May 30, 2013
The Situation: After logging only 73 2/3 minor-league innings, Michael Wacha will make his major league debut for the Cardinals against Kansas City today. The club currently has four starters on the disabled list, leaving them with few other options. In fact, three-fifths of the Triple-A Memphis rotation from just two weeks ago is now in the majors. One of those arms, lefty John Gast, landed on the big-league DL this week, creating the need for Wacha.
Background: Regarded as a polished college arm when he was selected 19th overall in last year’s draft, Wacha has moved more quickly than anyone could’ve expected. The Texas A&M product made brief cameos at three levels last summer, striking out 40 batters in 21 innings and rising to Double-A. An impressive performance in spring training, where his fastball touched 98 miles per hour in short bursts, earned him an aggressive Triple-A assignment out of camp. Wacha has been equal to the challenge, posting a 2.05 ERA through nine starts. In 52 2/3 innings, he has yielded just 35 hits, walked 15, and struck out 34.
Scouting Report: When Jason Parks ranked Wacha fifth in the Cardinals’ system this past offseason, he wrote that the 21-year-old “could develop into a prototypical mid-rotation arm, with workload potential and a solid-avg-to-plus arsenal.” While Wacha’s polish has enabled an accelerated developmental track, that projection hasn’t changed; he’s likely a no. 3 starter, and he may not be far from realizing that potential. The righty pounds the strike zone with a three-pitch mix and generates a steep downhill plane with his 6-foot-6 body. His 90-95 mph fastball lacks big life––making command all the more important––but the angle can make it tough for hitters to square when he’s working down. Both offspeed pitches play well off the fastball and angle––particularly his low-80s changeup, which is already a plus pitch. Wacha’s big curveball has made strides since his collegiate days; it’s a present average to solid-average pitch that could become a third 60-grade offering with further refinement.
Immediate Big-League Future: In a perfect-world scenario, Wacha would likely get at least another month-plus of minor league seasoning, but he’s the Cardinals’ best healthy rotation option at this point. There’s no telling how long this stint will last; that largely depends upon his performance and the health of disabled starters Gast, Jake Westbrook, and Chris Carpenter. A tough competitor with a mature mindset, Wacha should be able to handle the assignment mentally regardless of outcome. His fastball command will be the primary key. If he’s able to work the lower portion of the zone, there’s no reason to believe he can’t have success given his developed arsenal. If the fastball creeps up and straightens out, he’ll be hittable. —Jason Cole
Fantasy Impact: As Barney Stinson once said, "You are forcing me to be the voice of reason. And it's not a good look for me!" I understand that everyone is really, really excited about Wacha's debut, and for good reason: he's an exciting prospect with a bright future ahead of him. But what he's not is a potential fantasy savior, as is being bandied about the interwebs by some big name reporters. Jayson Stark called Wacha a "phenom" on Twitter yesterday morning, and Jon Heyman called him a "Wainwright double." This creates completely unrealistic expectations for a prospect who can stand on his own without the superlatives.
But what's more important here is what Wacha is for fantasy purposes. He comes to the majors in a great situation, as he will pitch for a winning team in a pitcher’s park in the NL Central. Because of that, his best attributes are going to be wins and ERA. The strikeouts, on the other hand, may not be so plentiful. Last year, Wacha racked up the Ks because he was primarily pitching in relief (11 total appearances). As a true starter this year, his strikeout rate in Triple-A has been under 6.0 per nine innings. And with a ground ball rate of only 31 percent this season, he has the potential for some home run issues as well.
Right now, Wacha should be owned in any league 12-team mixed and deeper, in addition to all keeper and dynasty formats. In NL-only leagues where he's not owned, he's worthy of a $20-plus FAAB bid given the uncertainty at the back of the Cardinals' rotation. If he receives 18-20 starts, I would expect Wacha's line to look something like this: eight wins, 3.70 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 70 strikeouts in 110 innings. A very useful pitcher, but not a savior and not a superstar. —Bret Sayre
Jason Cole is an author of Baseball Prospectus.