Every day, the Cardinals’ season gets a bit more interesting. And by “interesting,” what I really mean is unpredictable and fascinating, surprising and occasionally even a little scary.
Watching these “interesting” Cardinals has become very much like observing a speeding Indy car roaring around hairpin curves, exciting and frightening all rolled into one.
The team rolled out of town on Sunday with the best record in baseball (28-15), and baseball’s best pitching staff, too.
And it is that pitching staff that has generated the most excitement and the most anxiety, too. So good yet so fragile. As beautiful to watch as fine-spun gossamer, but apparently just as delicate, too.
Within a week, the best starting staff in the game has gone from an undeniable strength to a nervous uncertainty.
With Jake Westbrook and now Jaime Garcia on the 15-day disabled list — and with Garcia probably gone for the season — the temptation for most amateur general managers in Cardinal Nation is to accelerate the future and rush last year’s first-round draft pick Michael Wacha up from Class AAA Memphis.
Well, lead us not into temptation.
At least not yet.
With every breathless dispatch that comes up from Memphis that regales us with Wacha’s exploits (4-0 with a gaudy 1.89 earned-run average in eight starts), the 21-year-old righthander is the obvious move of every fantasy-league loving fan who doesn’t have to consider anything beyond the right here and the right now.
Luckily, the real GM in this game, John Mozeliak, doesn’t run the Cards like that. He’s willing to show a little more patience with Wacha, and I can’t blame him.
At least for now.
Most of the impatient sorts who are more than willing to rush Wacha to the majors don’t want to bother considering things such as the economics of the potential promotion or even more importantly, the simple developmental ramifications of rushing the time clock on perhaps the best young hurler in the organization since ace Adam Wainwright arrived from the Atlanta farm system 10 years ago.
Combine the sheer desperation of knowing that Garcia is on the shelf for the rest of the year with the most recent success of the other gifted young arms who have recently arrived to the big club.
John Gast has won his first two games as a starter. Seth Maness and Carlos Martinez have been revelations out of the bullpen. Rookie Shelby Miller is arguably one of the best starters in the National League this year. Trevor Rosenthal came into the postseason last year and threw 82/3 scoreless innings and struck out 15 batters (the most strikeouts by a relief pitcher in the postseason last year). This year, he is an invaluable asset in middle relief.
So why are we still waiting on Wacha?
Because it is the smart thing to do.
“Everybody is focused on the Wacha ‘clock,’” Mozeliak told the Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold on Sunday, referring to the nickname for big-league service time. “The clock is something that is well-documented and it’s something that we think about.”
But this isn’t strictly about the big-business of baseball. It’s about the not-so-small business of the importance of the patient approach in the development of a talented asset such as Wacha.
Right now, Mozeliak has the liberty of allowing Wacha to learn his craft without any regard for the sound of a clock ticking. As much talent as Wacha has, it still is in the process of being nurtured properly. A year ago, he was at Texas A&M pitching once a week. Last summer, he pitched a total of 21 innings in the minors. So far this spring, he has already doubled his professional innings, but he’s still getting accustomed to the every-five-days cycle of a professional starting pitcher.
The numbers at Memphis suggest he’s not that far away from being major-league ready. But rookie Shelby Miller, the 2009 first-round pick, had 3832/3 innings of seasoning in the minors before earning his spot in this year’s starting rotation, and it seems to have suited him quite well. Wainwright had 793 innings in the minors.
Wacha has 682/3 nnings in the minors under his belt.
So why not take the same patient approach with Wacha?
Mozeliak has pretty much said that all weekend, cautioning on the dangers of tossing Wacha into the deep end too early and then having to deal with Strasburg-esque issues of worrying about overstressing a young and developing arm (and yes, I know it was more of an injury thing with the Nationals’ hurler).
Right now, the right place for the kid is in Triple A learning the craft under the less glaring lights of Memphis.
That’s not to say that a week from now, circumstances could change all of this.
Another bad injury report from Westbrook could almost force Mozeliak’s hand and present Wacha as the least disruptive alternative to patching up the back end of the rotation.
It’s not exactly like the Cardinals have been the best at predicting speedy recoveries for their pitchers. But for the time being, there are just so many other potential alternatives. Westbrook recovers. If he doesn’t, shifting rookie Carlos Martinez or Joe Kelly out of the bullpen into the rotation (after a quick trip to Memphis to build up some innings). Praying that Chris Carpenter has another miracle left in his 38-year-old arm.
All of these things seem to be a better pure baseball alternative to rushing the kid.
I don’t really care much about the contract clock, though I know it’s an important part of the process that amateur GM’s seem to forget or ignore altogether.
I just think the patient development of Wacha has to supersede everything because when he finally does arrive here, it shouldn’t be for a short-term visit. There ought to be particular patience in bringing him to the majors, because once he gets there he ought to be completely ready to stay for the next 10-15 years.
Right now, the Cardinals can afford to take their time with him, and they should.
The only thing that could possibly mess up this perfect, patient plan is Wacha’s enormous talent. Sometimes, the best talent ignores every clock and stop sign you put in front of them. Sometimes, all the best athletic talent needs is opportunity to come knocking.
The time for opportunity to come rapping on Michael Wacha’s door is getting closer every day.