Why Did the Cardinals Never Commit to Michael Wacha?

Michael Wacha is again going through the arbitration process.  It’s very likely he’ll settle for a one-year deal before I finish this post.  What strikes me strange is the fact that, given the Cardinals’ history, he’s had to go through this process all three years.  We’ll tackle the question posed in the title a bit lower down, but first background.  (And if you want to skip all of this, just scroll down for the next section break.)

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In June 2012, with their first round pick in the draft, the St. Louis Cardinals selected a right-hander from Texas A&M named Michael Wacha.  Wacha was a solid talent that actually slipped a bit, as he was ranked as high as eighth in the 2012 draft class.

Wacha fit perfectly in the Cardinal mold.  Dan Moore, at that time head of Viva El Birdos, termed Wacha “the basically Adam Wainwright-shaped pitcher” of the draft.  With plenty of college polish on him, Wacha was expected to move fast and he didn’t disappoint.  By the end of the 2012 year–remember, a shortened season given the fact that he wasn’t drafted until June of that season–he was already pitching for AA Springfield, getting in eight innings at that level and allowing just one run.

2013 saw him start at Memphis where he started off the season with a 2.05 ERA in his first eight starts.  Then, at the end of May, the Cardinals needed a starter and Wacha got the call when the club put John Gast (not John Gant) on the disabled list.  Wacha made his debut at home against the Kansas City Royals.  This wasn’t the Royals of old, being on the cusp of two straight World Series appearances, but Wacha held them to one run over seven innings, striking out six and walking none.

Wacha was lit up by the Diamondbacks in his next outing, giving up six runs and not making it through the fifth, but rebounded to keep the Mets at bay over six innings, allowing just two runs on five hits and three walks.  He returned to Memphis for a bit, posting seven more starts for the Redbirds before coming back to the bigs in early August, just in time to craft his legend.

Over the last two months of the 2013 season, Wacha put up a 2.11 ERA in 47 innings.  August was spent in the bullpen, but Wacha returned to the rotation in September, putting up a 1.72 ERA in five starts which included a four-run, 4.2 inning outing in his next-to-last start of the season in Colorado.  His last start made up for that, as he took a no-hitter against the Nationals to the final batter before a high chopper just got over his glove for an infield hit.

The Cardinals won the division that year and moved on to October.  Improbably, this rookie pitcher put the team on his back.  Before stumbling in his last start of the World Series, Wacha had four playoff starts and posted a 1.00 ERA with 28 strikeouts against eight walks.  That included his first playoff game, in Pittsburgh with the Pirates up two games to one in the best-of-five NLDS.  How did Wacha respond?  By not allowing a hit until one out in the seventh inning.  He went on to outduel Clayton Kershaw twice, one of which was a 1-0 game, then allowed two runs in six innings in his first World Series start.

And after the season, the Cardinals didn’t sign him to an extension.

Now, there’s a lot of logic to this.  Even as great as Wacha had been, he still had less than a year’s worth of experience.  Pitchers are volatile things, the league could catch up to him, etc.  However, it wouldn’t have been out of general practice for the Cardinals to have at least tried to buy out an arbitration year or two.  With how valuable starting pitching is and how costly it can be, trying to get some certainty wouldn’t have been out of line for the Cardinals.

Move on to 2014.  Wacha now is a counted-on part of the rotation and he delivered, showing that 2013 wasn’t really a fluke.  In his first 15 starts he went 5-5 but posted a 2.79 ERA and struck out 83 compared to 26 walks.  That’s top of the rotation type of results and even if you worried about some of the peripherials, it looked like the Cardinals had another young stud of an arm for their club.

The problem wasn’t the arm.  The problem was the shoulder.

In mid-June Wacha went on the DL with what turned out to be a stress reaction in his right shoulder.  Not many players had ever been diagnosed with such an issue–Brandon McCarthy‘s name is now almost synonymous with Wacha’s–and there was real concern about what this meant for his future.  Wacha took some time off, did some rehab work, and came back in September of 2014 to make four starts, with only the last one lasting five innings.

With the lack of stamina a real issue and no need for more than four starters in the playoffs, Wacha wound up in the Mike Matheny purgatory (also called the Shelby Miller Scholarship), making the playoff roster but only as the “break glass if emergency” pitcher.  He didn’t pitch at all in the NLDS nor the first four games of the NLCS.  Then, with the Cardinals down three games to one but in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, Matheny broke the glass.  Wacha allowed a single, a flyout, a walk, and a three-run bomb to Travis Ishikawa and the Cardinals’ season was over and fans had a shorthand for so many different Matheny bullpen issues–“Wacha in Game 5”.

Still, Wacha had returned from injury, pitched reasonably well for someone coming off of that long layoff, and the playoff issue couldn’t be pinned on him.

And still the Cardinals didn’t offer him an extension.

Now, there’s still logic to this.  Wacha’s injury was unique enough that the Cardinals really didn’t know what they were going to be getting out of him.  Why lock yourself into a deal that might see him on the DL for more than half of it?  What if that injury keeps him from ever being 2013 Wacha again?  The club still had control over him and there was no real reason to go the extra mile here.  You wonder if they would have had the shoulder not flared but it did and they didn’t.

