5 Reasons Jaime Garcia's Return Is Cardinals' X-Factor in Playoff Race

Will Grapperhaus@@WillGrapperhausContributor IIIAugust 16, 2012

5 Reasons Jaime Garcia's Return Is Cardinals' X-Factor in Playoff Race

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    With Chris Carpenter not throwing an inning in 2012 and Adam Wainwright coming off elbow reconstruction surgery, there was much hand-wringing in the early-going for Cardinal fans this season.

    Lance Lynn, a rookie in spirit if not in truth, was thrust into the rotation as the de facto ace of a defending World Champion club. And a bullpen that required great efforts to fix last year found itself in need of bandaging again.

    It was almost an afterthought when a largely ineffective Jaime Garcia went on the disabled list with a shoulder impingement on June 7.

    Garcia dragged his arm, and his 3-4 record, off for repairs.

    Fast forward to today—the Cardinals' rotation has more than held its own ranking fifth in all of baseball with a 3.55 ERA. Lynn led the charge with an 8-1 record out of the gate earning an All-Star selection.

    Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook have consistently brought quality starts and Adam Wainwright has been an All-Star-caliber pitcher in the second half.

    So why add a starting pitcher with a 4.48 ERA?

    Cardinals GM John Mozeliak will give you 27 million reasons why.

    Of course, Garcia's performance the first two years of his career were the very reason why he earned that extension and the faith of an organization that hands out multi-year contracts like keys to daddy's Corvette.

    This is a privilege, son.

    When he's healthy and on top of his game, Garcia is a top-tier lefty, despite the lack of a mid-90s fastball. His sinker has so much movement it can appear to be four different pitches in the same outing.

    Talk about being effectively wild.

    With the Cards' 5-2 victory in St. Louis against Arizona last night, they moved into a tie with the Pirates for the second Wild Card slot, which, if they can hold, would pit them against the Atlanta Braves for a winner-take-all matchup.

    You don't think the Braves would love nothing more than to eliminate the Cards and exact a little payback for last year's meltdown?

    Garcia's return to the rotation is the X-factor in the Cardinals' playoff aspirations and here are five reasons why.

Bolster the Bullpen

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    Fans knew Garcia's return would bolster the bullpen in some form or fashion. The two candidates of course were rookie revelation Joe Kelly and All-Star Lance Lynn.

    Manager Mike Matheny announced that Kelly will move to the bullpen to make room for Garcia in the rotation. This despite the fact that Kelly has been more effective (second-half ERA of 4.08) than Lynn (4.37) since the All-Star break.

    This is probably the best move, however.

    Lynn has the makeup, build and experience as a starter throughout his time in the minors and of course, this season. If the innings load does not become an issue for his young arm, Lynn will continue to be an asset in the rotation over the long-haul.

    Kelly's stuff is more electric than Lynn's, and he essentially replaces the enigmatic Fernando Salas who was a borderline savior for the Cardinals in 2011 (ERA 2.28), but has struggled with consistency in 2012 (4.43).

    The bullpen has almost fallen into automatic mode for Matheny since the acquisition of Edward Mujica from Florida, who has yet to allow an earned run as a Redbird. Mujica has been the answer to the Cards' seventh-inning riddle, with Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte locking down the eighth and ninth.

    As a result, Kelly fills two needs—as a long-reliever if needed as well as a mid-innings righty stopper—the role filled the last two years by the aforementioned Salas and Eduardo Sanchez who also earned a ticket to the minors this season due an inability to find the strike zone.

    Kelly is a huge upgrade over anyone the Cards have used in that role to date.

Help Mitigate the Loss of Brian Fuentes

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    Another issue for the Cards has been a general inability to neutralize left-handed bats. Failure in such key situations has been a huge factor in many of the Cards' close losses this year.

    Marc Rzepczynski has been thoroughly inconsistent all year and while rookie lefty Barret Browning brought instant relief in the specialist role, his Double-A pedigree is catching up with him now in St. Louis.

