Until Prince Fielder ultimately decides where he’ll be playing this upcoming season, his name will continue dominating speculative MLB offseason reports. He is, after all, the best free agent on the market — some would argue this having been the case since day one.
However, as the rest of the baseball world awaits Fielder’s potentially monumental decision, there is a situation in Chicago that is being wrongfully overshadowed. That situation involves the Chicago Cubs and their new GM, Theo Epstein, in addition to just about every single team in the American League East.
Since Epstein has taken control of the Cubs, rumors surrounding Matt Garza have been swirling. First, it was reported that the Red Sox had requested Garza in return for Epstein himself, who was essentially traded from Boston to Chicago following the conclusion of last season. That proposal was turned down quickly.
Since then, teams like the Detroit Tigers, Miami Marlins and Kansas City Royals have been involved in discussions regarding Garza. After being outbid for the services of Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish, the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays have shown increased interest as well. And don’t think for one second that Boston has withdrawn itself from the field of suitors.
A couple of weeks ago, Epstein addressed the situation saying, “Matt Garza is the type of pitcher you want to build around. He’s a proven top-of-the-rotation guy, a proven performer in the playoffs. I think last year he had his best season, all things being equal.”
As a Red Sox fan, I have listened to Epstein’s encrypted discussions with the media long enough to decipher his semantics and understand what he’s really trying to convey.
“Matt Garza is the type of pitcher you want to build around.”
Translation: Garza is the type of pitcher YOU want to build around; the type of pitcher we want to rebuild around.
“He’s a proven top-of-the-rotation guy, a proven performer in the playoffs.”
Translation: Attention desperate contenders in need of pitching! This guy can not only help you get into the playoffs, but win once you’re in, as well.
“I think last year he had his best season, all things being equal.”
Translation: Sure, his numbers wouldn’t suggest it, but he was actually very good last season. In other words, he isn’t going to be cheap.
All in all, Epstein would likely have no problem hanging onto Garza all the way through to opening day. After all, his value should be even higher as the 2012 season progresses. The teams on the cusp of contention will be looking for a guy like Garza to push them into the playoffs, and already solidified teams could incur an injury or two and make a play for Garza in an attempt to save their season.
The risk in that, of course, is that Garza may not have a great season or could end up injured himself — a risk Epstein won’t be willing to take.
Besides, Theo knows firsthand how cutthroat the American League East can be off the field. He also knows just how desperate his former team, the Boston Red Sox, is for starting pitching. Both the Sox and Yankees are getting older and Toronto is becoming a legitimate contender. The three teams may not share an equal level of interest in Garza but one thing is for certain: None of them want to see the other land him.
The fact, not lost on Epstein, is there’s a perfect storm of interest brewing in the East and he’d be making the smart play by moving Garza now rather than waiting until midseason.
Epstein is a smart guy, and Garza has pitched his last game in a Cubs uniform.
As I said earlier, Garza may not be the most talented player to find a new home in 2012, but he could very easily end up being the most influential.
Garza, who turned 28 years old in November, started 31 games for the Cubs in 2011. As Epstein alluded to, his statistics during that time weren’t exactly remarkable. Garza went 10-10, sported a 3.32 ERA and struck out 197 batters in 198 innings. Certainly not bad, but not top-of-the-rotation type numbers either, as Epstein would lead you to believe.
Regardless, the teams most interested in Garza don’t need an ace. The Tigers have Justin Verlander; the Sox have Josh Beckett and Jon Lester; the Yankees have CC Sabathia; even the Blue Jays have Ricky Romero. So, while Garza won’t be the ace of his new team’s staff, that team will pay for him as if he were.
Part of what makes Garza so valuable — and in turn, his situation so intriguing — is the fact he brings top-of-the-rotation potential to the middle of his new team’s rotation. You can bet that the Yankees, Blue Jays and Red Sox will overlook the cost of acquiring Garza when they imagine his name occupying the third or even fourth spot of their respective rotations. Remember, he already boasts three consecutive seasons with an ERA under 4.00 in the loaded AL East while serving as Tampa Bay’s ace from 2008-2010.
