Every year around this time fans, broadcasters, and baseball people get into the whole expanded rosters debate. Some don’t like that the final month of the season is played under a different set of rules while others don’t mind the extra players. What always seems to get lost in the shuffle is that very few September call-ups actually have an impact when they’re brought up. Most are relegated to mop-up relief innings or pinch-running duties, minor roles like that, but every once in a while someone will come up and become an instant difference maker.
Perhaps the greatest September call-up in recent memory is Francisco Rodriguez, who went from dominating the minor leagues — 13.0 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 with a 2.27 ERA in 83.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A — to a key setup cog for the World Champion Angels in 2002. K-Rod pitched so well in his 5.2-inning trial (13 strikeouts and one unintentional walk) that the Halos squeezed him onto the playoff roster, where he threw another great 18.2 innings (28 strikeouts and five walks). The Angels struck September call-up gold that season.
This season, the Nationals seem to have unearthed their own version of 2012 K-Rod. Right-hander Christian Garcia, 27, came up from the minors this month and has struck out seven against two unintentional walks in six innings of work. The only run he’s allowed came on a Giancarlo Stanton solo homer, the most forgivable of pitcher offenses. The small-sample size performance isn’t as stellar as Rodriguez’s was a decade ago, but Garcia is still pitching his way into consideration for Washington’s playoff roster even though manager Davey Johnson recently said “it’s too early (to think about) that.”
Unlike K-Rod, Garcia’s road to the show was much less conventional. The Yankees originally drafted him in the third round of the 2004 draft, and Baseball America considered him one of the organization’s top prospects for the next several years. Injuries set in however, as Garcia underwent two Tommy John surgeries as well as a third elbow procedure to remove bone chips. From 2006-2010, he threw just 146.1 innings and faced only 629 batters down in the minors. Health was the only thing holding him back, because the pure stuff sure passed the eye test. From Baseball America’s 2009 Prospect Handbook…
He has long had a premium curveball and the pitch still has the same 12-to-6 break it had prior to his elbow surgery, though it hasn’t quite regained its power. His fastball also has lost some velocity, now touching 92 mph rather than 96 and sitting at 90-91. He’s still rebuilding his arm speed and it’s likely he’ll regain some velocity in the future if he can stay healthy. In the absence of his power, Garcia has added a changeup that has made surprising progress, and some in the organization consider it a plus pitch and the system’s best.
The Yankees added him to the 40-man roster after the 2009 campaign, but released him in May of 2010 following the second elbow reconstruction. After rehabbing, the Nationals inked Garcia to a minor league contract last July and stuck him in the bullpen. The results have been stellar, as he’s pitched to a 1.36 ERA with 11.9 K/9 (30.7 K%) and 2.5 BB/9 (6.4 BB%) in 72.2 relief innings in their farm system. This season it was a 0.86 ERA in 52.1 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A prior to the call-up.
More important that the results is his health. Garcia has had no injury problems since hooking on with the Nats, and his stuff has returned to pre-injury levels with the move to the bullpen. His four-seamer fastball has averaged 95.3 mph since being recalled, his changeup sits in the mid-80s, and his curveball is a touch below that in the upper-70s/low-80s. Big league hitters have swung and missed at 17 of his 88 total pitches (19.3%), including three whiffs on four swings at his curveball. When you see the pitch, you’ll know why…
That is, as the kids say, stupid good.
Tyler Clippard — another former Yankees farmhand making good with the Nats — has struggled a bit in September, possibly due to his high workload these last three years. Drew Storen returned from elbow surgery at midseason and has pitched well, vulturing a save or two along the way. Garcia had seen more and more responsibility of late, with his last three appearances coming in the sixth or seventh inning of a one-run or tied game. His leverage index when entering the game went from sub-0.50 in his first four outings to 1.50+ his last three times out. This club started out with two great late-inning righties, but now it looks like they’ve added a third.
Comparing anyone to the 2002 version of K-Rod is probably unfair because that guy was so insanely good so fast. Garcia has been successful early on but we have no idea how long he can hold up given his lengthy injury history, there’s no reason not to be skeptical at this point. Either way, the Nationals are cashing in now and getting quality work in the middle innings, quality work that could carry over to the postseason once they inevitably clinch a playoff berth. It’s just a question of whether they’ll decided to bring Garcia into October with them.
(Curveball .gif courtesy of our friends at Getting Blanked)