Thursday, February 17, 2011

Royals Today: 2/17/2011.

With spring training in full swing, along with the usual hopeful stories (Sean O’Sullivan has lost 25 pounds! Jason Kendall might be ready for Opening Day*!), I figure it’s time to do a thought dump of all the off-season stories that I haven’t covered yet but have been meaning to get around to. Here’s one of them.

*: Hopeful only for Jason Kendall.

The big story-that-wasn’t-a-story for the Royals this winter was the Royals’ refusal – according to Bill Madden of the New York Daily News – to consider trading Joakim Soria to the Yankees. This provoked a lot of conversation among Royals fans, most of it pointing out that closers – even the best closers – are terribly overrated, and that if the Royals had any chance of getting, say, Jesus Montero from the Yankees for Soria, they were fools not to pull the trigger.

I think we have to take this story with a grain of salt – Madden carefully constructed his column to suggest that the Yankees would trade Montero and shortstop Eduardo Nunez for Soria, but without explicitly stating that the Yankees made such an offer. I’m not convinced that they did, or that they would. For one thing, the Yankees’ refusal to part with Nunez last year is what scuttled the Cliff Lee trade, and prompted the Mariners to trade Lee to the Rangers instead. I find it hard to believe that the Yankees would refuse to give Nunez up for Lee, but happily part with him for Soria. (Then again, given that their refusal to give up Nunez essentially cost the Yankees the AL pennant, it’s quite possible that the Steinbrenner brothers have made it clear to GM Brian Cashman that they won’t let prospects stand in the way of acquiring star major-league talent.)

Then there’s the question as to why the Royals would want Nunez in the first place, particularly after acquiring Alcides Escobar. Nunez has a good defensive reputation; Escobar has a better one. Nunez’s offensive value, like Escobar’s, is primarily driven by batting average – he doesn’t hit for much power or walk a whole bunch. But Escobar had a career .293 average in the minors; Nunez has a .274 average. And while Escobar has already been a disappointment after a full season in the majors, he’s just six months older than Nunez, who has all of 50 major league at-bats on his resume.

I think Nunez is kind of a red herring, because the reason to make such a deal – if such a deal was indeed offered – is to get Montero. Montero is pretty clearly one of the five best prospects in baseball; the only players I would clearly rank ahead of him are Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, and maybe Julio Teheran. In terms of pure hitting ability, Montero would probably rank #1. He’s a career .314/.371/.511 hitter in the minors, and hit .289/.353/.517 in a full season of Triple-A last season, when he was just 20 years old. Scouts love him. Miguel Cabrera comparisons seem positively reasonable, with a lower blood alcohol level.

But if you believe that the Royals have moved on from Stage 1 of rebuilding, the “acquire talent at all costs” stage, and are now in Stage 2, the “shape your talent to fit the confines of a major-league roster” stage, then it’s not clear what you would do with Montero. He’s a catcher like Wil Myers is a catcher, in that he’s catching more out of a vain hope that he can miraculously improve into an acceptable backstop more than out of any real conviction that he’ll last at the position. Unlike Myers, if Montero moves, it will be to first base; he doesn’t have the mobility to play elsewhere.

And if he’s a first baseman…I’m not sure any team in baseball has less of a need for a player at a particular position than the Royals do at first base. Billy Butler is signed through 2015, Kila Ka’aihue under team control through 2016, and both are expected to make room for Eric Hosmer from around mid-2012 through 2018. Montero seems like a luxury the Royals don’t need.

Gun to my head, I’d still trade Soria for Montero, because a closer is a luxury the Royals don’t need either. And Montero isn’t just another hitting prospect; he’d be the best prospect in the best farm system in baseball. If everything went according to plan, Montero wouldn’t be expendable; Ka’aihue and maybe even Butler would be expendable. If nothing else, the excess first base talent ought to fetch enough on the trade market to make up for Soria’s 65 innings a season.

That said, I don’t think it’s a slam dunk. Soria is as valuable as much for his contract as for his talent; if the Royals pick up all his options, he’ll be paid $26.75 million over the next four years, a terrific deal for one of the three best closers in the game. According to Baseball-Reference, Soria has been worth an average of 3.2 Wins Above Replacement in his career, which would be worth somewhere around $15 million a year on the open market.

