Thursday, November 3, 2011

For Want Of A Pitcher, Part 5.

The final group of starting pitching targets consists of pitchers on the few major league teams that can reasonably consider themselves as having more quality starters than they need.

Team: Philadelphia Phillies
Projected Starters: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Vance Worley, Joe Blanton
Likely available: Joe Blanton

I’m kind of cheating by listing the Phillies here, as obviously four of the five starters above are not available in any way, shape, or form. (I suppose Worley might be, but the cost would be prohibitive.)

Right now Joe Blanton is the Phillies’ #5 starter, so he’s not technically “excess”, but between the presence of Kyle Kendrick and the possibility they re-sign Roy Oswalt, I’d have to think he’s available. Blanton missed much of the 2011 season with an elbow problem, but was activated in September and pitched well in relief, striking out 11 batters without giving up a walk in seven innings.

Nonetheless, Blanton is not a particularly good starting pitcher; he hasn’t had an ERA under 4 since 2007. Prior to 2011, he was at least good for 30 starts a season, but obviously even that is a question mark at this point. He’s under contract for just one more season at $8.5 million, and the Phillies may well be willing to pick up a chunk of his salary and take a token prospect in return. In that case – and only in that case – I might give him some weak consideration. He’s a reliable strike-thrower whose tendency to give up home runs may be alleviated by Kauffman Stadium; he resembles Bronson Arroyo in that regard.

Blanton’s listed here for the sake of completeness; if he’s actually in a Royals uniform next April, something probably went wrong.

Team: Atlanta Braves
Projected Starters: Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy, Tommy Hanson, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Arodys Vizcaino…
Likely available: Derek Lowe, Jurrjens, maybe Beachy or Minor

You know it’s going to come down to this, right? The Royals need a starting pitcher; the Braves have more starters than they know what to do with. Dayton Moore loves trading with his old organization. We might as well pencil “Ex-Brave starter to be determined later” into the rotation’s #3 spot.

The Braves blew off some of their excess pitching on Monday, getting the Indians to bite on one-third of Lowe’s $15 million contract for 2012 in exchange for token prospect Chris Jones, who might grow up to be a lefty specialist if he’s lucky. I was dismissive of the trade on Twitter, but on full reflection Lowe has a chance to be a decent innings-eater for Cleveland. He had a 5.05 ERA this season, but his xFIP was just 3.65 – I believe he had the biggest discrepancy between ERA and xFIP of any starter in the majors. He’s still a fantastic groundball pitcher (59% last season) who misses bats (6.6 Ks per 9 innings).

But while Lowe might have been better than he looked in 2011, I’m skeptical he’ll bounce back in a big way in 2012. He turns 39 in June, and he’s moving to the better league. Between Lowe, Justin Masterson, Fausto Carmona, and Ubaldo Jimenez, the Indians have put together one of the most extreme groundball-oriented rotations I’ve ever seen. It’s a fascinating strategy, only it seems to be missing the magic ingredient: a stellar infield defense. An infield of Matt LaPorta, Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Lonnie Chisenhall will create runs, but it’s a below-average unit defensively. Unless the Indians are planning to replace Grady Sizemore with a fifth infielder, I don’t get it.

Anyway, even after dumping Lowe, the Braves are in a position where they can move one of their other starters for a more useful package. Tim Hudson isn’t going anywhere. Tommy Hanson is probably the most desirable of the Braves’ starters; he has a career 3.28 ERA, sterling peripherals, is just 25 years old, and is under control for four more seasons. Of course, that makes him the most expensive of their pitchers, and given that he didn’t pitch after August 6th because of a strained shoulder, his risk profile probably doesn’t justify his cost.

That leaves a few other options. Let me dispense with one name first. If the Royals take nothing else from this entire five-part series, I hope they at least read the following sentence: DO NOT TRADE FOR JAIR JURRJENS.

Superficially, Jurrjens has been a fantastic pitcher for the Braves. In 115 career starts, he has a 3.40 ERA, and a 50-33 record. While he had a subpar 2010, with a 4.64 ERA, that season is sandwiched between a fantastic 2009 (2.60 ERA in 215 innings) and a pretty damn good 2011 (2.96 ERA in 152 innings). Jurrjens is one of only seven pitchers who have had an ERA under 3, with at least 125 innings pitched, in two of the last three seasons. Clayton Kershaw and Roy Halladay have done it each of the last three years; the other four pitchers are Adam Wainwright, Tim Lincecum, Felix Hernandez, and Matt Cain.

That’s pretty impressive company. Jurrjens belongs in their company the way Kim Kardashian belongs in a “Diamonds Are Forever” commercial.

I don’t know how Jurrjens does it. He doesn’t strike out a bunch of guys, and his control is good but not great. He’s not a groundball pitcher. It seems he owes his success more to luck than anything else, except you’d think that after four seasons his luck would have run out by now. It’s as if he had Brian Bannister’s rookie season four years in a row.

