Note: Since the time this post was published, the Brewers have issued a statement announcing that the deal with Garza is not yet complete, and negotiations are ongoing.
Prior to the offseason, few would have predicted that the contracts inked by Ricky Nolasco and Matt Garza would land just $3MM apart. Garza was pegged by some as the market's second-best starting pitching option behind Masahiro Tanaka, whereas Nolasco was thought of as a steady, reliable option in the second tier of starters. This was true on MLBTR as well; Garza ranked No. 7 on Tim Dierkes' list of Top 50 free agents, while Nolasco came in at No. 20. Yet, here on Jan. 23, we now know that Garza will pitch for Milwaukee in 2014 on the first season of a four-year, $52MM contract, while Nolasco will be one state to the west, in Minneapolis on a four-year, $49MM deal.
The addition of Garza strengthens Milwaukee's rotation and continues what has become a trend for the Brewers in recent years. MLBTR's Tim Dierkes examined their rash of late-offseason signings earlier this month — a list that is now punctuated by Garza and Kyle Lohse (who signed a three-year deal in March of last season). The fact that Garza comes without draft pick compensation and at the same price the Cubs paid to secure the services of Edwin Jackson just one year prior can be seen as a surprising coup for the Brew Crew.
So then, did the Twins make a mistake by signing Nolasco early in the offseason? It's easy to apply hindsight here and say that had they waited, perhaps they could have topped Milwaukee's offer by a slight margin and landed the consensus superior pitcher, but things aren't that simple.
For one, the Twins entered the offseason likely feeling that they were in desperate need of repairing one of baseball's bleakest rotations. The Brewers, on the other hand, had solid arms returning in 2014 in the form of Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta. While that's hardly an elite rotation, it's significantly better than what the Twins were deploying late in 2013.
Minnesota GM Terry Ryan bided his time in free agency last offseason and ultimately wound up with Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey as the only supplements to a rotation that clearly needed more. Predictably, that didn't stop the hemorrhaging, and the Twins entered this offseason with a similar need. After telling reporters last winter that sometimes you "can't give your money away," early-season aggression was likely a key for Ryan and his staff to landing some rotation assistance. The total commitments to Nolasco, Phil Hughes ($24MM) and Pelfrey ($11MM) are a reflection of that aggression. Feeling comfortable with three to four of its rotation spots, Milwaukee laid in wait.
The other key factor in this situation was Tanaka. At the time of the Nolasco signing, Tanaka was a mystery as Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball looked to hash out an agreement on a new posting system. At that juncture, it wasn't even certai if Tanaka could be headed to the Majors. It also wasn't readily apparent that he would take until Jan. 22 to agree to a deal, nor was it clear that his market would effectively create a gridlock for the rest of the top free agent starters. Had all of the parties that were interested in Nolasco, Jason Vargas, Bartolo Colon and Scott Feldman known that Garza, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Bronson Arroyo would be available in late January, they may not have acted quite as quickly in striking those deals.
Such is the case in any offseason; teams weigh the risk and reward of pouncing early — and thereby paying more — or waiting out a potential bargain while knowing the result could be empty hands and a disappointed fan base. This particular offseason is one of the most unique in recent memory, as the consensus top three domestic free agent pitchers were without jobs as late as Jan. 23.
Teams that have weathered the storm stand to be rewarded, and Garza's contract is proof of that. Even Santana, who at one point was said to be eyeing $100MM, is thinking something closer to the four-year, $60MM range, according to a report from earlier today. It will be interesting to see the eventual price tags for Santana and Jimenez — two pitchers that (unlike Garza) are attached to draft pick compensation and are looking for jobs at a time when many interested parties have already spent a good deal of their offseason budget.
Tanaka's long, drawn-out free agency has likely created the opportunity for teams to acquire upper-level talent at (relative) bargain prices, as evidenced by Garza signing for Jackson money. While the Twins were handcuffed by their overwhelming need for rotation help, the Brewers' status as a team not desperate for starting pitching allowed them to sit on the periphery of the free agent market and strike quickly following the resolution of the Tanaka saga. Garza's $52MM guarantee could serve as a talking point in discussions for Santana and Jimenez, creating opportunities for pitching-hungry teams to strike deals that most would not have thought possible just two or three months ago.