It’s Wacha Time

You can knock ’em down, but you can’t knock ’em out.

The St. Louis Cardinals’ pitching staff has been decimated by injuries early on in 2013, but the club continues to receive strong performances from rookie pitchers thanks to one of the deepest minor league systems in the game. The next pitching prospect to throw his hat into the ring will be 2012 first round draft pick Michael Wacha, who will face the Kansas City Royals in his big league debut tonight.

If you read my pre-season Cardinals Top 15 prospect list (where Wacha was ranked second behind outfielder Oscar Taveras, and one spot ahead of fellow RHP Shelby Miller) or my overall Top 100 MLB prospects list (where he was ranked 24th overall) you already know I’m a big fan of the 6’6” hurler. In fact, here’s a quote that I wrote after watching him pitching during his pro debut in 2012, albeit in shorter stints out of the bullpen:

His fastball, which was hitting 96-98 mph out of the bullpen, showed late movement – including arm side run – and he commanded it on the corners. I saw him throw a nasty changeup with good arm speed and outstanding fade, which K’d Top 100 prospect Nolan Arenado of the Rockies. Wacha’s breaking ball remains a work-in-progress.

Earlier this season, I watched Wacha’s first start of the 2013 season and, while I came away impressed with his long-term potential, I did temper my enthusiasm for the here-and-now.

He constantly worked up in the zone and survived thanks to the overpowering stuff. Although he attacked the zone early in the… Because he was behind in the count so often, he was unable to utilize his changeup as a strikeout weapon. The breaking ball has a long way to go to become a go-to pitch against big league hitters. …Wacha has a ways to go before he’ll be ready to assume a regular big league job.

Fast-forward through May and Wacha has continued to work up in the zone with his fastball and he’s been an extreme-fly-ball pitcher at Triple-A. The right-hander has the stuff to survive up in the zone if his command and control are working but it will be important for him to have a go-to pitch to change hitters’ eye levels. Wacha’s curveball doesn’t have enough of a consistent break right now to get the job done but he does a nice job of placing his changeup at hitters’ knees.

His lack of strikeouts (5.81 K/9) tells us that he’s not overpowering Triple-A hitters even with his two plus pitches (fastball-changeup), so he’s not going to suddenly start dominating hitters in The Show. Hitters are putting a lot of balls in play against him and — with most of them in the air — Wacha is going to be susceptible to the long-ball.

For another opinion on the prospect, I asked Jason Churchill of Prospect Insider and for an opinion on Wacha’s potential. He recently saw the hurler take on the Seattle Mariner’s Triple-A club in Tacoma.

I believe he can contribute at the big league level, but the key for these young arms and their chances to stick is staying out of the middle of the plate, keeping the ball down, and having more than one major-league caliber pitche to offer. You can’t have off nights with command in the big leagues and survive for very long, and Wacha is certainly no exception to that,” he explained. “He doesn’t have the raw stuff of [Baltimore’s] Kevin Gausman, but he has improved his breaking ball, flashing an above-average curveball when I saw him a few starts back in Triple-A. His 90-94 mph fastball had life, too, and he knew which hitters he could challenge with it up and rarely left it up in a dangerous quadrant. The changeup is a weapon, too — it’s his best pitch — which will help him get through the lineup and battle versus good left-handed pitching.

I believe Wacha has the body, actions and athleticism to eventually develop at least an average breaking ball, which will give him a sufficient weapon to combat big league hitters, when mixed in with his other two weapons. He has the potential to eventually develop into a No. 2 starter but, currently, he should be able to hold his own as a No. 4 starter.

Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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“system’s”, might wanna work on that