Sunday, December 4, 2011

For Want Of A Pitcher: Jonathan Broxton?

First off, I need to revise my analysis of the Bruce Chen signing to include a very important point that I somehow overlooked last time. It’s not entirely correct to say that Chen will cost the Royals $9 million (with incentives) over the next two seasons. Chen will, in fact, cost the Royals $9 million PLUS a supplemental first-round pick, the pick that they would have received had he signed with any other team.

This is not a trivial difference. Studies on the value of draft picks have estimated that a supplemental first-round pick is worth approximately $3 million, above and beyond the cost of actually signing that player. For a franchise that has made player scouting and development its central focus since Dayton Moore was hired, and a franchise which has done so well with the draft picks it has had, it’s astonishing how few high draft picks the Royals have had to work with.

By re-signing Chen, the Royals guarantee that they will not receive any extra draft picks next June, which means that in the seven drafts since Moore was hired, the Royals have had exactly ONE extra draft pick, the supplemental first-rounder they received when David Riske, of all people, departed. (Who did the Royals draft with that pick? Mike Montgomery.) Meanwhile, the Royals also forfeited their second-round pick in 2009 for signing Juan Cruz.

Obviously, the Royals value those extra picks, and they have tried to game the system to acquire some extra picks, as when they offered Mark Grudzielanek arbitration after the 2008 season with no intention of signing him. (The gambit failed when no other team signed Grudzielanek to a major-league contract.) But the Royals have had opportunities for extra draft picks in the past. Last winter, they could have declined David DeJesus’ option and offered him arbitration he almost certainly would not have accepted. Instead, they traded him for Vinny Mazzaro and Justin Marks, a pair of pitchers who combined weren’t worth the value of a draft pick.

This winter, they could have let Chen walk, replaced him with a comparable pitcher on the market, and be compensated with a high draft pick for their troubles. They chose not to, and that has to be added to Chen’s price tag. A transaction which might have earned a C grade otherwise is now more like a C- or a D+. Re-signing Chen might turn out to be a missed opportunity in more ways than one.

The Chen signing was predictable, at least, something that can not be said for the Royals’ decision to bring in Jonathan Broxton. At first glance, this seems like a transaction ripped out of the pages of the Dayton Moore 2009 catalog. Sure, let’s guarantee $4 million to a pitcher coming off an elbow injury, to fill a need that the team doesn’t even have.

The Royals’ bullpen ranked 8th in the AL this season with a 3.75 ERA, but to give you an idea of just how bad Mazzaro’s seven-out, 14-earned-run performance was, if you take out that one appearance, the bullpen’s ERA drops to 3.52 – which would have ranked third in the AL, just thousandths of a point behind the Angels for second. They did that with a bullpen that was, almost to a man, remarkably inexperienced and inexpensive. Aside from closer Joakim Soria, and Robinson Tejeda’s seven ineffective innings, every other reliever the Royals used last season was pre-arbitration-eligible. With the exception of Aaron Crow, who got a major-league contract when he signed as a first-round pick, every other reliever made six figures.

By the end of the season, the bullpen looked something like this:

CL Joakim Soria
SU Greg Holland
SU Aaron Crow
RH Louis Coleman
LH Tim Collins
LR Blake Wood
LR Nate Adcock

With occasional guest appearances from the likes of Everett Teaford. And on top of that, they have Kelvin Herrera, who projects as an impact reliever in the late innings and who is essentially ready for a spot in the bullpen now.

After Soria, the Royals reliever with the most service time coming into the 2011 season was Blake Wood, with 145 days. With the exception of Soria, not only was every Royals reliever pre-arbitration eligibility in 2011, they will all be pre-arbitration players in 2012, and only Wood will qualify for arbitration in 2013.

The Royals could comfortably go into 2012 with the six relievers above in front of Soria, and pay them less than $4 million combined. Instead they guaranteed Broxton $4 million by himself. The same Broxton who pitched all of 13 innings last season, and who, since June 27, 2010 – when Joe Torre let Broxton throw 48 pitches while blowing a four-run lead to the Yankees – has this line:

42.1 IP, 53 H, 32 BB, 35 K, 6 HR, 7.02 ERA.

Well, when you put it like that, it looks like a pretty ridiculous move.

