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

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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?

Jon Lester thinks Cubs have a special player in Willson Contreras: ‘It’s about time we got an offensive catcher’

Jon Lester thinks Cubs have a special player in Willson Contreras: ‘It’s about time we got an offensive catcher’

MESA, Ariz. – Jon Lester couldn't resist when a reporter mentioned the two home runs Willson Contreras launched off Danny Salazar, an All-Star talent who might have changed last year's World Series if he had been at full strength.

"It's about time we got an offensive catcher," Lester said.

Zing! Lester had already seen David Ross on "Dancing with the Stars" by the time he finished up against the Cleveland Indians and met with reporters on Monday night at Goodyear Ballpark. While Lester knew Grandpa Rossy would appreciate that one-liner, there is also some truth behind it.

Yes, Ross became the security blanket for a $155 million pitcher, helped push and encourage young players like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant and got carried off the field after delivering his own Game 7 homer. But whatever Contreras may lack now in game-calling experience and pitcher psychology, he can make up for it with his rocket arm, smooth swing and willingness to learn.

A camp that began with questions about how Lester would work with Contreras ended with a sincere endorsement.

"Willie's obviously very special, to be serious about it," Lester said. "He's definitely going to add a presence to that lineup as far as protecting ‘Rizz' and ‘KB' to where they're not going to be able to just pitch around those guys. We're going to have some other guys to do some damage in the middle to the bottom of that order.

"He's a special kid, just like anybody else on this team. He's (24), so he'll only get better as time goes on and (he gets) the at-bats and the innings and all that stuff. So I'm excited to see him for a full season and how well he can do back there."

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That's another reason why the defending World Series champs might actually look better on paper than the unforgettable 2016 Cubs. Ross did a "Dancing with the Stars" routine based off Young MC's "Bust a Move," a song released in 1989, or years before Bryant, Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr. were born.

Before the Cubs packed up and left Arizona, Ross made a promotional appearance in Mesa this week and caught up with some old friends like John Lackey.

"We got rid of Rossy," Lackey told reporters as the Cubs finished their Cactus League schedule with Wednesday's 15-11 win over the Oakland A's at Sloan Park. "He stinks. And we should be better. Actually, I was just inside talking to Rossy and he said that, so that's from him."

On paper, have Cubs put together a better roster than last year's World Series team?

On paper, have Cubs put together a better roster than last year's World Series team?

MESA, Ariz. – One minute into the media scrum outside the West Wing, a Washington reporter asked Theo Epstein if this season would be considered a disappointment if the Cubs don't win the World Series.

"Oof, I hadn't thought too much about 2017 yet today," Epstein said after President Barack Obama's final official White House event. "But, yeah, I mean, that's our goal. I think the organization has come such a long way and we have this talented young core. We're clearly in a very competitive phase where I think if we do our jobs, we could be as good, if not better, than any team in baseball.

"So if you're going to compete, you set your sights for the world championship. It doesn't always work out that way. But we see it as our jobs to do everything we can to be back at the White House next year."

Whether or not Epstein would actually go through with a Donald Trump photo op is a different story. But with the Cubs signaling their Opening Night roster – keeping outfielder Matt Szczur and infielder Tommy La Stella while lefty reliever Brian Duensing begins the season on the disabled list – you could make the case that the team breaking camp on Wednesday looks better on paper than last year's World Series winner.

"This is a crazy talented group," All-Star closer Wade Davis said. "There's 10 or 12 players on this team that are some of the best players in baseball."

That doesn't mean the Cubs will develop the same chemistry or sense of purpose, but this team is completely used to the national spotlight, hanging out with celebrity fans and being followed around like rock stars on the road. 

Epstein compared this camp in Arizona with what the Boston Red Sox faced after ending the 86-year drought. 

"I will never forget in '05 spring training, we had 5,000 people the first day, 3,000 fans every day," Epstein said. "I was expecting it to be as nuts. But it's been refreshingly normal, reflecting the personality of our players, taking everything in stride."   

This doesn't mean the Cubs will stay as healthy as they did last year, when the projected rotation made 152 starts combined. But four-fifths of that group returns with Brett Anderson – given his natural ability, pitching IQ and extensive medical file – appearing to have a higher ceiling and lower floor than Jason Hammel.

As Anderson said: "It's not too often that you have a salty veteran with multiple rings (John Lackey) in front of you and a guy (Kyle Hendricks) that led the league in ERA behind you."

The 2016 Cubs won 103 games and scored 800-plus runs: without Kyle Schwarber contributing a single hit during the regular season; and with Jason Heyward finishing with a .631 OPS (or 103 points below the league average).

Manager Joe Maddon said Geek Department projections have this lineup generating even more offense with Schwarber as the new leadoff guy (even with a brace on his left leg), continued growth from young players like Addison Russell and Willson Contreras and Heyward not being one of the worst hitters in the majors.

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The Cubs are also counting on a full season from Davis, instead of a half-season rental like Aroldis Chapman. Where last year's Opening Night bullpen featured three guys who would get DFA'd or traded by midseason (Neil Ramirez, Clayton Richard, Adam Warren), this version features three guys who've already notched the final out in a World Series (Davis, Koji Uehara, Mike Montgomery).

"All the additions are wonderful complements to what this team was already," Schwarber said. "Upgrades. It's going to be really cool to see how it all plays out this season with more guys getting another year of experience under their belt."

Ian Happ raising his profile and hitting around .400 in the Cactus League should help his trade value if the Cubs need to deal for pitching at the trade deadline. The combination of Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in center field should be an improvement over Dexter Fowler for a team that led the majors in defensive efficiency last year.

As someone with fresh eyes – and the perspective from being on Los Angeles Dodgers teams that won back-to-back National League West titles – Anderson hasn't see any signs of complacency.

"Not at all," Anderson said. "The young guys are still hungry. And the handful of guys that weren't here last year makes you that much more hungry and itchy to get back where they were last year.

"It's a really good mix – if not a perfect mix – of young guys, veteran guys and a couple fresh faces that are eager to get back to what these guys accomplished last year."