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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

21 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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marshaja

While I mostly agree with what you say in this article, I think you are looking at this from a 2011 perspective a little too heavily.

Their outlook this year looks bleak, but 2012-13 look better.
1. They've got a ton of money coming off the books after this year, so a Garza extension is very probable. Would they be able to sign a comparable starter at below market rates the next two offseasons?
2. The Brewers gutted their farm system and will probably lose Fielder. They'll be better than the Cubs in 11, but afterwards who knows.
3. The Cardinals may lose Pujols. If they don't, they'll essentially be reduced to Pujols/Holliday/23 scrubs to oversimplify.

Granted this still leaves a good young Reds teams to deal with, but the outlook beyond 2011 is better.

Jan 13, 2011 12:18 PM
rating: 5
 
ofMontreal

Pessimistic indeed! Outside of his fantastic 2009, Grienke isn't the greatest thing in the world yet everyone is very confidant he'll lead the Brewers to victory. I know you need to take a position, but stuff wise Garza is far more attractive than the other pitchers named. Maybe we should look at trades based on who was after the player in question. If contenders are trying to get someone, does that qualify them as better? Look, the Cubs sold high and the Rays sold low. Garza needed to get out of there just like Grienke needed out of KC.

Jan 13, 2011 12:26 PM
rating: 0
 
modofacid

you must hate the cubs ;)

Jan 13, 2011 12:28 PM
rating: 1
 
Richie

If the Cubbies crash while Garza pitches well, they can always re-move Garza. For a not-dissimilar package of prospects.

Which is why I think the 'where are they now on the contention spectrum?' thing is overrated. So long as resources are fungible, just collect resources. Particularly outside of the AL East, where a .500 team can reasonably figure 'a good season may very well get us into the playoffs'.

Jan 13, 2011 12:35 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

This is a very good point, and Cliff Lee is a great recent example. The Phillies traded Carrasco, Donald, Marson, and Knapp to get him and Francisco. The Mariners then traded Aumonte, Gillies, and Ramirez to get him from the Phillies. You're probably right that a similar package could be had, which brings up my favorite topic -- risk. Was it worth the risk that this CAN'T happen? As in, was the potential Garza brings to the Cubs for contention less than the risk that, if not, they couldn't replace the original prospects surrendered? I'm not sure. But that doesn't help really with regards to the central theme here, which is that it's fine to go all-in, and pretty cool when it happens, but going just for Garza doesn't equal going all in. The move is definitely justifiable, so I'm not arguing that at all. I am arguing that they either didn't need to make the move, or needed to/need to make other moves to support it.

Jan 14, 2011 05:40 AM
 
Kampfer

I think Garza will truly shine in the NL. To no face the Red Sox and Yankees really will turn his number into ace territory.But seriously, the Cubs will not be able to compete even if they add Roy Halladay... what I don't understand is the Cubs essentially gave up a package good enough to acquire Roy Halladay but get Matt Garza...

Jan 13, 2011 12:54 PM
rating: 1
 
CRP13

Let's not act like the Cubs were brimming with elite prospects. Quite the opposite. KG's summary of their system says, "Impact talent? Not really. Depth? You betcha."

This wasn't a package that could land a Halladay, and none of the players they gave up are likely to be more than solid-ish everyday players, if that....back of rotation, back of lineup type guys if they even make the show.

This move for the Cubs was smart. They have depth of average talent in the minors, and so they dealt from that strength to acquire a quality starter under their control for several years. That the potential exists to turn that same starter into minor leaguers of better quality as he gets closer to Free Agency is only a bonus that helps their rotation in the short-term, and their farm system in the long-term (maybe).

But let's not pretend that the Cubs gave away future All-Stars here, because they just didn't.

Jan 14, 2011 06:42 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

They didn't give up all stars but many have deemed the package to be more than was given up for Marcum or Greinke, which makes me consider this to be reactive instead of proactive. This really boils down to what you consider the Cubs goals to have been. You seem to be suggesting that the Cubs opted for the middle ground between sticking with what they have and going all-in. That is perfectly viable and potentially what they tried to do. I just personally believe a better course of action would have been to utilize their depth to add Garza AND something.

