Last night, as you’ve surely seen, Matt Garza tossed the fifth no-hitter of the season. A single walk was the only blemish on Garza’s nearly perfect night, though it should be noted that defense and (forgive me) luck were on his side, too; he struck out just six Tigers. Still, a no-hitter is always a wonderful accomplishment, and I was struck by the image of Justin Verlander applauding from the Tigers’ dugout after the final out of the game. Verlander, who threw his own no-no in 2007, was in the unique position of knowing exactly how Garza felt, and I thought it was a cool moment.
Garza, once a top prospect in the Twins organization, came to the Rays along with Jason Bartlett in exchange for Delmon Young and Brendan Harris. Without dismissing Bartlett’s wonderful 2009 (but very much dismissing Harris’ poor showing), the most interesting pieces in the trade are Garza and Young. Coming into this season, there was little doubt among observers that the Rays won the trade handily. Though his won/lost record was a pedestrian 19-21 in 2008 and 2009, he was trending positively in strikeouts and looked to be, at worst, a very serviceable starter for a contending team.
Young was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. In his first two seasons in Minnesota, the only thing he had going for him were batting averages of .290 and .284, though both those figures were hollow as could be. He hit for no power at all; .115 and .142 ISO’s aren’t going to get it done for a left fielder. He showed no plate discipline, either, as he managed just 47 walks in over a thousand plate appearances. Coming into the season, I wrote of the disappointing left fielder, “If Young gets off to a tough start—and I don’t mean unlucky, I mean in line with his dismal performance to date—the Twins have to cut bait quickly.”
Suffice it to say, Young has given the Twins no reason to cut bait. Sitting on an impressive .328/.359/.536 line, he has been a key reason the Twins are in the thick of the AL Central race despite disappointing seasons from Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel and injuries to Justin Morneau and J.J. Hardy. Down in St. Petersburg, Garza’s shiny numbers are solid; he’s 11-5 with an ERA a shade above 4.00 while pitching in the meat-grinder that is the AL East. Heck, he’s even managed to rack up a save. And, long-billed a prospect with “no-hit stuff,” Garza has added the no-hitter to his resume.
The case for Garza starts with his relatively stable track record, at least compared to Young’s. At this point, you know what you’ve got in Garza: a solid innings-eater who will strike out an acceptable number of batters while occasionally suffering some control issues. While it’s a little late to expect him to blossom into an ace, there’s little reason to think he can’t be penciled into a contending team’s rotation for several years to come. He’s been durable, shown his mettle in the heat of pressure-filled games, and looks to give you about three Wins a year, according to Fangraphs. Not bad for a 26-year-old. He’s already provided more than $30 million of value to the Rays, while making less than $4 million so far.
Young has developed, we might say, a bit more suddenly. After being one of the most disappointing players in the majors his first two seasons in Minnesota, he has exploded into a top-flight hitter. Just four AL outfielders have a higher OPS, and, if you prefer a math-ier look at things, he’s third among AL outfielders in WPA and seventh in wOBA. He’s still not walking a ton–okay, he’s not walking at all–but he’s cut his strikeouts in half and shown the pop that was long-rumored but as yet unseen. And while it’s obviously premature to draw these sorts of conclusions, early returns indicate his fielding has been better, if still not good.
As I see it, Young has two key advantages over Garza. First is his age. Garza, at 26, is two years older than Young. These things are admittedly unpredictable in the individual sense, but Young is still a couple years away from where we would expect him to peak, while Garza–very dependent on a hard fastball–is getting closer to an age where we might expect a decline in stuff. The second main advantage Young has, of course, is his position. As a left-fielder, he’s much less susceptible to breaking down than Garza. While Garza has shouldered a lot of innings without any serious issues, I’d still rather roll the dice with a 24-year-old outfielder than a 26-year-old pitcher, all things being equal.
And all things aren’t equal. The current iteration of Delmon Young is much more valuable than the current iteration of Matt Garza, and that’s before taking age and risk into account. The danger with Young, of course, is that 2010 Delmon Young doesn’t look at all like the previous models, while 2010 Garza’s performance is very much in line with his history. Choosing Young means you are guessing that his true talent level is closer to this year’s showing, if not equal to or better than it. Choosing Garza means you want to know exactly what you’re getting, and exactly what you risk.
At this moment, I imagine neither team would take back the Young/Garza trade. Young looks like one of the best outfielders in the majors, and his performance thus far isn’t all that fluky. Suffering through a couple dry years has paid off for the Twins, who control Young for two more seasons after 2010. And Tampa Bay has, from the trade, a good, reliable starting pitcher. While he might not ever become the ace his stuff led many to expect, there’s a whole lot of value in a guy you can stick in a rotation and forget about for a half-decade or more. And, of course, we can’t just discount the value Bartlett provided the Rays in 2009. It all counts.
The Young/Garza trade is a favorite of mine because it took guts. You don’t see many prospect-for-prospect swaps, and it reveals much about each organization involved. Being unafraid to take risks is a key mark of a well-run organization, and the trade has worked out for both teams. While I, personally, would take Young from this day forward, 2008 and 2009 count, too, and the Rays are probably plenty satisfied with their return in the trade. In the wake of Garza’s no-hit gem and in the middle of Young’s breakout season, one of the most interesting trades in recent major league memory stands out as an example of a trade benefiting each party to it.