Now that the totally not-orchestrated-for-On-Deck signing of Matt Garza is finally done, it’s time to take a look at just what the contract means for the Brewers now and in the future. According to various reports, the deal is for 4 guaranteed years at 50 million, with 4 million in possible incentives and a vesting option for 13 million in 2018. Jon Heyman reported via twitter that the vesting option would kick in with a “reasonable” workload. Regardless of whether he just makes the 50 million or if he hits all of the incentives and the option vests and it’s 67 million. That makes it the second highest contract in team history, behind Ryan Braun‘s second deal, and the largest free agent deal ever, surpassing that of Jeff Suppan. That’s huge, but what does it mean?
When the news of the signing first (prematurely) broke on Thursday, everyone’s favorite snarkster, ESPN.com’s Keith Law, was holding his weekly chat. Of course, being Keith Law, he had some very definite opinions about it:
You said this about Garza in your free agent rankings: “He’s a three-year deal candidate in the $12 million to $14 million a year range.” Has something changed since then or is the extra year that bad?
That doesn’t mean that figure would be a good deal for every club. The Brewers are a low-revenue team, likely to be under .500 for several years to come, and the financial benefit to them from Garza’s on-field value isn’t what it would be to teams in contention. Also, I’ve mentioned several times that I’ve heard clubs that looked at his medicals this winter weren’t optimistic based on what they saw.
Law raises a couple of interesting points here that are going to go a very long way towards defining the Garza deal as either a success or failure for the team: his health and how he fits into the overall plan for winning over the next four seasons. Let’s deal with health first.
Law’s assertion that other teams were concerned about his health based on what they saw in his medical reports certainly isn’t comforting if you’re a Brewers fan. It’s also very hard to confirm independently, though this certainly isn’t a new issue with Garza, who has dealt with both elbow and shoulder issues before. Both of those things are very scary propositions when talking about pitchers, given how much stress they put on both joints over and over in the course of a season.
Garza hasn’t spent his whole career getting hurt, though. After a couple of seasons in 2006-07 where he split time between the minors and majors for the Twins, from 2008-2011 he averaged over 197 innings per year for the Rays and then the Cubs at the big league level. After his best professional season to date in 2011, he started to break down, throwing only 103 2/3 innings in 2012 and 155 1/3 in 2013. He was effective enough in those innings to still have a considerable amount of value, kind of like a poor man’s Ben Sheets circa 2006-07. Of course, when a team signs a player to a franchise record free agent contract, it’s hard to see many people happy with a poor man’s anything.
Even with the best that medical science has to offer us today, it’s impossible to know exactly what Garza will bring to the table over the next four years. It’s also impossible to know just what the Brewers might need over that time, which brings us back to the first point Law made in that response. It’s pretty clear that Law doesn’t view the Brewers as contenders now or in the near term future. When a team makes a big free agent signing, it’s best that they’re in position to win right then. It’s silly to waste a prime year or two on a non-contender, and the Brewers have given zero indication they think of themselves as anything other than contenders this year, so they expect to win now. Just how realistic is that?
This gets into some pretty tricky territory. It’s not impossible to imagine scenarios where a lot of things break right for the Brewers and they end up making a serious run towards the postseason this year. If Ryan Braun can return to something close to what he was in 2011 and 2012, Aramis Ramirez can stay on the field for 130+ games, Yovani Gallardo can regain some of his former velocity, and no one else falls off a cliff, sure, they’ve got a shot at 90+ wins. Fans of teams are often predisposed to think in these terms, especially before a season starts and things begin to deviate from the best case scenario.
The reality is, though, that teams don’t play up to their absolute potential. Players have down years. Key cogs suffer lengthy injuries. You can rest assured that when various experts and projection systems rate the Brewers chances in 2014, we’ll be seeing a lot more picks for 3rd and 4th in the NL Central than 1st or 2nd. It’s just such a tough division right now, and the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates are all coming off of very nice seasons where they turned the division into quite the murderers row, Cubs excepted.
It doesn’t look to get any easier in the division, either, so, it’s not hard to see where a lot of Law’s skepticism for the Brewers ability to turn a Garza signing into a successful one comes from. He is ESPN’s main prospect expert, and as such he’s looking at what the Brewers have down on the farm and trying to project a few years into the future and imagine what kind of talent will be around Garza. Given how lowly Law has rated the Brewers’ system (and seems poised to do so again this week), he’s probably not expecting much from the reinforcements the Brewers might bring up over the life of this deal.
So where does all this leave us then? Well, probably not in quite as bad of shape as Mr. Law thinks, honestly. The Brewers are not prime contenders for the NL Central in 2014; the Cardinals have to be pretty heavy favorites there, followed by the Reds and Pirates. Still, the roster has quite a bit going for it. They may lack some of the top end stars of a few years ago, but they do have pretty decent depth, especially on the pitching side. If their starters can just find ways to churn out lots of quality starts, the offense should be able to give the pen some leads late in games, and then what happens is anyone’s guess. If the Pirates fall victims (at least for now) to the “plexiglass principle” and either the Cards or Reds has one of those disappointing years where lots goes wrong, there could be an opening for another contender in the division.
The main issue here though is risk, and I just don’t see as much as Law. Sure, in the long term, it’s quite possible that the Brewers are paying for very little production from Garza by 2016-17 and that he does materially hurt the club at that time. If the team was sitting on a goldmine of prospects right now, that would concern me a lot more than it does because it could hamper the opening of another window to contend. They don’t appear to have those players right now, though. Even if some of the guys in the low minors (and upcoming drafts) do pan out quickly, none of them is likely to be in their prime while Garza is still under contract, so this probably doesn’t keep them from putting the final pieces around a winner then, anyway.
If Garza somehow manages to stay healthy and somewhat productive for the life of the contract, they’ll have gotten a pretty good sized steal. At the very least, Garza offers them quite a bit of upside. They’re not rebuilding right now no matter what, so as long as they don’t give up draft picks or sign a player to a some six or seven year deal in order to get the first few seasons of prime production, they can really only do so much damage. Might as well take one last shot or two at lucking into contention before the real tear down has to begin.