Friday, February 17, 2012

For Want Of A Pitcher: Left Wanting.

(My apologies for going so long between posts. To make it up to you, I’m headed to spring training for the first time ever – I’m planning to be in Surprise from the 28th until March 3rd. Hopefully you’ll see a lot more content from me then, and if I’m lucky maybe even some interviews with members of the organization.)

As you’ve probably noticed, it doesn’t look like the Royals are going to take my advice about acquiring another starting pitcher this off-season. This is disappointing, and not only because I wrote about 50,000 words on the subject*. I remain convinced that the Royals have a legitimate shot at the AL Central – if the Tigers stumble, the division is wide-open for a team to finish in first place with something like 85 wins – and adding an impact starting pitcher would have significantly raised those odds.

*: Though between offering Edwin Jackson a three-year deal and trying to get A.J. Burnett with the Yankees paying two-thirds of his contract, it looks like the Pirates are at least trying to heed my advice.

I’m not advocating that the Royals add a starter just for the sake of adding one. I wrote up close to 40 starting pitchers when the off-season began, and very few of them would hold any appeal today. (While Burnett, for instance, is worth $13 million over two years for the Pirates, I wouldn't want him at that price for the Royals.) The Royals added Jonathan Sanchez, whose upside is higher than all but a handful of those pitchers, and they did so without surrendering any prospects or making a long-term financial commitment. I salute them for that.

But aside from Sanchez, the only move the Royals made to upgrade their 2012 rotation was to bring back Bruce Chen. I think the world of Chen, but when you re-sign a 34-year-old starter coming off the best two-year stretch of his career, the word that comes to mind isn’t “upgrade”, it’s “regression”.

Meanwhile, Edwin Jackson signed a one-year contract for $11 million.

One year. Eleven million dollars.

Look, I appreciate that I might be the biggest Edwin Jackson supporter in the industry right now – Joe Sheehan and I might be the only two analysts in the world who think he’s due to break out. But you don’t have to think Jackson is the second coming of Jason Schmidt, or even the second coming of Gil Meche, to think that a one-year contract for him is criminal.

I can’t fault the Royals too much for not signing Roy Oswalt, because it’s not entirely clear that they could lure him to Kansas City anyway. He reportedly turned down an offer from Detroit, and told the Indians not to even bother making one, and even the Red Sox got the cold shoulder. (Also, he still hasn’t signed yet. It’s not too late to make it happen, Dayton!) But the decision to not pursue Jackson, given the strangely depressed market for his services, is mystifying.

There’s the argument to be made that, having not received any satisfactory long-term offers, agent Scott Boras elected to get Jackson a one-year deal with the team that gave Jackson the best odds of increasing his market value next winter. In other words, the Nationals got him not only because of the money they offered, but because pitching in the NL is a lot easier than trying to dominate in the crucible of the AL East. Maybe Jackson wouldn’t have signed with the Royals for the same terms the Nationals gave him.

But I think those concerns are overblown. Even with the league disparities, it’s hard to argue the AL Central is significantly more competitive than the NL East. Pitching for the Nationals, Jackson will face the Phillies, the Braves, the suddenly free-spending Marlins, and yes, the Mets nearly half the time. With the Royals, he’d be facing the Tigers, White Sox, Indians, and Twins.

And then there’s the little matter of winning. Scott Boras is well aware of how much talent the Royals have on their roster – he represents seemingly half their players. He knows that the one thing the Royals lack – above-average starting pitching – is the exact void Jackson would fill, making them at least fringe contenders in the AL Central. The Royals aren’t the Pirates. If they had outbid the Nationals for his services, I think he’d be in Surprise right now.

So why didn’t the Royals sign another starter? Funny you should ask, because Bob Dutton did the same thing of Dayton Moore a few days ago.

“It just doesn’t fit”, he said. “For me, we would be abandoning our plan with the young players. That’s not who we are. I think it’s important that we understand who we are, where we’re going and what we’re trying to do.”

“Abandoning that (approach), and precluding any of those young pitchers from being in our rotation, is doing just that.”

Let’s break down the possible reasons why the Royals might have decided not to pursue another starting pitcher. We’ll begin by taking Moore at face value:

1) The Royals have enough starting pitcher options already.

