Friday, October 7, 2011

For Want Of A Pitcher, Part 2.

Kevin Goldstein, as many of you know, is the prospect expert for Baseball Prospectus and is as well-connected as anyone in the industry, despite living in the mighty metropolis of DeKalb, Illinois. As it happens, I have an office in Sycamore, Illinois, about 10 minutes from Kevin’s house, so every month or two we get together for lunch and to talk politics and the Middle East – and, yes, baseball.

We had lunch on Thursday, and we actually got into a spirited discussion about whether the Royals can upgrade their rotation in time for next season. Kevin is skeptical – he thinks that people are underrating just how difficult it is to acquire starting pitching, given that almost every team in baseball is trying to do the same thing. If the Royals are going to trade for a starter, in his opinion, it’s more likely to be for someone like Derek Lowe than for someone like James Shields.

I’m willing to bet that the Royals acquire an established, league-average or better starting pitcher this off-season anyway, and told Kevin that. But he’s certainly right that if the Royals want to trade for a starter of that caliber, they’ll have to pay through the nose in terms of prospects and cash. Fortunately, the Royals have plenty of both. But if they can sign a free-agent pitcher and keep the prospects, so much the better.

The problem is, well, take a look for yourself.

There’s a lot of names on that list. Hardly any are elite names, and most of the ones that are elite have a club option tied to them. Some have already been picked up; Chris Carpenter is no longer on that list after the Cardinals turned his option into a two-year, $21 million contract. (I don’t know if the Cardinals have the best fans in baseball, but what’s important is that the Cardinals players must think they have the best fans in baseball. How else do you explain so many of their stars being willing to give up millions to stay in town?)

So to make this analysis easier, I’m going to assume that none of the players with club options will actually make it to free agency. That means no Ryan Dempster or Adam Wainwright or Paul Maholm or Aaron Harang or  – as much as I’d love him – Roy Oswalt to consider. I’m also assuming that if C.C. Sabathia opts out of his contract, it’s only to get the Yankees to cough up even more money to keep him.

The Dodgers have already turned down Jon Garland’s option, but given that Garland hurt his shoulder in June and wasn’t exactly a power pitcher before the injury, we’ll ignore him as well.

To save time and space, I’m also going to ignore every pitcher below what I’ll call the “Francis Line”. Jeff Francis was a much better pitcher for the Royals than most people realize, certainly better than his 6-16 record and 4.82 ERA. He only walked 34 batters unintentionally all season, barely one per start. He gave up 19 homers in 183 innings, a perfectly acceptable rate. But he didn’t strike people out and the Royals’ defense didn’t do him any favors. Even so, he was worth 1.4 bWAR for the season. He was worth his modest contract.

And, of course, the Royals have shown no interest in bringing him back. Which is not surprising, given that the whole point of this exercise is to improve the rotation. This means that any free-agent starter who isn’t clearly better than Francis can be eliminated from the discussion right now. So say goodbye to Kyle Davies (please!), Justin Duchscherer, Zach Duke, ageless wonder Livan Hernandez, Kenshin Kawakami, Scott Kazmir, Rodrigo Lopez, John Maine, Kevin Millwood, Brad Penny, Tim Wakefield (cool as that might be), Chien-Ming Wang, and Chris Young, among others.

Before we get to the free agents on this side of the Pacific, I should at least discuss the possibility of signing one of the two premier Japanese League starters whom might – might – be coming to America next season.

The first is Hisashi Iwakuma, a 30-year-old right-hander who from 2008 to 2010 threw 572 innings for the Rakuten Eagles and had a 2.61 ERA, along with 433 Ks against 115 walks. This season Iwakuma has only made 16 starts and thrown 114 innings – I’m guessing he was hurt for part of the season – but has a 2.13 ERA and allowed just 98 hits and 17 walks. Those numbers have to be taken with enough salt to kill a small animal, of course; the competition is weaker in Japan, and offensive levels – particularly home runs – are lower to begin with. Still, Iwakuma is widely seen as a probable #3 starter in the majors.

Iwakuma almost came to the states last year; the Eagles posted him, using the system which allows a Japanese team to be paid by a major league team for the right to negotiate with their player. The A’s won the bidding at $19 million, and then didn’t come anywhere close to signing Iwakuma. Since the posting fee is only paid if the player signs, there are some who think the A’s deliberately over-bid simply to keep the Rangers or another AL West team from getting him. There’s no way to know if that’s true, but there’s no question that the system, as it is currently set up, can be gamed.

This is Iwakuma’s 10th season in Japan, which means he will be a free agent this winter – meaning he is free to negotiate and sign with any major league team and the Eagles don’t get a dime. I think the Royals should certainly give consideration to bidding on him, but given 1) the risk inherent with all Japanese players; 2) the fact that Japanese players almost always prefer to play on one of the coasts; and 3) the fact that Iwakuma can negotiate with any team, I highly doubt he would sign with the Royals even if the team were so inclined.

Besides, if the Royals were inclined to sign a Japanese pitcher, they ought to be balls-to-the-wall for Yu Darvish, who is quite possibly the greatest Japanese pitcher of all time. (He is most certainly the best half-Iranian, half-Japanese pitcher ever.) Darvish’s numbers aren’t Cy Young-caliber, they look like Cy Young’s actual stats from the dead-ball era:

2007: 1.82 ERA, 208 IP, 123 H, 49 BB, 210 K
2008: 1.88 ERA, 201 IP, 136 H, 44 BB, 208 K
2009: 1.73 ERA, 182 IP, 118 H, 45 BB, 167 K
2010: 1.78 ERA, 202 IP, 158 H, 47 BB, 222 K

They’re finishing up the regular season in Japan, but it looks like this will be Darvish’s best season yet: 1.49 ERA, 223 IP, 153 H, 35 BB, 261 K.

