30 Questions: Can Matt Garza take the next step?


Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.

Can Matt Garza take the next step?

Another way of putting that question might be: Was Matt Garza's performance during the American League Championship Series -- including a dominating seven-inning, one-run, nine-strikeout Game 7 win -- legit or a fluke?

It's a reasonable inquiry, seeing as the postseason record books are littered with breakout pitching performances, including Sterling Hitchcock's in 1998. A 3-0 pitcher with a 1.23 ERA in four starts that October, Hitchcock had a forgettable career fantasywise afterward.

But while Hitchcock might serve as your example not to overrate postseason heroics, I've got a more relevant, and encouraging, one: John Lackey.

The World Series Game 7 winner, Lackey was 2-0 with a 2.42 ERA in five appearances, three of them starts, in the 2002 postseason, the first time we got a glimpse of his true future ace potential on the big stage. Now, he didn't overwhelm with his fantasy numbers the following two seasons, combining for a 4.65 ERA and 1.40 WHIP. But to be fair, 2002 was Lackey's rookie year, and between the regular season and postseason he had made only 21 starts. Some sort of adjustment period had to be expected.

Garza, by comparison, has 58 big league starts under his belt (postseason included), was a year older than Lackey at the time of his October heroics and was actually the more highly regarded prospect by the scouts at the time of his big league debut. His road from this point forward should be much smoother than Lackey's was in 2003-04.

Break down his career into half seasons, and Garza demonstrates a promising trend: He has lowered his ERA, WHIP and walks-per-nine innings ratio in each successive half, while increasing his strikeout-to-walk rate. And if not for a hundredth-of-a-point bump up in his home runs allowed-per-nine ratio from the second half of 2007 to the first half of 2008, he'd have consistently lowered his number in that category, too:

2006 second half: 9 GS (games started), 5.76 ERA, 1.70 WHIP, 4.14 BB/9, 1.08 HR/9, 1.65 K/BB ratio
2007 second half: 14 GS, 4.08 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 3.48 BB/9, 0.96 HR/9, 2.07 K/BB
2008 first half: 17 GS, 3.96 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 2.90 BB/9, 0.97 HR/9, 2.09 K/BB
2008 second half: 13 GS, 3.39 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 2.84 BB/9, 0.87 HR/9, 2.27 K/BB

At that rate of growth, should it have been considered at all surprising that Garza performed like he did in the ALCS? He's now 25 years old, meaning his peak probably has yet to arrive, and in case you tuned out before the World Series, his own pitching coach, Jim Hickey, told SI.com that Garza possessed the best stuff on the Rays' staff.

That might seem an outrageous statement coming from the coach of a staff which includes Scott Kazmir and James Shields, but it's high praise, comparable to that of the scouts responsible for helping Garza earn his No. 21 ranking overall on Baseball America's top 100 prospects list in 2007, his official rookie season. This is a kid who dominated every minor league level, and it's those very stats that might help identify his future upside:

Class A and lower: 23 GS, 2.99 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 2.55 BB/9, 0.80 HR/9, 4.17 K/BB
Double-A: 10 GS, 2.53 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 2.21 BB/9, 0.32 HR/9, 4.86 K/BB
Triple-A (most relevant): 21 GS, 3.14 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 2.71 BB/9, 0.43 HR/9, 3.37 K/BB

This is a guy who struck out more than a batter per inning in each of his three minor league seasons, and, sure enough, he struck out exactly 25 batters in 25 postseason frames in 2008. Fantasy owners might see Garza's 128 K's in 184 2/3 regular-season innings and think he's not much of a contributor in the category, but that's where they're wrong. That's the precise category in which he has the most room for improvement.

Not that I'd follow Hickey's lead and put Garza in the class of Kazmir or Shields for fantasy purposes, but what's appealing about Garza is that he comes at a significant discount compared to those two, yet stands the chance of approaching or matching their value. The No. 45 starting pitcher on the 2008 Player Rater, Garza has been selected 36th at the position in ESPN Live Drafts thus far, more than 19 spots behind either Kazmir or Shields.

Turns out that World Series Game 3 start couldn't have done Garza any more favors in deflating his draft-day price tag; back-to-back homers served up to Chase Utley and Ryan Howard helped let a little air escape that proverbial balloon. Even accounting for those, seven strikeouts and four runs in six innings of a game in which he served up three home runs -- at bandbox Citizens Bank Park, no less -- is no dreadful outing.

Returning to the Lackey parallel, it's the Angels ace's age-26 breakout campaign of 2005 that I'd point to for Garza's potential "next step." That was the year Lackey boosted his strikeout-to-walk ratio from 2.4-1 to 2.8-1, shedding more than a run off his ERA. No, he wasn't a fantasy ace, but his numbers did rank him a top-20 starter, more than a realistic enough ceiling for Garza heading into 2009.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.