Free Agency Preview: Michael Wacha
The MLB off-season is fast approaching and teams are just salivating to add to their roster. There is an old saying: “Hitting wins games; pitching wins championships”. That has been true this year as well. There are plenty of teams that will be eyeing the pitching market this winter, particularly the starting pitching market, in order to complete a championship run.
Their is no shortage of talent on the starting pitching market this off-season. Gerrit Cole, Zack Wheeler, and Hyun-Jin Ryu are obviously at the forefront of every team’s wishlist. They are the quintessential aces that can carry any rotation from solid to dominant. Even pitchers like Madison Bumgarner, Cole Hamels, and Jake Odorizzi will be on top of team’s lists after this winter. Pitchers of that caliber can effectively eat innings and fill a spot in the middle of the rotation nicely. Plus, there are always starters that are sought after for maybe one year that are coming off of a down season. Pitchers like Rick Porcello, Felix Hernandez, and Jhoulys Chacin spring to mind for that situation.
Yet one pitcher could be a polarizing name on the open market this winter and that is Michael Wacha. Once upon a time, Michael Wacha looked like he was a future ace for the Cardinals. He burst onto the scene in 2013, taking home NLCS MVP honors. Following that, he put together a collective 22-13 record with a 3.31 ERA during the next two seasons and became an All Star caliber player. However, since the 2016 season, Wacha is 33-25 with a 4.39 ERA, a WHIP of 1.420, and averaging just 23 starts per season. Wacha still has time to turn his career around and become an all-star starter once again, as he is only 28. Still, there are potentials risks and rewards to giving Wacha a contract this winter.
There are definitely some risks when teams look at Michael Wacha. Due to this, it is hard to figure out what type of pitcher he will be from here on out and what type of contract he will receive. This is what makes Wacha such an intriguing name this off-season; there are so many options that Wacha could get when free agency gets underway.
The biggest risk at this point should be health. During the duration of his career, Wacha has dealt with a stress reaction in the scapula, shoulder inflammation, an oblique strain, and a shoulder strain. It has been rough for Wacha during his career to say the least. Teams have to wonder at this point just how healthy he is going to be. It is a big risk, especially when Wacha will likely be a 4th or 5th starter, looking to eat innings. Teams simply cannot afford to have Wacha on the shelf for an extended period of time.
The other big risk is his recent performance. While his aforementioned totals between 2016-2019 are not terrible, this latest season was truly a low point for Wacha. Wacha went just 6-7 this past season with a measly 4.76 ERA to go with a 5.61 FIP. Worse, he surrendered 26 long balls and notched a WHIP of 1.563, the highest of his career. There is no proof to determine whether or not health hurt his performance, but this season was not encouraging.
Still, even with the red flags surrounding Wacha, there can be reasons for optimism when teams add pitching this winter. While one can say Wacha is not what he once was, Wacha can still be effective. Wacha can contribute a key role for a team that needs an arm to round out the staff. There have been many reclamation projects over the years and Wacha is a prime candidate to have a bounce back season.
The biggest sign that Wacha could rebound is to look at his 2018. Despite losing most of the season to an oblique strain, Wacha put on a prominent pitching display. In 15 starts, Wacha put together a record of 8-2 with a rock solid ERA of 3.20. To go with this, Wacha put together a solid ERA+ of 121 (the highest of his career) and a WHIP of 1.233, which is the lowest since his All Star season in 2015. While this was in a shortened 2018, these results show that the talent is still there.
Wacha could provide flexibility at this point of his career. He can pitch out of the bullpen as we have seen this year. Wacha can fill the role of the swingman type of pitcher as a long reliever out of the bullpen. He can even be like a Daniel Hudson type of pitcher, a starter who has been turned into a late game specialist. Teams that are interested in signing Wacha certainly have their options open when it comes to using him.
So the question becomes where Michael Wacha will land this winter. It would be shocking to see him accept anything less than a MLB deal, but the duration may only be one or two years to re-establish himself. In terms of money, it is fair to think he could range anywhere from $5M-$8M per year, given his salary is currently $6.35M.
The next question is where. It should be stated that it is very likely the Cardinals will not retain Wacha, as they have several starters that are getting ready to take his spot. Unless Wacha were to come back exclusively in the bullpen, there likely is no place for him. Wacha could go to a team that is on the cusp of success or simply beginning to build a respectable staff. Wacha was slightly below league average in terms of ERA so he could be of use for struggling teams. His options will be wide open this winter and could provide his services for any team in the league.
One pitcher that can be a success story for Michael Wacha is former Cardinal Lance Lynn. Lynn is another pitcher that started out on fire for the Cardinals, but then tailed off. After a good but not great 2017, the Cardinals decided not to retain him and it looked like that was the right choice after a sub-par 2018 with the Twins and Yankees. This season, though, he was incredible for the Texas Rangers, going 16-11 with a 3.67 ERA while notching 246 strikeouts and a 7.6 WAR (according to Baseball-Reference.com). If Lynn can find his dominance again, there definitely is hope that Wacha can do the same.
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