Oh, and he just turned 25 years old.

I know what you’re thinking: Daisuke Matsuzaka was the best pitcher in Japanese history, and look what happened to him. It’s a fair criticism. But Matsuzaka’s best ERA in Japan was 2.13. Matsuzaka also famously threw close to 500 pitchers in a four-day span during Japan’s annual high school tournament, which is sort of like March Madness and the Super Bowl all wrapped into one. Darvish has better stuff, better stats, and hasn’t been abused as much as Matsuzaka was.

Darvish is subject to the posting system, which means that if the Royals outbid the other 29 teams, he’ll have no choice but to sign with Kansas City unless he decides to stay in Japan. The Red Sox paid $51 million for the posting rights to Matsuzaka, and roughly the same amount to sign him. His performance in Boston has soured enough people on the value of high-end Japanese pitching that Darvish may go for less.

Look, I think it’s incredibly unlikely that the Royals get him. But IF they believe he’s a true ace or at least a true #2 starter in the majors, and IF they think he’ll stay healthy, I think they should make a good-faith effort to get him. Offer up to $40 million for the posting fee, offer about the same for a six-year deal, and hold your breath that even if he breaks down by the end of the contract, he’ll give you enough value up front to make it worth your while.

Now that I’m done chasing rainbows across the Pacific, let’s look at the stateside free agents.

That leaves 11 starting pitchers of various quality and availability. In roughly increasing order of intrigue, they are:

Mark Buehrle. Listed more as a courtesy than anything else – there’s about a 95% chance that Buehrle either re-signs with the White Sox, or signs with his hometown St. Louis Cardinals. I can’t knock Buehrle’s work in the majors – he’s won 161 games and is just 32 years old – but his consistent success is as baffling as that of anyone in the majors. The last three seasons, Buehrle has struck out less than a batter every other inning – just 313 Ks in 629 innings – but still has a 3.91 ERA.

He’s as close as this generation gets to Tommy John, the classic crafty left-hander who didn’t strike anyone out but succeeded by controlling the running game and not walking anyone and getting tons of groundballs. The problem is that Buehrle isn’t a groundball pitcher; he actually gives up a good number of homers, granted that he plays in a very good home-run park. It’s possible that Buehrle will hang around like John did into his 40s. But for a pitcher with his credentials, his margin for error is slim, and some team is going to pay him eight figures a year.

Hiroki Kuroda. He’s already making his case for the title of the best Japanese pitcher in major-league history, and even at 37, he ought to be one of the most highly-sought after free agents on the market. That is, if he were willing to entertain the thought of playing elsewhere. Kuroda seems very comfortable playing in Los Angeles, and refused to consider a trade this summer that would have allowed him to escape the Dodgers for a team in contention – the Red Sox for certain, and possibly other teams. I think it’s safe to say that Kuroda won’t be willing to consider moving to Kansas City. Even if the situation with the Dodgers becomes unbearable, he’s almost certain to stay on the west coast.

Jason Marquis. If you look at the list of free agent starters for long enough, pretty soon you’re wearing beer goggles and the likes of Jason Marquis start to become appealing. The goggles make Marquis look like a perfectly acceptable innings-sponge for the last seven years. Once you sober up, you realize that Marquis hasn’t had an ERA below four since 2004, but twice has had an ERA over six in that time. He struck out 76 batters in 132 innings this season before a line drive ended his season with a broken leg. That comes out to a strikeout rate of 5.2 per nine innings, which is bad enough, but even worse is that it’s his highest strikeout rate since 2004. Furthermore, his entire 12-year career has been spent in the National (read: inferior) League. Stay away.

Freddy Garcia. After three lost seasons from 2007 to 2009, Garcia has had similar back-to-back seasons, throwing about 150 innings each in 2010 and 2011, giving up a little over a hit an inning, striking out about twice as many batters as he walked. But in 2011, his ERA was a run lower than in 2010 (3.62 to 4.64), and he was a well-publicized part of the Yankees building a rotation out of unheralded rookies (Ivan Nova) and retreads (Bartolo Colon).

I expect Garcia will re-sign with the Yankees, as will Colon, who I elected not to list here because he’s almost 39 years old and apparently owes his revival this season to a steady diet of unicorn blood. Even if Garcia doesn’t, I’m not sure he is someone the Royals should spend their money on. His ability to miss bats disappeared years ago, and he now survives as a very different pitcher, a guy who gets outs with guile and command more than anything else. If the price is right and he only wants a one- or two-year deal, sure. But if that’s what the Royals are in the market for, they might as well re-sign Bruce Chen.

Joel Pineiro. Once upon a time, Pineiro was a young starter with promise. That time ended after the 2004 season. Pineiro has not struck out more than 110 batters in a season since then. He had a bit of a career resurrection with the Cardinals under the tutelage of Dave Duncan, who helped him master his sinker, and in 2009 he was about as effective as you can be without striking out even a batter every other inning: in 214 innings, he walked just 27 batters and allowed just 11 homers.

Pineiro signed with the Angels after that season, and while he still has good control and keeps the ball down, he couldn’t maintain walk and home run rates that low. Few pitchers can. He’s basically a right-handed version of Jeff Francis at this point, maybe 10% better. If he’s the best starting pitcher the Royals bring in this winter, it will have been a bad winter.

