In an alternate universe, maybe Matt Garza would have been pitching for the Texas Rangers this week at Wrigley Field.
When the Cubs pulled Garza after three innings on July 21 last summer, you initially wondered if the front office had engineered a trade. Garza had hit 96 mph on his last pitch to the St. Louis Cardinals, but as soon as he walked down into the visiting dugout at Busch Stadium, he knew something was wrong with his right arm.
The Rangers are an aggressive, win-now franchise with a deep pool of prospects, which fits the profile of the teams that will again be watching Garza with interest as he ramps up his comeback.
The Cubs ultimately shut down Garza last season and let the stress reaction in his right elbow heal. After getting clearance from the medical staff, he strained a lat muscle on his left side while throwing live batting practice during the team’s first full-squad workout two months ago in Arizona.
Garza – who will make the first of probably four rehab starts on Friday at Class-A Kane County – hasn’t discussed his future with the front office yet.
“We’re both on the same plan of just me pitching,” Garza said before Wednesday’s rainout. “After I pitch and show where I’m at and what I do, then all that stuff will come up. But right now my goal – and I’m pretty sure they have the same goal – is to get me back on the field. And I’m pretty anxious to get going on Friday. It’s the first step…but I can’t wait.”
At the beginning of spring training, before the lat injury, the Cubs privately acknowledged the possibility of using a qualifying offer on Garza, who’s making $10.25 million in his final season before free agency, if things broke a certain way.
All nine players who received the one-year, $13.3 million qualifying offers last offseason turned them down. This part of the new collective bargaining agreement could be the roadmap that leads Garza back to the North Side.
Kyle Lohse felt the chilling effect after getting a qualifying offer from the Cardinals. Despite going 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA last season, Lohse didn’t sign with the Milwaukee Brewers until late March, in part because teams were reluctant to sacrifice a first-round pick and part of their signing bonus pool for a 34-year-old pitcher represented by super-agent Scott Boras.
Lohse wound up getting a three-year, $33 million contract that didn’t come close to Edwin Jackson’s four-year, $52 million deal with the Cubs. (The Washington Nationals didn’t make Jackson a qualifying offer.) But Garza isn’t worried about what his market might look like this winter.
“I’d like to see me pitch before anything else,” Garza said. “That’s kind of where I’m at. I’m just looking at Friday and those decisions will come when I have to face them head-on. But right now, my job is to pitch. If I don’t pitch, then I’m not going to be dealing with that. I’m going to be looking for another occupation. So my job is to get out there and get ready to pitch again. That’s (my only) concern.”
Garza was later spotted in the weight room with a black mask that almost made him look like Bane, Batman’s nemesis in “The Dark Night Rises.” His nonstop energy and big personality would be a huge lift for a 4-9 team.
The Cubs are projecting that Garza will rejoin their rotation in the middle of May, which would leave more than two showcase months before the trade deadline.
But the Cubs are also banking on a new television deal and a renovated Wrigley Field to fuel their major-league payroll, even if chairman Tom Ricketts doesn’t have a firm timeline yet.
All these forces mean Garza could still be around in the new clubhouse, blasting Bob Marley from the stereo.
“Uh, yeah, it would be awesome,” Garza said. “But I got to get ready for Friday and that’s kind of the only thing on my mind. It would be cool to see a big scoreboard and all that stuff. But I need to pitch to be able to see it.”
You good with a Jumbotron?
“I’m good with just being on the mound,” Garza said. “That’s all I’m about.”