One feature of the last two seasons of Detroit Tigers baseball has been the acquisition of a low cost right-handed starting pitcher in free agency. As the Tigers added Mike Fiers in 2018, and Tyson Ross in 2019, they’re likely to look for an inexpensive starter to fill out the rotation pending the arrival of their top pitching prospects. Long-time St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha might fit the bill.
The 28-year-old Wacha was drafted in 2012 by the Cardinals and debuted in 2013, putting together an outstanding August and September that helped power the club to an NL Central title. When he spun seven innings of shutout ball in Game 6 of the 2013 NLCS to take down Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cardinals looked like they had a young frontline starting pitcher on their hands.
The intervening years have seen him struggle to replicate that early success. Wacha has stretches where he’ll show off the consistent power sinker-changeup combination that made him such an exciting young pitcher early in his career, but he’s fought a regular battle against injury ever since. A 2017 peak in which he posted a 3.1 fWAR season in 164 1⁄3 innings of work is surrounded on either side by seasons of mediocre production and persistent injury problems.
MLB Trade Rumors predicts Wacha to the Tigers
Wacha roughly fits the expectations for a fifth starter signing by the Tigers this offseason. He’s probably too injury prone to appeal even as a depth starter for the better teams in the league, and there isn’t really so much upside to attract an overpay from rebuilding teams looking for a bounceback candidate. Competition for his services is unlikely to be heavy.
MLB Trade Rumors predicts Wacha to Detroit on a one year deal worth $6 million to rebuild some value. You can offer your own guesses, as well as a chance at prizes, with MLB Trade Rumors Top 50 free agents prediction contest.
Wacha is almost certainly a player who will be available to the Tigers, so he fulfills the first criteria of a potential free agent signing. The proposed $6 million yearly salary is in line with the deals inked with both Mike Fiers and Tyson Ross the past two seasons. The Cardinals don’t appear to have a place for Wacha so he should be fair game for anyone shopping on a strict budget.
Of course there are good reasons why interest in Wacha is so low despite his relative youth. Based on his name recognition, age, and early success, one might expect him to be a popular low cost play for a front office this offseason, but FanGraphs doesn’t even have Wacha ranked in their iteration of the top 50 free agents. If you’re looking to take a flyer on a one year deal, there are still options who seem to offer either greater dependability than Wacha, or more potential for a red hot first half and a trade in July.
Projecting Wacha in 2020
Coming off a 2019 season in which the 6’6 right hander tossed 126 2⁄3 innings for a 4.76 ERA/5.61 FIP for the Cardinals, new Steamer projections for Wacha don’t expect much to change next year. Steamer projects Wacha to be a little less unlucky in the home run department, but otherwise the same middling pitcher with below average strikeout ability and an above average walk rate.
Michael Wacha 2017-2019
Wacha is a tall sinkerballer with a good power changeup, and a pair of secondaries in his cutter and curveball that are mainly for show. He consistently posts high groundball rates and when he’s right still features a good changeup. Unfortunately, the fastball has lost about two miles per hour over the past two seasons, and whiff rates on the heater have declined accordingly. Without a strong breaking pitch to turn to, Wacha doesn’t have much to fall back on as the fastball’s decline cuts into the changeups effectiveness.
Pitchers who have a sinker and a changeup as their two main offerings often feature reverse splits, and Wacha is no exception. Generally his splits have been pretty even in his career, but they came to the fore in 2019 as right-handers slugged .533 as compared to .455 for lefties. The main issue was probably command, as Wacha’s heatmaps against right-handers show far more fastballs left in the middle of the plate than in previous seasons. You also have to factor in a two year decline in velocity, chipping away at his ability to manage contact. Move that profile to the American League in an era of historic home run power and it’s hard to feel good about it.
Should the Tigers bite?
Michael Wacha is a decent option for the Tigers on their presumed budget, but I’m not all that sure he’s worth the bother. Wacha has never missed more than a half season, but he’s also been plagued by shoulder trouble, and overall the injury report is lengthy. The decline in velocity, especially for a pitcher without a plus breaking ball, is another red flag, and as a result even the rosiest outlook is less than 150 innings of subpar production.
Ideally, the Tigers would go after a starter with a little more upside. Injury risks aren’t much of a problem as the Tigers should have some options emerging from their farm system this season. A pitcher with a little more stuff, even if injury prone, might make more sense for Detroit as they may simply be replaced by one of the Tigers other young starters if it doesn’t work out.
The Tigers aren’t so desperate for innings without a little more potential gain in the equation. Most of their presumably meager spending this offseason needs to be focused on position players. They head toward 2020 without any expectations, and a host of mediocre starting pitching options available to them. Wacha isn’t a bad idea if he’s cheap, but let’s hope the organization can find someone with a little more upside to take their yearly flyer on this offseason.