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January 10, 2011

Prospectus Perspective

An Honest Exchange?

by Christina Kahrl

To see the Cubs step into the shrinking market for starting pitching was a mild surprise, but not that much of one. Very early on this winter, Jim Hendry was fidgeting over getting pitching help. What we didn't know was that he would wind up landing one of the best starting pitchers in play this winter. Most of the early-Hot Stove speculation centered on Hendry magically making Kosuke Fukudome go away, say for Daisuke Matsuzaka, in the latest exchange of expensive regrets, exactly like the previous winter's banishment of Milton Bradley for Carlos Silva.

To his credit, Hendry set his sights higher. By swapping four prospects and Sam Fuld for Matt Garza and a pair of bodies, he acquired a considerably better pitcher, and for a longer stretch of time for less money than Dice-K would cost over the next two seasons. Where Hendry has long deserved a reputation for giving up too much of other people's money to prop up his club's immediate needs, this was a deal from their stock of prospects that the Cubs could afford, to acquire a talent the market wasn't going to readily provide, not this winter, not next, perhaps never. This when free agency seems sure to provide deals multiple times the amount the Cubs will spend either haggling with Garza or coming up with a multi-year deal to cover his last three seasons before he hits the market.

For the Rays, the deal might get interpreted as the signature move of a necessary surrender now that their 2008-10 run is done, but it doesn't really change the proposition they'd have had if they kept Garza. However, keep in mind, swapping in Jeremy Hellickson as a full-time rotation regular isn't going to hurt in the least. With or without this deal, they just aren't going to go toe-to-toe with the Red Sox (and maybe the Yankees) for the next year or two. To his credit, Andrew Friedman didn't just ditch dollars, he landed solid swag. There's plenty of speculation that Friedman was gunning for an even bigger pot prospect-wise, revolving around the idea of somehow making Garza the fulcrum of a loosely confederated three-way deal that got the Rays and the Rangers the bits they both wanted while inviting the Cubs to the party. The danger for Texas was always that the Cubs could re-fire their own ambitions and just come up with an offer for Garza that trumped their own, especially if getting the Cubs' successful catching conversion project, Robinson Chirinos, was a key consideration for the Rays. If the Rangers were willing to talk about Derek Holland and Engel Beltre and Chris Davis in any of this, that's a lot of big-name talent.

The question is whether the package received from the Cubs was even better than anything involving those kinds of names. Picking Chris Archer's next seven years over Holland's next four or five might be an act of faith that the former Cubs righty will stick as a starter when he makes it, but Archer's upside is that he winds up being a perfect one-for-one replacement for Garza in the rotation over the full span of his service time. That isn't an unreasonable proposition, given Archer's status as one of the Cubs' best pitching prospects.

The next-best prospect in the package as far as upside is the latest product of the Cubs' assiduous scouting of the Far East, lefty-batting shortstop Hak-Ju Lee. He could be a plus defender at short while providing OBP and speed. That's another fairly rare commodity, even given that Lee's just 20 and has only Low-A experience.

It's from there that the package gets a lot less exciting, because the other three are less certain of doing more than showing up in The Show. Robinson Chirinos is a converted infielder who can hit and throws well, nabbing better than 30 percent of stolen-base attempts. That might conjure up images of a latter-day Jorge Posada or Terry Steinbach, except that Chirinos will be turning 27 in June. He could make an outstanding in-season swap-in behind the plate in the job-sharing arrangement with John Jaso if Friedman finds a taker for Kelly Shoppach, but he's “just” potentially a good player, but not a great one.

Having won the Cubs' organizational Player of the Year award, Guyer is interesting for plate coverage, useful all-fields power, speed on the bases (swiping 60 bases in 70 attempts over the last two years), and an arm that will play in right. He's also at risk of being deluxe tweener who might not be able to cover center, as well as a guy who's already turning 25 before escaping Double-A. And Sam Fuld, nice little fifth outfielder that he might still be, is not a prospect, but as elective placeholders for outfield reserve slots, you can do worse.

