ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- When your chief rival wins a World Series for the first time in over a century, it ratchets up the pressure to counter. The Cardinals have been among the most successful franchises in professional sports in recent years. This summer, though, was a frustrating change of pace. The Cubs made the Cardinals eat their dust in the NL Central standings, and by finishing the job in Cleveland Wednesday night, Chicago’s loaded young roster cemented its place as landlord of a division previously owned by St. Louis.
The expectation among Cardinals fans is for their team to formulate a response. That ‘payroll muscle’ from those failed pursuits of David Price and Jason Heyward a year ago? Perhaps the Cardinals break some of that out this winter in an effort to close the gap with the Cubs.
The problem with that plan in this particular offseason: There’s no David Price in this free-agent market. To field a contender in 2017, the Cardinals have to maximize the assets currently at their disposal and rearrange them efficiently. Under that lens, picking up Jaime Garcia’s $12 million club option for 2017 Thursday made a whole lot of sense.
Like it or not, Garcia is an asset in a pitching market whose headliner is a revamped Rich Hill, turning 37 in March. By picking up the reasonably priced tab on Garcia, the Cardinals afford themselves roster flexibility during a winter in which the market is trying to box them in.
Describing Garcia as an asset is no-doubt controversial for those whose views on the exasperating veteran lefty were cemented over the past few months. Garcia’s struggles in 2016, especially during a stretch run where the Cardinals were desperately fighting for a wild card spot, offered his detractors plenty of fodder.
After he carried a 3.47 ERA through the first two months of the year, Garcia’s season stalled. July was the only month over the final four in which Garcia kept his ERA below 5.00, posting a 4.86 mark. His struggles worsened in August and September, once again inviting questions about his durability.
Garcia’s workload of 171.2 innings in 2016 far exceeded his output from every season since 2011. After starting the 2015 season on the disabled list, Garcia compiled 129.2 innings, a noteworthy feat for him at that time. Save for the few weeks he missed with a groin strain that July, Garcia made a significant stride: Every fifth day, he took the ball. He kept himself on the field. Considering the precarious nature of his health in the preceding years, it was something.
But it ended this past September. Not specifically due to his health, but his performance. Garcia was pitching so poorly, the Cardinals determined they could no longer afford to start him in a playoff race. Though an inspired mop-up performance out of the bullpen in Colorado earned Garcia one more chance as a starter, he blew it in spectacular fashion— logging just one inning as the Cardinals lost 15-2 to the Reds to kick off the final week of the season.
But within the context of a bleak free agent pitching class and a starting rotation that–crowded though it may be–carries question marks into the winter, Garcia can still be of service to the organization.
The Cardinals will, as they have been doing for weeks, continue to seek trade partners for Garcia’s rights. If Garcia can be dealt to a team desiring pitching for a piece or prospect that fills an organizational need, great. If not, Garcia can be valuable to the Cardinals as rotation depth, something 2016's injuries proved is never in abundant enough supply.
And he was not without his moments. His complete game, one-hitter against the Brewers back in April earned the second-best game score for a pitcher in any game this season. It’s easy to forget, but Garcia did have successes in 2016. Prior to his late-August collapse, Garcia had actually lowered his season-ERA to 3.93.
Garcia has the chance to rest up and recover from a summer that tested his longevity. Though he failed that test, there is reason to believe he'll be better adjusted to the rigors of a full season in 2017 after he navigated one without a trip to the DL for the first time in a half-decade.
A blockbuster trade that nets a headline pitcher may be the preferred path for some, but that’s not a realistic use of the team's assets. If this winter doesn’t include numerous well-calculated decisions for a roster reshuffle, the Cardinals risk prolonging the Cubs reign over the Central.
John Mozeliak knows this, but he wants to improve the team in ways that make sense to both the near and distant future. To do that, he needs to fully exploit his resources. Even if it's counterintuitive, having Garcia under team control heading into the offseason is part of that plan.
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