Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 7/19/13
Matt Garza hasn’t been traded, yet, so Matt Garza hasn’t been traded to the Rangers, yet. In fact, a report circulated late Thursday night that the Rangers were examining their other options, backing away from the Garza pursuit. The price, they say, is a high one. But, Friday’s reports have made a Cubs/Rangers trade appear imminent, and as a matter of fact one could go down while I’m in the process of writing this post. That would be annoying for me but delightful for you. It’s a virtual certainty that the Cubs will deal Garza very soon, and the Rangers seem like far and away the most likely destination. Joe Davidson says the Rangers and Cubs are reviewing the various medicals. If true, that implies this is at the later stages, and what’s unknown is what the Rangers would be giving up. It stands to reason Mike Olt would probably be involved, along with others, but I’ll leave prospect coverage to prospect coverers. Most important, here, is Garza — the free-agent-to-be — going to Texas, and what such a transaction might tell us about the way the Rangers view themselves. Little details first: the Rangers are two games back of the A’s in the American League West, and they and the Rays are the current wild-card leaders. The Orioles are nipping at their heels, and then the Yankees and Indians are nipping at the Orioles’ heels. Garza is in line to be a free agent in a few months, and because he’d be going away in a midseason trade, he’d be ineligible to receive a qualifying offer, so there would be no free-agent compensation. Garza isn’t from Texas, but any team that lands a pending free agent has the benefit of getting an exclusive negotiating window, which isn’t without value. The Rangers could have the inside track on signing Garza to an extension, if that’s something they wanted to do. So, the Rangers like Garza because the Rangers want to upgrade their starting rotation. Why might that be? Here are Rangers starting pitchers currently on the disabled list: Yu Darvish Matt Harrison Colby Lewis Alexi Ogando Nick Tepesch The Darvish injury isn’t a major one, and he’ll be back real soon. He’s expected to start Monday. Ogando is expected to start Tuesday. Lewis is in the minors on a rehab assignment. Harrison is throwing bullpens. Tepesch is trying to get over some elbow inflammation. It’s a small miracle the Rangers are where they are in the standings, given all the injuries they’ve faced, and the rotation hasn’t been what it was expected to be behind Darvish and Derek Holland. But, Ogando is supposedly just about ready to resume pitching in the bigs. Lewis is supposed to be just a few weeks away. Harrison is supposed to be just a few more weeks away. That would give the Rangers five starters — five talented starters — for some of the season and all of the playoffs, and that would suggest they don’t truly have a great need for Garza’s services. On talent alone, Garza wouldn’t be a big upgrade over any of those five. He’s not as good as his little ERA. So if the Rangers are this committed to adding a starter, it follows that the Rangers probably have some doubts about how their arms are going to return and perform. Ogando’s coming off shoulder discomfort, and his velocity is down from where it was when he was a starter before. Lewis is coming off elbow surgery, and he’s already experienced one setback. Harrison is recovering from back surgery, and he’s not even yet involved in game action. Maybe one or two of these guys will return at or around 100 percent, but to count on all three? There are too many questions, and the Rangers can’t count on what they have in house. Of course, there are others. Tepesch has shown promise, but an elbow injury is an elbow injury. Justin Grimm was demoted to the bullpen. Martin Perez is back from injury and pitching, but his results still aren’t close to matching the perception of his talent. Josh Lindblom has five starts. Ross Wolf has two. The Rangers have leaned on pitching depth and survived, but Garza would be a guy both good and healthy, which is a top priority as teams face the home stretch. Between now and the end of the season, maybe Garza would get 14 starts with the Rangers, if they got him right away. That’s not a lot, and realistically, maybe he’d be a one-win upgrade. Maybe a little more than that. Then Garza would figure to slot into the playoff rotation, if the Rangers qualified, somewhere behind Darvish and Holland depending on the progress of the other arms. Then Garza would face the prospect of free agency. Put that way, he doesn’t seem like a player worthy of fetching a high price. Garza’s a non-elite starting pitcher. He’s not Cliff Lee. He might not even be the best starter available, depending on Jake Peavy. But to understand the reasoning, you have to understand the Rangers’ current position. Matt Garza wouldn’t change the look of the whole team, but he’d be a probable upgrade at a point where that upgrade might be the difference between making the playoffs and missing them. Or, between winning the division and qualifying for the one-game wild-card playoff. Looking at the projected standings page, both the Rangers and A’s are projected to finish at 90-72. The Rays are at 91-71, and then the Yankees, Orioles, and Indians are projected to finish within striking distance. You can basically think of this as being a high-leverage situation, where pluses and minuses are magnified. There’s real, meaningful incentive for the Rangers to upgrade as much as they can, even if the actual upgrades aren’t so substantial. It was the Rangers, after all, who came apart down the stretch a season ago and lost to the Orioles at home in the one-game playoff. That’s fresh in the organizational memory, and the Rangers would like to not do that again. So a team like Texas is looking to make a short-term improvement. The whole point is trying to make the playoffs, and just winning the wild card isn’t quite enough anymore. A team like Chicago is looking to make longer-term improvements, and that’s why there’s a fit. That’s why this is probably happening. A year ago, a few months before free agency, Zack Greinke brought the Brewers Ariel Pena, Johnny Hellweg, and Jean Segura. Only Segura was a top-100 prospect, and Garza isn’t better than Greinke was, but the Brewers of course are thrilled with their current shortstop and maybe Mike Olt would become that kind of value. This is a trade that could benefit the Cubs without tearing down the Rangers’ system. For what it’s worth, it’s not like Garza doesn’t have his own question marks. He’s recently had some elbow problems, and in 2011, his strikeout rate was 31% above the NL league average. So far this year, it’s 13% above the average, and Garza’s allowed his highest rate of contact since 2010. He’s throwing more fastballs than he has as a Cub, and he’s allowing more fly balls than he has as a Cub, and Garza would suffer a little bit going from NL Chicago to AL Texas. As much as Garza carries around some name value, he’s not a top-of-the-line starter. He’s a starter who gets talked about a lot, and who throws hard. The magnitude of his actual impact would probably be smaller than the magnitude of the perception of his impact. But Garza’s good, and he’s available, and the Rangers have the pieces, and the Rangers have a use. Maybe Texas, too, would be interested in trying to sign him to a long-term extension. Last offseason, a 29-year-old Edwin Jackson got four years and $52 million. A 29-year-old Anibal Sanchez got five years and $80 million. Garza will be 30, and he could be looking for Sanchez-type money. The recency of his injuries might drive down the average annual salary or reduce the length of the guaranteed commitment, but Garza would probably want four or five years, and $14 – 16 million each. The Rangers know that, because I guessed that in five minutes and the Rangers are a lot smarter than me. The Rangers have five talented starters, but three of them have legitimate injury question marks, and the Rangers aren’t in a position where they can deal with that much uncertainty. Garza could make them a little more stable and a little more good. And though his actual addition wouldn’t make the Rangers substantially better, it could make them better enough. A small upgrade is only a small upgrade until it makes all the difference in the world. The Rangers probably understand that better than most.
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