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January 13, 2011

Checking the Numbers

The Questionable Pursuit of Garza

by Eric Seidman

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When news broke last week that the Cubs had acquired Matt Garza from the Rays I sarcastically suggested that the NL Central was all but locked up. Garza is certainly a quality pitcher, but the deal in which he, Fernando Perez, and Zachary Rosscup were sent to the Cubs in exchange for Chris Archer, Brandon Guyer, Robinson Chirinos, Hak-Ju Lee, and Sum Fuld struck me as being one-sided, and not from a talent perspective. No, I considered the deal to favor one side based on the idea of a team recognizing its situation and acting accordingly. The Rays, looking to cut costs, capitalized on the thin nature of the free-agent market by surrendering a better pitcher than was available. Garza was not going to be a key component to their success, and the emergence of Jeremy Hellickson provided a surplus of starters. The Cubs, however, struggled with more than their rotation over the last few seasons yet felt compelled to trade four of their top prospects for a mid-rotation starter. Many have chimed in on which team “won” the deal, but what isn’t being discussed enough is the rationale of the Cubs in a transaction like this and whether their goals could have been achieved by other means.

The goals with making this move seemed simple enough: stabilize a potentially shaky rotation and improve enough to contend for a playoff berth. Outside of Ryan Dempster, the Cubs were set to send out the volatile Carlos Zambrano, the enigmatic Randy Wells and the iffy tandem of Tom Gorzelanny and Carlos Silva. Bumping any of the latter three hurlers for a potential 200 innings and 3.80 ERA from Garza certainly accomplishes that goal, but it does not put the team over the hump or in a markedly better position to make a playoff strike this year. Their offense is questionable, the shakiness of their bullpen is personified by closer Carlos Marmol, and their defense, while not terrible, is nothing to write home about. In other words, if the Cubs were going to finish at or around the .500 mark, this move cost them a great deal of young talent and represents the difference between finishing 82-80 and 84-78. While the Brewers stripped bare their farm to acquire an ace in Zack Greinke, and a quasi-ace in Shaun Marcum, the Cubs dealt more talent for a lesser pitcher in a deal unlikely to place them any higher than third in the division this season.

Fortunately for them, Garza is under team control through 2013, meaning any analysis of the Cubs' rationale has to extend beyond the 2011 campaign. In Cubby blue for at least another two seasons after this one, Garza will prove to be a cost effective cog in the rotation, with talent equal to, or better than, anyone else available to sign. Since 2008, 53 pitchers have thrown 500 or more innings, with Garza ranking 23rd in ERA, 36th in SIERA, and 20th in SNWP. He ranks toward the middle of the pack amongst the best starters in baseball over the past three seasons, and replacing games against the Yankees and Red Sox with those against the Astros and Pirates will only improve his numbers.

As Christina Kahrl showed us earlier in the week, Garza posted a 6.53 ERA against the Yanks and Sox last year, and a 3.35 mark against everyone else, with obviously improved strikeout and walk rates. Regardless of Garza’s exploits, we still have to question whether the Cubs could have accomplished their goals in a different fashion. After all, there is a way to win a trade and still not have needed to make it in the first place, as the idea of winning a deal usually relates to the talent exchanged and not the underlying goal. Were there other starters available that would have cost less in prospects that were also capable of providing similar production?

Interestingly enough, Garza ranked one spot ahead of Joe Blanton on the SIERA leaderboard during this span, since the hefty Kentuckian has been dangled around for two consecutive offseasons now, and isn’t exactly cost-prohibitive to a team like the Cubs. Further, the Phillies would be looking primarily for salary relief in dumping Blanton and would not require four of the Cubs’ best minor leaguers. Garza is a better pitcher, but not so much so that unloading four of the top prospects in the system makes loads of sense more than just paying Blanton’s salary and offering a no-name youngster in return. For the Garza deal to be justifiable in terms of the cost to acquire his services, the Cubs have to feel as though they are on the brink of contending with a roster full of aging players passing their peak.

They must be operating in a win-now mode where it makes sense to forego the future for success in the short-term. But to operate in such a fashion, a team needs to pull out all of the stops. Trading some of the best prospects in a system laden with depth—though lacking elite talent—for a mid-rotation starter who does not definitively catapult the team ahead of the Reds, Brewers, or Cardinals does not constitute pulling out all of the stops. As nicely as I can put it, this move seems to represent a half-assing of the win-now modus operandi. If the goal was truly to stabilize a rotation until more young talent arrives or poorly thought out contracts come off of the books, then it is counterproductive to trade said young talent if the return is not elite.

