Friday, July 15, 2011

Trade Time.

First off, thanks to everyone who came out to the Baseball Prospectus event at Kauffman Stadium on Saturday. It was great to meet all of you. Thanks to Kevin Goldstein and Craig Brown and Jeff Euston for being there, thanks to Joe Hamrahi for setting the event up, and thanks to the Royals’ Jin Wong and John Williams for speaking to the group and answering a raft of questions. Their answers were carefully constructed to not be particularly revealing – and I would expect nothing less from them – but the mere fact that someone like Williams (a Yale grad who got his master’s in atmospheric science from MIT) works for the Royals is revealing enough.

As hard as this may be to believe, the Royals may actually be ahead of the curve on statistical analysis now – at least with the new frontier of Pitch f/x data. (One piece of info Jin Wong revealed that surprised me – the Royals have paid to have Pitch f/x equipment installed at Northwest Arkansas, and will likely be doing the same in Omaha at some point soon.) The Royals are also having Field f/x equipment installed at Kauffman Stadium soon – which will give data on the movements of every player on the field on every pitch, allowing teams to determine how quick a first step a fielder gets, how quickly he gets from Point A to Point B, etc.

None of this data is going to be public, unfortunately. But the Royals have the data, and between Williams and Mike Groopman (a former Baseball Prospectus intern) on staff, I have no doubt that they’ll be mining the depths of it. Whether the baseball decision-makers will listen to their analysts is the big question, and one I can’t answer. But it’s reassuring to know that the Royals not only have the data, they have the data guys.

And I can’t say enough about the fanbase. On Friday night, the Royals drew 34,563 paying fans to the ballpark. Yes, there were fireworks, and it was Buck Night, but…still. The Cleveland Indians, who were in first place, drew 25,835 to their stadium the same night. The Royals drew nearly 35,000 fans to watch a team on pace to finish last for the sixth time in eight years. If this team ever turns around, Kauffman Stadium is going to be rocking every single night. The Royals’ incompetence masks the fact that Kansas City is a great baseball town.

The Indians are an instructive example. From 1969 to 1993, Cleveland went 25 straight years without ever finishing higher than fourth place in the standings. In 1994 they opened a new ballpark and started to win. On June 12, 1995, the Indians sold out the ballpark; they would sell out every game they played from that day through Opening Day, 2001, a then-record 455 sellouts in a row. I don’t think that Kauffman Stadium will be a sellout for five-plus years – for one thing, I don’t think they’ll win five straight division titles, and a renovated Kauffman is not quite the same as a brand-new Jacobs Field. But I could see 30,000 at the ballpark every night.

In the meantime, the trade deadline is barely two weeks away, and as usual the Royals are sellers. A month ago, there was so much parity in the sport that it looked like this might be a seller’s market, as very few teams were definitively out of contention and the supply of impact players at the deadline looked small. But there has been a lot of separation in the last few weeks; 13 of 30 teams are now at least 8.5 games out of a playoff spot. So the Royals will have to compete with a raft of other teams in marketing their wares.

Nevertheless, the Royals have a number of veterans who could help a contender, certainly more (and better) veterans than they had last year. Scott Podsednik, Rick Ankiel, Kyle Farnsworth, and Jose Guillen collectively brought back Tim Collins and a bunch of organizational filler. This year, the Royals have the talent to do far better – the question is whether they have the market. Here, in no particular order, are the guys that should be on the auction block this month.

Melky Cabrera: I really liked the signing of Cabrera this winter, which among Royals fans was a deeply unpopular opinion, particularly after the Royals acquired Lorenzo Cain in the Greinke trade just a few days later. The main reasons I liked the Cabrera signing – aside from my belief that he had bounceback potential – were that 1) he was only signed for $1.25 million; and 2) he’s under club control for 2012 as well.

Cabrera has turned out to be a better player than even I expected; he’s hitting .295/.333/.456 with an outstanding OPS+ of 119 (his previous career high was only 95). He’s even stolen 12 bases in 14 attempts. He’s also leading the AL in at-bats and plate appearances. He’s still just 26 years old. For the money, Cabrera might be the best free-agent signing of Dayton Moore’s career.

His success actually complicates the issue of trading him. A few days ago, when I told a friend that I expected Cabrera to be moved before long, he suggested that the Royals could move Cabrera to left field for next year, Gordon to right, and put Cain in center. It was actually the first time I had even considered the idea that Cabrera could be a viable solution for the Royals in 2012. As well as he is hitting, Cabrera is a poor defensive centerfielder. Moving him to a corner and letting Cain (or some combination of Cain and Jarrod Dyson) take over in center next year would be a huge defensive upgrade. And if Cabrera continues to hit as well as he has, he’ll have more than enough bat for a corner outfield spot.

