The St. Louis Cardinals entered the 2014 season with Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha poised to lead the rotation forward. Wainwright, the established veteran, was ready to resume the role of staff ace, a role he had been groomed for over his career. Wacha looked to build on his success in the 2013 postseason and prove that he would be the future ace of the team.
The season started well for Wacha. Through his first 15 starts, the 23-year-old had been awarded five victories and compiled an earned run average below 3.00. After earning his fifth win on June 17, Wacha was placed on the disabled list.
Eventually, the young right-hander was diagnosed with a stress reaction to his throwing shoulder, a condition that very few have suffered from. His summer would be consumed by MRI exams and conditioning efforts.
The team was cautious in its expectations for the remainder of the season. Many felt that 2014 was finished for Wacha. The team frequently stated that a September return was the best anyone could hope for. Wacha simply kept to his regimen and kept working on getting better.
Wacha reached a new, important milestone on August 16, throwing a bullpen session from a mound for the first time since that June 17 start. It was a big stepping stone, even if the throwing session itself was a mild one. Wacha shared his satisfaction and the details of the throwing session with Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
It felt good to get back out there on the mound. Arm felt great. It was 30 pitches. Pretty light throws but I’m happy with it.
It’s always good to get a new milestone. It’s one of those deals (that) whenever you’re cleared to throw, it’s a big day for you. Whenever you’re cleared to get your first (bull)pen in, it’s a big day. I know it’s still a long road to go.
The news is encouraging but leads to a different question altogether. What happens if Wacha can come back this season?
Whether he heads out on a rehab assignment will be determined by whether he progresses quickly enough to join one of the affiliates before the Minor League regular season ends on Sept. 1. Wacha could also build up his arm strength by throwing simulated games in St. Louis.
The bigger issue may be what to do with Wacha if he does get healthy enough to pitch this season. The Cardinals were active at the trade deadline, securing John Lackey and Justin Masterson to solidify the starting rotation. They joined Wainwright, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller in that rotation. Wacha would created a six-man competition for five slots.
Wainwright is the ace of the staff and is obviously not going anywhere unless he is hurt. Lynn has shown positive signs throughout the season and has proven that he belongs in the rotation. Lackey was not brought over from the Boston Red Sox to assume a bullpen role.
Indeed, it may come down to a choice between Masterson and Miller if Wacha is to rejoin the rotation.
Miller was on the roster but virtually unheard from during the 2013 postseason (9.00 ERA in one inning pitched). Recently, he was sent to the bullpen to work through some of his control issues.
Masterson has had struggles since joining the team as well (6.00 ERA in 15 innings with St. Louis). However, he does seem to be finding his footing and performing better as of late, tossing at least six innings in two of his last three starts.
Wacha could return to help solidify the bullpen for the end of the season and potentially the postseason. It would give him work without disrupting the rotation. It would also allow him to rebuild some strength while still helping the team.
Overall, every general manager in baseball will tell you that having too many quality pitchers is a dream come true. If the Cardinals are in the last few weeks of their season and faced with finding enough work for a number of good pitchers, they are likely in a very good spot going forward.