Back in December when the Mets signed both Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha, rumors began to circulate that the team might try to trade a starting pitcher. When those whispers started, an incredibly smart and handsome writer for this very website argued that that supposed plan was foolish. The point of having pitching depth, after all, is so a team will be prepared when injuries inevitably occur. And anyway, a team that begins two-fifths of its games with starting pitchers of Porcello and Wacha’s caliber—i.e. serviceable performers and little more—is normally hard to take seriously as a playoff contender.
Flashforward to March, and said incredibly smart and handsome writer was proven right, as Noah Syndergaard was diagnosed with a UCL tear and forced to undergo Tommy John surgery. It was a bit unclear what Wacha’s role was going to be prior to that point—it probably would have made sense to use him as a swingman in the bullpen, but he evidently expected to be in the rotation—but now it’s a moot point. Michael Wacha is a starting pitcher once more. And, with injury befalling Marcus Stroman, Wacha has an even larger presence in the rotation.
It’s not a great outcome for the Mets—again, Porcello/Wacha is not a particularly fearful combo in the rotation—but if nothing else, Wacha remains a better option than the likes of Walker Lockett or Corey Oswalt, who might be next in line. As Chris McShane discussed in his pre-shutdown preview of his season, the former Cardinal starter does at least have a history of being a serviceable starter. And as Maggie Wiggin noted after his intrasquad outing last week, Wacha showed flashes of the promise he demonstrated in the early stages of his career. At the very least, there is a baseline of competence that the Mets can probably expect from him—and there is also the possibility that he could pitch beyond that baseline and be a legitimately good starter, as he was early in his career.
The issue, of course, is that the Mets will be relying on Wacha far more than they originally hoped they would be. It’s not just because Syndergaard and Stroman went down—although surely the team was hoping that they would at least make it into the season before a starter suffered a season-ending injury—but also because 1) the COVID pandemic is introducing so much uncertainty into the health of every team’s roster, and 2) the stakes for each game are raised dramatically in a shortened season. All it takes is a few positive cases to pop up on the Mets’ pitching staff, and suddenly Wacha may have gone from the team’s fourth or fifth starter to the “ace” of the staff (if he himself is not one of those positive cases). And while previously he may have had the freedom to slowly find his way over the course of the long season, now the Mets will need him to immediately step up, lest he sink the team’s playoff chances with a string of bad starts early on. Indeed, every player will have the burden of heightened expectations placed upon them due to these factors, but that burden will be extra heavy for players like Wacha given the less important role that they initially projected to play on the roster.
Still, while it’s not great for the Mets, Wacha does now have an opportunity to re-establish himself. He took a one-year deal with the Mets no doubt hoping that he would be able to finagle his way into the starting rotation due to either his own performance or an injury, and then parlay a successful 2020 season into a much more lucrative contract the following offseason. The first step has already been accomplished, and now he will be able to get to work on accomplishing the second step—and in such a short sample of games, anything can happen. In a 60-game season in which Wacha gets 10-12 starts, perhaps his production can look something like his second half numbers in 2019—a 3.58 ERA in 13 games (10 starts) over 50.1 innings with a 2.63 K/BB ratio. Those kinds of numbers won’t blow anybody away, but they may be the difference between the Mets making the playoffs or not. It is less than ideal that the team’s hopes are tied so tightly to Wacha’s success, but alas, here we are.