Three years ago, the mere notion would have been preposterous. Today, emotions aside, it’s simply business.
Ken Rosenthal’s report Saturday that the Cardinals have floated Michael Wacha in trade discussions this offseason encapsulates the plunge of a once-promising pitcher. The news wasn't offered as a click-inducing headline. Wacha's vulnerability was relegated to an afterthought; two brief paragraphs under the final bullet point of a 1500-word column.
How did it come to this?
It wasn’t so long ago that Wacha resembled a budding superstar, memorably shutting down the Pirates and Dodgers as a rookie in the 2013 postseason. His 13 and 2/3 shutout innings across two NLCS starts against Los Angeles earned Wacha MVP honors for the series.
In a 2012 draft class featuring such notable prospects as Carlos Correa, Addison Russell, Corey Seager, Kevin Gausman, Marcus Stroman and Byron Buxton, Wacha– selected 19th overall, one spot after Seager– showcased the breadth of his talents before any of them. With the compensation pick from losing Albert Pujols to the Angels in free agency, the Cardinals appeared to have secured another franchise cornerstone. The 2016 season punctured that illusion.
Though the first signs of Wacha’s looming health troubles presented during the 2014 campaign, he thrived the following season, going 17-7 with a 3.38 ERA and adding an All-Star selection to his still-propitious resume. The promise evaporated this past season.
Wacha struggled a majority of the year, eventually hitting the disabled list with shoulder discomfort in early August. Considering the resemblance to his previous ailments, it felt like news that would end Wacha’s season. Surprisingly, he rejoined the active roster in September. His results didn’t change. Wacha was knocked around for 13 runs across 6 2/3 innings, finishing the year with a 5.09 ERA in only 138 innings pitched.
For those clinging to the memories of Wacha’s stifling fastball and wicked changeup knifing through opposing hitters, it’s possible to dismiss Wacha’s woes in 2016 entirely as a result of his scapular health; if not for Wacha’s shoulder issues, he would still be progressing as one of the elite young pitching talents in the game.
But can the Cardinals trust Wacha to stay on the field long enough to confirm that hypothesis? Twice in three seasons, Wacha has missed time due to this unusual condition. His rotation spot can no longer be considered a given.
When projecting the Cardinals 2017 starting rotation, it's understandable why Wacha’s name doesn’t come up. Carlos Martinez is set to assert himself as staff ace. Adam Wainwright hopes to rebound to some semblance of his former self another year removed from a gruesome Achilles injury. Lance Lynn returns after Tommy John surgery and Alex Reyes will try to make good on his boundless potential over a full season. Mike Leake perhaps treads with less stable footing, but the team committed to him with a substantial contract and a full no-trade clause. He’ll get the chance to improve on his debut season in St. Louis.
The staff has questions marks, but Wacha appears saddled by more than the others. Choosing to rely on the durability of his suspect right shoulder while so many other options exist would be unwise. Yet, the Cardinals say Wacha will prepare for next season as a starter. They want him to add muscle to his upper body over the winter in hopes it allows him to avoid another injury flare-up during the summer.
Strengthen the shoulder, rejoin the rotation.
While the Cardinals would prefer a healthy Wacha in their rotation, this directive feels a tad disingenuous. The key is in non-committal language. The Cardinals can say they view Wacha as a starter. They can announce he will prepare for 2017 as though he is one. But John Mozeliak isn’t endorsing Wacha for one of the five spots, like he did for Reyes.
So Wacha is preparing as a starter as a contingency. If the Cardinals maintaining their public belief in his ability to start helps establish the idea in the minds of other general managers to whom Wacha’s being offered, well, call it a bonus.
With the 25 year-old on the fringe of the Cardinals' plans for next year, it would be irresponsible for the team not to gauge the league’s perception of his value. If another club deems it worthwhile to gamble on Wacha, it would be a strong consideration for St. Louis.
Floating Wacha’s name in trade talks doesn’t mean the Cardinals are desperate to unload him. If the Cardinals don’t find the evaluation of Wacha to their liking, they won’t move him. Even if his body can't hold up to the traditional 200 innings starter role, St. Louis can retain Wacha, potentially as a variation of the hybrid role the Cleveland Indians used Andrew Miller in so successfully in the postseason.
Whatever his role, next season will be crucial to restoration of Wacha's currently diminished worth. Though he has shown great upside as a starter in the past, without a pronounced improvement to his durability, it won’t be possible for a team– be it the Cardinals or another club– to consistently reap any benefits from him as one in the future.
Copyright 2016 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.