Wednesday, October 26, 2011

For Want Of A Pitcher, Part 3.

Busy with work, busy with family, busy writing for Grantland, blah blah blah. You don’t want to hear the excuses. Anyway, the World Series will be over shortly, and Dayton Moore’s track record suggests that he might not wait long after that to make a big move, so let’s get a move on here.

While there are a finite number of free agent pitchers available, the list of pitchers who could be acquired in a trade is endless – any pitcher is available for the right price. I am going to focus on the 30 or 40 most likely trade targets, and if I miss someone, so be it. The way I see it, there are four types of starting pitchers the Royals could go after:

1) Veteran starters who are still effective, but who are overpaid on their current contracts, and therefore might be acquired for little to no value in terms of prospects.

2) Starting pitchers who are on teams that are clearly rebuilding, and should presumably be available if a competitive offer is made.

3) Starting pitchers on those rare teams that have more starters than they need – I’m thinking primarily teams like Atlanta, Tampa Bay, maybe Oakland. In theory, these teams would consider trading anyone in their rotation, but precisely because they can field offers on all their starters, they have the leverage to wait on the right offer before pulling the trigger.

4) Elite, superstar pitchers who might nonetheless be available because their current team is going through a state of flux. (Sort of the Zack Greinke trade in reverse.) These pitchers would require a massive haul of prospects in return, but would also change the face of the franchise overnight.

I’ll start with the first group of pitchers, the overpaid-but-still-valuable group. I’ve said this before, but the Royals are better positioned to add talent than many people realize, because they have the two most valuable commodities in the game: prospects and payroll space. They had the lowest payroll in the game this past season at around $35 million, and even factoring in scheduled raises for guys like Billy Butler and Joakim Soria and Jeff Francoeur, and arbitration-induced raises for guys like Alex Gordon and Luke Hochevar, the current Royals roster is unlikely to cost the team more than about $50 million in 2012.

We know the Glass family can afford a payroll of at least $75 million – the team had a payroll of $76 million in 2010 and $74 million in 2009. This gap affords the Royals the option of substituting payroll space in lieu of prospects, and gives them the opportunity to add a starting pitcher simply by electing to take on a bad contract.

A bad contract such as…

Pitcher: A.J. Burnett, NYY
Contract Status: Signed for 2 years, $33 million
Likely cost (in terms of prospects): Low to moderate

Don’t laugh. A.J. Burnett is one of the most exasperating starters in baseball, but “exasperating” is not a synonym for “terrible”. He still has excellent stuff; he wouldn’t be exasperating otherwise. His problem is obviously his command; in 2010 he led the league with 19 hit batsmen, and this year he threw 25 wild pitches, the third-highest total by any pitcher in the live-ball era. Not surprisingly, he had ERAs of 5.26 and 5.15.

But Burnett has always had command problems, and that didn’t keep him from being effective in the past; from 2004 to 2009 he never had an ERA higher than 4.07. (His xFIP this year, for what it’s worth, was 3.86.) And after struggling to stay healthy at the start of his career, Burnett has averaged 33 starts a season over the last four years. His ERA the last two seasons is probably not indicative of his ability. Last year his walk rate (3.9 per 9 innings) and strikeout rate (8.2 per 9) were exactly at his career norms. He’s a reasonable bet to bounce back with 200 league-average innings next year. And reuniting him with new pitching coach Dave Eiland*, who Burnett was particularly complimentary of during Eiland’s time as the Yankees’ pitching coach, may help.

*: It’s very hard to evaluate a pitching coach from afar, so this may mean nothing. But as a pitcher, Eiland had – in his own words – “south of mediocre” stuff, but somehow pitched 10 years in the majors because of excellent control. He only struck out 3.7 batters per 9 innings, which is beyond awful, but walked just 2.8 batters per 9, and in the minor leagues – where Eiland won 109 games – he walked just 1.7 per 9.

The Royals’ intentions here are pretty obvious: their primary focus with the pitching staff is to throw more strikes. The Royals had already hired Rick Knapp to be their new minor-league pitching coordinator, reprising a role Knapp had for years with the Minnesota Twins. Until they collapsed this season, the Twins were the premier organization in baseball at throwing strikes – the Twins finished in the top three in the AL in walks allowed EVERY YEAR FROM 1996 TO 2010, and finished first 8 times. Eiland’s impact during his three years as the Yankees’ pitching coach isn’t that clear – the Yankees went from 12th to 6th in the league in walks allowed in his first season, but then backslid to 11th and 9th the next two years. I have no idea whether Eiland will be successful in getting the Royals to walk fewer batters, but I have no doubt that he’s been given a mandate to emphasize that above all.

