At first blush, trading for Matt Garza heading into the 2011 season seemed odd from the Cubs' perspective. Coming off a 2010 season in which they finished 75-87 and placed fifth in the NL Central, general manager Jim Hendry made a win-now move for a team that should have been acquiring the kinds of players they dealt away.
The roster was mostly full of older players -- while Starlin Castro was just 20 years old in 2010, Geovany Soto was the only other regular younger than 30. Tyler Colvin was just 24, but wasn't considered an impact player. The rotation was no different: 27-year-old Tom Gorzelanny wasn't considered much more than back-end rotation filler, and Randy Wells, also 27, was average at best. Those were the "kids" on the pitching staff.
This older team was also expensive, with a $144 million payroll in 2010. With veterans like Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Dempster, Marlon Byrd, and Carlos Zambrano around -- all players with some degree of trade value -- it's a wonder the Cubs didn't take the time to reload via trade in order to find pieces for the next great Chicago squad. Instead, the Cubs helped the Rays utilize that strategy, taking Matt Garza off of their hands in order to bolster their own rotation, but at the cost of Chris Archer, Hak-Ju Lee, Robinson Chirinos, Sam Fuld, and Brandon Guyer.
Archer, Lee, and Guyer will be missed by the Cubs. Lee has broken out offensively, hitting .317/.389/.442 in High-A as a 20-year-old shortstop who has recently been promoted to Double-A. Kevin Goldstein placed Lee at #19 in his mid-season top 50 prospect report after not ranking him at the start of the year. Archer has had control problems, but was considered a four-star prospect heading into the year by Goldstein, coming in at #4 in their deep system. Guyer was a three-star prospect, an outfielder who hit .306/.380/.488 for the Rays in Triple-A this year, and is now in the majors.
While Garza is under contract through 2013, it's still odd to give up three pieces of the future for one pitcher who is valuable due to being good right now, when the team is going to be busy bringing the next Cubs' core into place slowly. Maybe this was a last-gasp effort to bring this iteration of the Cubs into contention before Hendry's contract expired or was cut short.
Even that was a misguided effort, though. The Cardinals, who finished 86-76 in 2010, were expected to contend, and the Reds, who had arrived on the scene a year earlier than expected, were also supposed to make noise. Then, of course, there were the Brewers, who added Shaun Marcum last December 6 and Zack Greinke on December 19. Starting pitching was Milwaukee's main weakness in 2010, and with that situation addressed with gusto in a matter of weeks, they were clearly in this thing for 2011.
The Garza trade occurred January 8, nearly a month after the Brewers declared they were playing for keeps in 2011, and a month after Carlos Pena was signed to man first base in Chicago. Pena was the only real change to the lineup, and he was coming off of a season in which he hit .196/.325/.407. While you could expect him to improve on that, he wasn't exactly a course-altering acquisition.
To recap: the Cubs traded away five players -- three of whom were promising prospects -- for three seasons of Matt Garza, with their only other "major" move from the off-season being the signing of an average first baseman to replace their departed average first baseman, Derrek Lee. They also acquired Garza after his worst season with Tampa Bay, right before he started to become expensive via arbitration. And, as a super two player, Garza will have four years of arbitration rather than three, meaning the Cubs will likely be paying Garza exactly what he's worth by the end of this deal, rather than below-market value like most pre-free agency players. And to what (realistic) end, exactly?
Prospects are lottery tickets, so dealing them away can make sense in the right situation. But for a team with the Cubs' context, in the process of reloading as the current aging, expensive core has taken the team as far as it can, more lottery tickets is the preference. Garza gives them more of a sure thing, but his upside has all but vanished at this point -- he's a known quantity, and he may be gone before the Cubs compete in the NL Central again. When he's gone, and top prospects Josh Vitters and Andrew Cashner have key roles, and Castro is even better than he is now, Guyer, Archer, and Lee will all likely be in Tampa Bay, helping the Rays compete in the AL East ... instead of helping the Cubs in the NL Central.