The Cardinals have removed Michael Wacha from their rotation for the second time this season, Wacha told Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other reporters. Daniel Ponce de Leon will now take Wacha’s spot in the rotation and start on Wednesday against the Pirates.
Wacha had been originally slated to start on Tuesday, then Wednesday as the Cards juggled their pitching staff coming out of the All-Star break. After back spasms forced Adam Wainwright out of a scheduled outing last Friday, Ponce de Leon pitched well in spot duty, earning him a longer look as a starter. Ponce de Leon now slots in alongside Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, and Dakota Hudson in the starting five.
This leaves Wacha as the odd man out, continuing what has been a frustrating season for the 28-year-old. Injuries have plagued his ability to become a consistently productive member of the St. Louis rotation in recent years, though while Wacha had a brief IL stint due to a knee problem in April, his biggest problems have been a huge spike in home runs allowed (2.1 HR/9) and a continued decline in fastball velocity. After averaging 95.1 mph on his heater in 2017, Wacha saw that total drop to 93.5 mph last season, and 92.6 mph this year. While Wacha has never been a big strikeout pitcher, his 7.31 K/9 is a career low, while his 4.6 BB/9 is a career high.
The result is a 5.54 ERA over 76 1/3 innings for Wacha this season. After a rough start on May 22, the right-hander was first shifted into the bullpen, where he made two relief appearances before returning as a starter on June 10. While Wacha has a 4.10 ERA over his last five starts, the inconsistency has continued, as he was hit hard in two outings while posting quality starts in the other three. Despite the role change, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt left the door open for Wacha to potentially start again, saying that the righty will work out of the pen “until another need arises.”
That said, Hummel raised the possibility that Wacha could be nearing the end of his time with the organization, and could be on the move before the July 31 trade deadline. Wacha doesn’t project as a long-term piece of the Cards’ future given that he’s a free agent after the season, and while his current struggles don’t make him a premium trade chip, St. Louis could add him into a larger package or simply swap him in a more low-profile trade. Rival teams could have interest in seeing if a simple change of scenery is required for a pitcher who has generally been a pretty solid rotation arm when healthy.
Working as a spot starter and reliever, Ponce de Leon has shown some intriguing stuff in his two MLB seasons, posting a 2.37 ERA, 9.6 K/9, and 2.88 K/BB rate over 64 2/3 career innings. Opposing batters have managed only a .243 xwOBA in 31 2/3 innings against Ponce de Leon this season. With the Cardinals fighting to stay close in both the uber-competitive NL Central race and the NL wild card hunt, the team decided it was better to go with a hot hand in Ponce de Leon than continue to give Wacha time to get on track.