There’s a method to the madness, though. From 2006 to 2009, Broxton led the major leagues in strikeouts (398) by a reliever, along with a 2.79 ERA over that span. In 2009 he struck out 114 batters in 76 innings. And before his fortunes took a turn for the worse in 2010, through June 26th that season he was probably the best reliever in baseball. In 33 innings, he had allowed just three earned runs, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 48-to-5. As poorly as Broxton has pitched over the last 18 months, until 18 months ago he was one of the game’s most dominant relievers.

If his struggles could be traced to a shoulder injury, then his previous dominance would have as much relevance today as his SAT scores. But it appears his problems were entirely elbow related, culminating in surgery this September to remove bone spurs and “loose bodies” from his elbow. If that’s all it was, there’s a good chance he’ll be at 100%, or close to it, by March.

For the commitment the Royals have made – one year, $4 million – Broxton’s upside is worth it. The Royals have basically committed about half as much to Broxton, in terms of both time and money, as they did to Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz. A week before the Royals signed Broxton, the Rangers gave Joe Nathan a two-year, $14 million contract. Nathan missed all of 2010 with Tommy John surgery, and his return in 2011 included a 4.84 ERA. Granted, a healthy Nathan was even better than a healthy Broxton (from 2004 to 2009, Nathan had a 1.87 ERA), and from June 28th on he was almost back to his pre-injury form: 28 innings, 20 hits, 5 walks, 28 Ks. But Nathan is also 37 years old, nearly a full decade older than Broxton. The Rangers – who last I checked had a pretty capable front office – gave Nathan a contract that guarantees him more than three times what the Royals guaranteed to Broxton.

And then there’s Heath Bell, who just got three years and $27 million from the Florida Marlins. Yes, Bell is healthy – as far as we know – and was effective in 2011. But you can practically hear him ticking. His strikeout rate in 2011 dropped to 7.3 Ks per 9, the lowest mark of his career. And Bell has benefitted massively from calling Petco Park his home. For his career, his road ERA is more than a run higher (3.61 to 2.56) than his ERA at home. The Marlins have guaranteed Bell nearly seven times as much money as the Royals have guaranteed Broxton.

If you’re looking for a sign that the reliever market is out of control, it’s not Broxton’s contract that you’re going to point at. Broxton might not be the best fit for the Royals’ needs, but at least in the abstract, his contract seems favorable.

With regards to the Royals’ needs, the Broxton signing has some ancillary benefits. Primarily, it means that Aaron Crow will be getting a sustained shot at returning to the rotation.

This isn’t the slam-dunk move it appears to be. Crow was a starter in the minors in 2010, and was awful; he was a reliever in the majors in 2011, and he was an (undeserving, but still) All-Star. He was successful in relief because he could focus on just his fastball and his slider; he still doesn’t have an out-pitch against left-handed hitters. This season, right-handed batters hit just .175/.283/.254 against Crow. Lefties? .311/.381/.538.

Having said that, I think the Royals have to give it a try. Crow was drafted as a starter, he succeeded in college as a starter, he has a starter’s build, and while he was mostly a two-pitch pitcher as a rookie, he did throw the occasional curveball, and he’s thrown a changeup in the past. More to the point, the value you get from a 200-inning starter is so much more than from a 70-inning reliever that you have to take a shot even if the odds are against you.

But if the Royals are serious about making Crow a starter again, they have to expect him to take a step backwards before he starts walking forward. While it would be great if he’s so impressive in spring training that he wins a rotation spot, realistically the Royals have to expect Crow to start the season in Omaha. If everything goes well he might be ready to return by June or July, but the temptation will be there for the Royals to scrap the experiment and recall Crow to shore up the bullpen if they ever blow leads in back-to-back games. If the addition of Broxton gives the Royals’ front office enough confidence in a Crow-less bullpen that they will give him a full audition as a starting pitcher, that alone might justify the millions they’re spending on Broxton.

And then there is the flexibility that Broxton’s addition affords the Royals on the trade market. In a market where teams are willing to guarantee eight figures to second-tier closers, the Royals have a veritable army of quality relievers who won’t be making even seven figures in a season until 2014. If the Royals don’t think the prices for free-agent starting pitchers reasonable, and they think their best way to upgrade in the rotation is via trade, dipping into their pool of relievers may facilitate a deal without having to give up a Wil Myers or a Cheslor Cuthbert.

