Monday, December 24, 2012

Myers, Moral Hazard, and Moving On.

If you were waiting for my actual analysis of the Myers/Shields trade, I wrote this for Grantland just hours after the deal was consummated. Perhaps it would have been better if I had not written angry. I was not kind to the Royals.

The week after the trade was probably the most difficult week I’ve ever had as a Royals fan. It was a kind of psychic torment that I had never experienced before; I literally had trouble falling asleep at night. (Yeah, yeah, it’s just baseball. I’m aware of how whiny and self-indulgent that sounds.) But here’s the thing: my angst had nothing to do with the trade itself, at least not directly. It actually took me a while to figure out exactly why I felt the way I did.

In my Grantland column, I wrote about moral hazard, about the danger that lurks when a person in a position of influence finds that their own self-interest diverges from the interest of the organization they work for. If you believe that another disappointing season in 2013 was going to get people fired – and all the evidence points that way – then you have to believe that Dayton Moore found himself in a position of moral hazard.

And let me be clear here: it’s not his fault that he’s in a position of moral hazard. Most of us, were we in his position, would also place a higher priority on winning a few more games in 2013 than on potentially winning a lot more games in 2015. It’s been reported that David Glass made it clear to his front office that they either win more games next season or else – so the only rational decision for a GM to make in that situation is to place a higher priority on winning in the short term than in the long term. Almost every GM faces some level on moral hazard on the job – though it’s telling that Andrew Friedman, thanks to his success on the job and an owner who fully buys in to the Rays’ methods, is one of the few who does not.

And to be even more clear: while I think this trade hurts the Royals in the long term more than it helps in the short term, this is not a case of a GM completely sabotaging a franchise in a pointless attempt to save his job. We’ve seen that before. It was barely five years ago that Dave Littlefield, who after six years as general manager of the Pirates had moved the team no closer to respectability than when he took the job in 2001, traded for Matt Morris. Everyone in the industry knew that the Giants were desperate to dump Morris, who had nothing left (he had struck out just 73 batters in 137 innings), and was getting paid about $10 million in both 2007 and 2008. The expectation was that they would have had to – and were willing to – eat at least half his contract.

But minutes before the trading deadline, Littlefield traded for Morris – and picked up his entire contract. At the time, the Pirates were 42-62 and in last place, and of course they had a restricted payroll owing to the fact that they were the Pirates. No team in baseball had less need than the Pirates did for a vastly overpriced, aging, slightly above replacement-level starter. Littlefield even gave the Giants two players, one of them Rajai Davis, for the privilege of trying to pull the fork out of Morris’ arm. Morris had a 6.10 ERA in 11 starts for Pittsburgh in 2007. In 2008, he made five starts, gave up 31 runs in 22 innings, and was released, ending his major league career.

Morris outlasted Littlefield in Pittsburgh; Littlefield was fired less than six weeks after the trade. In a just world he would have been fired on the spot, but presumably it took ownership some time to appreciate the enormity of what he had done.

Dayton Moore made, in my opinion, a bad trade. I think he hurt his team’s chances of winning in the long term for a modest short-term gain. But he did not make a transaction whose sole purpose seemed to be to save his job, the way Littlefield did. There’s no comparison between the two.

But anyway, I was thinking about the implications of moral hazard when I finally realized what was the source of my disquieting feeling: I was in a position of moral hazard as well.

Having gone on record with my feelings about the trade, my self-interest as a baseball analyst is completely, utterly in conflict with my self-interest as a Royals fan. The outcome that will make me happiest as a fan is the same outcome that will make me look like a complete schmuck. A bitter schmuck at that.

And to be clear, most of the Kansas City media is already doing their best to make me look like one. The radio stations in town lined up to smack me around like I’m the hysterical chick in “Airplane”. No one likes the turd in the punchbowl, and in being the local media guy who was most vehemently against the trade, I am the turd in the punchbowl.

Here’s the thing: I hope they’re right. I don’t want to be the turd in the punchbowl. I hope that, years from now, my analysis of this trade will be one of the most embarrassing mistakes I’ve ever made. I have, without exaggeration, never wanted to be wrong about a baseball transaction more than this one.

I have disparaged moves the Royals have made before, and in most cases I’d rather be proven right than to see the Royals win a few more games because I was wrong, not because I didn’t want them to win, but because a few more wins didn’t mean a whole heck of a lot in the grand scheme of things. If I had been wrong about Mike Jacobs and he had hit 32 home runs in 2009, like he had for the Marlins in 2008, what would it have mattered? The Royals might have won 68 games instead of 65?

I wasn’t wrong about Jacobs, of course. You could argue that I was sorta wrong about Yuniesky Betancourt in 2010, although I would argue right back, given that his defense was so atrocious that Baseball-Reference rates him as a full 1.3 wins below replacement level that year. (I definitely wasn’t wrong about Yuni in 2009, and I definitely wasn’t wrong about Yuni in 2012.)

But even if he had done his best Troy Tulowitzki impression in 2010, the Royals would have won, what, 73 games? Whoop-de-do. Given the stakes, there was no upside in being wrong. I could only hope that I was right, that the outcome proved that the process (as opposed to The Process) the Royals had used to make their decision was wrong, and that they would learn from it for the future.

But this time, if I’m wrong, then – by definition – it means playoffs. Because – barring something wacky happening with Wade Davis down the line – the only way this trade works out for the Royals is if they make the playoffs in one of the next two years. That’s what Dayton Moore is betting on here, and I respect the gamble he’s made even if I think he made a terrible one.

I only resolved the crisis in my mind when I decided that, once again, I’m a fan first and an analyst second. I don’t know how much longer I can continue to write about baseball, frankly, not with a growing family and medical practice and everything that goes with them. But I can be a fan for life.

And if I’m wrong, well, I’m used to making mistakes as an analyst; it’s the nature of the job. (Just limiting myself to times I condemned a Missouri team for a trade, it hasn’t even been 18 months since I thought the Cardinals were lunatics to trade Colby Rasmus for, basically, two months of Edwin Jackson and a couple of middle relievers. Oops.) But I’m not used to the Royals playing games on national TV in October. I literally have no memory of them ever doing so.

And if I'm wrong, that doesn't completely invalidate the process of what I do, any more than Mitt Romney winning the election would have completely invalidated Nate Silver's work. We deal in probabilities, not certainties, and Silver gave Romney about a 9% chance of winning on the eve of the election. The Royals have far more than a 9% chance of winning this trade. I just think it's far less than 50%, and I think they are vastly more likely to lose big than they are to win big.

So I’ve cast my decision. If I’m wrong, I fully expect and welcome those of you who disagree with me now to rub it in my face. (After all, I’m sure I’ll do the same in reverse if I’m right.) Just know that if I’m wrong, no one will be happier to bear those criticisms and eat some crow as I will be.

I’ll even write these words right now, in the hopes that I can cut-and-paste them in ten months and say them with conviction:

“Dear Dayton Moore: I was wrong. You were right. You made the biggest gamble of your career last December, and I savaged you at the time, and it turns out your decision was brilliant. I was a fool. Please forgive me.

- Rany Jazayerli.

P.S. In case anyone ever asks, your ass tastes minty.”

Mind you, it will be hard to argue convincingly that the Royals won this trade ten months from now, because the talent they gave up will take years to identify itself one way or the other. (On the other hand, if James Shields tears something in his elbow in spring training, we could pronounce a verdict in the other direction much sooner.) But Craig Calcaterra made a lot of sense when he wrote that, essentially, whether this trades works out for the Royals depends almost entirely on whether it takes them to the Promised Land. Even if Myers turns into a superstar, if the Royals can lay claim to one playoff spot that they wouldn’t have otherwise earned, it will be justifiable. They wouldn’t necessarily win the trade, but they could not be said to have lost it.

So I won’t bother trying. If the Royals make the playoffs in 2013, no one is going to want to hear me make the case against the trade anyway.


Me: Yeah, well, the Royals still shouldn’t have traded for him.

You: What the hell are you talking about? He threw 216 innings, won 17 games, was the unquestioned leader of the staff, and we won the division!

Me: Yeah, but Wil Myers hit .272/.346/.462 for the Rays, and Jeff Francoeur was so bad that the Royals had to swing a trade in June for David Dejesus to play right field. If the Royals kept Myers they would have won nearly as many games as they did with Shields.

You: That’s crazy talk! And what about Wade Davis, huh? He transitioned back to the rotation, gave the Royals 185 quality innings with an ERA of 4.40. Do they make the playoffs without him? They only won the division by three games!

Me: Well, Jake Odorizzi came up for the Rays in August and had a 4.40 ERA in twelve starts, so I’m not sure Davis was that much of an upgrade.

You: Sure he was! He gave the Royals quality innings when they needed them the first half of the season, while guys like Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino were still on the DL. Are you honestly saying you think the Royals would have won the division without Shields and Davis?

Me: No, I’m saying that if instead of trading for Shields and Davis, they had signed Shaun Marcum, who made 26 starts with an ERA just 15 points higher than Shields, or if they had signed Edwin Jackson, who threw 208 innings with an ERA just 25 points higher than Shields, and they had Myers in right field instead of Francoeur, they would probably have won as many games as


So, yeah. The 2013 season will be a referendum on this trade; if the Royals go the playoffs, and Shields and/or Davis are a big part of that accomplishment, then everyone will be too busy reveling in what happened to reflect on the long-term implications of the deal. Myself included.

But come 2015, it’s going to hurt. I had this dream, a dream I’m sure many of you shared, that in two years the Royals would go into the season with this projected lineup:

Alex Gordon, in the last guaranteed year of his contract, still just 31, aging as well as you would expect from the fitness freak.
Billy Butler, also in his contract year, 29 years old.
Eric Hosmer, who would play the entire season at 25.
Mike Moustakas, who would be 26 years old, turn 27 late in the season.
Salvador Perez, who would turn 25 in May.
Alcides Escobar, who would be 28.
And yes, Wil Myers, the youngest of the bunch, at 24 years old.

Ignore Escobar, who’s on that list because of his glove. The other six hitters on that list would all be capable of garnering MVP votes, and they would all be right in their prime – except for Gordon, the others would all be between 24 and 29 years old.