I still consider that to be a suboptimal outcome. Cabrera’s performance at the plate might represent genuine, long-lasting improvement. But if it isn’t, he’ll be useless in an outfield corner, and the Royals simply have to make room for one of their centerfield prospects. The optimal outcome is that some contender will look at Cabrera’s performance, his defensive versatility – he should be even more appealing to a team that needs a corner outfielder – his salary, and the fact that he’s a 15-month, not a 3-month solution, and pay accordingly. In an efficient market, Cabrera should have the most trade value of any of the Royals’ veteran players. If he can’t bring back a borderline Top 100 prospect, he should at least fetch a pair of moderate-upside lottery tickets in the low minors.

But if we’ve learned anything from the trade market these last few years, it’s that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Twenty years ago, Larry Andersen could get you Jeff Bagwell. Twelve years ago, Heathcliff Slocumb was worth Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek. But last year, two-and-a-half years of Danny Haren only brought back a couple of Grade B prospects and the desiccated remains of Joe Saunders. Teams have become ridiculously protective – too protective, in my opinion – of their prospects. In the case of some of the other guys on this list, the Royals’ best option is to take the best offer. In Cabrera’s case, though, if the right offer doesn’t come along, the Royals are best served keeping him.

Potential destinations: The Legend of Sam Fuld is progressing towards an unhappy ending in Tampa Bay, although I worry that the Rays value defense too much to settle for Cabrera, even in left field. (Besides, they could just bring Desmond Jennings once he heals from his hand injury.) The White Sox are all-in for this year, so if Moore is okay trading Cabrera within the division – which I doubt he is – Cabrera would be a big upgrade over Alexis Rios (.213/.262/.309) in centerfield. The Angels are rumored to be interested in the Pirates’ Garrett Jones, and Cabrera is better than Jones in almost every way, so…and finally, there’s Atlanta, where the Braves are stuck with Nate McLouth in center, he of the .225 average and three homers. Cabrera’s first go-round with the Braves didn’t go well; it’s not clear whether they’d consider a return engagement. But you know Moore has Frank Wren on speed dial.

Likelihood he gets traded: 60%

Jeff Francoeur: One of the first questions that was presented to Jin Wong at the BP ballpark event was, “Why do so many of the contracts the Royals give to free agents include mutual options?” While Wong answered the question frankly – the Royals always start by asking for a club option, but they’re willing to compromise to a mutual option during negotiations – it still left unanswered the bigger question, which is, “what’s the point?” It seems like in any mutual option, either the player will decline if he had a good year – and can get more money elsewhere – or the team will decline if he didn’t.

But in Francoeur’s case, I wonder if he isn’t threading the thin line between “exceeding expectations” and “not meeting expectations”. Francoeur, as Joe Posnanski pointed out a few days ago, is hitting almost exactly at his career averages. The difference is that offense is down so significantly that his performance is considerably more valuable than it was three years ago. Add in solid defense in right field, and an exceptionally accurate throwing arm – he’s reached double digits in outfielder assists in every season of his career – and he’s a viable everyday player. He’s making $2.5 million this year, and his mutual option for next year is worth about $4.25 million. If Francoeur plays as well in 2012 as he has in 2011, he’s probably worth the contract – but just barely, which means it would be a good deal for both sides.

That assumes that he can maintain his seasonal performance, and given that he’s hitting .243/.288/.377 since May 2nd, and his history of hot starts followed by cold middles and ends, that’s quite an assumption. Francoeur’s defense and ability to crush left-handed pitching would make him a nice fit for many a contender’s bench, much like he helped the Rangers in that role last season. Trading Francoeur now wouldn’t preclude the Royals from bringing him back next season, given that he could always opt out of his portion of the option.

I think it would be absurd for the Royals to keep both Cabrera and Francoeur, but I also think it would be surprising if they traded both. Francoeur is unlikely to bring anything substantial in a trade – the Rangers gave the Mets the immortal Joaquin Arias for him last season – and if that’s all the Royals are being offered, they might as well hold onto him. An additional two months of full-time play will make a decision to bring him back next year much clearer.

Potential Destinations: Any team that’s interested in Cabrera might consider Francoeur as a backup plan. The Phillies have reportedly been looking for a right-handed-hitting outfielder for a while now, and Francoeur would fit them well as a platoon outfielder/pinch-hitter vs. lefties/clubhouse guy. His success with Texas last year ought to add to his appeal.

