The Matt Garza trade has elicited strong reactions from the Cubs fan-base. As indicated by the Bleed Cubbie Blue poll, a solid majority (57%) are in favor of the trade, while a vocal minority (22%) oppose the trade.
Without creating a straw man, I will try to summarize the position of those in favor of the trade:
The Cubs acquired a good pitcher and got better for the next 3 years with this trade. Although on paper the Brewers, Cardinals and Reds might be better than the Cubs; the games aren't played on paper and this trade gives the Cubs a much better chance at contending in 2011 without necessarily sacrificing 2012 and 2013. Sure, Chris Archer might be a good prospect; but he's just that, a prospect. We have other good pitching prospects in Trey McNutt, Andrew Cashner and Chris Carpenter, and isn't one of the points of having prospects to trade them for quality major leaguers?
The reason this is not a good deal for the Cubs does not begin with the players that the Cubs gave up. It's difficult to assess whether or not Hendry got "fleeced" at this point in time. Not the least of which, we don't know what other teams were willing to give up to get Garza. I tend to believe that Hendry gave up too much, a sentiment I believe is supported by what the Brewers gave up to get Shawn Marcum and Zack Greinke. I should also note that Buster Olney said on ESPN that the Cubs believed they had to "overpay now" to get him before other teams got involved. But, there are plenty of national experts who believe that the Cubs gave a fair amount.
But, even if you agree that the Cubs gave up a fair amount for Garza, it's still not a good deal for the Cubs. It's not a good deal for the Cubs because:
(1) this trade doesn't make the Cubs a serious contender;
(2) It doesn't really fix the problems they have on the MLB team for this year or the organization for the future; and
(3) It weakens the one organizational strength they had going forward.
The first reason is related to the second. The Cubs were a 75 win team last year. Ask yourself whether you think the Houston Astros are a contender this season? The Houston Astros finished with 76 wins last season.
Using the Pythagorean system, the Cubs were a 73-win team, so you can't argue that the Cubs were a victim of poor luck. That 75-win mark also includes a torrid September after Quade took over. You can make the argument that the Cubs were better than a 75-win team last year and that the hot streak after Quade took over is indicative of that fact.
That argument would be wrong. The Cubs weren't very good last season.They were an aging team with no impact players (team leader in bWAR was Soto with 3.2). The strength of their team was pitching depth in the rotation with Ryan Dempster (2.7 bWAR), Carlos Zambrano (2.7 bWAR), Ted Lilly (2.0 bWAR), Tom G. (1.8 bWAR), Carlos Silva (1.8 bWAR) all having solid seasons. The clear weaknesses were the lack of an impact top of the rotation starter (4+ WAR-type pitcher), bullpen (excepting Marmol and Marshall) on-base guys at the top of the lineup and thumpers in the middle of the order. Basically the bullpen and offense was terrible last season, the rotation was mediocre.
The first two moves the Cubs made this off-season at least attempted to address these problems and to boot didn't hamstring the club moving forward. That's why these moves were loudly applauded by almost the entire Cubs blogosphere (even those that "hate everything the Cubs do"). Carlos Pena was signed to a reasonable 1-year deal and while he has been inconsistent from year-to-year, he at least provides the Cubs with left-handed power in the middle of the order. Kerry Wood gave the Cubs another reliable (at least when is not on the DL) bullpen arm at a very reasonable price. Garza neither fills a hole nor was acquired at a reasonable price.
Some have made the argument that the Cubs are a fringe contender, so this trade is worthwhile. If the Cubs had filled a hole by acquiring Garza, then this argument might have some weight. If Garza was a speedy second basemen that had a .360 OBP, that move would have made sense considering there were no replacements in the minor league system or on the major league roster. Instead, Garza duplicates what they already have in the major league rotation and what they have in the minor leagues. A solid #2 or -#3 type pitcher. He might be a bit better than Zambrano, Dempster, Wells or Gorzellany, but it would not be shocking if any of those 4 might had a better year than Garza this season. As a result, this trade really doesn't make the Cubs significantly a better team. The improvement is a marginal improvement at-best. Even more so if the trade doesn't remove Carlos Silva from the rotation.
