PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina has seen all he needs to see from pitching prospect Michael Wacha.
“I think that guy right now can pitch in the big leagues,” Molina said. “That’s the way I look at it. He’s got great stuff. He has great presence on the mound. I feel that guy can pitch right now in the big leagues. He has great command, great attitude.”
This time last year the 21-year-old Wacha was pitching for Texas A&M. Now he’s retiring big league hitters with ease, looking nothing like a pitcher entering his first big league camp with just 21 professional innings under his belt.
Despite Molina’s praise Wacha probably won’t make the big league roster out of spring training. But that doesn’t make what he’s doing any less impressive. The Cardinals drafted the 6-foot-6 Wacha with the No. 19 overall pick in the first round of last summer’s MLB Draft. And he’s already looking like a steal.
Wacha made 11 minor league appearances covering three levels last summer after he signed, finishing at Double-A Springfield. Pitching mostly in relief to control his workload following a full college season, the hard-throwing right-hander had 40 strikeouts in 21 combined innings and allowed just eight hits and four walks.
He’s been even more impressive this spring, allowing just two hits and one unearned run in five innings over two appearances despite being the youngest and least experienced pitcher in camp.
“He’s one of the few guys that we hadn’t seen throw before so we had heard a lot but absolutely wanted to see for ourselves and he’s done a nice job,” said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.
“I’m sure that’s a huge comment for Michael to get from Yadi, but my comment is that he’s doing a nice job when we give him the ball. He goes out there and makes good pitches. He needs to just keep his head down and keep doing what he’s doing.”
Wacha pitched two innings Saturday against the Marlins and allowed an unearned run after the first hitter he faced reached on an error and later scored on a single up the middle. He had three strikeouts and retired six of the eight batters he faced.
On the road Wednesday against the Mets in his second appearance Wacha looked even better. He allowed just one hit – a two-strike hit to All-Star David Wright – but retired the other nine batters he faced in three quick and easy innings.
Wacha had five strikeouts in three innings and didn’t walk a batter, getting swings and misses with his fastball, changeup and curveball. Seen as a weakness coming out of college, his curveball has greatly improved already.
“It’s been nice,” Wacha said. “I’m just trying to go out there and do what they’ve been preaching and just going out and throwing the first pitch strike. You get yourself ahead in the count and you really have control of what you can do.
“I’ve felt pretty comfortable out there so hopefully I’l get some more opportunities like that and I can keep on getting better.”
Wacha has already drawn comparisons to Cardinals right-hander Trevor Rosenthal, who used an impressive showing in big league camp last spring to earn a mid-season promotion straight from Double-A to the Cardinals.
Projected as a starter long term, Rosenthal became a dominant reliever for the Cardinals down the stretch and was nearly unhittable in the playoffs.
“The Rosenthal comparison to me really fits in the fact that he’s doing all the little things right,” Matheny said. “What stood out with Trevor last year was how he was a guy that you just watched the way he went about things and he’s going about it how you would design for a young player to come in here. He’s doing his extra work, he seems to have a plan and he’s sticking with it.
“He’s got a maturity to him and regardless of whatever innings he has as a pro he has a disposition and it’s a good compliment to he and the people who have invested in him in the past.”
Said Wacha of the All-Star and Gold Glove catcher saying he’s already capable of pitching in the Major Leagues, “That is quite a compliment.”
Rosenthal, Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller seem to be the three candidates fighting for the fifth spot in the Cardinals starting rotation. Wacha figured to just be here for the experience before heading out to Minor League camp when it opens next week.
But could Wacha somehow work his way into the conversation for a spot on the big league roster to start the season? Matheny won’t say.
“I want him to just go out there and keep pitching,” Matheny said.
Most expected Wacha to start the year at Double-A and move to Triple-A Memphis at some point later this summer. But if he continues to pitch like he has, the Cardinals may have to look at speeding up his timetable.