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Cardinals' Wacha a budding ace

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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Angel Hernandez might not be the best umpire. But he could make a decent scout.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, in a meeting with the FOX broadcasters on Saturday, recalled how Hernandez took immediate note of top prospect Michael Wacha during the right-hander’s first start in spring training.

Hernandez summoned Matheny after Wacha’s second inning, pointed to the kid’s name on the lineup card and offered high praise for his changeup.

We’ve already seen six Cardinals rookies combine for a 2.43 ERA and 3.8-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 126 innings this season.

Wacha, who will replace injured lefty John Gast in the rotation on Thursday, might only enhance those numbers.

Yadier Molina, the Cardinals’ normally reserved catcher, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch early in the spring that Wacha “could compete right now in the big leagues.”

Impressive, considering that Wacha was the 19th overall pick in last June’s draft — the compensation pick that the Cardinals received for losing free-agent first baseman Albert Pujols to the Angels.

Some loss.

Pujols’ defection created playing time for Allen Craig, a free-agent opening for Carlos Beltran and the payroll flexibility for the Cardinals to award extensions to Molina and right-hander Adam Wainwright.

Add Wacha to the list.

Wacha, who turns 22 on July 21, was 4-0 with a 2.05 ERA, 34 strikeouts and 15 walks in 52 2/3 innings at Triple-A. At 6-foot-6, he bears a physical resemblance to Wainwright, and tops out at 97 mph on a downhill plane.

Matheny spoke excitedly about several of the Cardinals’ young pitchers on Saturday, talking about how since-demoted righty Carlos Martinez can carry 96 mph to 98 mph into the seventh inning, praising lefty Tyler Lyons for holding down the Padres with his sinker, predicting that righty Seth Maness eventually would return to starting and become, “one of those guys who sneaks up on you and has a really long career.”

Well, Wacha might be the best of all of them.

How often do you get to say it? Good call, Angel.

BELTRAN GIVING, ON AND OFF FIELD

When Pujols left as a free agent, the Cardinals lost not only a pillar in their lineup, but also a pillar of the St. Louis community.

Beltran has proven a worthy replacement on both fronts, giving the team quality production while becoming involved in numerous charitable efforts to benefit underprivileged and Hispanic youth in St. Louis.

Not surprisingly, Beltran cites the late Roberto Clemente, a fellow Puerto Rican, as an inspiration.

“We grew up in Puerto Rico learning about Roberto, what he did, the kind of example he set for everyone on and off the field,” Beltran says. “I don’t think about it, but I guess in the back of my mind it’s there. You want to emulate that, follow his path to do something good.”

Beltran, among other endeavors, is donating eight college scholarships — four merit-based, four need-based, each worth $2,500 — to local St. Louis Hispanic students early next month.

In 2011, he opened the Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy, a high school that serves as an athletic and academic home for young players in Puerto Rico. A number of the academy’s graduates have earned college scholarships in the U.S.

“I gave $4 million to build the academy. It sounds like a lot of money, but c’mon, I’ve made a lot of money in baseball,” says Beltran, whose career earnings will top $160 million this season, according to baseball-reference.com.

“The money is nothing compared to the blessings that God has given me. I tried to do something to benefit other kids. It was a no-brainer for me.”

GIRARDI’S INCREDIBLE JUGGLING ACT

If the Yankees make the postseason, Joe Girardi should be the obvious choice for American League Manager of the Year. His lineup shuffling alone this season should qualify him for some kind of award.

Consider:

Jay Bruce batted fifth in 49 of the Reds’ first 51 games. The Yankees, in contrast, had used 10 different No. 5 hitters entering Monday’s play, including Ben Francisco, Brennan Boesch, Francisco Cervelli and David Adams.

Granted, the No. 5 spot had not been especially productive for the Yankees, whose .659 OPS at the position ranked 10th in the 15-team AL. The team also ranked only 10th in runs per game, and owned the AL’s second-best record largely because it was third in ERA.

Offensively, Girardi is simply trying to squeeze the most out of what he has. He has used 12 No. 6 hitters, 10 No. 7 hitters and 11 No. 8 hitters — including the pitcher in the No. 8 spot once.

ONE BAD TRADE

Can the Doug Fister deal get any worse for the Mariners? On Monday, the team designated infielder Francisco Martinez for assignment, just as they did in April with another player in the trade, outfielder Casper Wells.

Lefty reliever Charlie Furbush and Double-A righty Chance Ruffin are all the M’s now have to show for Fister and right-hander David Pauley (Ruffin, previously a reliever, is now starting).

Martinez, 22, supposedly was one of the keys to the trade for the Mariners, potentially the team’s third baseman of the future. Fister, meanwhile, is 23-13 with a 3.10 ERA since joining the Tigers — and under club control through 2015.

