Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Looking to 2009: The Pitchers, Part 1

Turning our attention to the pitching staff and figuring out who should stay and who should go, two things stand out:

1) There aren’t nearly as many holes that need to be filled as there are on offense.
2) Precisely because of 1), it’s a lot harder to make dramatic improvements simply by replacing dead weight.

For 2009 and 2010, at least, the pitching staff starts with The Epic and The Baseball Jonah. Gil Meche and Zack Greinke each have reached 10 wins, which doesn’t sound like a big deal, except that they’re the first teammates to reach double-digits in wins for the Royals since 1999, which is one of the saddest stats I’ve seen all year. (The Royals didn’t have a single pitcher reach 10 wins in 2004 and 2005. In 2003, they somehow won 83 games with just a single 10-game winner (Darrell May), a single 9-game winner (Chris George, with a 7.11 ERA), and a single 8-game winner (Jose Lima). Sad. Just sad.)

More important than their win totals, which of course are subject to the efforts of their mates on offense and in the pen, are their strikeout totals, which are subject to little other than their own talent. And that talent is quite formidable. Last year, Meche struck out 156 batters in 216 innings. This was easily the most strikeouts by any Royals pitcher since Kevin Appier got hurt after the 1997 season. No other pitcher this decade had been with 20 whiffs of Meche. (Mac Suzuki, of all people, had held the team mark for the decade with 135 Ks in 2000.)

This year, Meche is doing even better, with 158 strikeouts in just 186 innings so far. In 30 fewer innings, he has two more strikeouts. He also has two more walks, but the emphasis on power pitching has paid dividends overall, as his batting average against has dropped from .263 to .250. His ERA has crept up slightly, from 3.67 to 3.96, because he was uncharacteristically (and unsustainably) good with runners in scoring position last year. But as an overall body of performance, Meche has been a tick better in 2008 than in 2007. That’s even more true when you consider his trendline: last season, Meche had a 1.91 ERA in his first nine starts and a 4.36 ERA after that, whereas this year he had an 8.00 ERA in his first five starts, but since then has a 3.28 ERA.

There are still analysts who argue that, however well Meche has pitched, it was a mistake for the Royals to spend 55 million dollars for a free agent that wasn’t going to put them over the top. If you believe in the cold, hard calculus that states that any season that ends before the playoffs is a failure, then that may be true. If Meche is only the difference between 65 wins and 70 wins, then he’s not worth the money.

But at some point, you have to spend money on talent, and trust that eventually you’ll have enough talent to make a playoff run. And as a fan, there’s value in knowing that tonight’s starter is capable of completely shutting down the opposition, no matter how many games out of first place the Royals are. So far Meche’s performance hasn’t impacted the standings one bit. But with three years to go, and with Meche still making the kind of incremental improvements that may presage a complete Jason Schmidt/Chris Carpenter breakout season, I’m still hopeful that he’s going to have an impact on a pennant race at some point before his contract runs out.

When he was signed, one of the biggest complaints about his contract was that, by extending him to five years, the Royals were taking a huge risk that he might get hurt early on and be a dead weight on the payroll for years. Instead, at this point that fifth year looks like a blessing in disguise, because it keeps Meche under contract for 2011, a year that increasingly looks like the Royals first good opportunity for contention.

Meche has more strikeouts than any Royals pitcher had in the previous 11 years, but he doesn’t even lead this year’s team. Greinke does. In 182 innings, Greinke has 167 strikeouts, enough to rank fifth in the league in both Ks and Ks per 9 innings. He’s walked just 52 batters, meaning that he’s just the second starting pitcher since 1991 to post a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3 or better. (The other was Paul Byrd in 2002, when Byrd walked just 38 batters in 228 innings.)

Greinke hasn’t had a true breakout year, partly because he’s given up 21 homers, and partly because his BABIP is an unimpressive .315, leading to more hits than innings pitches. Some of that is bad luck, some of that is bad defense. But the important thing to take away from this is that when you look at the things that are within a pitcher’s control – innings, walks, strikeouts, homers – Greinke has had arguably the best season of any Royals starter this decade.

While Meche is under contract through 2011, Greinke can be a free agent after 2010. I’ve said this a million times, but let’s go ahead and make it a million-and-one: signing Greinke to a long-term deal is Dayton Moore’s #1 priority, whether he realizes it or not. I understand that Moore does not offer long-term deals with his players during the season out of principle, a principle that stems from his days in Atlanta. (Apparently Soria’s long-term deal is an exception because Soria approached the team first.) That’s the only explanation I can muster for why Moore hasn’t put the full-court press on Greinke to sign.