2015 seemed to show that the shoulder wasn’t going to be a major problem.  Wacha made 30 starts, posted a 3.38 ERA on the year, won 17 games, and was an All-Star for the first time in his career.  He did have a rough outing against the Cubs in the NLDS that year, but given how that series turned out, it’s tough to lay that entire loss at his feet.  So back to form, healthy, and showing the results that you’d expect from Wacha.

And still the Cardinals didn’t offer him an extension.

There’s logic here, but it’s a little less obvious.  The injury was still a potential issue, even though it hadn’t come into play much in 2015.  The Cardinals still had the rights to a pre-arbitration Wacha.  So there was no reason they had to try for an extension, but this is about the time in a Cardinal prospect’s life where they’d get that offer.  Lance Lynn had all three of his arbitration years purchased with the extension that he signed in January of 2015.  Of course, that was right before he went to an arbitration hearing, which Wacha was still a year away from.  If you look at hitters, Stephen Piscotty got his extension after a year-plus in the big leagues, much less time than Wacha had at this point.  You could say the Cards wanted to get ahead of things since they have more trouble developing hitters (and that it didn’t completely work out for them anyway) but it would not have been surprising to see Wacha ink a long-term pact here.

He didn’t, though, and we move on to 2016.  The results in 2016 weren’t as impressive as you’d like to see, especially after the previous year’s successful season.  After the game on August 8, Wacha’s ERA stood at 4.45.  He had 109 strikeouts in the 131.1 innings he pitched, which was a bit low, and he had 44 walks.  However, the numbers were a bit skewed by a bad stretch in May, where he had three games where he allowed six or more runs in a row (though the first of those had a number of unearned runs that helped his numbers).  After those games, he posted a 4.03 ERA, which is still not at the level you’d expect from Wacha but not a terrible number in this day and age.

Then the shoulder injury returned, knocking him out for the rest of August and much of September.  In the Post-Dispatch story, John Mozeliak said something that probably sums up the question that we led off with.

“When you’re looking at the connection between when this occurs to someone you’re trying to get 200 innings out of — I don’t think we’re comfortable making that bet long term at this point.”

Wacha returned to pitch 6.2 innings out of the bullpen in September, only one outing of which (two innings in Coors Field, amazingly) was very effective.

And still the Cardinals didn’t offer him an extension.

Given the flareup of the shoulder and the comments Mozeliak had made, that wasn’t a real surprise.  However, now Wacha was eligible for arbitration, a process that the Cardinals hadn’t gone completely through since 1999, when Darren Oliver went to a hearing.  Every year since then, for more than a decade and a half, the Cardinals had settled with their players before the hearing.

There were two players heading to arbitration in the 2016-2017 offseason, Wacha and Carlos Martinez.  Perhaps it’s coincidence that this would be the year that they publicly announce they are breaking with tradition and are planning to go to arbitration hearings with both of those players should they not agree to the club’s terms.  We talked a lot at the time about that decision, mostly because of what it meant to take Martinez to arbitration, but Wacha was in that context as well.

Then, for all of their talk and bluster, the Cardinals wound up signing Martinez to a five-year deal, avoiding arbitration and locking up their ace for half a decade.  Wacha, who had been with the club almost as long, wound up sitting across a courtroom.  The Cardinals made good on their threat with the pitcher and won the case, saving the club about a half-million dollars.

You know, off a payroll that was around $140 million.

And while Wacha said all the right things about the process being a business and he wasn’t taking anything personal, he did indicate that it wasn’t completely out of mind.

“And they also say some stuff. They go in there saying nothing’s personal, but they say some stuff, for sure.”

With Wacha’s contract situation settled, all that was left was to see if he could put up a complete and solid year.  2017 saw Wacha make 30 starts, meaning he stayed healthy, though his ERA was 4.13 (with a 3.63 FIP).  His strikeout rate was the highest it had been since his initial debut season of 2013 and while his walk rate was as well, it was still in line with his career norms.  A healthy Wacha is an asset and even though the club didn’t make the playoffs, it was a solid year for the hurler and, with two of three years of 30 starts, there was an argument that Wacha wasn’t really “injury-prone”.

And still the Cardinals didn’t offer him an extension.

The Cardinals got away from the “file-and-trial” method in the 2017-2018 offseason, settling with all of their arbitration-eligible folks at the same time.  That might have been in part because they had no intention of taking Marcell Ozuna to arbitration right after a 37-home run season and Wacha, Randal Grichuk, and former Patron Pitcher of the Blog Tyler Lyons caught the wave there.  It’s also possible that the experience with Wacha the prior year had not been something the club wanted to repeat.  Whatever the case, Wacha had now gone through two of his arbitration seasons and had no long-term security to show for it.

That brings us to this past season.  Wacha had some solid numbers when he was on the field, putting up a 3.20 ERA and winning eight of his 15 starts.  However, his FIP was 4.22, mainly because his K/BB ratio was below two for the first time in his career.  That was a little skewed by a beatdown by the Cubs in his next-to-last start but there was no real chance for him to fix those numbers.

