Right-handed pitcher Jason Garcia started to get some attention in the minors last season after coming back from Tommy John surgery, and he reportedly wowed scouts with his stuff in the Fall Instructional League this offseason. His fastball was sitting mid-90s, and was said to touch triple digits at times. He looked so strong, in fact, that the Baltimore Orioles arranged for the Houston Astros to take him from the Red Sox organization with the fourth pick in the Rule 5 Draft this offseason so that they could acquire him for cash considerations.
The problem is that Garcia had never pitched above Low-A Greenville in the Red Sox system, and despite the strong raw stuff, had a reputation for not always knowing where it was going. The Red Sox took a chance leaving him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft. The fact that he was young coming out of high school when the Red Sox originally drafted him at age 17, plus losing a year to Tommy John, set him up to be exposed to the Rule 5 Draft at a younger age and with less experience than most. In order to protect him, the Red Sox would have had to add him to the 40-man roster, which would have clogged a spot on it while also using his first option year. We’ve seen this work against pitchers who are added to the 40-man early, such as Drake Britton, who ended up designated for assignment in part because the team used up two of his options before he reach the majors.
So the Red Sox, figuring that the 35 2/3 innings he pitched at Greenville last year would not provide enough evaluation or confidence to select such an inexperienced player, left Garcia unprotected. But they obviously underestimated general manager Dan Duquette’s affinity for making Rule 5 selections. Then again, there were rumblings that Garcia could be selected based on the reports coming out of the Fall Instructional League, so perhaps, more accurately, the Red Sox front office did not believe he would stick with a major league team through the regular season, which is a condition of the draft in order to keep the player long-term.
Garcia has the raw stuff that gets scouts excited without the overly impressive results that could lead a team to think he’d take off if put in the bullpen and told to let it fly.
In some ways, Garcia fits the mold of a successful Rule 5 pick rather well. He has the raw stuff that gets scouts excited without the overly impressive results that could lead a team to think he’d take off if put in the bullpen and told to let it fly. On the other hand, usually you’re talking about a guy who has at least had a taste of Double-A, whereas Garcia most likely would have begun the season with High-A Salem (as a starter) if he was in the Red Sox organization. Making the jump from Low-A to the majors makes it an extremely daunting task.
More to the point, Garcia has struggled with control throughout his career, evidenced by his career 4.6 walks per nine rate in the minors. Garcia needed to refine both his control and command, and now he is attempting to refine those parts of his game under the bright lights. As you can imagine, it has made for some interesting results.
The talking points on his development have proven true in the majors, as he’s walked three more batters than he has struck out, leading to a 7.2 walk per nine rate over 13 2/3 innings out of the bullpen. He’s had just one clean outing over eight appearances, and walked at least two batters in three of them. Of the 246 pitches he’s thrown this season, only a little over half have gone for strikes. He walked four over 2 1/3 in his last appearance on May 10, but actually lowered his season ERA to 5.93 by giving up just one run. Don’t look at bad luck as a contributing cause, because if anything, he has been lucky to this point with a BABIP at a low .205.
This brings us to the most obvious question: Why are the Orioles working so hard to keep Garcia? He has entered games only in blowouts or losing situations, clearly showing that they are attempting to stash him away in the back of their bullpen. The team seems to think the upside is worth the decreased roster flexibility. His fastball has sat in the mid-90s as advertised, according to Brooks Baseball, but had very few swing-and-misses against anything he’s thrown, totaling just 15 whiffs out of those 246 pitches. Both his fastball and slider have also been very fly-ball-heavy, and a pitcher that neither induces whiffs nor ground balls is not usually a recipe for success.
However, that is not to tear down Garcia’s future in the league. There’s a reason players spend time developing in the minors, and there’s a reason Garcia had only made it to Greenville. He lost a year of development to injury. He has under 300 professional innings pitched, and most of that was as a teenager in the Rookie League, Lowell, and Greenville, prior to Tommy John surgery. He is still in the process of rediscovering his feel for pitching and getting comfortable with his reconstructed elbow. To make keeping Garcia on the roster all year worth it for the Orioles, you would think they see a future as a potential future closer or setup man. The problem is he may never have a chance to develop into such with his sporadic playing time and pressure to perform, rather than a focus development, every time on the mound.
It will be interesting to see if he is returned this season, how the Red Sox will handle him and where they will assign him. There’s a good chance the team would have liked to keep developing him in the rotation if not for the Rule 5 selection, a scenario under which he would have likely started the season in High-A Salem. But now that he has spent all this time in the bullpen, the guess here is they would send him to Double-A Portland to develop as a reliever. There have been cases of Rule 5 picks having trouble adjusting back to the minors when sent back to their original teams, but if handled correctly and given time to develop, he could be a nice bullpen piece for the Red Sox in the future. For his sake, if nothing else, the Orioles should pull the plug on this experiment and offer him back to Boston, where he has the best chance to reach his potential.
Photo by Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports Images