Sunday, March 1, 2009

You Snooze, We Sign Juan Cruz.

Jeez, a busy day for Kansas City sports today…

The usual apologies for my prolonged absence apply. We’ve spent the last week moving my main dermatology office to a larger location across the hall, while simultaneously preparing to open a new office location in Sycamore, Illinois on Tuesday. (Taking appointments now!) Fortunately, the economy is so robust and vibrant that I should have no problems making this investment pay off. I mean, there’s no way I’d try to expand my business while our country is in the grip of a huge recession. That would be insane.

Anyway, the workplace distractions really just served as a convenient excuse, because I was loathe to spend a lot of time commenting on the first week or two of spring training, when everyone shows up in the best shape of their life and every development is scrutinized to a pulp. The main goal of Spring Training is simply to keep everyone healthy, and that goes double for the parts of Spring Training that occur in February.

But this morning I finally got off my duff and wrote a couple thousand words on the state of the Royals. I was without internet access at the time, but planned to post this afternoon…only to come home and find a press release in my email box.

Wow, Juan Cruz, huh? I find it hard to argue with this acquisition from either a talent perspective or a financial perspective.

Cruz was a top prospect with the Cubs at the dawn of the decade, but struggled to find his niche in the major leagues. He bounced to the Braves and A’s before finally landing with Arizona three years ago, quickly settled into the bullpen, and has been lights out ever since. His career ERA is 4.00, but that’s unfairly weighted by two terrible seasons in 2003 (6.05 ERA) and 2005 (7.44 ERA in 33 innings). His next-highest ERA after that is in 2006, with a 4.18 ERA. In 2007 his ERA was a tidy 3.10; last year it was just 2.61.

It’s not just that Cruz is effective, it’s how he is effective. Remember when Dayton Moore was defending the Kyle Farnsworth signing by talking up the Royals’ need for a reliever who can get the big strikeout when necessary? He might have been – should have been – talking about Cruz instead. It’s not that Farnsworth is a stranger to the strikeout – he’s averaged over one per inning in his career – but Cruz is even better in that category, with 535 whiffs in 515 career innings (9.35 Ks per 9 IP). Moreover, Cruz combines a power strikeout rate with actual effectiveness. Farnsworth’s strikeouts come at the cost of homers (1.37 HR per 9), while Cruz, despite being a flyball pitcher, has surrendered just 0.97 HR per 9. Cruz is a little more prone to the walk (4.38 UIBB per 9, Farnsworth is at 3.66 per 9), but it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.

Cruz, remember, has pitched in the cozy confines of Bank One Ballpark/Chase Field/whichever soon-to-be-bankrupt financial services company their stadium is named for at the moment. I don’t want to make too much of this, because Cruz actually pitched better at home than on the road the last three years – he gave up just six homers in Arizona, thirteen elsewhere. But on the whole, his flyball tendencies should play even better in Kansas City than they did in the desert.

But here’s what I really like about Cruz: he’s a strikeout machine unlike any reliever the Royals have ever had. I was recently thinking about how unique it is that the Royals have had three truly signature closers in their history (Dan Quisenberry, Jeff Montgomery and Joakim Soria), and yet have never had a prototypical flamethrowing reliever in any role. Quisenberry famously has one of the lowest strikeout rates of the modern era – certainly for a pitcher as effective as him. Montgomery and Soria have/had good strikeout rates, but not stellar ones, and in any case owe their strikeouts to deception more than to overpowering stuff.

No pitcher with even 200 innings in a Royals uniform has managed to whiff a batter an inning, something both Farnsworth and Cruz have done over the course of their career. But more than that, in the history of the Royals, the highest strikeout rate in a single season for anyone with 40+ innings is 10.58. (A hundred guesses and you’ll still be wrong: it was Brian Bevil, in 1998. All those strikeouts were good for a 6.30 ERA.) Cruz has exceeded that rate in both 2007 and 2008: in 2007, he struck out 87 batters in 61 innings (12.84 per nine), and last year he whiffed 71 in 51.2 (12.37 per nine).

So I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that this signing completely changes the complexion of the Royals’ bullpen. Salaries notwithstanding, Cruz is clearly a better pitcher than Farnsworth, and should be treated as such. If he moves into the 8th inning set-up role that was tentatively (and terrifyingly) handed to the Professor, who then moves into the middle innings role that he’s more suited for, this strengthens the entire chain of relief in front of Soria.

