Amid heavy rumors that Matt Garza will be dealt sometime later this week, I think it’s high time we take a moment to truly evaluate the asset in motion. Fans all over baseball (especially Cubs fans, who want to know what’s coming next into their suddenly fertile farm system) are trying to nail down Garza’s value on the trade market, but it all seems to be haphazard and off-handed.

The breadth of opinion about what Chicago is going to get in return for its best starting pitcher is somewhat stunning, and renders the rumor mill frustratingly useless right now. Moderators of these discussions—sports-talk radio hosts, studio pundits, bloggers—keep asking people who do not seem overwhelmingly qualified, and the answers they return don’t meet my standard for newsworthiness. I want to lay things out, call upon recent historical precedent and systematically determine just what is really out there. Let’s try it.

First of all, we should loosely describe the item up for bid. Garza is an accomplished but not star-level starting pitcher. Among the skins on his wall are the 2008 ALCS MVP award, a no-hitter in 2010 and three full seasons of above-average performance over roughly 200 innings. He’s 29 years old, and a free agent at year’s end. He’s tall but not thick, and has sound mechanics, although he has battled elbow issues that trace to a high-torque arm action–particularly on breaking balls.

Garza can reach the mid-90s with command. He has done so even this season, as he returns from a stress reaction in his elbow that stole his second half in 2012 and a lat strain that kept him out of action until May of this year. He has a slider with sharp downward break, a pitch a prior generation might have called a power curve. He also has a changeup and a truer curveball, although neither of those offerings stands out.

Obviously, this is a valuable commodity, especially on a seller’s trade market. His exact value, though—the final, specific haul Chicago can get for him—hinges not only on his skills, contract and health status, but on the historical norms of trade value for similar players, the number of interested bidders and the negotiating competence of the Cubs front office.

Let’s answer the second of those secondary questions first. How many teams are really in on Garza? I count 15 teams who are in contention and whose chances would be meaningfully augmented by the addition of Garza.

We can eliminate a few right off the bat, though.

  • Although the Atlanta Braves’ starters have been slightly below average this year, and although that club is already in first place and in a good position to solidify, their depth has overshadowed their lack of dominance and will lead them not to actively try to improve that unit.
  • The Baltimore Orioles had such gaping holes in their starting staff that, even having already traded for the Cubs’ Scott Feldman, they could use more help. Alas, they have declared themselves out on Garza, citing the high asking price, and indeed, their farm system would be left quite thin after such a move.
  • The Kansas City Royals’ struggles have been multi-factorial this year, but as they have the worst regular starter in baseball, their quickest path to improvement would be to replace Wade Davis with a good arm like Garza’s. Those same struggles, though, have Kansas City only on the very fringe of contention, and if they have half a brain, they won’t mortgage any more of their future on a season now nearly lost.
  • The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are one of baseball’s five best offensive teams, and play okay defense. Their pitching is crippling them. Like the Royals, they have so many losses in the bank that going all-out to salvage the campaign would be a fool’s errand. Unlike the Royals, they couldn’t meet Chicago’s price even if they tried.
  • The Toronto Blue Jays continue to masquerade as contenders, and it’s understandable. They are, by rights, the second- or third-best team in the toughest division in baseball, and no club poured more effort into building a winning team last winter. Alas, they trail too many teams at this point, and have already emptied their coffers of all surplus talent. Getting Garza, while possible, falls far short of advisable.

That leaves 10 teams whose interest might be more genuine, and who could afford Garza, in terms of talent drawn from their minor-league well. They are: Arizona, Boston, Cleveland, the Dodgers, Oakland, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St. Louis, Texas and Washington.

Before going into specifics about what a reasonable package would look like for each of those, though, we should collate as much information about the way teams value players this time of year as possible.

Obviously, trade-deadline deals are not the rational marginal-value swaps that good off-season trades are. Teams chasing the postseason realize a greater marginal value for any win added, not only from a financial perspective, but competitively, and in public-perception terms. Therefore, for instance, although Garza is only likely to make his acquiring team a win or two or three better down the stretch, the Cubs can reasonably expect a return that reflects the inflated value of his contributions to a winning team in a compressed time span.