Mind you, we wouldn’t even need to wait until 2015 to see that lineup – we would have probably seen it this coming May. But in 2013, you could argue that the lineup was just too inexperienced to take flight – Myers, Perez, Moustakas, and Hosmer will  all be 24 or younger. By 2015, they would be approaching the peak of their powers, and Gordon and Butler would still be close to theirs.

In center field, the Royals might have Lorenzo Cain (29 years old), or they might even have Bubba Starling (22 years old) ready by mid-season. Come up with a second baseman that doesn’t totally suck, and that might be the best offense in team history. Oh, and they’d still have everyone in their current bullpen. All they would need is a rotation that’s even mediocre, and they’d be giving off a distinct mid-1990s Cleveland Indians vibe.

Instead, in 2015 they won’t have Myers, and they won’t have Shields either. Maybe this trade moves up the Royals’ timetable a little. But taking Myers out of the equation puts a serious hurt on my dream of an AL Central dynasty. I got greedy; sue me. (It doesn’t help that Sports Illustrated decided to troll Royals fans by publishing this in their current issue.)

It’s time for me to put this trade behind me, and focus on where the Royals stand today. I’m fond of using Shakespeare’s line about how “What’s past is prologue”; as a Royals fan, if you always focused on what’s past, you’d drive yourself crazy. Instead of dwelling on how we got here, better to focus on where we are, and where we’re headed. The fact that Wil Myers was once a Royal no longer matters. What matters is whether a rotation headlined by James Shields, Ervin Santana, Jeremy Guthrie, and Wade Davis – and a lineup that now features Jeff Francoeur, for good or ill – is good enough to reach the playoffs.

So I’m going to – calmly, I hope – distill my criticisms of the trade one last time, and then I’m done. If things go sour later, believe me, you will hear from me – but I’ll at least wait for that to happen before reopening the wound. And I hope the only times I discuss my criticism of the trade in the future are when I laugh at myself for being so stupid as to lose my head over the very move that ended a quarter-century of suffering.

My objections to the trade boil down to the fact that he people who support the trade from the Royals’ perspective are, I believe, making four mistakes:

1) They highlight the risks inherent in Wil Myers because he’s a prospect, but ignore the risks inherent in James Shields because he’s a pitcher.

I thought David Cameron did an excellent job of expanding on this point. It is, in fact, true that Wil Myers is not a sure thing. He could be a disappointment, or a flat-out bust. He could be Delmon Young. He could be Brandon Wood. While my quick-and-dirty look at previous Baseball America Minor League Players of the Year pointed out that 12 of the last 14 hitters so named went on to become excellent major-leaguers*, given the small sample size that may overstate his success rate a little.

*: On 810 WHB, I shorthanded that to say “12 of the 14 hitters went on to become stars”, which led to extensive analysis from my friends on The Program on whether guys like Alex Gordon and Matt Wieters are “stars”. I’d argue that this is a discussion over semantics that is missing the bigger point, but to be clear: yes, they are stars in my book.

Gordon ranked in the top 10 in the AL in bWAR each of the last two years – yes, even in 2012, thanks to his Gold Glove defense, his league-leading 51 doubles, and his .368 OBP. It took him a while, but he’s become a fantastic ballplayer. Wieters is a little more debatable, because he hasn’t met the (admittedly insane) offensive expectations that were placed on him. He’s a slightly above-average hitter – who has also won back-to-back Gold Gloves behind the plate. He’s also very durable; he’s been first or second in the AL in starts behind the plate for three years running. He was named an All-Star each of the last two years. Baseball-Reference says he’s averaged 4 WAR over the last two years, which is right about where I draw the line for “star”.

But again: we’re missing the point. Whether Wieters is just beyond that line, or just in front of it, I hope we can all agree that he’s a hell of a ballplayer that most every team would be thrilled to call their own.

Two years ago, Scott McKinney tried to restrain our irrational exuberance over the Royals’ farm system by looking at the success rates of top prospects, and found that the success rate of Top 100 Prospects as a whole was quite low (about 31% overall). But even he found that the success rate of a specific subset of prospects – Top 20 hitting prospects – was 61%, about double that. Given that prospect analysis has improved over time (in my opinion), and that Myers is clearly a Top 10 prospect if not Top 5, and it’s safe to say his success rate is probably a little higher than that.

But yes, he absolutely could fail to live up to expectations in the future. But you know what? So could James Shields. So could every player in the major leagues. There is no such thing as a sure thing. This notion that “sure Myers is a great prospect, but he hasn’t proven a thing in the majors – Shields has” is inexplicable to me. You don’t trade for a guy’s past – you trade for his future. And one of the best things that analytics has brought to baseball – and that analytic-driven teams excel at – is the understanding that every player has risk, and the key is quantifying it and valuing players accordingly.

For every Delmon Young, there’s a Dan Haren, who a year ago was the same age Shields was this season (30), and a better pitcher – from 2007 through 2011 he averaged 228 innings and a 3.33 ERA. In 2012 he suffered back and hip ailments, his performance suffered, and the Angels didn’t even pick up his $12 million option for next year (granted, I thought they were fools to do so, and the Nationals actually paid him more than $12 million on a one-year deal).

For every Brandon Wood, there’s a Jon Garland, who was 30 years old in 2010, and threw 200 innings with a 3.47 ERA for the Padres; it was his ninth straight year with 32 starts. He made all of nine starts in 2011 before undergoing surgery on his labrum and rotator cuff – he hasn’t pitched since.

Jon Garland was no James Shields, you say. Fine – how about Chris Carpenter? At age 30, in 2005, Carpenter won the NL Cy Young Award. In 2006 he repeated with another excellent season, finishing third in the Cy Young race. After that season he signed a five-year, $63.5 million extension with the Cardinals, even though he wasn’t a free agent for another year. He made one start in 2007 before his elbow came up lame, he required Tommy John surgery, his rehab was slowed by some shoulder issues, and he pitched just 15 innings in 2008 – two completely lost seasons, basically. He was brilliant again from 2009 on – but if Shields blows out his elbow in April, it doesn’t matter what he does in 2015, because he’ll be gone by then.

The Royals traded for Shields because over the past two seasons he has averaged 238 innings with a 3.15 ERA. If you could guarantee me right now that Shields will average 238 innings with a 3.15 ERA over the next two years, I would withdraw my objections to the trade. If you could guarantee me 210 innings with a 3.40 ERA, I would withdraw my objections. But you can’t. Shields is a 31-year-old starting pitcher, and 31-year-old starting pitchers, as a group, are no less risky than 22-year-old outfielders. Even ones who haven’t yet played in the major leagues yet.

Hedging that risk a little is the chance that Wade Davis might be an improved pitcher in his second crack at being a starting pitcher. But in return, the Royals also accepted the risk that any of three other prospects might come back to haunt them. The risk that Myers fails is probably not much higher than the risk that Odorizzi, Montgomery, or Leonard succeeds in becoming an impact player in the major leagues.

2) They overstate how much the trade improves the Royals in 2013.

This trade was all about moving up the Royals’ window of contention, yes? This trade was about winning in 2013, right? And in terms of upgrading the Royals’ rotation, it certainly does that. But the Royals give back a good deal of that improvement by locking themselves in to Jeff Francoeur in right field.

I don’t expect Francoeur to hit .235/.287/.378 again, and if he does, I don’t expect him to come to the plate 603 times again. Bob Dutton – who has nobly suffered shots at the messenger for repeatedly stating things like “the Royals absolutely plan to bring Luke Hochevar back”, has nonetheless clearly stated that Francoeur is on a quick hook in 2013. I believe that, and I believe that the Royals are perfectly aware of just how bad he was this season (at least offensively – they may still believe his arm outweighs his poor range in the field).

Royals right fielders as a whole hit .241/.290/.377 in 2012, counting the occasional non-Francoeur start. That will probably be better in 2013, either owing to improvement from Francoeur, or because they’ll search out a replacement in May if he doesn’t. But it might not be a lot better. The difference in what we can expect from right field today, and what we could expect from right field three weeks ago, is probably worth 1-2 wins in the standings.

The Royals are still a better team for 2013 than they were before the trade. But they’re not improved enough to justify trading a potential star player. Especially given my next point:

3) They overlook the fact that the Royals could have improved their rotation without making this trade.

One of the lesser storylines from this trade is that after whipsawing back and forth all off-season, we can once again re-direct our ire away from David Glass. The payroll isn’t at $85 million, as I think it should be, but it’s somewhere around $79 million, close enough that I’m not going to harp too much on the owner at the moment. It’s the highest payroll in the team’s history.

So forgive me for reiterating the obvious yet again: given that Dayton Moore could raise the payroll to this range, he could have signed a free agent starting pitcher without giving up a single player (or even draft pick) in return. Anibal Sanchez, who was supposed to be out of range for the Royals, got $16 million a year from the Tigers. The Royals are paying $14.9 million for Shields and Luke Hochevar combined. Factor in that the Royals might go fishing for a cheap outfield option as Francoeur insurance – that they wouldn’t need if they kept Myers – and it’s basically a wash.

After getting outbid by the Tigers on Sanchez, the Cubs gave Edwin Jackson, long a target of mine, 4 years, and $52 million. Even if the Royals wanted to keep Hochevar, Jackson is making less in 2013 than Shields and Davis combined will make. Yeah, the Royals acquired two starting pitchers instead of one – but right now, they don’t have room for both Bruce Chen and Hochevar, meaning that Chen might wind up getting paid $4.5 million to pitch long relief. And if they don’t make this trade, they still have Odorizzi.

One of the most common defenses I’ve seen about the Royals is that they had to trade for good starting pitching, because no free agent worth his salt would ever come to Kansas City unless they vastly overpaid. To which I reply: THE CHICAGO CUBS LOST ONE HUNDRED AND ONE GAMES LAST YEAR. They thought they had Anibal Sanchez signed, until he let the Tigers get last crack at him – but in the end, he didn’t sign with the Tigers because they’re a winner, but because they offered him the most money. The Cubs offered him 5/$75 million; the Tigers matched. The Cubs then offered him 5/$77.5; Detroit raised to 5/$80, and the Cubs folded.

