Since the Cardinals season ended a week ago, much of the focus has been on Jaime Garcia’s 2017 option.

With Jaime Garcia and the St. Louis Cardinals eliminated from the postseason for the first time since 2010, it’s time for general manager John Mozeliak and co. to get to the business of bringing October baseball back to the Lou. The first order of business is team options, including one on Garcia for $12 million with a $500,000 buyout. When asked about Garcia’s place on the 2017 squad, Mozeliak was quite candid.

That statement made quite a few Cardinals fans happy, but I think the Cardinals should save room for Garcia on the 2017 roster. This opinion will not be popular. That much I already know, from scrolling through Cardinals Twitter and listening to fans give their input on the topic. My gut reaction last Sunday was the same thing: let Garcia go. But after thinking it over, it became clear that keeping Jaime is the sensible move, despite the obvious drawbacks.

The guy got tired, not bad.

Yes, Garcia was bad in 2016. Yes, he cost them real games down the stretch because he was bad. That doesn’t make him suddenly a bad pitcher.

Jaime had a career 3.31 earned run average coming into this season. He never had an ERA of even 4.00 when making at least eight starts, and had a career-best 2.43 ERA just last season. Even this season, he had a 2.58 ERA through May 11 and a 3.93 ERA through August 10. Then he managed a 7.60 ERA over his final 34.1 innings, a stretch so bad it got him kicked out of the starting rotation in the second inning on September 13, 27.1 innings into the sample. So are we really to believe this rock-solid pitcher just became a true-talent 7.60 ERA pitcher out of nowhere?

I, for one, don’t believe that’s the case. His body of work tells me otherwise. We all know about Garcia’s well-documented shoulder issues, but now that he’s been back for an almost uninterrupted 300 innings, it can be easy to forgot the toll they took on him. Garcia ended up throwing just 55.1 innings in 2013 and 43.2 innings in 2014, a total of less than 100 innings in just 16 starts over the two seasons. He then returned last year and was brilliant in 129.2 innings.

What happened at the end of 2016?

This year was a different story. But if you look closely, Jaime’s 2016 can actually be made into two stories. He passed the 130-inning mark in that August 10 start, when he delivered eight innings for the second straight outing. After that point, though, his performance fell off a cliff. Garcia allowed at least five runs in four of his next five starts and got booted from the five-man.

Looking at that juxtaposition, it seems so obvious to me that I can’t help but wonder why I haven’t heard it suggested: wasn’t Garcia just fatigued? Usually, we’re only concerned tracking innings with young pitchers, the Stephen Strasburgs and Aaron Sanchezes of the world. With a veteran like Garcia, we simply expect him to handle a full season workload with ease.

But it isn’t that simple. Garcia barely pitched for two seasons, and this year passed the 130-inning mark for the first time since 2011. That was five years ago. And we expected him to be just as effective with each passing inning, after all the shoulder problems no less?

In 2015, Garcia had a 1.89 ERA through 100 innings before it spiked to 2.43 in the final month; he finished with 129.2 innings. In 2016, he had a 3.93 ERA through 137.1 innings before finishing with a 4.67 ERA in 171.2 innings. That trend seems to suggest that as he get farther away from his shoulder issues, as his shoulder gets stronger, he is able to maintain his effectiveness for a longer span of innings. Logically, that makes sense.

It wasn’t fair to expect Garcia to log 170 quality innings this season, but he did show that he could throw 130 before declining. Given how he built on his 2015, it would be fair to expect him to throw 160 to 170 good innings in 2017 before the inevitable fatigue sets in. What’s important is that he’s healthy now and has shown he can be a strong arm for an extended stretch.

Let’s see if Garcia has a bounce-back in his bones.

Garcia’s woes became exaggerated because they happened to occur in the midst of a tight pennant race. He cost them valuable games down the stretch, and that made his struggles all the more frustrating. But the Cardinals can’t allow that frustration to prompt a mistake for next year.

Look at Mike Mussina, for example. In August 2007, he went into a nosedive, allowing six runs in three straight starts and arguably costing the New York Yankees the American League East. Still, the Yankees didn’t allow that small sample to affect their 2008 outlook, and the next year, Mussina–a battle-tested veteran like Garcia–went on to win 20 games for the first time in his career. This is not to say that Garcia will have a career-best year or anything like that in 2017, but to give him a chance, because he’s earned it.

Another more recent case we can look at is that of Miguel Gonzalez. A career 3.45 ERA pitcher, he posted a 4.91 mark in 2015, and the Baltimore Orioles went .500 and missed the playoffs. The Orioles cut him loose, and he pitched to a 3.73 ERA this past season with the Chicago White Sox.

There are pitchers that fall off a cliff with no notice, but there are also those who just have a down year. I believe Garcia falls into the latter category, and it would serve the Cardinals well to see what he can do in a bounce-back.

He’s a southpaw.

