Matt Garza, now a Milwaukee Brewer, got to back up his words tonight as he kicked the Cubs' teeth in with a strong start against an offense that is mediocre at best. This happened to be Garza's first victory of the season, as he's been kind of "meh" through the start of the season, but it seems like the Cubs are the catalyst for a lot of good opponent performances lately, so this shouldn't be too surprising. I'm still fairly confident that Behind the Ivy and others are right in that the Brewers will still finish out of a playoff spot, but for now the Brew Crew is sitting pretty atop the National League Central as their rivals scuffle in the early going. Baseball is a marathon and this is only the first leg of a long season, so let's wait a while before setting up too many narratives. However, the Brewers certainly are allowed to strut a bit right now, possessing the best winning percentage in MLB. The Cubs, on the other hand, need a few hot streaks to meet their projections; it seems that the anemic offense and inconsistent bullpen will keep them from meeting their Pythagorean expected winning percentage yet again.
After the game, Garza had a few interesting words to say (via Mark Gonzalez):
But Garza, who signed a four-year, $50 million contract with the Brewers last winner, didn't hide his glee over the fact he is pitching for a first-place team after being part of a rebuilding process with the Cubs during the three previous seasons.
“It’s a lot of fun to win," said Garza, who won his first game of the season as the Brewers improved to 17-6 in the National League Central. "You go through three years of constantly hoping (with the Cubs), you kind of run out of hope. You come to a team like this where every day we’re going to win. We’re not going out to hope to win. We’re going out with the attitude we’re going to win. It’s a lot different and brings a lot more emotion and a lot better emotion than hope.
"It’s confidence, and that’s what we’re playing with a lot right now. It’s great to be here, and I’m happy where I’m at."
I don't necessarily find any fault with what Garza said, because it is true that baseball is a lot more fun when you win. Even Theo Epstein said so in his introductory press conference. But the Cubs and the Brewers' plans aren't on parallel tracks. The Brewers seem willing to spend on mid-tier free agents such as Kyle Lohse and Garza to supplement their current homegrown core of Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks (who is scuffling) and Yovani Gallardo. They also spent on former Cub star Aramis Ramirez, who helped the Cubs net Pierce Johnson in the supplementary first round of the 2012 MLB Draft. The Brewers are bent on plugging leaks and hoping for the best, whereas the Cubs are building towards the future. That's the way Theo Epstein outlined the plan when he took over and he hasn't wavered from it yet. Do I wish they could speed it up? Of course! But unfortunately, baseball doesn't work on a sped up clock.
When Garza was acquired by Jim Hendry in trade from the Tampa Bay Rays, the goal was to also win now because that was Hendry's swan song. And Garza was right about that; Hendry's mantra was "I hope we win" because even at the most optimistic projection, Garza's max output of four wins above replacement probably wasn't enough to get the Cubs into the wild card anyway. When Theo took over, the Cubs were in full scale rebuild mode and "I hope we win" was more on the players and manager, not so much on the front office whose priority was to dismantle the remnants of an inefficient team and reconstruct an entire system with a firm foundation. I believe the priorities may shift as soon as this coming offseason, but right now the focus is still on player development and asset management rather than all-out winning.
I'm disappointed in all the losses, because I think the Cubs can play better than they have so far even with a roster full of scraps and young hope. But I understand the plan and stick by it. My concern, however, is that quotes like Garza's may actually resonate with potential free agents and other players. It may be, for example, that the Cubs went all-in on guys like Masahiro Tanaka, but in addition to the lack of opt-out and no-trade, Tanaka might not have liked the idea of pitching for a team on the mend. It would be difficult for the Cubs, short of some epic tampering, to convince enough elite free agents to sign with them given the current situation of the club. There's also the fact that most veterans who would potentially sign with the club know that they are inevitable trade bait (though they pretty much guarantee themselves a shot at the postseason at the trade deadline) or that they'll be stuck on a team that only "hopes to win" just as Garza did.
You also have to wonder (and probably conclude) that a guy like Jeff Samardzija is thinking the same thing as Garza did all those years: "Why am I on this team hoping that they're going to win when I can be elsewhere?" What kind of environment is this where you may not even be able to convince your own stars to stay? We can debate whether Samardzija should be traded or extended later, but that's something to definitely think about.
So now we have to hope that the mainstays, such as Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Welington Castillo, take that next step forward. I've seen some good things from these guys that give me hope that they'll fill in and help shape the nucleus of the next Cubs contender. If they, and others, all do well enough, there will be enough wins on paper to convince free agents to come to Chicago. And hopefully by then the ownership will have started renovating/expanding Wrigley Field and making bank so baseball operations can spend that money efficiently. We have to hope that guys like Mike Olt can realize their potential, that Javier Baez isn't a bust, and that Kris Bryant and Albert Almora are close to joining them on the big stage. This, then, is a different kind of hope than what Garza suggested. It's not a hope that the Cubs can win games NOW (even though that would be nice)...rather, it's a hope that they will grow incrementally and all this growth will synergize into something special that will attract a Max Scherzer or a James Shields to boost the chances on the North Side. And even if there's no Scherzer or Shields to be added, at least there's enough depth in the system to bring up as, or trade away for, reinforcements.
It would go a long way to getting rid of the cynicism that's plaguing the Cubs fan base and apparently their own players.
Matt Garza added these quotes at the end of the game:
“I told him [Jeff Samardzija]: ‘It doesn’t matter, dude. You play in Chicago. I was there and I lost 30 wins in three seasons. So it’s not your fault. Just pitch your way out of it"
“Just pitch your way out of it. Keep your eyes focused. Keep your eyes straight ahead and just pitch. There’s nothing else you can do.”
Aramis Ramirez also added his thoughts about Jeff Samardzija being moved:
“I don’t know if you want to let somebody like that go. I don’t know what his contract situation is. But, man, he’s pretty good. That’s the guy you should be building around. You just don’t find those guys.”
“I’ll take him, yeah. S---, any team. You ask the other 29 teams, who wouldn’t take Samardzija? He goes out there every fifth day. Doesn’t get hurt. He’s going to give you quality innings and he’s young. He’s the perfect guy for any ballclub.”