Twenty-four hours ago, the bullpen looked like a potential weakness for the Royals, simply because the potential for Farnsworth to suffer repeated eighth-inning meltdowns was so great. Now? Suddenly you’re looking at breaking camp with the following four right-handed relievers: Soria, Cruz, Farnsworth, and Robinson Tejada. This means that Soria would have the lowest strikeout rate in 2008 of any right-handed reliever on the team, with a mere 66 Ks in 67.1 innings (8.82 per nine). (In Soria’s defense, if you look at strikeouts as a percentage of batters faced – the more accurate method – he ranks behind only Cruz.)

Throw in a complement of crafty left-handers in Ron Mahay, Jimmy Gobble, and John Bale if he recovers from thyroid surgery in time (get well soon, John!) That’s a deep and formidable bullpen, maybe one of the best in baseball. That’s a hell of an upgrade for one pitcher to make.

And then we get to cost: Cruz will get paid $6 million over the next two seasons (counting his 2011 buyout), with a third-year option for $3.5 million. Wow. I mean, wow. It’s easy to make a crack about how Cruz should have Farnsworth’s contract and vice versa, but look at it this way: the Royals are paying Cruz the same amount of money over the next two seasons as the Milwaukee Brewers are paying Trevor Hoffman – who’s 41 years old and threw 45 innings last season – just in 2009. That’s a steal, folks. Grand Theft Reliever.

It’s not that simple, because the non-financial cost of signing Cruz was significant: the Royals gave up their second-round pick in the draft as compensation. This goes against Dayton Moore’s general principles of focusing on building from within, and also goes against over 15 years of Royals history. The last time the Royals gave up a draft pick – in other words, the last time the Royals signed a Type A free agent – was in 1993, when they signed David Cone.* Before that, you have to go back to 1990 and the Davis Brothers, who in addition to all the other damage they wreaked on the franchise, cost the Royals their first and second-round picks that June.

*: I just learned that with the compensation pick they got from the Royals, the Blue Jays drafted Anthony Medrano. I’m stunned by this, because two years later the Royals traded Cone to the Jays for three players…and one of them was Medrano. Has any other player signed as a free agent with a new team, then been traded for the same guy who was drafted with his own compensation pick?

So from a player development standpoint, this is going to hurt a little. But just a little. For one thing, it will hurt the Royals less than it would have hurt almost any other team that would have signed Cruz. Any team that finished with one of the 15 best records in 2008 would have had to surrender their first-round pick. The Royals, by virtue of finishing with the 11th-worst record in baseball, only surrender their second-round pick – a pick which comes after the second-round pick of ten other teams. In other words, had the Royals finished with a worse record, the pick they surrendered would have come earlier in the second round, while if they had finished with a better record, they likely would have had to surrender their first-round pick. Only the four teams drafting immediately after them would have given up a lower draft pick as compensation. The difference in draft pick compensation may be a big factor in why the Twins, who were the last team rumored to be in on Cruz (and who would have had to surrender a first-rounder), ultimately dropped out of the bidding.

It’s possible that in the long run that second-round pick would have been more valuable to the Royals than Cruz, although recent history is not favorable in that regard. The Royals did draft Carlos Beltran in the second round in 1995, but since then, the most successful second-round draft pick is probably Shane Costa. (Wow, that’s sad.) And not only do the Royals have Cruz, but they have the opportunity to cash Cruz in for prospects at the trading deadline this year or next, or possibly obtain draft-pick compensation of their own if Cruz walks away as a free agent after 2010 or 2011. This may not be a draft pick denied so much as a draft pick deferred.

Beyond that, there’s reason to think that the Royals will simply take the resources they would have spent on that pick and use them on amateur talent elsewhere. Moore was on Soren Petro’s radio show a few days ago, and while I can not vouch for this 100% as it comes to me secondhand, Moore insinuated that the Royals were not as active in Latin America in 2008 compared to 2007 partly because they blew the budget for Eric Hosmer’s $6 million bonus. This is corroborated by a statement Moore made to Bob Dutton: “So when times like this occur, we feel like we can compensate through our international scouting.”

(Oddly, that last statement was originally in this column, then I checked back an hour later and it was gone. The quote above appears in a Google search, but then disappears when I click on the link. Someone at the Star is messing with me.)

