Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Royals Today: 1/11/2011.

There’s not much substantial going on during the winter doldrums of the off-season, but I have plenty of experience in writing thousands of words on insubstantial subjects, so let’s press on.

- The biggest piece of news from the last two weeks concerning the Royals has nothing to do with the Royals. When the Tampa Bay Rays traded Matt Garza to the Cubs for five prospects, it led to unavoidable comparisons with the haul that the Royals got for Zack Greinke.

If we ignore the throw-ins on both sides of the deal (Fernando Perez and Zach Rosscup from the Rays, Sam Fuld from the Cubs), the Rays got four prospects for Garza: right-hander Chris Archer, shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, outfielder Brandon Guyer, and catcher Robinson Chirinos.

At least two analysts, Keith Law and Jim Callis, have weighed in that the Rays’ haul of talent for Garza was more valuable than the package the Royals got for Greinke. (Although Callis called it “close”.) Take my opinion for what it’s worth, given my inherent biases, but I’m not sure that I agree.

Archer was the Cubs’ #1 prospect at the time of the trade, a pitcher who blossomed after Cubs’ GM Jim Hendry cannily acquired him from the Indians as part of the Mark DeRosa trade. The problem is that no one’s entirely sure whether he’s a starter or a reliever in the end. He’s been described as “either a #2 starter or a closer”, but those two entities have very different values.

A comparison to Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi is instructive. As a #2 starter, Archer represents Odorizzi’s best-case upside, only Archer is closer to the majors and is a much safer bet to reach his potential. As a closer, though, I’m not sure that Archer is any more valuable than Jeffress is going to be. For now, I’d rank Archer ahead of Jeffress and Odorizzi as a prospect, but he’s not that far ahead.

Hak-Ju Lee, as a shortstop prospect, is directly comparable to Alcides Escobar. This, I think, is where my opinion diverges from those of Law and Callis. Lee, as a 19-year-old in the Midwest League, hit .282/.354/.351 and got rave reviews for his defense. But there’s no way I’d trade Escobar for him. I speak from painful experience as a Royals fan - there is tremendous risk in projecting a player from low-A ball all the way to the majors. I mean, if Lee avoids any pitfalls in his development path, he’ll be an above-average defensive shortstop in the majors, hit for a good average, steal some bases, and draw some walks. He’s unlikely to ever hit for power. In other words, his upside – while still all the way in the Midwest League – is only slightly better than what Escobar was expected to do in 2010 in the majors.

Escobar didn’t do what he was expected to do in 2010, which is why the Royals were able to acquire him. But Escobar is, if nothing else, already a plus defensive shortstop with above-average speed. A year ago he was one of the 20 best prospects in baseball. His stock has fallen, but not nearly so far that you’d prefer Lee, who was ranked by Baseball America as the #4 prospect in a not-particularly-strong Cubs system, over him. The odds that Lee craps out in the minors and never plays regularly in the majors is at least as high as the odds that he develops into a better player than Escobar.

So at the very least, Archer and Lee combined are no more valuable than Escobar and Odorizzi. Then there’s Guyer, who had a statistically beautiful season in Double-A in 2010, hitting .344/.398/.588 and stealing 30 bases in 33 attempts. The problem – other than the fact that Guyer was 24 years old – was that in 2009, he hit .190/.236/.291 in 57 games in Double-A. Last season represented the peak of his performance, and at that he projects as a slightly above-average corner outfielder.

Lorenzo Cain, who is a few months younger than Guyer, hit .317/.402/.432 last season between both Double-A and Triple-A, hit well in his major league debut, plays plus defense in centerfield, and has the tools to improve more than Guyer is likely to. Guyer’s an interesting player, but there’s no doubt which of the two I’d rather have.

Chirinos is an even more fascinating player. On the one hand, he hit .326/.416/.583 in minors last year, and made a stunningly successful position switch, catching in every game after being a utility infielder two years ago. (As an aside, while the Cubs are far from the best-run organization in baseball, they’re as good as any organization in baseball when it comes to converting players at other positions to catcher.) The problem is that Chirinos has yet to play in the majors, and he turns 27 in June.

Chirinos’ performance doesn’t appear to be a fluke; he has steadily improved as a hitter since 2007. His OPS over the last four years reads 715, 834, 915, and 999. At the very least, he projects as an excellent sidekick in a platoon with John Jaso, and may well be an above-average starter in the majors for a few years.

If I were certain that Chirinos could be an everyday catcher, or that Archer was a future starter, I might rank the Rays’ haul over the Royals. But I’m not, and so from my perspective I’d rather have the four players the Royals got. I can certainly understand the other perspective, though.

The question, though, is whether it should really matter if the Rays got more for Garza than the Royals got for Greinke. Yes, Matt Garza is not the pitcher that Greinke is, but on the other hand, the Cubs got three years of Garza, while the Brewers got only two of Greinke. Greinke will be paid about $27 million over the next two years; unless Garza pitches at a Greinkesque level over the next two years and earns an arbitration fortune in 2013, he’ll probably make in the neighborhood of $30 million over the remainder of his tenure. So the Cubs are getting an additional year of Garza at a minimal additional cost.

And the difference between Garza and Greinke may be overstated a little. Over the past three seasons, Greinke has made 98 starts with a 3.25 ERA; Garza has made 94 starts with a 3.86 ERA, plus five postseason starts with a 3.48 ERA. But I’m sympathetic to the argument that Garza is a better pitcher than he appears because of the competition he has to face.