They then turned around and made Edwin Jackson a better offer than the other 29 teams, and guess what? He signed with the team that gave him the most money. Imagine that.

It’s certainly true that, all things equal, free agents would prefer to sign with a team who they feel has made a commitment to being a winner. But you know the best way a team can show that commitment to a free agent? By offering him more money to sign than anyone else.

If the Royals would have had a tough time convincing a free agent that they were serious about winning next year, that time would have been in November, before they had made any off-season moves. You might remember that I was, on the whole, positive about the Ervin Santana trade and the Jeremy Guthrie signing, even though both pitchers were probably overpaid a little on a pure market basis. One of the main reasons for my positivity was that, in acquiring those pitchers early in the off-season, it ought to have made it easier to convince a truly premier free agent pitcher to sign, knowing that the Royals had already made over their starting rotation, and that his signing would have completed, not begun, that process.

It’s not exactly a secret in the industry that the Royals have a young, exciting offense and a bullpen filled with flamethrowers. It wouldn’t have been hard to convince a Sanchez or a Jackson that signing with Kansas City would complete an above-average rotation, and an above-average roster, in a very winnable division. The downside to signing someone like Jackson is that, the longer the contract, the more risk there is that he gets hurt or loses effectiveness, and you’re paying $13 million for a useless pitcher. But even in the worst-case scenario, the fact that you’re overpaying a starting pitcher is mitigated by the fact that your above-average right fielder – the one you didn’t trade to acquire a starting pitcher – is vastly underpaid.

But let’s say that the Royals already knew that Sanchez and Jackson had, for whatever reason, crossed Kansas City off their list. So what? There are plenty of fish in the sea. Brandon McCarthy just signed with the Diamondbacks for 2 years and $15.5 million. His ERA the last two years (3.29) is almost as good as Shields’ is. Sure, he’s not durable at all, but he’s 60% of the price and he doesn’t cost you Wil Myers! (Besides, you really just need him to hold up until July, when Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino return.)

Don’t like McCarthy? Shaun Marcum is still out there. Ryan Dempster settled for 2 years and $26.5 million from the Red Sox, just a hair more than the Royals reportedly offered him. Dan Haren was out there. Francisco Liriano was out there. Kyle Lohse is still out there, not that I think he’s worth the money. Carlos Villanueva would have been a decent fit, and he signed with the Cubs, who are putting on a clinic on how to makeover your rotation through free agency without overpaying.

Are the Royals a better team in 2013 with James Shields and Wade Davis? Yes. Are they a better team with Shields and Davis but without Myers and Odorizzi? Yes, but not as much. But are they a better team with Shields and Davis but without Myers, Odorizzi, and the starting pitcher they could have signed with the money they’ve added to the payroll? Honestly, I’m not sure.

And that’s the tragedy in all this. If the Royals had not been so fixated on the idea of adding an “ace”, they might have realized that adding a #2/3 starter and replacing their broken right fielder would have improved their team in 2013 as much as acquiring the fabled Division Series Game One Starter. Jonah Keri wrote about this angle – the Royals trade was, ultimately, a failure to think outside the box, because the Royals could only see their options in terms of “acquire an ace” or “lose again in 2013”.

Which leads to my last point:

4) They assume that this trade makes the Royals a contender in 2013.

If the Royals make the playoffs in 2013 – assuming they do so because of, not despite, Shields and Davis – then the ultimate price may be worth it. So the value of making this trade comes down to how much it increases the Royals’ chances of winning the division. (They could earn a Wild Card spot, but the addition of the woeful Astros to the AL West gives that division a leg up on at least one, if not both, of those berths.)

In my opinion, this trade doesn’t improve the Royals’ chances enough to justify the deal. If the goal was simply to have a winning record, then this trade increases those odds significantly. But I’m sorry, I know how starved we are as Royals fans for a team that’s even respectable, but you don’t trade Wil Myers so that you can win 82 games in 2013.

Most simulations have the Royals as around an 85-win team now; this one has the Royals at 84-78. I’m predicting the Royals at 86-76 at the moment, because I’m still an optimist. And I don’t want to downplay the significance of that. The Royals haven’t outscored their opponents since 1994. They haven’t won 85 games since 1989.

But you don’t trade one of the game’s best prospects to get to 85 wins. That simulation above had the Tigers at 91-71, and that’s before Anibal Sanchez signed. There’s a lot of variance in projections, of course, and even if the Royals’ true talent level is pegged, sometimes you just get lucky. If the Royals play as much above their talent level in 2013 as the Orioles did in 2012, they’ll win the division – but if they get that lucky, they would have won the division with or without the Shields trade.

The Royals have a shot of winning the division in 2013, because their offense is so young and talented that it could improve dramatically in one off-season. Eric Hosmer, who was terrible in 2012, could be an All-Star caliber first baseman in 2013. Mike Moustakas could learn to stop popping up that inside high fastball and his offense could take as dramatic a step forward next year as his glove did this year. Salvador Perez could stay healthy and play 140 games. If all three of those things happen, the Royals will be 10 games better instantly, and now they're a contender.

But if you agree with me that the Royals' wealth of young hitters gives them a chance to improve dramatically, then you have to agree that letting Wil Myers play right field might also have improved them dramatically. You can't claim Hosmer and Moustakas and Perez are the biggest reasons why the Royals could go from 72 wins to the playoffs, without acknowledging that Myers was another big reason as well. Either you believe in young hitters or you don't. If the Royals were smart to trade Myers because he's not likely to pan out, then they were wrong for trading him because the young hitters they kept probably won't pan out either and they'll miss the playoffs anyway.

I’d say the Royals have about a 25% chance of winning the AL Central right now. Before the trade, I’d have pegged their chances at around 15%. (But mind you, that’s without signing any free agent pitchers with the Shields money.) You don’t trade Wil Myers for an extra 10% chance of winning the division.

Contrast that to the Blue Jays trading for R.A. Dickey. I will admit – the Blue Jays gave up a ton of talent for Dickey, more than I thought it would take, and reinforces the opinion that elite starting pitching is very, very expensive. But let’s look at the differences in the two trades:

1) Travis D’Arnaud is an excellent prospect, but he’s not quite as excellent as Wil Myers. He’s nearly two years older than Myers, and he missed half of last season with knee problems, and his numbers in 2012 were inflated by playing in a terrific hitters’ environment in Las Vegas.

2) Noah Syndergaard looks like a better prospect than Jake Odorizzi, and certainly has a higher upside. But this is where the historical performance of prospects – pitching prospects – is useful. The reality is that the vast majority of pitchers who look like potential front-of-the-rotation guys when they’re in A-ball fall by the wayside. Trading an A-ball stud while he’s at the peak of his value is almost always the smart play. When the Top Prospects lists come out, I expect Syndergaard and Odorizzi to be very close in the rankings.

3) Mike Montgomery and Patrick Leonard, combined, are worth more than Wuilmer Becerra, and not just because I know how to pronounce their names.

4) The Blue Jays turned John Buck into Josh Thole, a not-insignificant upgrade behind the plate, both in terms of cost and performance.

5) Dickey, as I wrote about here, and again at Grantland last week, is a legitimate #1 starter who suffers from the bias against knuckleball pitchers. He was a better pitcher than Shields this past season. He’s been a better pitcher than Shields over the past two seasons. He’s been better over the past three seasons. Before that Shields was better, but Dickey hadn’t mastered the knuckleball yet. And despite his age, I think Dickey’s going to be the better pitcher for the next several years to come.

6) One of the reasons the Blue Jays were willing to give up so much for Dickey was that he was willing to sign an extension – an extension, it turned out, that included a club option. So while the Royals have Shields for just two years, the Jays have Dickey for four.

7) Dickey makes less money ($5 million) in 2013 than Shields ($10.25 million). He’ll make less ($12 million) in 2014 than Shields ($13 million). And he’s signed for 2015 for $12 million with another $12 million option in 2016. The Blue Jays have the reigning NL Cy Young winner for four years without ever having to pay him more than $12 million.

The Royals’ one advantage in the deal is that they also got Wade Davis. If Davis becomes an above-average starter, that’s a big advantage. If he has to return to the bullpen and be Aaron Crow, not so much.

But the biggest reason why the Jays’ trade makes sense and the Royals’ trade doesn’t has nothing to do with trading for Dickey. It’s everything the Blue Jays had already done this off-season. Their acquisition of Dickey was set up by signing Melky Cabrera, and Maicer Izturis, and above all, by acquiring Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio from the Marlins.

The Blue Jays and Royals had virtually identical records in 2012; Toronto won one more game than Kansas City, and had a run differential two runs better. But before acquiring Dickey, they had already improved their roster by at least 10 wins – easily the most of any team in baseball. Adding Dickey tips them into being a legitimate 90-win team; adding Shields and Davis did nothing of the sort for the Royals.

It’s still December, and a lot can change, and the pundits can be wrong. But most pundits agree that the Blue Jays are the favorites to win the AL East in 2013.

Those same pundits agree that the Tigers are the team to beat in the AL Central. In order for the Royals to prove the pundits wrong on the Myers trade, they need to prove them wrong on the AL Central standings next year.

They certainly could do that. But I don’t think they will; I’m one of those pundits, after all. And I’m hardly the only one. I’ve heard the divide between people who think the Royals did well in the trade and the people who think the Royals got snookered being described as a divide between mainstream media and “bloggers”, whatever a “blogger” is at this point. (The word should be retired at this point. It is useless at best, and misleading at worst.)

But that’s not the case. The divide is simply between industry insiders and outside, objective, dare I say sabermetric analysts. Keith Law was so critical of the Royals that Bob Nightengale at USA TODAY contacted Dayton Moore and got a testy reply. Joe Sheehan, in his Newsletter, compared Moore to the newbie in your fantasy league that gets his roster picked apart by the experienced players. Rob Neyer debated whether this trade ranks among the worst in Royals history. Jonah Keri criticized the deal, but nicely, because he’s Canadian. Joe Posnanski criticized the deal, but nicely, because he’s Joe Posnanski.

