At the start of the season, the St. Louis Cardinals' rotation included Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook alongside Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn. Rookie Shelby Miller had beaten out second-year right-hander Joe Kelly for the fifth spot, and despite the loss of free agent Kyle Lohse -- remember, he started the wild-card game last season after going 16-3 with a 2.83 ERA -- it was considered one of the better rotations in the league.
Lingering behind those five, however, was the revelation of spring training in the Cardinals' camp: Michael Wacha, the team's first-round pick in 2012 out of Texas A&M, who threw 11⅔ innings, allowed one unearned and fanned 15 against one walk. His stuff and control suggested a pitcher ready for the majors, but because Wacha had only 21 professional innings under his belt, the Cardinals resisted the urge to start him in the big leagues, instead sending him to Triple-A Memphis.
But here we were on Sept. 8, the Cardinals playing their most important game of the season so far, trying to complete a three-game against the Pirates, and it was Wacha on the mound. Sometimes, it's not who starts the season in your rotation but who finishes it, and with an injury to Garcia and Westbrook battling a back issue and ineffectiveness, Wacha and Kelly have stepped up to become not just key members of the rotation but maybe its two hottest starters right now.
On Friday, Kelly allowed one run in six innings. On Saturday, Wainwright rebounded from two blowout losses to the Reds to throw seven scoreless, two-hit innings. Sunday, Wacha matched that effort with seven scoreless, two-hit innings of his own in a 9-2 Cardinals victory that was not so much a brilliant effort but an effective one in which he threw first-pitch strikes and let his defense make the plays behind him as he struck out just two. The sweep allowed the Cardinals to erase a 1½-game deficit to the Pirates entering Friday and take a 1½-game lead in the NL Central.
When the Cardinals lost three of four to the Reds earlier in the week, it was Wacha's six shutout innings that helped deliver the only victory of that series. Wacha made three starts in late May/early June, was sent back down to Triple-A and then recalled in August, pitching out of the bullpen until that Reds start. "A young pitcher coming in and just staying within himself, really establishing the strike zone early," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said after Sunday's win. "It seemed like he made some really good pitches as he got deeper into the game. He's just making pitches all day. It's impressive."
Wacha's big pitch has been a devastating changeup that often drops down and out of the strike zone. Wacha is 6-foot-6, which helps him with a natural downward plane, leading to opponents hitting .164/.220/.182 in 59 plate appearances ending with the changeup. You can see why left-handers have a difficult time against it:
The Pirates went 0-for-5 against Wacha's changeups on Sunday. Of course, a pitcher can't survive on that pitch alone, and Wacha has the fastball command and velocity to set it up. Against Pittsburgh, 67 of 97 pitches were fastballs, averaging 93.7 mph and touching 97. In watching him a few times now this season, the question becomes sort of obvious: There were 18 players drafted ahead of him?
I went back and checked some of the scouting reports from the draft. ESPN's Jason Churchill had a pretty accurate assessment, writing "Wacha's calling card is a fastball-changeup-command combination that could push him through to the big leagues rather quickly. He's 6-foot-6 and has good arm speed and a consistent delivery. He uses both a curveball and slider, but both are below average. The Cardinals could slide Wacha into their rotation in a few years behind their young stable of Shelby Miller [2009 first-round pick] and Carlos Martinez."
OK, so maybe that "few years" part was a little off. MLB.com wrote, "Wacha reminds some of Jon Garland because of his size. He has a live, quick arm that can produce a fastball up to 94 mph, sitting comfortably in the 92-93 mph range. There might be more there, pointing to a future plus fastball. He can spin a curve, though some think he'd be better off throwing a slider at the next level. He doesn't throw a changeup much, but it could be an average offering."
Kyle Boddy of The Hardball Times wrote, "Wacha doesn't impress me much; he's a high three-quarters guy with just okay velocity. His fastball sits 90-92 and hitters get a good look at it given his arm slot and rear arm action. Scouting reports say he's got a slider, but I've seen only curve balls out of him, and a decent one at that. He'll have a tough time commanding a left-right breaking ball out of that arm slot. However, I do like how Wacha uses the upper body and thoracic spine when he applies downwards leverage across his left shoulder. There's some additional velocity to be found in his delivery with some training and hard long toss, but whether he adds it is anyone's guess."
The odd thing is, only one of the reports mentioned Wacha's changeup as a positive, although two mentioned the possibility he could add velocity as a pro, which he appears to have done. The reports on his curve and slider being questionable offerings still ring true, one reason right-handers are hitting better against Wacha in his limited time so far in the majors. (He had pretty similar splits at Triple-A.)
The lack of that plus third pitch makes it hard to project Wacha as a future ace right now, but he's also 22 and still developing. I can say this: There are more than a few teams out there who are kicking themselves for passing on Wacha in last year's draft.
As for the division race, the Cardinals finish with 16 of their final 19 games against sub-.500 teams. They're done with the Pirates and Reds. It's their division to lose -- and if they hold on, don't be surprised if Wacha (and Kelly) are in the playoff rotation.