To be as charitable as possible, that's still four genuine prospects received. In a best-case scenario, the Rays could look back in three years (or when Garza's headed into free agency) and, for their troubles, might already be able to show off a rotation horse, a quality regular in right, a starting shortstop, and a fine 300 PA part-timer behind the plate. If this turns out that well on top of the monies saved on Garza in the meantime (and the slot opened up for Hellickson), Friedman will end up deserving a lot of retro votes for 2011 Executive of the Year. The worst-case scenario? He winds up with a good late-game reliever because Archer's off-speed stuff doesn't come around, a raw Korean who spoils instead of developing, and bit parts. That's the risk taken, but at least the savings are certain.

To turn to Garza's new place of employment, it's worth dialing back to the big picture for a second. With the volume of attention generated by who was going to get Cliff Lee, why, and for how much, getting top-shelf starting pitching has clearly been identified as the must-have item of the winter, because it is in such short supply. If the market has long since come to the realization that most pitchers shouldn't get offers for more than three years in length, the focus on acquiring those very few established pitchers worth getting who are under club control for that length of time or longer has been identified as one of the best possible external acquisitions to try and guarantee subsequent success for clubs who aren't part of Beantown/Bronx axis.

Which makes the creative solutions conjured up by the clubs incapable of affording nine-figure offers to the market's best of show all the more inspiring. As crummy as the Angels' winter has been, at least Tony Reagins and company anticipated the problem by acquiring the next three-plus seasons of Dan Haren at little expense beyond a willingness to take on his salary. The Brewers couldn't pay top dollar on the open market, but Doug Melvin could find a way to get two seasons of Zack Greinke, that after trading for two seasons of Shaun Marcum.

Jim Hendry doesn't usually get put into this kind of conversation in the wake of the checkbook-draining extension for Carlos Zambrano or expensive mid-market mistakes like John Grabow, but after getting value from lower-end risks like Silva or Tom Gorzelanny, it's worth remembering that the Cubs have been picking up useful pitching at less than market prices in the recent past. This takes it up another notch, though: getting Matt Garza was the best of the last possible quality pitching options in play this winter, and one who might represent perhaps the best possible pickup in terms of expected performance relative to anticipated expense. He has three years of arbitration eligibility coming, and while his earnings will be headed north of last year's $3.35 million, he's also the kind of talent worth working out an arbitration-erasing extension, if he or agent Nez Balelo will go for it.

Are Garza's peripherals that much cause for optimism? As he heads into his age-27 through age-29 seasons, I'd argue that they are, absolutely. He's been within a point or two of a .540 SNWP in 2008, 2009, and 2010. With a strikeout rate that was right around league-average while starting and pitching in the AL East, you might understandably anticipate how he ought to take that up more than just the 1.5 percent that's the difference between strikeout rates in the leagues (17.8 percent in the AL last year, against 19.3 percent in the NL).

Let's consider last season's performance from Garza in the aggregate, set against what he did against the two best offenses in the league, the Yankees and Red Sox, versus what he did against everyone else. This is just his work as a starting pitcher, and I'm counting his one quality start blown after the sixth inning as a quality turn (while also using runs, not earned runs):

2010 32 19 204.1 192 28 60 150 94 89 4.14
vs. Yanks & Sox 9 4 51 49 13 20 32 37 35 6.53
vs. Everyone Else 23 15 153.1 143 15 40 118 57 54 3.35

Not to put too fine a point on it, and not to say that pitching to Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday and Joey Votto is going to be easy, but I look at that and can't help but think this is a pitcher who will thrive now that he's out of the AL East. The nagging note to strike is that he's been much more effective indoors than out in his career, giving up 4.8 runs per nine under open sky to just under 3.9 buttoned up. No, that isn't remotely reassuring, and a cold April and a cold start might lead to early panic on the sports radio circuit.

