Cautiously Keeping An Eye on Matt Garza Trade Rumors

garza_cubsCubs pitcher Matt Garza is the hottest name on the pitching trade market these days, and it’s becoming more and more likely that he’s going to get moved — perhaps even by the time the All-Star break is over on Friday. Rumors both public and private have the Dodgers in the mix for him, and with good reason: Garza’s a good, solid, pitcher, and he’s almost certainly better than Ricky Nolasco.

So why, after being so in favor of the Nolasco deal, am I hoping the Dodgers steer clear here?

Garza’s good, but he comes with a lot of baggage, to the point where he seems unbelievably overrated. The Cubs probably would have already traded him last season, except that he came up with a sore elbow in mid-July and ended up missing the remainder of the season due to a stress fracture. This year, he missed most of camp and the first two months of the season with a strained lat muscle, and he’s made 11 starts since returning on May 21.

After a rough first “half” of his season, culminating in a nine earned run disaster against Cincinnati on June 11, Garza has admittedly been very good since. In his last six starts, he’s allowed just six earned runs while striking out 38 in 43.2 innings. That’s wonderful, if almost certainly unsustainable, and it’s why he’s so valued on the market right now. At his best, he’s clearly better than Nolasco — despite the fact that Nolasco has the superior FIP since 2010.

He’s obviously better than Chris Capuano or Stephen Fife too, so if it was a simple question of “is he an improvement,” then sure, he is, and therefore worth considering. But what makes this situation different is the price, because that’s what made the Nolasco deal so appealing — acquiring a decent, reliable starter for a few minor league relievers made all the sense in the world.

That’s not what the Cubs are going to be looking for. Unlike the Marlins, they’re not going to be pinching every penny and willing to sacrifice talent in return in order to save some dollars, and the demand around Garza far exceeds what it was around Nolasco, pushing the price higher.

For example, here’s CSN Chicago’s David Kapman:

What I found interesting in talking with a handful of major league executives is that Garza is not considered a No. 1 or 2 in a rotation, but is considered a very strong No. 3 and the price the Cubs front office is asking for is exceptionally high. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are looking at this as a chance to hit the jackpot and I would do the same thing if I was in their shoes.

Now, we’ve been playing this trade deadline game long enough to know that speculation written in the papers is hardly gospel — just look at this roundup from Cubs blog Bleed Cubbie Blue for evidence of that — and could be misinformation or misdirection from any of a dozen different sources. But you imagine the Cubs are looking for at least one top prospect along with some good-but-lesser players, because that’s what similar pitchers have brought back in recent years.

We can actually look at two examples from last season, both involving righty free-agent-to-be starters in their late 20s. (Garza turns 30 in November.) The Brewers sent Zack Greinke to the Angels in exchange for shortstop Jean Segura, a Baseball America top 50 prospect, and pitchers Angel Pena and Johnny Hellweg. Meanwhile, the Marlins sent pitcher Anibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante to Detroit for pitcher Jacob Turner (a Baseball America top 25 prospect), catcher Rob Brantly, and a minor league arm.

Those parameters are pretty similar, and Garza is a rough comparable to Greinke & Sanchez, so you have to expect the Cubs are looking along those lines. If we’re talking about a top-50 or -100 prospect, that could mean Joc Pederson, or Zach Lee, though almost certainly not Corey Seager. Would you trade Pederson for a rental? Lee? Obviously the exercise changes if the Cubs include some bullpen help like James Russell or (heaven help us) Kevin Gregg, so that would need to be considered.

I like Garza a lot, but there’s a lot to be concerned about here. His health can’t be counted on after so much missed time the last two seasons, and while he’s good, he’s almost certainly not as good as what he’s shown over the last few weeks, nor is he going to be one of the top two starters in Los Angeles. If you can build a package for him around Chris Reed or Matt Magill or Chris Withrow, then by all means go for it. But I can’t imagine that’s enough for the Cubs, nor should it be. Garza’s just too much of a risk to lose a Pederson or a Lee for two months of his time, especially when the bullpen and the non Hanley Ramirez / Adrian Gonzalez parts of the infield are bigger concerns.

Now, about Cliff Lee