Major League Baseball’s free-agent period is open for business, signaling the unofficial start of the hot stove, yearly banter about the ridiculous nature of long-term contracts and, as always, a premium placed upon high-end starting pitching.

In order to navigate through the marathon of a 162-game regular season, pitching depth is imperative for any organization. Developing and cultivating young, cheap and dominant pitching has helped the St. Louis Cardinals become a National League powerhouse in recent years.

Of course, not every team has the scouting and player development staff that has been assembled in St. Louis. For everyone else, a dearth of top-tier prospects in the minor leagues will lead to exorbitant prices thrown at free-agent starters. 

One of those free agents is the enigmatic and tantalizing Matt Garza

Due to a midseason trade from Chicago to Texas, Garza is a rare 29-year-old (soon to be 30) potential All-Star that does not enter this offseason with draft pick compensation tied to his impending contract. For teams interested, it will simply be about dollars, years and future production.

Based on projections from CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, and a pair of industry experts, an unbiased agent and general manager, Garza could garner anywhere from $66 million to $85 million in free agency. Considering the market for starting pitching afforded Edwin Jackson $52 million just last year, the dollar amount seems reasonable for a (relatively) young pitcher on the open market who doesn’t come with a draft pick attachment or history of major arm surgery.

Salary and expectations are two different things for general managers to think about over the next month. It’s clear that Garza’s consistency (sub-4 ERA in every full big league season), ability to pitch inside the AL East (3.86 ERA in 94 starts with Tampa Bay) and age will lead to a sizable contract. What the next half decade of Garza’s career will look like, however, is up in the air.

As pointed out when discussing why the Yankees should not include Garza in their offseason plans, dominance has not been a consistent part of his reputation since 2006. At times, Garza can transform a rotation, but not on a start-to-start basis. Paying the right-handed pitcher to enhance a staff isn’t a poor allocation of payroll, but expecting a total rotation transformation is foolhardy.

Over the last three years, Garza has been a mix of very good and confounding. Normally, outstanding pitchers will peak in the seasons that precede free agency, setting themselves up for a massive payday. On one hand, Garza has placed himself in the conversation with some of baseball’s best starters since 2011. 

Despite his inclusion on that list, directly below Madison Bumgarner, it’s impossible not to take note of how many fewer innings he’s pitched over the last three seasons, due to elbow and lat injuries, than the stars above him. Also, despite averaging a healthy 8.4 K/9 since 2011, the total figure has dropped in each season from 9.0 to 8.3 to 7.9. That’s not the kind of trend that typically accompanies franchise-changing arms.

At this juncture of Garza’s career, he’s similar to another supremely talented, yet enigmatic starter at a comparable career stage. The following shows Garza’s career numbers side-by-side with that pitcher. At the time, the mystery arm was a year away from free agency and still assumed to have another rotation-altering level to his game. 

As you may have guessed, Mystery Pitcher is A.J. Burnett. The similarities between a younger, confounding Burnett and the current Garza are eerie. Both had injury issues, inconsistency and decent numbers through almost the exact same amount of career innings.

After a big 2008 season, Burnett signed a five-year, $82.5 million free-agent contract with the New York Yankees. While his contributions did help lead New York to a 2009 World Series title, the deal didn’t work out. Despite showing flashes of dominance, especially in Game 2 of the 2009 World Series, Burnett never put it all together, finishing his Yankees career with an unsightly 4.79 ERA over 98 starts.

To be fair, Garza isn’t Burnett. Although their statistics and player profiles are quite similar through a certain junction of their respective careers, lumping Garza into the Burnett 2.0 category isn’t totally justified. Over the next five years, Garza may pitch the best baseball of his career, more than justifying $80 million or more in free agency. 

When Brian Cashman gave Burnett a lucrative deal after the 2008 season, he was banking on Burnett, along with CC Sabathia, transforming the Yankees rotation for years to come. That dream never became reality. 

Five years later, Garza embarks on free agency with very similar red flags. No one is denying the ability and potential for more growth during the second half of his career, but counting on him to transform a rotation could be a major mistake.

Can Matt Garza transform a rotation?

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