Few things went as expected for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2010.
A team built on seasoned veterans that was supposed to take the NL Central division crown with ease found that they couldn't overcome injuries and poor hitting enough to catch up with the energetic Cincinnati Reds, finishing just five games out of first place.
Yes, it was a tumultuous season to say the least.
Brendan Ryan, a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop, struggled to keep his batting average above the Mendoza Line for much of the season; Skip Schumaker regressed both offensively and defensively in his second full season as a second baseman after spending his career patrolling the outfield; rookie third baseman David Freese, after a hot start to the season, suffered a series of ankle injuries that required major surgery, which ended his year; Kyle Lohse and Brad Penny both missed significant amounts of time due to various ailments.
All in all, it led to a very long fall and winter at Busch Stadium.
With the disappointment of failed goals and unmet expectations hovering over the team like a cloud, there was, at least, one bright spot for the team this year. Overlooked by many in baseball, though not by the Cardinals or their devout followers, was the emergence of rookie pitcher Jaime Garcia.
The pride of Reynosa, Mexico burst onto the scene as one of the Cardinals' best pitchers last season, essentially replacing the departed Joel Piniero as a member of the rotation's "Big Three", posting a record of 13-8 with a 2.70 ERA in 28 starts and 163.1 innings. Add to that that his win-loss record would be even better if the team hadn't often been so futile during his starts, and it's all the more impressive.
The funny thing is, had all gone according to plan, Garcia wouldn't have even been on the Major League roster this past year until sometime around the beginning of September, if at all.
Going into the 2010 season, the Cardinals had a vacancy in the fifth spot in their starting rotation. Pitching Coach Dave Duncan had been championing reliever Kyle McClellan for the spot, while GM John Mozeliak brought Former Cubs/Orioles lefty Rich Hill in to compete for the job.
Garcia himself, while also a candidate, was more or less included in the competition as a way of motivating McClellan and Hill. Barely a year removed from the dreaded Tommy John surgery, the organization's preference was to have Garcia start the year in Triple-A Memphis so as to conserve his innings.
However, what the organization wanted to do and what actually happened ended up being very different things.
McClellan was pretty much as Duncan had advertised in the spring. He attacked hitters early on, showed stable, compact and easily repeatable mechanics, and all of that led to being very dominant; Hill, on the other hand, followed a track record of having an inability to properly locate his pitches with any semblance of consistency.
Between the two, it looked as though K-Mac was obviously the man for the job.
The only problem? Garcia was lights out.
Whereas other young rotational candidates, like Blake Hawksworth and Mitchell Boggs, had begun to drop from what was quickly becoming a two man race to the finish, Garcia refused to be discounted. When all was said and done by the end of the spring, McClellan was back in his setup role and Garcia was the clear victor in a competition that he had entered as little more than someone being showed a polite courtesy.
From there on, all Garcia did was win 13 games, strike out 132 batters, throw a complete game shutout against the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants, finish third in the National League Rookie of the Year ballot and even garnered some All-Star buzz.
The question for Garcia now is simple: What's next?
We've all seen rookies at any position, and in any sport for that matter, burst onto the scene, dominate for their inaugural season and then disappear off the face of the map. Ben Grieve, anyone?
The key is how Garcia approaches the upcoming season, both physically and mentally. Throughout the course of the 2010 campaign, Garcia showed the poise of a seven year veteran while on the mound.
Yes, there were nights when he simply didn't have it. A raging clunker in Kansas City and an early exit against the Los Angeles Dodgers both come to mind as times when Garcia showed his inexperience. Yet, and this is the impressive part, Garcia never made back-to-back poor starts.
Whenever he would take the mound and basically lay an egg, he always rebounded with a strong outing the next time around. Like his idol, New York Mets ace Johan Santana, Garcia showed a stoic tenacity on the mound, keeping calm in the face of adversity and never letting his body language betray what his emotions were.
The other aspect is how much stronger Garcia will be after being over two seasons removed from surgery. It generally takes a full year to completely recover and with more time and innings under his belt, he should be that much less susceptible to recurring issues that tend to pop up post-TJ surgery. Still, you have to wonder how his body will hold up from throwing all of those off-speed pitches.
Garcia is certainly no power pitcher, his fastball usually topping out in the 89-91 mph range and he has to rely on the secondary stuff to compete. While a change-up and a two-seam fastball aren't necessarily strenuous pitches, a cutter can be.
Add to that the stress to his arm caused by his curveball (which was ranked second in the organization behind ace Adam Wainwright's) and Garcia will definitely have to make sure that he takes his conditioning seriously.
How will Garcia fare in his second full Big League season? Well, that's yet to be discovered. Undoubtedly, it will get tougher for him now that hitters have faced him before, and scouts have had an extra year to rack up information on the young southpaw.
However, if he continues to trust in his mechanics and pitches, as well as Dave Duncan and catcher Yadier Molina, there is no reason to think that the newly revamped Cardinals lineup couldn't help him reach 15, 16 or 17 wins.
As long as Garcia puts the effort in and shows that quiet tenacity on the mound, there's no reason to think that the sky isn't the limit for the lefthander from Reynosa, Mexico.
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