Last off-season, after I sorted through dozens of options to upgrade the Royals’ beleaguered rotation, they went off the board by trading for Jonathan Sanchez. I have barely begun to look at this off-season’s pitching options, but I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty that I could have put together a list a hundred deep and wouldn’t have gotten to Chris Volstad.
That’s not to say Chris Volstad is a complete bum. A year ago, in fact, he was a very interesting buy-low candidate. Theo Epstein certainly thought so; the new Cubs’ president* got Volstad from the Marlins in return for Carlos Zambrano – with the Cubs picking up the bulk of Big Z’s contract.
*: Poor Jed Hoyer. He’s been the Cubs’ GM for a year now and probably 80% of Cubs fans think that Epstein holds his job.
It’s not hard to see why. Volstad reached the majors when he was 21 and had a 2.88 ERA in 14 starts. He’s never been that good again, but he’s a groundball pitcher (50% career rate, relative to league average of around 44%) with good control. His strikeout rate is below average, but still, two out of three ain’t bad. In 2011, he had a 4.89 ERA, but his xFIP was 3.64. He was like a better version of Luke Hochevar – a pitcher who should be better than he was, but who wasn’t terrible as is.
That was then. Now, after a season in which he had a 6.31 ERA, his strikeouts dropped, his walks jumped, and he extended his personal losing streak to 14 games before breaking it – well, that ship has sailed. The Cubs put him on waivers. The Royals claimed him.
Now, this was just a waiver claim – the Royals have made no commitment to Volstad, they could cut him tomorrow if they wanted. They did much the same thing with Aaron Laffey a year ago, and quietly made him disappear not long thereafter. Volstad’s still just 26 years old, and his fastball velocity this season (91.2 mph) was actually higher than it was in 2011 or 2010. It’s possible he just had a bad year. As a non-roster invitee, a guy you bring to camp with a chance to make the team, Volstad would actually be a nice little pickup.
The problem is that Volstad’s not an NRI. He’s on the roster, and he’s due big money in 2013 if he stays there. Volstad made $2.655 million with the Cubs last year, and he’s arbitration-eligible for the second time. If the Royals keep him, he’s due about $3 million, per Baseball Trade Rumors’ salary estimates.
That kind of money for that level of expected performance makes Hochevar’s contract look...well, not good, but better. Volstad has a 4.87 career ERA, pitching in the easier league, without the DH. Sure he’s young, but while some young guys blossom later, most young guys just get old.
And again, if the Royals keep him, he’s going to get paid as much as Alcides Escobar will next season.
I’d feel better about the pickup of Volstad if this meant that the Royals were going to cut ties with Hochevar. You replace Hochevar with a younger, less-talented but also less-maddening version, and save $1-2 million in the process. That’s still worse than just releasing Hochevar outright, but at least you can see the upside.
But there’s every indication that the Royals are digging their heels in on Hochevar, choosing to put their faith in the starting pitcher with the second-worst ERA in major-league history (min: 120 starts), behind only the last pitcher they dug their heels in on, Kyle Davies.
The worst part of all of this, though, are Dayton Moore’s comments in the wake of the Volstad claim.
“We know who we are and how we have to build this team,” general manager Dayton Moore said, “and how we have to build our rotation. We’re going to be as aggressive as we can, but we know who we are and how we need to do it.”
We know who we are.
Who are we, exactly? Are we the team with the bright and shiny future forecasted by everyone ever since we had the Best Farm System Ever two years ago? The team that only needs to add a couple of starting pitchers to contend and has tens of millions in payroll space with which to do just that?
Or are we the team that’s unwilling to raise payroll – even when Fox, ESPN, and TBS are making it rain to the tune of an extra $28 million per team starting in 2014? Even though the Royals’ amateur budget, which was $19 million in 2011, was limited to about $9 million by the new CBA this year?
Let’s assume that the Royals were only able to spend $19 million on amateur talent in 2011 because their major league payroll was miniscule – less than $40 million – thanks to a reliance on rookie players. In 2010, their payroll was between $72 and $75 million, depending on which figures you use. They spent close to $10 million on amateur talent. Let’s conservatively say $82 million, total. Add $28 million in new TV revenue to that, and that’s $110 million to spend – and at most $10 million can be spent on amateur talent.
The Glass family claims that they’ve run the franchise to break even, but they’ve never claimed to take a loss. So if they could break even with a $72 million payroll in 2010, they can break even with a $100 million payroll in 2014, even if they don’t earn an additional dime from increased attendance, concessions, their local TV contract, etc.
