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Looking Back at the Matt Garza Trade

July 15, 2011

Just over seven months ago the Chicago Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays completed one of the bigger trades of this past offseason. The deal sent starting pitcher Matt Garza along with outfielder Fernando Perez and minor league pitcher Zach Rosscup to the Cubs in exchange for five players – outfielders Sam Fuld and Brandon Guyer, catcher Robinson Chirinos, shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, and pitcher Chris Archer.

When the deal was completed on January 8th it was widely viewed as one that could prove to be a win for both sides. Tampa Bay was giving up the most experienced starter on their staff but were receiving a quality collection of players in return. Meanwhile, Chicago received a top shelf starting pitcher for what they felt included none of their top prospects. Most critics and media members alike seemed to agree.

There was a minority who felt that Cubs had drastically overpaid, however. The thought was the package as a whole was was too much, but specifically the inclusion of both Lee and Archer was too risky for a player of Garza’s caliber. Ryan Maloney of Prose and Ivy, one of the top Cubs blogs out there, summed up the situation pretty well the day after the trade:

The Cubs make one move and I already think next year is going to be the year. It’s pathetic really. When will I ever learn? Probably never. I guess that’s part of the fun though in being a baseball fan, right? Especially in being a Cubs fan. No one utters This is the Year or Wait Until Next Year like a Cubs fan. As if (Carlos) Pena wasn’t enough (and really, he wasn’t … merely replacing (Derrek) Lee’s bat in the lineup wasn’t exactly what I thought was the move necessary to put us over the hump), then the Cubs go and bet the farm on Garza.

About that. People saying the Cubs bet the farm? I think it’s overblown. We gave up a couple of top prospects and a talented, hard nosed outfielder we have no plans on ever really using again. Otherwise, we kept top pitching in addition to (Josh) Vitters and a number of other young top prospects in the organization, safe and sound. Enough about the Cubs betting the farm on Garza … although if we did, I might be ok with that. I’m just glad we didn’t have to.

Seven calendar months and half a season later, let’s take a look at how the trade has worked out for both sides and whether the early thoughts on the deal still hold true.

The Rays’ Haul

Of the five players received from the Cubs, Fuld was the only one who had reached the Majors for any length of time prior to the deal. The 2004 draft pick (10th round) made his MLB debut in 2007 with the Cubs, appearing in 14 September games in which he went hitless in 9 plate appearances. Fuld would not appear in the Majors again until 2009 and over the next two seasons he’d hit .264/.370/.360 in 146 plate appearances. Used principally as a fourth or fifth outfielder, Fuld played sparingly and didn’t seem to factor into the Cubs’ long term plans. With a strong 2011 Spring Training he managed to make the Rays Opening Day roster and with the sudden retirement of Manny Ramirez he was able to take advantage of the unexpected playing time. Fuld got off to a torrid start to the season, batting .289/.358/.433 with 10 stolen bases through the end of April. He has slowed down some since, but has already set career highs in nearly every offensive category. The defensive efforts, however, are what have truly been what Fuld has become best known for. He’s spent time in the 2011 season all across the Rays’ outfield and has made highlight reel diving catches at each position.

Guyer, a 5th round draft pick in 2007, moved slowly but steadily through the Cubs minor league system, reaching Double-A for the first time late in the 2009 season before repeating the level in 2010. In 159 games he batted .292/.344/.487 with 14 HR and 72 RBI in 615 plate appearances. He also stole 37 bases. Tampa Bay has kept him at Triple-A for the bulk of the 2011 season where he’s continued to swing the bat well. In 318 plate appearances he’s hit .318/.389/.509 with 10 HR and 47 RBI. The strong play even earned him a brief appearance in the Majors in May. In two games he went 1 for 6, homering in his first at bat.

Chirinos was once looked at in some circles as a possible future backup in Chicago but his stock has taken a step back in recent years. Signed originally in 2001 out of Venezuela, the catcher rose slowly through Chicago’s farm system until reaching Double-A in 2007. Since that year he’s appeared in fewer than 100 games each of the past three seasons. Offensively he’s done well – batting .276/.363/.463 with 17 HR and 93 RBI in 624 plate appearances over 169 games – but his inability to stay on the field has brought about numerous question marks with regards to his future. At 27, he’s really too old to still be considered a prospect. This year he’s batting .269/.343/.387 in 266 plate appearances in Triple-A.