The most positive remarks I saw from analysts were those who praised the Royals for recognizing the time had come to switch from simply amassing future talent to trying to win in the here and now. But even those analysts were much less optimistic about the details of the trade itself. John Sickels made a cool Civil War reference which I liked, and he’s right – you can’t be George McClellan all the time. At some point, you have to stop preparing for battle and actually engage the enemy. But even when the time for battle has come, discretion is still the better part of valor. I mean, Pickett’s Charge was bold and decisive. It was also reckless and foolish, and man, it sure was decisive.

Over at Baseball Prospectus, Ben Lindbergh made a really interesting comparison of this trade to another one – to the time that the Rays traded away the star young outfielder, Delmon Young, in order to improve their pitching by adding a starter (Matt Garza) and upgrading their defense (Jason Bartlett). He quoted a writer who said, the day after the trade was made, that:

“With this deal, the Rays have shifted from collecting talent to forming it into a baseball team, and this trade shows how seriously they take the process. Trading a player with the perceived value of Young is never easy, but with it they’ve leveraged a gap between that perceived value and what he actually is to make their team better.”

That’s exactly how the Delmon Young trade worked out, and it set the Rays on a path towards an AL pennant and three playoff appearances in five years. The problem is this: the person who wrote those words, Joe Sheehan, is the same person who keeps texting me at random times just to remind me how stupid this trade was for Kansas City. (Seriously, stop it, Joe. I get it.)

And that’s it. I’ve said my piece. What’s past is prologue. This trade is done, it’s over, it’s a fait accompli. (Or as distinguished reader Gershon Marx put it, a fail accompli.) I will speak no more ill of this trade until the season begins and we have a chance to see how it works out. In my next column, in fact, I’ll talk about the things I do like about this trade, because that’s just who I am.

And I really, truly, honestly hope that, come next October, I’m eating crow and singing Dayton Moore’s praises and asking myself how I could have possibly been so critical and mean about a trade that has worked out so well. Honestly.

I’d love to be proven wrong. I just don’t think I will. But maybe this is the time the Royals surprise me. In a good way, I mean.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

For Want Of A Pitcher: R.A. Dickey.

I’d like to set the stage for this post with a brief review of the history of Dayton Moore at the Winter Meetings over the years, his successes (Joakim Soria, Gil Meche), his failures (pretty much everything else), and take my usual sweet time getting to the point.

But you know what? We don’t have time for that. The meetings are underway, the Royals could make a franchise-altering transaction – good or bad – at any moment, and I need to get this out there right now.

Four days ago, Jon Heyman reported that in addition to Jon Lester and James Shields, the Royals were looking at one other top starting pitcher in a trade – R.A. Dickey. Specifically, he wrote that “Kansas City has no interest in trading young catcher Salvador Perez and isn’t looking to trade top outfield prospect Wil Myers. The Royals would prefer to send the Mets a package of younger prospects in any Dickey deal.”

Dickey is only under contract for one more season, albeit at the bargain price of $5 million. He has reportedly been asking the Mets for an extension, and would settle for a two-year deal, but the two sides have been unable to agree on his asking price.

I want to make this clear to everyone: if the Royals are able to trade prospects (within reason) for Dickey, without surrendering Myers, and if they were able to work out a two-year extension for Dickey as part of the trade, it would be an absolutely effing coup. It would rank as one of the finest moves of Moore’s career, and one of the finest transactions any team will make this winter.

It would be such an astonishingly good move that I can’t believe there’s actually a chance – however slim – that it could happen.

Let’s review the reasons why:

1) R.A. Dickey is a #1 starter.

Dickey doesn’t fit the classic mold of a #1 starter, because he doesn’t fit the classic mold of any starter – he’s a knuckleball pitcher. But for God’s sake, he won the Cy Young Award this year. Maybe he wasn’t the best pitcher in the National League – Clayton Kershaw was probably a hair better – but (along with Johnny Cueto) he was clearly in the top three. That’s an ace.

I appreciate a good scouting discussion of what constitutes a true “ace” pitcher as much as anyone, but it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees. Dickey’s fastball averaged 83 mph on the rare occasions he threw it. He’s 38 years old, and when he turned 35 years old he had 22 career wins and a 5.43 ERA in 443 innings as a conventional pitcher. And all of that is irrelevant, because he throws a knuckleball now, and (as I’ll get to later) even by the unique standards of that pitch, Dickey throws it in a way that’s unprecedented.

And the results are fantastic. He made 33 starts and threw 234 innings this year, struck out 230 batters (all three figures led the NL), allowed just 192 hits and 54 walks. He was a little homer-prone, with 24 homers allowed, an issue that goes with the territory of throwing a knuckleball. But Dickey finished with a 2.73 ERA in a league-leading number of innings. He combines quantity with tremendous quality. At his peak this summer, he was doing things no pitcher has done since, I dunno, Pedro Martinez at his very best. From May 22nd to June 18th, a span of six starts, Dickey threw 48.2 innings (over 8 innings a start), allowed 21 hits and 5 walks, allowed two runs (one unearned), and struck out 63 batters.

While Dickey has never been this good before, this wasn’t completely out of the blue; this wasn’t Esteban Loaiza’s 2003 season or something. In 2010, Dickey threw 174 innings for the Mets with a 2.84 ERA, and in 2011 he threw 209 innings with a  3.28 ERA. The biggest difference in 2012 was that his strikeout rate skyrocketed – he averaged 5.4 K/9 in 2010, 5.8 K/9 in 2011, and 8.9 K/9 in 2012. As a result, his hit rate dropped significantly – but his walk and home run rates were basically unchanged.

His BABIP the last three years goes .280, .285, and .280. Given that we know knuckleball pitcher historically are better than average in this regard, there’s nothing about his statistical record that screams fluke. Or even whispers it.

2) R.A. Dickey is a knuckleball pitcher.

This may seem obvious, but it has very important implications. The primary criticism I’ve heard about Dickey going forward is “he’s 38 years old!”, as if that means something.

My response to that is, “YES! EXACTLY! HE’S 38 YEARS OLD! THAT’S PERFECT!”

Honestly, sometimes I wonder if there’s some sort of force field that fogs people’s minds and causes them to downplay knuckleball pitchers. (Sort of like the force field that does the same thing with Salvador Perez, at least outside of Kansas City.) I’m not just referring to fans and analysts, but to people in the industry itself. The Mets, who just committed to David Wright for the next seven years, are apparently inclined to trade Dickey because they’re building for the future.

I’d like to tell them that they are apparently ignorant about the 100-year history of knuckleball pitchers in the major leagues, but if I did that they might change their minds, so I’ll just tell you instead.

Most knuckleball pitchers PEAK in their late 30s. The most successful knuckleball pitcher of the last 25 years was Tim Wakefield. Wakefield had his best season when he was 28, his first season with the Red Sox, when he had a 2.95 ERA in 195 innings – he accumulated 4.7 bWAR. His second-best season? In 2005…when he was 38 years old.

From ages 33 to 37, Wakefield was worth 10.5 bWAR. From ages 38 to 42, Wakefield was worth 12.4 bWAR. He was better at ages 41-42 than he was at ages 32-33.

Tom Candiotti is the other prominent knuckleball pitcher of the last quarter-century, but he wasn’t a strict knuckler, as he also threw a curveball a decent amount of the time. Candiotti had a pretty broad peak from ages 28 to 35, going over 4 bWAR six times in eight years, but was still effective until age 40, when he threw 201 innings with a 4.84 ERA in the height of the Juiced Era.

If we go back to the 1970s and 1980s, we see a lot more knuckleballers, and we see a lot more guys pitch well into their 40s. From age 38 to age 41, Phil Niekro led the NL in losses four years in a row.

That doesn’t sound good – until you realize he led the league in starts all four years, innings and complete games three times, and one year led the league in wins and losses. In 1978, age 39, Niekro went 19-18 with a 2.88 ERA in 334 innings. In 1979, he went 21-20 with a 3.39 ERA in 342 innings. It was a different era, of course, but even then his insane durability (averaging 43 starts and 335 innings a year from 1977 to 1979) stood out. In 1978, he was worth 8.6 bWAR, and in 1979 he was worth 9.6 bWAR.

Niekro would remain effective into his mid-40s. In 1985, he went 16-12 with a 4.09 ERA in 220 innings for the Yankees. He was 46 that year.

His younger brother Joe was never as good a pitcher as Phil, but Joe also was effective into his 40s. Joe had the best season of his career in 1982 (2.47 ERA in 270 innings, 6.5 bWAR), when he was 37, and from 1983 to 1985 averaged 37 starts, 246 innings, and a 3.44 ERA. In 1986, at age 41, he started to lose it.

Charlie Hough was a reliever for the first decade of his career, and didn’t start regularly until 1982, when he was 34. From 1982 through 1988, when he turned 40, Hough threw at least 228 innings with an ERA under 4 every year – pitching in Texas, no less. He was worth at least 2.6 bWAR every year. He began a slow decline in 1989, at age 41, but as late as 1993 he was the Marlins’ first-ever starting pitcher, and at age 45 threw 204 innings with a 4.27 ERA.

With the exception of Candiotti, who wasn’t a pure knuckleball pitcher, every one of these guys was a well-above-average starting pitcher at least through his age 40 season. (And Dickey, keep in mind, just had his best season at 37 – Candiotti was already in decline at that point.) Dickey wants a two-year extension that would cover him from ages 38 to 40? That’s perfect.

3) The price tag on Dickey is affordable.

Admittedly, the evidence for this point is not quite as rock-solid as the first two, because we don’t know exactly what it will take to get Dickey, both in terms of prospects in trade, and in terms of dollars in an extension.

But the mere fact that Dickey could be in play without having trade Wil Myers, and without having to trade any established player already on the Royals’ roster, means that his price tag is less than that of Lester or Shields. There’s good reason for that – he’s only under contract for one year, not two. But on the other hand, if he comes close to replicating his 2012 performance, Dickey would provide nearly as much value in one season as the other two might provide in two seasons.

Shields, 2011-2012: 6.9 bWAR
Dickey, 2012 only: 5.6 bWAR
Lester, 2011-2012: 4.5 bWAR

Dickey probably won’t pitch quite as well next year as he did this year, but the point is that he’s a better pitcher right now than the other two. Factor in that he only makes $5 million, and it’s a very legitimate question as to whether Lester at 2/$24 million or Shields at 2/$21 million should be worth any more on the trade market than Dickey at 1/$5 million.

