Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Can Garza Make the Jump?

As players start to arrive in Ft. Myers and spring training starts to kick into gear, the Twins' uncertain rotation picture has been the focus of much attention from fans and writers. Specifically, a lot of attention has centered around Sidney Ponson, or Sir Sid, as La Velle E. Neal has referred to him. However, there's a different pitcher I'll be following most closely this spring, and that's Matt Garza.

While Ponson and Ramon Ortiz have a chance to improve on their horrible 2006 campaigns and contribute to the back end of the Twins' rotation, Garza could be the wild-card in whether or not the Twins can realistically compete for another division title. If Garza makes a jump this year and starts to pitch the way his minor-league numbers suggest he can, he could team up with Johan Santana and possibly Boof Bonser to elevate the Twins' rotation to elite status. So now the question becomes one of whether the Twins should continue to push Garza or back off and let him develop more in the minor leagues.

When it comes to highly touted college pitchers being pushed aggressively through the minors and debuting in the majors at a young age, we don't have to look far into the past to find a couple relevant examples (one of which hits painfully close to home). Like Garza, both these pitchers struggled in their initial stint in the big leagues, but after that point the two careers took completely opposite paths. So here's a look at the proverbial worst-case and best-case scenarios that we can look for with Garza.

Back in 2000, the Twins used their No. 2 overall pick in the draft to select Adam Johnson out of Cal State University-Fullerton. It was the last in a string of three straight horrendous first-round busts for the Twins (Ryan Mills at No. 6 overall in '98, B.J. Garbe at No. 5 overall in '99), a slump that thankfully ended in 2001 with the selection of Joe Mauer. Johnson signed and played half a season at Ft. Myers in 2000, posting a 2.47 ERA and 92/20 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 12 starts there. The next year, a good performance in Double-A pushed Johnson to the majors, where he made his debut against the Cardinals on July 16 (just over a year after being drafted). Johnson pitched alright in the game, earning a no-decision by going six innings and allowing three earned runs (on two homers) while striking out five and walking one. From that point on, however, things went downhill badly for Johnson. He gave up 13 earned runs over 14 innings in his next three starts and was banished to the bullpen. Johnson finished that season with an 8.28 ERA and 17/13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 major-league innings.

He started the next season back at the Triple-A level, but he was horrible there, posting a 5.47 ERA over 151.1 IP while seeing a huge drop in a his strikeout rate and a huge jump in his rate of home runs allowed. Johnson performed poorly again in Triple-A in 2003, and was disastrous during a September call-up to the majors that year, allowing eight hits and seven earned runs while recording just four outs over a span of two appearances. That was the last time Johnson saw action the major leagues, and since then he has floated around between several minor league organizations, pitching poorly at almost each stop.

Now, I'm not saying that there is much likelihood of Garza suffering a similar fate. The two aren't necessarily very good comps because, unlike Garza, Johnson never really dominated the competition in the high minors. Still, the example provides some food for thought. Was Johnson really destined to be such a horrible pitcher, or did the Twins wreck his confidence by rushing him to the majors too quickly and not allowing him to develop his pitches in the minor leagues?

For a much more encouraging comparison (and one that seems a lot more plausible), we need look no further than last season's American League Rookie of the Year.

The Tigers drafted Justin Verlander out of Old Dominion University with the second overall pick in the 2004 draft. It took them several months to get him signed, so he wasn't able to start his pro career until 2005, but once he did there was no looking back. Verlander absolutely decimated minor-league hitters, going 9-2 with a 1.67 ERA and 104/19 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 86 innings at the Single-A level. He was then promoted to Double-A where he allowed just 11 hits and one run over 32 2/3 innings, and by the end of his first season in pro baseball he found himself in the major leagues pitching for the Tigers. In 11 1/3 innings during his September call-up, Verlander struggled a bit, posting a 7.15 ERA while striking out seven and walking five.

Last season, Verlander started the season with the Tigers and pitched very well, going 17-9 with a 3.63 ERA and 124/60 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 186 innings. He helped carry the Tigers to an American League pennant, and earned Rookie of the Year honors. So can Garza find similar results in his second shot at the majors?

Garza's situation coming into this season is comparable to Verlander's entering last season, and it's very possible that he could make a similar jump. Baseball Savant has even opined that Garza could be just as good this year as Verlander was last year. Personally, I believe Garza might need to start the season in Triple-A so he can work on developing his off-speed stuff in order to reduce his reliance on the fastball. That said, if he looks ready to go in spring training I doubt the Twins will hesitate to hand him the fifth spot in the rotation. If he can come on strong while Bonser and Carlos Silva hold their own, the Twins should have a great shot at making the playoffs.