Scott Baker, Matt Garza, and the month of April

Now that Spring Training is winding down and meaningful baseball is on the immediate horizon, I can finally bring myself to write something about the Cubs. Not that I haven’t had any thoughts on them recently, but I have a tough time making myself write any of them down before the month of April. If I had been sharing all of my thoughts on the team as they came to me this offseason, I’d have written a lot of really positive things. I think the Cubs had a fantastic offseason.

One of the things I’d have written favorably about is the one-year reclamation project they took on in former Minnesota Twin, Scott Baker. At a cost of just one year and $5.5 million, Baker, with his track record of success in the American League, was a savvy investment for an NL team looking to fix its starting rotation on the cheap.

Of course, he was available on the cheap for good reason. Baker made just one start in the Cactus League, after which the recent recipient of a new ulnar collateral ligament had an MRI on his pitching elbow that brought bad news. Such was the risk the Cubs took signing a pitcher on the mend from Tommy John surgery, but Baker’s elbow won’t let him back on a Major League mound until June at the soonest.

The consensus appears to be that the worst part about this news is the Cubs are out a potentially valuable trade chip. Baker isn’t going to have enough time to build up any value before the July 31st deadline, and this may in fact be the worst part about losing him until the summer. However, I have a slightly different perspective on what his absence means to this team.

You see, with Opening Day around the corner, most of the prognosticators have weighed in, and if you survey the forecasts, the Cubs are expected to be among the most improved teams in baseball this year. In fact, both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs have them good for 78 wins this season, which, even if that makes them long-shots at best for the playoffs, would represent a 17-win improvement, certainly impressive by any standard.

If the Cubs fail to win 78 games, even by a fairly significant margin, the truth is it won’t really matter much; that’s one of the benefits of having low expectations. But make no mistake about it– the Cubs have every reason to try and win as many games as possible this year. They may still be very much in “rebuilding” mode, (even if that’s a word Theo Epstein & Co. refuse to use), but the overall benefits of winning outweigh those of marginally better draft picks the following year. One could argue this is especially true of a team fresh off a 101-loss season.

The point I’m trying to make is, the Cubs winning something like 78 games and remaining on the (outermost) periphery of the playoff picture seemed a lot more plausible with an almost-healthy Scott Baker in the fold. So if you’re like me, and you think 78 wins is a little too rosy a projection for this team, then his impending absence is just another reason to scale back expectations that were low to begin with. I get that he was already set to miss the first month of the season, but even for a 75-78 win team, the difference between expecting 15-20 at best, rather than ~25 quality starts from Scott Baker, is significant.

It’s true that if he only had to miss April, and maybe a little of May at most, he could have become a valuable commodity by the end of July. It’s possible he could have been worth a good prospect. But another way of looking at his setback is that if Baker eventually gets back on the mound and pitches well again, then the Cubs could be positioned to resign a good pitcher who won’t make enough starts to earn himself more than a two-year deal next offseason.

Now, if you think about it, virtually everything that I’ve just written about Scott Baker applies to Matt Garza as well. Garza had a setback of his own this spring, and prior to that he appeared to be an even more logical trade candidate. He may still end up being worth a good prospect, and unlike Baker, there’s still a good chance he’ll be dealt this season because of that. But, his recent bout with the injury bug notwithstanding, it’s also possible the Cubs feel he’s worthy of committing to, especially if all that means is he won’t get more than a four-year deal on the open market.

This is a scenario I think too few people are considering. In fact, even if Garza does get traded in the middle of this season, it’s still possible the Cubs would be interested in resigning him next offseason. Remember, the Cubs were supposedly in on Ryan Dempster this offseason just months after they traded him in the middle of his walk year.

Again, though– the “to trade or not to trade” discussion shouldn’t be the only focus with regard to Garza. I don’t want to understate the significance of not having him available for the sake of actually winning games. Watching this team reach the 75-win plateau would be great, but without a healthy Matt Garza to begin the year, that becomes a little more difficult to accomplish.

If you take a look at the Cubs’ schedule, you’ll see that they’ve got their work cut out for them the first month of the season– three games each in Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati (who, collectively, played better than .600 ball at home last season) while the Texas Rangers and the defending World Series Champion San Francisco Giants are set to come to Wrigley. Nine games against the Pirates, Marlins and Padres provide some relief, but without two of their best, if not the two best pitchers the Cubs have, there’s a real chance this team will stumble out of the gate to begin the season.