Chris Capuano. If you want to understand just how high the success rates are for Tommy John surgery, consider this: Capuano blew out his elbow in 2007, had Tommy John surgery, the ligament failed, had the same surgery again, finally made it back to the majors three years later…and he’s basically the same pitcher that he was before the surgery. His strikeout rate has actually ticked up since coming back, and this season he was healthy enough to make 31 starts and throw 186 innings, and struck out 168 batters.

Even so, I’m not sure he’s worth taking a flier on. He also gave up 27 home runs, leading to a 4.55 ERA, and homers have always been an issue for him. Capuano is 33 years old, and he’s spent his entire career in the NL. If the Royals didn’t have prospects to trade and absolutely had to use the free agent market to find their starters, Capuano would be an option worth considering. But I think Capuano’s upside is to be a good #4 starter, a Randy Wolf-type pitcher. There’s nothing wrong with that – Randy Wolf is the #4 starter on a playoff team at the moment – but I think the Royals can do better.

C.J. Wilson. Three years ago, Wilson was a reliever with a 6.02 ERA. In 2009, he cut his ERA by more than half; in 2010, he moved to the rotation after four years in relief and was shockingly effective, with a 3.35 ERA in 204 innings and just 10 homers allowed. He was even better this season, cutting his ERA to 2.94 and striking out 206 batters in 223 innings.

He’s probably the best pitcher on the market – and he’s going to be paid like one. The bidding will start around $16 million, and a 5-year, $100 million contract wouldn’t be out of the question. The betting money is on Texas to do whatever it takes to avoid a repeat of last season, when Cliff Lee signed elsewhere. But whatever team signs him, I can pretty much guarantee you it won’t be the Royals. It’s not clear whether the Royals can afford to pay for an ace; they certainly can’t afford to pay for an ace while actually getting a good #2 starter for their money.

Erik Bedard. When he’s healthy, Bedard is a terrific pitcher. Going back to 2007, Bedard has a 3.31 ERA in 82 starts, and in 475 innings has struck out 508 batters. He has the highest strikeout rate (9.6 per 9 innings) of any left-hander in baseball with 400+ innings over the last five years.

“When healthy” is a big qualifier with Bedard, though. He missed the last half of 2008 to have surgery on his labrum, then tore it halfway through 2009 and missed the last half of that season and all of 2010. It was frankly stunning that he returned in 2011 at close to 100% - in 129 innings he had a 3.62 ERA and struck out 125 batters against 48 walks. But he seemed to wore down as the season went on; after being traded to Boston at the trading deadline he only threw 38 innings in eight starts. He also doesn’t have a reputation as the friendliest guy in the world, and believe it or not, on a team this young and inexperienced, I actually think that means something. Not a lot, but something.

If you can sign him to a Bruce Chen/Jeff Francis deal, one year for $2.5 million and incentives or something, then do it. When he’s been healthy enough to pitch, he’s been healthy enough to pitch well. But I expect him to get a lot more money than that. If the Royals want to take a chance on an oft-injured pitcher with upside, they’re likely to get a much better price on…

Rich Harden. I list him here partly out of transparency – two years ago I hinted that I thought the Royals should pursue him as a free agent. At that time he was coming off a season in which he struck out 171 batters in 141 innings and had a 4.09 ERA. And the year before that – 2008 – he was probably the best pitcher in baseball inning-for-inning, with a remarkable 2.07 ERA in 148 innings.

You’ve probably noticed one of the problems with Harden – even at his best, he can’t stay healthy. He hasn’t thrown 150 innings in a season since 2004, when he was 22 years old.

The Royals didn’t sign Harden in 2009, which was for the best; over the last two seasons Harden has thrown 175 innings combined, with a 5.36 ERA, 35 homers and 93 walks allowed.

But you know what? He still struck out 166 batters in those 175 innings. When healthy, and when his control doesn’t desert him, he still has the ability to dominate. Those are two mighty large conditions, granted. But precisely because of them, Harden is not going to get anywhere close to as much money as he did two years ago, when he got $7.5 million guaranteed from the Rangers, or even last year, when he signed with Oakland for $1.5 million. Given his track record, he probably won’t get a seven-figure offer this winter; he might not even get a guaranteed deal.

So while I don’t think Harden is the established starter the Royals are looking for, I think he would make for a fine lottery ticket. Bring him into spring training, and if you get lucky, maybe you can coax 20 above-average starts out of his right arm. If not, maybe he finds new life (and better health) in the bullpen. And if not, then you cut your losses. They won’t be much.

Every pitcher I’ve listed so far is either a bad fit for the Royals or is unlikely to sign with them for what they’re willing to pay. The pitchers below, on the other hand, are pitchers who I think fit the Royals very well, and yet might fit into the team’s payroll restrictions. There are only two of them, unfortunately.

Javier Vazquez. Vazquez has been, for his career, as underrated as any starting pitcher in the majors. (Want to win a bet? Javier Vazquez leads all active pitchers in career strikeouts. And it’s not even close.)

It helps that he’s always been healthy; he made 32 or more starts ten straight years from 2000 to 2009, and when his streak ended in 2010, it was because of ineffectiveness. As recently as 2009, Vazquez was one of the best starters in baseball; Keith Law famously got some flak (from Cardinals fans – we got your back, Keith!) for giving Vazquez a second-place vote on his Cy Young ballot. That year Vazquez threw 219 innings, walked 44 batters, and struck out 238. He was fantastic.