We also won’t be talking about trading apples for apples. Garza is a dollar bill. He’s well-marked, crisp and certain. Although he could get torn up, or blow away in the wind, he is what he is, and teams have no reason to believe he may turn out to be counterfeit currency.

On the other hand, the Cubs will be accepting coins of unknown value in return for Garza. There will be sufficient dirt and wear to obscure the value of the coin, and only the ongoing process of player development will allow the Cubs to polish the coin, make it shine, and discover its ultimate worth. For that reason, although there may be a coin whose potential value apparently and significantly exceeds a dollar, the Cubs can reasonably demand it. They are accepting risk by trading Garza, just as the buying team is by acquiring him, and Chicago should ensure that their return has at least a 50-percent chance of being worth at least one dollar, as it were.

Enough with the metaphor. Bringing it back to baseball jargon, we should talk about special-assignment scouting and the time value of young talent.

Whenever a big trade begins to brew, a team calls upon a scout (or several, if there are time and resources enough) in whose input they have tremendous faith, and asks them to deliver an exhaustive evaluation of how the player in question projects in the short term. While Garza’s track record is enough to make clear that he is a useful mid-rotation arm, teams interested in leveraging his last dozen starts before free agency are not worried about how consistent or reliable he’s been. They need to know how Garza is pitching right now. They need to see him looking healthy, comfortable and in control. They need to see him respond to adversity. They need to see him repeat his delivery. A hurler who loses his release point for two starts can derail a team, instead of delivering them to the promised land.

It’s tough to imagine that the scouts who have seen Garza of late have anything negative to report. As always, Garza has been intense and competitive, and as usual, he has had to rein himself in on occasion when innings (or whole outings) threatened to get away from him. Nonetheless, he’s pitching at the top of his game right now, and even if an interested team doesn’t buy into hot streaks or hot hands, they have to price in the possibility of Garza carrying their team forward the way he has carried the Cubs in his recent starts.

As for time value, this comes into play when other teams begin to gauge what they must bid in order to land Garza without overpaying. The Cubs have the option, of course, of simply not trading Garza, and whether they then extend him or just present a qualifying offer so as to obtain draft-pick compensation when he goes elsewhere, that course of action has nonzero value to them.

Of course, trading Garza still has more value to them. It has more value both because the Cubs are non-competitive this season and are unlikely to be competitive in 2014, and because a prospect already a year or two into their pro career, acquired this month, will help Chicago much sooner than a potential draftee scooped up next June. So while teams bidding for Garza have to offer more than a top-40 draft pick is worth, they can discount their offer by whatever percentage they think the Cubs’ value added depreciates as they await the draft pick they could claim 11 months from now if they retain their top arm.

(As an aside, though, that should be a small percentage, since the wariness of losing draft picks that every team showed last winter highlights the value draft picks still have, and since an extra pick has high marginal value under the rules set that now governs the draft.)

Let’s highlight recent comparable pitchers who hit the market. (I don’t want to try to equate Garza to any position players, since the value patterns of pitchers and position players over half a season is so different, and since the way teams shuffle their rosters to make on-the-fly additions is so different.)

Zack Greinke was available last July. He, too, was on the cusp of free agency, and although he was and is more accomplished than Garza, he was three years removed from his Cy Young season by last summer. Like Garza, he’d had some minor recent injury issues. Like Garza, he flashed dominance as the deadline neared, but did not declare himself an ace or pitch far out of line with his career norms.

The Milwaukee Brewers dealt Greinke to the Angels for Jean Segura, Johnny Hellweg and Ariel Pena. Those had been the second, fourth and ninth prospects on Baseball America’s top 10 list for the Angels entering 2012, second, third and 10th per Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein. Segura, the main get, had been in the back half of top-100 prospect lists for baseball on the whole entering the season, and was in the midst of a strong recovery from an injury-riddled 2011. He was in the big leagues by year’s end, and has been the team’s regular shortstop all season this year. Hellweg has now also attained the big leagues. He and Pena were pure upside plays.

