In 2010, the Cubs were 75-87. In the offseason, they traded some really good prospects for Matt Garza. It turns out that he wasn't the exclamation point at the end of their sentence. In 2011, they lost 91 games. In 2012, they lost 101. And when the new crew came in to run the Cubs, they were probably a little more apt to trade Garza … except Garza's arm had other ideas. He was shut down before last summer's deadline, and he didn't return. Because he didn't return, his offseason trade value was minimal.
- Bad team trades good prospects
- Bad team gets worse
- Bad team holds on to good player until he's injured
- Bad team feels bad
And because life is like a German folk tale from the 1800s, the Cubs learned a harsh lesson and their decisions were punished.
Wait … that's not exactly right. After Garza didn't even start this season in the rotation, he eventually pitched so well that he brought back some serious value in a trade with the Rangers.
Mike Olt is a powerful prospect who was the subject of a lot of trade rumors last year, but the Rangers wouldn't part with him. He's having a down year in Triple-A (with extenuating circumstances), and he has some contact problems, but he entered the season as the #2 prospect in a good system.
Justin Grimm was in the Rangers' rotation, and he's in that void between #6 starter and mid-rotation workhorse. In other words, exactly the kind of pitcher the Cubs should be messing with and the Rangers shouldn't.
C.J. Edwards was was probably the star of the deal, a 21-year-old with a big arm and impressive stats. The next home run he allows as a professional will be his first.
That's a really impressive haul for 12 or 13 starts. More if the Rangers make the playoffs. But we're past the point where we can type "a half-season" of Garza. It's not. It's a lot less than that now. The Rangers aren't stupid. They know that Garza isn't likely to represent an extra four wins on his own. But if the AL West is decided by a game, he might be that difference. And he figures to come in handy in October, if that's a thing.
Here's what the Cubs gave up for Garza: one of the better shortstop prospects in baseball, a wild and intriguing power arm who is currently in the Rays' rotation and pitching well, a 26-year-old catcher (since traded for a player to be named), a 25-year-old outfielder (still in the minors), and a stack of footnotes.
With the benefit of hindsight, it looks like the Rangers' batch of prospects is comparable, if not preferable. We know that Robinson Chirinos and Brandon Guyer were more filler than prospect now, and Hak-Ju Lee is still promising, but still very much an unknown. At the time, though, the Rays' package was a bit more formidable. But not by much.
Because my brain has been warped by the search of Big Ideas when it comes to baseball analysis, I thought I had a good one. Here's the theory: The trend of giving up players with three of four years of team control left isn't as sexy as it used to be.
The A's made it popular, dealing players like Dan Haren, Joe Blanton, and Gio Gonzalez for huge packages of talent. It's why the Rays got so much for Garza in the first place.
But now teams are getting comparable packages for rentals. The pendulum seems to have swung in the other direction. Zack Wheeler went for a rental. Jean Segura went for a rental. Jacob Turner went (partially) for a rental. All of those teams took risks by holding on to their stars for an additional year. All of them still got substantial returns.
That means teams looking to reload instead of rebuild -- think the Red Sox last winter -- wouldn't be out of line to hold on to a player like Zack Greinke, Carlos Beltran, or Garza until the last second, just in case.
That's a little too hasty, though. If you think of all those trades as at-bats or starts, we're still deep in small-sample territory. If Segura is hitting .250 in Triple-A right now, the return doesn't seem so impressive. Same goes with Wheeler rocketing through the Mets' system. If he doesn't do that, no one thinks about the Giants giving up too much for a rental. There's a lot of ex post facto analysis going on when you pick a couple of trades to prove that the rental-player market is inflated once again.
So maybe the takeaway is this: The Cubs made a questionable deal to get Garza, but they somehow managed to turn that into a fantastic deal three years later. It doesn't have to mean anything other than that. Maybe other teams will get burned where the Cubs nimbly escaped, or maybe everything will work out even better for the next team looking to keep a player they should trade.
On June 11, Garza gave up nine earned runs in his fifth start of the season. His ERA was 6.26. Six starts later, the Cubs somehow managed to get here. The Cubs should send a gift basket to the Mets, Astros, Brewers, White Sox, A's, and Cardinals. In just six starts, the Cubs made up a ton of value that they absolutely needed to make up.