This trade also doesn't really address the holes for the future either. The one thing that the Cubs have in the farm system is pitching depth. The Cubs have at least 4 pitchers that could easily replicate Garza in the 2012 and 2013. Banking on one of Cashner, Archer, McNutt or Carpenter to turn into Garza is a pretty good bet. Actual organizational holes for 2012-2013 that some of this pitching depth could have been used to address include both corner infield positions and 2B.
Even more perplexing, spending arbitration money on Garza (as compared to the minimum on Archer, McNutt, Cashner or Carpenter) limits the amount of dollars that the Cubs will have to spend next off-season on filling the legitimate holes on the team. Given the budget problems this team has, this is a significant aspect of this trade. Garza is likely to cost close $10 million/year in 2012 and 2013.
So, the Cubs were not very good last season, and this trade (along with the other off-season acquisitions) does not improve the Cubs enough to make them a strong contender for 2011, and it doesn't fill organizational holes for 2012 and going forward. This brings us to the third point. This trade weakens the primary strength of the organization: depth in the minor leagues.
Over the last couple weeks, we have read several encouraging reports about the minor league system. We read that one scout said that "the Cubs have more potential major-leaguers than any other organization." Jim Callis revealed that the Cubs the Cubs' minor league system ranked 8th among all MLB clubs. However, the weakness of the system was that it had few high-impact players. I'll leave the in-depth evaluation of Chris Archer and Hak-Ju Lee to others. Here it is merely enough to say that they were clearly among the Cubs top-5 prospects. Guyer and Chirinos aren't nearly as well-regarded prospects. But, the general consensus was that they were at least within the Cubs top-15 and were very close to MLB-ready.
Those in favor of the trade might look at the depth and say: 'hey, if we have depth, we really aren't giving up anything by trading prospects who may or may not pan out." But there are problems with that type of reasoning.
First, the Cubs system just got a lot shallower, so now you no longer have a deep system with no high-impact prospects. You just have a system with no high-impact prospects.
Second, trading prospects when you are rebuilding is the wrong move precisely because a lot of them don't pan out. The common-thread among teams that have rebuilt through the farm system recently (Rays, Rangers, Giants) is that they have had waves of prospects. The idea that Archer is expendable because we have McNutt, Cashner and Carpenter is wrong. The odds are that not every prospect will pan out. The more you have, the higher the likelihood that at least one will pan out. To build a contender through the farm system, you need as many prospects as possible. Odds are that one of Archer, McNutt, Cashner and Carpenter will be as good a pitcher as Garza. Odds are poor than any single one of them will. If the Cubs are truly going to rebuild through the farm system they need to have the depth to withstand the disappointment of a couple of high-profile prospects failing.
Finally, weakening the depth in the minor leagues means that the Cubs won't have the depth to trade for pieces they actually need when they become available. If a hitter at a position of need comes on the market between now and next season, the Cubs will not have the players to acquire him, or if they do acquire him with what they have left, they will severely damage the teams future. Furthermore, if the Cubs acquire players next off-season that put them on the brink of true contention, they won't have the players to acquire someone that they need then.
In this morning's column Buster Olney wrote the following:
For the Cubs, it's a win-now trade, a deal to make them better immediately. "They don't have a very good farm system, and they just moved almost all their best guys," said one high-ranking AL official. "You don't make that trade unless you can win this season.
The Cubs are not (or at least should not) be in "win-now" mode. That's why this trade is a bad deal for the Cubs. In short the Cubs traded away valuable prospects for something they really didn't need that badly.
* I tried not to get too heavy into stats or economics, because the people that are into those things are against the trade already.