Without a trade, Matt Garza finds himself in Cubs’ starring role
By GORDON WITTENMYER email@example.com February 19, 2012 9:36PM
Updated: March 21, 2012 8:14AM
MESA, Ariz. — It was like Wal-Mart on Black Friday when the Cubs’ clubhouse opened to media for the first time Sunday morning, with a throng of reporters surging toward Matt Garza’s locker and surrounding him.
‘‘What’d you do?’’ bemused and nosy closer Carlos Marmol called from across the room. ‘‘You get traded or something?’’
Not exactly. Not yet, anyway.
And as much as anything else, that was the point Sunday at Fitch Park as Cubs pitchers and catchers held the first official workouts of spring training.
Sporting a new number (Mark Prior’s old No. 22) and a new role as staff ace (if not veteran leader), Garza opened his second spring with the Cubs also sporting a look of confident satisfaction at the fact he even survived the winter of Cub Transition to make it here.
‘‘Never a doubt,’’ Garza said.
Assuming he’s not kidding, that makes one person without a doubt.
Fact is, the Cubs spent much of the winter gauging their top pitcher’s trade value with the intent, according to sources, of trading him if they got the high price they sought.
Many industry insiders still consider Garza a trade-deadline shopping-list item in July, especially because he has another year of arbitration eligibility left.
But when general manager Jed Hoyer said Saturday that he expects to start discussions with Garza’s agent this spring about a long-term contract, Garza suddenly started looking like a centerpiece for the Cubs’ rebuilding plans.
Assuming that’s not just posturing by the Cubs to increase the perception of trade value (like the vow in November to give Carlos Zambrano a chance to ‘‘earn his way back’’ before he was traded to Miami), Garza welcomes the role.
‘‘I’m always open for that,’’ he said of a multiyear extension. ‘‘I love playing baseball. I’ll play anywhere, but the city of Chicago is one great city, I’ll tell you that. Playing in front of these fans, I had a great time last year, and I plan on having even more fun this year.’’
The starting point on contract talks with Garza is probably in the neighborhood of the five-year, $65 million deal the White Sox just gave John Danks, whose service time and performance are more closely aligned with Garza’s than any two players in history, according to baseball-reference.com.
New manager Dale Sveum was just glad the powerful right-hander stayed in the Cubs’ newly stocked pitching staff.
‘‘When you have an arm and a competitor like that,’’ Sveum said, ‘‘and a guy that works that hard and the character that he brings to the ballclub, that’s the kind of guy the manager wants to see somebody give a long-term contract to, not trade, that’s for sure.’’
Garza, 28, seems to like the bottom-up rebuilding approach the Cubs are taking under new team president Theo Epstein — a guy Garza says he learned from while playing nemesis to Epstein’s Boston Red Sox as a pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays for three years.
‘‘[I learned] that I was able to kick the crap out of him every year, year in and year out, for the last three seasons,’’ Garza cracked before praising the farm system Epstein rebuilt during his nine years with the Red Sox.
‘‘That’s what baseball is turning to, and that’s what baseball started with, was farmhands,’’ Garza said. ‘‘I think it’s awesome. I think the route we’re going is awesome. It was time for it. It’s exciting to go out there and see how it will take place.’’
And if it takes a few months to get a new deal done with the Cubs, Garza said he’s not the kind of player who cares whether his agent keeps talks active into the season.
‘‘I don’t focus on anything like that unless something came across that was, ‘Whoa,’ ’’ he said. ‘‘If it stopped me, then I would sit down and think about it. But my agent knows where I’m at and where I want to be.’’
If something can’t get done, or if the offseason efforts don’t show any payoff in the early part of the season, where Garza ends up by the trade deadline is anybody’s guess.
‘‘That stuff is out of my hands,’’ he said. ‘‘They tell me to go pitch wherever, I’ll go pitch wherever. It’d suck, but it is what it is — a business.
‘‘It’s Theo’s job to look out for not only the present but the future of the organization. I’d love to be part of the future. It’d be awesome.’’