JUPITER, Fla. -- The buzz surrounding Michael Wacha never really has tempered.
He had the instant intrigue afforded a first-rounder when the Cardinals selected him with the 19th overall pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. His rapid and unexpected ascension to Double-A before the end of the summer piqued interest even more.
Now, despite being the newbie in big league camp, Wacha -- ranked by MLB.com as the Cards' No. 6 prospect -- has managed an impressive balance between sticking out and blending in.
"He stands out when you watch him throw, but not in any other way," general manager John Mozeliak noted on Wednesday, shortly after watching Wacha throw his second live batting practice of Spring Training. "He looks like he's been here a couple times. He looks like he's experienced."
He looks impressive, too.
The 21-year-old Texas A&M product has elicited much unsolicited praise early in Spring Training from several of the Cardinals' talent evaluators. There is already a poise and presence that Wacha is pairing with his three developed pitches.
"He goes about it the right way," manager Mike Matheny said. "You see him asking questions, keeping his head down doing the work. But when he gets on the mound, you can see that there's a confidence there. There is some reason to be excited about the potential that he has."
To imagine the potential requires first evaluating the foundation, which, for Wacha, is more advanced than other college pitchers from his '12 Draft class. His fastball can sit in the mid-90s, and he complements it with a changeup so developed that Mozeliak referred to it as "a rarity" for someone with Wacha's limited level of pro experience.
Those two advanced pitches have perhaps unfairly overshadowed Wacha's curveball, which, several within the organization say, is better than advertised. From Wacha's perspective, he sees the pitch evolving from one he throws to get ahead in the count to one he can go to in order to finish off an at-bat.
"My fastball and changeup are basically always there," Wacha said. "My curveball is what I really want to work on. Sometimes I try to overthrow it a little too much. I just need to throw it and be able to control it."
Among those who have offered Wacha suggestions on how to further improve the breaking ball is Adam Wainwright, whose curveball is considered to be one of baseball's best.
| "He goes about it the right ways. You see him asking questions, keeping his head down doing the work. But when he gets on the mound, you can see that there's a confidence there. There is some reason to be excited about the potential that he has." |
|-- manager Mike Matheny, on Wacha |
Though this is Wacha's first taste of Spring Training, his decision to sign quickly after the Draft enabled the 6-foot-6 right-hander to maximize exposure at the professional level last season. He started in the Gulf Coast League, where Wacha scattered four hits and allowed a run in five innings.
The club decided to then challenge him against high-A hitting. Wacha responded by allowing one hit in eight scoreless innings. He struck out 16. That's one fewer strikeout than Wacha recorded in the same number of innings when he was subsequently pushed to Double-A, where he surrendered only one run on three hits.
In 21 regular-season innings, Wacha had walked four and fanned 40. He limited opponents to a .114 batting average.
"I don't think we initially expected him to wind up in Double-A, but he did so well that we felt like we wanted to give him another challenge," farm director John Vuch said. "He ended up moving a little quicker than we initially thought. He showed more velocity than we thought because of the [relief] role."
Asked if he exceeded even his own expectations last summer, Wacha said, "I wasn't really surprised. Well, I mean, I guess I was kind of surprised. I've never had stats like that. It was pretty crazy going up there and being able to pitch the way I was."
Wacha's first year was capped by the opportunity to pitch in the postseason for Double-A Springfield, which finished with the Texas League championship crown.
"I was glad that I was able to help them reach their goals," Wacha said of being able to join Springfield. "There is definitely a bright future ahead."
Wacha, who was used as a reliever in 2012 only as a method to monitor his workload, will transition back into a starting role this year. He'll make his Grapefruit League debut on Saturday, having been slotted in to follow Trevor Rosenthal in the Cardinals' spring opener against the Marlins.
He's expected to throw two innings in the outing, which comes a year after he was beginning the season as the staff ace of his Aggies team.
"I was talking to my friends back at A&M because they just started up their first series this past weekend," Wacha said. "It's pretty crazy thinking back to how far I've actually come since then."
Based on his progression, Wacha appears fast-tracked for the Majors. The Cardinals haven't ruled out the possibility of having Wacha start the year in Triple-A, though that assignment will depend upon what shakes out with rotation decisions at the Major League level.
Regardless where he starts in 2013, Wacha could conceivably finish with a knock on the Major League door.
"I think back to the first time I saw him in Palm Beach last year, you could tell rather quickly that he was somebody that was an advanced college pitcher," Mozeliak said. "You could tell that the transition from college to professional for him became very seamless. Now the next sort of hurdle for him is how you continue to move forward."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB.