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St. Louis Cardinals: Jaime Garcia and the illusory nature of pitching depth

Jaime Garcia will be the seventh starting pitcher the Cardinals have used so far this season, which isn't really that surprising.

Dilip Vishwanat

With Chris Carpenter retired, Jaime Garcia has become the embodiment of pitching depth’s illusory nature.

At Fangraphs this offseason, Jeff Sullivan revisited The Myth of the Five-Man Rotation. Sullivan explored whether teams actually use a five-man rotation over the grind of baseball’s 162-game regular season. In 2013, the average team didn’t. Clubs typically needed 32 starts from men not in the team’s top five for games started. Last year, ten different Cardinals started at least one game.

The pitching well seems a lot less deep if you’re constantly drawing from it.

The Cardinals won the National League pennant a year ago with Pete Kozma batting .217/.275/.273 over 448 plate appearances. The lineup’s black hole, the conventional wisdom went, could be filled by trading young pitching for a shortstop. General manager John Mozeliak performed his due diligence and inquired about potential shortstop trades. But after finding the shortstop trade market too expensive for his liking, Mozeliak elected to add Kozma’s replacement with money alone and horde his young hurlers. The events of 2014 have proven this decision wise.

Spring camp commenced with nebulous talk of a competition for the starting rotation. Who exactly was fighting for a rotation spot was difficult to suss out from management’s comments in the press. Staff ace Adam Wainwright and reigning NLCS MVP Michael Wacha seemed like sure bets, but it was difficult to discern the pecking order by which the club organized Lance Lynn (the only pitcher other than Wainwright to notch 200 or more innings in a season entering the year), Shelby Miller (who finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting but was banished to bullpen purgatory in October), Joe Kelly (who started 2013 in the bullpen before ultimately joining the rotation and beating Miller out for postseason starts), and Carlos Martinez (the pitcher with the best pure stuff in the organization). Then there was Jaime Garcia, who was returning from season-ending surgery that repaired his torn labrum and rotator cuff.

Roster crunches have a way of working themselves out, the saying goes, and the Cardinals’ pitching logjam has done just that.

Early in spring, Garcia suffered a setback that rendered him unavailable to start the season. The injury cast the rotation picture in stark relief: It was Kelly vs. Martinez in an ostensible competition for the No. 5 spot. Kelly won, effectively replacing Garcia as a member of the opening-day rotation. Baseball being a game of physical exertion, players can and do get injured in myriad ways. Such was the unfortunate case for Kelly, who strained a hamstring while legging out a hit on the base paths and landed on the disabled list. Lyons replaced Kelly. Now Garcia, complete with a rehab stint due to his shoulder injury, replaces Lyons, who is disabled with a shoulder problem. It’s as poetic as a string of injuries can be.

Garcia fills not just a rotation spot but the empty place in our hearts once occupied by Carpenter, whose torso, right shoulder and arm likely look more Frankenstein’s monster than man so often they’ve been cut and stitched. As was the case with Carp before him, with each Garcia pitch, inning, and game, there will be an underlying anxiety—will this be his last? Perhaps Garcia will somewhat assuage our nervousness with pinpoint control and fits of swearing, but it will never truly go away. There are only so many bullets in a gun and so many pitches in a man’s body. And that’s why pitching depth is so illusory.