While Burnett may give the Royals a durable #3 starter, his main appeal is simply that the Yankees seem sufficiently disgusted by his performance the last two years that they might be willing to send him to Kansas City for a token prospect, and likely would be willing to pick up a portion of his contract. The problem is that if C.C. Sabathia opts out of his contract, as he is expected to do, then until he re-signs with the Yankees (as everyone expects him to), the Yankees will have so little pitching depth that Burnett’s 200 innings – even if they’re 200 crappy innings – will be hard to part with. Also, Burnett has a limited no-trade clause, and when it comes to no-trade clauses, it’s best to assume until told otherwise that Kansas City is on the list.

If Burnett is available for little more than the willingness to assume most of his contract – say, the Royals pick up two-thirds of his contract, meaning they’d owe him $22 million over 2 years – I’d give him some consideration. There’s definitely some upside here. But there’s also a ton of risk, and for the money he’s owed, I think a fit is unlikely.

Pitcher: Bronson Arroyo, CIN
Contract Status: Signed for 2 years at $13.5 million, plus up to $15 million in deferred money
Likely cost: Low

Like Burnett, Arroyo had a lousy 2011 (5.07 ERA), but while Burnett’s problems stem from his lack of command, Arroyo’s undoing was the long ball – he surrendered 46 homers this season, tied for the third-highest total in major-league history.

Prior to 2011, Arroyo had been a league-average innings eater at the very least; from 2004 to 2010 he had a 4.06 ERA, and he has made at least 32 starts in each of the last seven seasons. His strikeout rate has crept down – he whiffed just 4.9 batters per 9 innings this year – but so have his walks (he had a career-best rate of just 2.0 walks per 9). His home park does him no favors; he gave up 27 of those 46 homers at home, although he actually had a slightly better ERA in Cincinnati than on the road.

A pitcher whose main problem is the gopher ball would benefit more than most pitchers from a move to Kauffman Stadium. The concerns here are that Arroyo has been in the NL for the past 6 years, and adding a league switch to his declining strikeout rate may be toxic. Also, his contract situation is complicated by the fact that the $15 million in deferred money in his contract is payable immediately in the event of a trade.

While the Reds are nominally a contender, they would appear to be in good position to give up Arroyo for little more than salary relief, as they have Mike Leake, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Edinson Volquez and Travis Wood slated for their rotation. Arroyo is probably a little less risky than Burnett, but then his upside is that of a league-average innings eater. If the Reds picked up half his contract and settled for a Grade C prospect, I’d pick up the phone. But I’m not exactly eager to do business.

Pitcher: Ryan Dempster, CHC
Contract Status: Signed for 1 year at $14 million
Likely cost: Moderate

Now this is a little more interesting. Dempster has pitched a little better than Burnett and Arroyo, both in 2011 and in previous seasons. Dempster’s ERA was a disappointing 4.80 this season, nearly a point higher than his 3.85 mark in 2010, but that is probably a fluke. His HR rate (1.0 per 9) and BB rate (3.6 per 9) were identical both years, and his strikeout rate dropped from 8.7 per 9 all the way to…8.5 per 9.

Dempster’s xFIP – which, again, is a measurement of what his ERA “should” have been given average luck and defense – has been almost eerily consistent since returning to the starting rotation in 2008. Working backwards over the last four years, they read: 3.70, 3.74, 3.76, and 3.69. That’s the mark of an above-average starting pitcher, a good #3 stretching to be a #2. Like Burnett and Arroyo, he’s made exactly 132 starts over the last four years – an average of 33 per season. Like Burnett and Arroyo, he’ll be 35 next season.

He’s also only signed for one more season instead of two, limiting the financial risk. I think he’s clearly a more desirable pitcher than the other two, but unlike Arroyo and Dempster the Royals are unlikely to get any salary relief with Dempster, and they’ll probably have to give up a real prospect, maybe someone towards the bottom of their Top 10 in order to get him. Also, as a 10-and-5 player Dempster has a full no-trade clause, so he’d have to be enticed to come to Kansas City one way or the other.

Theo Epstein is now in charge in Chicago, which changes the dynamic further. (As an aside: this is why I’ve been arguing for years that the Royals were right to turn down the opportunity to move to the NL years ago. The sleeping giant has awoken. Of the 11 baseball teams that play in a Central division, the Cubs have – by far – the greatest natural resources of the 11. The Cardinals are probably second. The Astros – who, granted, are probably going to be in the AL West by 2013 – might well be third. The AL Central will almost certainly be the easier of the two divisions to compete in over the next 5-10 years, and I’m happy that’s where the Royals happen to be.)

