Matt Garza set the bar pretty high for himself heading into the 2006, his first full season since being chosen by Minnesota in the first round of last summer's draft.
"My goal was to get to Double-A and get a big-league invite," the right-handed pitcher out of Fresno State said.
Of course, Garza meant to training camp next spring. The invite came about six months earlier than he hoped. Starting the year in the Florida State League, Garza made three leaps forward and debuted with the Twins in August. Garza was on the ultimate fast track in 2006 -- compiling a 14-4 record, 1.99 ERA, 154 strikeouts, 32 walks and a .179 batting average against in the Minors -- and as a result was named MiLB.com's Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
"He's good to play with because he really pushes you," said fellow Twins pitching prospect Kevin Slowey, who joined Garza atop the Fort Myers rotation to start the season. "You know he's going to put up six or seven scoreless innings every time and you want to do the same.
"We had a lot of really good pitching prospects, so for him to stand out as a guy they had no choice but to bring up, that's impressive. He's got great stuff and he's deserved every accolade he's received."
And it's not like he was brought up as a filler to toss some relief innings as his team played out the string. Garza joined the Twins rotation when he was called up and made nine starts in the thick of a heated playoff race.
"He was on the fast track," Twins farm director Jim Rantz said. "I can't remember anyone getting there as quick as he did. We tend to be overprotective of pitchers."
Indeed, Garza became the fourth fastest player to reach the Major Leagues. And it's not like he was undeservedly rushed due to a lack of pitching in the system, the Twins have as much depth as any Major League organization. Garza pushed the envelope because he kept dominating at every level.
He started in the Florida State League, but didn't stay long. After eight starts, he was 5-1 with a 1.42 ERA, a .169 batting average against and 53 strikeouts (vs. just 11 walks) in 44 1/3 innings. That earned him a ticket to Double-A New Britain, his initial ending goal for 2006.
"When I got to Double-A, I was cruising a little bit. I thought I might get to Triple-A before the end of the year, then I had two little bumps in the road," Garza said, referring to back-to-back starts in which he gave up 11 earned runs in 5 2/3 innings. "I realized I needed to do something. I came back with two shutouts and went to the Eastern League All-Star Game. When I got back, there was news that I was going to Triple-A."
Garza's stop in New Britain ended with a 6-2 record, a 2.51 ERA, a .190 batting average against and a 68:14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 57 1/3 innings. Upon his arrival in Rochester, it was more of the same. He made five starts and twice shut out Charlotte, the best team in the International League. His last start -- and likely his last Minor League outing -- was a seven-inning, four-hit, 11-strikeout performance. Then he got the call to the Twins.
"He seemed to handle any adversity," Rantz said. "He had a lot of confidence going up to the Major Leagues because of the success he had in the Minor Leagues."
The big leagues, understandably, weren't as kind to Garza. But he clearly showed enough to be a serious part of the mix for the rotation in 2007, especially when Francisco Liriano's absence is taken into account. By then, he's likely to feel like a full-fledged member of the roster, something that admittedly took him a little while to get used to this past summer.
"I wasn't nervous at the beginning," Garza said about his big-league debut Aug. 11. "Then I got dressed and the nerves kicked in. I wasn't scared, but I was getting really excited, the adrenaline started going. I'm telling myself to relax as I go out to the bullpen and my nerves were gone by then.
"But then the Metrodome blew up when my name was called. That's when I said, 'Oh my God. I have to go out there and pitch now. I can't even swallow.' But I told myself, 'I know I can do it. I know why I'm here.'"
"Here" is on the cusp of joining the Twins big-league rotation for good, with just one full year of Minor League ball under his belt. "Here" is being a part of an organization that promotes from within more than perhaps any other Major League franchise, where scouting and development are the chief reasons Minnesota is a perennial playoff contender. None of this is lost on the pitcher who just turned 23.
"When I got drafted by the Twins, I did my homework," Garza said. "I saw that how they win is with pitching and defense. I thought, 'Then I'm in the right organization because I pitch.' I came in like a sponge and said, 'Fix me up. Let's get this thing done.' It's a great organization to be in. They really know how to treat their prospects and make sure their development is right."