As analysts, we have done a very good job over the last 15-20 years in getting people to adjust a player’s performance for his ballpark, for the offensive context of his era, and even to take into account in recent years that the AL has a higher difficulty factor than the NL. But we have not, I think, put enough emphasis on the fact that the strength of competition can vary from one player to another, even if they’re in the same league. This is a long way of saying that the fact that the Rays are in the same division as the Red Sox and Yankees is a mark in Garza’s favor.

As Christina Kahrl pointed out, in 2010 Garza threw 204 innings, exactly one-quarter of them (51) against Boston and New York. In those 51 innings he had a 6.10 ERA; against all other opponents he combined for a 3.18 ERA. I don’t want to make too much of this – between 2008 and 2009, Garza’s ERA against the Twin Towers of the AL East was actually a little lower than his overall ERA. But after throwing 51 innings against them in 2010, and 69 (!) innings against them in 2009, I think it’s fair to wonder what Garza will do in 2011 when he doesn’t have to face the Red Sox or Yankees at all.

All that aside, there’s no doubt that the Rays got a better deal for their pitcher than the Royals got for theirs. If both teams got roughly the same amount of talent, and Greinke is more valuable than Garza, then the Rays made a better trade, QED. But if there’s a loser here, it’s not the Royals; it’s the Cubs. The Cubs gave up a ton of talent for a pitcher who, good as he is, seems unlikely to deliver a 75-win team in 2010 into the playoffs in 2011. Jim Hendry is a bundle of contradictions as a general manager; he’s widely considered to be an excellent judge of amateur talent (and his acquisition of Chris Archer in the first place was a steal), and yet he keeps trying to put together a winning team by overpaying for free agents.

Perhaps it’s the curse of working for a franchise that has both money and expectations in abundance, but Hendry is trying to build a team with a method that runs counter to his own core competencies. He’s great at player development, but is unwilling or unable to build his roster that way. Say what you want about Dayton Moore, but he understands that if your strength is drafting and developing players, you’re better off using those players to build a winning team. After some initial missteps in his first few years on the job – when the Royals, to be frank, didn’t have any prospects that the likes of Jose Guillen and Gil Meche were blocking – Moore has dialed back on the veterans over time, particularly this winter. Moore is finally playing to his strengths, something Hendry would be wise to do. Assuming the Cubs’ ownership would ever let him.

The Rays made a great trade when they moved Garza. That doesn’t change the fact that the Royals made a good trade when they moved Greinke.

- The other thing to keep in mind is that the Rays could trade Garza to anyone they wanted; the Royals couldn’t do the same with Greinke. In particular, after looking at the players in a little more detail, I think that – if Derek Norris was the fourth guy in the deal, as I think he was – I’d take the Nationals’ package over what the Brewers gave us.

The Nationals reportedly offered Jordan Zimmermann, Drew Storen, and Danny Espinosa in addition to Norris. Zimmermann is a potential #2 starter – not in 2013, but right now. He had a sterling track record in the minors, had an excellent debut season with the Nats in 2009, and after blowing out his elbow made a successful return from Tommy John surgery last August. In 122 career major league innings, he has 119 strikeouts and just 39 walks. Odorizzi can only hope he’ll have that track record in two or three years.

Storen doesn’t have Jeffress’ stuff, but he’s a very good set-up man who’s already proven he can pitch in the majors. My initial concern with Espinosa was that he didn’t have the defensive chops to play shortstop, and the Royals already have a ton of second basemen. But researching the issue a little has convinced me that Espinosa, while he’ll likely play second base for the Nationals because they also have Ian Desmond, has the tools to be a solid-average defender at shortstop – and could hit 20-25 homers in the majors.

And that leaves Norris, who might be the best prospect of the four. Norris, who’s a native of Goddard, Kansas, suffered through an injury-plagued 2010 season, with a wrist problem that didn’t really allow him to hit for power until the Arizona Fall League, where he mashed. Even so, he hit .235/.419/.419 as a 21-year-old in high-A ball. And despite getting mixed reviews about his defense behind the plate, he threw out 51% of baserunners who attempted to steal.

It’s not a consensus that he can remain behind the plate, but the consensus is a lot stronger that he can that it is for Wil Myers, or for Jesus Montero for that matter. If he can, Norris could be this generation’s version of Mickey Tettleton. He’ll probably be a .270 hitter at best, but he could hit 25 homers and walk 80 or 90 times a year. That’s a player.

So yeah, that probably beats the Brewers offer. Espinosa counters Escobar’s superior glove with a better bat, Zimmermann is better than Odorizzi, and Norris – while farther from the majors – is better than Cain. Storen has less upside than Jeffress, but also less risk. That would have been a better trade, maybe substantially better.

And it doesn’t matter, because Greinke vetoed it. He refused to waive his no-trade clause to Washington; Jon Heyman reported that the Nationals even tried to sweeten the deal by extending him a long-term contract. No dice. Greinke wants to play for a winner, and – not unreasonably, I might add – determined that the Nationals’ shot at winning in the NL East the next few years isn’t much better than the Royals’ chances in the AL Central.

So with only a few teams willing to meet the Royals’ price, and fewer teams that Greinke was willing to go to, and with rumors now floating that Greinke was so dissatisfied with his situation that he was considering being a no-show to spring training – Dayton Moore had to make a trade with one hand tied behind his back. Maybe it wasn’t a great trade, but I’m still convinced that it was the best trade that he could make.

I’ve got a half-dozen other topic ideas I wanted to get to, but I’m over 2200 words already, so let’s just call this Part 3 of the Greinke Trade Analysis Epic, and I’ll try to be back soon to hit on some of the other points.