Scout Helps Cardinals Unearth A Gem

DENVER—Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter are the marquee names in the Cardinals rotation.

And then there is Jaime Garcia.

That’s nothing new. Garcia is in the process of pitching himself to center stage, although he is accustomed to being in the background.

Face it, in a spring that was dominated by curiosity about the eventual arrival of Stephen Strasburg with the Nationals and the fascination with Mike Leake going directly from the Arizona State campus to the Reds rotation, it was Garcia who was putting together a season to remember as the “other guy” in the Cardinals rotation.

Garcia not only had a 6-3 record, but also a 1.59 ERA through 13 starts in his rookie season. He pitched 16 innings in 2008, before Tommy John surgery derailed him for a year, and this season he has completed his journey from obscurity to the major leagues.

It’s a tribute to Garcia’s desire to excel and scout Joe Almaraz’s sticktoitiveness that Garcia has made it this far. You could easily argue that if not for Almaraz, Garcia would have never gotten into pro ball, much less made it to the big leagues.

Making The Cards’ Grade

A native of Reynosa, Mexico, Garcia grew up in Mission, Texas. As the only son of three children, Garcia got a heavy dose of baseball at a young age from his father, who was a civil engineer. It was during Garcia’s junior year at Sharyland High in Mission that a friend of Almaraz’s called him about the lefthander, and alerted him to the fact that Garcia was draft-eligible.

On Almaraz’s recommendation, the Orioles took Garcia in the 30th round of the 2004 draft. Almaraz was not, however, able to get the Orioles to sign Garcia.

The Cardinals should be thankful for a year of upheaval in Baltimore’s scouting department—which included Tony DeMacio being replaced by Joe Jordan as the scouting director—as well as the Orioles’ former reliance on psychological testing. Almaraz said the scouting department had interest in signing Garcia, but other factors interfered.

“When I was with Baltimore, everyone we drafted had to take a test before we could sign him,” Almaraz said. “He did not do well on the test, so we could not sign him. The problem is he took the test in Spanish, and the interpretation of the test from English to Spanish was wrong. Baltimore didn’t sign him, and I went to St. Louis. The only test he had to take in St. Louis was to go through the minor leagues.”

Garcia aced that test.

After the Orioles shook up their scouting department following the 2004 season, Almaraz went to work for the Cardinals as a crosschecker. He never lost sight of Garcia, who fell out of shape when the 2005 draft rolled around and dropped off the scouting radar because he had used up his high school eligibility.

Almaraz admitted there was an anxious moment after he joined the Cardinals because at that time, the Orioles were still able to sign Garcia as a draft-and-follow. (The process ended with the advent of the Aug. 15 signing deadline in 2007.)

“That next spring Joe Jordan worked him out and offered a contract,” Almaraz said. “Jaime told them no. He was going to go through the draft again.”

Teams in Garcia’s native Mexico also pursued him, but Almaraz explained to Garcia that if he signed in Mexico he would become property of that team, which might complicate his path to the big leagues. The Cardinals took Garcia in the 22nd round, and he signed with them shortly thereafter.

“He was so out of shape that we signed him to a 2006 contract, and then he stayed with me that summer when I managed our team in the Appalachian League,” Almaraz said. “The idea was to get him in shape and have him ready for instructional league. That summer in Johnson City all he did was run and pitch simulated games.

“There is no way he could have pitched in games in that physical shape. He would have gotten hurt. We talked about making sure he did things the right way because the idea was to pitch in the big leagues.”

Garcia debuted in the low Class A Midwest League in 2006 and quickly made himself one of the top prospects in the Cardinals system, making his major league debut in 2008.

His career got put on hold when he had Tommy John surgery and missed the bulk of the 2009 season, but he came back in time to pitch Triple-A Memphis to the Pacific Coast League title. He pitched his way into the St. Louis rotation this spring.

“I felt good about him,” he said. “I felt he was driven to be in the big leagues.”

Almaraz was right. Even the misfortune of Tommy John surgery did not deter Garcia.

“He has done everything that we ever asked him to do,” Almaraz said. “A lot of kids you sign have a chance to play in the big leagues if they do what they are told to do. We are there to help them get there. Jaime is one of those kids who listened to what we talked about and did what he was told.”