The Braves traded him to the Yankees – one of the pieces they got in return was Melky Cabrera – and Vazquez was, for the second time in his career, a flop in New York. In 2004 the Yankees had traded Nick Johnson and Juan Rivera to Montreal for Vazquez, and he responded with a 4.91 ERA. In 2010 he was even worse, but whereas everyone thought his problem was mental the first time around, this time the rise in his ERA corresponded with a decline in the speed on his fastball.

The Marlins signed him to a one-year deal last winter, and he started 2011 worse than ever; his ERA through 14 starts was 6.85, and he had allowed 86 hits and 33 walks in 71 innings. But from June 21st through the end of the season, here are his numbers:

122 innings
92 hits
9 homers
17 walks
112 strikeouts
1.85 ERA


According to Fangraphs, the average velocity on Vazquez’s fastball ranged between 91.1 and 91.8 mph from 2005 through 2009. In 2010, it dropped all the way to 88.7, but last year it rebounded to 90.4 mph. I don’t have a start-by-start breakdown, but it seems reasonable to assume that, based on his astonishing second-half turnaround, he started the season at 88-89 – roughly the same velocity he had in 2010 – and finished the season around 91-92 – roughly the velocity he had at his peak.

There’s a story here, and I don’t know what it is. And I don’t think the Royals should gamble on Vazquez without having some sort of explanation as to what happened, and some reasonable assurance that the Vazquez they’d be signing is not the one who stunk up the joint in 2010 and the first half of 2011.

But for that very reason, and because he turns 36 next July, Vazquez is not likely to get a three-year deal from anyone this winter. Vazquez is, as far as I can tell, the only starting pitcher with high-end upside that the Royals can acquire without trading tons of prospects or spending tons of cash. There is a risk here, no doubt. Even at his peak, Vazquez was rarely dominant – 2009 is really the only great season of his career. Vazquez routinely struck out three or four batters for every walk in his prime, but he always surrendered home runs – he’s allowed at least 20 homers in every season of his career. From 2004 to 2006 his ERAs read 4.91, 4.42, and 4.84.

Precisely because he’s such a fly-ball pitcher, though, Vazquez ought to be suited for Kauffman Stadium. (In six career starts at Kauffman – granted, he was facing the Royals’ offense – he has allowed just two homers in 40 innings.) The risk of serious injury with him is about as low as it can be for any 35-year-old pitcher, so the worst-case scenario is that he gives you 190 slightly below-average innings. The best-case scenario is that he gets some downballot Cy Young votes.

My guess is that Vazquez will get some very attractive one-year deals, and at least a few two-year offers. I doubt anyone will offer him three years. If I’m the Royals – assuming that I have a satisfactory explanation for his struggles the last two years - I strike early with a two-year deal, maybe for $24 million. If Vazquez wants the security of a three-year deal and is willing to accept a lower annual salary, I’d consider 3/$27 or even 3 for $30 million. The Royals can easily fit that salary into their payroll, and they don’t have to touch their farm system (Vazquez isn’t even a Type B free agent.)

There’s a risk here, no doubt; there always is when signing a 35-year-old starting pitcher. But the price reflects that risk. The Royals can sign Vazquez knowing that even if he blows out his arm in March and never throws a pitch for the team, they’ll have the money and prospects to pursue their other needs, both this winter and in the off-seasons to come.

And finally…

Edwin Jackson.

Five years ago, the Royals shocked the industry by outbidding everyone for Gil Meche, signing Meche to a five-year, $55 million deal. The Royals then mismanaged his arm as badly as a team can do so without actually plunging a machete into his shoulder. The horrible malpractice committed in the summer of 2009 obscures the fact that the decision to sign Meche was actually pretty brilliant.

When he signed, Meche was coming off a season with a 4.48 ERA – in Safeco, one of the AL’s best pitchers’ parks – and had walked 84 batters in 187 innings. His performance obscured the fact that there were some legitimate reasons to like Meche going forward:

- He was very young for a free agent; he had just turned 28 that September.
- He had struck out 7.5 batters per 9 innings, an above-average rate.
- He had good stuff, as attested by the fact that he was a former first-round pick.

The Royals thought Meche could be fixed with a few mechanical changes, and they were right – straight out of the chute in 2007, he was a better pitcher than ever. He led the AL in starts in 2007 and 2008, posted ERAs of 3.67 and 3.98, and he had a 3.31 ERA in 14 starts after throwing a shutout on June 16, 2009, the start which began Meche’s descent into mismanagement hell.

A Gil Meche-level starting pitcher is exactly what the Royals need this winter. As much as they’d like to acquire a true ace, there are very few of those around, and literally none in this year’s free-agent market. The best they can do in free agency is to sign the next Gil Meche, a guy who takes the ball every fifth day and pitches at the level of a #2 starter.

More than anyone on the market, Edwin Jackson could be that guy. The similarities between him and Meche are impressive:

- Like Meche, Jackson is very young for a free agent. Like Meche had in his free agent year, Jackson just turned 28 this September.

- Jackson wasn’t a first-round pick like Meche – he was taken in the 6th round – but he was an elite prospect in the minor leagues. He made his major-league debut on his 20th birthday – and beat Randy Johnson. That winter, I ranked him among the top ten prospects in all of baseball, one slot behind Zack Greinke, and I wrestled with the decision of which of the two should rank higher for a very long time.

- Like Meche, he has been a disappointment for much of his career. In Meche’s case, a shoulder injury cost him two full years, and it took him years after he returned to get his stuff back. In Jackson’s case, he’s been healthy – another point in his favor – but he struggled with his command for several years.

