I hope reading yesterday’s post on a non-injured prospect didn’t make you feel too uncomfortable. If it did, here’s something on the most injury prone guy there is to set you right. Righthanded reliever Christian Garciais our #6 prospect, but not without some widely varying opinions: one ranker placed him second overall, one sixth, one seventh, and one not at all. He generated a ton of controversy, as injured prospects tend to do.
Garcia’s route to the majors has been long and circuitous. He was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2004 MLB Draft by the Yankees out of high school as a starter. He made a strong debut in the rookie Gulf Coast League, earning a 2.84 ERA in 38.0 IP: six starts and seven relief appearances. His next year, 2005, was less promising: in 112 innings between rookie ball and full-season A ball, he had a 3.94 ERA with a 1.46 WHIP. It’s merely speculation, but perhaps that nearly-threefold innings jump made Garcia’s arm more prone to injury, leading to his torn UCL the next season. He threw only 53 innings in 2006, with a respectable 3.46 ERA in 41.2 innings of A ball play, but an atrocious 9.53 ERA in just 11 innings rookie league action. His torn UCL that season required Tommy John surgery, like Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Lucas Giolito, and Sammy Solis have had. Recovering from his surgery caused him to miss all of the 2007 season and part of 2008.
When he finally returned in 2008, his age-22 season, he had a 4.33 ERA between rookie, High A, and AA. This figure is inflated by his 14.73 ERA in rookie ball, however, and he had solid ERAs of 2.90 and 3.38 in High A and AA respectively. His inspiring comeback faltered in 2009, however, as he threw only 25.1 innings over five starts while dealing with more pain in his pitching elbow. Despite the pain he felt, he was excellent in those few innings, with an 0.71 ERA, demonstrating flashes of the potential he once had. In 2010, his UCL tore again after only 5.2 innings. Recovering from two Tommy John surgeries is rare, and Garcia was set to become a minor league free agent after the 2010 season, so the Yankees made no effort to re-sign him. That offseason, demonstrating their penchant for damaged goods, the Nationals signed Garcia to a minor league deal. He pitched well in the few innings he returned for in 2011, with a 2.95 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 18.1 short-season A innings, in addition to two shutout AAA innings. As a reliever in 2012, his age 26 season, he finally found his niche, dominating with a 0.86 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in 52.1 innings between AA and AAA. He made his long-awaited major league debut in the thick of the Nats’ division title chase, shortly after his 27th birthday, and he made his mark. His 2.13 ERA, 0.789 WHIP, and 10.7 K/9 in 12.2 demonstrated his incredible ability, and earned him a surprising spot on the playoff roster. He had a 3.38 ERA in 2.2 IP as the Nationals fell to the Cardinals. Going into 2013, Garcia appears poised to be another potent weapon in one of the NL’s best and deepest bullpens, though there are whispers of the Nationals stretching him back out to be a starter in spring training in order to account for weak starter depth in the upper levels of the minors.
Verdict: It speaks to the value of relievers that Garcia has shown himself to be capable of being a top-flight reliever at the MLB level, yet comes in on the bottom half of our list. Garcia’s worst case scenario, barring injury, is that he becomes merely an effective reliever, a fate much better than what a lot of prospects achieve. As a reliever, however, his ceiling is limited. Even the best of relievers are not particularly valuable, and reliever prospects nearly never make Top 10 lists. But as a starter, Garcia becomes a different animal entirely. He has yet to show himself to be capable of staying healthy as a starter, and by stretching him out, the Nationals run the risk of ruining his arm for good and depriving themselves of an extremely good reliever. If he can stay healthy, however, Garcia could be a frontline starter, and some say the Nationals see his stuff as a better fit for the rotation. Garcia’s health history makes him a risk regardless of what role he pitches in, but he has value as a proven reliever already. If he does get stretched out, all bets are off, and his career path could go anywhere from him tearing his UCL a third time to achieving sustained success as a dominant starter.