The big hot stove news for most of the last month has been the lack of news due to Masahiro Tanaka holding up the market for starting pitchers. Well, Tanaka came to terms with the Yankees on Wednesday, and barely 24 hours later, Matt Garza, one of the four leading names behind Tanaka on the free agent list -- along with the still-unsigned Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Bronson Arroyo -- has done the same, agreeing to a four-year, $52 million contract with the Milwaukee Brewers.
After a quiet offseason, the Brewers have had a relatively active few days. Just one week ago, with less than a month remaining until pitchers and catchers report for spring training, Milwaukee had made only one significant move all offseason, trading rightfielder Norichika Aoki to the Royals for lefty reliever Will Smith. Desperate for a first baseman, the team hadn't acquired a single player who had played the position in the major leagues. Then, on Friday, the Brewers signed Mark Reynolds to a minor league deal and did the same on Monday with Lyle Overbay, setting up a potential veteran platoon at the position.
Those moves were easily trumped in significance by Thursday's surprise announcement of the Garza deal, which gives Milwaukee one of the top starting pitchers on this offseason's market. In parts of eight major league seasons, the righthanded Garza has pitched to a 108 ERA+ with solid but unspectacular peripherals (7.6 strikeouts per nine innings despite mid-90s heat). His best season, though, came in the National League Central as a member of the Cubs in 2011. That year, Garza posted a 3.32 ERA (118 ERA+) while striking out 197 men in 198 innings, posting career-bests in ERA, ERA+, strikeouts and strikeouts per nine innings.
Garza's two seasons since then have been shortened by injuries. A stress fracture of his pitching elbow, possibly linked to his being hit on the joint by a comebacker in May 2011, ended his 2012 season in late July, while a latissimus dorsi strain near his right shoulder delayed the start of his 2013 campaign until late May. Still, Garza has posted the best strikeout-to-walk ratios of his career over the last three seasons, putting to bed early-career concerns about his control while averaging 3.13 strikeouts per walk from 201-13 with a career-best 3.24 K/BB last year. Garza did struggle after being traded from the Cubs to the Rangers late last July, but that ratio actually improved across his 13 starts for Texas.
If Garza can stay healthy -- and the 24 uninterrupted starts he made after returning to action last year are a good indication that he can -- he's a nice addition by the Brewers, particularly given the terms of his contract. In a market that yielded more than $22 million a year for a pitcher who has never thrown a major league pitch (Tanaka) and $12.25 million a year over four years for 31-year-old innings eater Ricky Nolasco (career ERA+: 94), the Brewers are getting Garza for just $13 million a year for his age-30 to -34 seasons.
With Garza in place, Milwaukee has a very talented rotation. Kyle Lohse continued his late-career surge as a confounding control artist last year in his first season with the Brewers and has now posted a 3.19 ERA (120 ERA+) over the last three years combined while walking just 1.7 men per nine innings. Yovani Gallardo, despite taking a significant step backward last year with drops in his velocity and strikeout rate (plus a drunk driving arrest), posted a 110 ERA+ and 9.4 K/9 in the four seasons before that and will be just 28 this season. Marco Estrada has posted a 108 ERA+ with a 4.50 K/BB ratio in two seasons since being installed as a regular part of the Brewers' rotation, and Milwaukee has sophomores Wily Peralta and Tyler Thornburg, its two top prospects at this time a year ago, ready to battle for the fifth spot. Veteran lefty Tom Gorzelanny can provide additional depth if needed.
Adding Garza to the rotation also allows the Brewers to re-purpose some of their excess arms for a bullpen that is in need of reinforcements. Among the candidates for that assignment are two of the pitchers mentioned above (Gorzelanny and one of Peralta or Thornburg, most likely), as well as fireballing rookie Johnny Hellweg, World Baseball Classic star Hiram Burgos and 2012 flash-in-the-pan Michael Fiers. The Brewers could still use more help in the 'pen, but with some legitimate, if underwhelming, options at first base and a nice upgrade in the rotation, they are clearly a better team now than they were a week ago. They might even more closely resemble their 2012 team that won 83 games rather than last year's group that won just 74.