In 702 career innings, he’s struck out 480 batters, or 6.2 per nine innings; he’s never struck out 7 per 9 in a season, which these days is the baseline for most pitchers. He’s allowed 222 unintentional walks, or 2.8 per nine innings, which is good but not that good. When you strip out the intentionals, Jurrjens’ career strikeout-to-walk ratio is 2.16; by comparison, the NL average in 2011 was 2.60. Jurrjens has also given up just 57 homers in 702 innings, despite a groundball rate no higher than average.

Jurrjens’ career BABIP is just .280, which is unsustainably low. Just 7.4% of flyballs hit against him have cleared the fence, which is also unsustainably low (the league average is around 10-11%). For his career, batters have hit .254/.306/.400 with no one on base, but with runners in scoring position, they’ve hit just .234/.334/.355. The higher OBP is not surprising, since all of his intentional walks have been give out with runners in scoring position; it is surprising that batters have hit 20 points less and slugged 45 points less in situations where a hit will drive in a run.

In isolation, it’s possible – unlikely, but possible – that any of these three characteristics are for real. Some pitchers may be able to induce a lower batting average on balls in play. Some pitchers (or at least Matt Cain) might be able to keep flyballs in the ballpark. Some pitchers might be able to get consistently better results with runners in scoring position.

I refuse to believe that Jair Jurrjens has the ability to do all three. Betting on him to regress is the easiest money in baseball. It’s even easier when you consider that Jurrjens’ fastball, which was a pedestrian 91-92 mph at its best, dropped to an average of 89.1 mph last year, with a concomitant drop in his strikeout rate to 5.3 per 9. He missed the start of the 2010 season with shoulder problems, and he missed all of September this season with knee inflammation, so you can’t even rely on him to be durable: he’s made 43 starts in the last two seasons combined.

If someone can come up with a plausible reason why I should expect Jurrjens' success to continue - perhaps he's secretly a witch - I would love to hear about it. But all I see in his future is regression and pain.

Please, Dayton. Stay away.

(No joke: I was putting the finishing touches on this column, when this article at MLB.com was posted. In fairness to the Royals, this article is written from the Braves’ perspective. The Braves have interest in a trade of Jair Jurrjens for Wil Myers? I’m sure they do. I’m sure they also have interest in trading Brooks Conrad for Eric Hosmer.

If the Royals traded Lorenzo Cain for Jurrjens, I could stomach that. I wouldn’t do it myself – trade six years of an average everyday player for two years of an average starting pitcher – but it wouldn’t be an egregious mistake. If Moore gave up Wil Myers and all he got back was Jurrjens…I’ve already written that article. I’d rather not go there again.)

Assuming that top prospects Randall Delgado, Arodys Vizcaino, and – especially – Julio Teheran are off the table (the Braves wouldn’t give them up, and the Royals want established major-league ready guys anyway), that leaves two options: Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor.

Beachy and Minor are polar opposites in many ways. Beachy is a right-hander who wasn’t drafted out of college; Minor is a left-hander taken with the #7 overall pick, which shocked an industry that thought he was a late-first-round talent. I like them both an awful lot.

When you think of a pitcher signed as an undrafted free agent who nonetheless makes it to the majors, you’re probably thinking of someone who relies on deception or a trick pitch – think Dan Quisenberry. Most of these guys are relievers; you might find the rare starting pitcher who doesn’t throw all that hard but throws strikes and changes speeds. Adam Bernero was signed by the Tigers as a NDFA in 1999 and was starting in the majors in 2000. Of course, Bernero finished his career with a 5.91 ERA and an 11-27 record (and, naturally, a brief stint with the Royals).

Beachy doesn’t fit that profile at all. He wasn’t overlooked in the draft because he didn’t throw all that hard, but because he barely pitched at all; he played third base in college. A Braves scout saw him pitch a few innings in relief, and saw enough to take a flyer on him in 2008. He broke out in the minors in 2010 and made it to Atlanta in September, then surprised everyone by winning a rotation spot this spring training. He missed about six weeks in the middle of the season with a strained oblique muscle, but otherwise his rookie season couldn’t have gone better: in 142 innings he had a 3.68 ERA and struck out 169 batters. He had the highest strikeout rate of any pitcher in the majors with 100+ innings.

So forget that whole “non-drafted free agent” business. Anyone who can miss bats that often is a potentially elite starting pitcher.

Minor was also a nice bit of scouting by the Braves; most people thought he was a stretch at #7 overall because, while he was exceptionally polished and had terrific command in college, he topped out in the upper-80s. But Minor added velocity soon after he signed. I don’t know if the Braves identified him beforehand as someone who could add velocity, or if they just lucked out. But either way, Minor has an above-average fastball for a left-hander now, averaging 91.2 mph last season (Beachy averaged 92.0 mph, right around average for a RHP.)

The combination of pinpoint command and a little extra zip helped Minor breeze through the, uh, minors. In 235 career minor-league innings he walked just 73 and struck out 262. In 23 starts for the Braves over the past two years, he has a 4.74 ERA, but has 120 strikeouts against 36 walks in 123 innings. Like Beachy he’s a flyball pitcher, but Kauffman Stadium plays right into a flyball pitcher’s hands.

