The price Cubs paid for Garza: Looking at Rays-Royals deal in new light

960501.png

The price Cubs paid for Garza: Looking at Rays-Royals deal in new light

If Dayton Moore sat down next to you on a flight from OHare Airport, would you even recognize the Kansas City Royals general manager?

Forget the minor-league system, could you spot anyone from Kansas Citys major-league roster if they were walking down Michigan Avenue?

That didnt stop all the instant experts from breaking down the big trade late Sunday night into Monday morning. All across Twitter, the Royals got slammed for trying to win now by sending four good prospects to the Tampa Bay Rays, instead of clinging to some hazy vision of the future.

The Royals went all-in dealing for James Shields and Wade Davis (and a player to be named later) to strengthen their rotation. They drew only around 1.7 million fans last season (so much for the bounce from Kauffman Stadium hosting the All-Star Game). Theyre an afterthought for national television (nine consecutive losing seasons). They havent made the playoffs since winning the 1985 World Series.

The Rays might be the best-run operation in baseball, if not all North American professional sports. But its also fair to wonder: What did they ever get for Matt Garza? Some 23 months after that blockbuster deal, there are no breakout stars to haunt Cubs fans.

Andrew Friedman played baseball at Tulane University and worked on Wall Street before emerging as perhaps the sharpest executive in baseball. Across the last five seasons, the Rays have won 97, 84, 96, 91 and 90 games, while competing in the brutal American League East, with payrolls a fraction of what the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox spend every year.

Joe Maddon balances out his hipster glasses and changing hairstyles with his roots as a baseball lifer who grew up in the blue-collar town of Hazleton, Pa. He could be the perfect modern manager.

The Rays certainly should get the benefit of the doubt here, but there are no sure things. Maddon certainly wasnt gloating on his Twitter account: HATE..HATE to lose James and Wade. But this who we are. This is how we have to operate. Excited about the guys we are getting.

Jerry Seinfeld used to joke that were just rooting for laundry in the age of free agency. But the explosion of information across the Internet, combined with a Moneyball worldview, has created a generation that roots for spreadsheets and years of club control.

In constantly searching for value, actual major-league experience and success has been severely discounted. This mentality has helped team president Theo Epstein sell his rebuilding project on the North Side.

The Rays had to trade Garza, because they knew his price would soar across three arbitration-eligible seasons. Every day for about a month except Christmas and New Years Friedman spoke with Jim Hendry until the eight-player trade was finally announced on January 8, 2011.

To get Garza, the Cubs general manager at the time surrendered pitcher Chris Archer, shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, catcher Robinson Chirinos and outfielders Brandon Guyer and Sam Fuld.

The critics focus way too much on Hendrys misses in free agency, overlooking his solid track record as a trader. Remember that this is what it took to get Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez: Hee-Seop Choi, Mike Nannini, Jose Hernandez, Bobby Hill and Matt Bruback.

Hendry also sold high on Mark DeRosa, netting Archer in a 2008 New Years Eve trade with the Cleveland Indians. Now as a special assignment scout for Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, Hendrys job responsibilities include evaluating the teams own system and helping figure out which prospects are keepers at the trade deadline.

Archer is only 24 years old, so he has upside, but its getting harder to see him as a huge game-changer. He made his big-league debut last season after going 8-9 with a 3.38 ERA in 27 career starts on the Triple-A level.

Lee is supposed to be a defensive wizard, but lets see how his bat will play at the next level. He hit .261 with four homers and 37 RBI in 116 games last season with Tampa Bays Double-A affiliate. Remember the Cubs already had Starlin Castro, who would soon become an All-Star shortstop and eventually sign a big contract extension, with Epstein now controlling him through 2020.

The Cubs were also waiting for Junior Lake to harness his freakish athleticism, and five months later they drafted Javier Baez ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft. Baez has been described as a shortstop with Gary Sheffield bat speed, and the skills to play almost anywhere on the field. The lesson: You can always go find more prospects.

Chirinos will be 29 years old next summer and so far has only 55 at-bats on his major-league resume. Even though Geovany Soto never built off his 2008 Rookie of the Year campaign and turned out to be a placeholder at catcher, the new regime at Clark and Addison thinks Welington Castillo can be a core player.