The Royals were rather quiet on the international market last summer, but I predict that will change this year. If Grudzielanek doesn’t get off the couch and sign with someone soon – remember, the compensation for Grudz would be a supplemental first-rounder, a better pick than the one we just lost – I’d expect the Royals to be very active in Latin America this year.

Anyway, while I’d love to have that second-round pick back, let’s be honest: if it wasn’t for the issue of draft pick compensation, the Royals never would have signed Cruz. And they sure as hell wouldn’t have signed him for such a ridiculously low price. Signing Cruz may not have fit the Royals’ overarching philosophy of player development, but so what? The real philosophy of a winning team is to, you know, win – by any means necessary. This move helps the Royals do just that, in a year when even a few more wins might be the difference between October baseball and October golf. On a day when most in Kansas City were focusing on the other players acquired for a second-round pick, don’t be fooled: this move was every bit as important when it comes to getting a KC team into the playoffs in 2009.

I’m happy to see that Moore has the flexibility to suspend his principles for a moment when a bargain of this magnitude presents itself. Ultimately, what matters is that Juan Cruz helps this team, and does so without appreciably raising payroll. He only makes $2.25 million this year, and half that money was saved by cutting Esteban German. (Let’s take a brief moment to acknowledge German, who was a terrific utility player for two years, but whose bat regressed mightily last season while his glove became an even more serious liability.)

I’m just as happy to see that Moore is willing, in essence, to admit he made a mistake when he signed Farnsworth. He misjudged the market badly by moving to sign Farnsworth early, to what proved to be one of the most lucrative contracts signed by a non-closing reliever this winter. By signing Cruz, a better pitcher by any metric you choose, for $6 million over two years (a less expensive contract by any metric you choose), Moore is tacitly admitting that he goofed the first time around. Moore didn’t let the money wasted on Farnsworth intimidate him away from spending money much more wisely on a superior pitcher. Farnsworth is a sunk cost, and the investment in Farnsworth shouldn’t have factored into whether Cruz would be a good investment or not. Kudos to Moore for not letting it do so.

Most of all, I’m happy because Moore is taking the Royals’ chances in 2009 as seriously as some of us fans are. The division is there for the taking, and a little improvement could go a long way this year. Moore saw the opportunity to improve the team by more than a little, and he took it. Let’s see if the Royals follow suit with their own opportunity.

37 comments:

steak said...

At spring training. Saw Nick Lowery at the game. We are going 90 and 72. No worries. In the bag.

Shelby said...

If we don't win 81 games this year, I will be pretty disappointed.

If we don't win the division in 2010 or 2011, I'll be very disappointed.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this came out of nowhere. Not that I'm complaining though. I love this signing!

Jeff Parker said...

I had just seen the Cassel trade and was talking to friends about that when I seen the Cruz signing. What a day for Kansas City fans.

Anonymous said...

Why not take the chance with all the bullpen arms we have now and see if we can make one of them the closer and turn Soria in to the starter he once was. As good and valuable as he is as a closer for us, he can be much more valuable for us as a starter. Don't forget he threw a no-hitter a week after we took him in the rule V draft in winter ball. It might not work, but you never know unless you try.

Anonymous said...

As always, Rany, your writing is in depth, and so much fun to read for a fan of the Royals.

I should point out, though, that it's Robinson Tejeda, not Tejada. But that's no biggie.

At one point, I was questioning whether it was a wise tradeoff to lose Ram Ram and Leo Nunez for Coco Crisp and Mike Jacobs.

Now, though, I think this bullpen could be as good, if not better, and the offense has improved, as well.

I'm so fired up about the upcoming season! And please don't make us wait so long between your posts. It was torture checking your site daily and seeing the 1984 Cubs headline for well over a week.

Yes, I'm addicted to your site. Thanks for being a Royals fan!

Anonymous said...

I too love this signing. Kudos to David Glass, let's all acknowledge.

Now only second base is a question Mark (Teahen, ha). If he fails, GMDM should try to trade several obvious extras (at, say, catcher, first base, TPJr) to Pittsburgh for Fred Sanchez, who is supposedly already midsason trade bait. Maybe the Bucs would part with one of those left-handed starters, too . . . .

drewfuss said...