Erstwhile Cubs teammate Ryan Dempster nearly netted the team Randall Delgado last summer. Only a bungled handling of the situation and Dempster’s exercise of his five-and-10 rights stopped that from happening. Delgado was a top-50 prospect heading into 2012, and was generally seen as roughly that valuable when the non-move happened. Even hamstrung by a very constrained ensuing situation, though, the Cubs eventually got Christian Villanueva–a fringe top-100 prospect at third base–and Kyle Hendricks, a solid pitching prospect who has taken big steps forward in the Cubs system in 2013. Both of those players are at Double-A.

Anibal Sanchez also got dealt last July. He is a more comfortable, direct comparable pitcher for Garza. Unfortunately, the competitive-balance pick machinations and desire on the part of Miami to save money, plus the fact that Miami dealt Sanchez in tandem with Omar Infante, muddle the waters there almost beyond saving. To boil it down, we could fairly say that Sanchez was dealt for Jacob Turner, who entered last season as a top-30 prospect in all of baseball but had been scuffling before being traded. Turner is now a member of the Marlins rotation.

Garza could also go in a package, but the complexities added wouldn’t necessarily change what he’s worth in isolation. Garza should net the Cubs a fringe top-50 prospect, and at least one other player of variable value. Here’s what each of the big bidders could offer to get the Cubs interested within those parameters:

Arizona Diamondbacks: Matt Davidson, Andrew Chafin and David Holmberg 

Led by Davidson, this would be a low-ceiling but high-floor package. Davidson won the Futures Game MVP Sunday. He can hit, and hit for power, although he will never be a true offensive stud. He can play third base just fine, and could hit 25 home runs a year with decent on-base skills. He’s a right-handed hitter, which is unfortunate (since the Cubs’ quartet of elite incumbent positional prospects all bat righty, too), but is virtually MLB-ready and is a fairly certain commodity.

Chafin and Holmberg both are lefty hurlers, thriving at Double-A. Chafin is more of a potential bullpen arm and upside play, whereas Holmberg is a command-control lefty who gives every indication of being a future back-of-the-rotation arm. Neither guy will radically reshape the Cubs’ minor-league pitching hierarchy, but they will lend depth at the upper levels that the team sorely needs.

If the team is feeling ambitious, they could take aim at either Tyler Skaggs or Delgado, now in Arizona, but Davidson would then come off the table. Chicago best leverages its risk by receiving a package headlined by a position player, so this scenario seems the most prudent.

Boston Red Sox: Matt Barnes and Brandon Workman

About a dozen combinations of two names would work here. In addition to those two, Henry Owens, Anthony Renaudo and Allen Webster also work. (Webster could be subbed for Workman, or Renaudo for Barnes, but the reverse does not work in either case.) All four, save Webster, are Theo Epstein-era draftees, so there would be no fooling anyone. The Sox and Cubs know each other very well.

Because Epstein and company likely know a bit more about one or more of these strong pitching prospects–Barnes was a top-40 prospect entering the year, while Workman has had a breakthrough season and has even been showcased with the parent club–it’s a bit easier to swallow the added risk. Both pitchers could figure into the Cubs’ rotation plans as soon as 2014. This deal is likely, though, only if the Red Sox have faltering faith in the health of downed ace Clay Buchholz.

Cleveland Indians: Trevor Bauer, Luigi Rodriguez and Mitch Brown

Bauer is right about where Jacob Turner was last season, a would-be elite pitching prospect unable to get out of Quadruple-A limbo. It’s troubling that Bauer’s command has been the source of his difficulties, but encouraging that his stuff survives fundamentally intact. He would lend Chicago too much upside to ignore, and Rodriguez—a center fielder with tools who has handled a mid-season promotion to the Carolina League really well—would help bridge the gap from present to future in the Cubs outfield.

Brown is the guy who makes the deal tough for Cleveland to accept. He’s 19 years old, and while his second pro season hasn’t been the forward leap his first one augured, he’s an upside guy, a well-rounded and fairly polished high-school arm with pitchability.