While Jackson made his major-league debut in 2003, he didn’t stick in the majors until 2007, on a Devil Rays team that had no better options. He has made at least 31 starts in each of the five years since. His walk rate has steadily improved over that time; in 2007 he walked 85 (unintentional) batters in 161 innings, a rate of 4.75 walks per 9. This year his rate was down to 2.61 per 9. He’s improved his control without surrendering his ability to miss bats; he’s whiffed a shade under 7 batters per 9 innings over the last five years.

Unlike Meche, Jackson is already a pretty good starting pitcher – take out his first full season as a starter, and over the last four years he has a 4.06 ERA and a 106 ERA+. But like Meche, I think there’s potential for him to get better. His stuff is better than his numbers; he’s still plagued by inconsistency. Unlike almost every pitcher above, he has spent most of his career in the American League, and has handled the stronger league just fine.

In an off-season that features such a weak crop of free agent starters, to me, Edwin Jackson should clearly be the Royals’ #1 target. Much like they made a pre-emptive offer to Meche that looked like an overpay at first, I think the Royals should make a very attractive offer to Jackson as soon as they can. I’m thinking 4 years, $52 million, or possibly 5 years, $60 million if they have faith that his delivery will hold up. Once Wilson and Sabathia sign, Jackson will move to the head of the class, so money that might appear to be an overpay in mid-November might look like a bargain by Christmas.

Presumably, Edwin Jackson and his agent know this. And I would not be at all surprised if the Jackson sweepstakes get truly wacky, and some team offers him John Lackey money. If that’s the case, I certainly won’t fault the Royals for not being that team, just as I didn’t fault them for not taking my advice on a certain free agent outfielder last season once his price tag had crossed the threshold. (Please don’t click that link. Much appreciated.)

But I think it would behoove the Royals to make an aggressive offer as soon as the free-agent window opens. Signing Edwin Jackson would improve the Royals’ rotation significantly, without surrendering a prospect. (Jackson is a Type B free agent – the Cardinals would get a supplemental pick, but the Royals would not lose one.)

So to sum up, here’s my suggestion for the Royals: go hard after Edwin Jackson. If he can’t be corralled, go hard after Javier Vazquez. (And if you can sign both of them, even better.) If Rich Harden is willing to sign for cheap, roll the dice. Kick the tires on Erik Bedard. Place a serious bid on Yu Darvish.

Otherwise, you’re better off saving your money and turning to the trade market instead. Next time, I’ll look at the many options that the Royals ought to consider in that regard.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

For Want Of A Pitcher.

Apologies for my long absence. I wrote a very long NLDS playoff preview for Grantland, and unlike this blog, they actually pay some of my bills. Also, I’ve written my first for Baseball Prospectus in about three years, which – not to be immodest – may be the most important article I’ve ever written. Look for that next week. And now, on with the countdown.

For the first time since 2003, if not since 1994, I didn’t want the Royals’ season to end. The Royals went 15-10 in September, and the Lineup of the Future was absolutely raking in the present: the Royals as a team hit .306 and slugged .472 in September. The last time the Royals had a batting or slugging average that high in a calendar month was July, 1999, when they hit .315 and slugged .503 in the heart of the high-offense era. (The Royals still went 11-16 that month, because while they scored 167 runs in 26 games, they allowed 197.)

Other than that month, the last time the Royals had a higher monthly batting average was nearly 30 years ago – May, 1982, when they hit .311. (In July, 1980, the Royals batted .332. Good luck breaking that record, boys. George Brett hit .494 that month and didn’t even lead the team in hits – Willie Wilson batted .441.)

Based on my expectations for 2011 – and my expectations were significantly higher than the national consensus – this season has to be considered a success. I predicted the Royals to go 69-93; the conventional wisdom among mainstream sportswriters was that the Royals would be lucky to avoid losing 100 games.

My rationale for projecting a 69-93 record was that I figured the Royals would, in fact, be on close to a 100-loss pace for the first half of the season – but that as the team’s best prospects found their way to Kauffman Stadium during the season, the roster quality would improve to the point where the Royals would be close to a .500 team by mid-season.

I point this out only because this logic was actually borne true to an unusual degree. The Royals won 71 games, and their season was indeed a tale of two halves. Despite starting the season 10-4, the Royals had fallen to 37-54 mark by the All-Star Break – on pace for a 66-win season. But after the Break, the Royals were 34-37. This understates their improvement, because the Royals played the bulk of their home games in the first half: they played 51 home games and 40 road games during the season’s first half, but after the Break, the Royals only played 30 of 71 games at home.

And in reality, the Royals had a much better season than their 71-91 record would suggest. The Royals were actually outscored by only 32 runs all season – based on their runs scored and runs allowed, they should have won 77 or 78 games. Despite finishing in fourth place in the AL Central, the Royals actually had the second-best run differential in the division.

By comparison, the 2003 Royals were outscored by 31 runs. If Ned Yost doesn’t leave Vinny Mazzaro out there like a tuna sandwich in the sun, the Royals would have had their best run differential since 1994. That’s an indictment of the organization, obviously, but it also tells you that this year’s Royals were almost a .500 team on paper. They only won 71 games in part because of bad luck, and in part because Joakim Soria had some uncharacteristic struggles. (The Royals lost four games this year that they were leading after eight innings. They had lost three such games over the last three years combined.)

Put these two facts together – the Royals played better in the second half, and they played better than their record suggests – and you come up with a single sentence that sums up why I absolutely think the Royals can contend next season:

Playing 40 of their 71 games on the road, the Royals outscored their opponents after the All-Star Break, 328-313.

