The calendar now officially says 2014, and there are still some pretty significant names out on the free agent market without a home. Basically all of those names reside on the pitching side of things, with perhaps the most upside being presented in the person of Matt Garza. Garza is coming off of a season with the Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs that could only be described as your typical up-and-down year.
The fact that Garza is still without a home does come as some surprise. While the likes of Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez cost a prospective team a draft pick, as they were handed qualifying offer, that is not the case with Garza. He will not cost the team a pick, in addition to perhaps bringing about the most upside out of the trio of free agent starters. That's just the beginning of the good in signing him.
In his time in the National League with the Chicago Cubs, we saw signs of Garza becoming that no. 2 or 3 starter that many have thought he could become throughout his career. His strikeout rate was as high as it's been in his career, as he punched out almost nine hitters per nine in 2011 before going for over eight K/9 again in 2012. Some of that could certainly be attributed to him jumping over to the NL Central from the ultra-competitive AL East, but he also saw a heavy increase in his slider usage over that same time as well, which helped to lead to the rise in strikeouts. He jumped up from using that slider about 14 percent of the time with the Tampa Bay Rays, to well over 23 percent of the time with the Cubs.
In 2013, Garza combined for a 3.82 ERA and a 3.73 xFIP in splitting time with the Cubs and the Texas Rangers. That puts him right about in line with his career averages, with the latter figure actually looking quite better than his career xFIP of 4.00. Prospective teams are looking at a guy who has demonstrated consistency throughout his career, and has the ability to flash stretches of dominance. His time in the American League East featured almost 600 innings, a 3.86 ERA and just three walks per nine going up against the likes of New York and Boston. His time in the NL showed that he has another level.
While there have the potential to be major positives in signing Matt Garza, there are also some red flags that come along with it. Red Flag No. 1 is obviously his health. Health prevented him from being traded by the Cubs at the 2012 trade deadline, due to elbow trouble, and health got his 2013 season off to a delayed start. That increased slider usage could certainly play a part, but Garza appears to have been given a clean bill of health by the Rangers.
Red Flag No. 2 is his tendency to get a little crazy out on the mound. There aren't metrics (yet) to account for headcases, but Garza is definitely the type of guy that has let his emotions get the best of him on more than one occasion. If he can limit those issues, he can be even more consistent. Red Flag No. 3 might just be his fielding ability. On the mound, it's not as much of a concern, but Garza is one of the more egregious fielders off the mound. His career DRS is at -23. The final red flag may be the contract he wants, which could include five years and somewhere north of $80 million. Of course, the deeper into the offseason Garza goes without a contract, the lighter those demands become.
The team that signs Matt Garza is going to be very happy that they did so. While he didn't have overwhelming success in his brief stint with Texas, he's proven successful in the AL East and in the National League. He has the ability to dominate, especially with the increased slider usage. If he can stay healthy and limit distractions while on the mound, two very big "ifs", Garza may just be a steal at this point in the winter.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.