I’d rather have Beachy simply because strikeout rates in the double digits don’t grow on trees; on the other hand, you’d have Minor for six years, but Beachy for only five. Either pitcher would immediately be the Royals’ best starting pitcher on paper. Either one would of course require a substantial outlay in return. The Braves could use a long-term solution in left field – I’m assuming they’re not crazy enough to actually give up on Jason Heyward in right – and I’d like to think that Wil Myers would appeal to them. (Late edit: see above. He does.) It’s possible the Braves would trade Minor for Myers straight up, but I suspect the Royals would need to give up at least a little something extra, a second-tier prospect or one of their many relievers, in a deal for Minor or especially Beachy.

I’m certainly not eager to trade Myers, who’s raking in the AFL again after a disappointing season in Double-A. But you have to give up talent to get talent, and with a young and stable lineup in place, it makes logical sense that the Royals would trade a hitter for a pitcher. Myers for Beachy or Minor would be one of the biggest trades of this off-season, and it would make sense for both sides.

Team: Tampa Bay
Projected Starters: David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, Matt Moore
Likely available: Shields, Davis, Niemann

The Tampa Bay Rays made the playoffs for the third time in four years thanks to their very young and very durable rotation. Young? For starting pitchers, Tropicana Field is the real-life Logan’s Run, where life ends at 30. The last time Tampa Bay started a pitcher who had already celebrated his 30th birthday, they were still the Devil Rays. That’s four consecutive seasons without ever starting a 30-year-old pitcher, a stretch that may be unprecedented in modern major-league history.

As for durable, the Rays have used only eight different starting pitchers in the last two years combined. The six pitchers listed above – and Moore made only one start, at least until Game One of the ALDS – along with Matt Garza, who was traded last winter, and Andy Sonnanstine. Of all the 2% edges that the Rays have built on the industry, keeping young pitchers healthy may be their most unsung.

James Shields turns 30 next month, so he’s in line to get traded (or vaporized) next. More to the point, he’s starting to get expensive. Like a lot of Rays players (COUGHlongoriaCOUGH), Shields signed a team-friendly contract extension a few years ago with plenty of team options. He’s in line to earn $7 million in 2012, $9 million in 2013, and $12 million in 2014 – but all three years are option years, so if he gets hurt or suddenly loses his effectiveness, he can be cut fairly painlessly.

Shields is coming off a career year, when he threw 249 innings with a 2.82 ERA. He had 11 complete games, the most by an pitcher in the 21st century. He was legitimately great. He also hasn’t missed a start in the last four years.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t some room for concern. As great as he was in 2011, he was lousy in 2010, with a 5.18 ERA; he led the league in hits allowed, runs allowed, and homers allowed. The difference is almost entirely attributable to luck. In 2010, his BABIP was .344; in 2011, it was .260.

Here’s the crazy thing about the Rays: their BABIP as a team was .265 this year. Their defensive efficiency was .735, which is the highest mark by any team since the 2001 Mariners had an insane mark of .740. (That was the year the Mariners won 116 games.) The Rays were able to turn so many batted balls into outs for a couple of reasons. Offense was down around baseball, but on top of that they play in a very strong pitchers’ park. They have a legitimately excellent defense. And manager Joe Maddon is as aggressive as any manager in the game at putting on defensive shifts – putting his shortstop behind he second base bag, shading the outfielders this way and that based on the hitter’s spray chart. The results are undeniable; there is no team better at turning balls in play into outs.

So the good news is that Shields doesn’t owe much of his success in 2011 to good luck. The bad news is that he owes much of it to his ballpark, his teammates, and his manager, none of whom will be coming with him in a trade to Kansas City. The time to trade for Shields was last year, when he was legitimately unlucky.

That’s not to say I don’t want him – I do. I just fear that the price will be too steep. Last year the Rays traded Matt Garza – a comparable pitcher with a less favorable contract status – into a bonanza of prospects, headlined by Chris Archer and Hak-Ju Lee. The equivalent trade here would be for the Royals to give up Jake Odorizzi and Cheslor Cuthbert and some lower-upside guys like Clint Robinson and David Lough.

I wouldn’t trade two of the Royals’ top five prospects to get Shields. But I’d certainly want to know if that’s really what his price tag is.

Jeff Niemann would be cheaper, and he’s definitely a guy I would consider. Niemann finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting in 2009, with a 3.94 ERA in 181 innings, and impressively, he has improved his strikeout and his walk rates in each of the two seasons since. In 2011, he threw 135 innings, allowed 37 walks and struck out 105. He’ll turn 29 in spring training. He’s arbitration-eligible for the first time, and won’t be a free agent until after 2014.

I worry about Niemann because, like virtually every top pitching prospect out of Rice University, his arm was abused, and he had major shoulder surgery in 2005. He hasn’t had any major shoulder issues recently – in the last four years, he only went on the DL once with shoulder problems, in 2010, and only for three weeks. (He missed six weeks this season with a back strain.) The Rays have been very careful with him, and have succeeded in keeping him healthy. But shoulder injuries make me leery. Maybe in ten years Bartolo Colon Stem Cell Therapy will be as familiar to baseball fans as Tommy John Surgery is, but today, we just don’t know. It’s probably not a coincidence that Niemann, unlike Shields and Wade Davis, hasn’t been signed to a long-term deal.

