The Case Against Moving Wacha to the Bullpen

When Michael Wacha was first promoted to the MLB, I gave a scouting report in which I suggested Wacha would eventually develop into a #2 or #3 starter. However, at least for the near future, the Cardinals have shifted Wacha to the bullpen. There are a few factors that led the Cardinals to make this decision, but most of them seem very shortsighted. The Cardinals should not risk Wacha’s long-term health and long-term abilities in order to slightly improve the team’s bullpen for the remainder of the 2013 season.
The Cardinals clearly have their reasons for changing Wacha’s role, and since they see the move as temporary, most of their motives are related to this season. There is no doubt that Wacha is ready for the Majors, as he has succeed in 4 Big League starts with a 4.37 ERA, which is inflated by one tough outing against Arizona. Despite Wacha’s success, there is really no opening in the rotation. The Cardinals feel that by moving Wacha to the bullpen they can limit his workload on the season, while still allowing him to contribute at the Major League level. Clearly, the Cardinals have a need in the bullpen if they are willing to convert one of their most prized starting pitching prospects into a reliever, even if it is only temporary. The Cardinals certainly need better performances from its relievers, as the team ranks 20th in ERA at 3.79, which is actually lower because of how good their late-inning relievers have done, but the middle relievers have not been as reliable. And while it was in the lower levels of the Minors, Wacha has enjoyed success as a reliever, with a 0.86 ERA across three Minor League levels last season. It is not crazy to think that Wacha can immediately dominate as a reliever at the Big League level, especially because he will be able to work with a mid-to-upper 90’s fastball and devastating -, while being able to only throw his curve on occasion. The current plan is for Wacha to be used as a late-inning reliever for the Cardinals, in order for them to control the innings of their other late-inning relievers.
Other than limiting his innings, which could have been accomplished by another method, none of these reasons are designed to improve Wacha’s long-term development. Obviously, at some point, a team has to stop focusing on a prospect’s future and shift to how that player can help the team now, but Wacha was drafted just last season, and still has plenty he needs to improve, such as his curveball. While a shift to the bullpen will limit his innings, it will also allow Wacha to pitch without using his curveball very much, which is a pitch he drastically needs to improve in order to take his game to the next level, as a true three-pitch pitcher. The better option for Wacha’s development would be to keep him in Triple-A as a starter and allow him to develop all three of his pitches until he reaches his innings limit, at which point the Cardinals can shut him down. Many young starting pitchers have been converted to relievers for what was meant to be temporary, yet not many are able to return to being successful starters. That list includes:

  • Joba Chamberlain, who carried a 2.28 ERA through 22 starts at the Minor League level, but just a 3.80 ERA through 247 career games, just 43 starts. Chamberlain’s last Major League start came in 2009, which was his only full season as a starter due to a 4.75 ERA in 31 starts.
  • The 12th pick of the 2009 Amateur Draft, Aaron Crow, is another starter that was rushed to the Majors to work out of the bullpen. While Crow has been a reliable reliever, he was given the opportunity to develop a third, so he works almost exclusively with his fastball-slider combo, which is effective as a reliever, but insufficient as a starting pitcher. Three years into his Major League career, Crow has never made a start.
  • Neftali Feliz dominated to a 2.95 ERA during his Minor League career, which covered 86 appearances, 58 of which were starts. After pitching almost exclusively as a starter for three years, Feliz was promoted as a reliever at the age of 21. Feliz dominated as a reliever at the MLB level and was even successful for his 7 starts in 2012. Unfortunately, Feliz underwent Tommy John surgery during the 2012 season, which is the year he attempted a return to the rotation, after three seasons as a reliever.

The Cardinals have clear motives for moving Wacha to the bullpen, and although they are valid in the short-term, it is worth considering the possible long-term effects of the such a move. On Wednesday, Wacha made his first relief appearance at the Major League level, and pitched 2 perfect innings recording 4 strikeouts. After his strong relief appearance on Wednesday, I have no doubt Wacha can dominate as a reliever, but it does not seem worthwhile to risk Wacha’s potential future as a reliable starter in order to improve the Cardinals’ bullpen for the remainder of the season. It seems even more questionable, since the Cardinals seem bound for the playoffs, and with so little of the season left, Wacha’s impact will not be that significant.

Anthony Cacchione

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