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Can Luis Garcia Establish Himself in the Rotation?

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His big league performance has been mixed thus far, but the stuff demands attention.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Most evaluators didn’t envision Luis Garcia in the majors right now a couple of years ago- and they certainly didn’t expect that he’d make his big league debut in 2020. As we all know, unique circumstances led to both of those events coming to pass, and the results have left Garcia’s prospect stock in a strange place.

In 2020, Garcia was called up down the stretch with the big club badly in need of innings, and was able to cobble together a 2.92 ERA in 12.1 big league frames. The run avoidance was not supported by the underlying numbers, which included a 10.2% walk rate against just an 18.4% K rate, but he was able to make some big outs against the best in the game while demonstrating the impressive stuff that made him a well regarded prospect.

Evaluators weren’t really sure what to make of the performance on the whole. On the one hand, Garcia had handled himself better from a run-saving standpoint than anyone could’ve expected, and he showed newfound confidence in a very impressive changeup which emerged as his best secondary weapon in the majors. This was a bit of a surprise, as while Garcia’s changeup was always fairly well regarded as a tertiary piece of his arsenal, he had leaned more on his slider as a minor leaguer.

People were a bit split on how to interpret his 2020 results, and his ranking on Astros lists varied a fair amount for a player so close to the top of his organization. On the one hand, his changeup seemed to have taken a leap forward, no doubt a boost to his stock, but on the other he seemed to have lost feel for his breaking stuff, which was a headlining feature of his profile previously. Those optimistic on Garcia felt confident that with some more reps, he’d be able to show the best version of his slider and change on the same day with more frequency, giving him a potentially overpowering three pitch mix when paired with his high velocity fastball, which could mean mid-rotation upside with modest improvements.

Entering 2021, that’s precisely what the Astros and their fans hoped to see out of Garcia, but things haven’t really gotten any clearer in the early going. In his first outing of the season, we saw his pitch usage flip back to where it had been during his minor league tenure- the slider was the go-to secondary, and he threw more cutters (9) than changeups (8). He also really did not show much improvement, if any, with his command, particularly with the fastball, which he left over the heart of the plate with frequency. His slider command was okay, but a few of the breakers also ended up in locations where pitchers seldom intend them to:

Pitch locations from Garcia’s first 2021 start, courtesy of Baseball Savant

It’s important not to draw too much from one start, particularly one by a pitcher with this little MLB experience, but the outing evidenced what Garcia still needs to work on to seize a rotation role for good. We’re still waiting to see him put the whole arsenal together at the pro level- thus far, he has either had confidence in the slider or the changeup, but never really both at once, and the fastball command hasn’t been where it needs to be either. He’s currently really only throwing in the rotation out of necessity, and barring a very sudden turnaround, it’s unlikely he’ll hold onto his role once Jake Odorizzi is ready to take his turn. It’s probably best for Garcia’s development to rejoin the minor leaguers and accumulate some innings in a less pressurized environment, which will hopefully allow him to polish his offspeed’s consistency.

The good news for Garcia is that his arsenal should play in some capacity in the big leagues regardless of how he develops from here- if the command and consistency stagnate, he’d fit nicely in the bullpen throwing with max effort and focusing on a single offspeed pitch. Given that he averages over 94 MPH on his fastball in longer outings, it’s not unreasonable to expect that he could break into 95-96 range as a single inning guy, and if he can consistently show a single plus offspeed offering, which is a pretty safe prediction in my estimation, he’ll have more than enough stuff for a late inning type role. Wherever he ends up long term, he represents another nice find by Oz Ocampo during his storied tenure with the Astros.