Speaking of Davis, he’s guaranteed $9.3 million over the next three seasons, and then the Rays have three more option years at $7 million, $8 million, and $10 million. He’s very affordable; he’s just not very good. Pitching in a very favorable environment, he has a 4.22 career ERA, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio less than two. He’s just 26, so there might be room for improvement, but right now he’s a #4 starter who’s likely priced as a #2 or #3 starter because of his favorable contract. If the Royals are going to make a big trade for a pitcher, I’d rather it be for a guy who can start the first or second game of a playoff series.

Before I move on to the next team, I do want to point out that a trade with Tampa Bay opens up the possibility that the Royals trade Billy Butler in lieu of prospects. The Rays need a big bat, and they won in 2011 despite relatively little production at first base and DH. Their primary first baseman was Casey Kotchman, who had a good year, but 1) he still hit all of 10 homers all season and 2) he was picked up off the scrap heap before the season. Their primary DH was Johnny Damon.

Butler is a Florida native, and he’s signed for the next three years with an option, giving the Rays the financial certainty that they like. The Rays are so financially strapped that even $8 million a year is a big chunk of their budget, but if they believe Butler is going to hit for more power, he would be worth his contract and then some.

Billy Butler gets brought up a lot by Royals fans as a potential trade chit, but I have refrained from mentioning him much because as difficult as it would be for the Royals to part with him, it’s equally difficult to find a team that would value him as much as the Royals. Tampa Bay is one of the few teams that would, which opens up some additional trade possibilities with them.

Team: Oakland
Projected Starters: Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson, Guillermo Moscoso, Dallas Braden, maybe Josh Outman
Likely available: Cahill and Gonzalez

I imagine all of Oakland’s starters are available – Billy Beane likes to deal, after all. Realistically, McCarthy had a great season but missed all of 2010 with shoulder issues, Moscoso came out of nowhere, Braden had shoulder surgery this April, and Outman is still working his way back after Tommy John surgery. That leaves the other three.

Anderson is the best of the A’s starters, sort of a high school version of Mike Minor only better – he was an extremely polished kid who went in the second round because his velocity was only so-so, only he added velocity after signing and voila! – instant ace. But Anderson had Tommy John surgery himself this July, so he won’t be back until mid-season.

That leaves Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez. Cahill was an All-Star in 2010, finishing 18-8 with a 2.97 ERA and getting Tim Hudson comps, which hid the fact that he was the beneficiary of some massive BABIP luck – his BABIP was .237, the lowest in baseball. In 2011, his BABIP regressed all the way to .306, and he finished with a 4.16 ERA.

In some ways he was actually better this season, though; his strikeout rate jumped a full point, to 6.4 Ks per 9 innings. That’s still a little below average, but it’s plenty good given that Cahill is such an extreme groundball pitcher – he’s had a groundball rate of 56% the last two years. His xFIP was a tick better in 2011 (3.90) than in 2010 (3.99). Basically, he’s the opposite of James Shields – he’s coming off a superficially bad year that masks some real improvement. Cahill also doesn’t turn 24 until March, and he’s under contract for three more seasons.

I’m certain that Beane knows everything I just wrote about Cahill and more, which is why he won’t come cheap – I imagine Cahill’s price tag is comparable to Shields. It’s a tough call who I’d rather have; Shields is the safer bet, but if Cahill’s strikeout rate keeps climbing, he could be that most valuable of commodities – the extreme groundball pitcher who also misses bats. Think Kevin Brown, or Brandon Webb. I’d pay a pretty penny for a pitcher with that kind of upside.

The other option is Gio Gonzalez, who is Cahill’s opposite in many ways: he’s left-handed, and instead of relying on groundballs, he misses bats with a big-breaking curveball. Like Cahill, he could stand to throw more strikes – he led the AL with 91 walks in 202 innings – but it’s worth putting up with his command issues because the rest of the package is so good.

Gonzalez has a few weeks’ less service time than Cahill, so you’d get his services for four years instead of three. His fastball velocity has actually increased each year he’s been in the majors, averaging 92.5 mph this season. I’d happily take whichever one can be had for the smaller package of prospects.

If the Royals want a #2 starter, between Shields, Cahill, and Gonzalez, they can get one. The question is, do you want to pay the price? I imagine it will take a three-player package headlined by a four-star prospect for sure, someone like Myers or Mike Montgomery, followed by a three-star prospect like Yordano Ventura, and then a solid third player, either a reliever (Louis Coleman or Kelvin Herrera) or a teenaged lottery ticket like Jorge Bonifacio. That doesn’t gut the farm system, but the Royals will certainly feel the loss. If you think you can contend in 2012, you make the deal. I’m not sure the Royals think they can.

Which brings up the final, and boldest option: trade for an elite ace. I’m thinking of one specific ace, actually: Felix Hernandez.

I’ll wait here while you finish laughing. No, really, I’m fine. Take your time.

