The collective idea is that the Chicago Cubs are still multiple years away from competing for championships, and Starlin Castro is the cornerstone of the foundation Theo Epstein is building.
While Castro may indeed be the star of the team and Brett Jackson is on hot pursuit of the majors, it's starting pitching Matt Garza who has the most importance in determining how much and when success will come to the franchise starving for a winning culture.
Garza, 28, is coming off the best season of his career after posting an ERA of 3.32 while striking out a career-high 197 batters. On a struggling team, it only resulted in 10 wins, but an ERA like that speaks greater volumes than his record. His most impressive number might be making 31 starts, showing his durability.
Garza's season established himself as a formidable ace with the capability of being the best pitcher in the NL Central this season. It's no surprise his name is often brought up in trade rumors with the Cubs being one of the most active teams this offseason.
Some believe Garza is at an age that he won't be in his prime by the time the Cubs are ready to consistently compete. With the release of Keith Law's top 100 prospects in baseball, the Cubs' future shows potential with three players—Anthony Rizzo (No. 36), Brett Jackson (No. 89), Javier Baez (No. 95)—listed in the top 100.
There's reason for excitement especially with the imminent arrivals of Rizzo and Jackson relatively soon. However, Garza controls the success that they will garner.
Who is the most important piece the Cubs have?
Besides on-field production, Garza is the kind of teammate you want in your clubhouse. On days he isn't pitching, he isn't far away from the top step of the dugout where he becomes the team's biggest cheerleader. Never will you find a player happier for a teammate's success than Garza, which is crucial when dealing with the young team the Cubs will have this year.
He is a fiery competitor, but in a good way. He doesn't present the antics that former Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano had. Garza is a more mature player, and teammates feed off his energy.
Garza has All-Star potential, and his role this year is to be just that. If Garza puts up an All-Star-caliber first half, there is a very realistic possibility the Cubs could be in contention for a division title.
In this scenario, the Cubs would hang onto Garza and use him for a playoff push, something that no Cubs fan would complain about in year one of the Epstein regime. A big first half from Castro would be great, but he did that last year and the team around him was unable to compete.
Perhaps Garza puts together an All-Star-caliber first half and the team still struggles; Garza becomes an even hotter target at the trade deadline than he was this season.
As I've said before, teams are more willing to part with top prospects in the midst of a playoff run than they are prior to spring training. Garza could bring back a haul of prospects, perhaps replacing the ones that they gave up in exchange for Garza last season (Hak-Ju Lee, Chris Archer). Jacob Turner, anyone?
If Garza struggles this season, I can almost guarantee the Cubs will struggle to stay out of last place in the division. In this case, it's unlikely the Cubs will get much in return for Garza at the deadline, while holding onto him despite a decline in performance.
If Castro struggles early, it shouldn't concern anyone. He's just 21 years old and has plenty of years to produce for the Cubs.
But the way Garza performs early on in the season could spark the Cubs to a playoff run or bring in the necessities to do so. Or worse, they lose out on all of the above.