Lee was signed as an International Free Agent in 2008 out of Korea as an 18 year old. He impressed enough in 2009 and 2010 to earn a spot (#92) on Baseball America’s Preseason Top 100 Prospects list before the start of the 2011 season. Tampa Bay assigned the now 20 year old to High-A where he’s responded with a .330/.399/.458 line with 20 stolen bases in 326 plate appearances. He could potentially be the biggest piece of this deal for the Rays in the long term if he continues to develop as some expect. The Cubs, while not looking to do so, could afford to deal him considering the young nucleus they’ve developed in their current middle infield will be under team control for a number of years.

Archer, the final piece and surprisingly the only pitcher in the deal, was widely considered to be the key piece to the deal. Originally drafted in the 5th round of the 2006 Draft by the Cleveland Indians, the Cubs first acquired Archer (along with relief pitchers Jeff Stevens and John Gaub) in a December 2008 trade for Mark DeRosa. In 53 starts (251.1 innings pitched) over the 2009 and 2010 seasons with the Cubs organization he went a combined 21-7 with a 2.55 ERA. Like Lee, he was named to BA’s Top 100 Prospect list prior to the start of the 2011 season (#27). In 17 starts (89.2 IP) with Tampa Bay’s Double-A affiliate he’s 4-4 with a 4.72 ERA, 8.3 K/9, and 1.639 WHIP. Long term he profiles as a mid-rotation option and in a few years could slide in nicely in the Rays’ rotation behind David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, and Matt Moore.

The Cubs’ Haul

Perez, a switch hitting outfielder, was originally drafted by the Rays in the 2004 Amateur Draft (7th round). Between a September 2008 callup and a brief stint with the Rays in 2009 he appeared in only 41 games. He spent time at all three outfield positions, primarily playing center field, and batted a mere .234/.301/.351 with just 5 extra-base hits in 107 plate appearances. Perez found himself in Triple-A for the entirety of the 2010 season, batting .223/.280/.299 with 4 HR and 32 RBI in 426 plate appearances – numbers not far from his career minor league line. Since being acquired by the Cubs he has spent the season with their Triple-A affiliate, batting .238/.312/.337 in 282 plate appearances. On July 10th the Cubs released Perez, creating an opening on their 40-man roster.

Rosscup has made 11 appearances (9 starts) for the Cubs High-A affiliate with relatively solid results thus far. The lefty has thrown 49.2 innings on the season with a 4-2 record, 2.54 ERA, 1.248 WHIP, and 50 strikeouts (9.1 K/9). At just 21 years of age, it would seem logical to think that the Cubs won’t rush him along in his development.

Garza

Originally a 1st round selection in the 2005 Draft, Garza first arrived in the Majors with Minnesota the following year. He went 8-13 with a 4.47 ERA in his first 24 career starts before the Twins dealt him to Tampa Bay with Jason Bartlett and Eduardo Morlan for Brendan Harris, Jason Pridie, and Delmon Young in November 2007.

With the Rays, Garza blossomed. Over the next three seasons he made 94 starts, averaging just under 200 innings per season. He’d post a 34-31 record with a 3.86 ERA, 1.251 WHIP, and 7.1 K/9. He became one of the more reliable pitchers in the American League and arguably the co-Ace of the Rays staff (along with Price). On July 26, 2010 he pitched the lone no-hitter in Rays history against the Detroit Tigers. 

Ultimately the Cubs hoped that Garza would complete a starting rotation that could potentially rival many of the other rotations in the National League. However, injuries to Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner have stunted those plans. Plus, Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster simply aren’t the pitchers they used to be. Garza could have held things together some, but despite solid peripheral statistics he’s largely struggled due to poor run support. In 16 starts (95.0 IP) he’s 4-7 with a 4.26 ERA, 1.337 WHIP, and a career high 9.4 K/9.

Wanting the perspective of a loyal Cubs fan, I sent Ryan an email and invited him to share some thoughts on the trade and the first half season. Here is what his response read:

Garza was either going to be a great deal for the Cubs despite the number of players in the system we gave up for him, another big name the team acquired during the offseason that got my hopes up and yet again came up short living up to the expectations, or he’d fall somewhere in between.

