The Cardinals have a Jaime Garcia problem.
More appropriate phraseology would call it a pitching problem, because Garcia is not the only piece of the puzzle not fitting the way John Mozeliak intended when he constructed this roster over the offseason.
While it shouldn’t fall solely on the shoulders of one man, Garcia as the target of significant disdain right now is not entirely unwarranted. To put it kindly, he’s been rough.
As each game the Cardinals play swiftly becomes more critical than the last, Mike Matheny turned the ball over to the struggling Garcia Tuesday night at Busch Stadium.
Here’s to hoping he doesn’t do it again.
Just as soon as Matheny sent Garcia out to face the soon-to-be NL Central champion Chicago Cubs, he was marching toward the mound to drag Garcia off it.
Garcia surrendered a home run to Dexter Fowler to lead off the game. Having given up another run in the second inning on an Addison Russell double, he walked Fowler to load the bases. Matheny had seen enough.
“We were up against the wall,” Matheny said. “That’s a swing point in that game and Alex (Reyes) did something special to keep us in it.”
In relief of Garcia, Reyes struck out Kris Bryant to escape the jam, and proceeded to throw four more scoreless innings before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the sixth. Reyes benefited from home runs by Aledmys Diaz and Brandon Moss, earning the win and lowering his ERA to 1.29.
Matheny’s quick hook with Garcia Tuesday indicated necessary urgency, but came perhaps too late in the season. The Cardinals’ odds of snatching a wild card seem to dwindle by the day. Continuing to trot out a starting pitcher who has compiled an 8.23 ERA since August 16th is no longer viable.
The manager’s response to a question about whether it was a difficult decision to start Garcia Tuesday after his recent troubles was telling: he sounded genuinely surprised the question was even posed.
“No, just keep trying to get it right,” Matheny said after echoing part of the question back to the reporter. “Gave him a chance to get out there, I gave him the start. Told you five days ago I was going to.”
When asked whether Garcia would make his next start, Matheny curtly replied, “We’ll see.”
The alternatives to Garcia in the rotation are far from infallible. Though Reyes didn’t allow a run in 4 1/3 innings Tuesday, he walked six with inconsistent command. Even if Reyes can only offer four or five innings as a starter, there’s a better-than-decent chance those innings will be scoreless.
Few would describe Garcia’s performance lately as better than decent—Reyes is almost certainly a better choice for the spot.
Matheny says he considered Reyes as closer in recent days with Oh unavailable. Obviously didn't use him there, but shows trust is building.
— Brenden Schaeffer (@bschaeffer12) September 14, 2016
However, Reyes to the rotation threatens to recreate a problem for the bullpen. Who parachutes in for multiple innings after the next starting pitcher implodes? Better yet, if Reyes can only grit through five innings every fifth day, how does that effect a run-down bullpen? These decisions aren’t made in a vacuum.
That said, Matheny has to be at his wit’s end. This season has been Garcia’s worst as a major league starter, his 4.58 ERA more than a full run higher than his career mark of 3.54. The veteran has compiled 163.0 innings in 2016, far exceeding his workload of 129 innings in 2015. Even that number was Garcia’s highest innings total since 2011, so it’s more than possible the effects of this unfamiliar strain are wearing on his performance.
With the razor-thin margins in the wild card race, there is no more room for excuses or explanations. The Cardinals simply need more out of Garcia’s spot in the rotation, possibly signaling the end of his tenure in St. Louis, which began in 2008.
Is this really the end? That’s a complicated question.
It won’t fly with the angry masses, but the Cardinals would be foolish not to exercise Garcia’s $12 million club option for 2017. After all, pitchers of Garcia’s ilk routinely fetch similar amounts in free agency—often with multi-year commitments. That Garcia is left-handed doesn’t hurt his value, either.
Important distinction: picking up Garcia’s contract doesn’t mean he pitches. At least, not for the Cardinals.
The only thing more foolish than casting out a reasonably priced asset would be for St. Louis to pencil Garcia into its 2017 starting rotation. I don’t think Mozeliak will do that.
What he will do is pick up Garcia’s option, and shop the lefty’s rights to pitching-starved clubs over the winter. When you consider the weak free agent class, and the affordability of his stopgap price, Garcia should have suitors.
Fans have understandably reached the boiling point with Garcia, but can’t see past their frustrations to comprehend why the Cardinals would have any interest in bringing him back. Realize it’s not about their desire to include him in their plans for the 2017 roster—barring catastrophic injury news, that is.
Garcia, as exasperating as he has been, is an asset in Mozeliak’s portfolio. No astute businessman would give up an asset without a return.
So if and when the Cardinals pick up Garcia’s option for next season, fans shouldn’t even react—at least not until you see Garcia on the 25-man roster come April.
But in the context of this season, if Garcia is on the mound Sunday in San Francisco—feel free to raise some hell.
By Brenden Schaeffer
Photo captured by Jeff Curry- USA Today Sports