Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha exited what may have been his final appearance in a Cardinals uniform during the second inning last night due to what the team initially termed a “mild strain” of his right shoulder. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Wacha had difficulty getting loose in warmups yesterday and is now slated for an MRI to gather more information on the injury.
The results of the imaging will be consequential on multiple levels, as they could not only determine Wacha’s status for the Cardinals’ postseason roster but could have a considerable impact on the right-hander’s looming free agency. Wacha would presumably only be a consideration to make the postseason roster as a reliever — Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson would handle starting duties — but a balky shoulder could leave him on the outside looking in.
Wacha’s free-agent stock has tumbled considerably in 2019. Entering the year, he was coming off a 3.20 ERA through 15 starts in 2018 and a solid 30-start campaign in 2017. Wacha did miss half the 2018 campaign, but that was due to a pair of oblique strains on his left side — not an arm-related injury. As a former first-round pick and top prospect who was slated to hit free agency in advance of his age-28 season, Wacha would’ve benefited immensely from a continuation of the 3.82 ERA, 8.2 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 he’d posted over his prior 250 big league innings.
Instead, he missed a week early in the season due to tendinitis in his knee and has struggled repeatedly when working as a starter. The St. Louis organization has twice demoted him to the bullpen, only to return him to the rotation out of necessity, but the results haven’t been favorable in either role. Overall, he’s pitched to a 4.76 ERA with 7.4 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, a whopping 1.85 HR/9 and a 48 percent ground-ball rate.
Of all the red flags surrounding Wacha, though, this latest bout of shoulder trouble could be the most concerning. It’s been years since the shoulder caused him to miss time, but Wacha does have a history of shoulder troubles. A stress reaction in that same shoulder caused him to miss more than two months of his second big league season back in 2014, and he missed more than a month with shoulder inflammation in 2016. Even if the MRI reveals no major damage, Wacha may not have much of a chance to prove that he can continue pitching unencumbered by the shoulder discomfort, and a second-inning departure due to shoulder pain isn’t exactly a high point on which to set out into the open market.
Wacha is a fairly accomplished big league pitcher — he’s a former All-Star and NLCS MVP with a sub-4.00 ERA in 867 2/3 career innings — but despite having age firmly on his side, he’ll enter the offseason as more of a rebound candidate than a marquee free agent.