I was excited about the trade when it happened. I was disappointed to see us lose Sam Fuld, however everyone else included in the trade was merely a prospect. I believe in analyzing young talent and trust the scouts’ opinions of what the kids in the minors may be able to do for the team when they hit the big stage. Thing is, until they prove they belong at the Major League level, all it is is speculation. Garza had proven he can compete at the Major League level and had even thrown a no-hitter with Tampa Bay. Fans didn’t seem to appreciate Garza being touted as an “Ace”, however to me it didn’t matter. We already had our Ace in Dempster for the season and a quality rotation with Garza listed as the third pitcher in the rotation. To me, Garza didn’t have to live up to the Ace hype, merely deliver at an above average level when it comes to number three starters. I had all the confidence Garza could do that.

So far this season, Garza has yet to compete at a high level on a consistent basis. The team has seen more than half the lineup hit the DL though, so there is no way Garza has received the amount of offensive support he was projected to receive when dealt to the Cubs. He has given us a couple of gems, kept us in a few games and had a couple of forgettable outings. Overall, I am pleased with having Garza as a number three guy in the rotation and look forward to seeing what he can do in the second half with the team off the DL and ready to deliver in a daily lineup closer to what Hendry and Quade had in mind to start the season.

To simplify, the Cubs found themselves in a good position with the acquisition of Garza. He had helped anchor the Tampa Bay pitching staff but would only be asked to solidify the middle of Chicago’s rotation upon his move to the National League. In theory, he could be even better with a little less pressure on his shoulders. But the lack of an offense around him has been detrimental to that success. There was still hope for what could come, fans like Ryan don’t give up so easily on a player like Garza.

However, there has been some increased speculation of late that maybe the Cubs should consider trading Garza before the July 31st trade deadline. The market is weak, so a pitcher of Garza’s caliber would likely be intriguing to a number of teams. More importantly, the Cubs are near the bottom of the NL Central, 12.0 games behind division leaders Milwaukee and St. Louis at the All Star Break. The team has largely disappointed in 2011, much like the past few seasons. The organization has started to see the development of its young players paying off in the likes of Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney, and others but there are still a few holes that will need to be addressed before the Cubs are a contender once again. Trading a player like Garza could help address some of those concerns.

Considering the public speculation, this was a topic that I asked Ryan about as well. His rationale was simple:

I would not deal Garza this season. With Wells and Cashner going down after their first starts and 99% of the pitchers who were called up to take their place showing that they are not ready to compete at the major league level, we need to hold on to the guys we know can. There are areas we could use some help with. A strong backup catcher and backup third baseman (starting third baseman if Aramis Ramirez is dealt) to name a couple, plus stronger number four and five guys in the rotation. Thing is, you don’t give up a quality number three to bolster your four and five spots and a backup catcher is important but not as important as a strong starting rotation.

While I largely agree with Ryan’s perspective, I think another factor that must be considered is the actual cost in keeping Garza a Cub. He is earning $5.95 Million this season according to information from Cot’s Contracts. This season was his second time through the arbitration process. As a Super Two, Garza will go through arbitration four times instead of the usual three. So, he is under team control for at least the next two seasons. Taking a guess we could assume that the team would be looking at paying roughly $16-18 Million through arbitration for the next two seasons.

In the grand scheme of things that figure might not be so daunting to the Cubs. After this season Pena, Ramirez, Reed Johnson, Kosuke Fukodome, and potentially Dempster could all potentially leave via free agency (or declined options). Those five players combine to make over $50 Million in 2011, leaving the Cubs with room to potentially be aggressive this coming offseason. They have been rumored already to be a possibility for Albert Pujols.

The possibilities of a big-budget offseason combined with key players returning from injury and some of the organization’s upper prospects continuing their development, keeping a pitcher like Garza might just be the best move an organization like the Cubs could make. Sure, they could recoup three or more quality prospects if they decided to move him now. But maintaining a solid piece of the rotation, especially one at a reasonable cost, just might be the most valuable course of action to take.

* A big thank you to Ryan of Prose and Ivy for sharing some thoughts for this post. Head on over and check out his site for some great writing on the Cubs.

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