The Royals already have a tentative rotation set up: Luke Hochevar, Jonathan Sanchez, Bruce Chen, Felipe Paulino, and Danny Duffy. The Royals have already announced that the first three are locks (which they should be), while Paulino and Duffy have the early edge for the 4-5 spots but are not guaranteed anything.

You know how I feel about Paulino; the case can be made that he’s the best starting pitcher on the roster, and he absolutely should be in the starting rotation. Duffy took a step forward in the minors last year, but had a 5.64 ERA with the Royals. I don’t think it’s sacrilege to say that a refresher stint with Omaha might be a good thing for Duffy if he scuffles in Arizona.

Even if Duffy pitches brilliantly, you can’t start spring training with just five tentative starters, particularly when not one of them took a consistent turn in a rotation the last two years. Sanchez made 52 starts in 2010 and 2011 combined; Chen and Hochevar made 48. Nobody in the Royals’ projected rotation has made 30 starts in back-to-back seasons at any point in their career.

And for as many pitching prospects as the Royals have, barring a miracle, none of them are ready to toe the slab in the majors on Opening Day.

The argument that the Royals have enough pitching is predicated around some of the less-heralded pitchers on the roster. If Everett Teaford were any more under the radar, he’d be a B-2 Bomber. Two years ago he was a non-prospect, but he added 5 mph to his fastball, and now he’s a left-hander who over the last two years struck out 150 batters in 139 innings in the high minors, and acquitted himself okay as a swingman for the Royals last year. Nate Adcock is even less sexy than Teaford, if that’s possible, but the Royals must have had some reason to take him in the Rule 5 draft, and he made a few spot starts for the team last year.

Luis Mendoza led the PCL with a 2.18 ERA last season, and even though he didn’t strike anyone out, he’s out of options and the Royals might feel compelled to give him a chance to prove 2011 was a fluke. And of course Vinny Mazzaro and Sean O’Sullivan are still on the roster in the event of a meteor strike or an outbreak of bubonic plague or something.

Finally, there’s Aaron Crow, who it seems will be given every chance to make it as a starting pitcher this spring. I love the idea of putting Crow back in the starter’s role; I hate the idea that there’s any way he should break camp in the Royals’ rotation. Crow has never succeeded as a starter in professional baseball. Granted, it was only one season, but he struggled as a starter in Double-A, and he struggled as a starter in Single-A. He succeed as a reliever in the majors, but if you’re going to make him a starter again, don’t you kind of have to make him prove it in the minor leagues for a month or two first? I’d say that even if a month or two in the minors didn’t also push back his free agency by a year. That it does is a nice bonus.

So yes, if the Royals want to be technical about it, they have plenty of options for the starting rotation on Opening Day. But if we’re talking good options, I’m not sure they even have five of those.

2) The Royals don’t have, or don’t want to spend, the money to add a starter.

This is sort of the elephant in the room, isn’t it? With Alex Gordon’s contract finalized, the Royals’ payroll for 2012 looks to be around $56 million. You can add another $1-2 million to account for Noel Arguelles and the possibility that Aaron Crow starts in the minors, but even then it tops out at $58 million.

While the Royals’ payroll in 2011 was under $40 million – artifically lowered by Gil Meche’s unexpected retirement – that was an anomaly. In 2010, the Royals had a payroll of $76.8 million, per Baseball Prospectus. In 2009, their payroll was $75.0 million. It was $64 million in 2008, and $70 million in 2007.

Meanwhile, revenues in major league baseball have only been going up over time. While the Royals are locked into their TV contract for several more years, and so are not able to take advantage of the massive escalation in TV rights fees that teams like the Angels and Rangers are getting, they do share in those windfalls through revenue sharing. They make more money through national TV contracts and through, where revenues are shared equally among all 30 teams.

If the Royals could afford a payroll of $70 million or more three times in four years between 2007 and 2010, there’s no way on God’s green earth you can convince me that they can’t afford a payroll of $70 million this season. Which means there’s no way you can convince me that the Royals couldn’t afford Jackson’s contract, or whatever it will take to sign Oswalt now.

But while the money is there, that doesn’t mean the Glass family is willing to spend it. I have credited the Glasses for reversing their early penuriousness, and spending aggressively on player development at the same time that they raised payroll. In 2007, for instance, the Royals payroll was just $14 million shy of the MLB average of $84 million. And they continue to spend money on player development – just in the last two weeks, they spent $550,000 to sign Cuban defector Ramon Hernandez Jorrin, and a shade under $100,000 to sign a 17-year-old Dominican right-hander named Branly Crisotomo. So the unwillingness to raise the major league payroll is…puzzling. And at least a little concerning.

