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,
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
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.
(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
I’m just as happy to see that
Most of all, I’m happy because