matt garza chinIt’s still hard to pinpoint just what’s going on with Matt Garza’s “mild” left lat strain. Although the injury was never thought severe, he’s been shut down twice because of it, initially when he faced batters on February 17 (the first time he’d faced batters since an elbow injury ended his 2012 season in July), and then again after his throwing session on Saturday. Neither time did anyone express long-term concern or describe the injury in terms that would make you nervous.

Yet, here we are, more than two weeks later, and the Cubs are telling us that Garza could now miss the entire first month of the season?

It’s March 4 today. May 1 is almost two months away.¬†Garza is potentially going to be out another two months after suffering from something neither he nor Dale Sveum is willing to describe as, like, an actual injury?

Huh?

Just listen to them discuss the thing yesterday.

“Now we know it is just time,” Garza said after his session on Saturday didn’t go as well as he’d hoped, per ESPN. “We pushed it and pushed it hard. Everything felt great. Now it is the body saying, ‘Let’s take a little more time.’

“It happened late [while side throwing on Saturday]. It is not bad, I just think this came out from not pitching seven months. It didn’t hurt, [the discomfort] is just not gone. With stuff like this it has to be gone.”

Sveum echoed Garza’s innocuous description.

“Hopefully this is not a real bad [side strain] where you can’t sneeze or laugh,” Sveum said. “I don’t think it is that bad, but he is just not ready to throw a baseball yet. It didn’t get worse; he is just not ready to step up any extra intensity.”

Sure, Garza’s also building up arm strength from the elbow injury (seven months ago), but do those quotes sound like they’re talking about a guy who’s missed two weeks, and now might miss two more months?

I know teams are cagey about injuries. I know they’re even more cagey when the player at issue could eventually be involved in trade talks (and then the player, himself, will be cagey if he’s hoping for an extension or a big free agent deal). But something in all of this just doesn’t pass the smell test.

I’m all for Garza getting himself completely healthy, and this very well may be the time line that is required to get him there. But there is a significant and serious disconnect between that time line and the story coming from Garza and the Cubs. I’d just like to know what’s up.

Setting all of that aside, Garza’s injury – whatever you call it, however seriously you describe it – will have a profound impact on the Cubs’ near-term roster construction and organizational maneuvering.

As I’ve said all offseason, regardless of where you fall on the extend-him-trade-him spectrum, only good things could happen for the Cubs if Garza was healthy and effective right out of Spring Training this year. If the Cubs decide to shop him at the deadline, he’d have more trade value. If the Cubs decided to engage him in serious extension talks, they’d have more confidence that they weren’t buying a lemon.

So … the injury sucks. It sucks for the Cubs. It sucks for the fans. And it sucks for Garza. Sure, the injury prevented the Cubs from trading him in the Spring, which would have left him subject to the possible financial harm of a qualifying offer from his new team (if he’s traded midseason, on the other hand, his new team is not permitted to make him a qualifying offer). But missing a month, and then coming back strong could just as likely leave open the possibility that the Cubs are the ones making him that qualifying offer, doing the same harm to his market. Plus, there’s the whole “pitchers are risky investments, especially when they have lots of injuries in their past” thing – that doesn’t lead to huge contracts in free agency.

Now, we just hope that Garza fully recovers, pitches lights out in May and June, and at least leaves the Cubs some options, including a deadline trade. If that doesn’t happen (or even before the deadline), I’ll still be on board with a reasonable extension. The Cubs need pitching in the next few years, and a healthy Garza is as good a pitcher as they’ll find or develop in the near-term. The rub on an extension, however, is that the Cubs have to use the threat of a qualifying offer as leverage to get a slightly more reasonable deal. With apologies to Garza, the situation has long passed the point where the Cubs would be justified in offering him a market-level extension. If he’s tied to draft pick compensation after this season, he’s not going to get true market-level price if he departs the Cubs, and that’s the only leverage the Cubs have left to wield. The injury issues are ultimately what has brought the qualifying offer into play, and the Cubs need to use it.

If things play out that way and the extension doesn’t happen, you’re left with two “worst” cast scenarios: (1) Garza accepts the qualifying offer, and the Cubs are forced to keep Garza for 2014 at $13.5 to $14 million; or (2) Garza signs elsewhere, and the Cubs get a compensatory draft pick. Obviously it’s far, far, far (did I mention far?) short of what the Cubs would have netted in trade last offseason or even last July, but at least it’s not nothing.



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