But owing to the high-leverage situations that Soria is used in as a closer, he’s actually worth more than that. According to B-R, Soria has averaged 4.2 a season Win Probability Added – a statistic which looks at each outing he makes in context, so that how he pitches with a one-run lead in the ninth is more important than how he pitches when he’s getting some work in a 10-1 game. Last season, Soria was worth 5.1 wins by this measure – and by Baseball Prospectus’ WXRL, a stat with a different design but similar premise, he led all relievers by being worth 6.5 wins. By WXRL, Soria has never ranked lower than 7th in the majors – not even in 2009, when he missed a month with an injury and threw only 53 innings. If Soria pitches as well over the next four seasons as he did in the past four seasons, his contract is an enormous bargain, and even an offer of Jesus Montero should be treated with caution.

That’s the question, though: is it realistic to expect Soria to continue to pitch at, frankly, a Hall of Fame level for the next four seasons? Relievers are notoriously inconsistent, and even the best relievers have off-seasons. If Soria has an off-year or two in the next four, or if he gets hurt and misses a season, then his contract no longer looks like a bargain, and failing to trade him at the peak of his value would constitute a grand opportunity missed.

There is an inherent risk with Soria as there is with any pitcher. But it’s not fair to lump Soria in with all relievers when we say that “relievers are inconsistent.” Soria isn’t any reliever – he’s a phenomenally effective one, and we need to compare him with other phenomenally effective relievers if we want to gauge his risk level.

Consider this: Soria has notched 30 saves with an ERA+ of 200 or more (meaning his ERA is less than half the league average, adjusted for ballpark) in each of the last three years. In all of major-league history, just three relievers have had more than three such seasons in their entire careers. Mariano Rivera (10!), Joe Nathan (5), and Billy Wagner (4). Just three other pitchers have done it three times: Jonathan Papelbon, John Wetteland, and Robb Nen.

Papelbon accomplished the feat in 2006, 2007, and 2009, and just missed in 2008 with a 199 ERA+. He was 28 when he accomplished it for the third time. Rivera did it three straight years from ages 27 to 29 – the other four pitchers didn’t accomplish it a third time until they were in the 30s. Soria is just 26 years old.

That is to say: no closer in major-league history has been as consistently, phenomenally successful at a younger age than Joakim Soria. It’s hard to chart his future path because it’s hard to find anyone to compare him with.

The best we can do is to compare him with the pitchers above. Rivera is the greatest reliever in history and the greatest postseason pitcher in history. Wagner pitched 16 seasons in the majors, and in only one season – 2000, when he missed most of the year with torn tendon in his arm – did his ERA go above 2.85. He’s a Hall of Famer in my book. Nathan has a 1.87 ERA in six seasons with the Twins, before missing all of 2010 after Tommy John surgery.

Wetteland was an outstanding reliever for seven straight seasons, from 1992 to 1998; after two sub-par seasons by his standards in 1999 and 2000 (he still had an ERA+ of 140 and 120), he abruptly retired at the age of 33. Papelbon had a disappointing 2010, and it remains to be seen where his career goes from here. Nen is by far the most inconsistent pitcher on this list; from 1994 to 2002, he alternated ERAs below 3.00 and above 3.00 every single season. But Nen was a dominant closer right to the end, when he pitched through a serious shoulder injury in a valiant and star-crossed effort to lead the 2002 Giants to a World Championship. He never pitched again.

Not one of these pitchers lost their place as one of the best closers in the game until their early 30s. Nathan missed a season after his elbow blew out, Wagner missed part of a season. If you believe these are fair comps for Soria, then it’s fair to say that there’s a risk that Soria might lose one of the next four years to injury. But the odds that he will suddenly turn into just an ordinary reliever – or even just an ordinary closer – seem remote.

That doesn’t change the fact that he’s still a luxury for the Royals, at least in 2011 and possibly 2012. But it does mean that the Royals are justified in asking for the sun, the moon, and the stars for him. Jesus Montero is a reasonable offer. But it’s also completely reasonable for the Royals to have turned it down.

27 comments:

Timothy said...

I always wondered why catcher defense and gamecalling are so prized when nothing has ever shown that anything but vauge glove position and catching actually affect the game.

