Sunday, January 16, 2011

Two Lefties Make It Right.

Hey, actual news!

I have only one problem with the Jeff Francis signing: I have no problem with the Jeff Francis signing.

In fact, it seems like no one has a problem with the Jeff Francis signing. No one has a problem with Jeff Francis, who as reclamation projects go is as good a risk as anyone on the market. Francis, a Canadian left-hander taken with the #9 overall pick in the 2002 draft, shot to the majors in barely two years with impeccable minor league numbers. After an uneven rookie season in 2005, Francis became the putative ace of the Rockies’ staff, with a 4.16 and a 4.22 ERA in 2006 and 2007 (in Coors Field, remember). He started Game 1 of the 2007 World Series against the Red Sox.

Then his shoulder went kablooey. Francis tore the labrum in his shoulder, an injury which was an almost certain career-ender just a few years ago. It took him two years to get back, but he returned in 2010 almost as good as new. His ERA wasn’t good (5.00), but his peripherals were. His strikeout rate dropped just a tick to 5.8 Ks per nine innings, not surprising for someone coming off major arm surgery – although, according to Fangraphs, his fastball velocity actually was up a tick (87.2) from his pre-surgery form (86.8). He showed the best command of his career – just 2.0 walks per nine innings – as well as the highest groundball rate of his career (47%). Add it all up, and his xFIP – a stat which estimates what a pitcher’s ERA ought to be with normal luck on balls in play – was just 3.94. That’s actually the best number of Francis’ career, and would make him an above-average pitcher.

Francis just turned 30 last week, and he’s a lefty, so it’s quite possible he has another decade left in the tank. He’s moving to the more difficult league, but he’s also moving from Coors Field to Kauffman Stadium. From a pure performance standpoint, there’s no reason to think Francis won’t help the Royals. The concern with Francis, if there is one, comes from a medical standpoint.

Labrum surgery is no joke, and as successful as Francis’ comeback has been to this point, it will be years before I’d feel comfortable about the long-term health of his shoulder. Francis returned to the Rockies’ rotation in mid-May, and made 16 starts without missing a beat, before he developed a sore shoulder and was out for a month. He returned on September 13 and made four appearances, and allowed 21 hits and 12 runs in 11.2 innings. He says his shoulder feels fine now. Gil Meche said the same thing.

But the Royals don’t have to worry about the long-term health of his shoulder, because they signed him for only one year (no surprise) and only $2 million guaranteed (mild surprise). That’s a terrific base salary for a pitcher with Francis’ track record, even one with his medical dossier.

It’s not the only bargain contract between a veteran pitcher and an AL Central team this week – the Tigers signed Brad Penny, who when healthy is probably better than Francis, for $3 million guaranteed. But it’s a very good deal in the grand scheme of things. For whatever reason, starting pitchers seem to be underpriced and relievers seem to be wildly overpriced, so good on the Royals for dipping their toes on only one side of the pool.

That’s the Yankees’ problem. Dayton Moore did good here. If Francis pitches poorly, the Royals are out no more than $2 million. (Remember, Moore guaranteed Horacio Ramirez $1.8 million to fill the same role two winters ago. For an extra $200,000, this time Moore signed an actual major league pitcher.) If Francis pitches well, or even sorta well, the Royals have a left-handed starting pitcher on the trade market come July – southpaws are catnip to GMs – right around the time they’ll need to open up a roster spot for another left-handed starter to be named later.

What’s not to love about the deal? Just one thing – the fact that everyone loves the deal. Given the last deal that everyone loved, that makes me nervous.

The Royals signed a second left-hander for their rotation in the span of 48 hours yesterday, when they brought back Bruce Chen on a one-year deal. Chen will be working under almost the same contract that Francis signed; both players are getting $2 million guaranteed, but Chen has $1.5 million in incentives to Francis’ $2 million.

Given that the money is the same, there’s little question that Chen’s contract isn’t nearly as favorable as Francis, because Chen doesn’t project to pitch as well. That might surprise you if you’re fixated on Chen’s team-leading 12 wins, or even his team-leading 4.17 ERA. But Chen is a good candidate to regress for the same reason that Francis is a good candidate to improve; he didn’t pitch nearly as well as his ERA would suggest.