Mind you, it’s easy to splice data to make your team look better – just find their best stretch of the season and extrapolate from there. But in this case, I think it’s legitimate to look at the team’s performance in the second half, because the team went through so much turnover from Opening Day until August. Let’s draw the line on August 10th, when Salvador Perez’s promotion closed the lineup; from that point on, the Royals were 22-24, and outscored their opponents by 18 runs, 225 to 207. Using the Pythagorean Theorem to predict the Royals’ record from their runs scored and runs allowed, we come up with a .542 winning percentage from August 10th on. Over a full season, that’s the equivalent of an 88-74 record.

So yes, I believe this team can contend in 2012. But they need a starting pitcher. Actually, two. Possibly even three. And what they do to address this need between now and next April is the single biggest determinant of whether the Royals will, in fact, contend next season.

The Royals have already taken a big step forward in this regard. I’m speaking of the decision not to bring Bob McClure back as the team’s pitching coach for a seventh season. This is another example of the Royals quietly making the right moves when it comes to off-the-field personnel. I thought McClure was an excellent pitching coach at first – I raved about him here – and with reason: he turned Gil Meche from an underachiever into a legitimate #2 starter overnight. He presided over Soria’s immediate success as a Rule 5 pick, and was there when Brian Bannister had a shockingly good rookie season, and helped nurture Zack Greinke back a career in limbo into an excellent middle reliever, then to a solid starting pitcher, and then into a Cy Young winner.

But in the second half of his tenure, the failures outweighed the successes. Kyle Davies has the highest ERA in major league history of any pitcher with 120+ starts. Luke Hochevar had the best half-season of his career, with a 3.52 ERA in 12 starts after the Break, but 1) it’s still not clear if the improvement was real and 2) even if it was, it should have happened a long time ago. Apparently, the main reason for Hochevar’s improvement was that he – wait for it – started pitching inside more. It only took until his fifth major league season to figure that out? And remember when Hochevar was tipping his pitches and everyone knew but the Royals?

Sean O’Sullivan and Vinny Mazzaro came in with low expectations and failed to even reach those. Danny Duffy has excellent stuff, and as a rookie had a 5.64 ERA. Tim Collins couldn’t throw strikes. There were certainly some successes in there – Greg Holland was a revelation that no one saw coming, and Felipe Paulino was a revelation that a few did see coming. But the end result was that the Royals finished 12th in the league in runs allowed, the third straight year they finished in the AL’s bottom three.

And I haven’t even brought up his complicity in destroying Gil Meche’s arm. Trey Hillman got most of the blame, but when the manager is hell-bent on destroying one of his pitchers, it’s the job of the pitching coach to talk him out of it. There was more than enough blame to go around on that one.

Last season, I argued here that it was about time the Royals replace him, but I thought they could justify another season. They brought him back, and the results were again disappointing; the Royals ranked dead last in the league in walks allowed. And…they canned him. Maybe it was the obvious move, but the mark of a losing organization – which is to say, the mark of the Royals for so long – is one that refuses to use common sense as a weapon. Dayton Moore finally opened his holster, because after six seasons – the longest tenure by any Royals’ pitching coach since at least the 1980s, if not ever – McClure was let go.

Ned Yost has made it clear that the Royals intend to go outside the organization for his replacement, which I think is a fine idea. There’s certainly a risk the Royals bring in someone who screws things up even worse. But having seen what a true difference-maker (Kevin Seitzer) can do on the hitting side of things, I am optimistic that the right pitching coach could be almost as important to the 2012 Royals as a new starting pitcher.

Speaking of which, here’s how next year’s rotation should shape up:

The Solutions

Luke Hochevar is, four seasons into his major-league career, an enigma. Even in 2011, when he had the best ERA (4.68) of his career, after adjusting for the league-wide decline in offense, his ERA+ of 87 was exactly the same as in 2010. And 87 ain’t that good. But after the All-Star Break, he had that 3.52 ERA and opponents batted .222/.283/.364 against him. His slider, in particular, became a real out-pitch for him in the second half. I’m not expecting miracles from him, but I am expecting that he’ll pitch well enough in 2012 to keep his job. Anything more than that is gravy.

If you don’t know how I feel about Felipe Paulino, you must be new here. After joining the Royals as a waiver claim on May 25th, Paulino fashioned a 4.11 ERA, corresponding to an ERA+ of 100, meaning Paulino was exactly a league-average pitcher. More importantly, his peripherals were very good – he struck out 119 batters in 125 innings, and allowed just 10 homers. (Of the 185 pitchers in Royals history who have thrown 120 innings in a season, Paulino’s strikeout rate of 8.59 per 9 innings ranks fifth all-time.) Paulino’s control still needs some work – he walked 48 batters, or 3.5 per 9 innings – but he cut his walk rate by about 10% after joining the Royals, and if he can cut it another 10%, there’s every reason to think he can be an above-average starter for the next three years.

The Question Mark

Danny Duffy was the first of the Royals’ top starting pitching prospects to arrive, and he showed glimpses of greatness. He also showed that he wasn’t ready yet; he walked 51 batters in 105 innings, surrendered 15 homers, and had a 5.64 ERA. He’s only 22, and in the long-term I’m optimistic he’ll be one of the better lefties in the league. But going into 2012, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that he might need to earn his job in spring training. If he shows improved command and pitches well, great. If not, there’s nothing wrong with sending him back to Omaha to start the season.

