COMMENTARY | May 28 may very well be the day St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak reached into his jewel-encrusted barrel of pitching prospects -- a seemingly infinite resource for dominant, low-cost arms -- and hit bottom.
Bottom's name: Michael Wacha.
A Need in the Rotation
After a tough loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on May 25, the Redbirds found themselves faced with yet another injury to a starting pitcher. Left-hander John Gast, a recent addition to the rotation from Triple-A Memphis after Jake Westbrook's elbow forced him to the disabled list, survived just one inning before leaving the game with left-shoulder tightness.
Gast's injury came one night after right-hander Lance Lynn left his start May 25 after just 77 pitches through six innings of shutout baseball with back and hamstring discomfort. Although Lynn expects to rest and make his next start, both are simply the latest in a long line of physical maladies to afflict Cardinals' starters this season.
Jaime Garcia, Chris Carpenter and Jake Westbrook have already found their way to the DL with a shoulder injury, a nerve condition and an elbow injury, respectively. While Westbrook and Carpenter continue to work with varying degrees of hope for a return this year, Garcia is lost until 2014 with season-ending shoulder surgery.
To this point, the Cardinals organization has done a remarkable job covering the losses with call-ups from their outstanding minor-league system.
Shelby Miller filled Carpenter's spot and is performing at near-Cy Young Award levels. John Gast and Tyler Lyons took over for Westbrook and Garcia and logged three wins in three starts. And even rookies Seth Maness and Carlos Martinez have done admirable jobs patching the holes in a leaky bullpen.
But even baseball's best-rated farm system can't continue pumping out arm after arm. Eventually, something has to give, especially with both the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates stalking the Cardinals for the National League Central lead.
Fortunately, for Mozeliak and the Cardinals, that "something" is the delay on Michael Wacha's promotion to the big leagues.
Starting the Wacha Clock
In a bit of irony that could only exist in a baseball town currently boasting both baseball's best record and baseball's highest-rated farm system, the St. Louis Cardinals have been forced to scrape the bottom of the barrel and call up the starter of last resort. But, in this case, the bottom has never looked so good.
A clear favorite for a spot in the St. Louis rotation for 2014, the young right-hander from Texas A&M has been dominating the Pacific Coast League for the Memphis Redbirds. With a 4-0 record in nine starts, his 2.05 ERA and 0.95 WHIP are both second-best in the PCL, a Triple-A league widely known as a "hitter friendly" environment.
His call up to this point has been intentionally delayed over concerns about prematurely starting his major-league service-time clock and overburdening an arm unaccustomed to a professional innings load and an every-fifth-day throwing schedule. Just last year, Wacha logged approximately 130 innings while throwing every seventh day for Texas A&M, and then threw just over 20 innings split over various levels in the Cardinals' minor-league system.
That's just over 150 innings in a split season on two different throwing schedules scattered across various talent levels. No one can fault the Cardinals for their hesitancy to promote Wacha just a year later to a position expecting nearly 180 innings while throwing every fifth day to major-league hitters.
But concerns appear to be a luxury the Cardinals can no longer afford.
Appearing on KMOX in St. Louis on the morning of May 26, Mozeliak identified Wacha as "the name that comes to mind" when determining who will fill the rotation spot vacated by Gast's injury. Two days later, after discussing options with Cardinals manager Mike Matheny and other members of the Cardinals' staff in Kansas City, the club announced the pending promotion of Michael Wacha to the St. Louis rotation. He will make the Thursday, May 30 start against the Kansas City Royals at Busch Stadium.
Wacha Time in St. Louis has finally arrived.
A Good Problem to Have
Of course, even the arrival of a highly anticipated super-prospect from Triple-A can't come without a bit of intrigue for the Cardinals.
According to Mozeliak's previous comments, once Wacha debuts in the Cardinals' rotation, he's here to stay. That leaves the Cardinals with a starting rotation of Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn, Tyler Lyons and Wacha. Assuming continued health -- a big assumption for the Redbirds -- only Lyons' spot appears to be vulnerable.
But the Cardinals have two starting pitchers supposedly on track to eventually return to the rotation in Westbrook and Carpenter. If Westbrook can indeed pitch through pain and return to form (his 2.30 groundout-to-flyout ratio is No. 2 among MLB starters with more than three games started) -- and all recent reports suggest dramatic improvement in his ailing elbow -- Chris Carpenter could indeed find himself back on track to rescue a depleted bullpen.
It's an interesting problem to have for Mozeliak and the Cardinals. One of baseball's best ground-ball pitchers potentially returning to a rotation widely considered the best in the National League. One of the game's most highly anticipated starting pitching prospects earning an early-season promotion to that same rotation.
And the pitcher left on the outside looking in? Chris Carpenter, the most dominant starting pitcher in any St. Louis rotation since 2004.
One could forgive Cardinals principal owner Bill DeWitt, Jr. and GM John Mozeliak for feeling just a bit spoiled.
Kevin Reynolds is the author of Stl Cards 'N Stuff and host of The State of the Nation Address podcast every Sunday evening at Cards 'N Stuff. He's been writing and podcasting about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2007 and can be found chatting about baseball on Twitter (@deckacards).
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- Jake Westbrook
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