Saturday, January 22, 2011

Meche Is A Mensch.

I’m not sure what there is to say about Gil Meche’s retirement. His decision defies analysis.

A 32-year-old pitcher, who was legally and morally owed $12 million for his services in the 2011 season, came to the conclusion that he would be unable to provide said services in 2011. This conclusion ought to have had no impact on his entitlement to that 12 million dollars – not legally, given that he had signed a guaranteed contract that paid him regardless of his ability to pitch, and not morally, because virtually everyone (though not Meche himself) is in agreement that his inability to pitch was the fault of his employer.

(As the great Old Hoss Radbourn tweeted: “It was most gentlemanly of G. Meche to save money for the team that obliterated his career.”)

Nonetheless, Meche decided that since he was physically unable to perform the services that the Royals had signed him for – to make 30+ starts a year – that he was not entitled to the money his contract owed him. And so he walked away from Twelve. Million. Dollars.

Gil Meche is a better man than I. He’s a better man than you. There’s no way that you or I would walk away from 12 million dollars that we were entitled to.

Gil Meche is a much, much, much richer man than you or I as well, and I’m sure that made his decision much, much, much easier. Meche has made roughly $43 million in his contract with the Royals, and roughly $52 million overall. Unless he’s a complete dope with his money – and I’m pretty sure he isn’t – he probably has $25 million or more in assets to his name. Which is to say, he could spend a million dollars a year for the rest of his life and never dip into his principal.

Still, other players have made as much money as Meche has, and some have made a lot more – and none of them ever walked away from an eight-figure sum. As Joe Posnanski pointed out, Mark McGwire had a two-year, $30 million extension on the table when he retired, but that extension had been offered prior to his disappointing, injury-riddled final season, and signing that extension might have created more controversy than it was worth. Otherwise, I can’t think of a player who left that much money on the table. I know of teams that released a player who they owed $10 million or more to – the first example was Damion Easley, who the Tigers released after the 2002 season even though they still owed him $14.3 million.

But what Meche did? That might be unprecedented. Which is why it was also literally unbelievable – as in, people literally did not believe it. From the moment the news was announced, there was a general assumption that Meche was getting at least some of the money owed him. I know that’s what I thought. Even if Meche could pitch, the assumption was that he’d be working in relief, and even a good set-up man wouldn’t be worth $6 million. Meche offers to give back half his contract in order to retire early, the Royals decide they’d rather have the $6 million than a middle reliever who might or might not get through the season, and everyone’s happy.

I have no doubt that if Meche wanted that kind of settlement, the Royals would have given it to him. I also have no doubt that Meche didn’t want that kind of settlement, and is not being paid a penny of his 2012 salary of his own free will. Either that, or given Dayton Moore’s air of astonishment at discussing the news, both Meche and Moore are Oscar-quality actors. I don’t think they are.

My admiration for Meche only increased as a result of his decision, of course, but what also increased was my sense of frustration – it didn’t have to end this way. It shouldn’t have ended this way, and that it has is solely the blame of the team.

In the wake of his retirement, everyone is focusing on his 132-pitch complete game shutout – being allowed to pitch the ninth despite a 5-0 lead – on June 16, 2009. As I’ve written before, blaming the Royals for letting him pitch a complete game that day is unfair. While there are certainly circumstances in which a 132-pitch outing can be destructive, that game – without the benefit of hindsight – was not one of them. You had a 30-year-old pitcher on the mound, who was making his 82nd consecutive start without missing a return in the rotation – a pitcher who had led the league in starts in both 2007 and 2008 – and who had shown no signs of fatigue to that point. A decade ago, no one would have thought twice about letting a veteran pitcher throw 132 pitches in a shutout. It’s a testament to how much the game has changed that it became an issue afterwards.

It so happens that Meche wound up with a sore arm after that start, but again: there was no reason to think, ahead of time, that letting Meche throw that many pitches on that particular night was dangerous. The mistake wasn’t letting Meche throw 132 pitches on June 16. The mistake was pretty much everything that happened after that.

Had Meche gone on the DL for a few weeks as a precautionary move after that start, I might not be writing this column. But instead, despite some soreness in his arm, the Royals let Meche start on June 21st, when he gave up 9 runs in less than 4 innings against the Cardinals (RED FLAG). They let him start on June 26th, when he allowed 4 runs in 5 innings to the Pirates (RED FLAG). They let him start on July 1st, even though after his start against the Pirates Meche complained of a dead arm (BLEEDING CRIMSON FLAG). And they let him throw 121 pitches and face Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau in a tie game in the sixth inning, while letting Meche give up the tie-breaking run (THEY HAVE YET TO INVENT THE WORD THAT DESCRIBES JUST HOW BRIGHT RED THIS FLAG IS).