If the goal was to acquire talent capable of spring-boarding the team to the top of the division, then it makes a bit of sense to take a flier on a pitcher who may blossom into an ace. But does that flier have to cost so much in prospects surrendered? And why just go for Garza? It isn’t as if the Cubs were just one starter away from being considered favorites for the division. Granted, it is entirely possible that by the time Garza hits free agency we will have learned that Lee is a bust at shortstop, Archer is nothing but a reliever, and Guyer and Chirinos have flamed out, or some such variation, but it is also possible that the Rays develop four legitimate contributors, including a direct replacement for Garza in Archer, while the Cubs fail to make the playoffs in any of the 2011-13 seasons. Add in the fact that Garza’s price tag will increase over the next few seasons, even with his being club-controlled, and it really starts to feel like he would need to perform admirably and sign an extension beyond his arb years for the deal to make the most sense relative to the Cubs’ goals.

Aside from Blanton, pitchers like Aaron Harang, Carl Pavano, or even Jeff Francis would have been decent alternatives. All three have been plagued by injuries but have similar upside in the short term at far less of a cost. None of these four are guaranteed to be better than Garza, but evaluating a move goes beyond just what the acquired player brings to the table. If the Cubs felt they were one Garza away from making the playoffs, then they likely miscalculated their current position. I am fully in favor of going all-in, but to do so a team should act like the Brewers did in trading their prospects for two frontline pitchers to team up with a legitimate in-house ace. And now, if Silva regresses or lands on the disabled list, with the same disclaimer pointed in Gorzelanny’s direction, or if Randy Wells continues to show us why stats like SIERA are more important than ERA, the Cubs will likely be right back at square one, only without one of their best young pitching prospects to join the rotation.

What this boils down to is that trading away upper echelon prospects makes sense if a team acquires proven, top-notch talent that can aid their quest for post-season glory. Trading away the aforementioned farm talent for a pitcher who may become a reliable second option is a very risky proposition, since it is possible that the pitcher does not help the team accomplish their goals while the surrendered prospects develop into solid, cost-controlled contributors. Further, surrendering top-notch farmhands for a non-elite return also creates the feeling of a necessity-based reaction as opposed to a noteworthy and proactive decision, which is when teams can get sloppy. As in, this move has the feel of one that the Cubs would market with the tagline “they may have gotten Greinke and Marcum, but we got GARZA!” which lacks the same luster. This isn’t to say that they needed to stand by and let the offseason pass without upgrading the rotation, but rather that the roster is constructed in an odd fashion with a group of players that do not seem to comprise a winner, yet the front office continues to create the illusion that the team is one piece away.

I understand why the Cubs made this move, and why they considered Garza to be more attractive than the other options named above, but if the likely team result with or without his presence is mediocrity, I would sure feel more comfortable using Harang as a stop-gap and keeping the farm system intact. Then again, their decisions with various contracts forced them into a win-now state and it must feel like less of a risk to count on Garza every fifth day than Harang, Pavano, or Francis. If the team is bearish on Archer, Guyer, Lee, and Chirinos, and has knowledge about Garza’s talent that isn’t public domain, then perhaps the deal makes sense, as it isn’t as though Garza will subtract from the team over the next few years. But it sure seems risky to get rid of that much young talent for a player who, while very good, is not elite or capable of drastically increasing their playoff odds.

Then again, perhaps I am being too hard on the Cubs, given that the Reds, Brewers, and Cardinals do not seem to have a Phillies-like grasp on the division, making it entirely possible for the Cubs to overperform and sneak their way into a playoff berth, at which point a Dempster-Garza-Big Z rotation is more intimidating than one featuring Dempster-Big Z-Wells. Regardless of who won this trade, I find it infinitely more interesting to discuss the rationale behind moves like this. The Cubs may have gotten more proven talent, but the Rays were more realistic with their goals and did a better job of accomplishing them. The problems that arise are due to differing assessments of the Cubs' position. As an objective analyst, it is hard for me to see how this team, even with Garza, is any better than the Reds or Brewers. I can see an argument to be had about their level of talent as compared to the Cardinals, but it feels like it would take overachieving by the Cubs mixed with implosions by the Reds and Brewers for the Cubs to even have a shot at contending now and into the future. Operating with a win-now mindset is perfectly viable if a team pulls out all the stops. The Brewers did, and will contend for the division title. The Cubs did enough here to make it seem like they acted similarly, but that illusion will fade when they inevitably finish in third or fourth place again. 

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

Related Content:  Cubs,  Matt Garza,  The Who,  Rotation,  Playoff Rotation

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