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Jaime Garcia moving forward with the Cardinals

Jaime Garcia has undergone a transformation over the past year, moving from afterthought to important piece of the rotation.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Jaime Garcia has long been a lightning rod for criticism, much of it out of his control. After showing great promise earlier in his career, he has been able deliver just flashes in the ensuing years as his salary has gone up--part of a long term contract he signed back in 2011. That salary never ventured too high. In those injury plagued 2013 and 2014 seasons, he totaled under $14 million and last season his $9.2 million salary proved to be a bargain. In a season-long divisional contest won by just two games, there are any numbers of players the Cardinals would not have won the division without, but Jaime Garcia was one of those players for the first time in several years, and the Cardinals are hopeful he can do the same again.

The present has probably never appeared this bright for Garcia. Garcia is finishing his first normal offseason in who knows how long. Flash back to two years ago.

Pain Goes with the Job for Garcia

"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."

Now move forward one year.

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."

The Jaime Saga Continues

We don't know how payroll politics will enter into this. We don't really know if Mozeliak is still peeved over Garcia's team-independent decision to have surgery. We don't know if Mozeliak really trusts Garcia. This all makes for yet another Garcia-related soap opera. And I have absolutely no idea how any of this will go.

I was not ready to count Jaime out, but even the hopeless optimist in me (I thought it was cause for celebration when he made a single start back in 2014) exercised a bit of caution.

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.

And now, after 129.2 innings and an aborted start in the playoffs, things are looking a bit different. There was a bit of handwringing out there after he waited until before the game to tell Mike Matheny about his illness that made him not quite as sharp on the mound as he had been during the regular season, but with a bit of hindsight, it actually is not even clear that taking a risk on Garcia was not the best option at the time. With more preparation, we thought, Lance Lynn might have given the Cardinals a chance. Given what we know now, that seems unlikely. Tyler Lyons could have been sent in, but do we know going in that it is a better decision than an ailing Garcia, who showed a lot of guts in getting through the first inning before the second inning unraveled?

It is a bit odd that 129 innings could provide optimism, as his projections still have him performing well, but in limited innings given his past. The fact that he did  pitch and pitch well served as an incredible reminder of how good Garcia can be. He was "Jaime Garcia Pitching to Contact with Ace Stuff". He was "Examining the New--and Improved--Jaime Garcia". Gone were the fuzzy memories of what Garcia could be when he pitched without pain, before his three different surgeries--back when Tony La Russa was the manager, Albert Pujols was mashing, and Chris Carpenter was co-ace with a younger Adam Wainwright--it feels like such a long time ago.

We no longer have to draw on those memories of Jaime Garcia that are roughly a half-decade old. Our memories are renewed and fresh, and it is not just the attitude for fans (although some will never change), the organization is buying in, too. The Cardinals have emphasized pitching depth, and that has not changed evidenced by the signing of Mike Leake, but Garcia is no longer a part of the potential depth nobody is counting on. Earlier this month:

Cardinals renew high expectations for Garcia

"Obviously, last year speaks volumes for what he was able to do," Mozeliak said. "And when healthy you can see why we did that long-term deal to begin with. ... From a physical standpoint it gives us a lot of confidence to know there's a lot of upside in there."

From Garcia:

"It's been a long time," he said. "At the same time, you think about those tough times, and you learn from them, and you move forward. To be here, to be healthy ... It's as good as I've felt."

A year ago, it looked like the Cardinals would be moving forward without Jaime Garcia this season. A great year has provided a little optimism that as Garcia moves forward, he can help the Cardinals do the same.