ST. PETERSBURG ― Michael Wacha likely could have gotten a better deal from another team. The Rays could have signed a starting pitcher with more encouraging stats over the past couple seasons.
But for a number of reasons ― tangible, personal, philosophical ― they decided to get together, finalizing a one-year, $3 million deal Friday that both sides are confident will be beneficial.
Wacha, 29, gets the chance to re-direct, if not resurrect, his career after consecutive down years with the Cardinals and Mets under the influence of one of the game’s most respected and successful pitching programs. Landing on a team expecting to compete again for a championship isn’t bad either.
The Rays add a much-needed proven starter to their depleted rotation, one they feel sure can make the adjustments to perform better. They value Wacha’s past success and experience along with his leadership ability ― especially after losing veteran Charlie Morton, who signed with Atlanta after the Rays declined a $15 million option, and starter candidates Yonny Chirinos, Brendan McKay and Jalen Beeks to injury. Plus, they are considering trading ace lefty Blake Snell.
“Whenever we started talking to Tampa Bay, things just clicked right away,” Wacha (pronounced WAHK-ah) said on a Zoom media call. “Talking to (general manager Erik Neander) and talking to (pitching coach) Kyle Snyder ... just hearing them talk about it and what they’ve got in their clubhouse and what their plans are moving forward, it was just very intriguing for myself.
“So I felt like it was a perfect fit, a great opportunity for me to go out there and get better and improve my game and have a chance to compete for a World Series as well.”
Neander said the Rays felt similarly, identifying Wacha as “a prime target” after a deep dive by their scouting, research and medical staffs left them confident he was a better pitcher than his 2019-20 performance showed (7-11, 5.15, 189 hits, including 35 homers, over 160 2/3 innings, with time missed for shoulder issues).
And the changes in his repertoire (using his cutter-slider more and curve less) and approach (aggressive early in counts and with two strikes), along with a strengthened shoulder, have him positioned for better results.
Even amid the mess of Wacha’s 1-4, 6.62 record in 2020, with nine homers allowed in 34 innings, there was a slight uptick in velocity (to 93.6 mph) and encouraging strikeout-to-walk (37-7) and soft groundball contact numbers.
“Someone that the deeper our staff got into it, it went from saying like, ‘Oh man, best years behind him,’ to looking at him and saying the health outlook on this is more optimistic than we might have thought going in,” Neander said. “And really getting into the pitch development, the mentality and where that was in 2020, I just feel like there’s some real life and upside to him that should show up in 2021.”
Almost as important is what else he brings.
“The makeup, the competitiveness, just a longstanding reputation as being as good as it gets,” Neander said. “We have a lot of young, impressionable talent on our club and to have veterans and ... to have someone that carries himself the way that Michael does and goes about his business the way that Michael does, that is something that’s really important to us. Not the reason that we ultimately pursued Michael, the talent has to drive these things, but who he is a person is certainly something that carried a lot of appeal within this pursuit.”
St. Louis manager Mike Shildt validated those impressions, noting Wacha’s maturity, calling him a “great” competitor and “tremendous” teammate, “a very- together young man who has always gone about things the right way.”
Wacha spent his first seven seasons with the Cardinals, winning 2013 National League Championship Series MVP honors as a rookie, and making the 2015 All-Star team during a 17-7, 3.38 season. He then signed with the Mets for 2020.
He said he has been pleased with how he has thrown when healthy, is determined to not get down mentally over the recent results and instead use them to “help me get stronger and better.”
Wacha, who got married last month, said he can’t wait to get started; he is making plans to drive over from his Jupiter-area home to throw with Snyder.
“I feel like there could have been places where I could have maybe gotten a little bit more money, but I think this spot that I’m at right now is where I need to be,” Wacha said.
“It’s a great fit, a great opportunity for me to increase my level of my game but also playing with a winning organization that’s going to be fighting for a spot in the postseason and for the World Series.”