A month from now, Moore needs to do the right thing. Money shouldn’t be a problem; the Royals have enough of it, and the comparable contracts out there suggest that a three-year deal in the range of $11 million per, with an option year for the same, should get it done. Maybe even less; Scott Kazmir, who is very comparable to Greinke in terms of overall value (albeit a very different pitcher) and who, like Greinke, would be a free agent after the 2010 season, signed a three-year extension in May, for $28.5 million ($9.5 million a year) with a fourth-year option for $11 million.

I’d go further and offer Greinke a four-plus-one or (ideally) four-plus-two deal, because while we’re not privy to the current state of Greinke’s mental health, his physical health is stellar for a young pitcher. His mechanics are excellent, he’s reasonably efficient with his pitches, he’s never suffered an arm injury, and the time off in 2006 may have helped keep his arm healthy.

There’s a lot of talk about how the Royals can cash in Greinke this winter, put their rebuilding into overdrive the way the A’s have, maybe walk away with half of the Rangers’ farm system or something. If Greinke won’t sign, that’s an option that has to be considered. But it’s an option of last resort. It’s not just that Greinke has the potential to be a legitimate #1 starter, but that he already is a legitimate #2 starter. So long as Meche and Greinke stay healthy, the Royals’ top two starters can hold their own with the top two starters for every team in baseball.

It’s the other 60% of the rotation that’s a problem. We’ll get to them soon enough.

30 comments:

kevin said...

Rotation help?


Soria.

The Mad Rabbi said...

What makes me sad is that we really have no competent major league ready pitcher other than those two. I would argue that Hochevar is close, but we've had wayyyyyyy too many "close" players that never came around.

Even sadder is the list of available free agents for 2009 and the list of pitchers in our minor leagues who are in any position to be called up next year.

I'm a glutton for punishment and still love our Royals.

Soria to the starting rotation? NO.

The Mad Rabbi said...

p.s. Interesting news tonight that Ladnier was fired. Its about time. Maybe GMDM's comments about "seeing enough" and a "roster shakeup" is really coming true. First we hear that Olivo is our starting catcher for the next month, then Ladnier is fired...

Interesting times... hopefully on the verge of a true change in direction from the front office.

Anonymous said...

On Saturday, Hillman announced that Shealy and Ka'aihue would platoon at first base the rest of the season. On Sunday, with lefty Cliff Lee on the mound, playing at first base we have Billy Butler. On Tuesday, with righty Nick Blackburn on the mound, Shealy is playing first (with Ross Gload in left. You don't want to keep his bat out of the lineup.) Does Hillman know what platooning means?

kevin said...

I agree. What's up with Kila? I haven't been able to watch too many games of late (nor have I needed to) but expected a little more excitement out of him coming up. But, all I'm aware of is he got used as a pinch runner in that one game. Have we seen him since?

Very reminiscent of Aviles' call up. I hope he can pan out similarly - but, hell, they have to give him a chance to perform.

Drew said...

Speaking of the other 60% of the rotation. I move that on this blog Brian Bannister be known as Brian Baserunners from now on.

Anonymous said...

Greinke = 6 years/$48-50 million?

I think the "back-end" of the rotation is plenty good with some combination Bannister/Hochevar/Davies/Rosa, etc. I think all we really need is one #2/#3 caliber starter to team up with Zack and Gil. Not sure if one is available, but the point is, its time to improve the top half of the roster, not the bottom half, as we have been doing for years. Bullpens can be cobbled together with spare parts other than Soria/R. Ramirez. Lot of minor league starters that will probably top out as bullpen arms. On offense, still looking for that bopper that Gordon/Butler/Guillen can complement, rather than stretching to be something they are not (studs). Once again, we have plenty of GOOD bench/support options, we need to change the top, not the bottom!

Unknown Royals Fan said...

I disagree about Grienke. The statheads can rave about his K's and BB's, and the scouts can rave about his tools - but the reality is that when he's matched up against other 1 or 2 starters, he invariably loses. Perhaps there's something more than stats at work here. My more detailed take at unknownroyalsfan.wordpress.com

Anonymous said...

Greinke loses to other #1s or #2s SOLEY because he is facing a MAJOR LEAGUE offense, while the other guy is facing, you know, the ROYALS offense.

Enuf said

Chance said...

I don't know what is more depressing, the sad state of the Royals or the fact that they don't seem to be able to correct their tack. Even if they had as much money as bigger market teams, why would a free agent come here? You can't overpay everyone. If I was a free agent, I would look at the way Guillen has been treated by fans, the cluelessness of the manager, and the lack of help up and down the roster, and take less money to go almost anywhere else. AND THERE ISN'T REALLY ANYONE OUT THERE WHO CAN HELP, ANYWAY!

Paul said...