Chen struck out 6.3 batters per nine innings, which is right in line with his average strikeout rate going back to 2004 (prior to that he struck out 7 to 8 batters per nine innings, before his arm woes started to take their toll). He unintentionally walked 3.4 batters per nine, right around his career average of 3.3. And Chen, who has long been one of the most extreme flyball pitchers in the majors, continued that trend, getting groundballs on only 34% of balls in play.

So why was he so effective? Because only 8.1% of the flyballs he surrendered cleared the fence, well below his average of 13.3% going back to 2002 (when Fangraphs’ data starts). He was lucky. His xFIP was 5.01, which is to say, Chen really should have had Francis’ ERA, and Francis really should have had Chen’s ERA.

Having said all that, I still like the deal. The general expectation was that Chen would be looking for a multi-year contract after his season, and I have no doubt that he was. But he was unable to find one, and Moore was wisely unwilling to offer one. A one-year deal fits both Chen’s talent level and the long-term needs of the franchise. Chen lost about 1 mph on his fastball after Tommy John surgery; if he regains any velocity in his second full season after surgery, he may have some upside here. Even if he doesn’t, he still represents an improvement on whomever the Royals would have started in his place.

Prior to these two signings, the Royals had only four major league-caliber starters on their roster, and that’s only if your definition of “major league-caliber” is liberal enough to include Sean O’Sullivan. Now O’Sullivan is the nominal sixth starter, and hopefully ticketed for some remedial work in Triple-A where he can repeat Missing Bats 101.

The Royals just signed 40% of their starting rotation for $4 million guaranteed. That’s barely a third of what the Yankees – who are still two starters short of a rotation – will be paying Rafael Soriano in 2011 alone. That’s less than the Tigers will be paying Joaquin Benoit in 2011 alone. That’s the same money that the Dodgers will be paying Matt Guerrier for each of the next three years. And now the Royals’ rotation, while conspicuously missing anyone that remotely resembles an ace – or even a #2 starter – is at least filled.

I suspect Luke Hochevar will be given every opportunity to start Opening Day, both because the team wants to make their #1 overall pick in 2006 look good, and because Yost wants to continue to pump Hochevar full of confidence. Behind Hochevar, it will likely go Francis, Davies, Chen, and Mazzaro, with O’Sullivan as an emergency starter/injury replacement. And the Royals are perfectly situated to overhaul the rotation at mid-season.

Davies, Francis, and Chen will all be free agents at year’s end, and the Royals have half a dozen starters that may be knocking on the door of the majors at some point in 2011. By August 1st, I fully expect to see a rotation of Hochevar, Mazzaro, and three pitchers selected out of the Montgomery/Lamb/Crow/Dwyer/Duffy pile. I also expect that the Royals will have added a few more prospects to the stable.

But in the meantime, at least the Royals can field five major league-caliber starters. Along with a below average but not abominably bad lineup, and a bullpen that could be a lot stronger than most people expect, I imagine that the predictions that the Royals will lose 110 games this season will abate. And if they don’t, I expect that they will be wrong.

That’s not a bad deal for $4 million. Right now, the Royals’ payroll looks to settle at just under $50 million for 2011. That’s nothing to brag about, unless your David Glass’ accountant, but the combination of a low payroll and no salary commitments beyond 2011 gives Dayton Moore an uncommon amount of flexibility. He can go aggressive in the free agent market next winter; he can trade for overpaid, but still useful players without surrendering prospects in return; he can spend wildly in the draft and in Latin America.

If this is it for the off-season, I’m good. The Royals won’t be a good team in 2011, and they might be really bad. But at least they’ll be interesting. Last season, six of the nine guys in the Opening Day lineup were on the wrong side of 30 – David DeJesus, Jose Guillen, Rick Ankiel, Scott Podsednik, Jason Kendall, and Willie Bloomquist.

