With Ricky Nolasco traded to the Dodgers this weekend and Cliff Lee yet to hit the auction block, Matt Garza appears to be the best available starting pitcher on the market. Though limited to just 11 starts in the past year due to injuries, the 29-year-old Cubs righty has been on a roll lately, but now there's a hitch: According to multiple reports, the Cubs are discussing a long-term contract extension with him. If that sounds familiar, it's because they tried the same thing last year before Garza went on the shelf. At the time, it was an approach that appeared more about gaining leverage than securing a rotation staple during their rebuilding effort.
Since taking over in October 2011, the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime has been more focused on shedding payroll than adding it, trading players such as Marlon Byrd, Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, Carlos Marmol and Carlos Zambrano to save money and/or add potentially useful and less expensive players to their system. Given the scope of their long-term rebuilding effort, it seemed odd that they would focus on extending Garza, who to that point appeared to be a durable midrotation starter but not much more. From 2008 through 2011, he averaged 198 innings a year with a 3.72 ERA, a 111 ERA+ and 7.6 strikeouts per nine — not ace material, but a pitcher with a good postseason resume (3.48 ERA in five starts) who could bolster a contender's staff. But given that he had an additional year of cost control because of his onetime status as a Super Two, it made sense to see what it would take to sign him.
Alas, Chicago never got a full gauge of his market value because Garza left his July 21 start after three innings due to a cramp in his triceps. By early August, he was diagnosed with a stress reaction in his elbow — a precursor to a stress fracture — which ultimately ended his season. Further efforts to trade him this spring were quashed by a strained latissimus dorsi, forestalling his 2013 debut until May 21, when he threw five innings of one-hit shutout ball against the Pirates. Though his performance was uneven in the immediate aftermath, with one quality start out of four and a five-inning, nine-run shellacking elevating his ERA as high as 6.26, he's allowed just three runs in 30 innings over his last four starts, striking out 28 while walking eight, and he may further his run when he faces the weak-hitting White Sox on Monday night. Overall, he now has a 3.45 ERA with 8.2 strikeouts per nine, which makes him more attractive than ever to a contender.
It's less clear why that would make him attractive to the Cubs, who came into Monday 38-48 and appear to be two to three years away from contending in the NL Central. Unlike Edwin Jackson, whom the team signed to a four-year, $52 million deal in the hopes that he could either eat innings or become attractive to a contender due to his cost certainty, Garza doesn't have durability on his side. His recent hot streak has pushed his value to its peak, and the team would be better off moving him because another injury could put him on the DL through the deadline. That would not only prevent them from ever getting a satisfactory return via trade but it would cost them about $5 million in remaining salary (he's making $10.25 million this year). Thus it's difficult to see how their proclaimed interest in an extension is more than a ploy to hint that they'll need extra convincing to trade him.
Last week, I suggested that the Padres might be the best fit for Garza given Hoyer's knowledge of the San Diego system from his time as general manager there, but San Diego is in the throes of a nine-game losing streak that has dropped it to last place in the NL West. In light of that, here's a quick look at a handful of potential suitors, most of whom have reportedly discussed deals with Chicago thus far.
Boston Red Sox
They've got the AL's best record and top rotation ERA (3.68), but with Clay Buchholz on the disabled list due to bursitis in his shoulder, John Lackey is the only Boston starter with an ERA below 4.04; after missing all of last year due to Tommy John surgery, he's at an impressive 2.80. Ryan Dempster (4.04 ERA) and Felix Doubront (4.11) have both been solid enough, but their high strikeout rates (8.4 and 8.5 per nine, respectively) have been offset by similarly high walk rates (4.1 and 4.0 respectively), and Jon Lester (4.41 ERA) has just two quality starts out of his last nine. If the Red Sox can't add Lee — who has them listed among the nine teams to which he can block a trade — Garza would be the next-best option. They're known to have had a scout on hand at his last start, and their farm system is in good shape to set up a potential deal.
They recently added Scott Feldman, but he's more of a back-end inning-eater than a solution to the rotation's 4.73 ERA, which ranks 12th in the American League. Aside from Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez, none of the other starters — Feldman, Jason Hammel, Zach Britton, the rehabbing Wei-Yin Chen and rookie Kevin Gausman — has a hold on a rotation spot. Garza would improve the situation, and his experience navigating the perilous ballparks and heightened intensity of the AL East could make him an appealing addition. In the discussions leading up to the Feldman trade, the Cubs are said to have asked for infielder Jonathan Schoop and lefty pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, a pair that ranked 50th and 100th, respectively, on Keith Law's Top 100 Prospects list at ESPN Insider. That's more than they're likely to get, here or anywhere else.
They've climbed back above .500 at 46-42, and briefly tasted first place in the AL Central last week, but their hopes of staying in the race hinge on improving a rotation that ranks 11th in the league with a 4.60 ERA. Justin Masterson and Zach McAllister are their only starters with ERAs below 4.23. The feel-good bounceback stories of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir have been tempered by their troubles keeping the ball in the park, and Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer have both struggled in their occasional cameos. Cleveland's minor league system is said to be deep in middle infielders at the lower level, but that doesn't necessarily make it a match with the Cubs, who may want talent closer to the majors.
With the league's third-best record (51-37) and fourth-best rotation ERA (3.95), the Rangers are primed for another playoff push, but aside from Yu Darvish and Derek Holland, the rotation is unsettled. Alexi Ogando, Nick Tepesch, Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison are all on the disabled list, leaving rookies Martin Perez, Justin Grimm and either Ross Wolf or Josh Lindblom to round out the rotation. Texas was not only among the teams interested in Garza last year, it were said to be extremely close to pulling the trigger before the extent of Garza's injury was known. The Rangers have one of the deepest farm systems in the game, but forget about them offering up Jurickson Profar in a deal like this.
Toronto Blue Jays
At 43-45, the Jays are back under .500, and now 10 games back in the AL East, but given the ground they've made up in the last five weeks by going 19-12, they're unlikely to call off the dogs just yet. R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and Esmil Rogers have all pitched fairly well of late, but Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ are on the disabled list, and Chien-Ming Wang was outrighted to Triple-A Buffalo after being rocked for 13 runs in 3 1/3 innings over his last two starts. Even with the farm system taking a considerable hit via its winter blockbusters, Toronto has well-regarded pitching prospects such as righties Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna and lefty Sean Nolin whom it could use to patch its roster. The Jays have other holes to fill as well, with second base — where they've gotten a league-worst .218/.251/.314 performance from Emilio Bonifacio, Maicer Izturis et al — the most glaring.
Washington NationalsWith a four-game winning streak, the Nationals are now 46-42, as far as they've been above .500 since May 11. Their big three -- Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez -- are humming along, but Dan Haren is on the disabled list and Ross Detwiler has been battling lower back issues. The Nats have had interest in Garza dating back to the winter of 2010-2011, when the Rays traded him to the Cubs. With the graduation of Anthony Rendon to the majors, they don't have much in the way of talent to trade at the moment, though the solid work of the recently recalled pitcher Taylor Jordan has raised his stock.