I remember a story of some pitcher (Koufax?) calling a game from the dugout using basic hand signals...couldn't a coach do this instead of the catcher? and let a bat first(and only) guy like Montero stick at catcher, where his bat would be much more valuable.

Max said...

I'd pull the trade 7 days a week and I don't like Montero and I love Soria. But you can always find relievers, even great ones. Elite hitting talents are harder to come by. Hell, at the very least, you can flip Montero for another good prospect at a position you can better utilize - AA in Toronto seems to do it all the time.

Isaac said...

Although I don't agree with it, I will for the sake of argument that relievers may very well grow on trees. With that said, I am quite confident when I say that Marianos and Sorias don't grow on trees. Not only that, you'd be lucky to ever find a reliever of their quality. You can then add in the fact that Soria makes less than half of what Mariano does and much less than Nathan or Paplebon.

We may not need Soria in 2011, but we very well may need him in 2013 and 2014 and be kicking ourselves for giving him up for a fourth first baseman.

If relievers were so easy to get, then why don't all teams have an equal to Mariano or Soria or Nathan? Why are there teams that have bullpen problems every year?

Michael said...

I wouldn't pull it either. Finding elite closers, especially Hall of Fame talented ones like Soria, is not as easy as Max seems to think, or every team would have someone like that. But they don't.

If Soria was only under contract 2 years, I'd do it. But being that he's under contract well into the time when we figure to be contenders, I say HELL NO, unless we are completely knocked over with an offer. I'd hate to get to 2013-14, be contending, and miss out on the playoffs by a game or two because our bullpen couldn't hold a lead.

Mitchell Below said...

The Angels might have something to say about your Robb Nen comment, considering that they beat the Giants in 2002.

Antonio. said...

Well, he DID say a "star-crossed effort". Not an amazing success.

Soria-type relievers don't grow on trees, but successful relievers do. Dominance is great, but you don't "need" dominance in the closer's role. Most have been brainwashed by the Eckersleyian closer, but it makes no sense for the entire league to use every single closer in the Eckersleyian way. Those with dead arms that can't go more than one or those that don't have a great repertoire, yeah. But not everyone.

Hochevar's best chance to reach those Derek Lowe comps would be out of the pen, if you don't mind me saying so.

Escobar wouldn't keep me from Nunez unless like all of the other young Royals we have decided he's a sure bet too.

Michael said...

The concern I have with Montero is that his power has not yet developed. He is young enough that it probably still will develop. But if it does not, we already have Montero on our team - Billy Butler.

Dan said...

I'd say another factor is Soria's overwhelming popularity in KC -- he's so amazingly universally-loved, probably more than any KC athlete since Derrick Thomas, Bo, or George Brett. Hard to overstate unless you live here and hear the crowd's reaction when he enters.

EVERYBODY loves him, while Greinke was not as easy-to-adore, he was tolerated and worshiped because he was so good. But Soria is as good, and calm, and fits so well. There would have been a big backlash if he was traded, regardless of who we got for him. Would have been awful PR, and hard to rationalize since we don't have much else, and he has such a friendly contract. He's who we want representing our team, and city.

Kansas City said...

I know that Rivera is a great reliever and has great post season statistics, but why do people casually call him the best post season reliever ever and ignore the fact that he blew two of the biggest post season games in baseball history?

He failed to close out the Red Sox in a game that led to the Yankees blowing a 3 to 0 edge in the playoffs - the only time that has ever happened. He also lost game 7against the D-Backs when he had a lead going into the 9th - I don't think that has ever happened in the history of baseball.

Can the pitcher responsible for two of the biggest losses in post season history also be the greatest reliever in post season history? Maybe, but it is worth more thought than anyone appears to give it.

Kansas City said...

I looked at something else about Rivera's post season performance. He has 42 saves. You know how many were saves with a one run lead?

Only 9. Again, great pitcher and great post season stats, but much more modest post season accomplishments than people think.

Mark said...

You cannot "always find relievers." (Have we already forgotten the beginning of the 2010 season?) A great closer is even harder to come by. I remember the awful years of disheartening late-inning losses suffered while the Royals looked for Jeff Montgomery's replacement. I love Jack Soria. I love watching him pitch, I love the fire and brimstone introduction, and I'd love to see him, Tejeda, and Jeffress turn every game into a six-inning game.

