With every start he makes this spring, Jaime Garcia seemingly takes another step closer to becoming the Cardinals’ fifth starter heading into the regular season.
That’s not to insinuate that I want to see Garcia win the job or that Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales have pitched poorly. It’s quite the opposite: I’m dying to see Martinez earn a full-time role in the starting rotation and both he and Gonzales have been exceptional this spring.
But with Garcia being equally impressive this spring, therein lies the rub.
Let’s start with money, often the root of the decision-making process. The Cardinals owe Garcia $9.25 million this season, with a club option of $11.5 million with a $500,000 buyout for next season. Given Garcia’s health concerns, he’s never going to see that $11.5 million, so 2015 will mark the last time he receives big money from the Cards. Sunk cost or not, if I’m John Mozeliak I may want to squeeze as much production as I possibly can out of that brutal four-year, $27.5 million contract extension that I handed Garcia in July of 2011.
But money isn’t the only thing in Garcia’s favor. Versatility, or lack thereof, is also a contributing factor.
If Martinez doesn’t become a starter, he still has plenty of value as a reliever.
The Cards could also find use for Gonzales out of the pen, or it would be justifiable to send him back to Memphis so he can continue to develop the cutter and curve he’s been working on this spring.
Martinez and Gonzales offer the Cardinals options outside of the starting rotation. Garcia, on the other hand, does not. He’ll never be a reliever (and the Cardinals wouldn’t want that given his propensity to struggle when he doesn’t have structure and routine) and he’s out of options, so sending him to the minors isn’t a possibility. The club could buy themselves time by sending him on a rehab assignment, but that’s not going to work, seeing how sharp he’s looked this spring. Thus, the only two realistic options for Garcia are that he joins the rotation out of Jupiter or the Cards release him and eat $9.25 million.
Now would be a great time to throw out the possibility that St. Louis could eat some of Garcia’s contract and trade him to a pitching-starved team that is willing to part with something – anything – in a deal. But I’m sure given Garcia’s injury history that the list of teams even interested would be small, and at this point I’m not convinced that he doesn’t have more worth to the Cardinals than a minor leaguer with little to no upside.
Why is that? Injuries and innings. The Cards are loaded with experienced talent and improved both their depth and defense this past offseason. But the main concern for this club heading into the regular season is the health of the starting rotation. Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn have already suffered minor injuries this spring and, given the nature of Michael Wacha’s injury, his status will need to be closely monitored all year. Having an extra arm like Garcia’s available wouldn’t be a bad thing, especially to start the year.
Another benefit is Garcia’s ability to eat innings, which would become a concern for the Cards in starting Martinez or Gonzales. Neither of those youngsters would be able to throw close to 200 innings this season, so how nice would it be to see how much mileage the Cards can get out of Garcia before Martinez and/or Gonzales were forced into action? Unlike the Nationals’ approach with Stephen Strasburg in 2012 when they watched him dominate hitters all year and then shut him down for the stretch run, the Cards could have Martinez or Gonzales when it mattered most: September and October.
Again, just like plenty of Cardinal fans, I want to see Martinez break camp as a starter. He deserves an extended stay in the rotation and reportedly matured over the winter. Outside of one bad inning against the Twins, he’s also pitched well this spring and has said all the right things about doing what’s best for the team. Plus, it’s not my $9.25 million going to Garcia, so go with a guy who hasn’t been a source of frustration and disappointment the last three years.
But look at the situation from the team’s point of view: The Cardinals have three starters vying for one spot in the rotation, and all three have pitched well this spring. One is being paid $9.25 million this year and doesn’t offer the club versatility, while the other two provide the club various options outside of starting. Assuming Garcia doesn’t break down over these next two weeks (which, as everyone is aware of, is entirely possible), it might make the most sense to start him early in the year.
The best case scenario is that some team calls Mozeliak and offers fair compensation for Garcia and the Cards can turn to either Martinez or Gonzales. But the most realistic scenario is that Garcia is the fifth starter out of spring training and the Cards ride him as long as possible. Keep in mind that performance usually isn’t a problem with Garcia – it’s his health. If he pitches well until June or July and then he breaks down, at least he saved taxing innings off Martinez or Gonzales’ arm. Then one of those pitchers can join the rotation and the Cards will have a young, fresh starter for the second half and stretch run.
Not everyone will like that scenario, but it might be the most realistic option in the end.
Listen below for Bernie Miklasz’s take on why Garcia is the best fit as the 5th starter.
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