I agree with Kevin. Grienke, Meche, and Soria. Plus hoping (praying) that Hochevar or Rosa could be the #4.
We all know it is great having a stud closer. But having that stud closer be an above average starter would be much more valuable.
If he fails, which I doubt he will, you know you can put him back into the closer role. And don't give me that Joba crap.

Antonio said...

Overpaying is senseless and is something that you never stop doing. It sets precendence. If some craptastic player like Guillen gets 12 million, then what is a good player going to be worth? And it only goes up. Never down. There's rarely ever a regression to the mean.

And I LOVE the idea of Soria as a starter. I LIKE the idea of Soria as a middle reliever/set-up man. I cannot stand the mere thought of Soria as a closer...much less being able to handle the reality of it. It's blind and short sighted. It was what...mid to late August when he first entered a game with someone else's baserunner on board? Ri-damned-diculous!

Old Man Duggan said...

If a legitimate #3 pitcher can emerge (be it Hochevar, a righted Bannister, or more likely Rosa or Cortes), I think these two are more than enough for the Royals to have in the rotation.

I, for one, am skeptical that Soria can make the transition now. I think we all want him to, but guys like Nunez, Ramirez, or even healthy Mahay will not cut it as the Royals closer, and Soria has proven he can.

Looking over the free agent list for the offseason, there don't seem to be many viable options and without one from within, I shudder to think what could happen if the Royals can't hold leads (or more precisely, is unable to hold as many as it's holding now) at the end of the game. 110 losses? I hope not.

Antonio said...

Closer...is...overrated. It is that simple. Too many innings have been wasted where Soria was pitching against the 6-7-8 hitters with no one friggin' on while lesser pitchers were pitching to the 2-3-4 hitters with runners on. What sense does that make?!

kevin said...

Soria was a starter before. He can handle it.

Besides, again the argument is that if we get him for 7 innings every 4 or 5 days is better than 1 inning every other day. Especially when you consider what Rany has articulately discussed that most "save" situations are often not really that. So, the perceived value of all those saves Soria has is more than reality. It would be a little different if we were using him in the old style save role where he came in when the game was actually on the line.

kevin said...

Not a pitching topic here. But, did anyone see Ortiz, ORTIZ, bunt tonight?! I have no idea, but it's not unreasonable to me to believe that he's never been asked to bunt before, EVER. But, he bunted better than anyone on the Royals can. Unbelievable.

Casper said...

I think Rany touches on this in his recent post, but I kind of wonder if Greinke hasn't been approached yet about a long-term deal simply because all the rumors about him in trades have some merit. It would be harder to trade him if he had a swollen contract. Another team would be more willing to give a lot for him if they could negotiate their own terms with him on a long-term deal. Not that I want to lose Greinke because I don't...just sayin'...

Finally, I think I'm the only one here not excited about Ladnier being canned. I'm actually concerned about Picollo in this position because in my opinion one of the organization's prime problems is in player development, which Picollo has overseen for a while now. I mean, how many times has a Royal left here and gone on to become what we thought they'd be here but for a different team? Over the past several years, far too many. I mean, we have been bashing on the organization for sending up players who lack fundamentals but now the guy who is in charge of instilling these guys with fundamentals just received a larger, farther-reaching position in the organization. I'm personally concerned about this one.

Chuck said...

Why is Gload still getting starts at first base? Whats next Gathright at DH? But seriously, if you bring up young players in September let them play. Does Hillman know what platoon means?

Isaac said...

It is my opinion that Meche has actually had the better season compared to Greinke. It's not by much but the main reason is that Greinke had a great first month and has been fairly mediocre until recently while Meche was God awful the first month and has been spectacular since then. Overall I'll take Meche in that case.

Can anyone believe Hillman's reasoning for starting Gload at first tonight? He said it was because Gload was 3 for 7 against Slowey. When has Hillman ever looked at a split? Rany has shown on more than one occasion that Hillman has missed it so badly I can't really explain it. But tonight, he starts Gload because he is 3 for 7 against the oppositions starter and we have Kila on the bench. He does this the same night he sits both Butler and Olivo.

Resting your players is one thing, you just aren't supposed to rest them all on the same day idiot.

kcghost said...

You are not going to be able to sign Greinke for a figure under $11M a year. Not a chance. You have waited too long. Maybe, just maybe, he will bite on 4+1 at $12.5M.

Trey Bellman has lost the fans. His de facto decision to keep playing Gamer Gload at the expense of Kila is beyond explaining. This is particularly galling to us since he said Kila would be getting at bats.

Wabbitkiller said...

I have a few points to touch upon:

1) Good starters >>>>>>> Good Closers. I am NOT opposed to trying Soria in the rotation. Finding someone else that can pitch a scoreless 9th inning shouldn't be that hard. R. Ramirez or Nunez could both do an adequate job. Sure, Soria has been awesome, but that doesn't matter when you can't even get a game to the 9th with a dead because your starters suck.

