Ever since Shelby Miller was shipped to Atlanta in the Jason Heyward trade, it has been nearly unanimously accepted in Cardinals circles that Carlos Martinez is in pole position for the fifth spot in the rotation.   Hard-throwing Jordan Walden, who came along with Heyward, immediately fills any hole left in the bullpen by Martinez’s absence. Promising rookie Marco Gonzales, and perhaps Carlos Villanueva, lurk as fill-in starters should something befall the Cardinals’ somewhat vulnerable starting core otherwise made up of Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, and John Lackey. I wrote here why I think it’s time for the talented Martinez to get his shot, and yesterday, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs penned a tantalizing column breaking down Martinez’s arsenal of pitches.

Everything seems to fit nicely into place until you consider the curious case of Jaime Garcia. Because of recent history, it’s been pretty easy to forget about Garcia. He was drafted in the 22nd round of the 2005 amateur draft. Known for a great curve and a steady fastball, he progressed at a rate few in the organization had predicted. He made his major league debut in 2008 with a few relief appearances. Following the season he required Tommy John surgery and was shelved for all of 2009. He emerged again in 2010 and pitched quite well for the next two seasons. More on that later.

Garcia was an integral part of the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series championship team, but that would be the last time he would pitch in the postseason, save for a start in the 2012 NLDS, when he was pulled after two innings when he re-aggravated a shoulder injury which had limited him to 121.2 innings that year. In 2013, he had season-ending shoulder surgery in May. In 2014, he made his first start on May 14th and his last start on June 20th. After shutting down for the season, he had surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome, which, if you study up on, sounds absolutely miserable. (This same condition helped contribute to the end of Chris Carpenter’s career.) In 2013 and 2014, Garcia pitched less than a combined 100 total innings, and last summer GM John Mozeliak criticized the way Garcia had handled his latest setback. So yes, heading into this offseason, it was easy to forget that he was an option. In this column, I reduced him to nothing more than a footnote. Lately, Manager Mike Matheny has taken to referring to Garcia as “Oh, and.” As in, after fielding reporters’ questions about his pitching staff, he reminds everyone “Oh, and there’s also Jaime Garcia…”

Here’s why this is a conundrum: Garcia has shown he can be one of the better pitchers in the National League when he’s healthy. Let’s look at 2010 and 2011, which are the only seasons in which he has pitched more than 130 innings. For those two combined seasons, of all NL pitchers with at least 350 innings pitched, Garcia ranked in the top ten in wins (26), ERA (3.17), ERA+ (120), and FIP (3.31). It’s not easy to cast away a guy who’s capable of putting up those numbers.

Furthermore, according to Garcia, he is healthy – or has at least convinced himself that he’s healthy. As told to Derrick Goold, beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “There is no worry in my mind, right now. There was never one doubt that I was going to come back from this really tough surgery, really tough injury. You guys know (it) has ended careers in the past. I know it was going to be a tough challenge, just like my Tommy John (surgery) and my shoulder. But there was not one doubt in my mind that I was going to come back from it.” Cardinals beat writer Jennifer Langosch of MLB.com is currently in Jupiter, Florida, for spring training and seemed to confirm yesterday on the MLB Extras Podcast that Garcia is indeed healthy and focused on making the starting rotation.

It’s a lofty assumption, but let’s assume (and hope) that this situation is not going to resolve itself with an injury this spring to one of the already likely starters. What do the Cardinals do if Garcia has a strong showing in Jupiter with no setbacks on the injury front? It’s a tough call. I’m not sure how practical it would be to move him to the bullpen, and he has repeatedly stressed that he is and expects to be a starting pitcher. Could they trade him and get a midlevel prospect in return? He’s owed $9.25 million this year with an $11.5 million team option in 2016. That’s a steal if we’re talking about 2010-2011 Jaime Garcia, but the risk of another lost season seems too obvious. Perhaps the ideal situation would be for him to log a month or two worth of starts in Triple-A Memphis to build trust with the Cardinals that he can consistently stay in a rotation. If by that point Garcia is needed, he might prove to be pretty valuable insurance. But if there’s still no room for him in St. Louis, whatever goodwill was built up in Memphis should probably be used as a bargaining chip in a trade.

Do the Cardinals sound spoiled? Probably. Most are familiar with the old adage “you can never have too much pitching.” However, this is not an issue of too much pitching, but rather not enough information. As it stands, the Cardinals don’t know what they have in Jaime Garcia. Two weeks from now, one of his old injuries could flare up and this will all be for naught, otherwise we’re looking at one of the more interesting sub-plots for the Cardinals in 2015.

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