Jan 14, 2011 07:53 AM
 
Peter7899

It takes a lot of optimism (something even us Cub fans are starting to wane on) to see this move putting the Cubs even into the 86 win echelon. They're going to need a lot of luck to win 90+ games. Trying to squeeze the last few drops out of a Soriano/Ramirez/Zambrano/Dempster core is just not a smart move in my opinion.

Jan 13, 2011 13:06 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Right and that is my point here. That core wasn't one Matt Garza away from really competing. SO you go for Garza to team him with Marcum, and you go for Orlando Hudson over friggin' Blake DeWitt. You build a team really capable of winning, not bring in one of 4-5 needed pieces.

Jan 14, 2011 05:50 AM
 
Peter7899

The only way this deal makes any sense is that Hendry and Co. predict the club to be actual contenders in 2012 and 2013. This might be possible with Jackson and McNutt becoming impact players.... and of course the signing of Albert Pujols next winter.

A guy can dream right?

Jan 14, 2011 07:45 AM
rating: 0
 
onegameref

I thought it was the wrong play for the Cubs too not that they gave up too much though that may turn out to be true. They got two other players back that could blossom as well though both are longshots. I still preferred Fukudome for Kazmir if they wanted to try to plug the perceived hole in the rotation with upside. I suspect they won't utilize Fukudome's strengths and will deploy a lot of Colvin. Guyer might have filled a nice platoon hole with Colvin while Archer would likely move into a rotation slot in 2012. I think the trade could still be win/win but don't like the Cubs perspective thinking they are contenders and I'm a Cubs fan.

Jan 13, 2011 13:11 PM
rating: 0
 
Sharky

Loved the article, Eric, and think your basic premise is a good one (look at the trade in terms of impact, not just relative value in a vacuum).

Jan 13, 2011 14:48 PM
rating: 0
 
DLegler21

"or if Randy Wells continues to show us why stats like SIERA are more important than ERA"

Randy Wells 2010 ERA = 4.26
Randy Wells 2010 SIERA = 4.13

So what does this comment mean?

Jan 13, 2011 16:05 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Wells ERA in 2009 was 3.05, his SIERA was 4.33. His ERA in 2010 was 4.13.

Jan 13, 2011 16:36 PM
 
DLegler21

OK, but you can see how that interpretation would be hard to reach in the context of the sentence it was in. The Cubs will be in trouble if Silva/Gorzelanny regress/get hurt. If Wells continues to pitch to his SIERA, the Cubs will be happy to take that slightly above average performance from a still very cheap pitcher.

Jan 13, 2011 18:46 PM
rating: 1
 
gregorybfoley

I think he means that Randy Wells's 2009 SIERA of 4.33 was more representative of his true ability than his 2009 ERA of 3.05. Wells's 2010 ERA of 4.26 could be construed as evidence that his 2009 SIERA was more predictive than his 2009 ERA.

Jan 13, 2011 16:38 PM
rating: 0
 
marshaja

I don't think many Cubs fans (and I hope not Jim Hendry either) think Wells is a 3.05 ERA pitcher. If he continues to make 30 starts a year at his current peripherals, there's still a lot of value there.

Jan 13, 2011 17:21 PM
rating: 0
 
dREaDS Fan

As a Reds fan, the Cubs' move is pure schadenfreude. Keep it up, Jim Hendry.

Unrelated, is this article ... Transaction Analysis Redux? Same topic, even similar wandering prose style, and maybe even some of the same conclusions (?) as C Kahrl's from a day or so ago?

Jan 13, 2011 19:27 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Not really. CK looked more at the trade itself while I always find discussing goals and risk more interesting.

Jan 15, 2011 10:45 AM
 
davinhbrown

Every team that hopes of contending needs 6 MLB starting pitchers. especially with the questions marks surrounding their rotation. As mentioned earlier, getting Garza is as much about future years. Especially with Fukodome, Soriano, etc leaving. Also, don't discount the need to show to the fans your trying so you can keep selling tickets.

Jan 15, 2011 07:32 AM
rating: 0
 
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