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What if Jaime Garcia is healthy and pitching well on opening day?

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For the last few years, an unhealthy Jaime Garcia has gummed up the works. A healthy Garcia in late March might do the same this year.

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Cardinals' starting rotation is set up to look like this on opening day:

  1. Adam Wainwright
  2. Lance Lynn
  3. John Lackey
  4. Michael Wacha
  5. Carlos Martinez
Of course, you know what they say about the best laid plans. Injuries are a way of life in baseball generally and for pitchers in particular. The St. Louis rotation members collectively bring enough question marks into camp with them to resemble one of Edward Nigma's jumpsuits. But it might be lefty Jaime Garcia who represents the biggest question mark of all.

It's easy to forget how good Garcia was, what promise he flashed. In 2010, he made the St. Louis opening-day rotation as a rookie. Garcia posted a 2.70 ERA and 3.41 FIP over 163 1/3 innings, finishing third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. In 2011, Garcia helped anchor a wagonmaker-less rotation along with Chris Carpenter. The southpaw notched 194 2/3 innings with a 3.56 ERA and 3.23 FIP. Garcia threw 25 2/3 more innings in October—8 1/3 fewer than Carp and about as many more than Edwin Jackson, who posted the third-highest postseason IP total among Cardinals starters.

Then, in 2012, the injury bug bit Garcia on the shoulder. Twice. An injured labrum and rotator cuff limited Garcia to 121 2/3 innings, though he would come back to make an ugly two-inning October start. Garcia opted for conservative treatment—i.e., not surgery—during the 2012-13 offseason. He began the next season in the St. Louis rotation, but his shoulder began barking once again. This time surgery on his labrum and rotator cuff ended his season after just 55 1/3 innings.

Garcia attempted a comeback in 2014. After some fits and starts in the spring, Garcia joined the Cardinals rotation in May. He made seven starts and threw 43 2/3 innings before landing on the DL yet again. This time, thoracic outlet syndrome was what plagued him. Garcia underwent the knife again and, for the third time, arrives at Cardinals camp in Jupiter defined by health concerns.

It's as fitting as it is unfortunate that Garcia has taken over the role of the enticingly talented pitcher facing serious health issues from Carpenter. Like Carp, Garcia underwent surgical repair of a damaged labrum and rotator cuff. But unlike Carpenter, who took two full seasons before he was able to take a major-league mound post-surgery, Garcia was back within several months before being relegated once again to the DL with thoracic outlet syndrome—a condition that plagued Carpenter as well before ultimately ending his career.

For his part, Garcia is saying that he is healthy and ready to start. From MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch:

"But at the same time, there was never one doubt in my mind that I was going to come back from this really tough surgery and really tough injury that has ended careers in the past," Garcia said. "I knew it was going to be a tough challenge -- just like my Tommy John [surgery in 2008] and my shoulder [surgery in 2013] -- but there was not one doubt in my mind that I was going to come back from it."

Langosch also reports that manager Mike Matheny has bestowed a creative name on Garcia as pitchers and catchers start their warmups:

"He's kind of been the 'oh, and …,' and that's a different spot for him," manager Mike Matheny noted. "That happens to a lot of people throughout their career, especially when there is uncertainty about health. [It's] not ideal for anybody, but circumstances put you in spots where sometimes you have to go about it a little different."

Riddle me this: What happens if the "oh, and" is healthy and pitching like the starter the Cardinals signed to a four-year, $27 million extension during the 2011 season? I know it's putting the cart before the horse. Heck, Craig barely wanted to entertain the possibility on the podcast. But what if? To make it all the more interesting, let's also assume that Wainwright, Wacha, Lackey, Lynn, Martinez, and Gonzales are all healthy, too.

I don't think St. Louis can stick Garcia in the bullpen. Relief work seems like a bad fit for Garcia's shoulder, nerve issues and all. The lefty seems like a particularly bad candidate for throwing on two or three consecutive days. Further, the regular calls to get loose (sometimes without actually getting the call to enter a game) seem to make a bad fit worse. That leaves the rotation.

It appears as if general manager John Mozeliak and the front office have essentially cleared the field (by trading away Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller) for Martinez to join the St. Louis rotation in 2015. And with Martinez's thermonuclear arsenal, it's a good plan. But Garcia has good stuff of his own, a proven track record of MLB success when healthy, and will earn $9.25 million this year. If he's healthy and effective, he's a proven middle-of-the-rotaiton arm with top-of-the-rotation potential. It would seem wise for the Cardinals to get whatever starting innings they can from Garcia. But sticking Garcia in the rotation would mean relegating Martinez to the bullpen for the second straight spring. That's not all.

The Cardinals signed Carlos Villanueva to a minor-league contract with a non-roster invitation to MLB camp in Jupiter. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported last week that Villanueva has an opt-out clause. He can choose to become a free agent if it appears he won't win a big-league job with St. Louis. Placing Garcia in the rotation would presumably bump Martinez to the bullpen as the fifth righty (behind Trevor Rosenthal, Jordan Walden, Seth Maness, and Matt Belisle—all of whom have signed guaranteed MLB contracts for 2015), which would in turn leave Villanueva as the odd man out. Presumably, Villanueva would respond by exercising his opt-out clause and becoming a free agent. The swing-man insurance the Cards signed for Martinez would be gone. Martinez would likely fill that yo-yo role, meaning he would have to build up to a starter's workload midseason for the second straight year if an injury strikes the rotation. Given how that worked last season, it seems less than ideal.

Normally, having too much starting pitching depth is impossible. (Just recall last season's Cardinals.) But St. Louis is presently built around an offseason plan centered on Martinez joining the rotation. A healthy and effective Garcia would present a tough choice to the Cardinals: Stick with the plan or go with Garcia? Here's hoping Garcia stays healthy and pitches effectively enough to force the Cardinals to make a tough decision at the end of March.