The St. Louis Cardinals are fortunate to have three above average starting pitchers in their rotation. Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright are bonafide aces. Carpenter is a picture of consistency and Wainwright was in the top five of all MLB pitchers before he had arm issues in spring training last season which forced him to have Tommy John surgery. The number three starter on the depth chart is Jaime Garcia. Assuming Carpenter and Wainwright produce at the level they are capable, it gives Garcia another season to get innings under his belt without any pressure. If not in 2012, then in 2013, I believe Garcia can pitch well enough to be included in the discussion of who is the best starter in the Cardinals rotation.
There are some simple reasons why this may happen sooner rather than later. One obvious concern is Wainwright’s ability to get back on the mound and perform to the level he did in 2010. It often takes pitchers two years total time to revert back to how they pitched prior to Tommy John surgery. Wainwright is young enough that he may be fully recouped physically at the time spring training begins, but it remains to be seen how long it will take him to get into pitcher’s shape. Also, no matter how good a player is prior to this surgery, losing a full season can hinder pitching mechanics. I have every reason to believe he will be successful in 2012; it just may take him some time to get back completely to form. For a recent and familiar comparison, look no further than teammate Chris Carpenter.
In 2007 Carpenter made one start before having Tommy John surgery. He returned almost exactly one year from the surgery and only made 3 starts in 2008. In 2009 he was virtually untouchable, recording 17 wins against 4 losses with a 2.24 ERA. He had a great 2010 season going 16-9. His win/loss percentage in 2011, does not tell how well he pitched. At 11-9, some people may think he had a mediocre season. However, each of his peripheral stats in 2011, were better than what he posted in 2010 when he was 16-9. He has also been incredibly durable, throwing at least 235 innings in each of the last two seasons. See below.
These are very solid ratios for any pitcher let alone one who was 36 for a better part of the season. Not only were his SO/9, BB/9 and SO/BB ratios better in 2011 than 2010, they all were better than his career averages. Simply put, Carpenter has been on top of his game the last three seasons. There is really no reason to think that he will lose any steam going into 2012. Age could be Carpenters’ only downfall, but when looking at his performance the last few seasons; even this is probably not going to be an issue in 2012.
So, with a former Cy Young Award winner (Carpenter) and another pitcher who finished third and second in the Cy Young voting the last two seasons he appeared (Wainwright) in the mix, how can I suggest that Garcia at age 25 is going to enter into the “top Cardinals’ pitcher” discussion in the next year or two? First, look at how much he has matured since his rookie campaign and in such a short period of time. There was nothing about his sophomore campaign to suggest that his trajectory is anything but straight up. The biggest tell to me is that he was able to bring his BB/9 down from 3.53 to 2.31 from 2010 to 2011. His strikeout rate while not spectacular was virtually unchanged (7.27 to 7.21). His xFIP in 2011 was 3.31, down from 3.62 in 2010.
He was also able to throw 194 2/3 innings in 2011 up from 163 1/3 in 2010. He should shoot past 200 this season if he is able to get 33-35 starts in. He averaged 5.83 innings per start in 2010 and 6.08 innings per start in 2011. If he can get this somewhere closer to 6.5 innings per start and eventually to Carpenter’s area of 6.98 innings per start (2011), then he will see all of his counting stats improve as well.
It may take a couple more seasons before he can attain that plateau, but it is well within his reach if he can continue to lower his walks, maintain or raise his SO rate and continue to manufacture ground balls. His ground ball to fly ball ratio is close to two to one. This obviously keeps his HR ratio low (career .67 HR per 9). He is a lefty who pitches well to both sides of the plate, .253 BA against right-handed hitters and .260 BA against left-handed hitters.
Garcia has been very good in his first two full seasons and he is coming into his peak growth seasons as a pitcher. He should continue to mature into a top flight pitcher. With very little pressure as the number three starter, it is not a stretch to say that he could completely breakout in 2012 or 2013.