Wacha holds key that could turn Cardinals rotation from good to great

If Michael Wacha's shoulder is sound and his changeup is right, he could be the best starter in the Cardinals' rotation.

Jeff Roberson/AP

ST. LOUIS — Matt Holliday needs to hit more than 20 homers, Adam Wainwright needs to win 20 games and Trevor Rosenthal needs to cut the 45 walks by about half.

Matt Adams needs to hit more than 15 homers, Lance Lynn needs to pitch more than 200 innings and Jordan Walden needs to make the Cardinals forget about Pat Neshek.

And Yadier Molina needs to stay healthy, Jon Jay needs a repeat of 2014 and Kevin Siegrist needs a return to his 2013 form.

But if you’re picking the one player who will make the biggest difference between 2015 being a good or a great season for the Cardinals, he would be none of the above.

He would be 23-year-old right-hander Michael Wacha.

While there are no certainties in baseball — well, other than Alex Rodriguez getting far more attention than he warrants — there are few uncertainties more uncertain than Wacha. On one hand, he was the best pitcher in the game for the most important stretch of 2013. Then last year, he was just another pitcher trying to find his way back from a shoulder injury.

Don’t just take my word that the bellwether on the Birds is the 6-foot-6 right-hander, either.

"If he pitches like he did in October of 2013, he can make the rotation awesome," says Rick Horton, a FOX Sports Midwest television analyst and former Cardinals pitcher. "If he’s not healthy or if he doesn’t find his changeup, he can make that rotation average."

Except for Lynn, who is 27 and coming off his best season, no pitcher in the projected rotation enters spring without a legitimate concern. How will Wainwright rebound from offseason cleanup on his right elbow? Will John Lackey, going on 36, begin to slip? Can Carlos Martinez harness his electric stuff? But barring a serious injury or other major turn of events, none of those other questions come with such a wide range of potential answers as the questions that follow Wacha.

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If his shoulder is sound and his changeup is right, he could be the best starter on the staff. But his injury — a "stress reaction" in his scapula — was so unusual, no one even knows what caused it, much less what the future might hold. MRI results and the offseason reports have been nothing but positive, and Wacha went to Jupiter under no more restrictions than any other starter. Perhaps last summer’s rest and strengthening the muscles around his shoulder, as well as in his legs and core, will prove enough to assure his shoulder will hold up for the long haul.

Admit it, though. Wacha could make 10 or 15 starts without a health issue and if he broke down in his 16th, would you be surprised? Knowing as little as we do about the cause and long-term effects of his injury, I wouldn’t. As much as I don’t want to admit it, I would be less surprised at the latter than the former.

Clouding the situation further is Wacha’s extreme over-the-top delivery. While his delivery could have played a role in his injury, it also is considered so important to his pitching that no one wants him to change. It’s like when Wainwright was asked last year if he thought throwing so many curves had led to his elbow woes and he answered, even if it did, would you want him to stop throwing it? Of course not, he agreed. Similarly, no one wants Wacha to change his arm slot because no one knows how much he might lose if he did.

"For some guys, it’s a major, major move to lower the arm slot," says MLB Network analyst Joe Magrane, a former Cardinals pitcher. "That’s why you wonder if you’re starting to mess with his pitching DNA. The secret to Wacha’s deception is his arm stays behind his body and he’s throwing downhill and then all of a sudden, it looks like (the ball’s) popping out of his uniform. His (fast)ball is on the hitter so he starts cheating, and that’s what makes his changeup so effective."

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At least one of Magrane’s colleagues at MLB Network has no concerns about Wacha. Greg Amsinger, a St. Charles native who still follows the Cardinals closely, predicts Wacha is headed for a big season. A really, really big season.

"The breakout performer for the Cardinals is Michael Wacha, who I suspect will have a Cy Young season in 2015," Amsinger says. "I think he will dethrone Clayton Kershaw and be the best pitcher in the National League in 2015."

Amsinger believes that last year’s disappointment could fuel Wacha’s drive in 2015. That is, regardless of whether he should have been pitching in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, Wacha will be trying to make amends for serving the homer to Travis Ishikawa that ended the Cardinals’ season.

"This young man walked off with a bad taste in his mouth that hung with him all offseason," Amsinger says. "I think in 2015 you’re going to see the best right-handed changeup in the game, thrown to perfection. I think Michael Wacha is going to be outstanding."

If Amsinger is right, the Cardinals should be outstanding, too. 

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @StanMcNeal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.