Royals just signed LHP Bruce Chen (how is he only 31 years old?) to a minor league deal, but he's off to play for Panama in the WBC. Dayton must have been cranky about losing out on Orlando Hudson, and now he's just piling up the arms. Nice!

Dale said...

Love the Cruz signing! I agree that our bullpen has a shot at being one of strongest in baseball.

Good luck with the new office opening! We're launching a second site in September, so I know what you're talking about.

Old Man Duggan said...

I think the bullpen is much improved from last year, and I do not mind that they are spending more on it. Moreover, I'd imagine that Brayan Pena actually makes the team over Buck, which should pay for the rest of the Cruz deal.

And with the Brucie Chen minor league deal, the engravers might as well start carving that 'K' into the World Series trophy.

Brucie!

Mac said...

With Cruz and Chen, I count eight ex-Braves pitchers between the 40-man and the NRIs. I think Dayton has a problem, and you guys better watch out before he springs Brad Clontz or someone on you.

Devon said...

The Royals are starting to look exciting on paper.

Walt said...

the only true question marks left are the back end of the pitching staff and defense on the right side of the infield. kc seriously could contend.

Douglas said...

Astute observations all. Good luck with the satellite office. I'm going to say the Royals will have the best bullpen in baseball in '09. You read it here first.

Anonymous said...

Love the signing, but one hindsite criticism....signing German for $1.25 last fall sure was a waste. Doesn't seem like there was much of a plan back then...

Isaac said...

I think I'll take this time to tell all of you to take a step back and take a deep breath. This is still the Royals. I agree with Rany in the sense that, based on the predictions, anything can happen with a little luck. The only problem is that we don't normally get that luck. I remain cautious at least until the season has gotten under way.

Rany, the next time you think about taking an extended break from this site, don't do it! You actually had me worried. I was wondering if something was wrong. Shame on you.

Nathan said...

It might be worth noting that Pecota isn't crazy about Cruz (4.33 ERA). I love the way GMDM took advantage of the strange market conditions at work, but power relievers often have relatively brief peaks, and I wouldn't count on Cruz remaining an elite reliever for two more years.

This is still a good deal, though.

Ryan from DSM said...

Does this open the door for the signing of O. Cabrera? Now he would cost a third round pick and his salary.

Ryan from DSM said...

Scratch that. OC just signed with the A's.

Eric said...

Cabrera - $4 mil

Farnsworth - $4.125 mil

Hmmmmm....I'm starting to hate Farnsworth more than I used to hate Neifi Perez...and the season hasn't even started yet.

Olentangy said...

As long as we don't see a Terry Mulholland signing, I am fine with Dayton Moore signing ex Brave pitchers!

Ron Rollins said...

Lets look at it another way.

Don't trade Nunez for Jacobs. You have a quality relief pitcher in the pen, and don't need to sign Cruz. YOu also don't have Jacobs at $4 mil plus, when he isn't needed.

You don't have to give a draft pick to get Cruz because you already have a reliever who's effective.

Take the money you gave to Jacobs (who isn't needed), add that to the mix, and you can then sign Hudson or Cabrerra with decent offer. You might have to outbid other teams, but you have the money to do so.

Then, instead of dumping German, who plays hard and is better than Bloomquist, you dump Pena. Not dumping Pena is just arrogance on Moore's part and refusal to admit it was a mistake to trade for him in the first place.

Moore doesn't have a clue what he's doing, and the Royals will be hardpressed to win 75 games this year.

Oh yeah, add in the money that could have been saved signing Farnsworth, and the Royals could have actually went after some quality free agents this year.

Chance said...

Easy, big fella...I like the Cruz signing very much, but guys like Walt are driving me crazy. "The only question marks are 2b and the back of the rotation? Really???!?!? I know Spring is the time for boundless optimism, but chill out. Gordon is a huge question mark. Butler is a huge question mark. Will Greinke be Greinke? Will Meche crap the bed for the first half of the season again? What the heck happened to Brian Bannister? Who's on first? What's on second? How long before Jose Guillen melts down? Will the slight upgrade on offense from Olivo cancel out the savvy pitch calling of Buck? Is Hillman a joke or does he know wha the is doing?

Chance said...

If we need a second baseman and Grud is available, why isn't he batting second and turning double plays for us instead of Teabag, Carl-asspoke or Bloomingdale?

