Expectations, not questions, greet Garcia

Left-hander's return to dominance key ingredient to Cardinals in '16

February 22nd, 2016

JUPITER, Fla. -- Each of the past four springs, Jaime Garcia has reported to Spring Training with more than just his equipment. He's come lugging questions, often loaded ones, and enveloped by an aura of uncertainty.

This year, however, is different, and refreshingly so for a 29-year-old lefty who not too long ago wondered if his time in St. Louis had reached an end. The injuries and setbacks that have consumed his career are now cast as mile markers, posts he passed to reach a place of, as he describes it, peace.

There's rejuvenation in being just another pitcher in Cardinals camp, one who is no longer subjected to a peppering of questions about his arm each time he throws. For the first time in years, he can invite expectation.

"I'm never satisfied with where I'm at," Garcia said. "I'm always striving for better and pushing for more, which is the reason why I work extremely hard. I have this quote: 'Giving up is not an option for me.' I'm constantly working on all the areas of my life and with my pitching. I'm going for it."

The Cardinals went all-in on Garcia this winter, opting to pick up an $11.5 million option in a move that would have seemed highly unlikely just months earlier. But the flashes of dominance Garcia has offered remain enticing, even in the context of a dotted injury history.

Garcia returned from thoracic outlet surgery last season and, when healthy, was arguably the team's top starter. He worked at least six innings in 18 of 20 starts and posted 15 quality starts. He didn't allow a walk in seven of his outings -- the most by a Cardinals pitcher since 2013 -- and made five starts without allowing a run.

Garcia, hesitant to reflect on the success while still in the moment last summer, acknowledged that he took time this offseason to look back on his year and the adversity that preceded it.

"The fact that I was able to block everything out and focus on really coming back and coming back strong, not letting anything get in the way, no distractions, no what-ifs, that I'm proud of," Garcia said. "The one goal in mind was to come back and pitch at a Major League level again. But at the same time, you move on. You set new goals for this year and learn from the things that didn't go your way, things you can get better at."

Zeroing in on ways to improve is manageable now that his health isn't so uncertain.

"It's, what, 180 degrees?" Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said, speaking to the contrast in outlook on Garcia now compared to last Spring Training. "He looks great. He obviously had a very good offseason, looks very fit. He feels good about where he's at, so that's great news for us."

The 129 2/3 innings Garcia threw last season represented his highest regular-season total since 2011. The Cardinals, without John Lackey and Lance Lynn in their rotation, now need more. Garcia could open the season slotting as high as second in the club's rotation and currently projects to be the lone lefty starter.

His production, while once viewed as a bonus, is now nearer to a necessity.

"Last year, we just didn't know what we were going to get," manager Mike Matheny said. "We heard different things and were always just waiting to see what the ramifications were going to be for the next push that he had. But right now, he's just one of the other guys, and we're just counting on him."

"I've gone through pretty much anything you can go through as far as physical pain and surgeries and rehabs and all that," Garcia added. "You are just grateful and thankful and feel blessed to still be able to perform at a high level. I'm extremely excited to be here and to be a St. Louis Cardinal and to be part of this team. I'm going to take that approach into every day, everything that I do, to be the best that I can.