By Marc Normandin
The Cubs had a specific plan for their 2012-2013 off-season -- one that looked similar, in a lot of ways, to their plan for the previous winter. Chicago acquired low-cost players it felt had value, and did so on short-term deals. This enabled them to easily flip these players before the trade deadline and bring in more assets for the future, a time when the Cubs would (in theory) have a better chance at fielding a competitive roster.
Scott Feldman was one such player. He signed for just one year at $6 million, and was expected to at least look like a better pitcher after getting out of hitter-friendly Texas and into the softer lineups of the National League. Feldman is now a Baltimore Oriole, along with 27-year-old backstop and regular minor-leaguer Steve Clevenger, as the O's desperately needed to inject someone useful into the back-end of their rotation. Scott Hairston was another acquisition from this past winter, inked to a two-year, $5 million deal despite having very similar production, age, and abilities to Cody Ross, who signed a three-year pact for a guaranteed $21 million more. Hairston had a rough go of things with Chicago, hitting just .172, but he continued to show the power he was known for and bashed eight homers in 112 plate appearances. This was enough to get the Nationals to send a prospect and a player to be named later Chicago's way, as Washington searches for some help in their bid to catch the Braves in the NL East.
These mirror last year's pre-deadline deal, when Paul Maholm, signed to a very reasonable two-year, $11.25 million contract that off-season, was flipped on July 30 for Jaye Chapman and Arodys Vizcaino. The latter was the jewel of the deal, and while he might only end up relieving, the Cubs -- a team simply trying to stay out of the basement -- had no need for Maholm, especially not when a 21-year-old arm with some promise left in it was dangled in front of them.
This time around, it was Jake Arrieta coming to the Cubs. He didn't put it together in the AL East for the O's, but is 27 with still-interesting stuff. In exchange for Hairston, Chicago acquired Ivan Pineyro, a 21-year-old pitcher who succeeded in Low-A by striking out nearly a batter per inning while limiting walks, and had just reached High-A shortly before the trade. Arrieta might turn into a reliever, but if he ends up useful in whichever role he's in, he's yet another player the Cubs could turn into something else in the near future, as they build towards success.
Chicago should be commended for these moves, obvious as they are. The club is trying to bring in value where they can, using the financial resources available to them. There's a side portion of these plans that doesn't get quite as much attention, though: the Cubs are also trying to acquire central pieces for their next competitive team that are already developed, and therefore recognizable and expensive, in addition to these low-cost, flippable pieces.
This has come to the forefront with the recent will-they-or-won't-they Matt Garza rumors. Garza is a free agent at year's end, and it was expected that the Cubs would trade their most attractive chip in a seller's market in order to bring back significant value to their farm. However, some teams might be loathe to acquire Garza for the price that will satisfy the Cubs -- and, knowing this, Chicago is simultaneously negotiating with other clubs while it discusses the possibility of an extension with the right-hander.
Now, the Cubs could simply be talking to Garza in the hopes it pushes a desperate general manager over the edge, out of fear that they'll lose the pitcher they believe can heal all that ails their 2013. It's also possible, though, if we consider their actions this past winter, that they truly want Garza around for the future. A look at a transaction they failed to make tells that story.
The Cubs were bidding on Anibal Sanchez in mid-December, trying to pry him away from the Tigers. He wouldn't cost them a draft pick, as he had been dealt from the Marlins to the Tigers in 2012, negating Detroit's ability to submit him a qualifying offer and reap compensation from it. The idea here was that the Cubs would get an arm of Sanchez's caliber locked up during the down present years, but, on a five-year deal, he'd also be around when Chicago was a better, more competitive club. None of it would hurt their future since all he would cost is dollars and years, rather than draft potential.
Chicago was so close to locking up Sanchez that it was falsely reported he had indeed signed with them -- it turned out, though, that Sanchez was going to give the Tigers a chance to match the offer. The rest of the story you already know: Sanchez has been the Tigers' best pitcher this year in what has been a career-best campaign for him. It all could have been for the Cubs, though, and nearly was.
The Cubs and Tigers likely didn't think this was the iteration of Sanchez they were signing -- if anyone knew he was going to post an ERA 60 percent better than average, he would have had more suitors and a larger deal than five years and $80 million. So the comparison of pre-2013 Sanchez with 2013-and-beyond Garza is an apt one. From 2010 through 2012, Sanchez posted a 110 ERA+, and averaged 196 innings per year. Garza missed time due to a stress fracture in his elbow and then a shoulder strain that stalled the start of his season, but has managed a 114 ERA+ during his time with the Cubs dating back to 2011. Prior to the stress fracture, Garza also averaged around 200 innings per season over a three-year period, and was a quality pitcher in the toughest division in baseball for hurlers back when he was with the Rays.
Garza could be the Cubs' Sanchez. They're both 29 years old, they're both right-handed, and they're both seemingly coming into their own after a string of above-average work. Garza could be the arm they lock up for most of the rest of the decade, meant to lead the rotation now and maybe, down the road, to still be there when they flank him with other productive starters who can take the Cubs somewhere besides the basement.
He could be those things … but with all that being said, Chicago is still likely to deal Garza. He remains their best chip this month, and even if the Red Sox, Rangers, or whoever else all balk at the asking price, someone is going to break and give the Cubs the top prospect or prospects they want, simply because there is no one else available. Whether it's the Indians, the Orioles looking to upgrade once more, the Angels making one last desperate play to improve, or someone we couldn't possibly guess this far out from the deadline, someone will be willing to pay the iron price for Garza, and help improve the future of Chicago Cubs' baseball. Even Garza is aware of that. If no one pays up, they can still give him the qualifying offer, and earn an extra first-round pick and the draft budget that comes with it, for the 2014 MLB draft.
It might be best, after all, for the Cubs to move on from him either now or this winter. Garza is just one pitcher, and while he's mostly been durable, any deal he signs will make him an expensive pitcher in his mid-30s eventually. It's hard to guarantee he'll still be healthy or productive then, and he's mostly getting ace's attention due to the paucity of available options on the trade market, not because he's actually that good. Prospects are a gamble, too, but the Cubs are in a position where they need to collect as many quality lottery tickets as they can in order to bring the team out of its current state.
Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer had a vision for the Cubs when they took over the front office, and while having Garza around might make every fifth day easier to stomach in the short term, they may well get more eventual usefulness out of playing the long game. That's likely why, even if Garza sticking around makes some kind of sense, he'll probably be in another uniform in a matter of weeks, if not days.
* * *
Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.