The Garza Conundrum
Way back at the beginning of the 2012 playoffs, I wrote that the Cubs should have extended Matt Garza. A lot has happened since then, most notably for the sake of this little essay: (1) Theo Epstein was hired as president of baseball operations, bringing Jed Hoyer along as GM; and (2) a new collective bargaining agreement was signed by Major League Baseball and the Player’s Association.
Back in December and January, there were significant rumors that the Cubs were shopping Matt Garza around to some degree or another. All those stories at least implied that the Cubs were asking for a huge haul in return for Garza. Nearly everyone presumes that the Cubs will either extend or trade Garza… but no one is quite sure which they will actually do.
However, all the discussions involving Garza’s potential trade value have ignored the effect the new CBA could play in the trade market this season. Let’s take the example of Cliff Lee as an illustration. The Mariners vastly overestimated their chances of competing in 2010, trading to obtain Lee from the Phillies that off-season. In the middle of 2010, the Rangers traded a haul of prospects, including top prospect Justin Smoak, to the Mariners for Lee. Lee helped the Rangers reach the World Series, but then signed a contract in the off-season with the Phillies. Having offered Lee arbitration, the Rangers received the thirty-third and thirty-seventh picks in the 2011 as compensation for losing Lee to free agency.
But draft compensation for departing free agents was overhauled in the new CBA. Among the changes made to that system was a rule that teams could only receive draft compensation for free agents who had been with the same team for the full season prior to reaching free agency. In other words, if the Cliff Lee trade happened this season, the Rangers would not receive draft compensation when Lee signed with the Phillies in the off-season.
But what does this have to do with Garza? Garza has nearly two full seasons left, and will not reach free agency until 2013 if he does not sign an extension. Any team that traded for him this year would receive draft compensation if he departed as a free agent after next season.
In most years my answer would be not all that much. It is rare for under thirty pitchers of or near Garza’s caliber to even make it to opening day of their final season of arbitration or a contract without signing an extension. This year, however, there are three such pitchers: Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke and Anibal Sanchez. And the trade value of these three players is not well defined.
These elite player who are acquired for half a season are known as rentals for a good reason. And, for the history of free agency in baseball prior to this year, a part of the value for rentals was that two high draft picks were transferring from team to team along with the player. Now, any draft compensation disappears into the ether. So while the original team loses the picks, the new team does not get them.
And this means that the new market value for half season rentals is currently not solidified. The team that is trading the rental player for prospects will argue that they are giving up the same amount of value they would have given up under the prior CBA. But the team that is trading prospects for the rental player will say they are not getting the same value in return.
Here is the unanswered question: will teams be able to get a Justin Smoak or Matt LaPorta is return for rentals? Even though neither of those players have been great Major Leaguers yet, they were huge prospects at the time they were traded. Would it be a shock if the Phillies got really old really fast and looked to turn Hamels into prospects? Or if the wheels fell off for the Brewers and they wanted to see what they could get in return for Greinke? Or if the Marlins’ experiment in being big spenders became a complete disaster?
I will flat out admit that everything written above is conjecture and speculation. But view it from a GM’s perspective. If you were trying to trade for Cole Hamels, would you argue he was worth significantly less than Cliff Lee because you would receive nothing in return if Hamels leaves in the offseason? And if you could get Cole Hamels for three months to make one big run at the playoffs without giving up a top prospect, or you could have Matt Garza for a year and a half and had to give up multiple top prospects, what would you do?
I am not predicting the future here. Players like Greinke, Hamels and Sanchez become available rarely enough that their trade value in the final year before hitting free agency might not change significantly. What I am saying, though, is that we are in a new world regarding trades for these stars with expiring contracts. As a result, we might be in limbo regarding Theo’s and Jed’s long term plans for Matt Garza until we know how the trade market for this season, especially the three potential elite rental starting pitchers, develops.