Rays' fans are chomping at the bit waiting for executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman to make a move to fill the team's glaring holes at first base and designated hitter. Many names and rumors have surfaced, but to this point, other than a few minor moves to add bullpen depth, (the latest being the signing of free agent Fernando Rodney) the Hot Stove season has been eerily quiet for the Rays.
A year ago today, Friedman pulled off what may have been his best trade at the helm of the Rays when he dealt 2008 American League Championship Series Most Valuable Player Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs.
Following the trade Friedman remarked, "Simply said, we really like the deal a lot -- it kind of fits in with our short-term and long-term objectives." "It's a perfect win-win trade for both sides or we wouldn't have done it."
So has the trade indeed worked out for both franchises?
The deal was widely lauded by baseball analysts as an example of Friedman's skill as a deal-maker and the prospects that the franchise received back helped add depth to a farm system that while still very fertile, was on the decline.Paired with the 12 picks that the Rays' had in the first 89 slots of the 2011 June Amateur Draft, the prospects that the Rays' received for Garza, starting pitcher Chris Archer, catcher Robinson Chirinos, shortstop Hak-Ju Lee and outfielder Brandon Guyer helped re-establish the Rays' farm system as one of the deepest in the game.
This time last year, right-handed pitcher Chris Archer was considered to be the player with the highest ceiling of the five that the Rays's received in the deal.
While he still continues to have tremendous upside, his 2011 season was a bit of a disappointment. Despite his plus stuff, command continues to be an issue for the 23-year-old and there are those that wonder if his future may be in the bullpen and not in the rotation.
Archer went 9-7 in 27 starts between AA Montgomery and AAA Durham while posting an earned run average of 4.09. His strikeout rate of 7.9 per nine innings pitched was the lowest of his six year minor league career. He also walked 86 hitters in 147.1 innings and raised his walk rate from 4.1 in 2010 to 5.3 in 2011.
He was much better in the season's second half though and was actually very dominant in two starts for Durham late in the season giving up a lone run in 13 innings.
He figures to begin 2012 in the rotation for AAA Durham and in a Q & A last week with MiLB.com talked about turning a corner last year in the second half:
"At the beginning of the season, I think I was trying to do too much and got out of character. I was trying to make too many perfect pitches instead of letting my stuff just play in the strike zone. I was trying to make perfect pitches like a back-door slider and when you try to become too fine in this game you make little misses. I just said, 'I'll go back to being myself.'"
Chirinos continues to make great strides defensively and of the current crop of catchers on the 40 Man Roster has the most upside with the bat. He had a brief stint with the Rays before going on the disabled list, but in 282 at bats for Durham hit .259 with 20 extra base hits.
He is currently rehabbing a wrist injury that he sustained shortly after arriving in his native Venezuela to play winter ball, but is expected to be ready to go by Spring Training.
Outfielder Brandon Guyer hit .312 in AAA last season and hit a home run in his major league debut for the Rays in June.
The toolsy Guyer does a little bit of everything well and has a nice blend of contact skills, power, speed, and defense that makes him a nice addition to the Rays outfield mix going into 2012.
Depending on the outcome of the team's off-season search for a first baseman and designated hitter, he could find himself getting starts in right field if the team is forced to move incumbent Matt Joyce to fill one of the spots. Or he could be used as a designated hitter if the team decides to let Joyce play in right field on an every day basis.
Regardless of where he starts 2012, Guyer will likely have some sort of impact for the Rays next season and at this point figures prominently in their future outfield plans.
South Korean-born shortstop Hak-Ju Lee has become the most valued commodity of the Garza deal and is pretty universally considered to be the system's best position prospect.
The 21-year-old possesses Gold Glove-caliber defense and plus, plus speed. He continued to make great strides at the plate last season and is an exceptional contact hitter.
Lee hit .318 on the season, stealing 33 bases, scoring 98 runs and hitting 15 triples between two levels.
It's a pretty lofty comparison, but Lee has the potential to be a Jose Reyes-type-player at shortstop and although he struggled late in the season upon his promotion to AA Montgomery, he nonetheless had a terrific season and cemented his status as the Rays' shortstop of the future. This has many pondering if 2008 number one overall pick Tim Beckham may experience a position change in the very near future.
Lee is a dynamic and confident player. In a recent interview with the Korean media that was translated and published on the Rays' blog DraysBay he seemed unconcerned about the presence of Beckham and Reid Brignac ahead of him on the organizational depth chart almost to the point of being brash:
"I do not care about him (in reference to Beckham), I know what he is capable of and what I am capable of. I only focus on myself to get better. Hopefully I can do better than him. The player I had to overcome is Reid Brignac. He managed .194 average but kept his spot for his stellar defense. Some players call him "Son of Joe Maddon" but a good ball player he is. My goal is to do well next year and find my spot in big league in future."
The Rays' got an immediate return from the trade from outfielder Sam Fuld, who was the least heralded player in deal, but became an instant sensation in the Tampa Bay area when he ignited a struggling offense last April and made a multitude of highlight-reel-plays in the outfield.
