The Chicago Sun Times is reporting that the Cubs are close to acquiring Matt Garza from the Tampa Bay Rays. Jordan Campbell of Cubbies Crib thinks this is a move that makes the Cubs serious contenders again in the NL Central. I caution all Cubs fans against such enthusiasm.
Here's the good news. Garza is a pitcher in his prime. He'll be 27-year-old for the duration of the 2011 season and 27 is often a magical age for baseball players. Garza is a premium talent. He was a first-round draft pick in 2005 and several times over the course of his young career he has put together dominant stretches. In '08 he was so good against Boston that he won the ALCS MVP. He's been quite durable thusfar as well, pitching over 200 inning in each of the past two seasons. He has yet to make a trip to the disabled list since he was permanently promoted by the Twins in 2007. Though he's already eligible for some sizable awards in arbitration, he'll be under Chicago's control for three more seasons before he reaches free agency, so this is no one-year rental. And, finally, of course, he's a pitcher from the AL East coming to the NL Central. That move should be good for at least half a run dip in ERA and possibly even greater improvements across the board. Last season, for instance, Garza had to make nine starts against the Red Sox and Yankees in which he went 2-3 with an ERA well over 6.00.
It hasn't yet been reported who the Cubs are giving up in order to retain Garza's services, but so long as the package doesn't include Starlin Castro, it's probably not an unreasonable bounty. A solid starting pitcher with considerable upside who won't be a free agent until 2014 represents considerable leverage. And I'm not opposed to this trade because it provides a potential rotational lynchpin for several seasons to come. However, I urge Cubs fans to temper their expectation for 2011. Matt Garza is no Zack Greinke. And, even if he does take a long-anticipated step forward to become a true front-of-the-rotation type starter, it may not be enough to surge Chicago past the other, much deeper teams in their division.
Garza is coming off a disappointing season and his overall numbers (15-10, 3.91 ERA, etc.) don't actually tell the full story. From May 26 to September 20, a span of 21 starts, Garza posted a rather dismal 4.86 ERA. Worse yet, for a guy whose promise is tied largely to his durability, he left 10 of those games without surviving six innings, including four straight short outings in September. Now, Garza did conclude his season with two dominant starts, but they were against the Mariners and the Royals, arguably the two worst offenses in the American League. More compelling for Cubs GM, Jim Hendry, is the fact that Garza pitched very well against Texas in the Division Series, though he ended up taking a hard loss. My point is, too many Cubs fans will see his basic statline, which includes career highs in wins and innings, and think he's clearly on the verge of a becoming a true Ace. That could be true. Maybe his 2010 campaign will be character building, but there are also serious causes for concern. His strikeout rate dropped dramatically (8.4 K/9 to 6.6 K/9). He gave up a career high in homers (28), hits (193), and wild pitches (12). According to Baseball Reference's ERA+ stat, Garza was basically a league-average pitcher in 2010 (101 ERA+, 100 is Average). There's certainly nothing wrong with adding a league-average pitcher, especially one with Garza's potential to develop, but unless that development happens extremely rapidly, it's highly unlikely such a move can get the Cubs back into the playoff picture.
Again, none of this is meant to deny that Garza is a decent investment for the franchise long-term. In fact, coming off his 2010 performance, Tampa Bay, a franchise committed to tightening its pursestrings in 2011, might actually be undervaluing Garza. He just isn't a difference-making pitcher like Greinke or Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay.
More importantly, although there is certainly no such thing as "too much pitching" and the Cubs did need a replacement for Ted Lilly, the Cubs real problems do not lie in their rotation. Prior to Lilly's departure last August, Chicago's rotation was, in fact, among the best in the National League, and even after that, when the front office had thrown in the towel and were experimenting with young arms, the Cubs starters remains better than average. Their relievers, on the other hand, posted the second worst ERA (4.72) and Winning Percentage (.357) in the National League, despite having one of the league's best closers, Carlos Marmol, and a premium set-up man, Sean Marshall. Hendry's solution to this problem is Kerry Wood. Is that really a solution? Maybe, maybe not. On offense, the Cubs had the league's worst strikeout-to-walk rate, were last in stolen bases, and were near the bottom in batting average and on-base percentage. Replacing Derrek Lee with Carlos Pena does nothing to remedy those shortcomings. In fact, it probably exacerbates them.
Yes, the Cubs suffered some season-changing losses in 2010, especially Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano, but unfortunately, I think the acquisition of Garza represents, at best, a chance to get back to something like the 83-win team they had in '09. Meanwhile, all the other NL Central contenders have moved forward. Most notably, the Brewers added Greinke and bullpen depth. The Cardinals added Jake Westbrook and Lance Berkman. The Reds, built around young players who could still be developing (hazard the thought), retained all the important pieces of their 2010 division-winning roster.
I wish I could say differently, but for Cubs fans willing to be honest with themselves, Matt Garza represents, at best, hope for 2012.
UPDATE: The title of this post may be appropriate on a couple levels. MLB.com, ESPN, and WGN have all alleged that negotiation between Chicago and Tampa Bay are not as close to fruition as the Sun Times suggested.