This is the kind of picture people take of Jaime Garcia. - Jeff Curry
Jaime Garcia, one year into a team-friendly contract, has become the St. Louis Cardinals' least-predictable asset.
Sometimes--like after the BBWAA goes with Miguel Cabrera for AL MVP, for instance--I wonder whether Jaime Garcia's reputation as the Cardinals' foremost flake ever developed in the alternate universe where he managed to win 14 or 15 games in 2010 or 2011, instead of 13 both years. 13 wins feels a little insubstantial; 14 or 15 wins gets you in line for Kyle Lohse money.
Garcia has a lot of those alternate-universe stardom moments. In 2010 his ERA was way better than his FIP, which made us suspicious; in 2011 and 2012 his FIP was somewhat better than his ERA, which made everybody else suspicious. He was a top prospect when the Cardinals didn't have any top prospects, and now he's the team-friendly-deal pseudo-veteran in a season when the Cardinals have mounds of cheap and effective-looking pitching prospects, all waiting in line behind him.
He's the first athlete since people actually rubbed dirt in it to get excoriated by both his team and the press for playing hurt instead of admitting he's injured, but he's also the team's designated J.D. Drew, dinged for his grooming, his inability to play on the road, the way his dumb face looks, etc.
And now, for all that, he's got something to actually be worried about: A bad shoulder. He's throwing off a mound again, and supposedly a month out from a normal offseason regimen, but once you're A Pitcher With Shoulder Problems the label never really goes away, even if the shoulder problems don't require surgery and especially when your velocity has dropped three years running from a low-flying start.
All this stuff--the hacky narrative insistence on his mental state and the justifiable nerves about his shoulder--is a shame, because the pitcher your mind builds from those parts is completely different from the one with three shutouts in 81 starts. Garcia has been dealt, among those other situational misfortunes, the curse of having some other, harder-throwing pitcher's problems and worries, and looking through those issues blurs our picture of the fully functional Garcia Mozeliak's trying to convince us is ready for Spring Training.
Mental blocks and psychological issues and ragged shoulders are for flamethrowers, not left-handers with sinking fastballs and several distinct and mystifying breaking pitches. I can imagine, in the middle of one of his year-long layoffs, Chris Carpenter; I find it harder to separate Jaime Garcia from all the cruft that fills broadcaster dead-air during his starts.
So that's Jaime Garcia, 2013: An oddly inessential, forgotten 26-year-old with a career FIP of 3.35.
Which is his problem, I guess. But the Cardinals, 2013, are in the enviable position of not being dependent on him. He's not sitting in front of Brandon Dickson, or the pitching prospects who filled out their prospect lists back in 2007; he's the one behind the even-more-questionable Chris Carpenter and in front of Joe Kelly or Shelby Miller (or theoretically Lance Lynn.) He's lost all the room he had to be the designated ace-of-the-future; our expectations are low enough that if his return from shoulder non-surgery is even kind of successful he'll be hailed as a returning hero, or at least hailed as not-a-fragile-homebody.
The replacement level, at least from our stagnant perch here in November, looks a little higher than usual in the Cardinals' rotation, which makes Garcia an edge-case member of the Lance Berkman gimpy-value-added-veteran club. I'd have to ask Dan'n'Al to be sure this is really the case, but I'm pretty sure he's like signing an old guy with bad knees to take 400 plate appearances somewhere without giving anything up.