Brewers Take the Matt Garza Chance

All along, it was suspected that Masahiro Tanaka was holding up the whole available pitching market. Teams wanted to know if they could get the best available pitcher; other available pitchers wanted to know which teams might be reduced to going after them. Wednesday, we all found out that Tanaka had made his decision. A day later, the Matt Garza domino has fallen. Out of nowhere, the Brewers swooped in and claimed Garza for four years and $52 million.

So, it’s that contract, for a pitcher going to a team that’s maybe on the fringes of the race. It’s identical to the contract Edwin Jackson signed to go to a team that wasn’t very good. It’s basically the same as the contract Ricky Nolasco signed to go to a team that wasn’t very good. None of these guys were given qualifying offers, so none of them cost any draft picks. They simply cost money, and as far as this particular move is concerned, it’s hard not to like it. I’d say it’s also hard to love it, but for the Brewers it’s a good upside play.

The thing about Garza that held his market down was injury risk. On multiple occasions we heard that teams were nervous about his elbow, which has got a screw in it. The screw isn’t new, but Garza’s had three different elbow-related DL stints, plus a more recent lat strain. Over the past three years he ranks 67th in baseball in starts, with 73, which ties him with Jake Peavy. Teams would’ve been reluctant to give Garza four guaranteed years. Just by winning this sweepstakes, the Brewers convey that they’re among the least concerned, and certainly less concerned than average. If nothing else, that’s bold.

But then look at how Garza’s done when he’s pitched. The last three seasons, he ranks 24th in WAR/200 innings. We can break this down further. All numbers are for starters, 2011-2013, with a 300-inning minimum.

ERA-

FIP-

xFIP-

Garza has consistently pitched pretty well. He just hasn’t consistently pitched, but as we’ve gone over in this space, talent and durability are separate considerations, and if you want both, you’ll have to pay a premium. The A’s have done well to target the former over the latter, and the Brewers are making a similar kind of commitment. They could’ve looked for a more certain 30 starts, but Garza provides greater volatility and therefore far greater upside.

The health question is something Garza has, and something Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana don’t. Definitely, that’s legitimate. That’s a reason to prefer the latter two guys. But you can look at it a different way: Garza has never performed poorly, not since he was a rookie in 2006. His worst ERA- since is 99. His worst xFIP- since is 103, with most seasons in the double digits. As recently as one year ago, Jimenez was a complete and utter mechanical and statistical mess. As recently as one year ago, the Angels gave Santana away as a salary dump after he allowed 109 runs. With Garza, at least you have a sense of what you’ll get if he’s pitching. Jimenez and Santana are unpredictable in their own ways.

And they were extended qualifying offers, which will further reduce their markets. If Garza got four years and $52 million, they shouldn’t expect to beat this, at least not by much. At one time, Santana was going after nine figures, but at one time, Nelson Cruz was talking five years and $75 million. By now Santana has hopefully had his expectations readjusted.

So what does this actually mean for the Brewers, as a team? For one thing, because Garza’s just 30, it’s not like this is a play to just win right away. Garza could realistically produce for all four seasons. But right now we’re all most concerned with 2014, and it’s not like Matt Garza was the difference between the Brewers and the Cardinals. Before today, the Brewers were probably the fourth-best team in their division. Now they might still be the fourth-best team in their division. But they’re closer to the Reds and the Pirates, meaning they’re closer to the Wild Card race, and if you squint the rotation looks actually legitimate.

By our projections, pre-Garza, the Brewers had baseball’s second-worst starting rotation. They’re still in the lower tier, but some of the names are appealing:

And then, for depth, there’s Tyler Thornburg, and Will Smith, and others. Gallardo has declined, and he’s probably not going to get back to the summit. Lohse is effective but entirely unsexy. Yet there’s reason for hope for everyone, and it’s helpful to have a staff that goes more than five guys deep given the near inevitability of injury or under-performance. Signing Garza has an obvious effect and a chaining effect, that should help this unit seem stable for at least as long as Garza’s arm works.

And a healthy Garza is maybe the best pitcher on the staff. Even if he doesn’t help the Brewers make the playoffs right away, he should help the Brewers. They’re close enough to daydream, and there’s nothing wrong with teams like this making improvements, especially when they don’t cost anything but money. It’s a better product on the field at the cost of about two wins a year, for four years. The last time Garza was fully healthy he was worth five wins, and there hasn’t been a real decline in his stuff.

One wonders if this will turn out a better investment than the Yankees’ investment in Masahiro Tanaka. The odds are against it, which is why the Yankees guaranteed more than three times the money. But if it were to work out that way, what level of surprise would be appropriate, really?



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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