Felix Hernandez is, unquestionably, the most accomplished young pitcher since Dwight Gooden. I remember hearing whispers about this 17-year-old kid down in the Northwest League; one guy whose opinion I greatly respect brought up his name during a discussion of the best pitching prospect in baseball. He was right. Hernandez was called up to Seattle in mid-2005, at the age of 19, posted a 2.67 ERA in 12 starts and earned the nickname “King Felix”. After a disappointing sophomore season, he steadily improved until 2009, when he finished second behind Zack Greinke in the Cy Young vote, then won the award in 2010.

Hernandez had a 2.49 ERA in 2009, and a 2.27 ERA in 2010. Since they redefined the strike zone in 1969, only one other AL pitcher has had a sub-2.50 ERA in back-to-back seasons. (That was Pedro Martinez, who – naturally – did it twice.) After a disappointing 2011 – if you can count a 3.47 ERA and 222 Ks in 234 innings “disappointing” – Hernandez has 1388 career innings, 1264 strikeouts, and 85 wins. He’s still just 25; no pitcher since Gooden can match Hernandez in any of those three categories through age 25.

And yet I still think he’s attainable. Expensive as all get out, yes. But attainable.

Hernandez is signed for three more seasons, at $58 million. The Mariners have lost 196 games the last two years, in the same division as the back-to-back AL champion Texas Rangers, and they can’t harbor realistic fantasies of contention until the final year of Hernandez’s contract, if that. And while Hernandez is one of the best starters in the game, his salary reflects that. Between the prospects that he would fetch and the money a trade would free up, the Mariners would have to seriously consider a serious offer.

What do I mean by a serious offer? Use the Greinke trade as a standard. The Royals got Alcides Escobar (disappointing rookie season, but Top-20 prospect one year prior), Jake Odorizzi (Top-100 prospect), Jeremy Jeffress (borderline Top-100 prospect), and Lorenzo Cain (rookie eligibility exhausted; not a Top-100 guy but not that far off the list). Greinke was only under contract for two more years, but also was only getting paid $27 million – King Felix has one additional year at $31 million. The Mariners have more leverage, as it doesn’t appear Hernandez is forcing his way out of town.

So I think the Royals would have to give up three of their top five prospects – by way of example, Wil Myers, Mike Montgomery, and Cheslor Cuthbert. They might be able to substitute two lesser guys for one of the three – say, Myers, Montgomery, Ventura, and Jason Adam. Maybe you can replace Adam with Greg Holland if the Mariners have a reliever fetish. It would gut the farm system.

But you’d have one of the best pitchers in baseball under contract for three more seasons. You’d be a better team for certain in 2012 and 2013, and probably in 2014. By the time the bill comes due in 2015, guys like Hosmer and Moustakas will be in their primes, and they’ll have been joined by Bubba Starling and next year’s #5 overall pick and the Latin American talent the Royals have amassed down in the low minors.

Would I make the deal? I’d certainly give it a lot of thought. I don’t think I’d trade all three guys that I mentioned above. But if I could get away with trading just two of Myers/Montgomery/Cuthbert/Odorizzi/John Lamb, and flesh out the deal with some B-prospects, I think I would. I would miss having an elite farm system. But not nearly as much as I’d enjoy a team that could go into Opening Day – next year! – as legitimate contenders in the AL Central.

(I was going to suggest that the Royals make an even stronger play for Clayton Kershaw, who is even younger than Hernandez, and owing to his elite strikeout capabilities would be even more desirable. Kershaw is basically what Randy Johnson would have been if he had learned to throw strikes at the age of 23 instead of at the age of 30 – he’s scary good. But with the recent news that Frank McCourt has finally thrown in the towel and is willing to sell the Dodgers, it looks like the Dodgers’ financial crisis may soon be over, and they may be able to weather the storm without having to make any panic moves. But anything I’d be willing to offer for Hernandez, I’d do the same for Kershaw in a heartbeat. And hey, Ned Colletti is still the GM in Los Angeles, so who knows?)

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After five articles and 15,000-plus words, I’ve listed dozens of options for the Royals to consider, but haven’t really thrown my support behind any of them, and you might be confused as to what I really think the Royals should do.

First off, I think the Royals should do something. There is a strain of thought that says the Royals are still a year from contending, and that next year’s free agent class will be better (although next year’s class always looks better until some of those guys start signing extensions before they get to market), and that they’re better off waiting rather than mortgaging their future by trading away top prospects.

I disagree, but I want to make it clear that I don’t disagree with the philosophy so much as I disagree with the assumption that is implicit there: the assumption that the Royals can not realistically contend in 2012. I think they can, and I realize that many of you think I am crazy to think that.

I’ll save a detailed explanation of why I feel that way until next spring – hopefully for Grantland, so that I can expose a national audience to my delusions – but for now, I’ll make this simple point:

The Royals won 71 games this season, and the Tigers won 95. But based purely on their run differentials – which have been shown time and time again to better predict a team’s win total the following year – the Royals should have won 78 games this season, and the Tigers 89. What looks like a 24-game difference in the standings shrinks to just 11 games with just one tiny tweak.