But they do, for one simple reason: Dickey throws a knuckleball. As much progress as the industry has made over the last 10 years, it still has a blind spot when it comes to pitchers who throw unconventionally, and none more so than knuckleballers.

Furthermore, Dickey appears inclined to sign an extension, which makes sense for a pitcher who is 38 years old and has never had a huge payday in his career. (Even his signing bonus as a first-round pick was slashed after a pre-signing physical revealed he was born without an ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow.)

I’ve done my best to research what kind of money Dickey is looking for in an extension. On the high end, I’ve read that he would be willing to sign for “slightly less” than Jake Peavy’s contract (2 years, $29 million). On the low end, I’ve read suggestions he would settle for $10 million a year for the additional two years.

Let’s split the difference and say Dickey would sign for 2 years, $25 million. This is on top of the one-year, $5 million he’s already under contract for, making this a 3-year, $30 million contract that would be paid $5 million/$11 million/$14 million.

Look familiar? That’s the exact structure of Jeremy Guthrie’s contract, except with a $5 million higher payout in 2015. I’ve already made the case that Guthrie’s contract, while a little overpriced towards the end, is a reasonable deal for the Royals. If Guthrie’s deal is a C+ contract, what grade would you give to signing the defending NL Cy Young winner for about 20% more?

Dickey’s contract in 2013 is so affordable that it wouldn’t even preclude the Royals from signing another pitcher in free agency. If it’s true (as Danny Knobler reports) that the Royals are actually willing to make a competitive offer for Anibal Sanchez, then how about instead trading for Dickey and signing Shaun Marcum as well? Suddenly, you have a rotation of Dickey, Marcum, Guthrie, Santana, and Bruce Chen or Luis Mendoza. That would be an absolutely phenomenal revamping of the Royals’ rotation in a single off-season. Though tragically, it would mean that they’d have to let Luke Hochevar go.

(I don’t want to spend too much time on Luke, but just to reiterate what I’ve been saying all year: bringing him back is a mistake. Bringing him back at $4.4 million, or whatever he’ll get in arbitration, is a huge mistake. The Royals not only brought him back, but judging from their most recent comments, still have yet to acknowledge the essence of his flaw: that he can’t pitch with men on base. “I’ve never really had a player,” [Ned Yost] said, “who I couldn’t figure out why he hasn’t been successful. Again, you can, generally, identify one thing for why a player isn’t successful. With Hoch, I can’t.”

Luke Hochevar, bases empty: .252/.313/.425
Luke Hochevar, men on base: .304/.372/.480
Luke Hochevar, runners in scoring position: .315/.388/.504

Any questions?)

Acquiring R.A. Dickey while simultaneously signing him to an extension would be an absolutely franchise-changing move for the Royals. It would dramatically impact their chances of contending in 2013, and still leave them with an above-average starting pitcher signed to a favorable contract in 2014 and 2015.

Is there risk with Dickey? Of course; he’s a pitcher. He might get hurt, although knuckleball pitchers are almost immune to the sorts of injuries that befell pitchers. (And Dickey doesn’t have an ulnar collateral ligament, so he can’t tear it! No Tommy John for him!) Also, Dickey’s knuckleball is quite possibly unique in the annals of major league baseball. Rob Neyer wrote an absolutely fantastic piece on Dickey in June, making a very strong case that Dickey throws his knuckleball harder than any previous knuckleball pitcher ever. It’s possible that, since his knuckleball relies on velocity more than Wakefield’s or Niekro’s, that Dickey might lose his effectiveness more quickly with age.

On the other hand, the fact that Dickey’s knuckleball is different than theirs would explain why it’s also better than theirs. Inning for inning, Dickey was as effective in 2012 as any knuckleballer in history. (Niekro had better seasons, but that’s because he was throwing more than 300 innings a year.) Also, Dickey threw the knuckleball harder in 2012 than he had in 2011 or 2010, which might also explain why he was better this year than ever before. (His knuckler averaged 77.2 mph this year, compared to 76.0 and 75.8 the last two years.) If that’s the case, than it’s possible that he unlocked the key to a pitching talisman this season, and that 2012 might represent just the first year of a long, extended run as one of the best pitchers in the game.

Also, trading for Dickey would mean that either Salvador Perez has to learn to catch the knuckleball, or the Royals will need a devoted catcher for him. Given that Perez tore his knee last spring training reaching for an errant pitch, I vote for the latter – which would also give Perez the benefit of only having to catch about 130 games, keeping Yost from the temptation of running his star catcher into the ground.

But really, these are nitpicks. Dickey is one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, and the fact that he’s not perceived to be that way creates an enormous market inefficiency that the Royals should do their damndest to exploit.

The Mets are reportedly looking for catching and outfield help, preferably close at hand. The problem is that, if Myers isn’t on the table, there’s not a great fit here. The Royals ain’t trading Salvador Perez, and they don’t have any top catching prospects in the organization. In the outfield, after Myers their best prospect is Jorge Bonifacio, who will probably start the year in high-A and is at least 18 months away from the majors.

If that’s not a dealbreaker, I’d be willing to offer Bonifacio, Yordano Ventura, and the requisite minor league relief prospect in exchange for Dickey. That would give the Mets two of the top eight prospects from a deep farm system for one year of Dickey. From the Royals’ standpoint, losing both players hurts, but Ventura might end up in the bullpen one day, and Bonifacio probably wouldn’t join the team until 2016 anyway.

If the Mets can’t wait that long for an outfielder, then I’d be willing to float the idea of trading Lorenzo Cain. Cain is under contract for five more years, and is a league-average centerfielder right now – what he lacks in upside, he gains in certainty. If Cain’s in the deal, you probably wouldn’t have to give up a Ventura-level second prospect. Let’s say Cain, Kyle Smith, and a minor league reliever. A major-league ready centerfielder and a potential #3 starter is a nice return for Dickey, but one the Royals could absorb. The dropoff from Cain to Jarrod Dyson in center is manageable, although the Royals would have to get a platoon partner for him in free agency.

But this is a deal that absolutely needs to get done. The amazing thing is that, unlike just about every bold move that I propose for the Royals, there’s actually a chance that it might. The Royals are talking to the Mets, and appear to be one of the front-runners to get Dickey – if the Mets decide to trade him.

This is doubly astonishing because trading for a knuckleball pitcher represents pretty much the antithesis of the Royals’ approach for the last 25 years. The knuckleball is the victory of results over form, of statistics over scouting. The knuckleball is almost impossible to scout – scouts themselves will tell you that the only way they can tell the quality of a knuckleball is by how awkward the swings are from the batters. The knuckleball thumbs its nose at everything a baseball organization is taught to value in a pitcher – velocity, command, predictable movement. The only thing a knuckleball does is get results.

Through three GMs and countless managers, the one thread that has tied together the failure of the Royals to win over the last 25 years has been their unwillingness to accept that style doesn’t equate to substance. Big athletic guys that swing at pitches in the dirt will lose to smaller, slower hitters who know the strike zone. The Dayton Moore front office has been no more willing to embrace unconventional baseball paradigms than its predecessors. Acquiring R.A. Dickey would go against pretty much everything they stand for. Which is why it’s especially intriguing that they’re considering it anyway.

Back when the Royals were winning, back in the 1980s, they had a pitcher who, like Dickey, threw his fastball in the low 80s. He didn’t throw a knuckleball, but he threw from a submarine position, and he threw with insane precision, and he got people out, and so the Royals kept letting Dan Quisenberry pitch, and he was one of the greatest relief pitchers of all time. The organization lost its way around the time they stopped seeing guys like Quisenberry for what they were and started caring about what they looked like.

Dickey looks like a batting practice pitcher on the mound – and Cy Young in the box score. His pitches look like meatballs for 58 feet – and then perform magic for the last two. So I’m excited that the Royals, in their desperation for starting pitching, are willing to overlook what Dickey doesn’t do in favor of what he does.

But not nearly as excited as I’ll be if they actually acquire him. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Rumors And Repercussions.

Stop me if you’ve heard me say this before: the more I try to give Dayton Moore and the Royals the benefit of the doubt, the more they try to make me look like an idiot for doing so.

There are valid reasons to be skeptical about the additions of Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie – while both have a track record of success, they both have red flags as well. They’re both coming off poor seasons, albeit with excuses. But I decided not to be critical of either addition, in large part because neither pitcher cost the Royals to dip into their farm system (Brandon Sisk notwithstanding). If adding Santana and Guthrie kept Moore from being tempted to trade a part of his core lineup to improve his rotation, that was a significant fringe benefit.

And now we read this.

There’s a season’s worth of epic fail just in the first paragraph. “Is outfield prospect Wil Myers worth a veteran pitcher who would instantly go to the front of the Royals’ rotation, such as Tampa Bay’s James Shields or Boston’s Jon Lester? If so, how will the club clear sufficient payroll space to stay within its soft $70 million ceiling?”

The answers to those two questions are “HELL NO!” and “wait, soft WHAT?!”

Later in the column, Bob Dutton writes, “is either worth considering from the Royals’ perspective. In effect, are two years of Shields or Lester worth six of Myers?”

No. No. No.

(I want to make something clear: I’m not shooting the messenger here, just the message. Dutton does the job of beat writer so well that it can be hard to tell where the Royals’ opinions stop and where his starts.)

First off, you’re not trading six years of Wil Myers – if you’re smart, you’re trading about 6.9 years. Having made it this far without promoting him to the majors, you have every incentive to start him in Omaha, bring him up in late April, and then delay his free agency until after the 2019 season. Believe me, if he gets traded to Tampa Bay, that’s exactly how they’ll play it out. (Actually, if he gets traded to Tampa Bay, the odds are at least 50/50 that they’ll take my advice and sign him to an Evan Longoria deal. After all, they’re the ones who signed Evan Longoria to an Evan Longoria deal.)

So you trade 6.9 years of Wil Myers for two years of Jon Lester. Two expensive years of Jon Lester. Lester makes $11.625 million next year, with a club option for 2014 at $13 million. In 2014, that would make Lester the most expensive player in Royals history.

