The more things change, the more they stay the same. So it is with the St. Louis Cardinals' fifth starter spot. The Cardinals' trade for right fielder Jason Heyward required sending Shelby Miller, a two-year starter for the St. Louis staff, to Atlanta. Doing so created an opening in the rotation that the Cardinals had not anticipated prior to Oscar Taveras's death. General manager John Mozeliak announced that the Cardinals plan was to have a good ol' fashioned spring-training competition for the fifth starter job, between righty Carlos Martinez and lefty Marco Gonzales. At the time, Jaime Garcia's health was such an open question that he was a footnote in the competition, if he was in the plan at all.
Pitchers and catchers reported to camp in February. Garcia participated in throwing sessions, maintaining that he felt good. Then he pitched in games and flashed the singular movement that his delivery produces. Thereafter he showed the command he developed as his big-league career progressed. While watching Garcia pitch during spring-training exhibitions, fans didn't have to squint to see the pitcher that posted 7.21 K/9, 2.31 BB/9, 3.56 ERA, and 3.26 FIP for the 2011 World Series champions. Garcia became the frontrunner, as well he should have.
Martinez and Gonzales have good repertoires and show promise. Mid-to-top-of-the-rotation promise. But that's not the same thing as having been successful as a major-league starter. Garcia has done that; neither of the youngsters have.
The 23-year-olds have combined to make 13 total career starts in the majors; Garcia, 97. Over 594 2/3 career MLB innings, Garcia has been worth 9.6 Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR). Together, Martinez and Gonzales have posted 1.6 total fWAR over 152 1/3 innings (Gonzales put up 0.0 fWAR during his cup of major-league coffee in 2014). Garcia has a track record of MLB success that the Cardinals undoubtedly hope Martinez and Gonzales each are able to achieve, to be sure, but there's little reason to suspect that either youngster would be as good as a starter in 2015 as Garcia—if Garcia is healthy.
That was a big if, given the fact that Garcia has had his ulnar collateral ligament replaced via Tommy John surgery, his rotator cuff debried, his labrum sutured, and his thoracic outlet released. As a general rule, the most reliable indicator of future injury is past injury when it comes to pitchers. When a pitcher's past list of injuries involves nearly every conceivable part of his money-maker, that earns him the categorization of injury question mark. So it's no surprise that as Garcia pitched healthily and appeared to lay claim to the fifth rotation spot, the Cardinals maintained the competition. Martinez and Gonzales continued to throw a starter's innings total. If Garcia didn't make it to the spring-training finish line unscathed, either would be prepared to step into the St. Louis rotation.
On Saturday, the Cardinals announced an issue with Garcia's throwing arm that meant he would not make Sunday's scheduled spring-training start. The issue, according to MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch on Twitter (who you should all be following), is fatigue between the biceps and shoulder area of his left arm. So, in the words of Mozeliak as tweeted by Langosch, the Cardinals are going to pause and see how Garcia's arm responds.
Jaime Garcia: "Just wasn’t able to recover the way I wanted to. Maybe it got to point where it was a little too much for my body this early"— Jenifer Langosch (@LangoschMLB) March 29, 2015
This development almost assuredly precludes Garcia from breaking camp as a member of the St. Louis rotation or on a minor-league rehab stint beginning April 9 (the opening day for Springfield and Memphis). It appears in all likelihood that Garcia will spend at least a portion of April in extended spring training in Florida, working on building his arm strength after this bout of fatigue (a nebulous term when used in reference to pitcher's arms that is sometimes a precursor to season-ending surgery and other times a precursor to a healthy, effective season).
What about the No. 5 starter derby?
Today the competition is the way Mozeliak articulated it in November after shipping Miller to the Braves: Martinez vs. Gonzales. For Martinez, it might feel a bit like deja vu. At this point in camp last spring, he was ostensibly competing with incumbent Joe Kelly for a rotation spot. Martinez put up a 2.81 ERA over 18 spring innings compared to Kelly's 6.28 ERA over 14 1/3 innings. The Cardinals dubbed Kelly the No. 5 starter and relegated Martinez to the bullpen. It was a lesson in springtime competitions—spring-training exhibition performance alone doesn't decide who wins. Kelly had a history of success as a major-league starter and Martinez was a late-inning weapon in the Cardinals' pennant-winning 2013 season. The Cards returned them to their prior roles, regardless of their respective performances over spring IP totals that were the equivalent of between two or three regular-season starts.
This spring, for Martinez, the shoe is on the other foot in terms of spring-training ERA. Martinez's sits at 3.94 after 16 IP over five appearances (four starts). Gonzales has posted a 0.71 ERA over 12 2/3 IP in four appearances (three starts). Gonzales's fifth spring appearance (and fourth start) will be Sunday, filling in for Garcia. Of course, there's more to pitching performance than ERA.
Martinez has struck out 16 batsmen while walking five—that's a K/BB of 3.20 that is very good. Martinez's 9.0 K/9 is excellent, while his 2.8 BB/9 is pretty good. Gonzales, on the other hand, has K'd seven while walking four. That works out to a bad 1.75 K/BB rate. His 5.0 K/9 is rather underwhelming even if his 2.8 BB/9 is pretty good.
Stats over such a small sample aren't particularly reflective of much. In this case, though, they back up what the scouting reports on both pitchers tell us: Martinez has the stuff to ring up the strikeouts; an arsenal that Gonzales lacks. This isn't to say that Martinez will be a better pitcher than Gonzales, just that Gonzales's success will look different than Martinez's. Martinez's success has the potential to be more dominant than Gonzales's. In other words, Martinez's repertoire right now gives him a higher upside than Gonzales. It's that upside that makes him an enticing starter. It's also why the righty had a leg up in the spring-training competition for fifth starter in November and probably has one now, at the end of March.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.