Likelihood he gets traded: 25%

Wilson Betemit: I’ve already discussed how ridiculous it is that Betemit is still on the roster. He’s probably the player most likely to be traded this month, because – now that he’s on the bench – he won’t earn free-agent compensation if the Royals keep him, and his ability to switch-hit, play both corners, and come off the bench gives him broad appeal. He’ll earn less than $500,000 the rest of the season. He should fetch something interesting, whether it’s a teenage arm with projection or a toolsy hitter with age on his side, who if everything breaks right could be the next Rey Navarro.

Potential Destinations: Both the White Sox (Brent Morel/Mark Teahen) and Tigers (Brandon Inge) have gotten next to no production from their third basemen this season. In particular, the Tigers’ lineup leans heavily to the right side, so picking up Betemit’s switch-hitting bat has additional tactical use for them. This would require Moore to be willing to trade in the division. In Betemit’s case, since he’s a free agent at year’s end, I don’t see why he wouldn’t, but you never know.

The Brewers are hanging in the playoff chase even though Casey McGehee has turned back into a pumpkin. The Brewers’ farm system is barren, but it’s not like Betemit was going to fetch a premium prospect anyway – there’s someone in that farm system the Brewers can trade for him. Like the Tigers, Milwaukee needs some balance in their lineup – Prince Fielder and Nyjer Morgan are their only left-handed bats in the lineup against right-handed pitchers.

The Cardinals would be a good fit, assuming they can forgive Betemit for breaking Albert Pujols’ arm – with his ability to switch-hit and play both corners, Betemit’s versatility makes him the perfect Tony LaRussa bench player. And if the Pirates decide to be buyers instead of sellers, Betemit would be a big upgrade over Pedro Alvarez or Brandon Wood or whatever prospect bust currently mans third base.

Likelihood he gets traded: 85%

Jeff Francis: On the surface, Francis doesn’t appear to be pitching all that well – he’s 3-10 with a 4.60 ERA, and opponents are hitting .289 against him. He’s better than that. He’s had fantastic control – he’s walked only 22 batters in 19 starts. His strikeout rate (just 56 Ks in 115 innings) is the lowest of his career, but with a new offensive ice age upon us, there’s more margin for error for a pitch-to-contact guy like Francis than there was a few years ago.

Francis is far more dependent on his defense than the average pitcher. For all the hype given to Alcides Escobar this season, the Royals’ defense as a whole is still lousy – they rank 28th in the majors in defensive efficiency, ahead of only the Cubs and Astros. Francis would look a lot better pitching in front of a strong defense – which most contenders have. He’s managed to stay healthy all season, and has gone at least 6 innings in 14 of his 19 starts, including 10 of his last 12. He’s also pitching much better of late – in his last four starts he’s allowed 21 hits in 24 innings, and walked just two batters against 13 strikeouts.

He’s not worth a heavy ransom, but he has the ability to take the ball every fifth day, throw strikes, and there’s still some upside here as he moves farther away from his shoulder surgery. He strikes me as someone who would also benefit greatly from a move to the inferior, i.e. National, league.

Potential Destinations: If the Reds decide to go for it this year – and despite being in fourth place, they’re the best NL Central team on paper – Francis would make a ton of sense. Their fifth starter at the moment is Dontrelle Willis, and if that’s not a cry for help, I don’t know what is. Francis’ groundball tendencies would play well in the bandbox that is the Great American Ballpark, and the Reds have a fantastic defense –Scott Rolen, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, and Drew Stubbs are all elite defenders – which will make Francis look a lot better.

Likelihood he gets traded: 40%

Bruce Chen: In some ways, Chen is similar to Francis – they’re both left-handed starters with a checkered injury history, and neither of them can break 90 anymore. And in some other ways, Chen is quite different. While Francis is more of a groundball pitcher who throws strikes and hopes for double plays, Chen is an extreme flyball pitcher who succeeds by nibbling and never giving in. And unlike Francis, Chen has pitched very well over the last two seasons, at least by traditional metrics.

Since the start of last season, Chen has thrown 206 innings, and in that span he’s 17-10 (with the Royals!) with a 3.98 ERA. He’s allowed 74 unintentional walks, and struck out 138 – his strikeout rate is a little below-average, but much better than you’d expect for a guy with his velocity. He’s allowed 25 homers, which is an acceptable rate.

