Rookie Profile: Jaime Garcia
St. Louis Cardinals rookie left-hander Jaime Garcia is currently second in the National League with a 1.59 ERA. He's tied for fourth in WAR at 2.8. Let's take a look at Garcia's background and what the future may hold.
Garcia was drafted by the Cardinals in the 22nd round in 2005, out of Mission, Texas. His background was unusual: he was born in Mexico, played for the Mexican junior national team in 2004 and reportedly planned on playing professional baseball in his birth country. But he went to high school in the US, which made him eligible for the domestic draft. He was drafted by the Orioles in 2004, in the 30th round. He didn't sign, but was picked again by the Cardinals the following spring, this time inking a contract.
He didn't make his pro debut until 2006, posting a 2.90 ERA with a 80/18 K/BB in 78 innings for Low-A Quad Cities, then a 3.84 ERA with a 51/16 K/BB in 77 innings after being promoted to High-A Palm Beach. Scouting reports pointed to a strong 88-92 MPH sinking fastball and a superior curveball, and his debut was certainly successful. I gave him a Grade B in the 2007 book, writing that he was a "solid all-around pitching prospect." He just missed my Top 50 pitching prospects list.
Garcia jumped to Double-A Springfield for 2007. He held his own, with a 3.75 ERA and a 97/45 K/BB in 103 innings, 93 hits allowed. His command wobbled at times, but it was very credible performance in the Texas League at age 20. His heater clicked up a hair to 90-93 MPH early in the year, but by mid-season he was down to 87-89. He went on the shelf at midsummer with a strained elbow ligament, but surgery was avoided at that point. I gave him another Grade B in the '08 book, noting the injury concern.
Sent back to Springfield to begin '08, he went 3-2, 2.06 in six starts with a 41/16 K/BB in 35 innings, earning a promotion to Triple-A. He had his old 90+ velocity back early in the season, but once again he began to falter as the summer progressed, dipping back into the 80s and showing less break on his curveball. His ERA went up to 4.44 for Triple-A Memphis, with a 59/26 K/BB in 71 innings, 74 hits allowed. The Cardinals used him in relief for the major league stretch run, giving him 16 innings of bullpen work, but the elbow finally blew out and he had to have Tommy John surgery. I lowered his rating to Grade C+ in the 2009 book, pending information about his injury rehabilitation.
Garcia's recovery went well, and by the second half of 2009 he was back on the mound, finishing the season with four starts for Triple-A Memphis, with a 3.86 ERA, 22/9 K/BB in 21 innings, and his velocity back into the low 90s. He added a cutter to go with his curveball, using it in changeup counts. In the book this year, I gave Garcia a Grade B-, writing that "his control is still inconsistent, and pushing him into the big-league rotation might be rushing things: he could use another 10-15 Triple-A starts to finalize the recovery process and build his stamina back up. That's my opinion, anyway, but I tend to be quite conservative when it comes to promoting pitching prospects."
It looks like I was too conservative.
Garcia's 1.59 ERA overstates his effectiveness: he's been lucky. His FIP is 3.19; his xFIP 3.72. Still, those are very good numbers for a 23 year old rookie less than two years removed from major surgery. He'll need to get his walk rate (3.97 BB/9) down in order to remain consistently effective, but I think he's capable of it. His fastball has ranged between 87 and 93 MPH, averaging 90.3, which is what he showed in the minors when his elbow wasn't hurting. Pitch/FX indicates a good pitching mixture: slider (14.8%), curveball (12.8%), changeup (11%) and cutter (7%) in addition to two-seam and four-seam fastballs. He didn't have much of a straight changeup in the minors, but that has changed this year if the Pitch/FX data is any indication. He's a strong ground ball pitcher (2.25 GO/AO this year, 2.14 in the minors last year, 2.07 in the minors in '08), a trait consistent for him every year. Sometimes guys who get grounders in the minors lose that trait as they face better competition, but he's maintained it.
What does the future hold? The sub-2.00 ERA won't stick around without a dramatic improvement in his control, but I don't think his overall success is a fluke. He's a very good pitcher. If the walks come down and the strikeouts come up a bit, he can be excellent. If his ratios stay where they are now, the league will catch up with him eventually and the ERA will rise to get closer to the FIP marks. That would still make him above average. Not bad for a 22nd round pick.