Of the Cardinals’ several players with strong but unpredictable influence (among them Lance Berkman and David Freese), Jaime Garcia is their no-1 X Factor because of his rookie campaign featuring a superb 2.70 ERA but an xFIP of 3.73, an uninspiring spring, and the rotation’s need for him to perform in the wake of losing ace Adam Wainwright.
Which Garcia will the Cardinals get in 2011? If he comes anywhere close to his rookie ERA — his Marcels projection is most favorable, with a 3.36 ERA — the team will be in great shape. But that full point gap between his 2010 ERA and expected FIP represents a lot of room for variance — as in a much higher ERA. Although spring numbers are notoriously unreliable, El Gato certainly hasn’t inspired confidence in Jupiter, posting Barry Zito-like rates of 1.00 K/BB and 3.18 K/9.
Sophomore slumps happen, but, given that the Cardinals are asking all of their pitchers to bump up a slot in the rotation without Adam Wainwright, this would be a particularly bad time for Garcia to have one. The stakes therefore are heightened: If he succeeds, the Cardinals will contend; if he fades, the Cardinals will have hard decisions to make at the trade deadline in order to keep up with the Brewers and Reds.
Nearly as vital as Garcia to the Cardinals’ hopes of a division title are Berkman, Freese and even perhaps Jason Motte. If he’s the Big Puma of as recently as 2008, when he pumped in 7.5 WAR, the Cardinals boast one of the most potent offenses in the league. But if he misses time to injury and his righthanded hitting renders his dual platoon advantage half-useful, the lineup begins to depend on unproven talents like Allen Craig. Ditto Freese, who if healthy could improve on his .341 wOBA from 2010 but also could just as easily find himself on the shelf again. And Motte could be an X factor. As Nathan Grimm notes, Kyle McClellan‘s move to the rotation ups the ante for the eighth-inning reliever, and Motte will have a chance to make a big impact there, or even as close if Ryan Franklin falters.