I am the first to admit that I was not a fan of the Matt Garza trade when the Cubs initially made the deal to bring him to the North Side in exchange for five prospects in January.  While a part of my initial reaction was not loving the Cubs trading two of their top four prospects in Chris Archer and Hak Ju Lee, much of my trepidation was thinking Garza, who won’t turn 28 until November, wasn’t all that good.  I thought he was a solid middle of the rotation starter who you could count on to reach around 200 innings a season, but middling K/9 rates and a high HR/FB percentage meant he wasn’t likely to reach the next level.

I am also the first to admit that I was completely wrong.  In my defense, I don’t think anyone guessed that Garza’s approach would entirely change upon joining the Cubs.  In Tampa, Garza relied heavily on a fairly straight mid-90s fastball.  Over 71% of the pitches he threw as a Ray were fastballs.  As a result, hitters could wait on the fastball and hit it a long way when Garza left it up in the zone.

As a Cub, however, Garza has only thrown his fastball 53.5% of the time.  From 2010 to 2011, Garza increased the amount he used his slider from 14% to 23.7%, increased the use of his curveball from 9% to 11.9%, and doubled the use of his change up from 5.5% to 11%.  It’s not clear if this was the result of working with a different coaching staff, or if Garza made this change on his own upon moving from the extreme pitcher’s park that is Tropicana Field to the Friendly Confines.

Either way, the results have been phenomenal.  Garza posted an 8.91 K/9 rate this season, the best of his career, while not increasing his walk rate.  He pitched 198 innings this season, and has thrown at least 184 innings in all four seasons as a full time Major League starter.  His ERA (3.38), FIP (3.00) and xFIP (3.23) are all career bests.  Garza has the eighth best fWAR and FIP in the NL, and the ninth best xFIP.  He’s approaching ace territory, and at the very least is one of the best number two starters in the game.  To put this into the context of recent Cubs history, Garza arguably had the best season by a Cub starter since Mark Prior in 2003.  Garza’s only real competition for that claim is Ryan Dempster in 2008 (Garza had the better K/9, BB/9, FIP and xFIP in 2011; Dempster had a better ERA, threw more innings, and had a statistically insignificant better fWAR of 5.2 compared to Garza’s 5.0.)

As a Super Two player, Garza gets four total years of arbitration, with the two most expensive of those arbitration years remaining.  He will likely make at least $8 million in 2012 and $10 million in 2013 before hitting free agency at age 30.  If Garza continues to pitch like he did in 2011, he will probably be able to command at least $15 million per year with a contract length of at least five years.

The Cubs should ensure that Garza doesn’t reach free agency and that he is in their long term plans at the front of the starting rotation for the next half decade.  I think something that adds up to around 5 years/$60 million would probably get it done, and that could potentially include an option year or have a team option added on as a sixth year.

A five year extension right now would serve two major benefits: First, it would keep Garza with the Cubs through his age 32 season, likely allowing the Cubs to keep Garza through the majority of his peak seasons without risking paying Garza a lot of money through a decline.  Second, the Cubs probably will not have to give Garza as many dollars per year for his 2014-2016 free agency seasons as they would if he actually reaches free agency.  I know some Cub fans are turned off by the idea of signing anyone to a long term deal right now.  While there are always risks for signing players to long term contracts, Garza’s age, performance, and injury history point to him being a fairly low risk proposition.  As such, keeping Garza a Cub for several years into the future should be the Cubs’ number one priority this off-season.

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Noah Eisner is a Chicago attorney living in the western suburbs with his wife and son (and impending daughter). When he isn’t practicing law or entertaining a toddler, Noah follows Cubs baseball with a focus on the farm system and sabermetric analysis. His Cubs-related ramblings can be followed on Twitter @Noah_Eisner.