A year later, what was point of Garza trade?

Rays seem happy with deal, but rebuilding Cubs need players more than one arm

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — With a strong breeze blowing through the pine trees and palmetto bushes, the Tampa Bay Rays walked out of their clubhouse and down a stone path, headed toward back diamonds for practice. They walked alone or in groups of twos and threes, and, to be fair, they weren't all former Cubs.

Only half of them.

OK, not really. But the five guys who Jim Hendry sent to Tampa Bay for Matt Garza are conspicuously on display for a team that is successfully mixing a small budget with big expectations.

Outfielders Sam Fuld and Brandon Guyer and catcher Robinson Chirinos all made the Rays' 2011 team picture, with Fuld turning into a cult hero during the unlikely ride from a 1-8 start to a wild card appearance in the 2011 playoffs. Shortstop Hak-Ju Lee and right-hander Chris Archer profile as significant pieces for the organization's future.

"I don't think any of those guys have done things we didn't expect them to," Rays general manager Andrew Friedman said. "It's not like any of them had a year where they just blew the doors down. They're all good players, they play the game fundamentally well and that fits with our organization. They're part of the depth that we believe in, and that's why we made that trade."

So much for the wisdom of trying to patch things together on a year-to-year basis, as Hendry worked to do in three different periods of the Cubs' ownership. The Rays have gone to the playoffs three of the last four seasons by building from the ground up, in the style that the Ricketts family is attempting to emulate.

With Tom Ricketts giving Theo Epstein a five-year window to succeed after identifying him as Hendry's replacement, the Cubs no longer seem to have the fear of failure that was behind the Garza trade. It gave the Cubs one starting pitcher who is better than any of their holdovers but, like the Edwin Jackson trade that cost the White Sox a long-term starter in Daniel Hudson, it always begged a question: What was the point?

Hendry said he wouldn't have done it if he didn't have Garza under control for three years, but multiple players are more valuable than one arm for a rebuilding team. That's why Epstein and his staff are having a hard time figuring out what to do with Garza, who is two years away from free agency.

The Cubs don't seem to know whether they want to sign the 28-year-old to a five-year deal that would cost them at least $75 million, trade him when someone makes an offer they deem strong enough or let the situation percolate until the answer becomes clear. It's fair to say the Rays haven't missed Garza.

Friedman, who has morphed from an unknown into one of the game's most respected thinkers in seven years, knows he made a great trade when he dealt Garza to create room in the rotation for Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson, just as he knows he made a good deal when he sent Delmon Young, the first overall pick in the 2003 draft, to Minnesota for Garza after the '07 season.

For everything the Rays got in the five seasons they had Young and Garza, including Garza's ALCS Game 7 victory over the Red Sox to send Tampa Bay to the World Series in 2008, they never paid more than $3.7 million a year to either of them (that was Young's signing bonus). The Cubs will pay Garza $9.5 million this year, and more in 2013 if they keep him.

Fuld, who was considered a minor part in the deal, got 308 at-bats and made the catch of the year for the Rays. Chirinos, who was traded on the heels of a breakout 2010 season, is battling Jose Lobaton for the backup catcher's job behind Jose Molina. Guyer, who hit .312 with 14 homers in Triple A, is battling for a bench job. But it was Lee and Archer who were the headliners in the trade, and their stock has increased.

Lee, 21, won a batting title in the Florida State League and is ranked as the Rays' No. 2 prospect by Baseball America. Both he and Archer, who is penciled into the rotation for Triple-A Durham, could force their way into the picture later this season.

Handling any of these five guys should be relatively easy. The Cubs, however, will have to double down on Garza or cash out in a big way if they're going to make this trade work for them.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers
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