Was Acquiring Matt Garza From the Rays the Right Move for the Cubs?


On July 22nd, it happened again. For the third time in his career, Matt Garza was part of a blockbuster deal, this time heading from the Chicago Cubs to the Texas Rangers for 3B Mike Olt, RHPs Justin Grimm and C.J. Edwards, and at least one player to be named (possibly RHP Neil Ramirez). Thus ended Garza’s two-and-a-half year run in Chicago, and his final numbers were quite good. Garza went 21-18 with a 3.45 ERA, an 8.6 K/9, a 2.8 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9 in 60 starts and 372.2 innings pitched. His ERA+ was 114 (14% above league average when adjusting to ballpark), just about the same as his 109 ERA+ from his time with the Rays, but he improved in strikeouts, walks, and home runs per 9 innings as well as groundballs as he went from a number three starts to what some teams would call an ace. But at the end of the day, does Garza’s performance even matter? The Cubs acquire Garza believing that he would help them back to contention. They had slipped to a .498 winning percentage in 2009 and 2010 after winning the NL Central in 2007 and 2008, and they hoped that Garza could get them back over the hump. Instead, they managed just a .418 winning percentage over the course of the Garza era, prompting them to deal him at the deadline this year. So when we’re evaluators at the Garza era, there’s only one question that matters: did they receive more in the second Garza trade than they gave up in the first? Let’s try to figure that out.

In the first Garza trade, the Cubs traded RHP Chris Archer, SS Hak-Ju Lee, OFs Sam Fuld and Brandon Guyer, and C Robinson Chirinos for Garza, OF Fernando Perez, and RHP Zach Rosscup. If we want to compare the two trades, the best way to do it is like this.

The exact opposite of Hak-Ju Lee is a power-hitting first baseman who’s a poor defender. Thanks to his defensive ability at third base, Mike Olt certainly is a step or two above that. Nevertheless, Lee and Olt are about as different players as you’re going to see compared. But that’s exactly what we’re doing right now. At the time of the 2011 trade, Lee was a 20 year old shortstop coming off a season at Low-A in which he showed showed breathtaking but sometimes inconsistent defense and outstanding speed, but the question was going to be whether he would hit enough to be more than a bottom-of-the-order type of hitter in the major leagues. Over the years, Lee has basically developed exactly as the Rays would have expected up until his season-ending knee injury in late April on a double play attempt gone wrong. His defense has basically become a sure thing and his bat has shown the potential of breaking out although it’s still up in the air. If healthy, he will make his big league debut next year and it will be interesting to see what happens at the plate.

Olt, meanwhile, is 24 years old, turning 25 in August, and while he has been a top prospect for years, a tough big league debut last season has given way to his toughest minor league season yet. When the Cubs dealt him, he had managed a .219/.318/.438 line in 68 games spent primarily at Triple-A Round Rock, slamming 17 doubles and 12 homers but striking out 95 times while walking just 35 times in 280 plate appearances. Olt was dealing with a vision problem that has apparently been fixed, and he did manage a .247/.353/.506 line in 187 plate appearances back in Round Rock after three games at Double-A Frisco. Nevertheless, his upside was never enormous and keeps getting lower. Olt has plenty of power to go along with nice defense at third base, but he strikes out plenty (partially because of struggles with breaking pitches), and you have to wonder whether he’ll make enough contact to be a productive big league hitter.

Comparing Olt and Lee is like comparing apples and oranges, and saying who had more value at the time they were traded is a matter of opinion. Lee had higher upside as a Gold Glove caliber shortstop who also showed the bat speed, patience, and speed to be a leadoff-type hitter, but he also was down at Low-A while Olt is at Triple-A. One thing to note, though, is that Lee’s higher upside also came with a high floor–with his defense, it was never difficult to picture him as at least a Rey Ordonez or Brendan Ryan type starting shortstop who might one day figure it out at the plate–and combining a floor about as high as Olt’s with additional upside might give him a slight edge. (The counterpoint to that is that having an above-average hitter who also plays great defense is more valuable than a solid hitter who plays great defense.)

