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.