Tuesday, November 8, 2011

For Want Of A Pitcher: Jonathan Sanchez.

Naturally. After five articles and nearly 23,000 words to discuss dozens of pitchers that the Royals might acquire this off-season, Dayton Moore goes out and trades for a guy I didn’t mention even once.

It’s not that Jonathan Sanchez was completely off the radar screen. In my last section, when I discussed teams with an excess of pitching, the Giants were the next team on my list. I decided to draw the line in front of them because any team that’s relying on Barry Zito in their rotation can’t, by definition, be assumed to have “too much pitching”. But in retrospect, I should have made an allowance for the fact that Brian Sabean is the GM in San Francisco.

Anyway, over the weekend it became public news that the Giants were willing to trade Sanchez, and I expected to spend today writing an addendum article talking about what the Royals should be willing to give up to trade for him. Instead I get to kill two birds with one stone.

If you don’t follow me on Twitter and don't know my reaction to the trade, I’ll spare you the suspense: I like it a lot. It’s not a rip-off, and I can see this trade working out for the Giants as well, but I like it for the Royals both in the sense that I think it improves the team in 2012, and I like what the trade says about the big picture.

Let’s start with who Sanchez is – a left-hander who misses bats and the strike zone with equal regularity. This season, he struck out 102 batters in 101 innings, the third straight season he has recorded more strikeouts than innings pitched. For his career, he has 9.4 Ks per 9 innings. Over the last four seasons, only Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw have a higher strikeout rate among starting pitchers than Sanchez. That’s good.

In 2010, which was Sanchez’s best season, he led the NL in walks with 96 allowed in 193 innings. This season, his walk rate increased significantly; after walking 4.5 batters per 9 in 2010, he walked 66 batters in 101 innings, or 5.9 per 9, in 2011. That’s bad.

When Sanchez is good, he can be very, very good. In 2010 2009, he threw a no-hitter – the first no-hitter by a Giants pitcher in 35 years – in which he didn’t walk a batter (an error kept the game from being perfect) and struck out 11. In his last seven starts in 2010, with the Giants trying to catch the Padres for the NL West crown, he allowed just 23 hits in 44 innings with a 1.03 ERA, capped off with five shutout innings to beat San Diego on the season’s final day; he then threw 7.1 brilliant innings, allowing just two hits and one walk while striking out 11, in his first playoff start against Atlanta.

When he’s bad, he walks the ballpark. Eight times in the last three years, Sanchez has walked 6 or more batters in a game. No other pitcher in baseball has more than five such starts in the last three years. And the last three years are the best three years of Sanchez’s career.

He’s a boom or bust guy, as much as any starter in the game right now. When you average out the booms and busts, though, what you’re left with is…an average pitcher. Sanchez has a 4.26 career ERA (3% worse than league average), but over the past three seasons his ERA is 3.75 (6% better than average). Dayton Moore described him yesterday as “a #3 starter on a championship club”, and I think that’s a fair assessment, if not slightly generous. He’s a league-average starting pitcher.

But for a league-average guy, he certainly has an unusual amount of upside. Yes, he turns 29 in a few weeks, and you don’t normally expect pitchers in their late 20s to suddenly break out…unless they have elite strikeout rates. The flip side is that a starter with command problems as severe as Sanchez’s has the potential to lose the strike zone completely and wash out of the majors.

Put it this way: as Dan McLaughlin noted, Sanchez is just the third starter in history to have more than strikeout per inning in his career through the age of 28, and yet have an ERA no more than 10% above average. The other two starters were also left-handers with massive control issues. One of them was Oliver Perez. The other was Randy Johnson.

That’s the kind of range Sanchez has going forward. If he suddenly learns how to cut his walks in half, he could become a Cy Young contender overnight. If he loses even a little of his stuff and is forced to nibble even more, he could lose his rotation spot by June. There’s certainly some risk to this trade. But with risk comes upside.

Sanchez dealt with some serious injuries for the first time in his career this season. After never going on the DL for more than three weeks before, he missed five weeks in the middle of the season with biceps tendinitis, and then after returning for just three starts, he missed the last six weeks of the season with a severe ankle sprain. The upside is that he should be healthy to start 2012. Also, in the last five starts before he went on the DL for the first time, he walked 25 batters in 26 innings. If you assume he was pitching at less than 100%, and remove that stretch from consideration, his walk rate this year was 4.9 per 9 innings, roughly in line with his previous seasons.

