ST. LOUIS -- This time last year no one believed the Cardinals would pick up the oft-injured Jaime Garcia’s $11.5 million option for the 2016 season. He was coming off his third arm surgery in seven years and had not thrown more than nine starts in a season since 2012.
But the left-hander silenced critics with 20 starts in 2015, helping stabilize a rotation dependent on young arms following Adam Wainwright’s injury. Garcia threw 129.2 innings throughout the regular season with 10 of his starts going at least seven innings, providing a dependability the team badly needed in the quest for the NL Central title. Teammate Matt Carpenter described Garcia's shifty fastball as 'Liriano-esque,' adding opponents looked uncomfortable in every at-bat.
Toss in a pitching market awarding high-dollar contracts for mediocre performers - the Rockies signed for St. Louis reliever Jason Motte to a one-year $10 million deal - and his option ended up looking like a bargain come decision time.
“To be honest with you I didn’t think about it at all until it happened,” Garcia admitted when asked if his contract situation affected his performance on the mound. “I got a phone call from my agent saying they were going to do that and I was excited. I try to just worry about the things that I can control but obviously I’m excited to be back with the Cardinals.”
Despite regular season success, Garcia ended the year with sour taste in his mouth after his only postseason start. With the chance to give his club a 2-0 lead in the NLDS before heading to Wrigley, he finished only two innings of work and gave up five runs on four hits. Later, the club announced the starter suffered from a stomach virus, prompting questions as to why Garcia took the hill when he may have been compromised.
“You prepare all year for that. I wanted to be out there so bad,” the southpaw explained. “You learn from that. You put it in the past. We lost that game and the series. But you move forward. The fact I was able to come back from everything I’ve gone through, it’s obviously not easy. We didn’t finish the way we wanted to.”
Despite the negative tone hanging over the end of the year, Garcia headed into his first healthy offseason since winning the 2011 World Series. Garcia has been under the knife three times in his career - Tommy John in 2008, shoulder surgery in 2013 and thoracic outlet surgery in 2014. With no rehab to complete, Garcia is able to set performance goals for the first time in years.
“I'm preparing myself to be better than what the Cardinals expect me to be,” said the six-year veteran. “I'm going to be good to go.”
His importance in the rotation has been elevated with the departure of John Lackey and the season-ending injury to Lance Lynn. Garcia will turn 30 midway through the year, putting him behind only Adam Wainwright in age and MLB service time among the five-man group. While retooling the lineup and filling in empty spots in the bullpen, the rotation will be the rock the team builds around.
“I’m very confident in our rotation. We get Adam Wainwright back and we sign a guy who has been very durable and been really good against us,” Garcia said of the addition of Mike Leake. “Our two young guys are two of the most talented guys around the league. I feel like we are going to be good this year.”
Now Garcia is the position to serve as mentor keenly aware of how injuries can plague your career. It's valuable information he can bestow on fellow starters Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha, both of whom have dealt with seasons cut short. As he reflects on his arduous career, Garcia seems excited to simply live a normal offseason once again; and to be able to do it while he's still wearing the birds on the bat.
“All I can say it that I’m extremely grateful and excited to have an opportunity to play for the St. Louis Cardinals again, to be here and to be healthy," Garcia said. "I'm going to do my best to help the team win this year."