Thursday night, the St. Louis Cardinals will send rookie Michael Wacha to the mound for Game 2 of the World Series.
He’s a rookie – we all know that. NLCS MVP as well. And a 2012 draft pick.
Wacha, selected 19th overall, is on the biggest stage in baseball Thursday night. Meanwhile, the Royals pick that year, Kyle Zimmer, made four starts above A ball this year. So what gives?
The Royals haven’t had a solid track record when it comes to pitcher development. The Cardinals have. So is this another instance of the Royals being behind other organizations? Is this another chance to rewrite history and say the Royals should have taken Wacha?
Well let’s compare:
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Wacha made only 11 appearances after signing with the Cardinals but impressed with 15 strikeouts in 11 innings in spring training. He walked just one in big league camp. He made 15 starts in Triple A before debuting in the big leagues against the Royals. Remember the 4 a.m. rain delay game in St. Louis? Wacha threw seven innings and gave up just one run on that night.
Zimmer struggled for a while in High A before adjustments turned him from mortal to phenom. Starting with his June 29 start for Wilmington, Zimmer racked up 36 strikeouts in 25.1 innings over four starts. He walked three batters. It was enough to earn him a promotion to Double A. Once the light flipped on, he was a monster, continuing the success and struck out another 27 batters in four games for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals in just 18.1 innings. He was then shut down after some shoulder tightness and hitting his innings limit for the year.
But does that mean the Royals made a mistake in the draft?
Going back to the scouting reports from June 2012, the accepted thought was that Wacha was a very polished right-hander, who was a safe bet to be a #3 or #4 starter for years, with #2 upside. Zimmer, though, was one of the top arms in the draft, an athletic pitcher who was relatively new to the mound.
Kevin Goldstein, then of Baseball Prospectus, named Zimmer the #5 prospect in the draft and had Wacha ranked at #18, nearly exactly hitting their draft positions. Wacha passed the eye test, and Goldstein cited his strike-throwing abilities and stuff as reasons to expect a fast rise, but also noted that he was a “safe” pick. Goldstein raved about Zimmer’s stuff, but did mention that he had to adjust after being in a non-power conference in college.
MLB.com had Zimmer at #6 and Wacha at #11, and again, the contrast was drawn between the two. Zimmer was touted as an elite arm, Wacha as a durable starter down the line. Baseball America specifically said that Wacha “may not have the ceiling of [Mark] Appel, [Kevin] Gausman or Zimmer, but [he] has a higher floor.” In regards to Zimmer, they loved his athleticism, his mix of pitches, and his “mean streak” and “business-like” approach.
It’s easy to look at where both pitchers are today and conclude that because Wacha is up today, that the Cardinals got a steal and that Zimmer is lagging behind. Wacha looks like he may have more to him than the initial reports had said, but Zimmer, a converted infielder, could still pass him by the time both are big league mainstays.
Of course, Zimmer has had two seasons shut down due to minor issues (surgery to remove “loose bodies” in his right elbow; 2013’s shoulder tightness) but the Royals don’t see long-term issues there. Anytime the phrase “high upside” is in play, the implied companion phrase is “high risk” and Zimmer, who rose through the draft ranks quickly in 2012 despite being fairly raw, could find trouble in adjusting to advanced hitters. But then, Wacha could come back to earth as more teams see him in the regular season. Neither are can’t miss players, but both have promise.
At the time, the Royals made a good selection of Zimmer, and while it’s easy to be jealous of seeing the Cardinals 2012 first round pick in the majors and under the big lights of the World Series, in the end, the Royals may end up with the more successful pitcher, but until Zimmer arrives in the big leagues, the Cardinals have the lead in this race.
We’ll just have to see how their paths continue from here.