During the offseason, the Chicago Cubs hired Theo Epstein as their president of baseball operations. Epstein made his mark with the Boston Red Sox as the architect of the 2004 World Series championship team, and Cubs ownership hoped his curse-breaking skills would transfer to Chicago.
Epstein is a brilliant baseball mind, as is clearly evidenced by the sheer amount of talent Boston has been able to stockpile over the years. It would be shocking if he were unable to make the Cubs competitive within the next five years.
However, Cubs fans have been disappointed with the results this season, as the Cubs sit in last place in the NL Central with an 18-32 record. But any higher expectations are simply ludicrous: The Cubs have one of the least talented rosters in all of baseball.
Shortstop Starlin Castro is on his way to stardom, but no one else on the roster is even league-average at this point. Bryan LaHair had a tremendous start, but his batting average in May is 137 points lower than it was in April. Alfonso Soriano is a shell of his former self, David DeJesus is best cast as a fourth outfielder and everyone else is replacement-level.
The strength—if one can call it that—is the starting rotation. Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm are all veterans with track records of being average to above-average starting pitchers, and Jeff Samardzija has had a breakout year.
Dempster will likely be traded at the deadline because his contract expires at the end of this year, while Samardzija is not going anywhere for the foreseeable future due to his youth and team-friendly contract. The real question lies in what to do with Matt Garza.
Cubs optimists want to keep Garza because his talent is undeniable. He has postseason experience with the Rays and has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his career (he has two of the top 25 game scores this season). He could be a second or third starter on a postseason contender, and that quality of pitcher is difficult to find.
However, cashing in now is the prudent move. Garza is still only 28, but his value will decrease each successive year. As he gets older, his velocity will decrease, which is bad for someone who depends heavily on his riding fastball.
In addition, pitching is notoriously unstable. If we look at the ERA leaders from 2007, we see Jake Peavy, Brandon Webb, John Lackey, Brad Penny, Fausto Carmona, Dan Haren, John Smoltz, Chris Young, Erik Bedard and Roy Oswalt. Haren is the only one who has remained relevant over the past five years, despite the fact that only Smoltz from that list was even over 30 years old.
In just five years, we’ve seen a 90-percent attrition rate from the list of the league’s elite starters. We still don’t know how to predict pitching injuries with any degree of accuracy, and counting on consistent performance over a span of five years is a fool’s errand, unless the pitchers in question are the Halladays, Sabathias or Verlanders of the world.
Even then, there is no sure thing in pitching. Johan Santana won the Cy Young in 2004 and 2006, enticing the Mets to give up several top prospects for him. Santana, who had never had any injury concerns before, promptly averaged just 22 starts per season over the next four years (and that includes a 34-start year in 2008).
Garza isn’t even on a level with the names listed above. He is an above-average pitcher who occasionally demonstrates his potential, but at 28, he is unlikely to become any more consistent.
The Chicago Cubs are at least three years away. The upper levels of their system are almost barren, and Theo Epstein has shown that he likes to build through the draft.
Keeping Garza may be worth a few wins in each of the next few years, but he is unlikely to be a valuable contributor by the time the Cubs are ready to contend. Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer would be better off cashing in Garza and getting a head start on rebuilding the farm system.