Defending Jim Hendry: The Matt Garza Trade

I’ve been mulling over these thoughts in my head for quite a while, and after seeing Chris Archer‘s baby face in a promo for the AL Rookie of the Year Award, I think it’s high time I come clean and admit it.

I like the Matt Garza trade. The original one. Yes, the one that sent Archer, Hak-Ju Lee, Brandon Guyer, Robinson Chirinos, and Super Sam Fuld to the Rays for Garza, Zach Rosscup, and Fernando Perez. Yes, I’m serious.

It has taken me a while to conclude this, but I’ve come to believe three things:

  1. Jim Hendry and his scouting department saw something in Matt Garza that no other team saw, and decided to exploit it.
  2. If Garza had been healthy all the way through July 2012, he would have netted a return that dwarfed the initial cost.
  3. The Cubs gave up only one piece of value to get Garza, Chris Archer, who they likely could not develop anyway.

With those things in mind, I believe that Hendry’s trade for Garza is completely defensible.

As tough as it may be to think about, it’s undeniable that Jim Hendry helped the Cubs organization compile huge amounts of talent, both before and during his tenure as General Manager. Much of this talent flamed out, but I believe only some of this can be placed on the GM. Prior and Guzman both saw their arms blow out, Corey Patterson‘s breakout season was destroyed by a knee injury. Some prospects, like Felix Pie, were rushed, and that has to fall on Hendry, but I think Hendry had a better feel for his system than a lot of fans like to give him credit for.

Part of this feel manifested itself in two spectacular sell-high/buy-low trades – he turned Bobby Hill into Aramis Ramirez, and Hee-Seop Choi into Derrek Lee. He certainly wasn’t clueless when it came to the Cubs system, and those two trades showed he could identify good buy-low candidates. Which brings us to Matt Garza.

Garza was a good pitcher with the Rays, but never an outstanding one. In 491 innings, he compiled 7.7 fWAR on the back of a 4.24 FIP, 4.20 SIERA, 18.8 K%, and an 8.1% BB%. These are the numbers of a good back-end starter, but hardly what the Rays were hoping to get out of the former 25th overall pick they had traded for. He was a fastball-first pitcher who showed very little faith in his secondary pitches.

Jim Hendry and his scouts must have seen something that the Rays didn’t, because upon arrival in Chicago, Garza severely cut his fastball usage, relying more on his slider and changeup. These changes led to more groundballs, more strikeouts, and a stellar FIP of 2.95. Here is a comparison of Garza’s pitch usage in Tampa Bay and in Chicago:

matt garza pitch selection

There’s no doubting that his pitch selection was drastically different, and these changes led to some striking differences in Garza’s results (2013 in Chicago left out due to 71 innings being too small a sample to be meaningful, and because I want to focus on the pitcher Garza was before his injury):

matt garza new pitcher

Garza was a different pitcher in Chicago. His ERA improved by a healthy third of a run, and his ERA estimators improved by nearly a full run per nine innings. These changes can be explained by his increased use of his secondary pitches, which led to a jump in K%, BB%, and a monumental improvement in groundball rate from 39% to 46.6%. All in all, the changes Hendry and company implemented radically changed Garza’s skill set – he went from a good mid-rotation arm to a good #2.

If Garza had stayed healthy long enough, he likely would have returned a package commensurate with a #2 pitcher. In July 2012, the names being thrown around in rumors about Matt Garza were truly staggering. For example, Buster Olney thought a Justin Upton-Matt Garza swap made sense for both clubs. Teams like the Rangers and Blue Jays, teams with loaded farm systems, were also interested in Garza at the time. If the Cubs had returned a Justin Upton, or package of top Blue Jays prospects for Garza, would we be complaining about missing out on Chris Archer right now? Almost certainly not.

And we have to remember that Chris Archer and Hak-Ju Lee, while good prospects, were no sure-fire impact prospects. Archer had just come off of a great season in which he posted a 2.34 ERA in 142 innings across High-A and AA, earning himself the #27 ranking on Baseball America’s pre-2011 prospect rankings. Despite this, he had walked 13.4% of the batters he faced in AA, an alarming number. The Cubs had tried to develop high-walk pitchers in the past, like Juan Cruz, who they just could not get to effectively command their pitches. In fact, under Hendry as a GM, the Cubs had failed to develop many starting pitchers at all after the Zambrano-Prior tandem broke through into the majors. It’s not unreasonable to think that the Cubs were well aware of their failures with pitchers of Archer’s profile, and that they were taking on less risk by moving him.

Hak-Ju Lee was a back-end Top 100 prospect at the time of the trade, and though some prospect writers were extremely high on him (Keith Law ranked him in his Top 20 after 2011, for example), the fact remained the Lee’s bat was very fringy, possessing no power to speak of, and that he would need to play shortstop and run very well to be valuable in the majors. Unfortunately for Lee, the Cubs already had their shortstop of the future in 20 year old Starlin Castro, who was coming off of a very respectable rookie campaign in which he hit .300. Lee may have been a pretty valuable prospect, but he was very risky due to his bat, and he was blocked. He may have returned a valuable piece down the road, but one poor season at the plate could torpedo his value.

The difference between a massive return on investment for Matt Garza and a package centered on a 110 pound pitcher was about 20 innings of health. Jim Hendry was that close to being vindicated in his belief in and acquisition of Matt Garza.

I believe Jim Hendry’s plan for Matt Garza was as follows: The 2011 Cubs needed an Ace. Matt Garza was available, and the scouting department felt that some tweaks to Garza’s approach could turn him into a near-top of the rotation pitcher. Weary after the failures of other high-walk pitching prospects and with the emergence of Starlin Castro, both Chris Archer and Hak-Ju Lee were expendable, especially given their distance from the majors. If the Cubs did not win with him, the improved version of Garza would net a far more impressive package of talent than they would have to give up. If the scouts were right, they’d be in a good position to return positive value on Garza no matter what the team did. And he was so close to being correct. If Garza does not hurt his triceps in July 2012, I think we’d all be looking back on the Matt Garza saga in a much brighter light.

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