Cardinals renew high expectations for Garcia

Lefty's health is key to rotation's success in 2016

Cardinals renew high expectations for Garcia

ST. LOUIS -- It was about this time last winter when general manager John Mozeliak, in a moment of candor, acknowledged that the organization had quit assigning expectations to Jaime Garcia. So much unmet anticipation in years past left them little alternative.

They weren't going to be teased again.

"I was a little off on that, huh?" Mozeliak joked at the Cardinals' Winter Warm-Up on Saturday.

He was plenty content being proved wrong over the past year, watching Garcia enter a season that seemed certain to be his last with the organization. Instead, the lefty leveraged good health into a longer leash. His status has flipped so much over the past 12 months that the Cardinals not only believe Garcia is ready not only to burden expectations again, but to carry great ones.

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A rotation that will be without John Lackey and Lance Lynn -- two workhorse right-handers who accounted for 40 percent of the team's starting innings in 2015 -- will depend on Garcia to help anchor it. In many ways, it's a place the Cardinals never envisioned they'd be with a lefty who has so much potential, but has also been the source of so much frustration.

"Obviously, last year speaks volumes for what he was able to do," Mozeliak said. "And when healthy you can see why we did that long-term deal to begin with. … From a physical standpoint it gives us a lot of confidence to know there's a lot of upside in there."

It will ultimately come down to health, as it long has with Garcia. He's rehabbed from three arm injuries in his pro career, the most recent of which required thoracic outlet surgery in 2014. The string of ailments have not only interrupted seasons, but also precluded Garcia from undertaking a normal offseason program.

This is the first offseason since the one after the 2011 season during which Garcia's winter hasn't been spent with rehab.

"It's been a long time," he said. "At the same time, you think about those tough times, and you learn from them, and you move forward. To be here, to be healthy … It's as good as I've felt."

Garcia twice spent time on the disabled list in 2015, first after being slowed in Spring Training by shoulder soreness, and then for a month over the summer when a groin strain sidelined him. Nevertheless, he made more starts (20) than he did the previous two seasons combined and finished the season healthy.

In 18 of those starts, Garcia went at least six innings. He didn't allow an earned run in a quarter of his outings and tallied 15 quality starts. The Cardinals won 10 of Garcia's final 12 starts.

It was a remarkable comeback for a pitcher who was never assured of returning from that 2014 procedure.

"Just the fact that I was able to come back, man, from everything I've gone through, it's obviously not easy," Garcia said. "I had a lot of stuff that happened last year -- little injuries that happened over the year -- that I was able to overcome. The fact I was able to help this team, I'm extremely grateful for that. But at the same time, you learn from the not-so-good games and the not-so-good things you went through, and you move forward. It's about not worrying about the past and focusing on the things you can get better at. Like I said, I'm excited for this year."

Garcia was rewarded by having the Cardinals exercise his $11.5 million option, the first of two club options built into the contract he signed in July 2011. That move came just days before the Cardinals learned that Lynn would miss 2016 while recovering from Tommy John surgery.

That has built in even more expectations for the lefty, whom the Cardinals had nearly written off.

"I'm very confident in our rotation -- very, very confident," Garcia said. "Me, myself, I'm preparing to be the guy they want me to be and expect me to be."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB, like her Facebook page Jenifer Langosch for Cardinals.com and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.