The events of July 1st rank as the worst in-game managerial blunder by a Royals manager since, I dunno, Whitey Herzog running through five pitchers in the 8th and 9th innings of Game 5 of the 1977 ALCS? Dick Howser not bringing in Dan Quisenberry in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 1985 World Series? Many people have said that Steve Busby’s career was ruined by a specific start (I can’t remember which) when Jack McKeon left Steve Busby in to pitch when he was clearly hurting. Letting Jose Rosado pitch when he was complaining of a dead arm – which turned out to be the final start of his career – was pretty dumb. What the Royals did to Meche on July 1st of 2009 ranks with any of them, particularly since in the moment, without any need for hindsight, people – specifically Joe Posnanski – wrote about just how awful it was.

And with hindsight, of course, it looks worse. Meche was actually sent out there for two more turns in the rotation – in which he allowed 10 runs in 9.1 innings – before finally getting shut down. He returned a month later, made four starts, allowed 19 runs in 21 innings, and was shut down for the year. He returned the following April, made nine starts, had a 6.66 ERA and walked more batters than he struck out, and was shut down again – and this time told he needed major surgery if he was ever to pitch again. He chose to try to make a comeback as a reliever, and allowed just three runs in 13 innings in September – but either the pain or the risk of re-injury was too great for him to come back in 2011.

And he’s the one giving back the money.

What’s done is done, of course, and we can only hope the Royals learned from the events of July 1st. Trey Hillman is no longer with the team, and neither is trainer Nick Swartz. Bob McClure, who as the pitching coach deserves at least some of the blame for what happened, and Dayton Moore, who oversaw the whole thing, still are. Maybe Meche’s retirement serves as one final reminder to them that when a pitcher complains of shoulder pain, take it seriously.

(And regarding comments that Meche himself deserves some of the blame for insisting he was able to pitch through it – it’s his job to insist he can pitch through it. The pitcher who says he can’t pitch through pain is a pitcher who will very quickly develop a reputation as a malingerer. What Meche did was no different than what the vast majority of veteran starters in the majors do. It’s the manager’s job to, you know, manage his players, and that includes knowing when to tell his veteran starter “no”.)

The past is what it is; regarding the future, Meche’s retirement is a big positive for the Royals, freeing up $12 million that can be used in a variety of ways. (I originally wrote “a huge positive”, but after what Alex Anthopoulos did yesterday, shedding $12 million suddenly doesn’t seem like such an accomplishment.) The timing of his retirement complicates things a little, as it’s late enough in the off-season that almost all of the quality free agents are already spoken for.

This might be a good thing, though. Notwithstanding my suggestion that the Royals should have made a play for Carl Crawford – and God knows they certainly have the payroll space for him now – that would have been a long shot even if they had shown interest. Getting to play with $12 million after all the free agents have signed only means that Moore won’t be tempted to spend that money on the likes of Carl Pavano or Jayson Werth. The only place I want to see that money spent is on draft picks and international talent and…what’s that?

“...budgets for the draft and international scouting could get a boost.”

Oh my. (And Bob Dutton’s not speculating; I’ve heard word that Dayton Moore said that explicitly.) Understand – every time a team has extra money to spend, analysts want them to spend that money on acquiring amateur talent, and for good reason: studies show that amateur talent is the most efficient use of your money, even if the payoff is long-term. Only teams never seem to spend quite as much money on amateur talent as you’d like.

And there’s a limit to how much the Royals can spend on amateur talent, as they don’t have any extra picks in the draft – they draft 5th overall, and then not again until #65 or so. (By which point the Tampa Bay Rays will have drafted ten players.) But if you do the math, that means we can rightfully expect the Royals to be huge players in Latin America this summer, and possibly along the Pacific Rim as well. (For the record: I would also accept a Yu Darvish bid next winter, Dayton.)

A wronged pitcher magnanimously gifts the Royals with 12 million dollars. The Royals indicate they will be spending that money in a wise and cost-effective manner. It’s almost enough to make you wonder if maybe, just maybe, the Royals really are headed in the right direction.

(I realize I’m about four news cycles behind at the moment, which I blame on a really nasty flu/strep throat sort of thing that I’m still trying to shake. I still intend to get to things like the Royals’ Digital Digest contest; the Kyle Farnsworth signing; and now the Billy Butler extension. Please be patient.)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Two Lefties Make It Right.

Hey, actual news!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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