Not a Rookie: Matt Garza
One of the most interesting young starters in the American League is Matt Garza of the Tampa Bay Rays, regarded by many as on the verge of taking a large step forward. Let's take a look at his background as a prospect, and what the future may hold.
Matt Garza was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the first round of the 2005 draft, 25th overall, out of Fresno State University. He'd done very well that season, posting a 3.07 ERA with a 120/37 K/BB in 108 innings in the WAC. This was a huge improvement over his first two college seasons (he posted a 9.55 ERA as a freshman), and scouts projected him as a future number two or three starter. He had a good pro debut, posting a 3.66 ERA with a 25/6 K/BB in 20 innings for rookie-level Elizabethton, then posting a 3.54 ERA with a 64/15 K/BB in 56 innings for Beloit in the Midwest League. Scouts liked his 90-94 MPH fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup, and his command was sharp in his debut. I gave him a Grade B+ in the 2006 book, enthusiastic about his chances and ranking him as the Number 31 pitching prospect in baseball.
2006 was amazing, Garza taking the leap from "really good" pitching prospect to "amazing pitching prospect." He began at Class A Fort Myers, going 5-1, 1.42 with a 53/11 K/BB in 44 innings, 27 hits allowed. Promoted to Double-A New Britain, he went 6-2, 2.51 with a 68/14 K/BB in 57 innings, 40 hits allowed. Moved up to Triple-A Rochester, he buzzsawed the International League with a 3-1, 1.85 mark and a 33/7 K/BB in 34 innings, 20 hits allowed. Promoted to the majors in early August, he struggled to adapt to major league competition, going 3-6, 5.76 with a 38/23 K/BB in 50 innings, 62 hits allowed. But all-told, it was a remarkable season. His fastball kicked up a notch to 92-95 MPH, and scouts reported improved secondary pitches, though his changeup still needed some work. I gave him a rare Grade A rating, and ranked him as the Number Two pitching prospect in baseball behind Phil Hughes.
Garza split '07 between Triple-A Rochester (4-6, 3.62 with a 95/31 K/BB in 92 innings) and Minnesota (5-7, 3.69 with a 67/32 K/BB in 83 innings, 96 hits). There was some sparring between Garza and Twins management during the season, and it wasn't super-surprising when he was traded to Tampa Bay as part of the Delmon Young trade.
His two seasons in Tampa have been quite solid, 11-9, 3.70 with a 128/59 K/BB in 185 innings, 170 hits allowed, 4.14 FIP in '08, then 8-12, 3.95 with a 189/79 K/BB in 203 innings last year, 177 hits allowed, 4.17 FIP. His strikeout rate went up last year, and if he can sharpen his command a bit more, I think he's capable of a terrific season. Interestingly, his average velocity has actually declined slightly over the last three years (94.1 in '07, 93.4 in '08, 92.9 in '09). However, the quality of his slider and curveball have improved (according to Fangraphs anyway) to compensate for the slight dip in fastball speed.
Comparable Pitchers, according to Sim Scores, are Jay Tibbs, Tony Armas Jr, Steve Trachsel, Bill Parsons, Ken Hill, Kirby Higbee, Craig McMurtry, Kris Benson, Francisco Barrios, and Cal Koonce. Most of those guys were decent pitchers, though not studs by any means. The PECOTA list is more impressive: Bob Welch, Alex Fernandez, Brett Myers, Randy Wolf (why does he keep showing up on these?) Ron Darling, Ian Snell, Jered Weaver, Kerry Wood, Scott Sanderson (another one who keeps popping up), and Dan Haren. In the Yovani Gallardo thread, a reader pointed out that while Welch won a Cy Young award, that was back when the voters usually just picked the guy with the most wins and ignored the more sophisticated metrics. That's changed (at least to some extent) now.
Just to clarify what I meant, I DO think that if Garza can improve his control, he has a chance to be a "genuine" Cy Young guy, at least for one season. I feel the same way about Gallardo (and Jair Jurrjens for that matter).
If they improve their command and get good run and defensive support from their teammates, all three of these guys seem like candidates for a "surprising" season that people don't expect but would result in Cy Young contention. That does not mean I expect them to be perennial or even frequent candidates; they aren't Halladay or Lincecum or Greinke or Felix Hernandez. But as sleeper/surprise candidates over the next few seasons, Garza, Gallardo, and Jurrjens are a trio to watch.