It happens every spring

In the 1949 baseball movie It Happens Every Spring, a professor begins to lose focus on his job as baseball season starts, and eventually invents a product that repels wood, making it especially effective for missing bats when applied to a baseball. The professor quits his job and begins pitching in the major leagues. It’s a far-fetched movie (although theoretically no more unlikely than dead ballplayers living in a cornfield or a pitcher going from the California Penal League to the ALCS), but I’m a better baseball fan for having been forced to watch it by my father when I was a child.

But getting distracted at work thanks to the sound of baseball on the radio and TV (or our phones, iPads, etc.) isn’t the only rite of spring that we see every March. Each year, reports begin to leak out of one of the 30 camps scattered throughout Florida and Arizona about some young, hot prospect, typically a pitching prospect, who is throwing darts and lighting up his bullpen sessions, and perhaps even dominating all those guys who are going to be bagging groceries in a few weeks.

Typically these reports are just filler produced by local writers who need stories during the slow weeks of early spring training coverage. With the most notable recent exception of the Mets’ disastrous handling of Jenrry Mejia‘s hot spring in 2010, these stories are mostly smoke and rarely any fire. But you never know.

This year’s edition appears to be coming out of St. Louis, where a pair of prospects are generating some roster-making buzz, no matter how far-fetched it may seem.

Hype surrounding Oscar Taveras in Cardinals camp this spring was as predictable as footage of PFPs and guys stepping over those hurdles in the outfield. The top prospect in one of the game’s deepest systems, and one of the top prospects in all of baseball, success in the majors seems to be a matter of when, not if, for Taveras. There was no doubt from anyone who has ever been awake during March that there would be excitement over the things Taveras was doing in camp. He’s immensely talented and is undoubtedly the future of the Cardinals.

But with Matt Holliday, Jon Jay and Carlos Beltran in tow, there’s simply no room for him in the big leagues just yet, and with Taveras not even turning 21 until this summer and having yet to appear above Double-A, another season in the minors not only isn’t a big deal, but probably a good idea. Send him to Triple-A and keep his number on speed dial for Beltran’s summer DL stint. It’s simple, right?

You would think.

Calls for Taveras to stick on the major league roster have begun to appear in the St. Louis papers, albeit without much in the way of a reasoned argument. I’ve said my piece on that debate, so I won’t do it again here, but at least in the case of Taveras, he has enough minor league experience (over 1,400 plate appearances) that would help him hold his own in the major leagues.

But gaining as much, if not more, steam as an argument for Taveras to stick in the majors this April is the argument for 2012 first-rounder Michael Wacha to do the same.

Wacha has been nothing short of remarkable in his brief professional career. After signing last season, the 19th overall pick out of Texas A&M threw 21 innings across three levels, striking out 40 batters in the process and getting as high as Double-A. That kind of dominating performance has a way of generating excitement, but that’s why fans and players don’t make personnel decisions.

The Cardinals need a fifth starter this season, and the battle for that role is still a long way from being decided. As the spring began, it was thought that another former first round pick, Shelby Miller, had the inside track on the rotation spot, just slightly ahead of Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly. If you ask the baseball media in St. Louis these days, they believe Wacha should be in consideration for that spot as well.

Look, Wacha is good. Really good. And he should be really good in the majors really soon, probably some time in 2013. But he’s made only two professional starts, and they were in Rookie ball. And they lasted a combined three innings. In fact, Wacha has never been paid for an outing that lasted longer than two innings. Perhaps we can let him work into the fifth inning in a minor league game before we let him face the Reds?

It would be different if the Cardinals needed him. Prospects have been rushed out of necessity before and they’ll be rushed again. The Cardinals are going to be competitive again this season, and if Wacha was the key between being a playoff team or not (like Mike Trout may have been last year had be played the whole season in the majors) then it would be different. But why even consider Wacha when Miller, Rosenthal and Kelly are all viable options?

Wacha has the potential to be a very good starter in the majors, and perhaps he could handle major league competition right now, but much like in Taveras situation, why bring him up when the need isn’t yet there, but will be in the near future? It’s different for a pitcher, as Wacha could get some innings out of the major league bullpen should Rosenthal or Kelly give up their role to join the rotation, but pitching once a week in mop-up duty to get his feet wet would both waste a year of inexpensive production and stunt the growth of a potential starting pitcher.

In the Cardinals’ defense, they haven’t said that Wacha is in any way leading this spring “battle.” They’ve noted how good he’s looked, but it’s been primarily player quotes, strong performances, and beat writers fueling this fire. But as we’ve seen before, that’s often times how these things begin, and organizations have been known to get sucked in.

The Cardinals are a strong organization with a solid front office and a long-term plan that has kept them in contention for extended periods of time. They haven’t achieved that status among the game’s elite by making rash decisions based off a few good weeks against diluted spring competition, and I don’t suppose they will anytime soon. But as we have come to count on every spring, it hasn’t stopped the excitement from generating around a pair of prospects who would be best suited in the minors this season.

References & Resources
http://www.stltoday.com/sports/columns/bernie-miklasz/bernie-call-us-crazy-cards-could-use-oscar-here/article_aaeca0e1-1bca-5b7a-8c30-7c4f7f1db3d9.html
http://www.mlbprospectwatch.com/mlb_prospect_watch/2013/02/calls-for-oscar-taveras-are-premature.html
http://www.stltoday.com/sports/columns/round-two/round-two-wacha-in-cards-rotation-or-on-roster/article_89ff3229-a11e-5623-974b-996660cfdff1.html

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