to action, joining Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake, Carlos Martinez and presumably Alex Reyes. Jaime Garcia’s option is up in the air, making Wacha valuable depth if he can get his body to cooperate. The Cardinals say they still consider him a starter, but his 17.55 ERA in his four appearances since returning to the mound this season cast doubt. Matheny said Wednesday he believes that man-among-boys is still present, if not visible at the moment.
“I keep bringing up his velocity that we saw at the end of the year because I think you first want to check off health. When his health is right, you’re seeing the right arm action,” he said. “He’s a rare talent that we need to figure out how to get into a consistent spot.”
To that end, Wacha is once again trying a new training regimen this offseason. The focus this time is overall muscle mass.
“As he came into the league, you could almost envision 15-20 more pounds of muscle as he would just mature. He has matured but we haven’t necessarily seen the body structure,” Matheny said.
While pure muscle isn’t always the answer, the Cardinals’ medical team believes a heftier frame will provide improved support for Wacha’s shoulder going forward.
“Being able to hold that throughout the season is going to be his goal,” Matheny said.
To crack the rotation, Wacha would have to radically outperform the competition in spring training. Even then, it would be difficult for the franchise to trust he’ll be present all season. He will always be stalked by his injury, always a peculiar sensation away from missing weeks of the season. The Cardinals believe he is too talented to write off, but his health is too uncertain to build around.