War is perhaps the simplest two-player card game there is. You and a friend can cut a deck of cards in half and start flipping. When you have the bigger card, you win. When the other guy has a bigger card, he wins. And when you tie, that’s when it gets interesting. As long as you have at least one ace, you’ve still got a chance. But once you find yourself without an ace, it isn’t going to end well for you.
The card game analogy also works for baseball teams. As long as a team has an ace starting pitcher, they still have a chance. Multiple aces are nice, of course, but every team’s rotation needs to have one guy who comes in and halts a losing streak. When you’ve got that guy, you can still keep playing. But without him, look out.
This year, the Cubs find themselves in a shaky situation when it comes to aces. Matt Garza was clearly supposed to be the ace, but after being shut down last August — after just over 100 innings pitched — that doesn’t seem so certain any more.
For months, as the bottom fell out on the 2012 Cubs, and the franchise reached 100 losses in a season for the first time in my lifetime, Matt Garza kept pronouncing he would be “ready by opening day.” It was Garza’s mantra, and we Cubs fans ate it right up. It was a cure-all for what ailed the team last season, a ray of hope that he’d be back next year. Next year is all a Cubs fan ever has, and yet Garza held that out as a salve for the horrible ending of last season.
So when your ace, your hope, your promised goods then injures himself while throwing batting practice on the initial outing of spring training, it’s hard to avoid that terrible sinking feeling. Lots of free agents were signed by the Cubs in the offseason, so this year’s team will be farther away from the mess that Jim Hendry left behind. And Matt Garza could be the most emblematic symbol of Hendry’s regime.
Garza was not a veteran free agent signing, like Ryan Dempster or Ted Lilly. Rather, he was acquired by a trade with the Rays, in which the Cubs gave up several young prospects to bring him on board. On top of that, 2013 will be Matt Garza’s final year before becoming a free agent. Garza won’t get Felix Hernandez money on the open market, but I’m sure he’s been dreaming about a big payday for a very long time.
So any injury, even if it’s just a sprain on his lat, isn’t good, either for Matt Garza or the Cubs. Since he’s in a contract year, we know Garza’s motivation to come back is strong. And without him, the Cubs have several starting pitchers on their roster, but no proven ace. And they’ll need to have one, before they start flipping cards over on opening day.