Not much more than a month or so ago, it all seemed so simple when it came to evaluating the Cardinals’ fifth rotation slot. It was time for the young guns, Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales, to battle it out for best supporting actor in the Cardinal starting staff. The club had stressed that it was not interested in joining the big name free agent market to round out its staff because it had faith in their two sub-25 year old internal options; a fact that turned out to be 100% true.
However, somewhere along the line, things changed due to the quiet return of a veteran stalwart that had been cast off to the desert of indefinite return status, Jaime Garcia. And while the specter of Garcia did loom, it seemed far from reality that he would be able to contribute by the beginning of spring training. Even John Mozeliak was operating in hearsay when it came to the 28-year-old lefty’s condition, because he had not seen nor heard from him since the season came to close.
Garcia stressed that he would be ready to contribute, despite the apathetic atmosphere around his status. All things considered, doubters were right: his health record has been spotty, when put very kindly. He has been enigmatic in the way he has gone about being available, where he true health is at and what his plan is regarding it. Considering the fact that the last time the team made an official statement about him, it was Mozeliak delivering the news that Garcia himself had decided to shut it down for 2014 and undergo surgery on his ailing shoulder. A procedural decision he had not consulted with the club to gain their insight on beforehand. It was a tense way to end a year, and a fashion that clearly could have closed the door on his career in St. Louis, as he only has a single season of guaranteed contract remaining.
Yet, the ever benevolent organization thawed the ice on its handling of its petulant hurler and gave him a chance to prove himself in the condition that he billed himself as being in. Not quite the standard BSIML of the spring, but strong enough to contribute on the same par as any other pitcher.
And all things considered equal thus far, he has. Garcia has had no setback in conditioning, nor lack of precision on the mound. On Thursday afternoon he made his second start of the spring, working allowing only one run on two hits and a walk, while striking out five over four innings. Overall for the spring, he has made two starts over the past five days and showed his usual mix of deft off-speed offerings, setup by a precision fastball. He is scheduled to remain in the Cardinal rotation has the spring moves forward, and there has been no discussion about limitations to his workload going ahead.
What does this all mean? For one thing, means that Garcia has firmly changed the entire outlook of race to be #5….the time being at least. His track record of false starts and quick finishes over the course of seasons cannot be ignored. But it does complicate things for both Martinez and Gonzales, both of whom are having impressive spring showings thus far as well.
Martinez is off to another impressive start to the year as a starter over a reliever. Martinez has been overpowering in his two outings thus far, showing the type of elite stuff that has made him such an enticing property over the past few years. Thus far he has run up six strikeouts while walking none, while showing an increased command of his non-fastball arsenal.
However it has been Gonzales that has been the most effective of all thus far. He is fresh off the heels of allowing a single hit in four innings of work against the Braves on Wednesday afternoon, continuing to show the precocious development curve that he took off on late last year. He has allowed only four of 22 batters faced to reach base against him thus far this spring, and the organization’s 2014 Minor League Pitcher of the Year has made it clear that he is ready to carry the load with the big league club as well.
But the reality is that while it could be a very tough call to sort out on a performance basis, it final slotting decision is one that has a clear outcome as well if the scene stays as it is now. Simply put, if Garcia is healthy, he starts. This is by virtue of the fact that it is really the only place for him to go. Mozeliak and Matheny both have stated they do not see him being a reliever, and such a predictable slate of work is probably not what is best for business in handling Jaime.
This would of course be an outcome that would relegate Martinez and Gonzales back to more particular roles as either bullpen presences or starters in Memphis. It is not very likely that Martinez would go back to the minors; his experience in the bullpen makes it possible –albeit likely a personally disappointing one for him.
Gonzales’ future is a bit more undeterminable as is, due to the fact the team could very well decide to incubate him in Memphis as is, in order to keep him functioning as a starter.
But perhaps the most interesting sidebar of the spring is the return of Garcia in any form. Yet the most undeniable impact of it is that by simply showing up yet again, he stands to change everything as it stood to be just a month ago.