But Dayton Moore has had no problem trading with Epstein in the past – the Mike Aviles trade seems to have been a fair deal for both sides. While Epstein is no doubt gearing the Cubs to be a contender in the near future, he’s probably going to write off 2012, so Dempster has little value for him other than what he can bring in terms of prospects. Dempster isn’t the sexiest name in the world, but he fits what the Royals are looking for – a durable veteran pitcher who can slot in at the top of the Royals rotation, whose contract status fits in with the team’s payroll restrictions, and who can be acquired without emptying the farm system. I’ve never once heard his name connected to the Royals, but I’d keep his name in mind, because a trade makes sense for both sides.

Pitcher: Carlos Zambrano, CHC
Contract Status: Signed for 1 year at $18 million
Likely cost: Low

Speaking of interesting…those of you who have heard me on the radio have probably heard me mention Zambrano’s name for months, as a guy who is clearly overpaid, but just as clearly would improve the Royals’ rotation. Zambrano gets so much publicity for his off-the-field issues – none of which are deal-breakers – that it’s easy to miss just how effective he’s been on the field: prior to 2011, he had never posted an ERA above 4.

Of course, in 2011 he had a 4.82 ERA. Like Dempster, he was the victim of bad luck; his xFIPs the last four years read 4.34, 4.27, 4.22, and 4.40. And he’ll only be 31 next year. But you have to wonder if he’s starting to break down. Remember, he was part of the Cubs’ 2003 rotation, the only man left standing after Dusty Baker blew out Mark Prior and forced Kerry Wood to find succor in the bullpen. Zambrano was worked very hard in his early 20s, and the effects are showing. According to Fangraphs, he’s lost nearly 3 mph on his fastball over the years, averaging 92.9 mph in 2004 and just 90.2 mph last year. He used to be one of the game’s best groundball pitchers; his groundball rate was at least 50% every year from 2002 to 2005. Last year, his GB rate was 42.4%, slightly below league-average.

So even if Zambrano behaves himself, there’s a risk that the Royals might be trading for a lemon. On the other hand, precisely because of his well-publicized battles with the Cubs, the team is so desperate to get rid of him that they’ll likely pick up a big chunk of his salary – perhaps half – and ask for little in return. The rumors are that Zambrano will wind up with the Marlins, teaming up with his countryman Ozzie Guillen. But the Royals are well-poised to make a better offer, either by offering an actual prospect or being willing to pick up more of his contact. The smaller media footprint in KC might keep him from getting distracted. The Royals might be afraid to bring in a polarizing clubhouse guy after their problems with Jose Guillen, but given that it’s a contract year* for Zambrano, he has plenty of incentive to stay focused and positive.

*: Zambrano has a player option for $19.5 million for 2013, but it only vests if he finishes in the Top 4 in the Cy Young vote next season. That’s a tradeoff I’ll happily take.

Pitcher: Wandy Rodriguez, HOU
Contract Status: $10 million for 2012, $13 million for 2013, $13 million option for 2014 with $2.5 million buyout
Likely cost: Moderate

I debated whether to lump Rodriguez in this group; he’s not massively overpaid, and his availability stems from the fact that the Astros are a Superfund site and need to start over. But his contract is hardly a bargain for a pitcher without overwhelming stuff, depressing his market to the point where the Royals absolutely should be players.

Rodriguez is a late-bloomer who didn’t reach the majors until he was 26 and struggled to stay in the majors until he mastered his curveball when he was 29. He’s been a consistently slightly above-average starter for the past four years, ERAs ranging from 3.02 to 3.60, xFIPs ranging from 3.55 to 3.72. He’s been essentially healthy for three years straight.

Like any career NL pitcher, I’d be a little leery of him switching leagues, particularly since he isn’t a power pitcher – his fastball averages around 89. On the other hand, he’s spent his entire career calling Minute Maid Park home. Despite pitching in one of the better hitters’ parks in the game – particularly for right-handed power – Rodriguez has been consistently outstanding at his home park: he has a career 3.44 ERA at home, compared to 4.76 on the road. I’m not sure how he’ll translate to Kauffman Stadium.

The Astros aren’t going to pick up any of his contract, but his contract isn’t so onerous that the Royals would need them to. More of an issue is that he’ll cost the Royals some real prospects, probably a low Top 10 guy and a prospect in the 11-20 range. For a starter who, while he provides consistency and security in the rotation, isn’t an impact guy, the Royals might balk at the price.

Rodriguez strikes me as an excellent Plan B. If the Royals’ primary targets this winter prove unattainable, Rodriguez is a worthy fallback option who is clearly on the market and whose price tag won’t cause sticker shock. But I wouldn’t suggest – and I wouldn’t expect – that Rodriguez is at the top of the Royals’ shopping list.