On June 20, Wacha left his start against the Philadelphia Phillies with what was diagnosed to be an oblique strain.  It turned out to be a season-ending injury, but on the positive side it wasn’t the shoulder that was keeping him out of action.  Obliques happen–ask Wainwright, among others–and it’s hard to plan for them to happen again.

And still the Cardinals didn’t offer him an extension.

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Let’s take a look at a few other homegrown pitching stars of the Cardinals from the past 15 years and see how their contract status played out.  All contract data comes from the invaluable Cot’s Baseball Contracts section of Baseball Prospectus unless otherwise noted.

Adam Wainwright, of course, was brought into the organization in 2003 and made his debut with a couple of innings in 2005.  2006 would have been his first real season, meaning that he would have hit arbitration after the 2009 campaign.  The key is would have, because the organization signed him to a four-year deal before the 2008 year, which bought out all of his arbitration years.  The club also held two option years, which covered the first two seasons he would have been a free agent if my figuring is correct.  Of course, Waino would then sign a five-year deal with the club and then his current contract, a one-year, creatively-structured affair.  For our purposes, though, we’re looking at the first one and Wainwright got his stability early on in his career.

Jaime Garcia threw his first pitch for the Cardinals in 2008, getting into 10 games.  Tommy John surgery kept him out of action in 2009, but he returned in 2010 and received Rookie of the Year votes as he put up a 13-8 record and a 2.70 ERA.  I couldn’t find Garcia on Cot’s, perhaps due to him announcing his retirement this week, but Wikipedia says halfway into 2011, the Cardinals signed Garcia to a four-year extension with two options years, meaning that Garcia signed away all of his arbitration years and a couple of years (depending on how service time was calculated) of free agency.  Again, a young star pitcher didn’t get to arbitration.

Lance Lynn began his Cardinal career in 2011, spending time mainly in the bullpen before moving to the rotation in 2012, when he was an All-Star.  Lynn pitched well for his first three seasons, with the Cardinals just renewing his contract each time.  Finally, when Lynn was on the brink of going to an arbitration hearing, the Cardinals locked him up with a three-year deal that bought out all the arbitration years while bringing him to free agency right when he was scheduled to enter it.  Lynn wound up having Tommy John after that contract was signed, which may play a role in some of the front office’s thinking.

We’ve already mentioned Carlos Martinez above.  Martinez reached arbitration at the same time Wacha did, but their paths diverged sharply at this point.  Martinez got the five-year deal that he is currently enjoying while Wacha actually went to a hearing that season.

Those are some comparable pitchers for Wacha (and, as mentioned above, Piscotty also got a long-term deal well before hitting the arbitration level) but for some reason Wacha’s never been in their plans in this way.  I don’t remember ever hearing any credible rumors at any point about a Wacha extension and a quick search doesn’t seem to turn up any either.  Wacha’s not a Scott Boras client (he’s repped by CAA, which I believe is also Piscotty’s agency) so it doesn’t seem like it’s the player or agent throwing up the roadblocks.  The Cardinals just have never indicated that they want to have Michael Wacha around long-term.

Again, there are a lot of reasons why they wouldn’t have given him an extension at different points in time.  It’s very possible that had the shoulder issue not come up in 2014, this post would have been moot.  I’m not saying that they are wrong to have pursued a year-to-year strategy with Wacha, just that it feels very strange for them to have done so.  The club has proven they love locking up young talent and Wacha looks–both with his stuff, with his personality, heck even his beard–so much like Wainwright that you’d think they’d have good feelings about him just by proxy.  There are a lot of young arms and, Mozeliak’s apparent philosophy to the contrary, you can’t keep all of them.  Though that’s not stopped rumors and reports of the club wanting to extend Miles Mikolas after his great year last year.  Still, there’s going to have to be a rotation spot for people like Genesis Cabrera or Dakota Hudson, so maybe the club needed someone to be the out guy and Wacha wound up with the short straw.

Of course, it’s also surprising that, if they didn’t see him as a long-term asset, they didn’t try to trade him after 2017 or perhaps 2015, when he’d proven to have been healthy all season long.  While his value is always going to be dinged some by that shoulder issue, you’d think after proving it wasn’t an issue for a season his value would have been back up to normal levels or at least close enough that the club could have gotten some return for him.

It’s just, well, weird.  Michael Wacha is almost certainly going to pitch 2020 in a different uniform.  I would think he’d get a qualifying offer at the end of the year, so given how much of a salary jump that QO would be for him, he might accept it and do another year with the club, especially the way free agency has been going as of late.  If Wacha wants stability, though, he’s going to have to find it somewhere outside of St. Louis.  The player that seemed to be tailor-made for the Cards will be eventually in something that doesn’t have the birds on the bat on it.  That’s a strange thing to think about, especially when there were so many opportunities for St. Louis to show a commitment to him.

We’ll see what 2019 brings.  Maybe the club will surprise.  No matter what does transpire, though, here’s hoping for a great season for Wacha and the stability and commitment he’s not been able to find so far.

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