Whether we’re comparing them now or at the time of the trade, there’s no question that Chris Archer blows away C.J. Edwards. Back in January of 2011, Archer was the Cubs’ top prospect, coming off a dominating season between High-A and Double-A. His control was a question, but he had two overpowering pitches, his fastball which touched 97 MPH and his devastating slider, and he also threw a developing changeup. That’s basically still the story with Archer today, although his changeup has made major strides and the flashes of ace potential are becoming more prevalent in his rookie year in the major leagues. Edwards, meanwhile, is dominating Low-A at age 20, going 8-2 with a 1.83 ERA, a 122-34 strikeout to walk ratio, and not a single home run allowed in 18 starts and 93.1 IP, but he’s doing that at a lower level than Archer and with considerably worse stuff. Edwards’ fastball ranges from the low-to-mid-90’s with great late life, but his secondary pitches, his curveball and a changeup, are still iffy at this point. He looks much more like a third starter than an ace at this point. Archer was at a higher level at the time with more upside, and it’s pretty clear that he was a much more valuable trade chip.

When we’re pitting Neil Ramirez and Brandon Guyer against each other, it’s a pitcher versus hitter comparison but quite a good one as both were 24 year olds coming off a season spent in Double-A when they were traded. It’s also a comparison that Ramirez wins pretty easily. Guyer was coming off a breakout year with Double-A Tennessee, but it came when he was repeating a level and his future was very unclear. Guyer showed good bat speed, solid foot speed, and fine right field defense, but the question was whether he would hit for enough power to profile as a regular. Since then, Guyer has played very well and made his major league debut, but shoulder surgery took him out for most of 2012, and a fractured finger in his hand just put him on the DL again. He’s now 27 years old and not really a prospect. Ramirez, meanwhile, is also repeating Double-A after getting shelled at Triple-A last year and is playing well going 9-3 with a 3.68 ERA, an 11.0 K/9, a 3.8 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 18 starts and 85.1 innings pitched. He has great stuff, showing a low-90’s fastball, a good changeup, and a slider that shows promise, but he has serious issues with command and also some red flags in his arm action. Ramirez’s likely destination is a fireballing relief arm, although the Cubs may continue to use him as a starter and see if he can conquer Triple-A when he goes back. Guyer may have had more upside at one point, but Ramirez should at least be a solid middle reliever while Guyer is way up in the air.

The Rays trade featured two Quad-A type of guys while the Rangers deal featured just one, but it’s undeniable that Justin Grimm is easily more valuable than Sam Fuld and Robinson Chirinos combined. Fuld is a fourth outfielder while Chirinos was a backup catcher-type who never panned out. Grimm joined Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop from the Scott Feldman trade as a nice arm worthy of a flier as a reclamation project. Grimm got lit up in the big leagues this year, managing just a 6.72 ERA including a 9.91 ERA in his last 8 starts, but he zoomed through the minor leagues, going from a 10th round pick in 2010 to the big leagues two years later, and he appeared in just 10 games at Triple-A, not even pitching very well (4.29 ERA, 1.89 strikeout to walk ratio). Grimm doesn’t have frontline upside, but with a low-90’s fastball, a 12-to-6 curveball, and a solid changeup, Grimm still has the ability to be a good major league starting pitcher and at least a relief arm.

And then we have Zach Rosscup, who is now the last remaining player from the Garza trade in the Cubs system. Rosscup is a 25 year old Double-A reliever with iffy stuff , but he is pitching very well, managing a 2.52 ERA and a 58-18 strikeout to walk ratio in 39.1 innings pitched. That’s nice, but basically irrelevant.

When we’re comparing these two trades, it becomes pretty clear that they’re just about even. The Rays got some nice upside in Archer and Lee, but the Cubs got four legitimate prospects in the latest Garza trade compared to just two that the Rays received (or three if you count Guyer). The only things that can hold you back from saying that the Cubs received more in the second trade than they gave up in the first is how good Archer is becoming and the concerns regarding Olt. Whether they won the two trades or not, the bottom line is that the Cubs made a calculated gamble acquiring Garza, and while it didn’t work out, the trade return they received just about canceled out anything they lost what they acquired him. The Rays are happy with the prospects they received, but the Cubs are thrilled to see what the four new members of their organization can do. The Cubs made the right move to acquire Garza, and while he didn’t lead them back to the playoffs like they hoped, the players they received in the deal for him may help them do just that in the next few years.