It's still worth doing. That might strike some as ludicrous if you believe the window on the win-now Cubs of Lou Piniella's last skippering spin has already shut, but give Hendry his due—if the Reds can win a division while carrying players like Orlando Cabrera or Jonny Gomes as everyday players, you can understand where a certain kind of confidence about the winnability of the Central comes from. But the really impressive thing about this deal is that this ambition goes beyond one year or two. For the Cubs, the deal is driven by a basic faith that they're a win-now/win-soon roster. The Cardinals are down to their last year in the era of Albert the Great, after all, and the Brewers, even with Greinke in the fold, are just a season removed from losing Prince Fielder. The landscape for NL Central contention over the next three seasons is dynamic enough to allow for at least four teams, and even the Pirates might be worth sticking into the conversation.* Getting Garza helps make sure the Cubs are among those four.

Also consider the areas where the Cubs are stocked and overloaded. While Marlon Byrd is locked in for two more seasons while Fukudome's gone after 2011, the outfield has four more years of Alfonso Soriano to go, and five years of service time with Tyler Colvin to go before free agency becomes an issue. The system's top prospect, Brett Jackson, is motoring his way up the chain, and should enter the picture before the end of 2011, re-crowding an already crowded outfield before Fukudome departs. That's not a bad thing, but it helped make Guyer fungible. Now, witness the same issue with Hak-Ju Lee—yes, he's a very good shortstop prospect, but with five years or more to go with Starlin Castro, that isn't really an area the big-league ballclub has to sweat for the foreseeable future. Chirinos is that issue writ small; he's little more than a year younger than Geovany Soto, whom the Cubs will control for the next three seasons, assuming they don't extend him.

As a result, the Cubs dealt from the areas of depth they had it to deal from, especially from a win-now perspective. Chirinos will turn 27 this summer, and Guyer will be 25 in weeks. Fuld is already 29. As good as Guyer is, or that Chirinos could be as a part-time receiver, they're the sorts of guys teams can peddled. The real sacrifices in this deal were Archer and Lee, but adding three years of Garza takes much of the sting out of losing Archer, just as having Castro makes Lee an affordable loss.

Perhaps the most interesting wrinkle is that the deal bought back two spots on the 40-man for the Cubs, and since they're only carrying 14 position players among their 38, but the Cubs also got a pair of bodies beyond Garza. For reasons all his own, Fernando Perez is more interesting to have around than Fuld as an extra outfielder, pinch-runner, and leadoff alternative, and might stick on the Opening Day roster as the last man on the bench, joining Fukudome or Colvin (whoever isn't starting), middle infielder Darwin Barney, lefty masher Jeff Baker, and the reliably present Koyie Hill. The low-level lefty, Zach Rosscup, was a 28th-rounder from the 2009 draft who has shown decent control while giving up a run every other inning. Since he'll be turning 23 in his full-season debut this year, this may very well be the last time you hear his name in polite conversation. That said, give Hendry his due: at the time of the Mark DeRosa deal, perhaps nobody outside the Cubs' organization saw Chris Archer turning out anywhere near this well.

Which leaves us where? If the Cubs get Garza-level value now multiplied by three seasons, delivering just at the same level as before, they'll have cause to feel good. But as I've suggested, the Cubs might get something more than that. On the other hand, barring several disasters the Rays really can't be graded until the time Garza is headed for free agency, but they might very well wind up with a starter as good as Garza, plus other sundries. I'm skeptical it turns out that well, but even if we include Kenny Williams' trade for Edwin Jackson at the deadline last summer, that's nevertheless the best package of prospects received in any of the trades for veteran pitchers under multi-year control. All in all, it's a deal I'd describe as win/win. Both clubs have accepted some risks, but both have their priorities right, and this deal helps each: a new lease on Cubs contention, plus a Rays rebuild worth waiting for.

*: C'mon, it's before pitchers and catchers, forgive me my generosity.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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