I’m not asking for a $100 million payroll – I’m just asking for $85 million in 2013. But Dayton Moore’s comments make that possibility seem bleak.
“We’ve got to look internally,” he said. “We’ve got to look through trades. We’ve got to look, certainly, through free agency…we might be able to pick off a player or two, but we’re not going to build our team through free agency. It won’t work.”
I can’t confirm whether Moore was waving a white flag while he gave this quote.
No one’s asking you to build a team through free agency. We’re asking you to finish a team through free agency. You’ve got your entire lineup in place, more or less. You have a complete bullpen. You’ve got a half-dozen options to fill the #4 and #5 slots in your rotation. All we’re asking you to do is to find three, and if not three then two, competent solutions for your starting rotation. They don’t even all have to be free agents – you certainly have the farm system talent to trade for one above-average starting pitcher. Really, all we want is one good, solid, #2 starting pitcher in free agency.
Instead, you’re giving us Chris Volstad.
These dollars have club officials pondering more affordable alternatives as a bridge to what they see as a coming wave of homegrown rotation help by the start of the 2014 season – plus the return of Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino from elbow surgery.
Those are Bob Dutton’s words, but they reflect the organization’s thinking, I’m sure. And look, I’m sympathetic to the idea that the Royals don’t want to commit millions of dollars to a pitcher in 2016 or 2017, which will likely be wasted money at that point, to fill a need that primarily exists for 2013. It’s true that, by 2014, Duffy and Paulino should be healthy, and that Jake Odorizzi, John Lamb, Yordano Ventura, and even Kyle Zimmer might be ready for a rotation spot. Obviously all six guys won’t make it, but if even two or three of them are ready, the Royals will have much less need for external starting pitchers than they do now.
But if that’s the case, do what I suggested earlier and trade for Dan Haren’s one-year option. If that’s not possible – Haren apparently has a no-trade clause to eight teams, although we don’t know whether the Royals are on his list – then explore the trade market for pitchers with one year left on their contracts, like Josh Johnson and Matt Garza.
But what you don’t want to do is spend $3 million on Chris Volstad. You certainly don’t want to spend $3 million on Volstad, and $5 million on Luke Hochevar, and maybe another $2 million to bring back Joakim Soria, and then claim you don’t have the money to pursue a high-end starting pitcher.
It’s Baseball Economics 101 – a dollar is always worth more than four quarters. You’re always better off paying for one premier free agent than spreading that money around three or four fringy guys. Back in 2006, the Royals spent $10.85 million on four free agents – Scott Elarton, Mark Grudzielanek, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Joe Mays. I shouted from the rooftops that they should put all that money into one basket – specifically, A.J. Burnett.
Burnett signed with the Blue Jays for $11 million a year, and was an above-average starter for three straight years before he opted out of the last two years of his contract. The opt-out wasn’t good for the Jays, but on the other hand, the contract was backloaded so they actually only paid him $28.6 million for three years. Elarton and Mays, meanwhile, were so titanically (and predictably) awful that Allard Baird lost his job two months into the season.
I’m reminded of 2006 right now not just because the Royals are in danger of repeating the same mistake, but because reading Moore’s comments, I sense the same thing I sensed with Baird towards the end: he’s defeated. He’s trying his best to put together a winning roster, but the payroll constraints that have been placed on him by ownership are starting to weigh him down. I think he’s been told in no uncertain terms that the payroll will not reach $85 million next season, and he’s struggling to find a way to put together a rotation with those limitations.
With that in mind, the report – courtesy Geoff Baker and the Seattle Times – that the Royals are actively scouting James Paxton makes me even more nervous. Paxton is a fine pitching prospect, a left-hander who touches 95 and has a vicious curveball. Baseball America ranked him the #52 prospect in the land this spring, and then he went out and had a very good year in Double-A. But compare:
James Paxton, 2012: 106 IP, 96 H, 54 BB, 110 K, 5 HR, 3.05 ERA
Chris Dwyer, 2010: 102 IP, 90 H, 43 BB, 113 K, 5 HR, 3.00 ERA
That’s probably not fair to Paxton – Dwyer spent most of that season in high-A. Dwyer was ranked the #83 prospect after that season – Paxton is already a Top 100 prospect. On the other hand, Dwyer was a year younger than Paxton is now.