The In-House Options

Luis Mendoza led the Pacific Coast League with a 2.18 ERA, and the next-best mark in the league was 3.40. That’s a hell of an accomplishment, but that sentence is pretty much the entire argument for Mendoza. His 2.18 ERA was deceptive in several ways. For one, nearly a third (17 of 52) of the runs he allowed this season were unearned, and all the evidence shows that pitchers are nearly as responsible for “unearned” runs as they are “earned” runs. His RA was 3.24, which isn’t nearly as impressive.

More importantly, though, his league-leading performance came with a heaping dose of good luck. In 144 innings for the Storm Chasers, Mendoza struck out just 81 batters – 5.1 per 9 innings, which would be a terrible rate even at the major-league level – and walked 54. His success was the result of allowing a .268 average on balls in play, which is the result of a heaping dose of good luck, and the fact that he somehow allowed just five home runs all season. If Mendoza were an extreme groundball pitcher that might be sustainable, but he’s not.

Mendoza’s success has gotten attention in part because it has come after he radically overhauled his delivery in spring training. But unless his new delivery involves manually inserting a horseshoe up his ass on every pitch, I don’t see how it’s helping. This season, Mendoza walked 3.1 batters (unintentionally) per 9 innings, and struck out 5.1 per 9. Between 2009 and 2010 combined, in 243 minor league innings, Mendoza walked 3.0 batters per 9 and struck out 5.1 per 9. He was the exact same pitcher this year – just with an insane amount of BABIP and HR/FB luck.

Of course, he then came up in September and pitched brilliantly in two starts, winning both and allowing three runs in 15 innings. Even so, he walked five and struck out seven. I know the Royals are chasing the ghost of Philip Humber, who was with the Royals in 2010, was let go after the season – a decision no one questioned at the time – and after landing with the White Sox had one of the most surprising breakouts of the season. (In 163 innings, he had a 3.75 ERA; batters hit .243/.294/.357 against him.)

But Humber was much more impressive in Omaha last season than Mendoza was this year; he struck out four times as many batters as he walked, whereas Mendoza’s K/BB ratio this year was just 1.5. And more importantly, the reason for his success in Chicago was that pitching coach Don Cooper, the guru of the cut fastball, taught Humber a version of the pitch that worked wonders for him. Humber’s success tells us little about what to expect from Mendoza going forward. I think it’s fine for the Royals to keep Mendoza on the 40-man roster, and give him a shot at the rotation in spring training along with everyone else. I’m not rooting for him to fail. But I’m not expecting him to succeed either.

The more interesting in-house option, to me, is Everett Teaford. Teaford is the forgotten pitcher in the organization, largely because he was a non-prospect until the middle of 2010, when a change to his delivery had immediate effects – his fastball went from 87 to 92, and his strikeout rate jumped from 5.6 per 9 innings in 2009 to 10.2 per 9 innings in 2010.

Teaford is also overlooked because he bounced back and forth between Omaha and Kansas City all season. But his performance in both cities was quietly very good. In Omaha, he allowed just 23 hits and 11 walks in 35 innings while striking out 33; for the Royals, he allowed 36 hits and 14 walks in 44 innings while striking out 28.

The concern with him is the home run ball – he allowed five in Omaha and eight in Kansas City. But whereas Mendoza’s home run rate was unsustainably low, Teaford’s was unsustainably high. In Omaha this season, Mendoza and Teaford had virtually identical groundball rates – yet Teaford gave up as many home runs in 35 innings as Mendoza did in 144. At the major league level, according to Fangraphs, Teaford’s had a 44.6% groundball rate, which is around league average. His problem was that 19.5% of the flyballs he allowed cleared the fence; the league average is about half that. I don’t think his home run problem is a chronic one, which is why I’m more optimistic about his future than Mendoza’s.

If nothing else, Teaford can be a serviceable lefty in the pen. He maintained his velocity spike this year – his average fastball in the majors was 91.7 mph, which is above-average for a southpaw. I think Teaford should be given an opportunity to win a rotation spot in spring training, and if he doesn’t, I think he would make the perfect swingman, the guy who can come out of the bullpen to make a spot start during the season and give you five solid innings on short notice.

The Free Agent-To-Be

After waiting for the bubble to burst for two straight seasons, it might be time to take Bruce Chen seriously. Since re-joining the Royals in 2010, Chen has thrown 295 innings with a 3.96 ERA.

On the other hand, maybe it’s a fluke. Chen’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .279 in 2010, and .280 this season. The major league average is usually around .300. It’s possible Chen has just been lucky two years in a row.

But on further reflection…maybe this is just who Chen is. Chen’s career BABIP is .282, over a career spanning 13 seasons and 1165 innings, and he pitched many of those innings in years when offense (and BABIPs) were higher than they were this year. While pitchers have little control over BABIP, Chen is unusual in that he is an extreme flyball pitcher. Flyballs – at least the ones that don’t clear the fence – are more likely to be turned into outs than groundballs. Chen’s BABIP is low, but it might actually be sustainable.

The fluky part of Chen’s performance isn’t the number of hits allowed, it’s the number of home runs. Over the last two years, he’s allowed 35 homers in 295 innings, which isn’t good but is tolerable. Prior to 2010, he had allowed 166 homers in 869 innings, nearly one every five innings, a rate that no pitcher can survive.

Part of Chen’s improvement can be chalked up to Kauffman Stadium; he’s allowed about 30% fewer home runs per inning at home than on the road the last two years. But his history in this regard still has to give you pause.

