Jon Garland's Cactus League start Thursday evening took on a heightened level of intrigue once we were reminded that his out-clause would come into play the following day. The knee-jerk narrative was that he was fighting for his baseball life following a year and a half absence due to shoulder trouble and surgery. His outing against the split-squad Chicago Cubs would define the comeback attempt. Imagine his panic as he released a hanging slider with the third pitch of the game that resulted in a ringing double!
But Garland's big league comeback attempt was almost certainly a success even before he scaled the mound last night. The details might have been a little hazy at gametime, but everything would work out just as long as his surgically repaired right shoulder held up for a few innings.
That's not to say that Garland had his Seattle Mariners roster spot locked up. Garland has been engaged in a competition for one of two open rotation spots with several worthy opponents/teammates all spring, the three remaining being Brandon Maurer, Blake Beavan, and Erasmo Ramirez. (Jeremy Bonderman is technically still around too, but while he could appear at some point this season, not many believe he has any real chance at this point.) The Mariners could put their names in a hat and rest easy knowing that the team wouldn't be significantly better or worse off depending on which two names made their way back out. While some choices could turn out better than others, this decision won't make or break the season. The Mariners might have some use for Garland, but they certainly don't need him.
And Garland doesn't need the Mariners. Having shown over the past several weeks that he can still get talented hitters out with stuff and an approach that appears largely unchanged, other teams are undoubtedly interested in the 33 year old former workhorse, All-Star, and World Series champion. There must be other teams that could use Garland much more than the Mariners.
With that in mind, Garland's start may have been more stressful for his competition than for Garland himself, despite its inauspicious beginning-- the David DeJesus double to kick off the game, and home runs surrendered to Jeff Samardzija in the third and Alfonso Soriano in the fourth, with some hard contact in between.
The groundballer wasn't quite hitting his spots, and his outing felt (to me, anyway) like it might spin out of control at any moment. A wild walk of Alberto Gonzalez in the fifth might have marked the downturn.
But this is the way it goes for guys like Garland. With good-not-great stuff and command, he will always walk the line between disaster and success. It's about keeping the damage to a minimum.
The walk to Gonzalez was indeed a turning point, but a positive one. He flipped a switch and began getting back to the edges of the strikezone, cruising through his next five outs. The end result was a very strong line of 6 innings, 5 hits and 1 walk with the only runs coming on the two solo homers. He kept the ball on the ground and came up with a few more whiffs than normal against a diluted Cubs lineup.
Nothing has been announced yet, but it's safe to say that Garland won his spot on the Mariners with his performance. No, the Mariners don't need him, but they probably didn't want to part with him either. Keeping Garland means getting what they can out of him while keeping whoever loses their spot to him in the minors-- it's talent accumulation and pushing back the tough decisions as long as possible.
If Garland is in, that leaves one spot for Maurer, Beavan or Ramirez.
Well, make that one spot for Maurer or Beavan.
Ramirez followed Garland and got knocked around to the tune of 6 hits and 4 runs in 2 innings of work. He may have lost his spot even before his outing, as noted by Dave, so the combination of the short innings and blown lead allows us to cross Ramirez off our unofficial list.
Beavan is the favorite for the fifth spot, but I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that most of us would like to see Maurer sneak in.
A few very quick, cut and dried bullets since this recap is already late:
- Jason Bay checked in with three sharply hit singles. At this point, it seems like a foregone conclusion that he'll make the squad in place of Casper Wells, especially considering that he made the start in center field.
- Bay managed to make it through the game without disaster in center field, which is less impressive upon noticing that no one hit the ball to him the entire game. Garland was throwing ground balls and everything else seemed to go to Wells. We'll see Bay out there again soon.
- If I was just seeing Bay now with no prior knowledge of his career, I would not believe that he used to be a power hitter. He looks like he's just trying to punch the ball through the infield.
- Justin Smoak hit an impressive home run on a pitch we wouldn't have expected him to hit in the past to a part of the ballpark that's also new to him. I believe you'll see more on this in Logan's upcoming post.
- Carson Smith, Carlos Peguero and Nick Franklin were cut from the big league squad following the game.