Brewers hope Garza solidifies rotation
PHOENIX—On paper, Matt Garza and the Milwaukee Brewers appear to be a perfect fit.
Garza, the 30-year-old potential ace who had spent much of the previous two seasons hearing his name in trade rumors while with the Chicago Cubs, has finally found a home. Having signed a four-year, $50 million contract in late January, Garza is happy he and his family will finally be able to put down some roots.
The Brewers, meanwhile, took a major step toward solidifying a starting rotation that alternated between awful in the first half of 2013 and outstanding in the second half, when Kyle Lohse and Yovani Gallardo hit their strides, Marco Estrada got healthy and youngsters Wily Peralta and Tyler Thornburg settled in.
With Garza now in the mix at the top of the rotation, Milwaukee’s front office, coaching staff and roster all suddenly feel much more bullish about the team’s chances in what figures to be another highly competitive National League Central Division race, with the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds all coming off playoff appearances.
“He gives us that much more depth,” Lohse said Monday of Garza’s addition as pitchers and catchers officially hit the practice fields in Maryvale for the first time.
“Somebody who can go out and dominate a game. He’s a huge pickup for us. You don’t go anywhere if your starting pitching isn’t good. He definitely gives us five really strong (starting) pitchers.”
Starting pitching was at the crux of the Brewers’ overall failure in 2013, when the rotation combined to go 20-36 with a 5.18 ERA—second-worst in the major leagues—in the first half. A 6-22 May knocked Milwaukee completely out of contention, with the 28-24 record and 3.31 ERA the rotation bounced back to record over the second half of small consolation.
In Garza, the Brewers are getting a pitcher who has been dominant at times. He was named MVP of the ALCS in 2008 and appeared in the World Series while with the Tampa Bay Rays and pitched a no-hitter in 2010. From 2009 to 2011, when he was traded to the Cubs, Garza pitched 203, 204 2/3 and 198 innings, displaying the type of durability expected of a potential staff ace.
On the flip side, Garza has dealt with myriad injuries over his eight-year major-league career. He has been on the disabled list four times since 2009, mostly because of issues with his pitching elbow. He spent the first seven weeks of last season on the DL while with the Cubs with a strained muscle in his left side.
All told last season, the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder went 10-6 with a 3.82 ERA in 24 starts with the Cubs and Texas Rangers, to whom he was traded in late July. From June 21 to July 24, he posted a career-best six-game winning streak with a 1.23 ERA over that span.
Where Garza slots into the rotation exactly is to be determined over the next six weeks. Lohse has proven himself capable and worthy of being the opening-day starter against the Atlanta Braves on March 31 at Miller Park based on last season’s strong finish, and Gallardo has plenty of experience carrying the load for the Brewers as well.
While Garza is being expected by some to become the savior of the staff, he certainly isn’t viewing himself as such.
“Just a guy who’s going to toe it up every five days, man,” he said when asked about expectations. “Bring what I usually bring—everything I’ve got.”
Garza’s immediate neighbor in the Brewers’ clubhouse in Maryvale just so happens to be Lohse, who himself isn’t taking his spring-training experience with the Brewers for granted.
He didn’t sign with Milwaukee until March 25 last year, started the Brewers’ final spring-training game three days later and then admittedly was inconsistent in the early going. He recovered in the second half, however, and finished with an 11-10 record and 3.35 ERA in 32 starts.
Lohse, 35, also accounted for two of the Brewers’ four complete games, with his two-hit shutout at Atlanta on Sept. 25 standing as the team’s best individual performance of the season.
Gallardo, the Brewers’ opening-day starter each of the previous years, enters an important season as he looks to re-discover his previous success. Personal turmoil, injuries and inconsistency combined to leave him with a 12-10 record and career-worst 4.18 ERA.
Behind him will be Estrada, who settled for a $3.325 million salary with the Brewers prior to arbitration. The 30-year-old right-hander went 7-4 with a 3.87 ERA in 2013 and was dominant for spells but missed two months with a strained left hamstring.
Injuries have been an ongoing theme for Estrada, who missed a month in 2012 with a thigh injury, and he spent the offseason working on strengthening and stretching his lower body.
Peralta, 24, might well be a future ace for the Brewers. For now, he hopes to build off an inconsistent 2013 that saw him pitch so poorly in the first half he was in danger of being sent down to Class AAA Nashville only to rebound and throw two complete games en route to a strong finish.