It’s certainly possible that the money is there to add payroll if needed, and Dayton Moore simply decided to stand pat with the roster he has. But it’s something to watch closely.

3) The Royals don’t want to block any of their pitching prospects once they’re ready.

That’s a noble gesture, but the Royals sure seem to be applying it inconsistently.

After struggling through his first Double-A season, largely due to a traumatic knee injury that subsequently got infected, Wil Myers went to the Arizona Fall League fully healthy and raked, hitting .360/.481/.674. That restored his elite prospect status; Baseball America ranked him the #5 prospect in the league, behind the two best hitting prospects in baseball (Bryce Harper and Mike Trout), and the first two picks in the 2011 draft (Gerrit Cole and Danny Hultzen.) The Top 100 Prospect ranking have been coming out over the past two weeks, and Myers’ status is almost unchanged from last season. On Kevin Goldstein’s Top 101 Prospect list for Baseball Prospectus, Myers dropped from #13 all the way to #19. Keith Law at dropped Myers from #8 to #13.

If Myers continues to rake in spring training, he will probably start the year in Triple-A; if he returns to Northwest Arkansas, a promotion to Omaha will probably come after his first prolonged hot stretch. There’s a good chance he’ll be ready for major league playing time by September. By April, 2013, Myers may be ready to play right field every day for the Royals.

Or he would, if Jeff Francoeur weren’t already signed for the next two years.

Lorenzo Cain was pretty clearly ready for the majors at the start of last season, after hitting .306/.348/.415 for the Brewers during the last two months of 2010. But because Melky Cabrera was busy rapping out a 200-hit season, Cain spent the entire year in Omaha, getting called up only after the Storm Chasers won the PCL title, and got into six games in September more out of pity than anything else.

And you know what? The Royals were right to keep Cain in Omaha, because Cabrera was having a great season. If Myers goes nuts this season and is ready for a major-league job, that’s a pleasant dilemma for the team to have. Too much talent is never a bad thing. But I think it’s incongruous to re-sign Jeff Francoeur without worrying what that does to Myers’ development, but then to turn around and say we can’t bring in an impact starter because he might get in the way of Mike Montgomery.

While you can only start one right fielder, you can start five pitchers. The odds are awfully high that injury or poor performance opens up an opportunity for Montgomery eventually.

Besides which, how likely is it that one of the Royals’ top pitching prospects will be banging on the door this year? Mike Montgomery has a full season in Triple-A under his belt, and if he solves whatever issues plagued him last year, he could be ready for an audition in May or June. Then again, he might not – he did have a 5.32 ERA last season.

Besides Montgomery…Jake Odorizzi might be ready in July if he suddenly adds the velocity in the fastball the Royals think is still in his arm. Chris Dwyer might be ready in August if he suddenly learns to throw strikes for the first time in his career. John Lamb might be ready in September if his rehab from Tommy John goes perfectly. But there’s a very good chance that none of them will earn a call-up in 2012, and even if they’re ready late in the season, none of them will be such finished products that delaying their major-league debut by a month or two will cause permanent harm.

For a one-year deal for someone like Oswalt to damage the youth movement would require an incredibly combination of circumstances: it would require everyone in the rotation to stay healthy and effective; it would require one of the Royals’ top prospects to have a massive breakout season; and it would require that prospect to be so polished that by August he has literally run out of things to work on at the Triple-A level.

And you know what? If all those things happen, well, party.

While none of the Royals’ top prospects, except possibly for Montgomery, are likely to be ready for deployment in 2012, many of them should be ready by early 2013 – Odorizzi and Lamb, Dwyer if he isn’t a reliever by then, maybe even Jason Adam or Yordano Ventura if they go crazy this season and jump two levels. I can definitely see the argument that signing a starting pitcher past 2012 might impact the Royals’ youth movement.

But neither Jackson nor Oswalt required a commitment beyond 2012. Which would have fit the Royals’ plans nicely, as they have not made a commitment beyond 2012 to any pitcher on their entire roster, with two exceptions.

