Cheap Seats

Cardinals counting on Wacha, Martinez to make the next step

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha arrived at spring training with claims he’s healthy and rested after a lousy end to an otherwise remarkable 2015 season.

That’s good news for a Redbirds team counting on the promising young pitcher to establish himself as a consistent producer in the front part of the starting rotation.

Wacha seemed well on his way last year -- right up to the point that his season went off the rails. The author of a 17-7 record with a 3.38 ERA, Wacha was one of the best pitchers in baseball from April until August.

Although he was an even 2-2 during September, Wacha only pitched more than five innings once. High pitch counts and dramatically increased number of walks hinted that he was nibbling around the plate instead of challenging hitters because of a diminished arsenal.

So was he hurt or was he just worn out?

Concerns about his health and that of fellow rotation member Carlos Martinez have been the cause of a lot of angst in Cardinals Nation this winter.

So it’s going to be nice to see Wacha and Martinez get to work in spring training and prove that they’re sound.

Wacha was 15-4 on Aug. 23 with a 2.80 ERA. In his next start, Wacha was saddled with a loss thanks for four unearned runs that cost him a 5-4 decision. But his ERA sank to 2.69.

After that Wacha was a different guy.

It was a concern that Martinez was shut down with a shoulder injury at about the time. Was Wacha suffering similar problems that would bloom from a temporary inconvenience to a permanent problem?

Much of the speculation that the Chicago Cubs are now the team to beat in the National League Central is based on the clubs’ first-round playoff match-up in 2015.

But might that have had a much different outcome if Wacha and Martinez, pitchers who combined to win 31 games last year, were able to pitch in peak condition in October?

The most likely explanation for both of the pitchers’ late season woes is likely overuse. Hopefully they were just tired and not damaged.

Both Wacha and Martinez were both pushed significantly behind their previous highs for innings pitched, a risky proposition for young arms.

The good news is that the Redbirds hurlers ought to be well prepared now for a full season of work.

While the Cubs get a lot of attention these days for the young hitters they’ve developed in recent years, the Wee Bears don’t have nearly the success the Cardinals can claim in developing young, elite pitchers.

All of the St. Louis starters at the beginning of the season, except for Mike Leake are home grown products. Wacha and Martinez are recent fruit harvested from the Cardinals farm system, Jaime Garcia is a life-long St. Louis product (and it seems like he’s been around forever, but he’s only 29 years old) and Adam Wainwright was drafted by the Braves. But he was acquired by the Cardinals as a Class AA pitcher which, in my book, makes him a pitcher developed by the home team.

The heart of the St. Louis bullpen is also made locally. Closer Trevor Rosenthal, setup man Kevin Siegrist and double play specialist Seth Maness are Cardinals products.

So, when defector Jason Heyward points to the Cardinals and claims they’re getting too old to contend, it’s less of an insult to Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday than it is a shot at Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal and offensive contributors Matt Carpenter, Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong.

It’s up to Wacha and Martinez to show the country (which only saw the Cardinals in October) what the real potential for this team is.

The Cubs may have been flashier this off-season. But the Redbirds front office is betting on dominant pitching being the foundation and getting enough runs t win while Chicago will try to overwhelm opponents with its bats and hope its pitching holds together.