That’s fine if you’re getting a quality starter, and for most of his career, he’s been exactly that. Lester became a full-time starter for the Red Sox in 2008, threw a no-hitter against the Royals early in the season, and finished with a 3.21 ERA in 210 innings. His ERAs from 2008 through 2011 read 3.21, 3.41, 3.25, and 3.47, making at least 31 starts each year, pitching in the AL East. He wasn’t an ace, but he was the next-best thing, a top-of-the-line #2 starter. And if the Royals could acquire last year’s Lester, with three years of club control, I wouldn’t be losing my mind about the possibility of trading Myers for him.

But in 2012 he not only used up a year of club control, he had his worst season in the majors, with his ERA jumping to 4.82, and his strikeout rate dropping to 18.9%, from 22.8% the year before and 26.4% from 2009-2010. He might well rebound – the Red Sox were Dysfunction Central in 2012, and Lester was at the center of that. He still took the ball every fifth day. But his velocity has slowly crept downwards, from 93.5 mph in 2009 and 2010 to 92.0 in 2012.

I think Lester is a good candidate to bounce back, and in fact think he would be a fine buy-low candidate. But this isn’t buying low. This is paying steak prices for mystery meat, and hoping it turns out to be filet mignon.

It’s not even clear that trading Myers for Lester would help the Royals in 2013. If Myers goes, then you can expect Jeff Francoeur to get 600 plate appearances come hell or high OBP. The upgrade from Francoeur to even a league-average performance from Myers would be at least four wins. If Lester only bounces back halfway to his previous form, giving the Royals 200 innings but an ERA around 4, that’s only worth about four wins. That’s a wash, while adding $11 million to the payroll.

Oh, and if by some chance Lester has the best season of his career, puts up an ERA in the mid-2s and wins 18 games and finishes first or second in the Cy Young vote? Per a clause in his contract, his 2014 option would be voided, and he’d be a free agent after just one season.

(I feel compelled to suggest a deeply Machiavellian counter-response. If Lester is tearing up the league at mid-season, and the Royals – or Red Sox, if he’s not traded – are not in contention, there’s a simple way to ensure that he won’t be able to opt out of his 2014 contract: trade him to an NL team. His split-league performance will keep him from doing well in either Cy Young vote – look at C.C. Sabathia’s 2008 performance as an example – and keep him under contract for another season with his new team, which will therefore be willing to pay in prospects accordingly.)

Moore wants to add at least one more impact arm and would prefer to do so by trading prospects from the club’s farm system rather than deal someone off the major-league roster.

What really puts the folly of trading for Lester into focus is this: if Moore really wants to add one more impact arm, and has the ability to add Lester’s contract to the payroll, HE DOESN’T HAVE TO TRADE FOR A PITCHER. He can simply sign another one as a free agent.

Jon Lester is owed $24.625 million over the next two years. I’m going on record now as predicting that Shaun Marcum, when he signs in the next few weeks, will not be paid as much over the next two years. I’m confident about this because the Brewers declined to make Marcum a qualifying offer. They could have offered Marcum a 1-year, $13.3 million contract, knowing that if he turned it down, they would have received a supplemental draft pick in compensation. That they did not do so strongly suggests that they were concerned Marcum would accept their offer – and they weren’t willing to commit that much money, even for one year.

I expect Marcum to sign for something like $20 million for two years. Maybe he’ll get a three-year deal for less money, for similar to what Jeremy Guthrie got. But basically, if the Royals can afford to take on Jon Lester’s contract, they can afford to make the best offer to Marcum.

Gun to my head, I’d rather have Lester over Marcum over the next two years, simply because Lester has shown more durability. But it’s awfully close. The difference between Lester and Marcum might be, what, one win a season? And for that one win, you’d trade one of the five best prospects in all of baseball? Are you insane?

James Shields is a more valuable commodity than Lester. He’s thrown 477 innings over the last two years with a 3.15 ERA. (Although keep in mind that he had a 5.18 ERA in 2010.) His strikeout rate continues to tick up, this past year reaching 23.6%, and his command has always been excellent. Like Lester, he’s signed for 2013 with a  2014 option, but there’s no voiding option, and he’s cheaper - $9 million in 2013, $12 million in 2014.

But he pitches for the Rays, in one of the best pitchers’ parks in the game, in front of one of the defenses in the game, for one of the best managers in the game. If you take him out of that organization, he doesn’t bring all of those advantages with him. He would give the Royals a ton of innings and a solid ERA in the mid-3s. But he’s not an ace, and it would be crazy to trade Wil Myers for two years of a #2 starter.

My God, has everyone forgotten what happened last winter? The New York Yankees traded Jesus Montero for Michael Pineda. Pineda, like Lester and Shields, was an established #2 starter in the majors. He had a 3.74 ERA as a rookie, struck out over a man an inning, and made the All-Star team. For Montero, they didn’t get two years of Pineda – they got FIVE years of Pineda.

The similarities between Montero last year and Myers today are almost frightening. Montero was the #6 prospect in the game by Baseball America; Myers will, I predict, rank #4 on their list, behind only Jurickson Profar, Dylan Bundy, and Oscar Taveras. Both Montero and Myers were bat-first prospects who started their careers at catcher. Myers is more athletic, and is expected to have more defensive value in the long run as an outfielder; Montero still catches occasionally, but is expected to give that up eventually and wind up as a 1B/DH.

Myers’ career line in the minors is .303/.395/.522. Montero’s career line in the minors is .308/.366/.501.

As a 21-year-old in Triple-A, Montero hit .288/.348/.467 – but hit .328/.406/.590 in an 18-game callup in September. As a 21-year-old in Triple-A, Myers hit .304/.378/.554 (and hit .343/.414/.731 in Double-A for a month first). You can make a case for either player, but basically, Wil Myers today has almost exactly the same value as Jesus Montero had a year ago.

For Jesus Montero, the Yankees got five years of an established major-league starter, who was still two years away from being arbitration-eligible. And they also got a promising second prospect, Jose Campos, who allowed less than a baserunner an inning as an 18-year-old pitching in the Northwest League. (The Yankees tossed Hector Noesi into the deal; Noesi had a 5.82 ERA for the Mariners this year, and is a non-entity at this point.)

The people arguing that the Royals should trade Wil Myers for a starting pitcher make the case that even the best prospects aren’t a sure thing, and that Myers might wind up being a big disappointment in 2013. They’re right. He could end up doing what Jesus Montero did this year – Montero hit .260/.298/.386 while playing every day for the Mariners.

And guess what? THEY’D STILL MAKE THE TRADE AGAIN. They traded a 22-year-old starter with five years of service time, and a quality second arm, for Montero, watched as Montero stunk up the joint, and at least right now, they’ve clearly won the trade. Because Pineda, of course, tore up his rotator cuff in spring training, missed the entire season, and no one knows what his stuff will be like when he returns.

And now you’re telling me the Royals are even thinking of trading Wil Myers for two expensive seasons from a #2 starting pitcher? Are you insane?

Or just look at what the Royals got for Zack Greinke. They got Alcides Escobar, the #12 prospect in baseball a year before, but whose stock had dropped considerably after hitting .235 as a rookie. They got Jake Odorizzi, who was ranked the #69 prospect in baseball after the trade. They got Lorenzo Cain and Jeremy Jeffress, neither of whom were Top 100 prospects. I’ll take liberties here and call Cain and Escobar “prospects” even though they had exhausted their rookie status, and say that the Royals traded Greinke into a Top 50 prospect, a 51-100 prospect, a 101-150 prospect, and a 151-200 prospect.

Any retrospective analysis of prospect lists will lead you to the conclusion that you’d rather have a single Top 10 prospect – particularly a hitting prospect – than the four guys above. Wil Myers alone is worth more than the four guys that they got for Zack Greinke.

And by the way, Jon Lester and James Shields are not Zack Greinke. Greinke was a year removed from the most dominant season by any starting pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 2000. In his down year in 2010, he had just a 4.17 ERA – better than Lester this season – and 181 Ks against just 55 walks, while pitching the second half of the season like he’d rather be digging ditches than on the mound at Kauffman Stadium. He was still worth 3.2 Wins Above Replacement. By comparison, in 2012, Shields was only worth 2.2 WAR, and Lester was at 0.4.

If anything, the Brewers were willing to overpay for Greinke, because the way their roster was set up – with Prince Fielder set to be a free agent in two years – they felt that their best chance to win was immediately. That’s one of the reasons I was so optimistic about the trade initially – because the Brewers seemed to have an incentive to overpay in future talent in order to acquire talent in the here and now.

So to recap: two years ago, the Brewers – who were pushing to win right away – overpaid to acquire Zack Greinke. They still gave up less talent to acquire a better pitcher than the Royals would give up to acquire Jon Lester or James Shields.

Are the Royals insane?

Maybe there’s nothing to this. As a friend pointed out, virtually every significant move the Royals have made under Dayton Moore was not leaked beforehand. If you’re an optimist, you might even convince yourself that the fact we’re talking about Lester and Shields means the Royals won’t trade for either player. But it’s clear they want to add another starter, and it’s clear that they’re willing to do so by any means necessary.

And it worries me that for the first time, we have a case of moral hazard on our hands. Moral hazard refers to what happens when an individual takes risks knowing that they won’t suffer the downside if their gamble goes sour. (c.f. Every bank in America during the housing bubble.) In this case, Dayton Moore knows that if the Royals don’t start winning in 2013, he’s probably out of a job. So the risk that Wil Myers becomes a superstar in 2015 is, to him, less concerning than the risk that the Royals will win 79 games in 2013 instead of 83.

This isn’t something unique to Moore – every GM or manager approaching the end of their contract will have their interests focused on the short term more than the organization as a whole should. And until now, Moore has done a good job – maybe too good a job – of focusing on the long term, by concentrating on high school talent in the draft, spending millions on 16-year-olds in Latin America, etc.

But if he trades Wil Myers for a two-year pitcher, he’s sacrificing the organization’s ability to contend from 2015 through 2019 for a short-term gain. That would be fine if the Royals are where the Brewers were two years ago – but they’re not. This is a team that should continue to improve for the next 3-4 years, at least until Alex Gordon and Billy Butler are eligible for free agency, if not until Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas do the same.

