JUPITER, Fla. -- With many of their teammates away at the game Friday in Kissimmee, Fla., the Cardinals' clubhouse was mostly empty and there was plenty of room for debate.
On one side was pitcher Shelby Miller, who could recollect many details of a recruiting visit to Texas A&M he made in 2008 as a high school senior. He recalled the football game, the place recruits went for dinner, some spots they visited on campus and the likelihood he was going to go high in Major League Baseball's entry draft and not attend A&M at all.
On the other side of the clubhouse was prospect Michael Wacha, who was there with him, same weekend, same game, same places.
Miller insisted he did not remember him.
"I'm telling you I was there," Wacha said to Miller. "It's OK. I was a nobody back then."
Less than nine months after his final pitch for the Aggies, Wacha has emerged as not just somebody -- but somebody to watch this spring.
A first-round pick like Miller, though three years later, Wacha already has earned more innings than the Cardinals planned in his first major-league spring training. During his first time facing batters, Wacha's pitches broke a few bats and third baseman David Freese later offered his take on Twitter: "Wow."
Manager Mike Matheny said he has confused Wacha from behind with Adam Wainwright because of their builds and poise.
On Wednesday, Wacha struck out five Mets in an exhibition game and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, who is not known for overstatement, said the 21-year-old righthander "could compete right now in the big leagues."
He also has caught Wainwright's eye.
"I'm trying to remember if I've heard Yadi speak out like that about someone before, and I can't think of a time he has," Wainwright said. "That's the presence we're all talking about. You feel that presence about him when he's on the mound. I think he has the potential to be the kind of guy where the other team shows up and it's, 'Ewwww, uh-oh we have to face Wacha.'"
Wacha (pronounced WOKKA) went undrafted out of high school because he pitched "under the radar" in Texarkana, Texas, says his father, Tom Wacha. But since committing to A&M, he has been on what his dad calls a "whirlwind" and it only has gained speed since he signed a $1.9-million bonus deal with the Cardinals.
The 6-foot-6 righty came advertised as a quick-riser when the Cards selected him 19th last June with the draft pick they received as compensation for free-agent Albert Pujols, who had signed in the previous offseason with Anaheim.
Wacha threw just 21 innings in his first pro season but did so at three levels, ending the year in Class AA Springfield's bullpen for its Texas League title run. He had planned to return to A&M for four or five classes last fall, but called his adviser to say he wouldn't make it: he had to pitch in the playoffs.
So few innings meant few opportunities for the Cardinals' staff to see Wacha and he was brought to major-league camp to make more than a token appearance as the first-round pick.
'A high-ceiling potential'
General manager John Mozeliak said the idea was to give the Cardinals' coaching staff an "understanding he has quite a high-ceiling potential." He would get major-league exposure while preparing for a minor-league assignment to start the season. That plan hasn't changed. How long he'll stay in camp has.
"He's a guy we want to see and we want to see in more situations, higher-intensity situations," pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said. "Essentially, he came into this organization and he hasn't experienced any trials or tribulations. He's come in and been lights-out. I want to put him in situations that are going to help him down the road. In a sense, you want to see how he handles those (difficult) situations, too."
Lilliquist has stressed to his pitchers the importance of getting a first-pitch strike, and he's tracked each individual pitcher's success in spring games. Of the 18 batters Wacha has faced in five innings, not one has walked and Wacha had a first-pitch strike on 17. That is the highest rate of any Cardinals pitcher entering this weekend. At a time in spring when pitchers often are ahead of hitters, Wacha has struck out eight and allowed only two hits, one to Mets All-Star David Wright. Wacha's success stems from what Matheny saw the first time he watched the righthander throw early last month.
The words Matheny uses to describe it are "tilt" and "downward plane."
That's baseball speak for Wacha's ability to throw a pitch that slices at an angle through the strike zone and not one that stays mostly at the same level through it.
Why he's able to do that traces back to Texas A&M, where a year after that recruiting visit with Miller, Wacha was in the bullpen with coach Rob Childress and confronted with a simple challenge.
"Quit pitching like your 5-foot-8," Childress said.
Childress described the 6-4 beanpole as "a great piece of clay."
When Wacha was a freshman, Childress urged him to move his arm-slot higher. Higher still. Higher yet. He explained to Wacha that pitches that enter the strike zone flat give a batter's swing a whole spectrum of places to connect.
A pitch with "tilt" cuts into the zone on incline, and the batter has less of a range to make contact.
With a high arm angle, one better suited for Wacha's eventual 6-foot-6 frame, the righty has achieved "tilt."
"God gave him a gift, but he had an aptitude to pick it up quickly," Childress said.
Others have been impressed, too.
"There are only a few guys that I caught who stayed like this in the zone," Matheny said.
Lilliquist elaborated: "It's a very steep angle. Out of the hand it looks like it's going to be in the dirt and it just drives right to the bottom of the strike zone."
Wacha struck out 40 in his first 21 innings as a pro, including 17 in eight innings at Class AA.
He exploits the downward drive of his delivery with a fastball that sinks and consistently hummed at 93 mph to 94 mph as a reliever last season. And he adds a changeup that Matheny called "legitimately the best in the organization."
Wacha holds it like a circle-changeup but its late hard movement is part screwball, part lefty's slider, Lilliquist said.
"I thought his command was great, especially after finding out that he was drafted last year," the Mets' Wright said. "He had a good changeup, I remember."
Wainwright says Wacha needs to keep pushing.
"So far in camp what we've seen -- and we're going off a real small dosage here -- is just raw confidence," Wainwright said. "Obviously he has great ability and the thing about it now is he's going to have to repeat that and keep it going. He can't get comfortable with what he's done in the first two games. It's clear he has the confidence to go out and attack hitters, which is rare with his amount of experience."
While Wacha has been scheduled for more appearances in Grapefruit League play, he has not been thrown into the competition for an opening day spot.
His climb has been fast, but not that fast. He is not scheduled now to make a start in March, only to pitch when available. Matheny repeatedly described Wacha has "mature beyond his years" and likened him to Trevor Rosenthal.
A year ago Rosenthal earned praise for how he pitched in spring games and earned attention for how he approached spring workouts. Rosenthal jumped from Class AA to the majors, and Lilliquist allowed that in the same way he "could see Wacha contributing."
At the start of spring, Matheny handed players spiral-bound notebooks with a Cardinals logo on the cover. He asked them to write down their goals.
Wacha wrote that he wanted to throw strikes, get stronger in the weight room and learn as much as possible. He came to spring expecting to leave a member of the High-A rotation. So he also wrote as a goal to start the season at as high a level as possible.
Nobody thinks that goal is unreachable.
Not for somebody who has stood out like Wacha.
"As long as I'm here for the big-league spring training I'm going to soak it all in as long as I can," Wacha said. "I want to start at the highest level possible. I go out there each time and I want to make their decision tougher."
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