Yesterday, the St. Louis Cardinals traded Jaime Garcia, whose $12 million club option for 2017 had been exercised last month, to the Atlanta Braves, in exchange for prospects Chris Ellis, John Gant, and Luke Dykstra.
The trade made sense for all involved. The Cardinals had a preponderance of starting pitching at their disposal, and after a mediocre 2016 season, the organization appears to have been rightfully unenthusiastic about moving forward with Garcia when a rotation spot could be filled by a higher-upside pitcher such as Alex Reyes or Luke Weaver. The Braves have a deep farm system from which the three traded players were relatively unheralded, and with a thin free agent pitching market, even a diminished Jaime Garcia was among the best starters available (and while $12 million isn’t nothing, pitchers of Garcia’s caliber have generally make materially more in free agency).
Ultimately, the trade is somewhat unexciting. A 30 year-old pitcher being dealt for a trio of middling prospects is the kind of story that happens almost daily in the off-season. But while Jaime Garcia’s Cardinals career ended with somewhat of a thud, he has a legacy with the organization which deserves some recognition.
Jaime Garcia pitched some in 2008, but his true rookie season was in 2010, after which he finished third in National League Rookie of the Year voting behind Buster Posey and Jason Heyward. During the season, Garcia went 13-8 with a 2.70 ERA and 3.41 fielding-independent ERA. Garcia was worth 2.9 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement. Only three Cardinals rookie seasons in the 21st century were more prosperous by the metric: Albert Pujols (#1 by far, trailing only Mike Trout and Corey Seager for the best overall rookie season), Rick Ankiel, and Randal Grichuk.
In 2011, Jaime Garcia continued to be a solid part of the Cardinals rotation; while his ERA increased from 2010, his workload increased and his FIP improved. And in September, when the Cardinals began an incredible hot streak which ultimately ended with an 11th World Series pennant in Busch Stadium, Garcia was a major part of the team’s turnaround—in five starts, he went 3-0 with a 2.64 ERA. Jaime Garcia was a control artist, walking just four batters in 30 2/3 innings.
It was during his sophomore season that Jaime Garcia got his first crack at postseason pitching. He started the pivotal Game 5 of the 2011 National League Championship Series against the Milwaukee Brewers and their ace, Zack Greinke. Garcia held a 4-1 lead in the 5th inning when, with two runners on base and eventual 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun looming, Tony LaRussa opted for Octavio Dotel, who struck Braun out.
Ultimately, Garcia went 4 2⁄3 innings, allowing no walks and striking out five, and while Tony LaRussa’s famously quick hook in the 2011 postseason kept Garcia from earning a win, he outperformed one of baseball’s best pitchers, and two days later, the Cardinals won the National League pennant. While the Cardinals lost his next postseason start, Garcia did his duty, pitching seven shutout innings, allowing only three hits and one walk while striking out seven Texas Rangers in Game 2 of the World Series. Only 20 games in Cardinals postseason history eclipsed Garcia’s Game 2 Game Score of 77, and only Adam Wainwright eclipsed it in a game which the Cardinals eventually lost. And while it wasn’t as great of a performance for Garcia, his next start was the greatest game in franchise history.
The next four seasons of Jaime Garcia’s career were marred by injury, but when healthy, he was productive. Garcia was one of 34 pitchers with 350 or more innings from 2012 through 2015 with an ERA+ of 115 or greater.
And this incorporates some stretches which were, by his standards, relatively mediocre—in 2015, Garcia pitched 129 2⁄3 innings with an ERA+ of 161 (in other words, his ERA was 61% better than the league average). Only four pitchers in 2015 pitched as many innings with as excellent of an ERA+: Jake Arrieta, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and David Price. Garcia’s 2015 was one of eight post-World War II Cardinals seasons to match or exceed his level of innings and ERA+, and three of them were by Hall of Famers (two from Bob Gibson, one from Steve Carlton).
A 161 ERA+ pitcher is a somewhat disingenuous way to frame Garcia’s Cardinals career—he was a very good pitcher, but he wasn’t Clayton Kershaw good (even Kershaw’s career ERA+ is “only” 159). But at 896 innings pitched with a career ERA+ of 109, only fourteen other Cardinals pitchers since World War II have matched Garcia’s level of production.
In the 21 seasons so far of the combined Tony LaRussa and Mike Matheny era, Jaime Garcia has been the 7th most valuable pitcher by bWAR and the 5th most valuable pitcher by fWAR. Even with his injuries, Garcia still trails only Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, and Matt Morris in innings pitched during the era. Garcia is the 15th most valuable left-handed pitcher in franchise history, and he is the most valuable to have pitched with the Cardinals since 1993 (Joe Magrane).
Jaime Garcia is not a top-tier legendary Cardinals pitcher in the vein of Dizzy Dean, Bob Gibson or Adam Wainwright. He was, however, a valuable component of one of the greatest runs in franchise history. While circumstances may have made his unceremonious departure from the Cardinals necessary, or at the very least understandable, once the dust has settled on Jaime Garcia’s career, his numbers will hold up and history will judge his time with the Cardinals favorably.