The first of the St. Louis Cardinals’ five first-round picks in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft was pitcher Michael Wacha. Through an unusual set of circumstances, the 21-year-old ended the season in the bullpen of the Texas League champions and has become The Cardinal Nation/Scout.com Cardinals Minor League Relief Pitcher of the Year.
Even though it is very clear that Wacha will be a starting pitcher in 2013 and beyond, that is not how he was used in 2012. Because the right-hander had already pitched a full collegiate season for Texas A&M, the Cardinals took it very slowly with the 19th overall selection, deploying him initially as a reliever. He simply dominated the competition at three levels of play.
Wacha arrived in Cardinals camp in Jupiter, Fla. during the third week in June, but only threw bullpens and side sessions before making his official professional debut. That consisted of three appearances totaling five innings in the nearby Gulf Coast League in the second half of July. Not surprisingly, he had his way with the youthful competition.
His next test was also local, but considerably more challenging – this time with A-Advanced Palm Beach. In the Florida State League, Wacha was even better – allowing just two baserunners in eight scoreless innings.
With Springfield in the midst of the playoff hunt, Wacha joined the Double-A club on August 18 and immediately contributed. In fact, his Texas League strikeout rate actually improved slightly. His outings remained on a pre-defined schedule, both in timing and duration.
All in all, just two earned runs in 21 regular-season innings with a 40-to-4 strikeout to walk ratio is impossible to let pass unrecognized. Wacha added three more scoreless frames and two holds in the Texas League playoffs, helping Springfield win its first-ever league championship. He fanned five and walked none.
Wacha’s fastball velocity can touch the mid-90’s - made even more effective by his ground ball-inducing 6-foot-6 frame - that goes with a developing curve and change-up. It will be interesting to see how he fares in 2013 as he is allowed to pitch deeper into games, but there can be no argument as to his 2012 success as a reliever.
So, despite Michael Wacha not being our Reliever of the Year at any team level, he is the dominating, yet unconventional choice as The Cardinal Nation/Scout.com Minor League Relief Pitcher of the Year for 2012.
Wacha’s late-season Springfield teammate Keith Butler was perhaps the most effective traditional closer in the system in 2012. The 25 saves logged by the 23-year-old right hander was tops in the organization. He had a 2.76 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and a strikeout per inning.
Our Springfield writer, Brandon Mahler, who saw the club day in and day out, felt their bullpen mate, Eric Fornataro, was more effective in 2012. Named our S-Cards Reliever of the Year, Fornataro had a 2.39 ERA and 1.06 WHIP for the Texas League Champions. The right-hander fanned 41 in 67 2/3 innings.
Despite the system’s second-highest total of 20 saves for Class-A Quad Cities, 24-year-old Heath Wyatt (2.24 ERA) was edged out by Ethan Cole (1.98 ERA) as our top reliever on the Midwest League club.
Several Palm Beach relievers excelled for periods of time during the season, including Aidan Lucas, Dean Kiekhefer (14 saves), Iden Nazario and Zack Russell, but each had his share of struggles along the way, as well.
In 2012, Memphis lacked a reliever with double-digit saves. Lefty short men led the way. Barret Browning logged a team-best 1.73 earned run average for the Triple-A club. His closest competition was Sam Freeman, who posted a 2.08 ERA after his promotion from Springfield. Both earned their MLB debuts in the second half.
Note: Link to article with links to all articles about previous award winners across the system club by club, schedule for upcoming announcements as well as 2012 team recaps, much of it exclusively for The Cardinal Nation subscribers.
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Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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