Chris said...

What I hate about Madden's article is the indignation he seemed to have that the Royals didn't just "give" Soria to the Yankees because they wanted him. How dare they! Don't get me wrong, Montero is a fabulous talent but there are equal arguments on both sides for making or not making the trade. But servicing the Yankees is not one of them.

Michael said...

C'mon now Chris, they are the Yankees. Aren't they always supposed to get what they want?

I wouldn't trade Soria to the Yanks unless they offered Montero and Phil Hughes. Make them pay out the butt for him.

Kyle D said...

Michael,

Hughes is worth more than Soria already. Even a middling to getting better young starter surpasses Soria in value.

Michael said...

So you would have traded Soria for Vin Mazzaro, Kyle? I don't think so.

Having a shut down closer is useless on a losing team, I agree, but on a winning team, they are invaluable, especially in the post-season. I know Kansas City isn't as high on Rivera as most people, but 42 saves in 47 chances against the best teams in baseball is pretty damn good. How would the Yankees have done with an average closer? There's probably at least 4-5 more losses in there, and that is the difference between championships and going home early.

In my opinion, Soria is on that same level. He's an elite closer. I wouldn't trade him for a middling starter, that's for sure. I was joking when I said Montero and Hughes, because I hate the Yankees that much. I'd make them pay out the butt for Soria before I'd trade him to the Evil Empire.

But saying a middling starter is more valuable to a winning team is ludicrous.

Michael said...

Addendum-If we are serious and think we will be contenders in the near future, then trading Soria makes no sense, unless we are bowled over with an offer. He's under contract for 4 more seasons, under very good terms for the team.

We don't need to trade Soria for more pieces of the rebuild, because he is a huge piece of the rebuild himself.

Kyle D said...

"But saying a middling starter is more valuable to a winning team is ludicrous."

As equally ludicrous as your statement of needing Montero + Hughes (funny you now suggest you were kidding). Hughes has more value than Soria, especially to the Yankees because money doesnt matter to them. Soria's contract is only valueable to them in that it's for 4 years. A 200 inning SP is WAY more valuable than a 60 inning closer who pitches in low leverage situations mostly. There are some setup men who are more valuable than closers.

If you want to talk about Soria being valueable, then move him to the rotation. He has 4 legit pitches. Stretch him out; The Rangers seem to have no problem doing it, and it's worked well.

Having a hall of fame calibur closer on a 70 win team pitch occasionally when down by 5 or more is a slight against god. he should've been a starter the last 2 years already.

I'd have shipped him for Montero soon as they offered it, if they ever did.

Antonio. said...

Did someone just compare Vince Mazarro to a middling starter? WOW!

I misunderstood, misread or mis-something that, right?

Also, as far as people always reminding us of the far side of the bullpen spectrum, I offer a few bits of dissent to that notion.

First, in regards to the ugly bullpen of 2010, it was only the beginning of 2010. The Royals did turn around turn around their bullpen and with very little cost to their wallets or their assets. And though he gets a bit too much credit for it, Moore previously has put together pretty good bullpens pretty easily and, again, without giving up too much green and assets.

Second, as far as the post-Monty closers, I might need some help.

Spradlin: a joke
Hernandez: old; poor trade
Macdougal: failed starter with poor control
Affeldt: injuries; constant role shifting
Burgos: rushed prospect; inconsistent breaking ball; poor control; murderer
Nelson: You too can be rich! (Everyman)
Dotel: free agent signed to be traded
Soria: dominant; supposed starter; misused - many saves in noncritical situation

How many teams have been successful without a Rivera, Soria?

Nathan said...

While I agree that Rivera is an incredible reliever, the save stat is a ridiculous way of measuring his greatness.

Jayboid said...

In sadness I write another serious comment about the Royals. Sadness in life's candy store, but still hurts.

My 21 year old baseball fan son informed me no more last weekend. Coming from some time now, but his firm look me in the eye statement was not off the cuff, but thought out.

He will no longer follow the Royals, and in fact is leaning towards Boston as his team.

It began with my Feb. "hey, I'm serious, this........kid... hits...if.. He just kept telling me you say it every year and every year they tank.

