ST. PETERSBURG -- Michael Wacha was a popular target on the free-agent market and had the opportunity to sign a more lucrative deal elsewhere, but the right-hander ultimately agreed to a one-year, $3 million deal with the Rays on Friday.
“Whenever we started talking with Tampa Bay, things just clicked right away,” Wacha said. “Hearing them talk about [the organization] and hearing what they have in their clubhouse and what their plans are moving forward, it was just very intriguing to myself, and I felt like it was a perfect fit.”
The opportunity to compete for a World Series title played a big role in Wacha’s decision to sign with the Rays. The chance to work with pitching coach Kyle Snyder and the rest of the organization also factored in, given Tampa Bay’s long reputation of helping pitchers return to top form. Snyder and Wacha talked on the phone on Thursday and already have plans to work together at some point before the start of Spring Training.
“He’s healthy, and I like a lot of the things I saw from a video standpoint just in terms of last season,” Snyder told MLB.com. “It wouldn’t surprise me to see him come back to form the way he did those midseasons there in St. Louis.”
In 2020, the 29-year-old Wacha went 1-4 with a 6.62 ERA in eight appearances (seven starts) with the Mets. But despite his struggles on the mound for a second consecutive season, there were some underlying signs of Wacha getting closer to the type of pitcher that made him a mainstay in the Cardinals’ rotation for the prior seven years.
As MLB.com’s Sarah Langs pointed out, Wacha was the victim of some bad luck and potentially bad defense last season. While his ERA was 6.62, his expected ERA -- which is based on quality of contact and not the actual result -- was just 4.45. That 2.17 difference was the second largest among pitchers that faced at least 150 batters.
“I feel like the ball is coming out really nice,” Wacha said. “I feel like each year I’ve been taking strides with my stuff getting better, each pitch is spinning a little bit better, and I get a little bit more command over each one. I’ve been really happy with that, but the results haven’t been what I’ve wanted as well. So I try not to damper the mental side of the game and stay strong through it and keep working, keep learning how to get better.”
Wacha also improved his pitch mix last season. His fastball velocity was 93.6 mph -- up from 93.0 in 2019 -- which made his changeup that much more effective, limiting hitters to a .198 expected batting average last year. He also used the cutter more and essentially eliminated the curveball after hitters finished with a .778 slugging percentage against in '19.
“This is a proven guy and he’s not that far removed from being really good. And if you look beneath the surface last year, he was really good,” Snyder said. “What would he have been had he gotten 26 starts? I’m thrilled. I think he’s going to be a huge piece for us.”
By adding Wacha, the Rays now have another starting pitching option to complement ace Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Ryan Yarbrough. While there’s still a chance Tampa Bay will decide to trade Snell, adding Wacha gives the club more depth, to go along with young pitchers Shane McClanahan, Josh Fleming, Brent Honeywell Jr., Joe Ryan and Brendan McKay.
Wacha also gives the Rays a veteran presence in the rotation, which became one of the team’s needs this offseason once Charlie Morton signed a one-year, $15 million deal with the Braves. Wacha has shown an ability to pitch well in the postseason, winning the Most Valuable Player Award in the 2013 National League Championship Series against the Dodgers.
“Michael was a priority target for us for several reasons,” said Rays general manager Erik Neander. “Our need for pitching and length in particular is something that is well-documented. Michael is going to help us in that regard.”