While the Mariners promoted highly regarded infielder Nick Franklin on Monday, they also demoted second baseman Dustin Ackley, whom they selected with the second overall pick in the 2009 draft.

Throw in the recent demotion of catcher Jesus Montero, whom the M’s acquired from the Yankees for right-hander Michael Pineda and are now moving to first base, and it has not been a banner week for GM Jack Zduriencik and the team’s other evaluators.

LEARNING CURVE FOR ASTROS’ PORTER?

It isn’t always easy for a new manager to delegate responsibility to his coaches. And when the new manager is as passionate and competitive as the Astros’ Bo Porter, it isn’t surprising to hear that the adjustment might be a work in progress.

Porter, who was a third base, outfield and baserunning instructor for six seasons with the Nationals, Diamondbacks and Marlins, frustrates some of his coaches with his hands-on approach, according to major-league sources.

Those same sources, however, say he is improving on the job.

Porter, contacted Sunday night, said that such talk was news to him, and that he knew coming into a job that it was “impossible for the manager to do everything.”

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“Realistically, managers are good because they have good coaches,” Porter said. “Outside of good players, that’s what makes a good manager — good coaches who take care of a particular area that they’re responsible for, and help the team play its best.”

If there is an issue with the Astros, it may be because their coaching staff is a mix of holdovers, handpicked selections by general manager Jeff Luhnow and Porter’s own choices.

Pitching coach Doug Brocail and first base coach Dave Clark are holdovers from previous managers.

Assistant hitting coach Dan Radison, bullpen coach Dennis Martinez and bullpen catcher Jeff Murphy all worked for Luhnow with the Cardinals.

Third base coach Dave Trembley and hitting coach John Mallee had previous connections with Porter. Bench coach Eduardo Perez had no prior link to either Porter or Luhnow.

MORE ON THE ‘STROS

A few weeks back, I asked how the Astros could consider trading right-handers Bud Norris and Lucas Harrell when the team already is so competitively challenged.

Stupid question.

The Astros, according to two major-league sources, will trade pretty much anyone, including Norris and Harrell. Especially Harrell, perhaps.

Earlier this season, Harrell was critical of the team’s decision to use infield shifts. On Saturday night, he again reacted negatively to a poor performance, answering four quick questions from the media and turning his back on the fourth, according to Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle.

Harrell called the game “embarrassing,” Smith reported. But when he asked the pitcher about his inconsistency, he responded, “I’d rather not say what I think it is.”

Such comments are not endearing Harrell to certain Astros people, who consider him an excuse-maker. Norris is viewed similarly by some, but is said to be improving in that regard.

For the season, Harrell is 3-6 with a 5.43 ERA and the same number of strikeouts and walks (33) in 58 innings.

MIX IN A HIT!

We all know batting average is not the most meaningful offensive stat, and the Astros’ Porter endeared himself to sabermetricians over the weekend by calling it “the most overrated statistic in baseball.”

Still, some pretty big names were among the bottom eight batting averages among players with the qualifying number of plate appearances entering Monday.

B.J. Upton: .148
Aaron Hicks: .152
Ike Davis: .158.
Adam Dunn: .159.
Rickie Weeks: .174.
Mike Moustakas: .178.
Miguel Montero: .189.
Dan Uggla: .190.

Upton and Dunn, of course, signed big-money free-agent contracts, while Weeks, Montero and Uggla all received lucrative extensions.

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And yes, batting average matters to the extent that it generally hurts a player’s on-base percentage. The highest OBP in the above group, Uggla’s .299, was still 20 points below the major-league average.

FASTER WAVES IN THE ATLANTIC

Maybe the independent Atlantic League can accomplish something that Major League Baseball continues to struggle with — improving the pace of games.

The Atlantic League is experimenting this season with several changes that could decrease the average time of nine-inning games. Some merely involve — voila! — enforcing existing MLB rules regarding the strike zone, hitters in the batter’s box and pitcher’s warmups. The league, however, also wants to reduce the time between innings to 90 seconds or less instead of the existing 120 to 150 seconds.

MLB, of course, could not institute such a plan due to the time required between innings for TV and radio commercials. But here’s how serious the Atlantic League is picking up the pace: Within 24 hours following the end of any nine-inning game that exceeds two hours, 45 minutes, each manager, the umpires, the home team GM and official scorer must submit a written report to the league office explaining why the game took so long.

“We are not trying to change the game, only to help keep it in tune with the times,” said Atlantic League Executive Director Joe Klein, a former GM with the Tigers, Rangers and Indians. “Historically in baseball, it has been the minor leagues that have been the laboratory for baseball innovations.

“We hope to come out of this season with faster games and some ideas that could be considered by Major League Baseball.”

The average time of an MLB game in the 1970s was about 2:30, according to the league. It was 2:57 from 2000 to ’09, a record 3:00 last season and 3:03 thus far this season, according to STATS LLC.

PADRE PROBLEMS

The Cardinals visited San Diego just before Los Angeles, and one of their veterans remarked to me that the Padres were an enigmatic bunch, difficult to figure out. Specifically, he talked about right fielder Will Venable, raved about his tools and said, “Why isn’t he better?”

Venable, 30, is one of those players whose skills lag behind his tools, perhaps because he played basketball at Princeton. But the Padres actually are getting decent production in right from Venable, Denorfia and Kyle Blanks — entering Monday’s play, they ranked seventh in the NL in OPS at that position, and sixth in the league in runs per game.

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The offense, which improved in the second half of last season, is only getting better — shortstop Everth Cabrera is turning into a legitimate player, second baseman Jedd Gyorko is a Rookie of the Year candidate. The Padres’ bigger problem is their lack of a stopper in their rotation. And, as a low-revenue club, they can’t afford to risk big money on one in free agency.

Right-hander Edwin Jackson visited the Padres last off-season; he had previously pitched for GM Josh Byrnes and VP A.J. Hinch in Arizona. But there was no way the Padres could spend $52 million on Jackson — and no way they should have spent that much on a pitcher who has started his Cubs career 1-7 with a 6.11 ERA.

At some point, the Padres will need to develop another Mat Latos, who they traded for right-hander Edinson Volquez, first baseman Yonder Alonso, catcher Yasmani Grandal and reliever Brad Boxberger in Feb. 2011. Otherwise, it will be difficult for the team to compete successfully in the NL West.

IT’S NOT LUCK WITH SHUCK

Outfielder J.B. Shuck could not have imagined he would get this much playing time when he signed a minor-league contract with the Angels last Nov. 12.

Shuck knew that the Angels needed a left-handed bat off the bench, but he had to compete in spring training with four outfielders who also had limited major-league experience — Trent Oeltjen, Scott Cousins, Matt Young and Kole Calhoun.

The competition proved beneficial, Shuck said, helping him improve. Turns out the Angels benefited, too. Shuck has batted .315 with a .754 OPS in 100 plate appearances, giving the Angels a boost in the absence of Peter Bourjos.

AROUND THE HORN

* The only way the Pirates will stand a chance in the NL Central is if they get more innings out of their rotation, which entered Monday ranked next-to-last in the NL in innings per start.

Relievers Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon and Justin Wilson had a combined 1.26 ERA in 60 appearances, but Wilson was on pace to throw 94 innings, Melancon 87 and Grilli 73.

The good news: The recent addition of left-hander Francisco Liriano bolstered the rotation, and the return of righty Charlie Morton and promotion of righty Gerrit Cole also could help.

More good news: Relievers are the easiest asset to acquire at the deadline. The Pirates likely will need the help.

* Left-hander Tyler Skaggs had a 5.23 ERA at Triple A Reno before making his season debut with the Diamondbacks on Monday, but GM Kevin Towers noted that the Reno ballpark and Pacific Coast League were decidedly hitter-friendly.

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Skaggs improved in his last three starts at Triple A, and a rival scout compared him to a young Barry Zito, while adding that Skaggs does not throw as hard as Zito did early in his career.

* Right-hander Jake Peavy and designated hitter Adam Dunn aren’t the only veterans who help keep the White Sox’s clubhouse loose.

I recently asked left-handed reliever Matt Thornton, who will be 37 in September, if he sometimes felt old around the team’s younger pitchers.

“No, I’m pretty immature,” Thornton said, completely serious. “I’m one of the more immature guys out there.”

* And finally, Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright is one of my favorites, even though he often gives me a hard time about being short (Waino is 6-foot-7 to my 5-foot-4½).

This weekend, taking the offensive, I mentioned to Wainwright that I would refuse to interview him on camera and save myself embarrassment if the Cardinals made the playoffs.

His response was classic:

“If?”

Tagged: Angels, White Sox, Tigers, Brewers, Yankees, Mariners, Braves, Cubs, Reds, Astros, Mets, Pirates, Cardinals, Padres, Diamondbacks, Carlos Beltran, Adam Dunn, Albert Pujols, Matt Thornton, Francisco Liriano, Rickie Weeks, Adam Wainwright, Dan Uggla, Miguel Montero, Ben Francisco, Will Venable, Doug Fister, Ike Davis, Francisco Cervelli, Mark Melancon, Bud Norris, Mat Latos, Lucas Harrell

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