Garcia begins camp optimistic he can regain his form

After two injury-filled seasons, Cards lefty is ready to prove he is still a capable starting pitcher

Garcia begins camp optimistic he can regain his form

JUPITER, Fla. -- Within a 38-second portion of a nine-plus-minute interview on his first day at Cardinals camp, Jaime Garcia employed an emphatic repetition in an attempt to erase any questions about his status.

It came out seven times -- "I'm a starting pitcher."

It was a declarative sentence in every sense, Garcia's way of expressing optimism about his health and also certainty about how he thinks he can best find a fit on the Cardinals again. Beginning on Friday, when he throws his first bullpen session of the spring, he'll start trying to convince others to buy in with the same enthusiasm.

"I've been through a lot of stuff that I wouldn't wish on anybody," Garcia said, referring to the long list of injuries and surgeries that have stalled his career. "But at the same time, I've been able to learn from that.

"Whatever [the Cardinals are] thinking, whatever is in their mind, that's their stuff. [What's in] my control is just my attitude and my work ethic and the things I can work on. All I can say is that I'm excited to be here, and I'm excited to contribute this year."

The Cardinals would welcome the contributions, something they've received little of the past two seasons. Garcia made nine starts in 2013 before needing season-ending surgery to repair tears in his labrum and rotator cuff. His 2014 season then ended after seven outings, this time with him requiring surgery for Thoracic outlet syndrome.

It was the same surgery Chris Carpenter had in 2012, a procedure from which he never enjoyed a full recovery. Garcia, 28, understood that risk.

"But at the same time, there was never one doubt in my mind that I was going to come back from this really tough surgery and really tough injury that has ended careers in the past," Garcia said. "I knew it was going to be a tough challenge -- just like my Tommy John [surgery in 2008] and my shoulder [surgery in 2013] -- but there was not one doubt in my mind that I was going to come back from it."

Outlook: Garcia, SP, STL

As bullish as Garcia may have been about his comeback, the Cardinals proceed with caution, even hesitation. They carry no expectations for Garcia this year, not because they don't hope for the best, but because they've been down this path before, where declarations of great health are soon followed by setbacks.

It's why the Cardinals explored the starting-pitching market this winter and the reason Garcia was often spoken about as an afterthought behind Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales, who are also vying for rotation jobs.

"He's kind of been the 'oh, and …,' and that's a different spot for him," manager Mike Matheny noted. "That happens to a lot of people throughout their career, especially when there is uncertainty about health. [It's] not ideal for anybody, but circumstances put you in spots where sometimes you have to go about it a little different."

Should Garcia prove his health over the next few weeks, the Cardinals will make room for him to build up as a starter early in Grapefruit League play. Nevertheless, the organization is also eager to give Martinez a chance to pitch out of the rotation, which would leave Garcia on the outside looking in.

The Cardinals haven't broached the idea about a potential relief role with Garcia, though it's a discussion that has been had internally. His insistence on being viewed as a starting pitcher leaves little question as to how he hopes to be used.

"I'm a starting pitcher," he stated. "I'm a starting pitcher, and I came in prepared for that. I've been a starting pitcher my whole career. … I'm coming in like I did seven years ago, six years ago, when I made the team my first year as a starting pitcher. I have the same mentality. I'm the same exact guy. I'm trying to make a team, trying to earn a spot. But I'm a starting pitcher."

Walden, Gonzales on new season

And would he be open to a change?

"As of now, I'm here to help this team win, and I'm a starting pitcher. When something else comes up in the future then we will have to talk about it."

Because Garcia was able to complete the bulk of his rehab before the Cardinals ended the season, he was able to follow a fairly normal offseason program in preparation for camp. He estimates that he's thrown off the mound more than a half-dozen times already and plans to be unrestricted in these early days of camp.

He'll earn $9.25 million in 2015, the final guaranteed year from a four-year deal he signed before his shoulder began to give him fits. The Cardinals hold a pair of club options on Garcia, who will become a free agent at the end of the season if those aren't exercised.

"I've been through a lot in my career," Garcia said. "I am optimistic. I'm excited, like I said. I'm here thinking about this year and am excited about being here to contribute."

Jenifer Langosch has been a reporter with MLB.com since 2007, first covering the Pirates and now the Cardinals.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.