I have advocated that the Royals make a play for 2013, because I think they have a chance to contend next year if they play their cards right. But not at the expensive of sacrificing their long-term future. Trading Jorge Bonifacio or Jason Adam is one thing. Trading Wil Myers is quite another. If you can’t get an ace (David Price), or at least a cost-controlled pitcher with years of service time (Jeremy Hellickson, although even he’s not enough), then you don’t do it. It’s as simple as that.

And after all that, it’s time to talk about the really depressing part of Dutton’s column, the part about the “soft $70 million ceiling”. There have been signs that the Royals’ payroll has been capped at that point for over a year, but I’ve tried my best to ignore it, because I’ve stubbornly believed that ownership could not possibly be so dumb as to claim that they can’t afford to spend more than $70 million in payroll. They couldn’t possibly be so dumb as to think that the fans would buy it.

Last month I finally came down on the Royals for crying poverty, and now, finally, the artillery is coming out everywhere. To recap:

- The Royals had a payroll in excess of $70 million in 2009, and again in 2010.

- Revenue is going up throughout the sport at a breakneck pace.

- National TV revenue goes up by about $26 million starting in 2014.

- The Royals are limited from spending as much on amateur talent acquisition as they used to by the new CBA.

Given those four facts, in what universe are the Royals limited to a $70 million payroll?

Here’s a real quick accounting of revenue:

- Starting in 2014, every team in MLB will earn a total of $50 million from the national TV contract.

- The Royals, even saddled with a long-term local TV deal that was signed before the money explosion, still earn $20 million annually from their deal.

That’s $70 million right there, which would cover payroll. True, the Royals have non-payroll expenses, employees, draft picks, minor leagues, etc. But then consider:

- If we conservatively assume attendance of 1.6 million, and conservatively assume an average of $30 spent per attendee on tickets, concessions, parking, etc – that’s $48 million.

And THEN we have to remember that the Royals are one of the prime beneficiaries of MLB’s revenue sharing, which brings in tens of millions of dollars to the organization. That enormous $250 million a year TV contract the Dodgers are signing? 34% of that goes to a central fund. If that’s distributed evenly to all 30 teams, that means the Royals will earn $3 million just from the Dodgers’ TV deal. And I’m pretty sure it’s not distributed evenly – the lower-revenue teams get more of the central fund money.

Put it together, and Forbes estimates that the Royals had $161 million in revenue in 2011. Throw in the new TV contract and the rise in ticket prices, and we’re talking about over $200 million in revenue in 2014.

And they have a $70 million ceiling. But hey, it’s “soft”, so it’s all good.

It’s time to take the gloves off. Sam Mellinger did a fine job in today’s paper, but honestly, he could have been even harder on the Glass family, and not just because the Star prohibits the use of profanity. Saying the Royals could “extend the payroll to at least $75 million and as much as $80 million” is entirely too kind – based on the publicly available numbers, the Royals can go to $85 million easy. And it’s not because “Glass and the Royals have saved more than enough he last few years” – it’s because even at $85 million, the Glass family should do no worse than break even, and probably still turn a tidy profit.

The game is swimming in cash, and a rising tide lifts all boats, even the little dinghy that the Royals live on. If David Glass thinks he can’t afford to spend more than $70 million in payroll, then he’s incredibly cheap. If he thinks that the fans will believe that he can’t afford to spend more than $70 million in payroll, then he’s incredibly cynical.

I’d like to believe he’s neither, because I’m a charitable sort. But in the coming days, we’re going to find out if he actually cares about winning, or if he’s just Jeffrey Loria without the tacky taste in home run sculptures.

If the Royals extend the payroll to even $80 million, they still have plenty of space to work with. I’ve finally done a complete analysis of their payroll obligations, and right now their 2013 payroll looks to be around $67 million. (There’s some disagreement over exactly how Jeff Francoeur’s contract breaks down, and I can only guess at what Aaron Crow will make, given that he’s not arbitration-eligible but signed a major-league contract out of the draft.)

But comments like these: “The truth of the matter,” Moore said, “is if we add another pitcher…there wouldn’t be room to add that individual unless we got rid of somebody else.” – make it sound like $80 million is out of the question. Which is utterly, completely indefensible.

Even at $70 million, the Royals can add another player, since “somebody else” can easily be Luke Hochevar and his $4.4 million obligation. But the margin for error is tiny, and it leads to desperate ideas like possibly cutting Felipe Paulino and his $2.7 million contract.

Which circles us back to where we started: if you’re really limited to a $70 million payroll, then there is NOTHING more valuable to you than a star prospect who’s ready to step onto your roster, and be paid the major league minimum for the next three years. If, instead, you prefer to commit almost $25 million over the next two years to a starting pitcher coming off a bad season, then you understand nothing about economics, or even basic math.

This could be a tempest in a teapot. But this could also be the prelude to a franchise-altering mistake. The Royals have the resources to add one more starting pitcher using the same method they added their last starting pitcher, through free agency. If, through stinginess or short-sightedness, they trade their best prospect instead, it’s going to be open season on the organization, and I have my shotgun at the ready.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

For Want Of A Pitcher: Jeremy Guthrie.

Before we talk about what the Royals gave up to re-sign Jeremy Guthrie, let’s talk about what they did not give up: talent. They gave up money, lots of money, probably too much money. But they did not surrender any players. Given that it’s the rare day that goes by without a rumor breaking that the Royals are trying to trade for pitching, this is significant. Given that most of those rumors involve the Royals trading established major league hitters – or Wil Myers, who’s almost the same thing – for pitching, it’s even more significant.

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating again: before the Royals dip into their impressive pool of talent to acquire starting pitching, they should dip into their financial reserves, which are impressive in their own right, even though no one in the organization wants to admit it. You don’t get bonus points for winning on a $60 million payroll, and I’d rather the Royals go to war at $80 million than sacrifice young talent to keep that payroll at a Raysian level.

We can argue over whether Dayton Moore spent this money wisely, but at least he had money to spend. Given his comments from a few weeks ago, it wasn’t entirely clear that that was the case.

I already performed a (somewhat superficial) analysis of Guthrie in September, and I’d like to lean on that analysis a little, because coming before we knew if the Royals would re-sign him or not, it should probably be taken more seriously than any analysis I’d do today. At the time, I estimated that Guthrie’s 4.12 ERA from 2007 to 2011 was probably inflated by around 20 points because 1) he pitched for the one patsy in the toughest division in baseball and 2) his home ballpark was poorly suited for his talents. Combine that with the league-wide drop in ERA over the last two years, and I estimated that his true talent level, in today’s terms, was around a 3.70 ERA.

I also suggested that the Royals sign him for 2 years and $15 million. Obviously, that’s not what happened. Essentially, we can break his contract into two parts. He signed a heavily backloaded two-year deal ($5 million in 2013, $11 million in 2014), which given the backloading is almost exactly what I suggested. He also got a guaranteed third year at $9 million.

If Guthrie had signed a two-year, backloaded, $16 million deal with a club option for $9 million in 2015, I’d be pretty happy at the moment. The difference is that the option is guaranteed. That’s not a trivial difference, obviously, and it’s why I’m essentially neutral on the signing overall. But I’ll admit to being a little surprised by just how much vitriol this contract is getting from certain quarters – most notably Royals Review, where they believe the Royals have just shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and they’re advocating revolution.

Here are the marks against Guthrie:

1) He turns 34 in April, and will be 36 in the final, guaranteed year of his contract.

2) He doesn’t strike anyone out – a career ratio of just 5.4 Ks per 9 innings, and just 5.0 per 9 innings in 2012.

3) He’s not that good a pitcher – a career ERA of 4.28 is basically average, and since he’s getting older, he’s not likely to be even average going forward.

4) He had a 4.76 ERA in 2012.

My rebuttal to these points would start with one thing: the fact that Jeremy Guthrie sucked donkey balls for one half-season in the worst pitchers’ park in major league history should not be held against him. Take out his time with the Rockies, and Guthrie’s career ERA drops to 4.11; his ERA in 2012 (3.16) would be a career high. It’s not just his ERA – the drop in Guthrie’s strikeout rate in 2012 was entirely an artifact of his time in Colorado. After joining the Royals, Guthrie struck out 15.7% of the batters he faced, which would (narrowly) be a career-high for him.

The last time the Royals signed a potential free agent to an extension on the basis of a fine (but small sample size) performance in a Royals uniform, it was Jeff Francoeur. I was ambivalent at the time about giving him a two-year, $13.5 million contract, and obviously I was dead wrong – I should have been adamantly against it. The core of my mistake (and the Royals) was that I simply weighed his most recent performance, the 2011 season, too strongly. I thought that his improvement was so broad – higher batting average, more doubles, more homers – that some of it was probably real. It was not. I was wrong.

Many of the people who are ripping the Royals for giving $25 million to a #4 starter were equally upset about the Francoeur signing. They were right. But if the central error in the Francoeur signing was weighing recent evidence too heavily, I think that calling Jeremy Guthrie a below-average starter evokes the same mistake. In contrast to Francoeur, the anomaly in Guthrie's performance was the sample size in which he sucked. And in Guthrie’s case, it wasn’t even a full season – it was a half-season, in a terrible ballpark (even with the Rockies, he had a 3.67 ERA on the road), and he’s already regressed to his previous performance level.

Incidentally, if you think that Guthrie’s performance with the Orioles – to say nothing of his time in Kansas City – made him “a #4 starter”, your frame of reference must be the 2011 Phillies rotation. For five years, Guthrie averaged 197 innings with a 107 ERA+ in the AL East. Maybe he’ll be a #4 starter going forward, but he’s been considerably more than that in his career.

The first two points above are more on point: Guthrie is getting older, and older pitchers tend to stop missing bats, and Guthrie wasn’t missing bats in the first place. That has to be the most frightening scenario for the Royals, that Guthrie suddenly turns into Aaron Cook or Livan Hernandez or something.