This year, the oldest hitter on the entire Opening Day roster will probably be Mike Aviles, who turns 30 in March. The only reliever over the age of 30 is Gil Meche. Only the rotation, where Francis is 30 and Chen is 33, isn’t overrun with youth – at least not yet.

With everyone looking towards 2012, Moore had a simple mandate for this off-season: fill some obvious holes without making any substantial commitments in terms of time or money. He was then thrown a curveball when the Zack Greinke situation became untenable. In the end, Moore signed a pair of outfielders in their mid-twenties to one-year contracts; signed a pair of left-handed starters on the comeback trail to one-year deals; and traded Greinke for four young players, two of whom figure to upgrade the team’s up-the-middle defense immediately.

In retrospect, the Melky Cabrera signing looks like a waste, since the Royals wound up trading for their long-term solution in center field in Lorenzo Cain just a few days afterwards. And the potential is there for the Royals to hamstring the rebuilding process slightly by playing Cabrera over Cain in center field, at least to start the year, if for no other reason than to game Cain’s service time.

But otherwise, it’s hard to fault with Moore’s winter. He has not made a move to – and has made no indications that he will – sign a veteran catcher to replace Kendall’s intangibles. He has committed to Alex Gordon in left field, and Kila Ka’aihue as his DH. He got rid of Yuni Effing Betancourt, for God’s sake. And in signing Francis and Chen, he has reduced the temptation to rush his young starters without blocking their path to the majors the minute they are deemed ready.

It wasn’t a perfect off-season, but it was as good as I could have hoped. I’m ready to wind this team up and watch it go. The sooner it departs, the sooner 2012 will arrive.

30 comments:

steak said...

I read an inordinate amount of information about the Royals.

And yet I completely forgot Melky Cabrera was a Royals until you re-mentioned it in this post.

What's the consensus of posters: Who is more irrelevant at the moment, the Kansas City Royals or the Pittsburgh Pirates?

I'm going with Pirates only because they one-up our Bruce Chen with Chan Ho Park.

Michael said...

Actually, I read today that Chan Ho is going to Japan. This season, the only relevance the Royals will have is in the minor leagues, and how quickly some of them graduate to the majors.

Pedro said...

Good column. I am a fan of both signings, as well.

I don't see Francis as being comparable to Cruz, though. The guaranteed money--and Cruz was two years ago--and the time are significantly less. Francis has been signed as a starter and Cruz was as a reliever. Cruz cost us a second rounder (which could have meant no Wil Myers!), Francis, to my knowledge, nothing. Cruz reportedly has problems between the ears, of which I know no similar reports about Francis.

With regard to Cabrera, the other reason he might play more early in the season is that it increases the chance that he is viable trade bait, along with the rest of the short-time vets that were signed this winter.

Either way, I can't wait to compare the 2011 opening-day roster to the roster to begin 2012 and ask: "Who were those freakin' guys?"

Todd said...

Yeah I'm pretty satisfied with this offseason.

I'm still going to be counting down the days to the prospect wave showing up, but as least we have some interesting enough players to follow until that happens.

Nathan said...

I actually think 2011 will be interesting in its own way. There are a number of guys here who could become lucrative trade bait with good half-years: Chen, Francis, Davies, Betemit, Aviles, Frenchy, anyone in the bullpen besides Soria...these are all guys who could be worth something (not much, but something) to a contender, come June. Combine that with Gordon's latest chance to prove himself, and the fact that Butler's age-24 season will probably tell us a lot about whether he's going to be great or just good, and there's more than a little drama at the MLB level. Should be more entertaining than 2010.

kcghost said...

I guess if the Greinke trade does not turn out to be a disaster then GMDM can be given credit for not making things worse.

Okay, with these two pitchers being signed. One year deals at reasonably low cost.

Jeff Herron said...

Where does this leave Everett Teaford and his chances of making the starting lineup?

Robert said...