I was annoyed by the reports that claimed that Broxton was signed to be Soria’s set-up man, because in his entire career Broxton has never had a season as good as the one Greg Holland had this year. (When you factor in the inherited runners – Holland allowed just two of the 33 runners he inherited to score – Holland quietly had one of the greatest relief seasons in Royals history.) But signing Broxton to be the eighth-inning guy makes a lot more sense if Holland is on the move.

The Toronto Blue Jays, at least, appear to be interested in him, giving the Colby Rasmus rumors some legs. But between Holland, Coleman, and even Wood, the Royals are in excellent position to trade a reliever for a more durable asset. Adding Broxton makes it easier for the Royals to give up a reliever, and still give Crow (and possibly Nate Adcock) time in Omaha’s rotation. The winter meetings are getting underway as I write this, so if there’s to be another domino to fall, it might be in the next few days.

Like a lot of Dayton Moore’s moves, the wisdom of signing Broxton depends in large part on whether this is the precursor to other moves. But even if it isn’t, it’s a modest commitment to a pitcher who, when healthy, has always been an excellent reliever. It’s a contract that has a chance to be a bargain for the Royals given the current relief market. If it allows the Royals to leverage their surplus in relievers for other needs, so much the better, but even as a standalone move, it’s a decent little transaction.

The one caveat I have is that if Moore thinks the acquisition of Broxton abdicates his responsibility to sign another starting pitcher, he’s wrong. I would question the decision to give $4 million to a reliever when that’s money that could have gone to a starting pitcher, but even with Broxton, as it stands the Royals’ 2012 payroll projects to around $55 million. I know that’s close to where Moore claimed the payroll was limited to in a notorious exchange he had at Blogger Night at the K. Call me an ostrich, but I just refuse to believe the Royals payroll has such a tight limit.

The Royals’ payroll exceeded $70 million in both 2009 and 2010; there’s no reason they can’t afford a similar payroll in 2012, a year when Kauffman Stadium will certainly host the All-Star Game, and just might host a playoff game. The Royals are at an inflection point, where they’re close enough to contention that adding a star pitcher might be the difference in a pennant race, and a playoff appearance would increase the Royals’ revenue by far more than the cost of a free-agent contract.

Basically, what I’m saying is this: just because the Royals have added Broxton, and Chen, and Sanchez, does not mean they shouldn’t still be major players for Roy Oswalt or Edwin Jackson. If the Royals make an honest effort to sign a top-tier starter and fall short, then Broxton’s addition will at least give the Royals something to show for their efforts, and they can hope that a killer bullpen might cover for their rotation inadequacies enough to keep them in the hunt. But if the money used to sign Broxton knocks the Royals out of the sweepstakes for another starting pitcher, then his signing, once again, was a wasted opportunity.

Broxton and Chen, combined, are guaranteed $8.5 million in 2012, and will probably make close to $10 million. It would be a shame if it turns out that money could have been used as the starting point to land them a true difference-maker in their rotation instead.


I guess I should say something about the Frank White situation. I don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been said. Sam Mellinger nailed it pretty good here; a trusted source of mine vouches for Mellinger’s accuracy in portraying both sides. Will McDonald does a great job of informed speculation and connecting the dots here. Rob Neyer covers the situation with his usual aplomb here.

I know that White made it clear that he felt that he was fired for being too critical of the Royals on-air. But as facile an explanation as that is, I find it hard to square that with the fact that Paul Splittorff, who was as blunt about the Royals’ inadequacies as anyone in the media for the quarter-century before he passed away, was never let go. If “criticisms” really were the impetus for this, they were probably hurled off-camera.

But I do think that the Royals once again revealed themselves as unreasonably thin-skinned. The fact that producer Kevin Shank was also let go suggests a lot of things, none of them favorable to the Royals, about their perception of the telecasts.

In the long run, if the Royals start winning, none of this will matter, and Frank White may well return to throw out the first pitch before a playoff game. But until the Royals start winning, they need to avoid public-relations disasters like this one. Their continuing inability to do so is telling.