Outside of Garcia, the Cardinals rotation is saturated with righties: Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake, Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver, Alex Reyes, and Lance Lynn. Other than Martinez and Reyes, nobody in that group is scaring opposing offenses. So why not at least mix it up? Unless you believe Tim Cooney or Marco Gonzales is going to return from significant injury (hard to count on) and also take major steps forward (unlikely), or Tyler Lyons can start for a full season (doubtful) and also be more effective than Garcia (yeah, no), the Cardinals don’t really have a way of giving teams another look.

Handedness is admittedly a low bar to set for evaluating pitchers, but there’s value in having a reliable lefty starter. The St. Louis pitching staff just isn’t as good as it has been in years past. Garcia can at least help offset the general monotony of the Cardinals’ options.

His option makes him a no-brainer.

Twelve million dollars is an eye-popping figure. I get it. It’s more money than most everyone will make in their lives, and it seems insane to pay that much for a guy that was thoroughly mediocre in 2016.

But $12 million is peanuts in the baseball world. A single win above replacement (WAR) is generally accepted to be worth about $8 million nowadays. That means that to be worth the value of his option next season, Garcia would have to be at least a 1.5-WAR player.

Anyone want to take a wild guess how much WAR Garcia racked up in 2016? According to FanGraphs, he was worth roughly 1.2 WAR this year. Yes, in the worst season of his career by almost every notable metric–ERA, FIP, xFIP, SIERA, WHIP, ERA+, ERA-, FIP-, xFIP-, you name it–Garcia was still worth 1.2 WAR.

Knowing all that, it’s not hard to wrap your head around Garcia being worth $12 million next year. While the dollar amount is certainly not trivial, it actually won’t take much for him to be worth what St. Louis would have to pony up. As long as he isn’t hurt or terrible next season, he should easily clear $12 million in value. If he rebounds from his tough season, which his history and age suggest he should, he could easily turn that figure into a bargain. If he does happen to decline, or his injury history rears its ugly head again, then there’s no harm done. It’s a one-year pact, and the Cardinals can walk away after 2017.

If you think the Cardinals are constrained by payroll, remember, they more than flirted with top-budget free agents like Jason Heyward and David Price last offseason. St. Louis can clearly afford $12 million for Garcia, and on a one-year deal, he offers minimal risk.

So you aren’t convinced. What are the alternatives?

Maybe you’ve read through this entire piece and you’ve thought, what a load of bollocks. Maybe you’re so scarred by Garcia’s end-of-season struggles that you couldn’t bring yourself to read it. Either way, when it comes to picking up Garcia’s option, you just don’t buy it.

So let’s look at another question: say the Cardinals decline Garcia’s option. Now what?

The price of starting pitching on the trade market is absurd. At this year’s trade deadline, half a season of Ivan Nova–a worse pitcher than Garcia–got the Yankees two top-30 prospects from the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system. That same Nova is about to be the best free agent on this winter’s free agent market, and he’s going to get paid, probably something similar to J.A. Happ’s three-year, $36 million deal, but possibly something as high as Ian Kennedy’s five-year, $70 million pact.

You want to give the starting pitcher market its best free agent? Think about this: if Garcia was available as a free agent, he’d be getting a lot more than one year and $12 million. If you could force a similar free agent like Nova to take a one-year, $12 million contract, wouldn’t you? That’s the option the Cardinals have with Garcia.

Keeping Garcia gives the Cardinals additional flexibility.

That’s why I’d instead suggest the Cardinals use the barren free agent market and the inflated trade market to their advantage. Yes, St. Louis probably has enough rotation options to put together a starting five with or without Garcia. But to cut him loose based on an on-paper look at the depth chart is to have tunnel vision.

Retaining Garcia, at least for now, gives the Cardinals flexibility, an overlooked tool during Hot Stove season. It allows them to maintain control over extra units of a scarce resource. When a situation presents itself–and it almost always does–they can leverage that control into opportunity. They could wait until the already-thin free agent class becomes dilute, then make some calls to pitching-starved teams. They could trade Garcia for bullpen help or offensive depth. Perhaps they trade a different starter or two in a package for a better player. Or they could flip him at the deadline next season, when they have a greater sense of what their needs are.

At the worst, they don’t trade anyone, and Garcia enters Spring Training as an expensive long man who will provide key depth, and, as discussed earlier, probably won’t be as bad as you think.

I’d even argue that the Cardinals should not only pick up Garcia’s option, but sit tight with him. The rotation was bad this year, and question marks surround nearly every starter. But for now, the best thing to do is to pick up the option and maintain flexibility as long as possible. It doesn’t make much sense to throw a perfectly good piece to the curb.

The Cardinals pride themselves on being level-headed, and it’s served them well for over a decade. They typically make sound moves, regardless of what may appeal to fans. Flat-out declining Garcia’s option would be a reactionary move based on Garcia’s rough end to the season. Given the history of this Cardinals front office, I’m hopeful that they’ll make the right move and retain Garcia.

Image Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

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