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.