The St. Louis Cardinals called an impromptu press conference on Saturday morning at which general manager John Mozeliak announced bad news: Starter Jaime Garcia, who is attempting to come back from season-ending labrum surgery a year ago, was experiencing issues with his throwing shoulder and was going back to St. Louis for an MRI and exam. According to MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch, the news means that Garcia is unlikely to be ready for opening day. The fallout from Garcia's shoulder issues will be felt at the major-league and minor-league levels, as the composition of the St. Louis starting rotation and bullpen will necessarily look different come opening day than originally planned.
Reinforcement of Mozeliak's Smarts
You can never have enough pitching. Roster log jams have a way of working themselves out. The foundation of each of these bits of baseball common knowledge rests on a bedrock of pain and injury. The recurrence of Garcia's shoulder problems further reinforces this fact. And it makes Mozeliak look all the wiser for his handling of the roster during the recent Hot Stove.
The call for the Cardinals to trade from their pitching depth for a shortstop was always disconnected from the realities of not just the unlikeliness of Garcia's smooth return to a season of 150+ innings but also the vagaries of pitcher health in general. The unfortunate news of Garcia's spring shutdown makes Mozeliak's decision to upgrade at shortstop by overpaying (in money) for free agent Jhonny Peralta instead of overpaying (in young pitching) for a shortstop via trade seem all the better. And there's a very good chance that Garcia will not be the only Cardinals starter who has health issues this year. If such an unfortunate turn of events unfolds, Mozeliak will look cleverer still for holding onto his bevy of young pitchers.
Second-Guessing of Mozeliak's Smarts
Garcia suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in 2007 that required Tommy John surgery to repair. The southpaw's mechanics make it exceedingly easy to capture photos of him mid-delivery in a position that will make one wince. (The picture I chose for this post is just such an image.) While Garcia's mechanics aren't as cringe-worthy as, say, Pat Neshek, they aren't good.
In spite of whatever concerns Garcia's mechanics might have generated, during the 2011 season and with Garcia nearing salary arbitration eligibility (that stage in a big-leaguer's career when his services become more expensive), Mozeliak opted to sign him to a guaranteed four-year, $27 million extension (with two club option years). The give and take that motivates the parties to such contracts is so commonplace that it's near cliché. The Cards got Garcia at a set, reasonable salary over a term that included some free agent seasons; the lefty got financial security in case of injury.
At the time, I was enthused about the extension; so was Azruavatar. It was just the type of deal the Cardinals' prospect pipeline was supposed to generate. First, get some years of good production at the league minimum as the player establishes his big-league skill level. Next, sign him to a club-friendly extension. Garcia's deal was the embodiment of the playbook for locking up young players.
To look back today and question the Garcia extension is to exercise the 20/20 vision that comes only by hindsight. Consider what has transpired between the summer of 2011 and today:
- In 2011, Lance Lynn was a minor-league-starter-turned-big-league-reliever who had enjoyed some good weeks in St. Louis. Now, we've seen Lynn emerge as a solid big-league starter with the potential to be better yet.
- Back when the Cards inked Garcia to an extension, Michael Wacha was a Texas A&M Aggie, Shelby Miller was throwing in Springfield, Joe Kelly was also in Double-A, and Carlos Martinez was pitching for Palm Beach in A-ball. No one knew just how good these pitching Fabergé eggs would turn out to be. Now, they've hatched into big-league ready starters with enticing potential. In August 2011, the Cardinals' glut of starting pitching entering 2014 would've been dismissed as a pipe dream by even the most hyperventilation-prone of prospect geeks.
- The Cardinals' organizational pitching depth isn't just at the major-league level, though. When Garcia and the Redbirds agreed to their four-year contract extension, lefthanders Marco Gonzales and Tim Cooney were freshmen at Gonzaga and Wake Forest respectively. Tyler Lyons was in Palm Beach with Martinez. No one could've predicted that the Cards would have six big league ready starters (seven, if you count Trevor Rosenthal) excluding Garcia with more reinforcements potentially knocking on the St. Louis clubhouse door during the 2014 season.
Despite all of this, Mozeliak's 2011 decision to guarantee Garcia $27 million over four years when he could've gone year to year via the arbitration process might cause some to wonder whether the Cardinals will make the right decisions in the future when deciding who to extend among the current bumper crop of young, cost-controlled hurlers.
The Big-League Rotation
Garcia was one of the Cardinals pitchers who seemed a sure bet for the rotation if healthy. Now he's not, which makes the starting rotation picture a bit clearer. Barring injury, Adam Wainwright, Lynn, Wacha, and Miller are locks to break camp as starters. The No. 5 starter derby has transformed into a clear two-man race: Kelly vs. Martinez. The winner will be a member of the rotation on opening day. The loser will probably be relegated to the St. Louis bullpen. Southpaw Tyler Lyons seems a likely bet to fill the "No. 6 starter" role, pitching every fifth day for Triple-A Memphis.
The Big-League Bullpen
Garcia's injury adds even more intrigue to the St. Louis bullpen. It means that only one of Kelly or Martinez will join the relief corps, which opens up an additional bullpen spot for filling. What's more, the competition for the pen was previously for a spot that would later be filled by Jason Motte (if all goes according to plan). In the wake of Garcia being shut down, the would-be bullpenners are vying for two open relief roles, with one potentially lasting all season long.
The Cardinals wasted little time promoting to big-league camp more bullpen candidates. Saturday morning, shortly after Mozeliak announced the sad news about Garcia, the organization promoted righties Boone Whiting and Kurt Heyer to big-league camp.
- Whiting was the Future Redbirds No. 20 Cardinals prospect a year ago, despite stuff that doesn't overpower. Whiting's best offering is his changeup, which Azruavatar describes as "a thing of beauty." In Cardinal645's profile on Whiting from earlier this month, he noted that, "[w]ith a minor league career strikeout rate north of 25% and a K:BB ratio of 4.41, it's a bit surprising that Whiting's fastball tops out at a meager 91 mph while sitting in the high 80s. He lives mostly on the success of his change, which he complements with a [breaking ball alternatively classified as a curve and slider]."
- The Cardinals selected Heyer out of the University of Arizona in the sixth round of the 2012 amateur draft. A College World Series championship delayed the Cape Cod League graduate's pro debut that year. In 2013, Heyer split a solid if unspectacular campaign between Low-A Peoria and High-A Palm Beach. Like Whiting, his fastball isn't going to wow you with its speed. Deception and movement are more Heyer's game. The Wildcat's fastball ranges from the high-80s to low-90s, which means a lower margin of error when deploying the pitch. Heyer's pitch mix includes a slider, change, and a more recently added cutter. (Joe conducted a fun interview with Heyer before spring training started.)
In the bullpen competition, Whiting and Heyer join Neshek, who is on a minor-league contract as a non-roster invitee, and a collection of 40-man righties that includes Keith Butler, Angel Castro, Jorge Rondon, and Eric Fornataro. Fourstick has looked at each of the latter group of pitchers as part of VEB's Other 15 series, which profiles members of the Cardinals 40-man roster who are unlikely to make the 25-man St. Louis roster out of spring training, but who could become big-leaguers if a player suffers an injury. With Garcia's shoulder problems, the Other 15 members' chances of making the big-league roster out of spring training have gone up.
The news of Garcia's setback is saddening. Even though losing the lefty starter for at least the season's start raises questions for St. Louis, the organization is well positioned to absorb the loss of Garcia for a third consecutive season and still compete for a postseason berth. Many of the questions Garcia's shoulder issues raise will be answered as spring training moves forward and still more will become clear as the season changes from spring to summer.