It's been an interesting ride with Matt Garza since the Brewers announced his record-breaking deal at the Brewers On Deck event in 2014. Brought in to lead anchor the pitching staff on a team desperately trying to hold their window open, Garza got off to a rocky start with a 4.84 ERA through the season's first two months. He was probably the only player not wildly outperforming expectations as the franchise got off to it's best ever start. He became the de facto ace Milwaukee was expecting him over the next two months and was on an absolute roll when he landed on the disabled list in August, a devastating blow to a fading team. In his absence, the Brewers collapsed -- we won't talk about that again here. There's no need. Let's move on.
2015 was an unmitigated disaster for both the Brewers and Garza. Expected to team with Kyle Lohse to form a steady veteran presence for an otherwise very young pitching staff, both instead turned in the worst performances of their careers. In keeping with their reputations, when both players were eventually removed from the starting rotation, they reacted in opposite ways. Lohse accepted the assignment to the bullpen humbly, acknowledging his poor performance. Garza angrily refused to pitch out of the bullpen, going on an expletive-heavy rant, and the team instructed him to stay home when he left on paternity leave in mid-September.
Drafted in the first round of the 2005 draft by the Twins, Garza rocketed through the Twins organization, skipping through High-A, Double-A and Triple-A all the way to the big leagues in his first professional season. In a sign of things to come, Garza was publicly upset when he was left off the opening day roster the following season, but proved he belonged by putting up a Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz-friendly 3.69 ERA in 16 appearance (15 starts) with the Twins after a mid-season call up. The next off-season, he was traded to the Rays in exchange for Delmon Young (among others), where he became briefly one of the game's premier pitchers. In 2010 he became the first Ray to throw a no-hitter, striking out six and walking one against Detroit.
In an act of desperation, then-Cubs GM Jim Hendry sold the farm for Garza in January of 2011. He gave up a massive package of prospects to acquire the 27-year-old, including SS Hak Ju Lee, a top 50 prospect at the time who has never recovered from a major knee surgery, OFs Sam Fuld and Brandon Guyer, and C Robinson Chirinos, all of whom are now major league contributors. Of course, I'm burying the lede here, because the Rays also acquired RHP Chris Archer, who finished fifth in AL Cy Young voting this season, in that deal. After a spectacular first year that was the best of his career, Garza's tenure with the Cubs was a major disappointment that included multiple lengthy trips to the disabled list. In 2013 Garza was traded again, this time to Texas in exchange for former top prospect Mike Olt and Justin Grimm. The following off-season, of course, he signed with Milwaukee.
For his career Garza, who turned 32 last week, carries an unspectacular 3.99 ERA, a 7.41 K/9 and a 3.01 BB/9, and has amassed 20.8 fWAR over 10 seasons. Off-the-field issues have followed Garza throughout his numerous stops. In addition to his poor reaction to his removal from the starting rotation last season, Garza came under fire during his short stint with the Rangers after making sexist comments on Twitter about Kaycee Sogard, the wife of A's infielder Eric. He also further widened the chasm between himself and the Cubs and their fans when he publicly told Jeff Samardzija that he needed to "pitch his way out of" the Cubs organization and claiming they had cost him 30 wins.
Milwaukee signed Garza to a four year contract worth a guaranteed $50 million in January of 2014 in what was (and is) the largest contract offered a pitcher in franchise history. The deal included up to $4 million in incentives, of which $2 million are still attainable -- he gets $500,000 each for 30 starts and 190 innings pitched, numbers he hasn't reached since 2011 in Chicago.
There is also an option year for 2018, and it is a doozy. Adam McCalvy reported the details several days after reports that a deal had been reached surfaced. The option vests at $13 million if Garza meets all of the following conditions: pitches in 110 games (it doesn't say he needs to start those games), pitches 115 innings in 2017, and is not on the disabled list at the end of the 2017 regular season. Garza appeared in 53 games in 2015, so he's just slightly off his pace there. If Garza does not meet those conditions, it becomes a $5 million dollar club option. If Garza spends 130 days on the DL during a 183-days period for any of any of an unspecified list of injuries, that club option drops to just $1 million -- a lot like the strange option that forced John Lackey to pitch for the Cardinals last season for the veteran minimum.
Garza's contract seemed perfectly reasonable when he signed it -- $12.5 million AAV for a relatively-steady 2-3 win player with some injury concerns isn't a financial stretch, and the deal only takes him through his age 34 season, including the option year. The complicated option and performance incentives are health based, and are designed to help the team perhaps recoup some lost value in the event of a serious health issue.
With his poor performance in 2015, however, Garza's contract now seems like a bit of an albatross. The Brewers will be hoping that Garza can recoup some value in 2016. Given how poorly he pitched, and how antagonistically his season ended, the Brewers may be wise to hold on to Garza and regain some of his value before perhaps dealing him sometime this summer.
The free agent pitching market is absolutely loaded this winter. Zack Greinke and David Price are the headliners, but the under-card of Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmerman (recently signed by Detroit for 5 years, $110 million) and Samardzija is pretty strong as well. Were he a free agent this season, Garza would probably fit somewhere in the 15-20 range in the rankings, near other pitchers attempting to rehabilitate their values like Mat Latos and Doug Fister. One good comparison might be J.A. Happ, who just signed a 3 year, $36 million deal with Toronto. Of course Happ had an uncharacteristically-great half season with Pittsburgh to finish 2015, is left-handed, and isn't considered any sort of a locker-room liability, but his contract indicates that Garza's $12.5 million AAV isn't necessarily completely out to lunch.
Whether a team will be willing to take on that contract and the risks associated with it in exchange for a prospect of any significant value is another manner entirely. Starting pitching is always in demand, and any number of teams looking for immediate help in the rotation could be willing to take a flyer on Garza. The Tigers have publicly stated their intention to acquire multiple starting pitchers, and the Giants are also actively seeking pitching. However, with so many options on the market that cost only money, there's little reason for a team to send a prospect for the right to pay Garza. If Milwaukee wants to pick up a player of any significant value, they'll probably need to eat some of Garza's contract in the deal.
It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Garza plays out the duration of his contract with Milwaukee. With the Brewers contention window likely not opening until 2018, there's some potential that a veteran starting pitcher on a $5 million salary could provide some value -- if he can regain his form. However with several young pitchers like Zack Davies and Jorge Lopez ready or nearly ready to be installed into the major league rotation -- and with a number of free agent starting pitchers who can perform at least as well as Garza did last year -- Garza's main function with the Brewers might be as annoyingly-overpaid malcontent blocking the way for younger prospects. To that end, I imagine the Brewers will be very active in attempting to move Garza over the several months.
All stats courtesy of FanGraphs