Since the beginning of 2010, Francis is 7-16 with a 4.79 ERA, and yet advanced metrics will tell you that Francis has actually pitched better than Chen over the last two years. Francis’ xFIP, which is basically ERA stripped of all the luck, was 3.79 last year and 4.01 this year. Chen’s numbers are 4.79 and 4.45.

In the end, I suspect Chen and Francis have roughly the same amount of trade value – they’re roughly comparable in terms of performance, they’re making roughly the same amount of money, and they’re both free agents at the end of the year. While I could see both getting traded, I suspect the Royals will want to hedge their bets by keeping one around in case they want to re-sign him this winter. I would probably lean towards keeping Chen, simply because I worry that Francis’ shoulder is a ticking time bomb. (Chen is a Tommy John survivor, which isn’t nearly as worrisome.) But I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to bring back either pitcher, and if a decent offer is made, I’d happily move both of them.

Potential destinations: Any team interested in Francis will likely be interested in Chen, with the caveat that Chen is more of a fit for a pitchers’ park. The problem is that far fewer contenders seem to be desperate for starting pitching – or at least non-elite pitching – than you’d think. This is a pitcher’s era, and it shows in the rotations of good teams. The Diamondbacks, maybe? But they play in a good home run park either. Chen’s 3.56 ERA simply isn’t as special as it would have been three years ago, and there may not be much of a market for him.

Likelihood he gets traded: 20%

A reliever – pick one: You would think that the Royals would be looking at trade offers on Joakim Soria in a new light now. Much like having a heart attack and a near-death experience might cause you to change your eating habits, watching Soria’s career go through a similar near-death experience might have reminded the Royals of the fickleness of relievers and encouraged them to trade Soria for the best possible package.

I still don’t think that’s likely. While Soria has quieted some of the concerns about his performance, he hasn’t silenced them yet, and the offers are no doubt less generous than they would have been six months ago. And I think that having Soria as a security blanket for the ninth gives the Royals the breathing room they need to get creative with their other relievers – specifically, it gives them the cover to move Aaron Crow back into the rotation, either late this year or next year.

The irony is that Soria’s repertoire and history suggest that he would be far more suited for the rotation than Crow. But when Soria arrived on the scene in 2007-2008, the Royals had few good options for the closer’s role, and meanwhile they had a healthy Gil Meche and Zack Greinke in the rotation – and guys like Kyle Davies and Brian Bannister and Luke Hochevar looked better then than they do now. Today, the Royals have arguably their deepest bullpen ever, and the worst rotation in the majors, and as a result the Royals are not condemning Crow to a lifetime in relief like they did with Soria.

Maybe I’ve been so beaten down by the Royals that I’ve developed Stockholm Syndrome, but I don’t really mind if they keep Soria. As overrated as the closer’s role is, if having Soria around frees the Royals to use their other relievers in a more optimal fashion, then there are fringe benefits to keeping him. And while he is underpaid, he’s not nearly as underpaid as he was a year or two ago – he makes $4 million this year, but options for $6 million in 2012, $8 million in 2013, $8.75 in 2014 are only modest bargains.

That said, I absolutely think the Royals should trade a reliever, and maybe two. Relievers are probably the most commonly traded commodities this time of year, partly because there are so many of them, but also because virtually every contender could use help somewhere in their bullpen. The Brewers were so desperate for relief help that they just traded for Francisco Rodriguez and the ticking time bomb of his vesting $17.5 million option for next year. Suitors are lining up for Heath Bell like ABC had just announced he was the next Bachelorette.

The thing is, all the big names on the trade market are guys who are free agents at the end of the year, or next year at the latest. And they’re all guys making a market salary. That’s the way the market works, obviously; teams out of contention are willing to trade players who are no longer going to be with the team by the time they’re ready to contend anyway.

But what if a team is willing to trade a reliever – a good reliever – who won’t be a free agent for five or six years? And what if he’s a reliever who’s making the major-league minimum salary? Don’t you think a contender would be willing to pay a higher price for such a reliever than a three-month rental? What would you rather have – a half-season of Heath Bell (who’s making $7.5 million this year), or five-and-a-half seasons of Greg Holland, who’s making $400,000 this year and won’t even be arbitration eligible until 2014?

The Royals, more than at any point in their history, have a true excess of relievers on their roster. They can afford to trade a reliever, even a rookie reliever who won’t be a free agent until 2016 or 2017. Consider:

Holland, a rookie, has allowed 4 runs in 26 innings, with a ridiculous 32-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Louis Coleman, a rookie, has a 1.97 ERA and has allowed 18 hits in 32 innings. He also has 39 strikeouts and 10 unintentional walks.

