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Redeeming Michael Wacha and Trevor Rosenthal is key for St. Louis Cardinals to recover from loss of Alex Reyes

As painful as the loss of top pitching prospect Alex Reyes for the 2017 season is to the St. Louis Cardinals, it’s not necessarily a fatal blow to the team’s playoff aspirations.

While the Redbirds were relying on the young pitcher to have a big impact, the most likely way to cover up for the loss would be to redeem a pair of similar hurlers, two that were expected until recently to be impact players – before injuries threw their bright futures in doubt.

Michael Wacha and Trevor Rosenthal started off their careers in much the same way as Reyes. Wacha made his first appearance late in the season and was dominant, creating expectations that he would be a top of the rotation starter for years to come. But Wacha came off the rails in what was supposed to be his first full season in the big leagues, going down with a stress reaction injury in his pitching shoulder that shelved him for much of the balance of the year and created doubts about his future.

Rosenthal also made a huge impact in his first partial season in the majors. He pitched 8 2/3 innings out of the bullpen in the playoffs in 2012, allowing two hits and two walks while striking out a breathtaking 15 hitters. While Rosenthal has continued to object to his conversion to the bullpen, he was dominant in that role the role with 96 saves, a 2.15 ERA and 278 strikeouts compared to 87 walks during his first three seasons on the job. Last year he struggled with a forearm injury that messed with his control and, eventually, caused Rosenthal to lose his confidence.

In 2016, Wacha struggled to a 7-7 record with an unsightly 5.09 ERA and Rosenthal lost his closer job with 48 hits allowed and 29 walks surrendered in 40 1/3 innings of work. So, why should we believe either can be a major player in 2017?

Well, Wacha has shown that he can get his shoulder in shape in the past. After a crummy rookie campaign, which caused a lot of folks to jump off his bandwagon, he was 17-7 with a 3.38 ERA in 2015. He was a Cy Young Award contender until a late season fade, likely caused by overwork. While he never recovered that year and was weak in the playoffs, there is reason to hope the 25-year-old hurler can be dominant again if his latest effort to strengthen his shoulder is successful.

It seemed that a lot of Cardinals fans, at least a lot of the ones who sit around me, had seen enough of Rosenthal last season and would have traded him away for a box of balls and a broken bat. But, once he finally regained his health, Rosenthal looked like he was magically restored when he appeared in the last days of the 2016 season. In seven innings pitched, he scattered seven hits and allowed two walks while striking out eight.

While a second recurrence of Wacha’s injury has understandably shaken the faith of Redbirds rooters, the bright side is that he has no damage to the rotator cuff or the actual shoulder joint. Those are problems that can be devastating for pitchers. His injury is to the supporting bone structure where the shoulder muscles attach. While the problem is somewhat unusual, it’s the lesser of two evils.

While Wacha might be the fifth starter in the St. Louis rotation if he is healthy, the obvious solution if he’s not would be to flip flop Wacha and Rosenthal, sending the former to the bullpen where his dominant tools can be effective – just in shorter doses intended to reduce the stress on his shoulder.

Meanwhile, Rosenthal would get his dream shot at a spot in the rotation which might be valuable in both the short and long terms for the Cardinals.

Rosenthal is working his way through the arbitration process toward free agency. At some point in the near future, the Birds are going to have to figure out if they’re going to offer Rosenthal a contract extension or let him walk away.

The odds that Rosenthal decides to test the free agent market will only be increased if he is of the opinion that the Cardinals haven’t given him a fair shake at reaching his potential.

While closers make significant money, usually it’s a lot less than starting pitchers. So, Rosenthal is likely to search for greener pastures elsewhere if he doesn’t at least feel like St. Louis has given him a chance. And the idea that the Cardinals could leave Seung-hwan Oh in the closer role and relegate Rosenthal to middle relief status surely isn’t going to make him happy if he is pitching well.

The reason why the loss of Reyes is survivable is because he was only being counted on to be the fifth starter for a portion of the 2017 season. Both Wacha and Rosenthal have more than enough potential to be the best fifth starter in the National League. Both Wacha and Rosenthal have the potential to be much better than a typical major league fifth starter. Either of them could be a second or third starter if they’re healthy.

The Cardinals lost some depth when Reyes got hurt, which means they have less margin for error and one less solid option to count on throughout the year. But the team has more than enough quality pieces to cover the major league roster.

Frankly, I would be just as disappointed if Wacha can’t rebound and be a top end of the rotation starter in 2017 as I am that Reyes got hurt. And I would be equally as disappointed if Rosenthal can’t, at the very least, reclaim his job as closer.

While things seem bleak now with Reyes on the mend and Rosenthal and Wacha’s future far from certain, it could be an entirely different scenario a year from now. If Reyes recovers as he’s expected to and Wacha and Rosenthal rebound like they should, the St. Louis pitching staff could be absolutely stacked in 2018.

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