With the Chicago Cubs primed to rebuild their franchise under new president Theo Epstein, they face a dilemma in what to do with the star of their rotation, Matt Garza.
Though Garza is, according to Epstein, “exactly the type of pitcher” that the Cubs would want to build around going forward, the 28-year-old would surely accelerate their rebuilding efforts by bringing back a bounty of prospects if he was traded. This has led to various “reports” linking the Blue Jays to the Cubs and Garza, with ESPN’s Jim Bowden even listing the Jays as the Chicago’s “best fit” in any trade scenario.
Considering the package of players that the Cubs parted with to get Garza in the first place — not to mention the weak pitching market right now — their asking price for him will be astronomical. Combine that with the fact that the Jays’ rotation will already be better in 2012 as-is, the prospects set to knock on the big-league door next season, and the deep list of available free agent starters to choose from next winter, and trading for Garza right now makes no sense for the Jays.
When the Cubs worked out a deal for Garza with the Rays last year, they paid a hefty price — a five-player package which I detailed back in January. The Cubs sent just one pitching prospect, Christopher Archer, in the deal, who was not only their reigning minor league Pitcher of the Year and No. 1 prospect, but also baseball’s 27th-best prospect, according to Baseball America at the time.
With Starlin Castro already impressing in the big leagues, the Cubs felt that their fourth-best prospect, shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, was expendable. Deemed by some as the crown jewel of the deal, Lee was also ranked as a top-100 prospect by Baseball America. Known mainly for his slick glove, Lee absolutely tore up Florida State League (A+) pitching this past season and made it to Double-A in 2011 as a 20-year-old.
On top of including depth players in outfielder Sam Fuld and catcher Robinson Chirinos, the Cubs also parted ways with Brandon Guyer, an outfielder that was considered their 10th-best prospect after he managed a .986 OPS at the Double-A level in 2010.
Though the Cubs won’t be able to fetch a package this winter similar to what they initially paid for Garza given he now has two years of service time remaining, that hasn’t stopped rumors from circulating that not only are the Cubs seeking young starting pitching in return, but they are also eyeing Blue Jays minor league center fielders Anthony Gose and Jake Marisnick.
Assuming that one of the Jays’ top pitching prospects would represent the other main component of the deal, names like Drew Hutchison, Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino, and Kyle Drabek come to mind. A package consisting of even just one of those hurlers and either Gose or Marisnick is enough to raise a few eyebrows, and if the Cubs’ asking price is as incredibly high as it is rumored to be, they would surely be asking for an additional player to round out the package, likely one that is farther away from the Majors.
Would Garza improve the Jays’ starting rotation? Sure. He evolved and matured as a pitcher in 2011, posting a career-low 3.32 ERA and 2.95 FIP in a 5 WAR debut season in Chicago. Though people are quick to argue that his improvement was because he left the AL East to pitch in the NL Central, he made a slew of adjustments that made him look like a different pitcher than when he was with Tampa Bay.
Opting to hurl his fastball a career-low 53% of the time to use his slider and changeup more than ever before, Garza established a new career-low fly ball rate this past season while posting a 46% ground ball rate; his highest in four years. He became more aggressive as well, throwing first-pitch strikes a career-high 64% of the time, which helped him operate in better counts more often.
The fact is, though, that paying a high price to acquire Garza for two seasons would not single-handedly provide answers to the many questions that the Jays are faced with heading into the 2012 campaign, ones that will become clearer as the season progresses.
What kind of production will come out of left field? Will a long-term solution emerge there? How will Colby Rasmus perform in his first full season with the Jays? Will Kelly Johnson return to his 2010 form at the plate? Will Brett Lawrie continue to rake over the course of a full season? Will a decision be made on Adam Lind at first base?
The starting rotation has its own question marks as well, but even if GM Alex Anthopoulos doesn’t add to it this winter or spring, it’s safe to say that the 2012 version will be an improvement over the 2011 group.
Ricky Romero will continue to lead the staff, aggressively go after hitters, and display emotion on the mound. After lowering both his walk rate and hits while increasing his innings pitched for the second consecutive season, one has to bank on another 200 quality innings from him. The scary part is, though, that I still don’t think we have seen the best from him yet.
Could Brett Cecil permanently regain the velocity he lost last spring and figure out how to retire right-handed hitters? We’ll have to wait and see. Regardless, it’s important that he gets innings so the Jays really assess what they have on their hands in him, good or bad. Cecil tossed at least six innings in each of his 11 starts between July and August, holding opposing hitters to a .229 average and managing a 3.54 ERA in the process. There is, however, also the option of sending him to the bullpen given his career numbers against left-handers.
