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Detroit – It’s almost like he’s the forgotten prospect.

Before he had to have Tommy John surgery to repair his right elbow on Feb. 16 last year, Bryan Garcia was on the verge of breaking into the big leagues and winning a spot in the Tigers' bullpen. He shot through the Tigers’ minor-league system in 2017 like a canister through the chute at a drive-through banking window.

Starting at Low-A West Michigan, then breezing through High-A Lakeland, Double-A Erie and to Triple-A Toledo, Garcia, quietly assuming the closer-in-waiting role, posted a 5-3 record with 17 saves, a 2.13 ERA, 1.055 WHIP with 78 strikeouts in 55 innings.   

He went to spring training last February with a real chance of winning a bullpen job. But the pain in his right elbow, which began tormenting him at the end of the 2017 season, became unbearable and he had to shut it down.

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“I had (the surgery) in the back of mind a little bit because I had it checked out and I knew there was definitely something in there,” Garcia said in a phone interview Wednesday. “But I was trying to get by. I tried because I was so close, you know? I thought it was worth a shot.

“But I just couldn’t do it anymore. It got to the point where I needed to get this done.”

So here we are, 11 months after surgery, a month away from pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training, and as Garcia prepares to restart his climb, the entire landscape of the Tigers’ farm system has changed.

Eight pitchers have passed him up on the club’s prospect rankings list (MLB.com). Three pitchers ranked below him -- Matt Hall, Sandy Baez and Spencer Turnbull -- all made their big-league debuts last season. And Garcia, still just 23 (he will be 24 in April), still ranked No. 22 on the club’s prospects list, is two months away from being able to throw off a mound.

You should know, because it offers a window into his character, that none of this bothers Garcia.

“Honestly, I am very calm about that stuff,” he said. “I don’t read that stuff (the prospect rankings). I just worry about myself. Obviously, I know the prospects that we have. But I don’t feel forgotten at all. I’ve missed a year, so you can’t expect much.

“If I come back healthy, I know what I can do and I know what I have done. I’ve proven myself and I know I can do it again. I have no worries about that.”

Garcia is headed to Lakeland on Sunday to resume his workouts. He’s been throwing on flat ground for a few weeks. Tigers vice president of player development David Littlefield said the hope is for Garcia to start throwing bullpen sessions in mid-March and building up gradually to the point where he will be throwing competitively again by mid-May.

“Everything is all go right now except for the mound work,” Garcia said. “Beginning in March, I think the plan is eight or nine bullpens, three or four live batting practices and then start the rehab (innings) in extended spring games.”

Before the surgery, Garcia, who set the all-time saves record at the University of Miami before the Tigers took him in the sixth round of the 2016 draft, was throwing his heavy fastball between 95-98 mph with an above-average slider and a developing change-up.

He fully expects to get all of that back, and more.

“These guys (doctors and trainers), they know what they are doing,” Garcia said. “They’ve done it a million times already. I’ve got no worries. I’ve just been working hard and doing everything I am supposed to be doing and even doing a little extra work to get right and come back better than I was before.”

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With a year off, Garcia said he’s been able to work more on conditioning his entire body, working on his flexibility and mobility more than he would if he’d still been on his regular pitching program.

“I feel stronger than I ever have before,” he said. “My body feels great. I am just really excited to get back to playing baseball again.”

The Tigers certainly won’t rush Garcia. It’s typically an 18-month process for pitchers to fully return to form after Tommy John surgery – possibly a little less for relief pitchers. Garcia will likely restart his climb in Lakeland in May and then ascend quickly through Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo, health and performance permitting.

So his big-league clock, which was supposed to start last year, may not start ticking until 2020. Some would look at it like their dream had been deferred for two years. Garcia sees it as the light at the end of the tunnel.  

“The hard part is over,” he said. “The surgery is done. The rehab is almost done. I am just really excited to get back and pitch.”

Twitter @cmccosky

 

 

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