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Michael Wacha makes sense assuming there’s more to come

He just can’t be the top starting pitching signing.

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Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The cloud hanging over this current MLB offseason in the form of an impending lockout has made the short-term a lot more chaotic than we’ve gotten used to in recent winters. While the past few seasons have seen near-dormant Novembers, the hot stove has been on fire over the last week or so as teams and players look to get things settled before a lockout comes and lasts an indefinite amount of time. There’s been a flurry of activity all around the league, with the starting pitching market in particular heating way up.

The Boston Red Sox certainly expected to play in that pool, and to be fair they haven’t been totally inactive. Although they haven’t made a big splash in the rotation as of yet, they did add a veteran starter over the weekend in signing Michael Wacha to a one-year deal worth $7 million.

In a way, this is certainly underwhelming given some of the big names that have come off the board in recent days, including both Max Scherzer and Kevin Gausman just Sunday night. There’s a reason Wacha only received one year and couldn’t get to the eight figure mark with his contract. He’s coming off a rough year with the Tampa Bay Rays, pitching to a 5.05 ERA with peripherals that are better, but still safely worse than league-average. And in fact, he has been worse than league-average by both park-adjusted ERA and FIP in each of the last three seasons. But even with that information, he can be a solid fit if the rest of the offseason proceeds in a way that limits his importance to the ultimate roster.

That last part is key, though, because as things stand right now Wacha is effectively the fourth starter, replacing Nick Pivetta, who has the task of replacing Eduardo Rodriguez and serving as a number three starter. That would be a problem, with neither pitcher capable of that role. As stated above, Wacha has simply not been very good over the last few years, counteracting any gains he could make with his near-elite control by giving up far too much hard contact and getting crushed by the long ball. Just for those reasons alone, it would be poor management to go into the season with the idea that he needs to make 25-30 starts. That’s the case for a fourth starter more than a fifth starter, whose eventual absence is almost planned for in many cases.

Minnesota Twins v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Instead, in an ideal world the fifth starter can be someone you’re okay with ditching from the rotation after 12-15 starts if necessary (or sooner if things really take a dark turn), but also someone with a bit of breakout potential. There are reasons to think Wacha can live up to that latter part of the equation as well. While the righty’s 2021 was largely forgettable, he was very good down the stretch, pitching to a 3.00 ERA over 30 innings in September, striking out 30 and walking five. There were tangible changes in his arsenal to go along with the small sample numbers, largely ditching his cutter and bringing back his curveball.

Granted, even with a tangible change to go along with improved numbers skepticism is still warranted, and in fact the reasonable mindset. We’ve heard of these kinds of changes before, and more often than not they don’t carry over to a larger sample size. In fact, recent seasons have seen these kinds of arguments with Garrett Richards and Martín Pérez, and it’s those contracts that this reminds me of. On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a positive comparison, and it probably isn’t, but it’s not a total negative, either.

It’s easy to forget now since both Richards and Pérez pitched their way out of the rotation before the end of the season, but they also each played solid roles in the first half with production to match. Their seasons weren’t total losses in the rotation. The 2021 Red Sox season was really made in the first half when they were able to open up their lead in playoff races and survive their fall back towards Earth in the second half, and both Richards and Pérez had their moments in which they were legitimately key figures in the rotation. That the rotation was built in such a way that it felt like they needed that to last the whole season was a problem, but not one on the part of the two pitchers.

That’s how things should be approached with Wacha right now, too. For the arsenal-related reasons discussed above, there is a legitimate reason to suspect he has even the slightest chance of breaking out, or at least providing solid production out of the rotation. Entering his age-30 season, he’s certainly not so old that this kind of development is totally out of the question. But perhaps more importantly, the Red Sox are in a position to eat the loss if Wacha doesn’t pitch up to that role and has to be either moved to the bullpen or taken off the roster completely.

And when we say they can eat a loss, that’s not just financial, though that is part of it. The contract is small enough that they don’t have to worry about the cost of improving the roster if it comes down to that. But they can also eat it in terms of depth, because even more than last year Boston boasts legitimate depth down on the farm, as well as in their own bullpen.

In the scenario where they add another pitcher to move Pivetta and Wacha each down a peg, both Garrett Whitlock and Tanner Houck can be relievers who were stretched out in the spring in case they’re needed in the rotation. And in Triple-A, Connor Seabold, Josh Winckowski, and Kutter Crawford can all be early-season depth, with Bryan Mata and Brayan Bello potentially joining the mix as the year goes on.

Part of the reason judging an offseason is so difficult is that things don’t always happen in order. The Red Sox need to add a starter significant enough to make Pivetta a clear four in the rotation for this winter to be a success in my eyes. Wacha doesn’t solve that problem, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile signing. If they need to count on his small sample success late in the year as a key rotation piece, then this signing is underwhelming. But if he can be a mildly expensive (but not prohibitively so) lottery ticket who, in the more likely case, provides enough veteran stability to allow the depth to further mature, then this signing is fine. It’s just hard to tell what the case is at this point in the winter.