In my opinion, the most likely landing spot for Garza is the AL East. At the moment, it’s very difficult to make a case for any team in the East as a runaway favorite heading into 2012. The only team that really doesn’t project as a contender is the Baltimore Orioles — and even they’re far removed from the days of being the doormat to the rest of the division. That being said, the addition of Garza to New York, Boston or Toronto absolutely alters that sentiment and could create a front-runner.
With the Yankees, Garza would likely fit into the second or third spot of the rotation. At the moment, New York has Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett, and Freddie Garcia rounding out their starting five. That isn’t the most imposing rotation by any means, but when you add Garza into the mix and relegate Garcia or Hughes to bullpen work and spot-starting duties, that changes quickly.
The Red Sox enter the upcoming season with a very solid front-end of the rotation, with Beckett, Lester and Clay Buchholz in the top-three. However, with John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka unable to contribute to the back-end, questions arise. After acquiring Andrew Bailey, Franklin Morales and Mark Melancon this offseason to bolster the bullpen, reports suggest that former eighth inning specialist Daniel Bard will assume a starter role. Other rumors have Alfredo Aceves beginning the season as the fifth starter.
The problem with these scenarios is that Bard hasn’t started a single game in the majors during his three seasons in Boston and Aceves is approaching the age of 30 with just nine total starts in his four-year career. Neither is necessarily a safe option. With Garza, the Red Sox have perhaps the best overall rotation in the American League, would be afforded the luxury of testing Bard as a starter and would allow Aceves to serve as a viable alternative for the fifth spot in the event that Bard struggles in his new role.
As for the Blue Jays, who at the moment are nothing more than a potential contender, the addition of Garza as the team’s number-two starter would give them a real chance in the East. Ricky Romero, who went 15-11 with a 2.92 ERA in 2011, would likely remain atop the rotation with Garza slotting in second. Assuming Garza can reestablish his form after spending a season in the less-tumultuous National League, he and Romero would comprise a formidable 1-2 punch at the top of Toronto’s rotation.
So, who will end up landing Garza?
That remains very unclear.
The Cubs, according to multiple sources around the league, are seeking a package centered on young pitching prospects.
To me, this gives an advantage to the New York Yankees.
The Blue Jays have been aggressive in improving their team in recent years. However, I don’t see Garza putting them amongst the elite of the American League, and it’ll be hard to explain depleting their farm system at this point for anything less. Had they made a play for someone like former Oakland ace Gio Gonzalez, that’d have been different story.
Boston remains an intriguing option for Chicago. The two sides have yet to agree on compensation for Epstein, and Garza could be part of that theoretically, although it is unlikely. While Epstein is extremely knowledgeable in regards to the Red Sox farm system — much of which he built — the team doesn’t exactly have an abundance of pitching prospects. Anthony Ranaudo and Matt Barnes, both first-round draft selections during Epstein’s tenure with Boston, would almost certainly have to be surrendered to obtain Garza. Being that those two are the only real top-tier prospects in the Sox system at the moment, it’s hard to imagine them going anywhere.
New York, on the other hand, has never shied away from shipping off top prospects. As their club’s core continues to age, the window of opportunity begins to close more rapidly — especially as much as the rest of the American League has improved this offseason. Garza is young enough to justify the subtraction of top prospects if they can agree on an extension of his contract, which is currently set to expire after the 2013 season.
The Yankees will almost assuredly be asked to include the likes of Manny Banuelos or Dellin Betances, both of whom are regarded very highly as pitching prospects. It’s safe to assume that after spending years competing with the Yankees, Epstein is very aware of what Banuelos or Betances would mean to the Chicago’s rebuilding process.
The one team outside of the AL East that I could see completing a deal for Garza would be the Detroit Tigers. Twenty-year-old prospect Jacob Turner would make for an attractive centerpiece in trade talks and has already been rumored to be available earlier this offseason.
However, when it’s all said and done, I do believe that Garza will inevitably make his return to the East in 2012. If that happens, it could reshape the division for years to come — making him, not Prince Fielder, the most interesting player potentially on the move that still remains this winter.