Pitcher: Ted Lilly
Contract Status: $10.5 million in 2012, $12 million in 2013, with $1.5 million in signing bonus owed in both 2012 and 2013
Likely cost (in terms of prospects): Low to moderate

Lilly, like Rodriguez, has been a consistently above-average left-hander for the last few years. Over the last five years he’s averaged almost 32 starts a season with a 3.74 ERA, and his xFIPs have been in a narrow band from 3.90 to 4.16 all five years. He’s a very flyball-oriented pitcher, with a career groundball rate around 34%. Not surprisingly, he gives up a lot of homers – he’s averaged more than one homer every seven innings over the last five years.

But he has terrific control and racks up strikeouts by changing speeds well. Over the last 5 years his strikeout-to-walk ratio is 3.6, which is outstanding; this despite a fastball that averages 87-88. Think of him as Bruce Chen with a little more oomph.

I’d be a little concerned that Lilly has spent each of the last five years in the NL. On the other hand, he pitched for exclusively AL teams from 2002 to 2006 and had an above-average ERA, with only one bad season (2005 with Toronto) on his resume. He’ll be 36 next season, so there’s some risk here. He also has a no-trade clause, but you have to figure the opportunity to get out of the circus surrounding the Dodgers would make him amenable to a deal.

The Dodgers’ financial situation is what makes Lilly interesting; as long as Frank McCourt still has legal ownership of the club, the franchise is in dire straits financially. For that reason, I suspect that Lilly’s price tag is probably a fair amount lower than Rodriguez’s – getting out from under an eight-figure obligation the next two years should appeal to the Dodgers enough that the Royals wouldn’t have to surrender much in the way of talent.

So of the six pitchers I’ve mentioned, here’s how I’d rank them in terms of desirability:

1) Ryan Dempster
2t) Ted Lilly
2t) Wandy Rodriguez
2t) Carlos Zambrano
5) A.J. Burnett
6) Bronson Arroyo

With the exception of Dempster, all these pitchers come with the risk that they could lose their stuff overnight. But then, they’re priced accordingly. If the Royals want a short-term solution for their rotation without giving up any of their most-coveted prospects, they have options.

I also want to make mention of Roy Oswalt, whose option was declined by the Phillies. I’m a big Oswalt fan, and even though he had the worst year of his career in 2011, I don’t understand why the Phillies weren’t willing to commit to him for one more year at $14 million. I guess the Phillies think they can re-sign him for less, and they might be right. But I think this is an opportunity for the Royals to steal a potential ace on the free-agent market.

In the worst season of his career, Oswalt had a 3.69 ERA in 139 innings – he missed time with back trouble – and was worth 1.7 WAR. His strikeout rate dipped to a career-low 6.0 per 9 innings, but he was as stingy with walks (2.1 per 9) and homers (just 10 allowed all season) as ever. He’s 34 now, past his peak but far from the twilight of his career. We’re talking about a pitcher who, just one year ago, had a 2.76 ERA and led the NL in WHIP. Oswalt is about three more good seasons away from being taken seriously as a Hall of Fame candidate.

According to Baseball-Reference, the pitcher with the most similar career to Oswalt through age 33 is…Roy Halladay. Among his other Top 10 comparables is Hall of Famer Jim Bunning and a bunch of guys who might get elected in a few years – Mike Mussina, John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Kevin Brown, and David Cone. Also, Bret Saberhagen.

Oswalt has at times shown an ambivalence about continuing his career, suggesting that he might want to retire early and head back to his farm in Mississippi. But he doesn’t appear ready to retire just yet. I’d love to see the Royals aggressively offer him a two or even three-year deal. In Part 2 of this series, I looked at the best free agent pitchers on the market. I’d slot Oswalt in right next to Javier Vazquez, behind only Edwin Jackson, on my list of desirables.

I’ll look at more trade options as soon as my schedule allows.


As professions (or even hobbies) go, blogging is a rather recent innovation. Rob Neyer and I started blogging about the Royals in 1998, before the word “blog” formally existed. There are few people who have been blogging about sports for that long.

One of those who has is Mac Thomason, who founded Braves Journal in 1998, and has been an integral and well-liked member of the online sportswriting community ever since. Mac, unfortunately, was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, and after waging a valiant battle against it, the cancer has come out of remission with a vengeance. Mac isn’t giving up hope, and I don’t want to sound like I’m giving up hope for him, but…he’s dying.

Cancer is a nasty, rotten, no-good disease, and I pray to God that we find a cure for it someday soon. In the meantime, if you can spare a moment to pray for Mac, I’m sure he’d appreciate it.