Sanchez will be a free agent at the end of 2012, so this is strictly a one-year rental for now. As such, I’d put his trade value somewhere south of Ryan Dempster/Anibal Sanchez territory, the sort of player the Royals should surrender no more than a Grade B prospect or a pair of Grade C prospects for.

Of course, the Royals didn’t give up a prospect at all. They gave up Melky Cabrera.

The only hitter on the major-league roster I had suggested the Royals might trade for pitching was Billy Butler, as he seemed to be the only player the Royals might part with that would make sense for a team that was rebuilding. And among the contenders that had excess pitching to deal, the only team that needed an outfielder badly was the Braves, who for obvious reasons wouldn’t be interested in trading for Melky a year after they released him. But the Giants are a natural fit, as a team that’s still in contending mode, but a team that, with Carlos Beltran now a free agent, didn’t have a single quality outfielder on their roster. (I consider Brandon Belt to be a first baseman, for what it’s worth.)

I understand this deal from the Giants’ perspective. While it’s absolutely true that they’re buying high and selling low, it’s also true that Cabrera was a lot better in 2011 than Sanchez. Depending on the metrics you use, Sanchez was worth about half a win above replacement this season, while Melky was worth 3 to 4 wins above replacement. If Cabrera and Sanchez come even close to replicating their 2011 seasons, the Giants win.

The Royals are betting that won’t be the case, and I agree with them. Cabrera had a season that was literally twice as good as any previous season, while Sanchez had his worst season since becoming a full-time starter in 2008. A brain-dead-simple way to estimate what a player will do in the upcoming season is to average his performance over the last three years, only you give triple weight to the most recent season, double weight to the season two years ago, and single weight to the season three years prior. By this measure, Cabrera would be expected to be worth about 1.6 WAR in 2012, and Sanchez about 1.4. That’s close enough that we can call it a wash, with the Giants throwing in a prospect to even things out.

If you were starting a team from scratch and were drafting players for 2012, you could make a case for selecting either player first. But the Royals aren’t starting from scratch; they’re starting with a roster that includes a complete lineup, another centerfielder waiting in the wings, and a big hole in their rotation. I’ve talked about this before, but when it comes to the process of building a contender, the Royals have already passed through Phase One: amassing as much talent as possible. They’ve moved on to Phase Two, which is to distribute that talent around the field in the shape of a contender.

It did the Royals no good to have Melky Cabrera, Lorenzo Cain, and three starting pitchers. Now, they have Cain and four starting pitchers. The roster they have today will, in all likelihood, win more games in 2012 than the roster on Sunday would have. And since neither Cabrera nor Sanchez are under contract after 2012, that’s really all that matters, isn’t it?

Whether the second sentence in the last paragraph is a better outcome than the first depends on what you think of The Painkiller. (Yes, I’m sticking with that nickname for LorenzoCaine. No, you can’t make me stop.) After he was stashed in Omaha all season, it was easy to forget that Cain was having an excellent year down there, hitting .312/.380/.497 with 16 homers and 16 steals. That translates to a line of roughly .270/.320/.420 in the major leagues. (That’s approximate – with Clay Davenport having left Baseball Prospectus, I can’t find Major League Equivalencies of minor league stats anywhere online.) Would that line be a downgrade from Cabrera’s performance this year? No question. Will that be a downgrade from Cabrera’s performance if the Royals had kept him next year? If it is, it’s a small one.

Then consider the ancillary advantages. Even while he was having a career year at the plate, Cabrera cost the Royals somewhere around 15 runs defensively relative to an average centerfielder. Cain has a good defensive reputation, so let’s tentatively say he’s worth about 5 runs above average. Swapping in Cain will probably save close to 20 runs on defense – or about as many runs saved by adding Sanchez! The additions of Sanchez and Cain might be worth 35 runs defensively. Even if the offensive downgrade is on the order of 15 runs, that’s a net improvement of 20 runs, or about two wins. That not an insignificant improvement.