Why would the Indians agree to this? It’s no harder than it seems: Garza is a bigger difference-maker for them than for anyone else in the league. Cleveland has an offense that will grind out plenty of runs as the long season drags onward. What they need is a starting pitcher who can truly front their rotation, taking pressure off their bullpen, eliminating their reliance on some truly replacement-level starters and swing men. They’re not enough worse than Detroit not to make a move on them, and Garza would be the guy to make that move a legitimate one.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Joc Pederson and Chris Reed

Another Futures Game standout, Pederson looks like a potential impact player, where once there appeared to be only a role player. His power has blossomed, he can run, he can throw, and although he’s consigned to left field by most evaluations, he’s a fine defender there. He’s hitting for average in the Southern League, too, a second straight season with solid strike-zone numbers. Best of all, he bats left-handed, and would help the Cubs solve a potential problem of imbalance before it can fester.

Reed is having a solid season at Double-A, too. He’s a left-hander who went to the rotation after closing in college, and although he might eventually have to move back into a relief role, right now he has 77 strikeouts against 34 walks and is holding up fine in the upper minors.

Oakland Athletics: Michael Choice, Raul Alcantara and David Freitas 

Choice is strikingly similar to Segura, as he stood last July. Both were toolsy, well-regarded prospects, but both had had some problems with underperformance, then injury, the year before. Both therefore fell fairly deep into the back half of the top 100 prospects. However, as Segura was last summer, Choice is playing very well in the high minors, and could well be in the big leagues right away if dealt into the right situation.

Alcantara is one of those guys whose arm is always crackling, and everyone just has to wait and see whether that’s going to translate into a refined repertoire with life and movement, or just an erratic arm. It’s been the former this year, and Alcantara’s prospect stock is very much on the rise. He might be tougher for Oakland to surrender than Choice.

The prototypical third guy in the deal, Freitas profiles as a future back-up backstop. He’s nothing special, but he’s not nothing, and the Cubs lack depth behind the plate from the top of the system to the bottom.

This is a rich package. Alcantara’s season thus far has to make Oakland loathe to let him go. Still, they would probably do it, in the end, both because this roster is playoff-ready, and because they have a direct competitor making a lot of noise in the Garza market. The Cubs’ brass are not and should not be above drawing the extra drop of blood from the stone when they are working with a team whose chief rival might otherwise reel in Garza.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Alen Hanson, Tyler Glasnow and Adrian Sampson

Last season, Jean Segura ranked 67th on Baseball Prospectus’s Top 101 prospects list, and 55th on Baseball America’s. This year, Hanson ranked 66th on BP’s list, and 61st on BA’s. Hanson isn’t having quite Segura’s 2012 season. He’s further from the big leagues and has a lower ceiling. Still, he’s a solid prospect, and has a chance to be an above-average everyday shortstop. If the Cubs prefer the upside and risk play, they could press Pittsburgh for Josh Bell instead of Hanson.

Glasnow is a tall right-hander with projection, who is already punishing opponents in the South Atlantic League. He has 110 strikeouts in just over 75 innings pitched there this year. The command is behind the bat-missing skills, but so it goes.

Beyond his name, Sampson has a live arm and some good feel to offer. He’s struggled in the Florida State League thus far, but it might be as simple for him as learning not to pound the strike zone so much. He’s allowed more home runs (16) than walks (15) in 89 innings this year.

San Francisco Giants: Kyle Crick, Mac Williamson

Crick is not yet, but could blossom into another Zack Wheeler, which will make GM Brian Sabean reticent to deal him. He’s fanned 44 in just under 30 innings this season, but has had control problems and flashed them again at the Futures Game. Still in High-A, he’s at least a year from the big leagues, likely more, but he could be an impact arm upon arrival 22 months from now. Sabean, not known for waving the white flag and waiting two years, might be alright with letting another one get away if, this time, his gambit has a better chance to pay off. With the struggles of the Giants’ rotation so far, Garza could really open things up for them.

Williamson is a gigantic person, but may not have the power gigantic people need to be impact players in MLB. He does have 17 home runs on the year, but that’s in the California League, at age 22. He’s a bit of Jorge Soler insurance, for the Cubs.

