Michael Wacha’s back and forth season for the St. Louis Cardinals has now taken a new turn, as it comes full circle to where his pro career began – the bullpen. Yet, the future of the starting rotation could be one of the brightest parts of the end of the game as well, and do so in a familiar fashion.
Go back to 2006 and find another young starter-turned-reliever out of necessity, Adam Wainwright. At the time, he was making his way along as a middle relief arm, but when inning struck Jason Isringhausen and the ninth inning, he was thrust into late inning action and responded resoundingly. Over the final two months of the season, the rookie turned masterful closer, notching seven saves while surrendering only three earned runs across 21.2 innings total between the regular and postseason. He then returned the next season and turned his sights towards a now fairly notable career as a starter and never looked back.
Fast forward seven years.
Wacha, who brought an even higher amount of notability along with him to the Busch Stadium mound is in his second trip to St. Louis of the season. After making a spot start amid the restructuring of the Cardinal rotation, he is now getting settled in the bullpen, where he will be used in what manager Mike Matheny describes as “high leverage situations”. What exactly that will be could be defined variously. While it is not likely to be as high profile of a gig as Wainwright landed, it could still call some some quite high leverage spots. Whether in a structured role in the fashion of Edward Mujica from a year ago, or if it is in randomly tight situations in the same fashion as Trevor Rosenthal a year ago or Seth Maness currently, there are number of places Matheny could insert his highly touted rookie. Luckily enough, he is not unaccustomed to a late inning role; last year only one run was managed against him during stops in Palm Beach and Springfield, good for a 0.56 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 16 innings, all while helping Springfield close out the Texas League title.
That was an efficiency that the rookie carried over into his first big league camp, where he continued his dominant ways, striking out 15 in 11 innings spread out over five appearances. And while he broke camp and headed towards Memphis to hone his craft as a starter, John Mozeliak left the door open for Wacha to contribute in any role the club may need, and now he is primed to be a part of the teams all hands on deck approach to using its top arms down the stretch.
Whatever the role, it is one that Wacha will have an opportunity to make a much needed impact. At the point he is at now, the minors are doing no good for his development, yet there is no room (or reason) for him to be a starter. He needs to work in the majors, develop his arsenal and more importantly than anything else, be a difference maker for a team that’s in need of them. The more weapons, the merrier at this point in the year, and for a Cardinal team that decided staying completely internal at the trade deadline was their best bet, the idea is now clear that Wacha is ready to be additional arm that the big league club would need.
He was wasted no time in proving that he could be the right man for that role, striking out four of the six batters he faced over two perfect innings on Wednesday night. Showcasing the plus change up he’s known for, as well as flashing good location on his fastball, he showed why there was the unparalleled buzz he created in the spring existed, and why going ahead, he could be a blast from a not so distant, yet familiar, past.