2) Hillman is an idiot. There is NO logical (or acceptable) reason to start Gload at 1B when you have Shealy, Kila, AND Billy Butler that all need a look at 1B. Nevernimd all of the other brainless, completely idiotic stuff Hillman has done, Playing Gload at 1B under these circumstances are grounds for termination as far as I'm concerned.

3) Ladiner had to go. Sure, the last couple of drafts have been better (at least on paper), but that's largely because DM's people have been calling the shots, not Ladiner. As far as replacing him with Picollo goes, maybe he'll be a hell of a lot better at finding talent than he's been at developing it. They are different skill sets.

4) Did I mention that Hillman is an idiot nad needs to be fired?

5) As bad as Hillman has been, Mike Barnett needs to be the FIRST person DM fires once the season is over.

Anonymous said...

Gload was 3-for-7 against Slowey. True. But they were all singles and he had 0 RBIs. Not exactly wearing him out, is he? Hillman looks like he's trying to set Kila up to fail.

Old Man Duggan said...

Obviously, I didn't include this in my previous comment, but it's not that I'm entirely overvaluing the role of the closer. Yes, I would rather see Soria out there than Ramon Ramirez or Leo Nunez.

I worry just as much that Soria, if converted to the starter role will not be nearly as dominant. And I'm not accusing all of you guys of thinking that Soria's numbers will somehow project to be 240 K's in 217 IP, but I think it may be a bit optimistic to think that he'll plug right into the rotation and be as good as Meche and Greinke.

Sure, it's possible.

But is it likely?

Joe Nathan is probably the best closer in the game over the past five seasons, and he was a below average starter.

Smoltz was already a borderline HOFer when he made both conversions.

The book is still out on both Papelbon and Wainwright insofar as closing and starting are concerned (Jonny Boy has made 3 starts in his career, and Wainwright was a closer for about five seconds).

Largely, we're looking at a large sample size of closers who were not good enough to cut it as starters.

Maybe Soria is able to make the transition seamlessly, but I think it's anything but a sure thing and worry about the outcome of such a move.

Old Man Duggan said...

And to think such a move could work out for the Royals is bordering on ridiculous.

Antonio said...

It would obviously have to be a slow process spread out over a season and a half, but you know...most pitchers are tried out in the rotation and then they're moved to the bullpen. That's why it's loaded with failed starters.

And again, it's the LaRussian/Eckersleyian usage of the closer that gets me up in arms (in a very non-literal sense). Why in the world is the MLB so closed-minded? Eckersley, with his arm sewn together nightly by Dave Duncan (again, flair for the dramatic) HAD TO ONLY GO FOR ONE INNING AT A TIME--WHICH SHOWS THAT THAT KIND OF CLOSER CAN BE VERY HELPFUL TO A PLAYOFF TEAM AND NOT...EVERY...SINGLE...TEAM...AND...EVERY...SINGLE...PLAYER!! (The caps are for the thick-headed MLB.) The MLB is discriminatory when it comes to the closer's role. Bring back the Gossage/Sutter/Marshall/Quisenberry model of relief pitcher and show its efficient effectiveness and the teams would be better off for it. You could have a deeper bench, you wouldn't have to worry about overcooked slugs like Wellemeyer/Gobble and you'd just have to imagine it would do wonders for team morale and opportunity to reform itself.

I swear, I would bet major money that you could bounce a tin can off of the personification of the MLB!

Antonio said...

SINGLE...PLAYER.

(Sorry, I left out that bit. And looking at my previous post shows that I'm good at not proof reading some of my slop.)

Old Man Duggan said...

I'm not supporting the one-inning every time out usage of Soria. I just worry that he won't make the conversion to starter, and we'll be stuck with a crap closer AND a mediocre starter.

Casper said...

I hope you're right, Wabbitkiller, but the logic you pose still seems wobbly. I'm sure Chrysler was thinking the same thing when they brought Bob Nardelli from Home Depot to be their CEO. They probably thought "Yeah, he sucked at being in charge over there, but hey, we build CARS - it's a different skill set!" Methinks they may be regretting that decision now, but hey - what do I know, right?

Antonio said...

But you know that he will always be used as the one-inning closer because that's the retarded accepted mode of the MLB--and it is really an unfortunate waste of a supremely talented player. Also, I'm still trying to get my mind around the idea that a failed as starter Soria can't go back to dominating the bullpen. Why is this a 1 + 1 = 2 kind of thing with some of you guys? And even a mediocre closer is good enough. Not that Ramirez/Nunez would be mediocre but "merely" good.

royal8085 said...

Rany--

The number one priority for the Royals this off season should be signing Greinke to a long term deal, right? There's no way they trade him, right?