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Heads or tails: What should Cardinals make of Michael Wacha?

Michael Wacha St. Louis Cardinals

Photo Credit: @cardinalsgifs

Three weeks ago for this very website, I wrote that Michael Wacha had bought himself some time. Whispers of Wacha’s possible demotion from the Cardinals rotation to the bullpen were becoming rampant before Wacha tossed a quality start in a win over the Reds.

Seeing a nice win for Wacha was encouraging, but I cautioned the Cardinals against reading too much into one good outing mixed in with several troublesome ones around it. Essentially, I still expected Wacha to struggle down the road, and felt the team should still be searching for the right time to inevitably move him to the bullpen.

Well, how dumb does that look now?

Perhaps the advice was sound, but based on Wacha’s performance since, it was entirely unnecessary.

Since his June 26th win over Cincy, Wacha has rattled off three more Ws in a row, his opus coming Tuesday night on the road against the Mets. In a 5-0 Cardinals winner, Wacha twirled his first career shutout, and improved his record on the season to 7-3 with a 3.71 ERA. He looks like the rookie phenom version of himself that burst onto the scene back in 2013.

So now, the inevitable question becomes: Is Michael Wacha back?

My incredibly informative, researched, and insightful answer: I have no freaking clue.

Look, the problem for Michael Wacha has never been related to his ability. Even after his scapular stress reaction situation revealed itself for the first time, Wacha bounced back to put together an All-Star campaign in 2015. He’s always had the stuff–it showed most famously, of course, on the big stage in October of his rookie season.

In case the memory of his masterful performance in a do-or-die Game 4 of the 2013 NLDS against Pittsburgh has faded over time (remember when the Cardinals used to make the playoffs?), feel free to reminisce over his craftsmanship below:

All this to demonstrate, Wacha’s got the goods, and that’s never been a question. I’m no Joe Schwarz–look for a breakdown of Wacha’s progression from the pitching guru (that’s @stlcupofjoe to the fine Twitter folk out there) coming soon to The Intrepid STL–but I’ve always held the opinion that Wacha’s considerable struggles in 2016 resulted primarily from his attempt to pitch through discomfort, not from a decline in his skills. When forced to alter the mechanics that had made him great–in order to keep himself on the field–Wacha experienced the worst season of his major league career. I never took that to mean he was no longer a quality pitcher, but I still don’t know where to place my expectations for the 26-year-old righty.

Consider where Wacha was coming into this season: the fanbase and media had basically wrote him out of the starting rotation until Alex Reyes was lost for the season to Tommy John surgery. His perceived value was also reflected through his loss in salary arbitration case against the Cardinals. An independent panel decided Wacha wasn’t worth–despite his otherworldly early-season success– the $3.2 million he had requested (instead, Wacha’s compensation for 2017 is $2.775 million).

But look at him now. This guy would certainly have been worth the extra half a million dollars he and the Cardinals squabbled over this past winter; unfortunately for Wacha, it was hard to envision that being the case back then–and it’s still questionable to envision this guy sticking around for the long haul.

With an injury as mysterious as Wacha’s ongoing scapular concern, it’s nearly impossible to predict his future without significant risk of being cold take’d months–or in this case, weeks–later. Does Wacha look fantastic right now? Absolutely. One could argue that, because of the development of his secondary pitches, he is more equipped now than ever to navigate the rigors of a starter’s workload.

Wacha threw 119 pitches in Tuesday’s shutout. Will he pay for that down the line–will the scapula flare up once again? Unless you’re a medical doctor–heck, even if you are one–I don’t know how you can be comfortable looking into the crystal ball for this one, even after Wacha’s latest display of brilliance.

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