Blake Wood, a sophomore, has a 2.89 ERA in 37 innings. He has 33 strikeouts and 10 unintentional walks. (Late note: scratch Wood from this discussion after last night’s meltdown, when he threw just five of 20 pitches for strikes. His ERA is now 3.82; his K/BB ratio is 33 to 13.)

That’s three guys, two of whom have ERAs under 2 and more than 3 times as many strikeouts as walks, and all of whom are under club control for at least five years. And all three guys function as middle relievers; the Royals already have a closer and a set-up man in place.

That’s a lot of freaking talent for the middle innings of a ballgame. (And I’m not even including Tim Collins, who by virtue of being left-handed is a rarer commodity and one worth keeping.) It’s also sort of superfluous, particularly for a team with as many needs as the Royals have.

Furthermore, the Royals have yet more bullpen arms that are already pushing for an opportunity. Right-hander Kelvin Herrera (1.64 ERA, 49 Ks, 5 BBs in 44 innings) has been one of the breakout stars of the system, and was named to the Futures Game on Sunday (granted, he took the loss). Left-hander Kevin Chapman, the Royals’ fourth-round pick last year, has struck out 64 batters in 41 innings. Both are in Double-A right now, and will probably be ready by this time next year. In the meantime, well, the Royals are still paying Robinson Tejeda $1.55 million to pitch in Omaha, and his fastball seems to have come back – he has 26 strikeouts in 24 innings, against just six walks.

Frankly, they could give Vinny Mazzaro the last spot in the bullpen and it wouldn’t have a material impact on the team’s performance – we’re talking about the seventh reliever on the team, a guy whose job will solely be to pitch in games whose outcome has already been decided.

It would be an incredibly unconventional move for a team that is building for the future to trade a young player. But in this case, it is absolutely the right one. The Royals need to shift their priorities from stockpiling talent to arranging that talent in the mold of a contending team. The Royals have more relief talent than they need. They have a need for more talent in their starting rotation and in up-the-middle offensive players. This is the perfect time for them to trade from a position of strength to a position of weakness.

It will never happen, of course.

Potential destinations: Virtually every contending team in baseball.

Likelihood one gets traded: 5%

Others: Matt Treanor has value, as he’s given the Royals exactly what Jason Kendall was supposed to give them – enough OBP skills to make up for a lack of power, and a veteran catcher to help develop both Brayan Pena and the pitching staff – at a fraction of the cost. The Royals may want to bring back Treanor as Pena’s caddy again next year, and the only replacement for Treanor in-house would be Manny Pina, so I don’t see a trade as being likely. (Although I’d be in favor of it – as good as Treanor has been this year, this is him at his absolute best, and I’d rather scour the bargain bin again than expect a repeat performance.)

Chris Getz might be traded, in the unlikely event that a contending team has a pressing need for a second baseman who makes up for his complete lack of power with a .320 OBP. Billy Butler is a perennial subject of trade discussion, but aside from the fact that the Royals would be selling low, he’s not the kind of player who gets traded mid-season. The Royals would only trade Butler for guaranteed help in the starting rotation, and “guaranteed” means “already established in the majors”. A team in contention isn’t about to rob Peter to pay Paul. Mike Aviles has been mentioned as a trade candidate; he’s hitting .303/.325/.597 in Omaha, with nine homers in 30 games. Having worked tirelessly to destroy his trade value, Dayton Moore may finally cash him in for pennies on the dollar, but you’re not getting anything of value for a 30-year-old in Triple-A. Kyle Davies has good stuff, and he has the stuff to win 15 games in the majors, and he has good stuff, and if you’re laughing right now, you clearly don’t work in the Royals’ front office.

Conclusion: In researching possible destinations for the Royals’ most appealing veteran players, I was really struck by just how few contending teams have a pressing need at the positions the Royals can help them fill. That was even before I read this article. I still think the Royals will be aggressive in marketing their players; I’m just a little pessimistic that they’ll be able to trade all of them, or even most of them. Betemit seems like a no-brainer, simply because he’s seen as more of a super-utility guy than an everyday player, so even teams without a pressing hole will have interest. But beyond him, there are no sure things. If the Royals can move Betemit and Cabrera or Francoeur – they have to open an outfield slot for Lorenzo Cain, now hitting .319/.383/.535 in Omaha – anything else is gravy.

A lot can happen in the next two weeks; a starting pitcher might go down and a team that thought it was set suddenly isn’t. But right now, it looks like the Royals are unlikely to get more than a marginal prospect for Chen or Francis, if they’re able to trade them at all.