Monday, August 30, 2004

Garland finds himself pitching for spot in '05 rotation

After Sunday’s 9-0 drubbing by the Indians, it became apparent that Jon Garland is giving the Sox more questions than answers.

The 24-year-old right-hander was one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. A former first-round pick with the Cubs in 1997, the Sox acquired him at the trade deadline the following year for reliever Matt Karchner.

Though that deal was lambasted as foolish for the Cubs and then-GM Ed Lynch from the moment the ink dried on the paperwork, two things should be noted. The first is that the Cubs have twice made the playoffs since: in 1998, the same year of the trade, and again in 2003.

Though Karchner wasn’t around for the second playoff run, and his alleged contributions to the first were suspect at best, they Cubs seem to be fine without Garland.

The other thing of importance, of course, is that even if Garland were with the Cubs still, he wouldn’t be able to crack their starting rotation. Not behind Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Matt Clement and Greg Maddux.

Obviously, if Garland were in the Cubs plans, they probably wouldn’t still have those other five guys. So let me point out, I’m not trying to re-write history.

What the Sox need to do as they author their future, is to decide whether Garland will be a part of it.

Garland raced through the minors with the Sox, getting a call in June of 2000 as Kip Wells struggled as the fifth starter. Garland didn’t do much better that season, as the Sox felt they also needed to try Rocky Biddle, Sean Lowe, Lorenzo Barcelo, and even brought in the ghastly corpse of Ken Hill to start a game.

To be fair, Barcelo and Biddle were legitimate prospects at the time. The Sox also gave a then-21-year-old Mark Buherle five starts that season. But Garland, despite an ERA under 3.00 at Charlotte early that season, wasn’t ready and was getting what amounted to on-the-job training.

This is what Garland has done since…

2001 35 16 3.69 6-7 4.69 1.11 117
2002 33 33 4.58 12-12 5.23 1.35 192.2
2003 32 32 4.51 12-13 5.27 1.46 191.2
2004 27 27 4.91 9-10 4.60 1.50 176

Garland, despite epitomizing the phrase “league average,” has been very reliable in terms of health and giving the Sox lots of innings. That’s always a plus for a pitcher that’s been in the majors since turning 20.

However, other than improving his strikeout-to-walk ratio, Garland hasn’t really progressed in any category since his mid-2000 call-up.

He does have the stuff, mixing a low-90s fastball with a sinker that’s forever being compared to the pitch Kevin Brown has used to chew through the majors for most of his career.

But Brown, in his good years, always had higher strikeout rates. For his career he’s struck out 6.63 per nine innings, compared to 4.98 for Garland.

Of course, Brown also didn’t pitch a full season in the majors until he was 24. Garland is pitching in his fourth full season and won’t turn 25 until September 27 of this year. So Garland could still put it together and have a very good Kevin Brown-type career.

Then again, he could be the next Jeff Suppan, where the Royals thought with a little more command he could be the next Greg Maddux. Though the Garland-to-Brown comparisons aren’t as laughable as that, it illustrates the point.

Next year, really for the first time, money comes into the picture for the Sox and their decision about whether to keep Garland. The righty will go to arbitration, and because of his innings and modest double-digit win totals (surely he’ll win one more this year) in each of the past three years, he’ll definitely get a raise from the current $2.3 million he’s making this season to the $4-5 million range for next year.

Now that is a lot of money to pay for fourth or fifth starter. Which is what the other guys in front of Garland, and his production to date, dictate his role to be.

Chicago might be inclined to pay that much because it could be potentially embarrassing for Garland to shovel off somewhere for the league minimum and have a great season, or two, or three… or a great career.

But the Sox also have to think about what they could do with that money. They could gamble on Garland, which with his strikeout rates doesn’t look like a great bet so far, or they could use the money they’d save on Garland and Jose Valentin ($5 million this year) and sign a proven pitcher like Matt Clement.

When Garland was young and cheap, it was a no-brainer. But now that he’s expensive, it muddies the picture. And if the Sox had shown a little restraint back in 2000, it might not be an issue now.

But it is, and that means Garland is auditioning for his own job next season. And he’s going to have to do better than he did on Sunday if he’s going to hang on to it.