Guyer turns 27 next month and will have something to prove after shoulder surgery wiped out almost all of his 2012 season. Fuld has all the intangibles that come from his Stanford University education and courageous fight against diabetes, but realistically hes an extra outfielder.

Theres no doubt that Moore made similar calculations while looking up and down Kansas Citys organization, playing out all the what-if scenarios.

What do the Royals know about outfielder Wil Myers, the consensus minor league player of the year by Baseball America and USA TODAY? Will Jake Odorizzi become good enough to make Tampa Bays playoff rotation, or just another guy?

Mike Montgomery took a step backward last season, going 5-12 with a 6.07 ERA combined at the Double- and Triple-A levels. Third baseman Patrick Leonard made his professional debut in 2012.

The Rays havent really missed Garza, who has the stuff to put up bigger numbers than the 15-17 record and 3.52 ERA weve seen in 49 entertaining starts with the Cubs. Hes been a quote machine, an intense competitor, a good teammate and a more serious student of the game than youd imagine at first glance. He certainly hasnt been the Carlos Zambrano Light some once feared.

As Epstein said, theres a method to Garzas madness.

It wasnt a perfect deal for the Cubs, but it also wasnt absurd to think that a big-market team could contend at some point during a three-year window, which closed hard and fast amid ownership changes, a front-office shakeup and severe rollbacks of the major-league payroll.

Garza is the ultimate win-now player. His recovery from the stress reaction in his right elbow is said to be going well, putting him on track to be ready by spring training, and his final season before hitting free agency.

Once he proves hes healthy again, fans and the media will think of Shields and the question will automatically become: What can the Cubs get for Garza?

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

“That’s what we’re supposed to look like,” Joe Maddon said Monday night after a 6-4 loss where the San Francisco Giants scored the first six runs and Wrigley Field got loudest for the David Ross “Dancing with the Stars” look-in on the big video board, at least until a late flurry from the Cubs.

But for a manager always looking for the silver linings, Maddon could replay Addison Russell’s diving stop to his right and strong throw from deep in the hole at shortstop to take a hit away from Christian Arroyo. Or Albert Almora’s spectacular flying catch near the warning track in center field. Or Anthony Rizzo stealing another hit from Brandon Belt with a diving backhanded play near the first-base line.

The highlight reel became a reminder of how the Cubs won 103 games and the World Series last year – and made you wonder why the 2017 team hasn’t played the same consistently excellent defense with largely the same group of personnel.

“Concentration?” Jason Heyward said, quickly dismissing the theory a defensive decline could boil down to focus or effort. “No shot. No shot. It is what it is when it comes to people asking questions about last year having effects, this and that. But this is a new season.

“The standard is still high. What’s our excuse? We played later than anybody? That may buy you some time, but then what?

“The goals stay the same. We just got to find new ways to do it when you have a different team.”

FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver’s statistical website, framed the question this way after the Cubs allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play ever last season, an analysis that goes all the way back to 1871: “Have the Cubs Forgotten How to Field?”

Even if the Cubs don’t set records and make history, they should still be better than 23rd in the majors in defensive efficiency, with 37 errors through 43 games. The Cubs have already allowed 28 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.

“We just got to stay on it and keep focusing and not let the miscues go to our head,” Ben Zobrist said. “We just have to keep working hard and staying focused in the field. A lot of that’s the rhythm of the game. I blame a lot of that on the early parts of the season and the weather and a lot of difficult things that we’ve been going through.

“If we’re not hitting the ball well, too, we’re a young team still, and you can carry that into the field. You don’t want to let that happen, but it’s part of the game. You got to learn to move beyond miscues and just focus on the next play.”

Heyward, a four-time Gold Glove winner, missed two weeks with a sprained right finger and has already started nine times in center field (after doing that 21 times all last season). Zobrist has morphed back into a super-utility guy, starting 16 games at second base and 15 in two different outfield spots.

[MORE CUBS: Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?]

Maddon has tried to drill the idea of making the routine play into Javier Baez’s head, so that the uber-talented second baseman can allow his natural athleticism and instincts to take over during those dazzling moments.

