Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat, Jaime Garcia been a very good pitcher during his tenure with the Cardinals. Not elite, but very good - and that’s not debatable.
Dating back to 2010, Garcia has pitched just over 850 innings and has accumulated a 3.44 ERA, 3.41 FIP, and a 3.46 xFIP. Via FanGraphs Leaderboards, for National League pitchers with at least 850 innings pitched during this span (a sample size of 23), Garcia ranks 9th, 11th, and 7th, respectively, in these categories. He ranks 14th with a 6.8% walk rate. And he’s 12th in the NL in fWAR (14.3) despite no one in front of him throwing as few innings.
Garcia is neither lauded nor loved as much as say Chris Carpenter or Adam Wainwright and it’s not a huge mystery why. Frankly, he hasn’t been as good as them. He doesn’t have a signature postseason moment (a positive one, anyway) like they do. And from 2012-2014, he fought through injuries and was only able to pitch a total of about 220 innings. Three straight seasons going back and forth to the disabled list will land almost any young pitcher with the “unreliable” label even if it’s completely unfair given the uptick in pitcher injuries, and the fact that only Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha have thrown more innings than him the last two seasons.
But, to repeat, whether Garcia has been an asset to the Cardinals throughout his career should not be up for debate. Unfortunately, what else isn’t up for debate is that Garcia is not having a very good 2016, particularly as of late.
Jaime Garcia's last three starts: 16 IP, 21 H, 5 BB, 16 ER, 14 K.— Josey Curtis (@Curtis_Josey) August 28, 2016
Not counting 2008 when he only threw 16 total innings, if the season ended today Garcia would have a career-worst ERA (4.46), FIP (4.25), and xFIP (3.80), and he’s walking batters at his highest rate (7.5%) since 2010. He led the NL last year for starters by surrendering only six home runs and has already given up a team-high 20 home runs this year. By fWAR (1.6), he’s been the least valuable starting pitcher for a staff that’s hardly been imposing throughout the year.
Stipulating that Garcia has, in fact, been the Cardinals’ least effective starting pitcher, and given how poor he’s pitched recently, it begs whether he should even be on the postseason roster. (This is also stipulating that a postseason roster is an issue that will even come into play for the Cardinals this year but as of this morning they’re somehow, some way still clinging to the last wild card spot.)
Assuming no injuries, Carlos Martinez and Adam Wainwright seem likely to be the number one and two starters in some particular order. Mike Leake, currently battling shingles, is without a timetable to return, but over his last 21 innings pitched has allowed ten fewer runs than Garcia has allowed in his last 16. And for the fourth and final spot, culling from small samples, but both Luke Weaver and Alex Reyes right now offer better options than Garcia, with the one left out able to supplement the bullpen.
As for the bullpen, if Garcia is squeezed out of the starting rotation, his numbers don’t seem to lend well to a relief role either. His worst inning for run prevention is the first when he’s put up an unsightly 7.56 ERA. Batters against Garcia actually have a worst OPS against him their third time through the order (.618) than they do the first (.774) and second (.796). Do these stats accurately project how well a starter would do in a relief role? Probably not but they don’t paint a positive picture for Garcia, who has only thrown 11 total relief innings over the course of his career.
Garcia still has an entire month to turn this around. Less than a month ago he pitched eight scoreless innings and struck out eleven (it was against Atlanta, but still). In his second start of the year he threw a complete game shutout (it was against Milwaukee...but still) and recorded the second highest game score (97, behind Shelby Miller’s 98 in 2013) for a Cardinal over the last 25 years.
Speaking of Shelby Miller, the Cardinals don’t want a repeat of 2013 when they had him on the postseason roster yet only utilized him for one total inning. Or Lance Lynn last year who was only used for an inning and turned out to be in need of surgery. If there’s no clear role for Garcia come playoff time, and right now it’s hard to argue that he should be given the ball to start a game, he should probably be left off the postseason roster to begin healing for 2017.
That, of course, would mean picking up Garcia’s $12 million option. It’s not much money market-considering, nor when considering the quality of pitcher been he’s over the course of his career and the aforementioned inherent vulnerability of a pitching staff. As for 2016 though, if Garcia doesn’t show marked improvement during his next few outings and the Cardinals are still able to back in to some extra baseball, they might need to leave one of their verifiably better and more established pitchers on the outside looking in.