In order to add Gio Gonzalez, who blossomed into a Cy Young finalist, and Denard Span, the leadoff hitter they long yearned for, the Nationals traded away many of their top pitching prospects in the top rungs of their minor league system. Their top levels of the minors now seem somewhat barren in terms of major league-ready starters; the promising young arms are lower in the system, ready in two years or so.
But in late September, the Nationals, for different reasons at the time, decided they wanted to try converting hard-throwing reliever Christian Garcia, a call-up from Class AAA Syracuse, into a starter and that he would be given the opportunity in spring training to earn a spot.
Only nine games into his major league debut after battling through two Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgeries in previous seasons, the 27-year-old Garcia impressed the Nationals brass with his electrifying stuff and lively arm. The reasons stated then were several: the regular five-day schedule could be better for Garcia’s arm than the irregular up-and-down life of a reliever; Garcia’s pitching arsenal was better served for starting; and the Nationals weren’t as deep with starters as other positions, especially major league-quality ones.
While the Nationals are in a position to acquire a starting pitcher through free agency or a trade, Garcia remains a piece in their offseason puzzle, a strong, young arm who could earn a spot at the back end of the rotation or serve as valuable depth at a thin position. Garcia, coincidentally, was once a starting pitching prospect for the New York Yankees after he was drafted in 2004 but was converted to a reliever after he signed in mid-2011 with the Nationals.
Garcia said he hasn’t been officially told if he will be seen only a starter next season, but he is excited for the challenge and spring training. (Nationals Manager Davey Johnson even suggested in September that it was easier for a pitcher’s arm and throwing schedule to go from being a starter to going back to relieving.)
“I don’t think anything is written in stone,” Garcia said. “I think there’s going to be competition. I might have the opportunity to fight for that job, which I’d love. My goal is to be in the big leagues and help the team if I can. If it’s relieving, it’s relieving. If it’s starting, it’s starting.”
Garcia has approached this offseason no different than last, even though he could return to starting. On the recommendation of an agent in the agency that represents him, Reynolds Sports Management, Garcia attends an elite sports training facility called The Factory in Tampa to work out. He lives in a house in the city, one he bought back in his Yankees minor league days, for the offseason. Last year, he spent Thanksgiving and Christmas away in Tampa, away from his family in native Miami, because he was working out non-stop.
Although he doesn’t work out with them, Garcia attends the same training facility that also lists Tyler Clippard (a Tampa area native), Ryan Zimmerman and John Lannan (and Derek Jeter and B.J. Upton) as clients. Drew Storen is expected to join that list this offseason, too.
The workouts are brutal and non-stop; five times a week for two hours each now and will jump to six times a week in December. The training involves a lot of body weight and exercise band workouts. There’s even a routine which requires Garcia’s trainer, Yo Murphy, to stand and hold the other end of a large rubber exercise band and Garcia runs in the sand, pulling the trainer as resistance.
“It’s awful,” he said. “Everyday is a day I want to throw up.”
After suffering his second Tommy John surgery in 2010, Garcia turned to this intense workout at the Tampa facility and he insists it was the major reason he was able to perform so well in 2012 and be called up by the Nationals. And next season, whether he assumes a spot in the rotation or not, he believes a second straight offseason of this training will prepare him for any role on the Nationals.
“I could tell there was a huge difference in my body when it came to coming to perform, it was way different,” he said. “I still had the strength coming into October, whereas I was breaking down earlier before.”
Garcia threw 65 innings between the Nationals and the minor league last season, posting a 2.13 ERA in 12 2/3 innings in the majors, posting a 10.7 strikeout per nine-inning ratio and claiming a spot on the playoff roster. Even though that was the most he has thrown in a season since 2005, Garcia said will be healthy enough to be a starter or reliever next season.
“I felt like I could keep going,” he said of last season. “I wasn’t hitting 98 like every game but I would still hit it. My velocity was still up there. It was first season ever pitching the whole season. And not only did it pitch it, I went all the way through into October and felt great. I felt like I could have kept pitching.”
For now, Garcia will prepare for spring training, hoping that he won’t have to return to the minors. He loved his short stint in the majors last season, especially the playoffs. For the rest of the offseason, the Nationals and General Manager Mike Rizzo will determine what course to take to fill the empty spot in the rotation. Garcia could be part of the solution or valuable depth.
“If you give me an opportunity, I’m going to take it and run with it,” Garcia said. “If that’s what they want me to do, to start, then I’m going to go into spring training and fight for a job, I’m going to fight by [butt] off and try to win it.”