The Cubs are basically hoping Kyle Schwarber keeps the ball in front of him in left and setting the bar at: Don’t crash into your center fielder. Like Schwarber and Almora, catcher Willson Contreras hasn’t played a full season in The Show yet, and the Cubs are now hoping Ian Happ can become a Zobrist-type defender all over the field.

“I’m seeing our guys playing in a lot of different places,” Heyward said. “It’s not just been penciling in every day who’s going to center field or right field or left field. We did shake things up some last year, but we did it kind of later in the season. We had guys settle in, playing every day. This year, I feel like we’re having guys in different spots.

“It’s May whatever, (but) it seems like we haven’t really had a chance to settle in yet. Not that we’re procrastinating by any means, but it’s just been a lot of moving pieces.”

The Giants won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 with a formula that incorporated lights-out pitching, airtight defense and just enough clutch pitching. The Cubs are now a 22-21 team trying to figure it out again.

“Defense comes and goes, just like pitching,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning National League MVP, in part, because of his defensive versatility. “I feel like if you look at last year, it’s kind of hard to compare, just because it was so good. We spoiled everybody last year. Now we’re a complete letdown this year.”

Bryant paused and said: “Just kidding. Different years, things regress, things progress, and that’s just how it goes sometimes.”

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

Jon Lester vs. Johnny Cueto at Wrigley Field – the playoff matchup the Cubs dreaded in an elimination game – will happen more than seven months later under far different circumstances.

The Cubs have a 2016 championship banner flying next to the iconic center-field scoreboard – the ultimate response to any questions about their slow start to this season. The San Francisco Giants can’t have Madison Bumgarner saunter out of the bullpen when he’s recovering from a dirt-bike accident, another reason why an odd-year team is much closer to last place than first in an improved National League West.

The Giants don’t have the same aura, because the Cubs staged an epic comeback to end a best-of-five division series last October, scoring four runs again five different relievers in the ninth inning at AT&T Park.

“I’m telling you, man, Game 4 pretty much won the World Series,” Joe Maddon said. “I did not want to see Mr. Cueto pitching back here again. I’ll get to see him (Tuesday night), but that’s OK, compared to whatever that day would’ve been.”

Maddon has admitted this already, but it is still telling from a manager who always tries to stay in the moment and ignore the negativity. It says something about a Giant franchise that had won 10 straight postseason elimination games and World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 – and a fan base that used to expect things to go wrong in Wrigleyville after more than a century of losing.

“That whole Game 4 in San Francisco, I did focus on that a lot,” Maddon said. “Just trying to understand Game 5 back at home – how this is going to play out – and do whatever we possibly can to win that game there that night in San Francisco.

“That was the game for me – out of the entire postseason. To have to play the Giants where they were battle-tested – Game 5, back here with (Cueto) pitching – I did not like that at all. I thought that pretty much the postseason hinged on that one game in San Francisco.”

Even though the Cubs still had to survive a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Los Angeles Dodgers before winning their first NL pennant in 71 years. And come back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series and beat the Cleveland Indians on the road in a 10-inning Game 7 for the ages.

[RELATED: Cubs can't complete another miracle comeback against Giants bullpen]

“That’s what good teams do,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “They’re a very talented club, very solid all around. You don’t win the World Series unless you are.

“Look back at our success, how many times were we looking at elimination? No, you’re never surprised in the postseason. Anything those teams do, it’s because they’re there for a reason. They’re very good.”

Lester beat Cueto in a 1-0 instant classic when Javier Baez lifted a 3-2 quick pitch into the basket beneath the video ribbon in the left-field bleachers. Cueto kept the Cubs so off-balance in Game 1 that Baez actually walked up to home plate in the eighth inning thinking bunt.

The Giants reacted to that Game 4 meltdown by giving All-Star closer Mark Melancon a four-year, $62 million contract at the winter meetings, trying to fix a bullpen that led the majors with 30 blown saves last season.

“It was close,” Bochy said. “Three outs from taking it to Game 5 with a pretty good pitcher going. We can speculate all we want. There’s no point in that. It didn’t happen.

“But, sure, you look back. That’s how tight that series was. Unfortunately, we couldn’t hold on. Give them credit – great job coming back. We’re a team that plays very well under pressure, and we did there. Just couldn’t hold on to that ninth inning.”