The Washington Nationals have been so impressed with the repertoire of pitches from right-handed reliever Christian Garcia that the team is considering converting him back to a starting pitcher for the 2013 season.
Garcia, a two-time Tommy John survivor who also underwent a third procedure to shave down a bone spur and move a nerve in his right elbow all from 2006-2009, has been exceptional as a reliever this season. In the minor leagues, he was nearly unhittable, posting a 0.86 ERA in 52 1/3 innings as the closer for Double-A Harrisburg and then Triple-A Syracuse.
Since he was called up at the start of the month, Garcia has been used in tight situations with regularity and has allowed three earned runs in eight innings — all three runs coming on two home runs.
“He’s been very impressive,” Johnson said Monday morning. “I think he could be able to start. You can get a better base in the arm and he has three pitches like a starter would have.”
But the Nationals see his mid-upper 90s fastball, plus-plus changeup and curveball and see a pitcher who is wasted in the bullpen. Starting next spring training, they could convert him back to a starting pitcher and give him a chance to make the major league rotation out of camp.
The Nationals do not have a ton of top-tier starting pitching prospects in the minor leagues who would be ready to compete for the rotation next year and Edwin Jackson is signed only through the 2012.
“He would be a candidate for me to start next year,” said Johnson, who also discussed the idea with pitching coach Steve McCatty and Garcia. “That’s one area where our depth is a little less. You could always go from starting and having that regular work, which is good for building up arm endurance, then go from that into relief role. But it’s very hard once you start the season as a reliever.”
Garcia, who dealt with a little biceps soreness this weekend but told Johnson he’s more than ready to go on Monday if necessary, indicated he’d prefer to remain a reliever. Johnson understood that, as the 27-year-old has finally reached the major leagues in that capacity.
“I think he’s real comfortable because he is in the major leagues as a reliever and probably wouldn’t want to think about starting right now,” Johnson said. “But come next spring, it might be a good way to ensure the health of his arm. Relieving is a little more irregular, but with an arm like he’s got, starting might be a good option.”
Garcia was drafted in the third round of the 2004 draft by the New York Yankees as a starter. From 2004 through 2006, he started 57 minor league games for the Yankees.
But he had his first Tommy John surgery in 2007 and missed the season. In 2008, he started 13 games and six more from 2009 through 2010 as he continued to rehab and undergo more procedures. He hasn’t started a game since he signed with the Nationals during the 2011 season.
The Nationals certainly see a role for Garcia on their major league team in the future but right now they want to maximize his potential. Starting, they feel, also might put less stress on his surgically-repaired arm because it’s more routine than relieving, where you have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice and the daily workload is much greater.
“We’ll see how that plays out,” Johnson said. “I like him where he’s at right now. He’s been a good asset for us out of the ‘pen.”
Garcia is also candidate to make the Nationals’ playoff roster, particularly as they’ll only carry four starting pitchers and could use the extra spot to hold either another reliever or bench player. Either way, the Nationals figure his innings for the season (at 60 1/3 right now) will have enough of a base this season to be able to build up to 130-140 in 2013.