Matt Garza pitched impressively. Then he spoke candidly.
Late Monday night, after what might have been his final start for the Chicago Cubs, Garza confirmed reports that his representatives have spoken with the team about a contract extension. The chances for a long-term deal, Garza said, are “as real as a trade.” But he also acknowledged the possibility of a move before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
“It’s in both our courts,” Garza said of his talks with the Cubs, following an 8-2 victory over the White Sox at US Cellular Field. “Obviously, they have more cards to hold. At the end of the day, it comes down to my decision on an extension. On a trade, it’s their decision.
"I like being a Cub. I want to get this team to October and win it here. Like I said before, it’d be one hell of a party. But I’m just going to get ready for every five days.
“It’s up in the air — 50/50.”
The reality: The probability of a Garza trade remains high. He is set to become a free agent after this season. The Cubs’ rebuild has been frustrated by the new collective-bargaining agreement, and trading Garza, 29, is one of their best ways to add close-to-the-majors talent. Of great significance, his value is peaking at precisely the right time; he is 4-0 with a 0.97 ERA over his past five starts.
The Texas Rangers had two scouts at Monday’s game. The Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, Toronto Blue Jays and San Diego Padres had one each. They watched Garza work deliberately, but effectively over seven innings on a muggy night. He threw 102 pitches and permitted an earned run on only one of them — a home run to left by rookie catcher Josh Phegley.
Manager Dale Sveum praised Garza’s fastball velocity and ability to weave in his curveball, slider and changeup. “Outstanding again,” Sveum said.
So, which of those scouts might file the report that sends Garza to a new team?
The Padres, last in the National League West after losing 10 in a row, look like sellers. The Jays probably are more interested in Garza as a free agent after this season than a July trade acquisition, since they are 9½ games back in the American League East. And the Pirates don’t have an urgent need for rotation help, now that A.J. Burnett is back from the disabled list, although they could become more involved if Garza remains available late in the month.
The Rangers and Indians are known to have strong interest. The Boston Red Sox, Washington Nationals, and big-spending Los Angeles Dodgers can’t be ruled out. The Dodgers are still involved, a source told FOXSports.com, even after their recent acquisition of Ricky Nolasco.
The Rangers probably present the best fit. With four starters on the disabled list and urgency to win the World Series, they have an obvious need for Garza. They also possess one of the deepest farm systems in baseball. It’s unclear whether Texas would part with 22-year-old lefty Martin Perez, who’s 2-1 with a 1.85 ERA in four big league starts in 2013. But the Rangers can afford to part with a third-base prospect — Joey Gallo or Mike Olt — since they have Adrian Beltre under contract for at least two more seasons.
The Indians are highly unlikely to trade prized 19-year-old shortstop Francisco Lindor, and it would be downright stunning if they did so for a rental such as Garza. Trevor Bauer’s value has declined this year — he has a 1.472 WHIP at Triple-A — but Cleveland’s first-round pick last year, center fielder Tyler Naquin, is having a good season at Class-A Carolina.
Is it certain Garza will be moved? No. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com first reported Monday that the Cubs and Garza’s camp had recent discussions about a long-term contract. Our Ken Rosenthal subsequently confirmed those talks had occurred, adding that the Cubs lately have become more comfortable with Garza’s health.
Garza only recently returned from a 10-month absence from the major leagues because of two injuries: He missed the last two months of the 2012 season with a stress reaction in his right (throwing) elbow, and he didn’t debut this year until May 21 because of a left lat strain he suffered in spring training.
At the very least, I’m willing to credit the Cubs for strategic public relations. By raising the possibility of a long-term contract with Garza — however theatrically — the Cubs sent a not-so-subtle message to the teams inquiring about him: Matt Garza is healthy. We promise. In fact, he’s so healthy that WE want him, too!
Despite all the time lost to injuries, Garza probably wants to be paid like Anibal Sanchez — who nearly signed with the Cubs last winter before agreeing to a five-year, $80 million contract with the Tigers. The right-handers are close statistical comparisons, according to Baseball-Reference.com, and have similarly checkered health histories. But the Cubs probably won’t spend that much on Garza. Their last major investment in a starter — $52 million for Edwin Jackson — hasn’t turned out very well. And the Cubs would be wise to keep enough room in the budget for a Jeff Samardzija extension.
If the Cubs trade Garza and cite financial limitations as one reason, the logical follow-up will be whether they could have afforded him if it hadn’t been for Jackson’s contract. That question will be uncomfortable for president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer to answer, unless Jackson improves upon his performance this season (5-10, 5.50 ERA).
The Cubs could keep Garza through the end of the season, make him a qualifying offer and collect a compensatory draft pick if he signs elsewhere. But let’s be honest: They don’t want that. They want to get another organization’s best prospect — a player who will deliver superior performance, at a low salary, for the Cubs’ next contender.
Garza said Monday he believes the Cubs are “close” to winning again, although he might not be here to see it happen. When I asked him which team’s uniform he expects to be wearing Aug. 1, he said, “I’m hoping the Cubs, but I don’t look that far. What’s today, the 8th? Probably the 13th will be the next day I look at — five days from now.”
That’s when Garza is slated to make his next start. There’s no guarantee it will be for the Cubs.