It’s rare for a team that finished 24 games out of first place to finish in first place the very next year. It happens – the Diamondbacks were 27 games behind the Giants in 2010, and won the NL West this season by 8 games – but it’s rare. An 11-game gap? That’s cake. The Tigers finished 13 games behind Minnesota last year, the Brewers finished 14 games behind the Reds. It would be the rare season when some team didn’t win the division after finishing 11 or more games back the year before.

With an 11-game gap to make up, a starter that’s even 2 or 3 wins above replacement might increase the Royals’ playoff odds by 15 or 20%. That’s worth trading some prospects for. So yes, I think the Royals should be aggressive in looking to add a starting pitcher – or two – this winter.

So here’s my Royals Starting Pitcher Checklist for this winter:

1) Have serious organizational discussion regarding whether they should make a competitive offer for Felix Hernandez and/or Clayton Kershaw. If the price is right, pounce. Go all in for 2012.

2) Offer Edwin Jackson a pre-emptive 4-year, $50 million contract. Like, this week.

3) Find out what the price is on James Shields, Gio Gonzalez, and Trevor Cahill. If any of them can be had without surrendering more than one Grade A* and one Grade B** prospect, do it. (Lesser prospects and/or relievers can be seasoned to taste.)

*: By Grade A, I mean one of the Royals’ top six prospects, in no particular order: Myers, Montgomery, Lamb, Odorizzi, Starling, and Cuthbert.

**: By Grade B, I mean one of the prospects in the second tier: Colon, Dwyer, Ventura, Adam, Eibner, Herrera, Bonifacio.

4) Offer Roy Oswalt a 2-year, $22 million contract with a vesting option for a third year if he throws 350 innings in Years 1 and 2. Try to coax Javier Vazquez out of retiring with the same offer.

5) Offer Wil Myers to the Braves for either Brandon Beachy or Mike Minor. Politely decline when they offer Jair Jurrjens. Stay firm when they offer Jurrjens again. Raise your voice when they offer him a third time. Tell Frank Wren FOR THE LOVE OF GOD I DON’T WANT JAIR JURRJENS. But tell him you might be willing to toss in a minor prospect with Myers to get Beachy.

6) Get in on the Yu Darvish sweepstakes. Offer $40 million for the posting fee, and if you win the auction, offer the same amount to Darvish for a six-year deal. That’s 80% of Matsuzaka’s contract, for a better pitcher.

7) Move on to the next level of trade targets: Jeff Niemann, Matt Garza, and Bud Norris. Offer a Grade A prospect (other than Myers or Cuthbert) and a couple Grade C’s (any prospect not listed above), or two Grade B’s.

8) Next targets: Chad Billingsley and Gavin Floyd. A Grade A prospect straight-up, or a Grade B and a couple of Grade C’s.

9) Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez, Ryan Dempster, Wandy Rodriguez, Francisco Liriano. A Grade B and some window dressing, or their choice of three prospects from Column C.

10) “’Sup, Bruce. Was just wondering if you’d be willing to come back for another year at the same terms. You’ve got a two-year offer on the table? C’mon Chen, you know we can’t match that!”

10) Find out if Eric Bedard and/or Rich Harden might be willing to sign a one-year deal with incentives.

11) See if the Dodgers will pick up a small portion of Ted Lilly’s contract and accept a Grade B prospect in return.

12) Find out if the Cubs will pick up half of the money Carlos Zambrano is owed, or if the Yankees will pick up more than half of A.J. Burnett’s contract. Offer a couple of Grade C prospects.

13) Make it clear to Aaron Crow and Everett Teaford that they need to show up to camp prepared to be starters this season.

14) Call Frank Wren back just to vent. “Seriously, Frank. JAIR JURRJENS?! After all we’ve been through together?”

There you go. Rany’s Foolproof And Unnecessarily Wordy Plan For Acquiring A Starting Pitcher.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to start working on my I-Can’t-Believe-Dayton-Traded-Wil-Myers-For-Jair-Freaking-Jurrjens screed.

35 comments:

Evan said...

Wonderful, as always.

jeff said...

Really awesome piece! Just thinking about some of these names makes me excited. I like so many of your ideas. but I especially like the idea of a one for one of Myers for Beachy.

McGoldencrown said...

Very nice piece. I would have paid a dollar for it....

The only scenerios that need to be addressed are 5) and 6). Get the Minor for Myers (plus a throw-in) deal done as soon as possible, then put a 50 mil bid in for Darvo.

Thats it! 2012 should not be a all-in affair! We are building for the long haul, lets not get jumpy.

Without Darvish, our rotation looks like this: Minor, Paulino, Hochavar, Duffy, Montgomery, Teaford.

Then, after an 86 win, 2nd place '12, you add Odorizer and if necessary, a FA SP to the mix, and really go for it in '13.

Post Script: Rany, any chance you could get your links to open in a separate window?

McGoldencrown said...

.....Obviously, you have to offer Arb to Chen to get the Supp pick, and I hope he would pass, but that seems a 50/50 prop. If he accepts, that just throws another arm into the mix. I like Teabag as a sleeper, so again, I would hope he passes.

Fast Eddie said...

Of course, Royals fans, you can bet your bottom dollar that Jurrjens will be in a Kansas City uniform come spring training.

