How should the Nationals use Christian Garcia?

February 19, 2013

The one consensus about Christian Garcia within Nationals spring training, and it was easy to reach, concerns the quality of his stuff. Davey Johnson summarized the other day, after Garcia’s first bullpen session. “He threw the [stuffing] out of the ball,” Johnson said. Garcia delivers the ball like he’s playing catch with his kid brother, and it comes out of his hand with steam rising off it.

The quality of Garcia’s stuff is the obvious conclusion. How best to utilize it is the dilemma. The Nationals will have Garcia extend himself to throw multiple innings this spring training. Whether or not that leads him into the starting rotation or back to the bullpen, to April in Syracuse or a spot on the major league roster, is still up in the air.

“We’re going to factor where we’re at when we break camp, what our needs are,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “What do the numbers look like in the bullpen? What do the numbers look like in the rotation? And we’ll make our decision based on that.”

Johnson first broached converting Garcia from reliever back to starter last September, when Garcia parlayed an eye-opening 12 2/3 innings during his call-up into a spot on the playoff roster. The Nationals signed Garcia in 2011 last year after staging a tryout. He had been a starter in the minors with the Yankees, which led only to near ruin – three arm surgeries in seven years, including two Tommy John surgeries.

Garcia’s history will play a role in how the Nationals use him this year. Last year, between the minors, majors and playoffs, Garcia threw 67 2/3 innings. Garcia, 27, has thrown fewer than 400 innings in his eight-year professional career. Last year was his heaviest workload since 2005, when he threw 112 innings.

The Nationals, as you may have heard, are sensitive to large inning increases with their young pitchers. Even if the Nationals make Garcia a starter, they would curtail his innings, probably somewhere around 130 or 140.

“We have to do what makes the most sense for us as far as keeping his innings intact where we could utilize him when we need him in the big leagues,” Rizzo said.

It sounds, then, like the stretching out of Garcia this spring is more of a future consideration. The Nationals may see Garcia as a starter in the long run, his four-pitch arsenal too overwhelming to stash in the bullpen. But, for this year, letting him turn into a starter at Class AAA may turn into a waste of one of the best arms in the organization.

If Garcia starts the season in the bullpen, though, who doesn’t? They already have eight relievers – Henry Rodriguez, Bill Bray, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Rafael Soriano, Ryan Mattheus, Zach Duke and Craig Stammen – to fill eight seven spots. Rodriguez needs to prove himself, and Stammen and Mattheus have options remaining. But it’s hard to envision the Nationals’ opening day bullpen without two of those eight pitchers.

The dilemma of Garcia’s role seems like a classic these-things-work-themselves-out spring training question mark. Stuff happens. If a starter tweaks something, the Nationals will suddenly have a spot – either put Garcia into the rotation or give Zach Duke the fifth spot and slide Garcia into Duke’s bullpen spot. If a reliever suffers an injury, Garcia’s starting conversion may just be put on hold.

But if everyone stays healthy, the Nationals have a decision to make. The Nationals have good reason to make Garcia into a starter. But they may find he is too talented for an experiment.

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FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

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Strasburg’s adjustment

Good and young

DAYS BEFORE OPENING DAY

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Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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Adam Kilgore · February 18, 2013

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