St. Louis Cardinals: Michael Wacha, Joe Kelly

The intradivisional trade bugaboo might stop this from happening, but Garza would provide St. Louis a steadier and stronger presence in the middle of their rotation than either Wacha or Kelly can right now. With Trevor Rosenthal ready and willing to move back to the rotation in 2014, neither Wacha nor Kelly is likely to be missed in the long term. Wainwright/Miller/Garza/Lynn is a vicious post-season rotation.

Meanwhile, the Cubs’ big-league rotation would get a boost, beginning next season. If Kelly can’t cut it there, he will slide easily into a high-leverage role in the Chicago bullpen. Wacha probably would be the top of the team’s rotation right away next year.

Texas Rangers: Mike Olt, Luis Sardinas, Justin Grimm

Olt, of course, was a top-20 prospect barely more than a year ago, but took some steps back at the end of 2012, and then had eye problems early in 2013 that threatened to permanently stunt him as a hitter. He’s corrected the problem, though it doesn’t seem like the potential .270 hitter with 35 homers is coming back. He’s got a very good chance to be a solid everyday third baseman, and could be in the Cubs’ lineup before the year is out.

Sardinas would offer perhaps the best answer to a peculiar question, in an organization with Starlin Castro, Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara all apparently clamoring to be the long-term shortstop. That question is this: Who will, you know, play shortstop?

Unlike the trio of bat-first infielders in the Cubs organization right now, Sardinas has elite defensive tools. He can throw, he can run and his hands and instincts are smoother than any of the three current Cubs. He also has a high ceiling as a hitter, albeit one whose value will always reside primarily in batting average.

Grimm isn’t a star, but he should be able to deliver league-average innings for a while. He’s the kind of guy the Cubs have had to go out, find and pay for in each of the past two winters, and those expenditures have stopped Chicago from pursuing some higher-impact positional free agents and trade targets. Grimm could have a Ryan Dempster season or two for the Cubs, but even if he settles more into an innings-eating, Travis Wood sort of role, he will help advance the team’s rebuild.

Meanwhile, the Rangers can stop trying to execute the difficult tasks of winning big-league games and developing a raw young arm at once. They will replace Grimm (or Nick Tepesch, or Ross Wolf, who has temporarily taken Grimm’s rotation spot) with Garza, a huge step forward. Honestly, Texas should be willing to add another name in order to get this deal done, if necessary. There are no fewer than eight players on their Hickory affiliate in Low-A that would do the trick.

I think the internet consensus, and the bar set by (fairly useless) beat writer speculation, is pegging Garza’s value a bit too low. The Cubs should expect valuable assets in return for Garza. If Zack Greinke, Ryan Dempster and Anibal Sanchez could command what they did, and if we stipulate that (while this is not the end-all be-all) Garza is pitching better than any of those were at the time they were dealt, the logical conclusion is that the Cubs can reasonably command two solid prospects, one with impact potential, in return for him.

Now, markets don’t develop the same way every year. It’s distinctly possible that none of the offers above will be there for the Cubs, and it’s distinctly possible that the Cubs can do better. For all the talk about the rising esteem of prospects within the baseball industry, though, and about teams’ reticence to trade them, the following players have switched organizations as minor leaguers over the past two calendar years (the list is non-inclusive):

Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard, Travis D’Arnaud, Arodys Vizcaino, Randall Delgado, Jonathan Singleton, Jarred Cosart, Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Jean Segura, Anthony Rizzo, Jake Marisnick, Justin Nicolino, Adeiny Hechavarria, Jesus Montero, Drew Pomeranz, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Didi Gregorius, Trevor Bauer, Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, Patrick Leonard, A.J. Cole, Derek Norris, Jarrod Parker, Jacob Turner

I think it’s an empty narrative that prospects are impossible to move these days. I think those who espouse it either misremember a rash of trades of elite prospects that wasn’t happening a generation ago, or is selectively emphasizing moves that don’t happen over the many that do. In any event, the point is as it was before this rant: Matt Garza has a whole lot of trade value, and there is no good reason to think the Chicago Cubs are about to let it go to waste.

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