    The signing of Brian Fuentes initially appeared to be a master-stroke by Mozeliak.

    Fuentes' fastball had good velocity and the club simply needed a veteran who would not blink in any situation he was thrown into. The club finally had their lefty specialist.

    As it turns out, other issues were swirling behind the scenes as Fuentes removed himself from the club this week for personal reasons which disappointed many within the organization.

    However, Garcia's return will have positive implications for Rzepczynski and Browning.

    Having a lefty taking a regular turn in the rotation will help suppress lefties like Joey Votto and Jay Bruce of the Reds (with whom the Cardinals still have six huge games to play against) and help ensure that Browning and "Zip" will be used in situations where they are far more likely to succeed.

Take Pressure off Lance Lynn

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    Lance Lynn has been scuffling in the second half of the season.

    Certainly, physical fatigue is probably coming into play as we find ourselves halfway through August.  

    By his own testimony, Lynn feels as strong as ever, and with his 6'5", 250-pound frame, we're not inclined to disagree with him.

    But one must wonder if the mental fatigue of being the ace of the staff is wearing on Lynn, however. There is pressure from your manager and the fans, sure, but that is nothing compared to the desire to excel for your teammates who are counting on you every fifth day.

    This seems abundantly clear when we look at Lynn's marked vulnerability in the first inning which includes an 8.22 ERA in opening frames.

    Garcia, just a year older than Lynn, brings another "young-veteran" presence to the rotation that Lynn can identify with.

    Lynn doesn't have to be a Cy Young finalist nor a crafty veteran playing for a big offseason contract.

    He can relax a little and let his All-Star talent shine.

    And perhaps find the confidence to bring his killer four-seam fastball back as well.

No Innings Limit for Garcia

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    There isn't a hotter topic in baseball than what must be done to protect young pitchers from arm injuries and the steps clubs can take to keep them off the operating table, ultimately.

    Innings limits have been the most recently prescribed form of prevention.

    Jaime Garcia threw a career-high 194 innings last year and then found himself on the 60-day disabled list. Even veterans like Chris Carpenter, who threw a major-league high 273.1 innings in 2011, are not immune. 

    There is much debate in the Washington, D.C. area as the Nationals are counting down the days to when they shut down All-Star Stephen Strasburg for the season, even as they cruise headlong toward the postseason.

    But throughout baseball's grand history, players coming back from injury in the second half of the season have been huge additions to their respective teams. Garcia was fairly sharp in his last tune-up in Memphis and the sometimes-complicated hurler sounds ready to go.

    Said Garcia after his last rehab outing: "My sinker was good. I'm excited to see that back. That pitch has been big for me the last couple of years. It's something I kind of lost with the injury."

    If his shoulder is sound, then Garcia has already put his "innings limit" behind him in 2012 and we may get his best performance not only in the second half, but hopefully in the postseason as well.

Defeat the Braves in the NL Wild Card Playoff Game

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    As we alluded to earlier, there wouldn't be a more exciting outcome in the National League Wild Card scenario than for the Braves and Cardinals to meet in Atlanta for a sudden-death grudge match.

    First of all, the Cardinals practically own the patent on visitor-field advantage in the playoffs.

    They felled the mighty (or is it not-so mighty?) Phillies on their own turf thanks to Chris Carpenter's epic performance in Game 5 of the NLDS last fall.

    The Brewers, who were devastating at home in 2011? Mere child's play for the Cards in Milwaukee.

    Second, who better to neutralize the Braves trio of young lefty sluggers—Brian McCann, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman—than Jaime Garcia?

    The Braves dynamic threesome has accounted for a whopping 45.6 percent of Atlanta's big flies in 2012 (52 of 114). But against left-handers, all three have a batting average of .248 or worse.

    Cardinal fans would love to see Garcia shut down the Braves and their Tomahawk-chopping fans. If the Cards want to repeat in 2012, they may have to do just that.