And the most obvious point: the Royals did this without giving up a single prospect. (They added one, actually, who we’ll get to later.) The best part of this deal is that it doesn’t preclude the Royals from making another move to bring in another starting pitcher. In fact, I would wager that, when the off-season is over, Sanchez will not be the best starting pitcher the Royals will have acquired.

Sanchez has his warts, and if he’s the best the Royals can do, than they really haven’t upgraded their rotation enough to contend in 2012. But precisely because he’s only under contract for 2012, his acquisition signals to me that Moore is putting together next season’s roster with the idea of contention in mind. He’s not necessarily going all-in for 2012 – he wouldn’t be so reluctant to trade top prospects if he was – but he’s prioritizing short-term solutions for the rotation over long-term ones.

Which is why Sanchez makes perfect sense. Sanchez is cheaper than some of the other options on the market because he’s only under contract for one more year, but from the Royals’ perspective, they only need a starter for 2012. On Opening Day next April, Mike Montgomery will likely be in Triple-A, Jake Odorizzi will be in Double-A, and John Lamb will be on the DL. By Opening Day 2013, all three pitchers might be in the Royals’ rotation. Trading for, say, Jair Jurrjens gives you a pitcher under contract for 2013, but given their internal options, the second year of club control matters a lot less to the Royals than the first.

Then there’s the prospect the Royals got in the deal, Ryan Verdugo, who if you squint really hard kind of looks like a poor man’s Sanchez. He’s left-handed, old for a prospect (he spent all of this season in Double-A at age 24), but has struck out 300 batters in 243 innings in his career. He spent his entire career in the bullpen until the Giants converted him to the rotation this season; despite the more difficult role and the jump to Double-A, he acquitted himself well with 133 strikeouts in 130 innings. Realistically, he profiles as a reliever, and Moore has already made comments that suggest the Royals will move him back into that role.

He’s not an elite prospect by any means, but he gives the Royals another left-handed arm to add to the pile. Should the Royals find themselves in contention in 2012 at the deadline, and should they want to add talent via a trade, they are very well-positioned to throw a couple of arms into a deal without feeling the loss in the slightest.

Also, Verdugo is Spanish for – seriously – “Executioner”. That alone makes him a worthwhile acquisition.

The other added benefit of the trade is that the Francoeur extension makes a lot more sense now. One of my biggest concerns with re-signing Francoeur is that Francoeur seemed to be the obvious odd man out. Gordon is entrenched in left field, and slotting Cain into centerfield was the most obvious way the Royals could upgrade their subpar defense. The solution seemed to be to let Francoeur go and move Cabrera to right field. Keeping Francoeur made it likely that the Royals would either sell low on Cabrera, or worse, trade Cain and live with bad centerfield defense for at least another year.

But in the end, Moore made the right call and kept Cain, while still trading Cabrera for good value. I’m still a little concerned that the lineup leans too far to the right – six of the nine projected hitters in next year’s lineup are right-handed – but if you’re only going to have three lefties in your lineup, you could do a lot worse than Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas.

Sanchez wasn’t the best starting pitcher the Royals could have acquired this winter. But he was one of the best starters the Royals could acquire without either spending free-agent dollars or trading prospects. Sanchez alone isn’t enough, and I consider the Royals’ need for starting pitching to still be unfulfilled. But that’s why I like this trade: the Royals acquired a starting pitcher without surrendering a single asset that could be used to acquire another starter.

Maybe I’m na├»ve, and maybe I’m unrealistically optimistic. (Check that: there’s no “maybe” on the second one.) But I don’t think the Royals are done. It might mean ponying up big dollars for a free-agent starter, or cashing in Wil Myers to trade for an elite one, or playing it safe and taking on a second-tier starter with contract issues – like the recent rumors the Royals might be interested in Carlos Zambrano. But I don’t think Sanchez is the final piece of the rotation puzzle.

If it turns out that he is – if the Royals don’t add another starter between now and spring training – it will be a missed opportunity of sorts. But everything I wrote about the Royals’ starting pitching options over the last month remains valid today. The Royals have the same assets – and the same reasons – to trade for a second starting pitcher that they had for the first. Don’t stop here, Dayton. A 2012 playoff spot is there for the taking.