One is Noel Arguelles, the Cuban defector who signed a 5-year deal after the 2009 season, and will make around $1.4 million each of the next three years regardless of where he pitches. That’s not a trivial expense, but that goes into the player development bin, much like how Bubba Starling’s $7.5 million contract will be paid out over three years.

The other exception is the starter the Royals did sign as a free agent this winter, Bruce Chen. Which brings me to the last, and in my mind most likely, explanation:

4) The Royals mis-timed the market, and overpaid for Bruce Chen.

I like Bruce Chen a lot. He’s a legitimately funny guy who is absolutely beloved by his teammates. (The other day Danny Duffy tweeted Chen’s latest joke: “ned i need a trainer, my changeup is sick”. The point isn’t whether the joke was funny or not. The point is that his junior teammate enjoyed it so much he felt compelled to tell the world about it.) Chen seems to genuinely appreciate the opportunity to play for the Royals, he loves the team and its fanbase, and he was the Royals’ best starting pitcher the last two seasons.

That said, he’s not an impact starter, and if he’s occupying the rotation spot that could have gone to Jackson or Oswalt, then the Royals made a mistake.

Which is why these comments from Dayton Moore are so interesting:

“I guess if we had known all along that Edwin Jackson or Oswalt were going to take one-year deals,” Moore said, “maybe we would have done things a little differently or thought things through a little differently. But I don’t think so.”

Whoa. Maybe it’s dangerous to read too much into that quote – he did end with the qualifier “I don’t think so” – but it’s amazing to me that Moore would even hint at regret.

And if he thinks he might “have done things a little differently” – it’s hard to escape the conclusion that giving Chen a two-year deal is at the top of his list of regrets. What else did the Royals do this winter? They traded for Jonathan Sanchez, but they’re only committed to Sanchez for one year. If blocking your pitching prospects is your greatest concern, then that second year has to be the source of your discontent.

“I think we would have come to the same conclusion. Sanchez really made sense for us at one year for $5.6 million. We needed to get Bruce Chen back. We feel he’s going to continue to give us consistency.

“Once we were committed to those two guys and Hoch, to do anything else would block those young guys from getting an opportunity.”

I wouldn’t even go so far as to characterize Chen’s contract as a mistake – I think it’s a risk, but the money involved ($9 million over two years) is manageable. There’s a chance he could be this generation’s version of Larry Gura, and continue to guile his way to success without striking anyone out.

But then, I didn’t think signing Chen precluded the Royals from signing another starting pitcher. I thought that, even with Chen, the Royals still had the payroll space to spend $10-12 million on a legitimate #2 starter. I thought that, even with Chen, the Royals could open up a spot in the rotation for one more guy – Danny Duffy would have been slated for the minors at the beginning of spring training, waiting for an opening that would inevitably present itself.

But if Dayton Moore knew that he didn’t have the money for another guy, then spending $8.5 million combined on Chen and Jonathan Broxton is a waste of resources if it could have been spent on Jackson. And if he knew that he didn’t have another rotation spot to offer, he should have been more patient to see how the market presented itself. Every year Moore likes to make an aggressive move right out of the gate, and more often than not he shoots himself in the foot. He traded Leo Nunez (excuse me, Juan Carlos Oviedo) for Mike Jacobs on October 31st. He traded Ramon Ramirez for Coco Crisp on November 19th. He traded David DeJesus for Vinny Mazzaro and Justin Marks on November 10th. He signed Bruce Chen on November 23rd, when if he had waited until January, he would have had a greater selection at discounted prices to look at it in the showroom.

The decision to not add another starter may still yield some benefits. If adding another starter meant that it was Felipe Paulino, and not Duffy, who lost his rotation spot, then maybe it’s better they didn’t do so. If keeping a rotation spot empty means the Royals are committed to Aaron Crow as a starter, and if that experiment succeeds, the dividends would be substantial. So I can’t characterize the decision to stand pat as a clear mistake. But it is a missed opportunity.

I’ve been saying all winter that the 2012 AL Central is there for the taking, and the Tigers’ signing of Prince Fielder only changes that calculus a little. Maybe standing pat now gives the Royals a tiny edge in the future, but sometimes you have to seize the day. Moore’s boldness has cost the Royals in the past, but at the very moment he positioned the Royals to where a bold move might make a difference, he lost his nerve. It remains to be seen if his hesitation means we all lost.