Jaime Garcia is a reminder of how easy pitching can look and how difficult it can be on the body. When he has been successful, he has been masterful, getting so much movement on his fastball that hitters are left to helplessly pound it in to the ground. Unfortunately, his professional career has been one of starts and stops. From rehab to the rotation, from progressing nicely to needs surgery, Garcia's career has been a mix of pleasure and pain. Garcia returns to the mound, likely trying to pitch through pain that will never fully go away.
Heading into 2008, Garcia was one of the top prospects in baseball, hitting number 85 on Keith Law's top prospects list. Even at that time there were concerns about Garcia's injury history. Law noted the history in his write-up on Garcia.
When healthy, Garcia has a low-90s fastball with good sink and a near-12-to-6 curveball that could be an out pitch. However, he missed most of 2007 with a sprained ligament in his elbow, and while it hasn't required surgery yet, elbow injuries often end up with the pitcher on the operating table.
After making his major league debut in 2008, he did require surgery, missing all of 2009 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He bounced back in 2010, pitched very well in 2011 and 2012 before shoulder problems limited him to just a single two-inning appearance in the postseason that year. After opting for rehab instead of surgery, he started off 2013 with a 2.25 ERA to go along with a 3.12 FIP through seven starts. Just two starts later he was done for the year, undergoing surgery on his shoulder.
Tommy John surgery, though still traumatic and involving a long and difficult recovery, has a standard recovery time and reasonable expectations for success. Pitchers can, and do, come back from Tommy John to have very good careers. Garcia is one of those players. Shoulder surgeries are much more difficult to come back from. Many players do not come back at all. Mark Mulder never made it back completely after a very successful career was derailed by shoulder problems. Garcia has now undergone and come back from both surgeries.
Teammates were critical that he attempted to make a playoff start despite soreness when others have been celebrated for their toughness for doing the same. Any of those questions should have disappeared as Garcia worked hard to rehab his shoulder and pitched at the beginning of 2013 before ultimately requiring surgery that he has once again worked hard to come back from. Garcia acknowledges just how tough this process has been and how difficult pitching will be as he moves forward. In talking with the Post-Dispatch in March, he said as much.
"What I have to learn now is that fine line where you can go out and compete and the point where you can't," he says. "It's not about feeling 100 percent. It's not about feeling great. That's not the case. It never will be. It's a matter of finding something that allows you to compete."
Garcia is entering an already strong rotation and despite the injuries that have felled Joe Kelly and Tyler Lyons, the Cardinals still have further backups in Tim Cooney and Carlos Martinez. He does not need to fulfill the promise of a former top prospect and rookie of the year candidate. He does not need to justify the contract he earned after coming back successfully from Tommy John surgery. He needs to compete. There should be no expectations on this start for Garcia. By starting today, he has already beaten them.
Tomorrow on the other hand...