Might sound minor, but I wonder how many other "Jayoid Jrs" are jumping off.

Well, here goes. Soria's value maybe in giving our young pitchers a little more confidence.

I know having a lights out closer has an effect on "gut it out over 6" vets like Chen.

Antonio. said...

Chen's 2010:

ERA down nearly half a run compared to career average. WHIP improved due to fewer hits, but walks went up slightly, Ks were down slightly. BABIP was approximately the same. His FIP nearly matches his career ERA. I'd say the above means that he had a good deal of luck working in his favor.

As far as his confidence, I looked at the closers in his bad seasons (based on ERA+ being below average).

'99 Rocker 181 ERA+ but he is a loon.
'01 Mesa 184/Benitez 112 (the only slightly above average result)
'02 Benitez 177/Stewart 138
'03 Wagner 247 (had lights out relievers like Dotel/Lidge too)/Kim 147
'06 Ray 168
'07 Gagne 213
And the topper:
'09 Soria 202

I don't understand why these guys didn't have the same 2010 effect on Chen like Soria did. There's especially no excuse for the '09 version of Soria.

Antonio. said...

If I were a "gut it out over 6" vet, I'd probably feel more worried about innings 7-8 than I'd feel secure about any great reliever coming into a bases-empty ninth inning. But, then again, I am a worrier.

John said...

I can't agree with this line of thinking at all. Soria is going to be under a club-friendly contract for at least two, and possibly three (if K.C. contends in '12) years where he will NOT be a luxury. Why on earth would you trade him for a bad defensive catcher (read: future bad defensive first baseman) who has accomplished absolutely zero in the major leagues so far, when you have multiple other players who project to do exactly the same things?

Slugging first basemen are a dime a dozen, unless their name is Albert Pujols, and I don't see any evidence that Montero is Albert Pujols. If you need a slugger, you can always find one on the market relatively cheap in January. As your own analysis proved, elite closers who sustain their success year after year are not so easy to come by.

Antonio. said...

1. None of the prospects are 70 power AND 70 hitting, which how BA rates Montero. Some have Montero at 80-80.
2. Some of the prospects will fail. The more you have, the better chances you will to succeed.
3. His team-friendly deal means there's more prospects he can command in return.
4. A closer doesn't have to be Soria dominant in order to succeed. And I still wish they'd use him like they used to use closers in the generation before me.
5. The reason you trade him is because relievers are volatile, even elite closers. Most relievers burn out very quickly.

And slugging first basemen aren't a dime a dozen, especially when compared to successful relievers.

MoCrash said...

Lemme get this straight: there's a compelling reason to consider a prospective Hall of Fame closer -- one under team control for four more seasons -- for yet another 1B prospect (prospect, mind you ... as in no guarantees, as was Alex Gordon) on a team which which has a glut of young talent at the position? Then what are you going to get for those 1B prospects when your young SPs start to take leads into late innings? It won't be a Soria.

Sabermetricians want to sell short the value of a closer, but there is no quantification to the intangibles a shut-down closer has on a pitching staff -- or team as a whole, especially a young one which has not won. Soria is hardly a luxury -- at a non-luxury price, no less -- for this Royals' staff and the one of the near future. He bolsters confidence.

Antonio. said...

And your example of that is where?
The league worst ERA?
Without Soria, would the ERAs of Davies/Hoche/Bannister/SOS been two or three runs worse? Was there proof that they lost any small increment of confidence with those few BS Soria had? If they gain confidence due to his presence, they have to lose some when he fails, right? During the times he's been shelved, was there a significant difference in the performance of his team?

Why is it that so many people have forgotten baseball was like before 1988? Sabr people don't underestimate the closer. They think he's simply misused and often miscast.

Antonio. said...

Also you correctly pointed out an Alex Gordon no guarantee on prospects, which certainly means there's no guarantees on ours either. (It also begs to question why so many people were excited about the guys we got in the Greinke deal.) And if you point out the lack of guarantee and our favorite team can't afford to reverse our future with quality free agents, then should you acquire as many lotto tickets possible if you're trying to strike it rich. According to BA, coming into the 2011 season, Montero has a slightly better chance to create slightly more wins that'll need to be saved, and considering you don't have to Soria awesome to save games...