With Alex Reyes done for the season, Cardinals need Michael Wacha

Right-hander Michael Wacha could give the Cards the deepest rotation in baseball or send the staff into a tailspin, depending on whether he returns to form. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

JUPITER, Fla. -- Mike Matheny's eyes lit up.

He tends to heap praise on his players anyway and, in mid-February, what's not to like? Matheny's St. Louis Cardinals haven't begun competing yet, either within their clubhouse for jobs or on the field. The stress and, occasionally, anguish of the season is six weeks away. Nobody has made the team yet, at least in theory. Aside from injured players, nobody has yet been sent packing. Every player professes to be in the best shape of his life.

Still, Matheny's optimism felt genuine rather than contrived when he strolled away from the bullpen area, where Michael Wacha had just thrown his first bullpen session of the spring, and was greeted with a question about how his whip-like young right-hander looked. He smiled warmly.

"That's as good as I've seen him in a long time," Matheny said.

If Wacha can pitch that way for the next seven or eight months, his return to form from a shoulder injury will be right on time for the Cardinals. Coming off their first postseason-less fall in six years, they opened camp to miserable news when they learned their best pitching prospect, Alex Reyes, had torn an elbow ligament and needed season-ending surgery.

Wacha, 25, will be given first crack at the rotation spot that, presumably, would have been filled by Reyes. If he can be as good as he was from a magical 2013 postseason run through the All-Star break of 2015, the Cardinals could, despite losing Reyes, have one of the deepest rotations in the game. If Wacha struggles as badly as he did most of last season, their rotation could turn into a chaotic mess of musical chairs.

Based on his first bullpen session of the spring, there was optimism for the former.

Wacha's new strength was apparent in the trust the 6-foot-6 righty had in his slightly thicker legs, Matheny said. The manager could see it, too, in the fluidity with which Wacha delivered his fastball from a shoulder injured badly enough six months earlier that it sent ripples of concern through the organization.

"He looked, to me, as right as I've seen him in a long time," Matheny said earlier this week.

Wacha's was a talent seemingly so profound that only an injury could have derailed it, but, as happens too often in this game, an injury did. Like another towering right-handed pitcher, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Brandon McCarthy, Wacha is dealing with a recurring stress fracture of the scapula. It's unclear why Wacha and McCarthy share the unusual injury, though their length is suspected. McCarthy is 6-7.

During the past two seasons, Wacha has reached what McCarthy described as a "cliff": His seasons would be humming along before, suddenly, shoulder discomfort would bring them to a swift end. It typically surfaces late in a season, and it typically ends that season. Wacha was able to finish 2015, but his results took a nosedive. He had to go on the disabled list last August. His fastball velocity was down from the mid-90s to the low 90s and his once-cartoonish changeup was just kind of there. Thinking back, he doesn't sugarcoat what that looked like.

"As soon as it started hurting, I started yanking balls. I felt like it was the time to go in and say something," Wacha said. "My command was gone. I wasn't able to hit spots. Balls were up in the zone, my off-speed didn't really have much on it."

Some people wonder whether Wacha should have spoken up earlier. Only 12 major league pitchers with at least 120 innings had a worse ERA than Wacha's 5.09. He didn't seem like the same guy who had made a powerful Dodgers lineup look limp in October 2014. He clearly wasn't right, to borrow Matheny's word.

"You want to go out and give it your all because in the back of your mind, you think, 'All right, I'm going to find a way to get through it.' It's tough to finally call it quits and say, 'I need some help,' and shut it down," Adam Wainwright said. "I always put my money on the best athletes, though, and Michael is a ridiculous athlete."

After the season ended, Wacha got serious about fixing a problem that had the possibility to derail his profound potential. Through his agents at CAA, he reached out to McCarthy, who recommended one of his neighbors in the Dallas area, Sam Mulroy, the owner of Diesel Fitness. Wacha grew up in Texarkana, about 2½ hours northeast of the Metroplex, but he settled in there for the winter.

Mulroy's business has grown since McCarthy began to credit it for his late-career surge with the New York Yankees in 2014, and Mulroy has worked with a handful of major leaguers over the years, including the Texas Rangers' Derek Holland. Mulroy said Wacha stood out the first day he walked into the gym just by his sheer athleticism, which seems to run in the family (Wacha's younger brother, Lucas, was a standout inside linebacker at Wyoming and has a chance to be drafted this April).

"It's incredible. I would teach Michael a movement he'd never done before, like a dumbbell jerk, and he'd looked goofy the first time he did it. The second time through, he's just got it," Mulroy said. "I've trained other baseball players and I've seen a lot of natural athleticism. He's different. If I put 20 pounds on him, I'm convinced he could be a tight end. If he worked on his jump shot, he could be a small forward."

Mulroy didn't put 20 pounds on Wacha, which is why he doesn't look dramatically different this spring. If anything, Wainwright is the pitcher in camp who looks to have packed on the most bulk muscle. With his legs fully healthy, he said he was able to lift more aggressively and he put on, well, about 20 pounds.

Because the only known fix for the chronic injury is to strengthen the muscles around it to stabilize the bone, Mulroy's approach with Wacha was more subtle. The pair worked out together three days a week, concentrating on the muscles of his right shoulder but hitting every major group in his body. The rest of the days, he let Wacha's body recover through less stressful workouts of Pilates or yoga. The idea wasn't to win a bodybuilding contest on Venice Beach but rather to get the right muscles firing in the right sequence around Wacha's shoulder, putting less stress on his scapula, allowing him to deliver the baseball with more zip.

McCarthy's fastball velocity went from the low 90s to the mid-90s in the season after he first worked with Mulroy, and the trainer said he was eager to hear about Wacha's early radar readings. It's too early for that now; the radar guns will come out later. The Cardinals don't want their pitchers overthrowing early in camp and getting injured. For now, it's about feel.

"I think I've got the right muscles firing in the position they need to be to throw a baseball the correct way," Wacha said. "I'm real happy with the way things are going right now and I just have to continue to build on that."

Wacha's fame came suddenly -- in the spring of 2014, just weeks into his career, he was selected to shoot a GQ magazine spread on the beach nearby with Tampa Bay Rays superstar Evan Longoria -- but it ebbed quickly as well. The chronic nature of Wacha's injury could mean he never reaches the heights he seemed destined for just 18 months earlier.

But he already has taken the most proven approach to fighting back.

"I'm going in with the most positive attitude that I'm going to be healthy all year," Wacha said. "That's the goal: to be out there for every start or whatever they need me to. I'm real positive about the work that I put in this offseason."