If there is a "right way" to build a 100 loss team, Moore has finally either figured it out or accidentally stumbled into it. At a minimum, we'll come out of 2011 with payroll flexibility and knowing quite a bit more about what the future holds for some young players. With a bit of luck, we'll find a couple pieces of deadline trade bait that doesn't hurt at all to part with. With a lot of luck, Gordon fulfills his promise and Butler starts turning more doubles into homers, and 2012 looks like a legit contending year.

Maybe that last one is asking too much.

Jeremy McNeal said...

2011 should be better than 2010, we probably aren't winning the division, but I think there's a chance we are competitive. Sure, lots of players have to take a step forward, but I'm optimistic. I still believe in Gordon, Kila, Brayan Pena, and Mike Aviles. Regardless, I'd rather watch a bunch of young guys struggle, than a bunch of veterans struggle.

Big Hatt said...

I've got no problem with Francis or Chen, in fact we probably needed them both. I still think we'll lose 110, but I was beginning to think we'd inch towards 120.

Maybe I'm just too cynical here, but the change in attitude on this blog over the past sixm onths to a year has rubbed me very wrong. I know its your blog, your choice what to write, and you've done a great job over the years. I'm just a little tired of hearing you praise a guy who, in his sixth year as GM, has constructed yet another 100-loss team.

Best farm in baseball. Fine. I've heard that plenty over the last six months. But you just praised Dayton for not signing ANOTHER Kendall. Wouldn't you say thats a bit over the top? Its like praising a 40-year-old man for not shitting his pants. Either he's retarded, or he doesn't deserve the praise.

Rick said...

If he's learning from his mistakes, that's a big step forward. Generally, a person in his position thinks he got there because he's got everything figured out and his ego won't let him admit mistakes. If Moore has learned what not to do it'll make things better going forward.

jjhochunk said...

I'm not impressed with O'Sullivan so far, and would like him better on the taxi squad in Omaha. But given that he and Davies suck pretty much equally, why pay Davies 4-5 times as much as SOS? I have heard some say Davies might be more valuable in the bullpen, and I would like to give that a shot. But not at the salary he would before or after arbitration. I'm hope I'm wrong and he is effective in ST, but I'm not optimistic that he has a future as a starter here. As for Melky, can't he be cut by a certain date during the spring and only be entitled to one sixth of his salary? There's another million off the books.

Bryan said...

I am on track with Jeremy.

I think 2011 will be much better in the win column.

The defense will be head and shoulders of 2010.

The offense should be markedly improved. Not a guarantee, but look at last years starting day lineup. Taking Bloomquist and Betancourt out alone makes it a major plus. I think there will be improvements before the young guns arrive and then even more improvement.

It is hard to say the pitching will be better whne Greinke is not there. But the bullpen should be much improved, and 1-5 I think is improved.

Hatt, I don't disagree with your sentiment, but there is real tangible evidence for a reason to be hopeful now. In the past we were all hopeful, but you had to grasp at straws to find something. Now there is solid stuff to look at. I think Rany is a reflection of that.

Rany your writing is great and it is something I definitely look forward to. But don't forget to point out the flaws in what they are doing. It isn't that hard to find flaws in GMDM.

And hochunk. I am in agreement with you. Let's go ahead and cut Melky and Davies now and give them a chance to hook on with someone else. If those two were gone today the team is that much better. If DM has learned from his mistakes and he is truly moving forward, he needs to cut and move on.

Just my .02.

Kansas City said...

I find any baseball team interesting, so I have no problem with being interested in th 2011 Royals.

But I have a question about why a GM of a bad team would do anything greated toward the current year. I suppose Rany's point is that these are cheap fill in's whom we might be able to trade, but that is pretty speculative.

I also wonder why Moore does not get an option year on all contracts, even at a high price. Is there some downside in terms of eligibility for a draft choice when the players leaves?

Old Man Duggan said...

@Big Hatt - Nice 40yo man comment. I think the Kendall comment when coupled with the Yuni-dump comment just go towards Rany's growing belief that maybe GMDM is learning from his mistakes. While perhaps more optimistic than I am, there is some evidence that perhaps this is happening.

steak said...

I think Duggan makes the best point, that GMDM is learning from mistakes.