While Garza's future remains in doubt as Spring Training grows increasingly near, Fuld, who in many circles was considered almost an after thought in the deal, is penciled in as the Rays' fourth outfielder going into Spring Training.
Fuld's superb defense and speed were a real asset to the Rays off of the bench and as an occasional starter in 2011, but as great as his contributions were, it was actually a player that was not involved in the deal that ended up benefiting the team the most following the trade.
The trade of Garza allowed young right-hander Jeremy Hellickson to join the rotation and he seized the opportunity by turning in a fantastic season that culminated in his winning the American League Rookie of the Year Award.
Hellickson started 29 games, pitching a total of 189.0 innings, while recording 117 strikeouts and 13 wins. His 2.95 earned run average was the 8th best in the American League, and he also had a total of 20 quality starts. His 6.95 hits per nine innings pitched was fourth best in the American league behind only Justin Verlander, Josh Beckett, and Jered Weaver.
Garza, who was traded along with outfielder Fernando Perez and minor league left-handed pitcher Zach Rosscup, had what was arguably his best regular season for the Cubs in 2011 and is now once again a hot commodity on the off-season trade market as new president of baseball operations Theo Epstein begins to rebuild the roster and put his thumbprint on the perpetually disappointing North Siders.
Garza had a career-best earned run average of 3.32 in 2011 and his strikeout rate of 9.0 batters per nine innings was also his best mark in his six major league seasons.
Epstein seems to be taking a page from the Friedman playbook by patiently waiting for the off-season market to settle before attempting to deal Garza. As team's continue to assess their pitching staffs and look for weaknesses, Epstein can lie in wait with the knowledge that he has a front-of-the-rotation starter that is expendable during his rebuilding process.
The Rays' for their part may also be playing the same game.
Their starting pitching is even deeper than it was going into last season with a projected rotation of James Shields, David Price, Hellickson, Matthew Moore and either Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann. Alex Cobb and Alex Torres both figure to be in the mix and if Archer continues to make adjustments he could soon as well.
The free agent market for hitter's is slowly dwindling and the remaining names left that may draw interest include former Ray Carlos Pena, Luke Scott and Derek Lee. 2011 Rays' Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman continue to be in the mix as well, but don't really represent the upgrade in offense that the team desires to complement their current offensive core.
With that in mind, Friedman may well be lying in wait like Epstein waiting to take advantage of a depleted starting pitching market to try and net a young, talented - and most importantly - financially controllable first baseman.
The Rays certainly have the pitching depth and prospects to make that kind of deal if that's what they desire to do. Friedman has indicated that he is not a hurry to deal a starter, and the team is unlikely to make a deal unless the return is significant.
There are many potential trade partners theoretically and if Prince Fielder lands in Seattle or Washington, Justin Smoak or Adam LaRoche and possibly Mike Morse could become available. The Angels remain a good fit as well with the names of Mark Trumbo and Kendrys Morales (who are both coming back from off-season surgeries) often linked to the Rays in rumors.
Many Rays' pundits thought that the team may be interested in former Padres first base prospect Anthony Rizzo, but that interest now appears to have been lukewarm at best by the Rays' front office.
In any case, Rizzo has now been reunited with Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer who both see to be obsessed with his talents.
It still remains to be seen what Friedman will do and if past year's are any indication whatever he does will likely be seemingly out of the blue and a move that nobody saw coming.
So in the end - how does the Garza trade stack up for both teams a year later?
If your keeping score at home, the Rays appear at his juncture to have the clear upper-hand in terms of both short-term and long-term value on the one year anniversary of the deal.
Assuming that the value of all the players involved is the same (and you could make the argument that Lee has considerably more value than at this point last year), the Rays have obtained a fourth outfielder, a potential starting catcher, a possible front-of-the-rotation starter or closer, a starting outfielder and their shortstop of the future.
The two other players received by the Cubs, Perez and Rosscup, do not figure prominently in the future of the franchise and Perez was actually released by the club last July and is currently a free agent.
Rosscup has been plagued with injuries throughout his brief career. He was drafted by the Rays in the 29th round of the 2009 draft and has a career earned run average of 2.61 in 33 minor league appearances.
In 2011 for the High A Daytona Cubs he was 4-2 and struck out over a batter an inning. He may eventually find his way to the major leagues, but he is not regarded as one of the better players in the Cubs system currently.
That leaves Garza, whose value to the club is significantly diminished as a front-line starter on a rebuilding team. His value to the Cubs is in the potential prospects he could net in a deal this off-season or possibly at this year's trade deadline.
If Epstein is able to flip Garza for three "Grade A" prospects as he is reported to want, then the long-term winner of this deal could yet be the Cubs.
It would somehow be sickly appropriate if Epstein could impact the AL East in 2012 by trading a much needed piece to one of the Rays' hated rivals in the form of a front-of-the-rotation starter.
If that happens, then Garza will have twice in two seasons, been the centerpiece in a trade that helped restock the farm system for a team that was looking to add young, high-upside talent by going to a team that had World Series aspirations.
At that point, it may indeed, as Friedman suggested last winter, be "a perfect win-win trade for both sides."
John Gregg is Publisher and Senior Editor of Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaysDigest. He can also be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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