Henderson Alvarez was a refreshing late-season addition this past season and figures to be a lock for the 2012 rotation given the exceptional command he displayed in his first 10 big league starts and the progress he made on his third pitch. After the 2011 season, his arm is now stretched out enough that he’ll be able hover around the 190-innings pitched mark next season.
One pitcher who seems poised for the largest improvement, though, is Brandon Morrow. On top of lowering his walk rate and hits per nine innings for the third consecutive season, he put more faith in his filthy slider in 2011 and the results speak for themselves. He increased his O-Swing% for the fifth consecutive year, and also worked ahead in the count more often by throwing first-pitch strikes a career-high 61% of the time. Needless to say, Morrow will be one of, if not the most exciting Jays players to watch next season.
Perhaps the most noticeable changes to the 2012 starting rotation, however, will actually come from two subtractions.
After being rushed to the Majors last season, Drabek was shelled to the tune of a 6.06 ERA in 14 starts while walking 55 batters in 78 innings; good for a 6.3 BB/9, a Major-League high among starting pitchers. After being able to clear his head over the off-season, Drabek will likely start the 2012 campaign in the minors to master his approach against left-handed hitters, work on his changeup, and get back to throwing his devastating curveball more often. More importantly, though, he’ll need to rebuild his confidence and rediscover the fearless attitude that made him feel as though he was invincible while he was with New Hampshire in 2010. Once the Jays do call him back up, though, he’s going to be really fun to watch, so don’t give up on him at all.
The Jays also won’t be conducting another Jo-Jo Reyes experiment in 2012 ala Tomo Ohka and Victor Zambrano, so there will be different outcomes in the 20 games and 110 innings that Reyes logged for the Jays last season — where he gave up a whopping 66 earned runs and 140 hits — in 2012.
The man who figures to take his place is, in essence, another experiment of sorts in Dustin McGowan. The former 18th-best prospect in baseball will look to build off of the four starts he made in September. Factoring in the time he spent at extended spring training, McGowan pitched roughly 80 innings in 2011. If he can stay healthy — and that’s certainly a big if — then he could log roughly 100 innings as the Jays’ fifth starter in 2012. Like Cecil, it’s imperative that McGowan gets innings, so the Jays can discover what exactly they have in him.
As nice as it would be for the Jays to use a combination of Romero, Morrow, Alvarez, Cecil, McGowan, and Drabek for the entire 2012 campaign, depth is a necessity, since the club used a total of 12 different starters in 2011. There will need to be arms waiting in the wings in case something happens.
Carlos Villanueva, Jesse Litsch, and Luis Perez made starts for the Jays last year and will remain in the organization, but there are also some impressive prospects close by in the minors. Drew Hutchison is the first name that comes to mind in terms of being close to Major-League ready, while other guys like Deck McGuire and Chad Jenkins could make the leap later in the year as well.
After assessing what they have for a few months, the Jays could add a starter at the trade deadline (a time of interest to Anthopoulos that he has mentioned before) or at the end of the year via free agency, too.
Assuming they don’t sign new contracts with their respective clubs, Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, and Jake Peavy will lead the 2012 free agent class of starting pitchers, with other intriguing names like Brandon McCarthy, Anibal Sanchez, and Francisco Liriano in that hefty group as well. Given the wealth of talent available just one year from now, it hardly makes sense for the Jays to ship out coveted prospects to the Cubs to acquire Garza.
When Anthopoulos traded away Molina for Sergio Santos, he reiterated that it was a tough pill to swallow, but that the years of control on Santos were a crucial factor in the deal getting done. The White Sox inherited six future years of big league service from Molina, and the Jays own up to six on Santos. Anthopoulos hasn’t overpaid in one trade since taking over as GM, and parting with three top prospects in a trade for Garza won’t be his first.
I realize it’s tough to be patient for yet another season. I really do. It’s even tougher when a team is owned by Rogers and their fan base is so large, passionate, and success-starved.
There is a special kind of rebuilding going on with the Jays, one that is only two years young. When the Jays’ powerhouse, World Series roster existed in the early nineties, its foundation was formed in the late eighties. These things take time, especially if they’re to be done right, and dealing hard-to-obtain prospects for two years of a starting pitcher doesn’t fit into that plan.
There are many reasons to be excited about the Jays next season, in 2013, and beyond. Questions will be answered next season and things will become clearer, both on the big league squad and down on the farm. It’s a great time to be a Jays fan.