No matter how you slice it, Dayton is a first time GM. Every decision he made was his first. The real measure of the man is whether he learns from his mistakes and changes his behavior accordingly. In this regard, GMDM is doing a good job.

Royals said...

With Meche retiring, does this mean we are off the hook for 12 million?

George said...

Yes, off the hook for the $12M. This means we are paying somewhere in the neighborhood of $42M in salaries this season. I know we just signed Francis and Chen, but is it time we take some of the Meche cash and get more pitching? Also, how much do we have tied up next year? $10M?

Royals said...

I say we keep the money and pour it into the draft and Latin America. It would be much better spent there than trading for a Joe Blanton type to eat innings or bringing in a veteran to platoon such as Manny Ramirez.

Lance said...

Glad I found your blog. Followed you on twitter too. Can;t wait to read your daily anti Jeff Francoeur blog posts. Trust me, living in Atlanta, I wrote them myself.

4 weeks til baseball!

Lance

Michael said...

Meche's announcement came about 2 months too late. If he'd announced this at the end of last season (and I do understand he probably wasn't thinking retirement then), maybe we could have gone out and spent some money in free agency, which may have convinced Zack to stick around and see this through.

But oh well. Not much we can do about that now I guess.

benfunke said...

Kansas City - yes, if you decline an option, you wouldn't get the benefit of Type A or B status of a player.

Michael said...

Actually, you still can. If you decline the option and then offer the player arbitration, and the player declines, you would still get the draft pick compensation if they signed elsewhere. It's exactly what Toronto did with Miguel Olivo.

Michael said...

Any chance you'll be down for FanFest this weekend Rany?

Steve N said...

I wish that I was so confident that DM has learned. The Francoeur signing would seem to indicate that he has not. Still it looks to me as if the Royals can move forward this year. I will take the under on 100 losses.

Nathan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan said...

Steve,

Signing Francoeur with the expectation that he'll hit like the blue-chip prospect he used to be would have been a bad move. On the other hand, hoping that he can turn it around does no harm whatsoever. His presence actually will make the 2011 Royals slightly better--Mitch Meier is a year older, has a lesser pedigree, and has posted worse career stats. Plus, if he's productive, he can be flipped at the deadline for prospects. For $2.5 million I think it's a fine gamble; even if you think he isn't worth $2.5 million over 1 year, this certainly isn't the kind of signing that proves a GM "hasn't learned." I doubt there's a team in baseball that doesn't have at least one contract worse than this on the books.

Nathan said...

Oh, one other thing, off topic though it is.

With Blylevin in the Hall of Fame, it's time for the sabermetric crowd to turn their attention to an even more deserving enshrinee: Jeff Bagwell. There is absolutely no evidence he ever used PEDs, and he put up .297/.408/.540 career slash stats as a slick fielding 1B in the cavernous Astrodome. A rational argument that doesn't belong in the HOF just doesn't exist, and it's hard to believe he was under 50% even the first time around.

Jason said...

This is the first DM team that makes SENSE to me. Not sure it's going to win any more games than previous teams, but it makes sense given what is on the way from the minors, because:
1) No one is being blocked in AA or AAA by anyone on the ML roster, NOR is anyone in AA and AAA being rushed to make a meaningful contribution--a difficult balance to achieve, imo.
2) Everyone who needs to get the playing time to be evaluated moving forward should get their opportunity to do so; by the end of the year we should all have a clearer picture as to the futures of Gordon, Hochevar, Mazzaro, Kaaihue, Getz, Pena, Cain, and several arms in the bullpen.
3) They actually are putting into practice their said goal of having good up-the-middle defense. The combo Cain, Escobar, and Getz should be much better than that of Ankiel/Maier/Blanco, Betancourt, and Aviles.
4) No big OR long-term contracts, save Soria.

For a team that's expecting the kind of talent influx it's expecting the next several years and is ok with not going for the post-season in the mean time, I can't imagine a better put together team than what DM has done, here. That's sort of a compliment.

Royals said...

I love the butler deal. Looking forward to your analysis, rany.