On Matt Garza’s Last Three Starts

The Cubs didn’t have hearty expectations entering the year, but coming on the heels of some nice acquisitions, it wasn’t inconceivable that they would hang around and make some noise in the pennant race. And in a just world, perhaps they would have. They have played better than their record all season, and in fact still carry just a -12 run differential into this weekend’s action. But contention seems far off at this point. The Pirates and Cardinals are tearing it up, and the Reds are drafting off them as they wait to make their move as well. With only one game separating them and the Brewers in last place, you can bet on the Cubs being sellers at the deadline. One of their chief assets will be Matt Garza, who has been fairly fantastic in his last three starts.

Garza, as you may recall, started the season on the shelf, which is actually where he ended last season, thanks to a stress reaction in his pitching elbow. He spent the last two and a half months of the 2012 season planted on ice. And as you scroll back through his Rotoworld player news feed from this past winter, there is definitely a “boy cries wolf” feel to it.

On December 28, Garza guaranteed that he’d be ready for opening day. Then the problems started. On February 17, he was removed from his first live batting practice session after holding onto his left side. The next day the story was that it was a mild lat strain, but Garza didn’t think it would be “a big thing.” A few days later, Garza was still confident that he’d be ready for opening day. That confidence lasted just six days, when he reported that he might start the season on the disabled list. Then he had a flare up a few days later, and it was decided he would definitely land on the DL for the season’s start. He wouldn’t throw off a mound again until April. Then after being rained out of a rehab start, he was scratched from the next, with the proverbial “dead arm.” He would finally make his first rehab start of the season, or start of any kind really, on May 1. He sparkled in his four minor league starts, allowing just two runs over 15.1 innings, but the main takeaway here is how long it took him to get back on the mound.

Now, if this was the only episode of Garza landing on the disabled list, it would hardly be worthy of mention. After all, players have their rehabs pushed back all the time, and the job of both player and team is not necessarily to tell the media the truth, but rather paint a sunny picture of the situation for the team’s sunnyside up fans. But when you combine the problems this year with an elbow injury last year that he merely rehabbed and didn’t have it surgically repaired, and you wonder if Garza is a ticking time bomb. As we’ve seen time and time again, once your elbow starts hurting, you generally end up needing surgery. Obviously the lat injury is not an elbow injury, but it does underscore the fact that after years of good health — Garza made at least 30 starts and was 26th in the game in games started — perhaps his days outside of an operating room are numbered.

Of course, since Garza is a free agent at the end of the season, any team looking to acquire him is only looking for a short-term solution. And he just may be a great short-term solution. He’s essentially been the guy he has been for his whole career — his 3.83 ERA and 3.88 FIP this season are near mirror images of his career 3.84 ERA and 3.99 FIP. His strikeout and walk rate are also essentially the same that they have been since he arrived in the National League. He hasn’t generated as many grounders in 2013 as he has the past couple of years, and his velocity is down as well, but neither problem is quite a red flag just yet, especially since he’s only made eight starts so far. In fact, his resume would look even better if you excised the one stinker of a start — nine runs allowed in five-plus innings against the Reds on June 11. He even began that start well, as the Cubs trailed 3-1 entering the Reds’ half of the sixth. It all unraveled after that, as Garza coughed up a two-run double to Jay Bruce and a three-run homer to Xavier Paul. He was permitted to face one more batter — Ryan Hanigan, whom he walked — and left the game having faced six hitters in the sixth without recording an out.

Since then, he’s been fantastic, and teams are starting to salivate. The Blue Jays, Dodgers, Giants, Nationals, Orioles, Padres, Phillies, Rangers, Red Sox and Rockies have all been mentioned as either teams who have interest or have scouted him recently. That’s one-third of the teams in the league, and while we don’t know the level of interest that all of those teams have, we can safely assume that Garza’s last three starts have created a bevy of interest. Before we fall head over heels in love with him again though, let’s take a closer look at those three starts.

In them, Garza has tossed 22 innings of two-run ball. He has struck out 23 batters to just five walks, and he has allowed just 15 hits. In other words, less than a baserunner per inning pitched. Which is great, obviously. He hasn’t needed any more than 107 pitches in any of the three outings, just another example of how efficient he has been. But what really stands out is the poor opponents that he has faced. In taking on the Astros, Mets and Brewers, Garza faced the teams ranked 26th, 24th and 15th respectively (and yes, that is using the NP filter). And the Brewers team he faced wasn’t representative of that 15th-place ranking either, as neither Ryan Braun nor Carlos Gomez played. Garza still had a responsibility to go out and cut down the competition no matter who they are, and cut them down he has in these past three starts, but it wasn’t exactly the cream of the crop.

Given his past performance, Garza was going to be at the top of team’s wish lists once he proved he was healthy, and since returning to the rotation in late May he hasn’t skipped a turn, so mission accomplished on that front. That he has pitched extraordinarily well in his last three turns may only increase the demand, and that could potentially be great news for the Cubs. However, given his injury troubles over the past year and the fact that those last three starts have been against similarly weak sisters, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Garza will be able to step in to the middle or back of a number of contenders’ rotations and help push them towards the postseason, but it’s doubtful that he’s suddenly turned into Greg Maddux.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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10 years ago

The Cubs should take the best offer they get before Matt’s next turn through the rotation. The risk of him suffering another injury and the Cubs getting nothing in return is too great. That would be catastrophic.

10 years ago
Reply to  Eddie

Meh. I would only trade Garza if what they get is better than the compensation pick they’d get if he leaves for free agency.

And another injury would not be catastrophic. The sky isn’t falling chicken little. They have a long history of signing rehab projects. All it’d do is delay the inevitable.

10 years ago
Reply to  AnthonySoprano

The problem with that line of thinking is that, if Garza ends up hurt and misses much of the rest of the season, he might just accept the qualifying offer.

10 years ago
Reply to  Eddie

Since the Cubs have no upper-level pitching prospects in their system, I would welcome him re-upping for a one-year qualifying offer. The Cubs have a lot of money they’re just sitting on right now, and they should make such a low downside investment.