Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

Setting aside the surprising 10-7 run in the last 17 games, there are a number of reasons to believe that this year’s Chicago Cubs are not going to compete for a playoff spot this season.

Assuming that’s true, one of the most important story lines that will play out over the next few months is which players the Cubs choose to shop, and which players the Cubs choose to retain for the near – or long-term – future. And the player most important to that story line is probably Matt Garza, both because he is the Cubs’ most valuable trade chip, but also because his presence, when paired with a few additions in the offseason, could lead to a competitive Cubs team as soon as 2013.

For a while now we’ve heard that the Cubs plan to extend or trade Matt Garza by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, mostly via Bruce Levine. But Gordon Wittenmyer says he’s heard that isn’t so. Indeed, the Cubs might elect to roll the dice on keeping Garza for 2013 if it looks like the team might be pretty good. From the Sun-Times:

Contrary to speculation that the Cubs plan to trade Garza at the deadline if they don’t re-sign him to a multiyear extension, team insiders say they’ve set no such timetables. Considering that he’s under club control through next season with another year of arbitration eligibility, Cubs brass has ample time to measure his value against the market and the progress of the rest of the organization.

This seems certain: If the Cubs sign Garza to an extension, they plan to build with him ….

But if Samardzija (4-1, 3.03 ERA) proves he’s the starting pitcher he has appeared to be through six starts, then the Cubs have two front-line starters.

With any depth around that, a competitive window starts to open.

‘‘That can take you to the promised land in itself [if] you get three guys doing that on a consistent basis,’’ [Reds pitcher Bronson] Arroyo[, who knows Epstein well from his time in Boston,] said.

That’s a strong school of thought running through the front office, say sources.

In other words, some in the Cubs’ organization believe, if Jeff Samardzija demonstrates that he’s legit (and probably if guys like Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson emerge later in the year as contributors, and Bryan LaHair shows he can play in left field (and his bat doesn’t regress)), the team should go into the Winter as heavy buyers. In that situation, trading Garza now would be a mistake.

This disconnect underscores just what a difficult midseason lies ahead for the Cubs’ front office. Garza could net a haul of prospects, but if you move him, what if the rest of the team would have been ready to break through in 2013? If you keep him, what if he simply will not sign an extension this Winter? What if you take the “go for it” approach in 2013, but critical pieces in such a strategy – like Cole Hamels, for example – won’t sign with you?

I remain perfectly open to either approach. If the Cubs opt to deal off parts with ferocity at the deadline, I can absolutely support that approach, so long as the returns look attractive. If the Cubs, instead, opt to lock up Matt Garza long-term, I can support that, too, so long as the deal is reasonable.

The thing to remember: Garza’s value will never be higher than it will be in July, assuming he stays healthy and keeps pitching like he has been. Teams will know what they want at that time, and they’ll be getting Garza – in his prime – not only for the stretch run, but also for next season. If the Cubs elect to keep him, they *better* lock him up long term, and/or load up on quality players this Winter. Otherwise, Garza’s value from here on out – be it on the field for the Cubs, or in trade – will be squandered.

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