St. Louis Cardinals give nod to future by sending Michael Wacha back to minors

Major League Baseball teams typically generate significant interest in which minor-league player they are about to bring up to the big leagues, but the St. Louis Cardinals had similar intrigue related to which player they sent down to the minor leagues Friday.

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So goes life as the best team in the game.

Right-handed starter Jake Westbrook returned from the disabled list Friday to go five innings while allowing three earned runs to the Miami Marlins in a 5-4 loss, but his return forced the Cardinals to send one of their rookie starters back to the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds.

Left-handed starter Tyler Lyons and right-handed starter Michael Wacha were the two pitchers on the bubble, along with right-handed reliever Keith Butler, and the Cardinals decided to send the Wacha back to Memphis while the Lyons remained with the team and will start Sunday against the Marlins.

The move was somewhat surprising since Cardinals management had previously said the 21-year-old phenom would not be a player they wanted to shuffle between Memphis and St. Louis and that he would be in the big leagues for good once he first came up.

Wacha even proclaimed, “I’m here to stay,” when he first arrived at Busch Stadium after the Cardinals called him up to start May 30 against the Kansas City Royals.

But reality intersected everybody’s dreams. The Cardinals brought Wacha to the majors before they really wanted to after starters Westbrook, Jaime Garcia and John Gast all suffered injuries in May, and he then didn’t excel as much as people expected/hoped.

Wacha pitched great in his first start, striking out six while allowing one run on two hits in seven innings against the Royals, but in every other start he looked more similar to a 21-year-old rookie who was barely a full year removed from college.

He gave up six runs on 10 hits in 4.2 innings June 4 to the Arizona Diamondbacks and allowed two runs in the first inning Wednesday against the New York Mets before settling in for six innings to get his first career victory as the Cardinals won 9-2.

Lyons, meanwhile, won his first two career starts, giving up one run in each, and then lost his next two as he allowed four runs each to two 2012 playoff teams, the San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds.

However, Lyons doesn’t career the immense Wacha-type expectations with him. Lyons throws in the low-90s rather than Wacha’s 97 mph fastball, and he doesn’t have Wacha’s devastating change-up. Lyons was drafted in the ninth round of the 2010 MLB draft while the Cardinals took Wacha 19th overall in the 2012 draft.

All of that means Wacha is a prized prospect, and Lyons is just another pitcher the team hopes will contribute solid innings for years, rather than a top-of-the-rotation ace.

So the top-rated prospect went back to the minors to continue to develop. The Cardinals have a lot of pitching depth, but no team can afford to mess up the development of its first-round picks, and Wacha ran into some obstacles in two of his three starts.

Perhaps those experiences will benefit him in the long run. He now knows what to expect at the big-league level, but the Cardinals have also seen the ugly side of rushing prospects to the majors as much as any team when Rick Ankiel exploded with five wild pitches against the Atlanta Braves in the 2000 playoffs as a 20-year-old.

Ankiel, of course, ran into numerous other issues that ultimately derailed his pitching career, but he remains the prime example of what can happen when rushing a player to the big leagues goes bad.

The Cardinals also have plenty of cushion right now. They have the best record in baseball and plenty of other lesser prospects that can fill temporary voids.

Lyons could certainly develop into a solid pitcher who has a long career with the Cardinals, but the team has pinned its long-term hopes to Wacha.

Although Wacha wasn’t “here to stay,” he will be soon enough.

The restraint the Cardinals show in pushing Wacha now will pay off in the future, and that’s why he was the correct choice to send to the minors to open a spot for Westbrook.

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