Overall, I don’t know what to think. Chen is succeeding even as his fastball continues to lose velocity; he averaged 86.0 mph on his fastball the last two years, down from 87-88 a few years ago. It’s possible that he’s simply the new Jamie Moyer, and he can continue to baffle hitters with off-speed stuff for another decade. (Of note, Fangraphs has him throwing twice as many sliders the last two years as he did before, and the velocity of his slider has gone up even as his fastball velocity has gone down. This leads me to believe that a lot of these “sliders” are actually cut fastballs. Could that be a reason for his success?)

Should the Royals re-sign him? I guess it depends. Chen will be a Type B free agent this winter, so if he signs elsewhere the Royals get a supplemental first-round draft pick, which you have to put on the scale when you’re weighing the decision. If he’s willing to sign for one year, or for two years at a bargain salary (say, no more than $5 million guaranteed for both years combined), I’d bring him back and hope he can continue to work his magic. Otherwise, I’d wish him well.

The Mistakes

Sean O’Sullivan and Vinny Mazzaro. Moving on…

The Minors

Look, if Mike Montgomery had the season that everyone expected him to, we might not be having this conversation. Montgomery, not Duffy, was supposed to be the first starter called up from Omaha, and was supposed to be in Kansas City no later than August. Instead, he didn’t even merit a September call-up.

Long-term, I don’t think Montgomery’s prospect status has been damaged irreparably. His problems remind me of Aaron Crow’s problems in 2010 – he simply didn’t throw enough strikes, which made it difficult for him to put batters away with his off-speed stuff. Montgomery walked 69 batters in 151 innings, and until he gets his walk rate down he won’t be ready for the majors. He showed progress in this regard as the season progressed; he walked just 20 batters in 60 innings after the All-Star Break.

It’s also worth noting that on the road – and road games in the PCL involve a lot of high-altitude ballparks in places like Colorado Springs and Albuquerque and Reno – Montgomery had a 7.34 ERA. At home in Omaha, he had a 4.06 ERA. I think that Montgomery is still on the short list of players you’d consider for the #1 prospect ranking in the Royals’ system (granted, that’s a reflection of the depletion of the system). And I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility that he blows everyone away in March and wins the #5 starter’s role. But realistically, he needs a return engagment to Omaha.

Behind Montgomery, the options are few. Chris Dwyer finished the season on a roll – in his last nine starts in Northwest Arkansas, he had a 3.54 ERA and only walked 19 batters in 56 innings. But his season was such a disaster up to that point that he still finished with a 5.60 ERA. If Jake Odorizzi adds even a tick to his fastball over the winter – and the organization thinks he can – he could move very quickly through the high minors and be in Kansas City by July. But expecting a pitcher who had a 4.72 ERA in Double-A to break camp with the team the following season is unrealistic.

If you want a real under-the-radar sleeper out of the organization, here’s one: Kelvin Herrera. Herrera was the team’s breakout pitching prospect this season – as a reliever. He zipped through three levels, and in 68 innings had a 1.60 ERA, with 42 hits, 15 walks, and 70 strikeouts, earning a September call-up. The thing with Herrera is that he wasn’t moved to the bullpen because he wasn’t effective as a starter, but because he wasn’t healthy as a starter – assorted elbow woes limited him to just nine games in 2009 and 2010 combined. Moving him back to the rotation would be a risk, but the Royals don’t need him in the bullpen, and he has the talent to be an impact pitcher in the rotation.

Speaking of which…

The Bullpen

I know a lot of fans would like to see what Greg Holland could do in the rotation, simply because 1) he was so awesome this year and 2) the Royals can replace him in the bullpen fairly easily. And he does have a four-pitch mix, although he throws his curveball and splitter only about 5% of the time each. I’m curious to see what he could do myself. But realistically, we’re talking about a pitcher who has never started a game in the majors or in the minors. I’d like to see the Royals at least experiment with the idea in spring training, but I’m not holding my breath.

The more likely candidate, of course, is Aaron Crow, who was starting – and failing – in the minors last season. Crow is mostly a fastball/slider guy, but did throw his curveball 6.5% of the time this season. (He apparently has a changeup, which he threw twice all year.) The Royals are planning to try him in the rotation next spring, and I think it’s a worthwhile gamble. But I’ll admit to not being optimistic about the idea.

For one, Crow was miserable as a starter in the minors in 2010, which is why he was moved to the bullpen this spring in the first place. And then there is the general scouting impression that his mechanics, which are not ideal, would not hold up to throwing 100 pitches at a time, causing him to lose the strike zone and fall behind all the time. This was his problem last season – he was 2-0 and 3-1 all the time, and you can’t use your wipeout slider when the batter doesn’t have to defend the strike zone.

And then, of course, there’s the trifling matter that after his All-Star selection this season, Crow kind of fell apart. He only threw 19 innings after the Break, and allowed 25 hits and 11 walks amidst concerns that his shoulder was acting up. Maybe his shoulder problems were the result of his new role, and being asked to pitch three or four times a week – in which case going back to the rotation may even help keep him healthy. But there are enough red flags here that the odds of a successful return to the rotation have to be less than 50/50.

I think the Royals should give Crow the opportunity to start, and if he’s successful, party everyone! But I think the Royals have to work this off-season with the assumption that none of the pitchers listed above – not Crow or Mendoza or Teaford or anyone else – can be relied on to be a part of their Opening Day rotation. That means they need to look outside the organization for help.

In my next column, I’ll look at the free agent pool, and see if there are any names out there that fit what the Royals need. Be forewarned: the pickings are slim.