Todd said...

Thanks for your detailed geek fest of the Royals pitching options. Hopefully we will be talking about Daytons success this time next year.

Kyle said...

Dayton has done a great job the past 2 seasons in the FA/trade market. Let's hope he keeps it up. I would be fine with Chen staying, but it isn't a sexy pick. Going after any of the first 5 options sounds like a plan to me.

I do think the Royals lineup/bullpen are ready to compete in 2012. They are missing a #1 and #5, or two middle of the rotation guys. If they have 4 #3 SP, I think they can win 85 games. That's close enough for "competing" in my book.

Tampa Mike said...

I would like to pick up Minor, but I'm expecting Jurrjens. I think your outlook on Jurrjens might be a little harsh, but I agree there is some risk of regression there.

I would expect a trade with the Rays, probably for Wade Davis. The Rays will probably have him in the bullpen anyway.

Tim said...

Now that it's time to actually use these prospects as trade chips, I find myself getting all sentimental and wanting to hoard them. I know that the smart way to contend is to use some of this capital we've acquired, but it's going to be bittersweet if we have to give up big name prospects. I just have to remind myself that we can't have it both ways.

Dixon said...

This 5-Part Mini-Series has been epic, Rany. You're the best. Finally, an off-season to be excited about. Can't wait to see what happens now.

Scott D. Simon said...

Rany, thanks again for keeping this site going. Love it.

noseycat said...

Great article! I really like the sound of a rotation which would feature Edwin Jackson, Gio Gonzalez, Hochevar, Paulino, and Duffy/Montgomery/Chen/Teaford.

Joel said...

Rany - great job. I do not think you are crazy to think the Royals can compete in 2012. They absolutely can! They have to add starting pitching for sure. I just hope GMDM acts sooner rather than later...

ChrisInKC said...

I love the idea of Edwin Jackson! If Matt Garza could be had for a Montgomery/Odirizzi and a Robinson, I might wet myself! Garza, Jackson, Hochevar, Paulino, and Duffy...looks good in the Central, and we didn't give anything away that would have contributed in 2012. The combo of Wandy and Gonzalez would be intriguing, but Myers would be in Oakland...I wish this Hot Stove stuff would pick up! The suspense is killing me.

Unknown said...

Very nice! I'd put Yu Darvish up as #2 priority and increase my willingness to pay - I like being able to use prospects elsewhere, and I think Moore should be able to finagle an $80 million budget that fits Jackson and Darvish if he was able to get $75 million for the '09 and '10 Royals - but I really like how you think, and the thoroughness you've put in.

You made me think of an unrelated idea. Is there a third team, one with a great-glove young shortstop, we could involve in a swap for Asdrubal Cabrera, whom we could install at second base?

I'd pay Giavotella and Cain for him, and while Cleveland wouldn't make the swap directly, there might be a team who'd take Giavotella/Cain for gloveman SS plus solid Grade B prospect and talk Cleveland into taking *those*. Thus giving the Indians' pitcher strategy a chance to work.

royalsfanatic said...

My explanation-maybe Jurrjens is just a RH version of Jamie Moyer.

Without diving as deep into the #'s as you did, I never could really put my finger on why Moyer was as good as he was so late into his career other than tagging him a "crafty lefty".

Moyer's K rate, K/BB ratio and BABIP were never anything to marvel at, but there was a decade after he entered his early 30's where it seemed like he had 25 starts a year where he went 7 IP with 3 ER and 3-4 Ks.

Im not advocating the Jurrjens trade...but if the price is Cain, I wouldnt be looking for a bridge to jump off of.

royalsfanatic said...

Crystal ball it for me:

A Royals team that has a healthy rotation of

Darvish
Edwin Jackson
Jurrjens
Hochevar
Paulino

wins how many games in 2012?


Are we in the high 80's?

Michael said...

We are on the same page Rany. Get a guage on the price tags of Hernandez and Kershaw. I know it would be astronomical, but I really think it'd be worth it. 3 years of Hernandez, or 3 of Kershaw is worth a lot of prospects, who may or may not work out. Matt LaPorta was very highly thought of when Cleveland acquired him for CC Sabathia a few years ago. That's just one example, but there are many more where highly touted prospects didn't make it in the majors.

Secondly, while I would love to see the Royals get a pitcher of Darvish's ability, I think the price tag is just too much. Like you said, he's younger and better than Matsuzaka was when he came over, so the assumption has to be that he'll be at least as expensive, if not more. Dice-K cost more than 100 mill over 5 years, including posting fee. If they do Darvish, they won't have the money to do anything else.

I have also advocated a 2 year contract with a vesting option for Roy Oswalt. Although I doubt that he'd take it if a number of other clubs offered anything remotely close to it. And I don't think there's any chance Javier Vazquez comes to KC. He's shown a preference to stay somewhat near the southeast, closer to home for him. And since we can't offer that or the guaranteed chance at competitiveness, I think he retires or signs elsewhere.

Overall, I like your thinking though. I think I'd die if the Royals actually traded for Hernandez or Kershaw though. But at least I'd die a happy man. :)

steak said...