Anonymous said...

Actually, now that you mention Grudzielanek, the sting of losing the draft pick in the Cruz signing could be offset if some other team would sign Grud, giving the Royals a supplemental pick.

Anonymous said...

Ron,

Your act is getting old.

Nathan said...

Ron,

If you think Jacobs isn't needed, then have a look at the Pecota projections of Kaauhue and Shealy. Sure, one of them could have a good year, but it's not something you want to bet on. Jacobs isn't Lou Gherig, but he's a substantial upgrade. Are you suggesting Moore didn't need to do something about 1B in the offseason?

Anonymous said...

Oh Nathan, I'm guessing Ron is one of those guys that thinks because KK hit 37 home runs last year in the minors he could do that in the majors too. It doesn't matter that in the previous 5 years KK hadn't really shown that kind of power before.

Anonymous said...

I pretty much agree with every single point that Ron Rollins made -- spot on. And when Jacobs is absolutely BUTCHERING 1st base - extending innings, allowing runs, killing our pitchers - because he can't pick throws from our crack infield, y'all will be crying too. Except for Grienke and Cruz, this offseason was a complete debacle. Don't forget how loathsome last season was until we went on our late-season, no pressure, fluke of a tear that made the season look like an "improvement". I think we'll win 72 this year. Our defense will be perhaps the worst in baseball, we have 2.5 legit SP's, an offense that is average (if we're lucky), and a solid bullpen. I predit a last place finish. Sorry, too much WASTED money.

rey rey said...

from NY Daily News Blog

Im guessing the writer isnt Ron :)

Royals Cruz into playoff mix
February 28, 2009
Don't look now, but the Kansas City Royals might be a contender.

With the signing of Juan Cruz to a two-year deal today, and the earlier addition of Kyle Farnsworth to set up for All-Star closer Joakim Soria, the Royals have three power arms at the back end of their bullpen, along with one of the best lefties in the business in Ron Mahay.

Cruz had 71 strikeouts in 51.2 innings with the Diamondbacks last year, but was still on the market because he was a Type A free agent and Arizona had offered him arbitration, meaning that the Diamondbacks are entitled to a compensatory draft pick from the team signing him. Since the Royals finished in the bottom half of the standings last year, that will be a second-round pick.

For his part, Farnsworth had 61 strikeouts in 60.1 innings with the Yankees and Tigers last year, while Soria has 141 punchouts in 136.1 innings over his two-year major league career. The setup men aren't perfect -- Farnsworth gives up too many homers, while Cruz occasionally struggles with his control -- but the Royals now can essentially play a six-inning game with confidence. For a team whose oldest starter is 30-year-old Gil Meche, that's a big deal.

When the Royals traded for Mike Jacobs and Coco Crisp earlier this offseason, the concern was how Kansas City would restock its bullpen after giving up setup men Leo Nunez and Ramon Ramirez, respectively, in those deals. Now the Royals' lineup has been upgraded along with the bullpen, while the young core of holdovers figures to be better with another year of experience. In what is widely projected to be the weakest division in baseball, the Royals might now have as good a chance as anyone.

Anonymous said...

From my understanding and what I've heard, the knock on Jacobs' fielding is his range and ability to field batted balls, not on picking throws. Remember, the guy was a catcher in the minors, so picking throws shouldn't be much of a problem (he did have to deal with balls in the dirt as a catcher you know).

drewfuss said...

Some here (and elsewhere) have advocated re-signing Grudzielanek at 2B, which I think is a bad idea, but also I believe it's against MLB rules for him to re-sign with his old club until after May 1st because he declined arbitration... I'll have to research when I'm not blocked out by the good ol' web filter...

Anonymous said...

I've heard that Jacobs makes Sweeney look like a gold-glover at first base. And lets not forget that Sweeney used to be a catcher too. I seem to recall him having trouble picking throws in the dirt.

Anonymous said...

rey rey,

I think its funny that everyone is writing off the AL Central when recent history tells us any division in the AL is better than any NL one

Anonymous said...

What if we trade for Bobby Crosby to play shortstop?

Anonymous said...

That's actually not a horrible idea. Crosby at short and Aviles at second? Not a bad idea at all.

Of course, that's why it won't happen. That and Crosby's $5 million salary.

Anonymous said...

...please where can I buy a unicorn?