I find it somewhat mysterious that Guthrie has such a low strikeout rate in the first place, because he’s not a soft-tosser by any means. His fastball has averaged over 92 mph every year of his career. If he relied on a sinker, I could see how he might have a low strikeout rate because he aimed to get groundballs, but he’s actually a mildly flyball-oriented pitcher. Cook, by comparison, hasn’t averaged even 90 mph on his fastball since 2008, back when he was still good. No one knows how hard Hernandez throws because his fastball doesn’t set off the radar gun. (He averaged 84.0 mph this year. Livan hasn’t averaged more than 85 mph in the last seven years. He’s basically Jamie Moyer, only right-handed.)

That doesn’t change the fact that Guthrie’s strikeout rate is concerning. And admittedly, things like Pitch f/x data and fastball velocity are not my forte; when I say things like “given two pitchers with low strikeout rates, bet on the guy who throws harder”, I’m just guessing. But in Guthrie’s defense, his strikeout rate has held steady for the last four years, more or less, and perhaps more importantly, so has his fastball velocity. He averaged 92.6 mph this year, the same as he did in 2010 and higher than his average velocity in 2009 and 2011.

It’s hard to be successful as a pitcher in the modern era while striking out less than six men per nine innings. Guthrie has made a career out of it, in large part because his career BABIP is .278. His .298 BABIP this season was the highest of his career, and that was entirely because he had to pitch at Coors Field – after joining the Royals, it was .271. That’s roughly 20 points better than average, in a sample size that’s large enough to suggest it’s real. Combine that with above-average control (2.7 walks per 9 innings for his career, just 2.4 walks per 9 since 2010 not counting his Coors experience), and he’s been able to parlay a below-average strikeout rate into slightly above-average results.

I want to go on a tangent for a second…one of the criticisms I’ve seen of Guthrie is that based on fWAR – the Wins Above Replacement formula used by Fangraphs – he’s not a very good pitcher. He’s averaged barely 2 fWAR over the last six years, and has never been worth more than 2.6 fWAR in his career. Here’s the problem with that:

Jeremy Guthrie, 2008-2012: 9.5 fWAR
Luke Hochevar, 2008-2012: 8.9 fWAR

If you believe in fWAR as the end-all and be-all of player evaluation, then you have to believe that Luke Hochevar has been worth 1.8 fWAR per season – which is to say that he’s been a roughly league-average pitcher. According to Fangraphs, Hochevar has been worth at least $6.7 million in each of the last five years, so the Royals would be crazy not to bring him back for 2013 at less than $5 million.

Needless to say, that’s ridiculous.

The Fangraphs’ version of WAR defers from Baseball-Reference’s version in that Fangraphs seeks to strip out the noise from a pitcher’s performance. Instead of using runs allowed, Fangraphs looks at the component measures of a pitcher’s performance (walks, strikeouts, homers) to estimate his true value. There’s nothing wrong with this – I do this a lot when I mention a pitcher’s xFIP instead of his ERA. For a pitcher without a long track record in the majors, using these component measures usually leads to a better estimate of future performance.

But in the case of a pitcher who has over- or under-performed his components, year after year after year, at some point you throw up your hands and say that he is what he is, and not what he should be. In Hochevar’s case, he has a 4.28 xFIP for his career, but a 5.39 ERA, because he turns into jelly when there are men on base. Three years ago, when Hochevar had a 6.55 ERA despite a good strikeout-to-walk ratio and groundball tendencies, I had hope that his ERA was a fluke and he was primed to improve. Three years later, that hope is gone.

In Guthrie’s case, he has a 4.63 career xFIP but a 4.28 ERA, because he has consistently been above-average in preventing hits on balls in play. In a sample size of over 1200 innings, there’s a good chance that this isn’t a fluke, and there’s something about the way he pitches that leads to a slightly better-than-average BABIP. According to Baseball Reference, which measures value by runs allowed, Guthrie has been worth 12.4 bWAR over the last six years – 30% more than Fangraphs’ method.

But you know what’s funny? Even if you use Fangraphs’ method, and even accounting for Guthrie’s epic fail in Colorado, they estimate his worth over the last three years at $23.8 million. And yet a backloaded $25 million over the next three years, in an inflationary era, has some people grabbing pitchforks.

Another tangent: can we all please stop lumping in Player X with Players A, B, and C to make the argument that Player X is overpaid? Saying that signing Guthrie is stupid because the Royals are now paying $17 million for Guthrie, Jeff Francoeur, and Bruce Chen in 2013 makes as much since as saying that signing Guthrie is brilliant because they’re paying him, Salvador Perez, and Alcides Escobar $9 million in 2013. Billy Butler and Rany Jazayerli combined to hit .313 this season. It’s a non sequitur. Please stop it.

Let me turn to another impartial assessment of Guthrie’s skills. ESPN’s Keith Law put together his list of the Top 50 Free Agents on this year’s market, and ranked Jeremy Guthrie #26 on his list. Three spots higher, at #23, was Shaun Marcum. I was actually doing a write-up of Marcum before Guthrie was signed, and I struggled with the decision of which pitcher I’d rather have. On the one hand, Marcum is three years younger and has the better career numbers (3.76 ERA). On the other hand, Marcum has an extensive injury history – including missing two months in 2012 with recurrent elbow problems – and his fastball averaged just 86.5 mph this past season.

I ultimately came to the conclusion that Marcum was better, but very marginally so – which corresponds to Law’s assessment, which is that they were the 10th and 11th-best starters on the free agent market. Given that, it will be interesting to see what Marcum gets in free agency. He might not get a three-year deal given his injury history, but I expect him to get more money per season, maybe something along the lines of 2 years and $20 million. If Marcum’s fair value is 2/$20, then Guthrie at $3/25 is only a slight overpay.

At the beginning of the off-season I made the statement that this was the off-season where it actually made sense to strike early on the free agent market, given that I expect we’re going to see significant inflation with all the new TV money sloshing around. I’m going to own that statement. If I’m wrong about salary inflation, then I’m wrong to not condemn this contract. We’ll know the answer to both in the next 4-6 weeks.

I’m not complimenting the Royals on this signing. I have serious reservations about the guaranteed third year; there’s a significant chance that in 2015, Guthrie will contribute virtually nothing for his $9 million. But I’m not condemning it either. The Royals improved their rotation for 2013. They structured the contract in such a way that they might still have room to add one more starter in free agency – like, say, Shaun Marcum – that would obviate the need to trade prospects or established young hitters to improve their rotation. They cut Chris Volstad, making this column completely invalid. (Thankfully.)

I acknowledge that my opinion, while shared by many in the mainstream media, is not shared by analysts. Joe Sheehan texted me Guthrie is “fungible talent without upside, and locking up money for a team that’s cheap.” Dave Cameron was not complimentary of the deal either. Cameron made what I thought was an excellent comparison to Bronson Arroyo, who two winters ago signed a three-year extension with the Reds. Arroyo was the same age then as Guthrie is now, and essentially the same pitcher – very durable, but striking out barely 5 batters per 9 innings, making him barely above league-average overall despite good command.

From 2005 to 2010, Arroyo amassed 17.8 bWAR. From 2007 to 2012, Guthrie amassed 16.1 bWAR – but in the superior league. Very comparable.

Arroyo couldn’t have pitched much worse in the first year of his contract, leading the NL in homers and earned runs allowed. But he bounced back strongly in 2012, throwing 202 innings with a 3.74 ERA, and throwing seven one-hit innings in his sole playoff start.

I don’t know whether Guthrie will perform better or worse than Arroyo has. But I know this: when Arroyo signed, Reds fans weren’t threatening to revolt. And Arroyo got $36 million for three years.

Or take Mark Buehrle, who’s the same age as Guthrie, and like Guthrie survives without striking batters out. Buehrle is obviously superior – he’s left-handed, he’s amazingly durable, and he’s pitched at a slightly higher level than Guthrie. But Buehrle is going make $48 million over the next three years. The Blue Jays gave up talent to land his contract – admittedly, with a lot of other contracts attached – and were lauded for it.

Guthrie isn’t the pitcher Mark Buehrle is. But is he half the pitcher Buehrle is? I think he is. (Buehrle has 25.4 bWAR over the last six years.) If you think that the Blue Jays – who, like the Royals, are aggressively trying to overhaul their rotation to contend in 2013 – made a good move to land Buehrle, I’m not sure why you’d be up in arms over Guthrie’s contract.

I think it’s an overpay because of that third year. But I think it’s a reasonable overpay if it gives the Royals a true chance to contend in 2013. Which is the main reason why I’m not putting my foot down on either side of the scale yet. As it stands, the Royals need to add one more starting pitcher – preferably better than the Santana/Guthrie class – to be taken seriously as a possible contender next season. If the Royals don’t add another pitcher, or if they rip out the heart of their offense to do so, then they’ll open 2013 on the fringe again. If that happens, the main benefit of Guthrie’s contract – the low payroll cost for his service in 2013 – will be wasted, while the main downside of his contract will hamstring the team’s payroll in 2015.

As the Royals’ roster is currently constructed, their payroll for next year is around $70 or 71 million – which means, if you lop off Hochevar, it’s around $66 million. Again, that’s less than their payroll three years ago. There is PLENTY of room to add another starting pitcher, and they don’t have to give up Wil Myers or Eric Hosmer in order to acquire a young, cheap pitcher like Jeremy Hellickson. They can sign Marcum, or gamble on Dan Haren, or trade lesser prospects for a more expensive pitcher like James Shields or Matt Garza.

If they do so, and their Opening Day rotation goes (as an example) Shields, Santana, Guthrie, Chen, and Mendoza, with Jake Odorizzi ready to step in at a moment’s notice, and Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino returning by mid-season, and Kyle Zimmer and Yordano Ventura and John Lamb on the fast track…you can win with that in 2013, if your offense takes a step forward and your bullpen replicates what it did last year.

If their rotation is Santana, Guthrie, Chen, Hochevar, and Mendoza, now you’re going to need a miracle. Or Hochevar suddenly pitching up to his ability, which is even less likely.

So I’m not willing to sign off on this deal yet. The Royals needed three quality pitchers for 2013, and they only have two of them so far. But they landed both of them without surrendering any real talent, and they now have an entire winter to find that one final piece.