On Thursday, the Detroit Tigers selected Rony Garcia with the first pick in the Rule 5 draft, their second in the past three years. A 6’3, 200-pound right-handed pitcher from the New York Yankees, Garcia was signed as an international free agent in 2015 and spent most of the 2019 season with the Double-A Trenton Thunder. He met with mixed results; scouts agree that his stuff took a step forward during the 2019 season, but the surface numbers elicit a more blasé reaction. His stint with Trenton ended after 20 starts spanning 105 1⁄3 innings, with a 4.44 ERA and 4.21 FIP.
Garcia’s entry into the Tigers organization marks another addition to the already top-flight group of pitching prospects. It also helps shore up a pipeline that has been notably top-heavy throughout the course of Detroit’s rebuild. He is not necessarily a standout arm — any obviously great prospects were protected from Rule 5 eligibility — but if things go right he will be spending the entire season on the Tigers’ major league roster.
At the moment, the best pitch in Garcia’ toolbag is a fastball. His velocity took a jump during the 2019 season, transforming from a 91-93 mile per hour pitch to a much stiffer 93-94 mph variety; there are also reports of it topping out at 97 mph. Velocity is nice, but it isn’t the only component to an effective fastball. Fortunately, Garcia’s is paired with what FanGraphs calls “pretty significant fastball spin for [his sitting velocity] range.” That same scouting report noted that Garcia’s heater has two-plane break and is tough on righties, giving it the building blocks for a comfortably plus pitch.
A better fastball wasn’t the only thing that fueled Garcia’s metamorphosis; he also added a cutter to deepen his arsenal. “This cutter is starting to take off for him,” said pitching coach Tim Norton. “I think that’s his main weapon right now. Guys were having a tough time with it.” Evaluators’ opinions on the quality of his breaking balls varies, but he should have a couple of solid pitches between his slider, curve, and cutter when all is said and done.
While his delivery isn’t the prettiest, Garcia has consistently been a strike-thrower throughout his career. Whether that translates to true command is open to interpretation, with evaluations of his future potential ranging from below-average to above. However, it’s encouraging that he is able to keep his pitches within the zone and it won’t present a hurdle to reaching his long-term potential. The biggest possible roadblock would be the potential to let his more hittable offerings sit in very hittable locations — misses within the strike zone.
The most glaring weakness in Garcia’s game is the lack of a respectable changeup to keep hitters off balance. Far from an impressive offering, it has too little velocity separation from the fastball and doesn’t fool hitters out of the hand. Both Baseball America and 2080 Baseball noted that it has interesting splitter-esque life that could be molded into a more effective offering.
FanGraphs was also not entirely pessimistic. The bad news is that the changeup was called a mere 40-grade pitch in their most recent scouting report. They had kind words to say* about the pitching development program that has taken shape within the Tigers organization, though, opining that “Detroit is becoming quite good at implementing coherent pitch design,” which gives hope the pitch will improve in 2020.
Another drawback is that Garcia has been somewhat poor at using his assortment of breaking balls effectively. His fundamental skills indicate that he has the potential to be an effective pitcher, but it will need to be unlocked with better sequencing and more effective application of his raw spin rates. Perhaps the answer lies in a tweak to his delivery, or maybe he needs to change the usage of his pitches. Figuring that out is a job for the Tigers’ coaching staff.
*The wording here is somewhat dense, but what they mean is the coaching staff does well at guiding young pitchers through the process of molding a their arsenal so that the individual pitches work together for maximum effect.
The route the Tigers intend to take with their new pitcher is yet unknown. He has spent his entire career in the minors as a starter and the Tigers have made clear their desire to add another piece to their rotation this offseason, but that’s a big ask for a 22-year-old who has never tasted Triple-A, let alone the major leagues. The most likely outcome for Garcia in 2019 is a switch to relief during his first cup of coffee, with a chance to grab a spot in the rotation once he is more polished. If he performs in that role and the need arises, it’s not difficult to see him making a spot start or two as well.
There is still plenty of time for the coaching staff to iron out the problems in his profile. If he finds a way to continue starting long-term and beats out the hearty competition that will be arriving in the majors next year, he could fit the mold of a back-end innings eater.