Neither Matt Garza nor Scott Baker have pitched yet this spring. Neither is expected to pitch until around May.
But they may already by in competition.
It seems certain that the Cubs consider Jeff Samardzija as a building block and that Edwin Jackson was brought on to help stabilize the rotation. After that it gets a little dicey. Scott Feldman is on a one year deal and Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva have yet to prove themselves as starters.
Then there is Matt Garza and Scott Baker. Though both are injured this spring, they are veteran pitchers who have shown they can be a key part of a rotation. Each has had a 15 game win season, both have been above average starters over the last 5 years per WAR. Garza has averaged 2.7 WAR over his last 5 years while Baker has averaged 2.9. Garza has shown he's capable of having a big year (4.9 WAR in 2011) and may have better talent overall, but Baker has been more consistent throughout his career. He has posted a WAR between 2.6 an 3.5 in all 5 of his last full seasons.
Another factor may be that although Garza has been hurt since July of last season, he has been the more durable of the two, averaging 179 IP to Baker's 135. He also hasn't had anything as severe as Tommy John surgery.
But...Baker will likely be cheaper to re-sign and the Cubs can used that saved money to go after a true ace.
It would be nice if the Cubs had the luxury of time to evaluate both pitchers, but each is signed through this year only.
With not much help out there for 2014 as far as either upper minor league talent or free agency, it seems to me the Cubs should keep at least one pitcher in addition to Samardzija and Jackson.
The question is should it be Garza, Baker, both, or neither?
The original plan was to trade Garza and I can't help wondering now whether Baker was signed not as a guy to flip, but as a potential replacement. The Cubs signed him to a one year "make good" deal. If he does make good, it puts them in position to either trade him or get the inside track in signing him to a multi-year deal.
We've grown accustomed to the idea of signing and flipping already, but I'm not convinced this was the case with Baker. The first reason is that as a guy coming off of Tommy John surgery, he will almost certainly be put on an innings limit -- especially considering he basically didn't pitch at all season. Knowing he is only signed for one year, it's a big question as to whether a team that is contending will want to deal for him down the stretch considering they'll want big innings in August, September, and possibly October. Baker himself concedes he'll be unlikely to do that,
"I'm not going to promise 20 wins and 200 innings," Baker said. "I haven't pitched in a year, I didn't pitch obviously last season, and it's going to be tough, but I'm willing to put in the work."
The second reason is that Baker is very much the type of pitcher the Cubs want in this organization. He has a reputation of great mental makeup with an excellent approach on the mound and above average command that plays up his good stuff even more. He has walked just 2.1 batters per 9 IP in his career while striking out 7.2. In his last full season, he upped that strikeout rate to 8.22 while keeping the walk rate constant.
"Scott Baker is a pitch maker," Epstein said. "He's somebody who can go out and execute a game plan against the best lineups. When he's commanding and healthy, he'll have a lot of success in this division."
These two reasons tell me that this season may be more about audition than transition for Baker. The Cubs plan may have been to trade Garza for young talent, including one young arm, and replace his spot in the rotation with Baker. It should be pointed out that Edwin Jackson was also brought in, but I believe the Cubs were hoping he was more of a long term addition to the rotation than just a potential replacement for Garza.
The uncertainty now with both Garza and Baker has thrown a monkey wrench into the plans. The Cubs will now have to let this season play out before deciding which pitcher constitutes the better long term gamble. Perhaps they'll even keep both knowing that they likely won't get full value for either pitcher at the deadline. They could also decide that both pitchers are too big a risk and try to get whatever they can for both arms and, in terms of they starting rotation, they'll go into the next offseason right about where they began this past offseason -- with 2 good arms and a lot of question marks. To me this last option is the least favorable because it would indicate a lack of progress for the team, but they may not have much choice.
The best case scenario, of course, is that both pitchers get healthy and pitch well. That will give the Cubs the best opportunity to decide how they can get the most value -- by signing both, trading one, or salvaging what they can for both pitchers.
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