A year ago at this time, cautious optimism surrounded Jaime Garcia's return from a 2013 ended by injury and surgery. Garcia eyed a return to the rotation. The Cardinals would have been happy to oblige. As pitching coach Derek Lilliquist told Derrick Goold last February,
Now he feels good. Now he feels 100 percent. He's over the mental part of how's it going to feel? Now he can focus on the competition.
After ramping up his throwing, Garcia did not feel as good, requiring rest before eventually getting that rotation spot last May. Garcia made seven starts with some ups and downs. Through four starts, he had an unsightly 5.47 ERA, and a below average 4.23 FIP due to giving up five home runs in those starts. There were signs of promise, however, as his xFIP stood at just 2.59 and he struck out 22 hitters in 24 2/3 innings without allowing a single walk. If the home runs were a bit of bad luck that would even out, Garcia might have had a promising season in store.
Whether it was related to the struggles that followed is impossible to tell for sure, especially given Garcia's history and his history of symptoms, but in that fourth start, Jaime Garcia pitched 38 pitches in his final inning. In his final three starts of 2014, his home run rate did go down, and he produced a 2.37 ERA. Unfortunately, he began to give up free passes, walking seven in 19 innings. The walk rate was not terrible, but the pain returned and Garcia was shut down before undergoing surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome.
Garcia's surgery is not one that provides a generally successful return to pitching. Three years ago, Ben Lindbergh and Corey Dawkins published an in-depth piece on the surgery for Baseball Prospectus. The takeaway was not promising.
The prognosis for almost all of the injuries we have discussed in previous installments called for a good-to-excellent chance that the afflicted player would return to his previous levels. However, thoracic outlet syndrome still possesses the potential to be career-ending (or worse). Baseball was lucky to avoid such an outcome in the case of Aaron Cook and others, but it remains a possibility.
Kenny Rogers, Aaron Cook, and Matt Harrison, for a time, successfully came back from surgery. Unfortunately, players like Jeremy Bonderman, Josh Bard (who is still attempting to come back), and foremost in the minds of Cardinals' fans, Chris Carpenter were not able to successfully return to pitching at a high level.
The Cardinals were hardly pleased with Garcia's decision to undergo surgery, leading John Mozeliak to make some pointed remarks (at least for him).
"He's been a hard guy to count on," Mozeliak said of the oft-injured lefty. "He's been a hard guy to keep on the field."
"It could have been handled a little different," Mozeliak said. "This (injury) appears to have generated itself in the last couple weeks."
Notwithstanding the disagreement regarding the surgery, John Mozeliak and the Cardinals are taking a pleasant tone at the moment.
#STLCards GM John Mozeliak described recent reports on Jaime Garcia's rehab progress as "extraordinarily positive."— Jenifer Langosch (@LangoschMLB) January 17, 2015
Lance Lynn also had good things to say about Garicia's recovery.
Lance Lynn: "I think we're going to see big things from Jaime [Garcia]... He's excited, he finally feels healthy."— MLB Network Radio (@MLBNetworkRadio) January 16, 2015
However, cautious optimism is likely no longer an appropriate buzzword for the Cardinals view on Garcia. Caution is still there, but given his past, optimism is not part of the perspective to the same degree as prior recoveries. The Cardinals "are not penciling the lefty into a role just yet." At Winter Warmup, Mozeliak told Derrick Goold about their expectations for Garcia.
"When he pitches, he's really good," Mozeliak said. "Knowing that he does exist and he does have the possibility of helping us, there is a level of optimism. ... Let's be honest. He's made one little quarter turn. This is a big lap to make before he's actually competing at the major-league level. Having said that, he does feel good."
Garcia is currently on a slightly higher plane than "figment of Mo's imagination" on the list of probabilities entering the season. Just because the Cardinals are not counting on Garcia for 2015 does not mean they are counting him out. While Garcia has shown for several years now that he cannot be relied upon for innings, every time Garcia has been down, he has made every effort to come back. Goold wrote a year ago about Garcia's perserverence coming back from injuries and returning from injuries.
But he's been there many times before. When they drafted him, [t]he Cardinals gave him time to get healthy, and he responded by improving his physical fitness. When he needed Tommy John surgery and missed a year, he returned stronger and sporting a new two-seam fastball that has become his go-to pitch.
Garcia's comeback last season did not go as planned, but he did make it back and pitched at a level sufficient to get major league hitters out. That is not an easy feat, and Garcia has come back from injury and surgery more than once. We do not yet know if Garcia will make it all the way back and pitch at a high level again. After all of his previous comebacks, this one faces the longest odds. The surgery he underwent has finished careers. His arm probably does not have too many more professional throws in it, if any at all, but he has been down before and come back. Garcia is a joy to watch on the mound, efficient and effective. Like the Cardinals, I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful that Garcia has one more comeback left.