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Jaime Garcia Is the New Adam Wainwright

When the news hit that Adam Wainwright would be lost for the season, it was tough to imagine the St. Louis Cardinals overcoming that loss to win the NL Central. The Cards had already fallen short to Cincinnati last year. They’d also made few major off-season changes, while the hitting-loaded Brewers picked up two top-shelf pitchers in Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. A third-place finish was a perfectly reasonable projection.

Perfectly reasonable until we realize that Jaime Garcia is the new Adam Wainwright.

As Garcia climbed the minor league ranks, he seemed to have some potential. Writing for Baseball America in 2007, Derrick Goold tabbed Garcia as the Cardinals’ second-best prospect:

Garcia fools hitters with a wicked downward-breaking curveball he lands for strikes. His fastball features natural sinking life, consistently reaches the low 90s and tops out at 94. He operates with a clean, easy arm action and repeats his delivery, allowing him to fill the zone with strikes. He shows an advanced touch with his changeup.

Goold surmised that Garcia could crack the big league rotation by 2008. That prediction proved correct when Garcia made his first start that season. But after missing the second half of the 2007 season due to elbow soreness, the joint gave out in early ’08. Garcia would make just that one MLB start in 2008, as Tommy John Surgery knocked him out for most of ’08 and ’09.

Garcia’s stock predictably dropped, as he failed to crack the organization’s 2009 top 10 list. In 2010, he reclaimed the #2 spot, his 38 minor league innings the previous year apparently enough to reassert the team’s confidence in him. Goold had a different take this time:

Garcia commands a biting 12-to-6 curveball that’s a genuine swing-and-miss pitch. He sets it up with an 88-92 mph fastball that has late, downward movement. He used his rehab to add a pitch that’s a cross between a cutter and slider. His minor league playoff performance validated his reputation for being unflappable.

Emphasis mine. Messing around during his long rehab, Garcia found that little hybrid pitch. After that, everything started to change.

The velocity projections put forth early in Garcia’s career haven’t materialized, with the lefty averaging a tick under 90 mph on his four-seam fastball. But with the help of Cardinals pitching guru Dave Duncan, that slider/cutter has evolved into a full-on cutter, one of the most devastating cutters thrown by any pitcher in the game (only Roy Halladay and Jon Lester generated more value with their cutters than Garcia did last year). With hitters perhaps more aware of the cutter this year, Garcia is finding a lot more success with his four-seamer and change-up.

Steve Slowinski recently addressed the concerns that swirled around Garcia coming into this year. Chief among them was the huge bump in workload from 2009 to 2010. In a March Rotographs post, Jason Catania labeled Garcia one of “Five NL Starters You Shouldn’t Draft.”

Another innings increaser. Except in Garcia’s case, the hike alone—125 and 2/3 innings!—should scare the bejesus out of you. Paired with the fact that the Cardinals can’t afford to limit the 24-year-old’s innings like they did at times last season—losing Adam Wainwright‘s 230 will do that—and things get even more frightening.

The Verducci Rule, The Shandler Thesis, or whatever the hell you want to call concerns over a pitcher seeing a big workload jump from one year to the next, does have some merit. But these are broad strokes. Not all pitchers who see a big workload increase will automatically fail. Far from it. In Garcia’s case (and in fairness to Jason!), Catania noted the lefty’s healthy groundball rate (52.4% this year, 18th in MLB; 55.9% last year, 6th in MLB), and came up with a pretty strong hedge, naming Anibal Sanchez and Jorge de la Rosa as strong alternatives (ideally you own all three). Garcia also benefits from a pitcher-friendly home park and pitching in front of the 9th-best defense in baseball.

Most encouragingly, whatever concerns we may have had about Garcia’s good-but-not-great strikeout potential in the minors should be cast aside at this point. The effectiveness of Garcia’s cutter, combined with his newfound durability, have made him a much better pitcher.

In fact, Garcia is putting up the kind of K/BB numbers this year that rival Wainwright’s best. Garcia’s 4.1 strikeout-to-walk rate so far this season tops Wainwright 3.8 K/BB in his top season, 2010. Though we’re only seven weeks into the season, we probably shouldn’t call Garcia better-than-average strikeout rate a fluke anymore, iffy velocity or not. His Swinging Strike rate of 11.8% is tied for 4th-best in MLB; last year’s 10% mark ranked a strong 14th out of 92 qualified starting pitchers.

The Cardinals figure to face stiff competition from the Reds (and very possibly the Brewers) all year long. They’re holding their breath after Lance Berkman (wrist) and Matt Holliday (quad) both exited Wednesday’s game (and missed Thursday’s game) with injuries, potentially threatening baseball’s high-scoring offense. But Garcia, along with Duncan reclamation project Kyle Lohse, have helped the Cardinals stay right in the thick of the race.

If St. Louis does part company with Chris Carpenter ($15 million club option for 2012), or Wainwright struggles to make it back, they can still remain contenders. Having a new ace helps make that possible.