Jair Jurrjens. Thoughts?

Exodor said...

I just don't see Oswalt signing in KC unless we pull a Meche and outbid the market. I think we have to offer him at least 3 years if not 4.

f5d6f34a-0742-11e1-8a48-000bcdcb5194 said...

As a Braves fan, I really don't think they would be willing to part with Minor or Beachy. Wren holds onto these prospects like no GM I've ever seen. Hudson, Hanson, Beachy, Minor and either Teheran or Delgado will be the rotation next year.

I think they will end up trading Jurrjens for something. Given that this is a Royals blog, what do you think is a reasonable package? They'd need to give up more than Cain to get him. Would Cain and Cheslor Cuthbert be something you think Moore would part with?

GoBarn@gmail.com said...

That was hilarious. It was one of my favorite pieces of yours because offseason trade / free agent speculation is baseballs equivalent of the NFL draft. and you gave us a great shot of the draft board with your summary! What an awesome thought it would be to have an Ace pitcher again to go along with Hoz and company.

Fast Eddie said...

MLB Trade Rumors now says that Jurrjens to KC talks have hit a snag. Maybe DM read Rany's piece???

I see Andres Blanco is now a free agent. Might be a good guy to pick up as a backup ss candidate.

Antonio. said...

15. Call up this Rany Jazayerli guy and try to buy him out of his day job to become special assistant to GM.

Fast Eddie said...

Jonathan Sanchez?

Akagi Minomura said...

1) About Kershaw and Felix, it is impossible, especially with the price range you've mentioned. I bet Dodgers and Mariners would find it as an "insult."

2) Yankees and Red Sox will easily out-bid 4/50. Especially for Royals, they need to shoot more than that.

3) Gio Cahill and Shields, leverage is on Friedman & Beane's hands and they are not easy to trade with. They would command two grade A prospects to begin with, especially all of grade As you wrote have great down years.

4) Makes sense. But with more $$$ since Royals is not that attractive to him yet, in terms of market plus winning.

5) Makes sense. Myers plus other prospects would be enough to lure either one of those.

6) No way it is going to happen. Yu would easily exceed $50m for posting due to market condition and he would command much more than 6/40 since he only has about a year or two left to hit free agency. He can make at least "7m" just staying at Japan, and he repeatedly said he likes idea of staying at Japan. He will be still 26 when he hits FA and would make much more than 6/40. Yu Darvish is already making more than $6.5m in Japan. He will make $7.5m next year in Japan, $9m on his final year of contract. Do you seriously he would want to play with losing team (as of right now)small market with no Japanese background (Unlike Dodgers) who would pay even less than what he makes? He mentioned so many times that he does not have strong desire to play in big league. Bottom line that he would want is 5/65 with posting well above $50m.

7) Agree on Nimann and Norris parts but Garza would cost much more. Garza is improved this year, very durable, showed the world he is legit #2. Would cost more than what you listed.

8) Makes sense, but i'm more inclined to say it would not be grade A straight-up since other teams will not value them as high as royals does, due to big regression happened to those prospects this year. should add one or two C+ prospects also.

9) Anibal Sanchez is not avaialbe in that price range. Other pitchers, yes, but for Wandy, just because Astros Gm is known for his stupidity.

10) two years is bottom line.

11) Great choice, which I would prefer all day.

12) Makes sence. Like it also.

13) I love the idea. I would prefer Burnett.

14) It would be just insurance.

15) +1

Akagi Minomura said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael said...

Fast Eddie-Love the Jonathan Sanchez idea. Sabean is a loon, so you could probably get him for a good price too. Strikes out a ton, but also walks a ton too. If you can somehow get him to not walk as many, he'd be a stud.

bbxpert said...

What is the matter with Jurrjens and Prado? An All-Star starting pitcher and a second baseman who was an All-Star in 2010 for 2 minor leaguers. We fill 2 weak positions.

Antonio. said...

But the Red Sox/Yankees won't necessarily bid higher than the proposed $40 million dollar posting fee. After that, the Japanese free agents don't have that much leverage, as the Red Sox proved to Scott Boras and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Michael said...

Akagi-I'm sorry, but you are wrong. If the Royals called up either team, especially the Mariners, and offered a package starting with Monty and Myers, they would at least listen to the rest of the offer. Not saying they'd necessarily take it, but they'd listen. They wouldn't be "insulted" as you think. I'm not as attuned to their organizational needs, so I don't know what else they would want, but I have a feeling we could find something that works for both sides.

ChaimMKeller said...

Wow - all that "ink" spent listing all the FA and trade possibilties, and The Royals get one who's not on even that comprehensive a list.

royalsfanatic said...

Holy crap....Melky for Jonathan Sanchez....I am floored.....wow....initial gut reaction? SWEEEET!

I know Sanchez has walk issues, but still.....SWEEET

Jeff said...

This piece was incredibly detailed, yet DM still found a pitcher not on your list. Any thoughts on the Melky/Sanchez trade?

Fast Eddie said...

Thanks Michael, maybe Dayton is listening to me as well as Rany now! I knew Giants needed outfielders & these two teams were a good trade match for that reason.