The point is that hard-throwing lefties with a good curveball and command issues are hardly a sure thing. I like Paxton a lot, and would be happy to have him. But what’s concerning is that the Royals seem interested in him as a way to fix their rotation issues in 2013. It makes no sense for the Royals to be interested in him otherwise. By their own statements, they think they can build a 2014 rotation from within – so why would they trade for Paxton unless they think that he can help them sooner?
And why would Paxton be so appealing? Well, he’d make the major league minimum. The Royals’ interest in him – if they indeed have interest – would be another indication that they’re trying to improve their rotation without increasing the payroll.
The problem is, you ain’t getting James Paxton for nothing. And you’re not getting him for other pitching prospects – the Mariners are as desperate for hitters as the Royals are for starting pitchers. If they can get him for Jorge Bonifacio and Cheslor Cuthbert, more power to them. But they’re not. They’d either be trading an established position player for him (Gordon, Butler, Moustakas, Hosmer), which makes no sense…or they’d be trading Wil Myers.
Which is crazy. Even if the Mariners throw in something of substance to make up for the fact that Myers is the better prospect, trading an elite hitting prospect for an elite pitching prospect is a bad, bad idea. The Mariners know this – last year they traded Michael Pineda, who wasn’t just an elite pitching prospect but an elite pitcher, who made the All-Star Team as a rookie starter, for Jesus Montero, who had played just 18 games in the major leagues. Montero wasn’t great as a rookie DH/catcher for Seattle, but is still immensely talented, and is probably a big part of their decision to move in the fences at Safeco next season. But Pineda had surgery to repair a torn labrum in March and missed the whole year, and his future is very much in doubt.
It is very, very possible that I’m reading too much into a simple waiver claim and some generic quotes from our general manager. I certainly hope I am. It’s still October, free agent season hasn’t even begun, it’s still a month before teams have to tender contracts. It’s even possible that by the time you read this, the Royals will have already made a move on Haren – his option has to be picked up by tomorrow, and he’s expected to be traded before then.
But the more I try to connect the dots, the more I’m worried that:
1) The Royals’ payroll will be far more limited than it should be for 2013, and
2) Even if the financial resources he has to work with are limited, Dayton Moore isn’t exactly covering himself in glory with the way he’s using them.
If the Glass family has given him a payroll figure that is tying his hands, then I’m sympathetic to Moore. On the other hand, it’s hard to muster much sympathy to a GM who’s insisting on keeping Luke Hochevar around, and now has added Chris Volstad, which commits $8 million in payroll to two pitchers who are below replacement-level. I was sympathetic to Allard Baird as well given his payroll constraints, but giving Scott Elarton a two-year, $8 million contract used up all that sympathy in one stroke.
Six years after Dayton Moore was hired, this is the rotation that the Royals would open the season with if the season began today: Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen, Luis Mendoza, Chris Volstad, and either Jake Odorizzi or Will Smith.
Six years after Dayton Moore told us that “pitching is the currency of baseball,” he’s still flat broke.
I don’t think they’re going to open the season with that rotation, because they can’t. They just can’t. They’re going to upgrade it somewhere, and somehow. But if Moore is unable to raise payroll in order to do so, his options are limited. And if one of his preferred options is to trade one of his elite hitters for a high-quality but risky pitching prospect like James Paxton, the cure may be worse than the disease.
So right now, I’m not going to lie to you: I’m nervous. And I just want to let the Royals know – they’re playing with fire right now. They are this close to taking over Kansas City, what with the metropolitan area in open revolt against the Chiefs and their repulsive front office. A contending season would turn Red Fridays into Blue Everydays, and make the Royals the toast of the town.
But the Royals only have to look across the Truman Sports Complex, at the empty seats on Sundays, at the paper bags over people’s heads, at the banners flying over the stadium, to understand what can happen if you cross the line and betray the trust of your fan base completely. A lot of readers have compared Matt Cassel to Luke Hochevar, and that comparison might be truer than you think. If the Royals neglect their rotation the way the Chiefs neglected their quarterback situation, and if they start next season the way the Chiefs have started this season, it’s going to get ugly.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s plenty of time for the Royals to spend money on a quality free agent, or to trade some excess prospects for a short-term rotation upgrade. If Chris Volstad is just a placeholder for a real starting pitcher, we can all look back at this column in a few months and have a good laugh. But if the front office thinks Chris Volstad is the answer, and the question is “How do we put a rotation together on a budget?”, no one’s going to be laughing.