Saturday, October 6, 2012

For Want Of A Pitcher: Here We Go Again.

(While I plan to discuss Kevin Seitzer in greater detail later, I want to focus on the rotation right now. So my reaction in brief: am I sad that Seitzer was fired? Yes. Do I think he was scapegoated? Of course. Do I think firing him was a mistake? …that, I’m not so sure about.)

I’m sitting down on a Saturday afternoon, trying to take advantage of some rare free time to begin my analysis of the Royals’ rotation options for next year…and Bob Dutton drops a column on us that contains much food for thought. I’ll get to Dutton’s column later, I promise, but let me first share my thoughts with you as they were on the day the season ended.

Before the Royals figure out who they should bring into the rotation mix from outside the organization, they first need to get a firm handle on what options from within the organization should be part of the rotation for 2013.

The Royals only have one starting pitcher under a guaranteed contract for next season. That’s Bruce Chen, who is guaranteed $4.5 million. Chen had a disappointing season and that contract looks like a mistake at this point, but he wasn’t the complete disaster that, say, Luke Hochevar was. Chen finished with a 5.07 ERA, but that understates his performance nearly as much as his 3.96 ERA between 2010 and 2011 overstated his performance. Chen had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 3 to 1 (140 to 44, ignoring intentional walks). He was done in by the 33 homers he allowed in 192 innings. He’s an extreme flyball pitcher, but in 2010 and 2011, he allowed 35 homers in 295 innings. Amazingly, his xFIP – my favorite “ERA estimator” – was better in 2012 (4.62) than it was in 2011 (4.68) and 2010 (4.79).

The consistency of his xFIP is telling – Chen has basically been the same pitcher three years running, only his ERA has jumped all over the map based on how far the fly balls were carrying. That’s basically who he is – a starter with an ERA in the mid-4s. He fits into the #5 slot in a rotation fine.

Luis Mendoza was probably the most pleasant surprise on the entire roster this season – particularly after he learned to throw the cutter around the end of June. He finished with a 4.23 ERA despite an unimpressive strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.86. However, after implementing the cutter beginning with his start on June 29th, Mendoza had a 3.82 ERA, averaged over six innings a start, and had a K/BB ratio of 2.64. His sinker makes him a strong groundball pitcher as well. I’m perfectly happy slotting him in as the #4 starter.

Jake Odorizzi is the Royals’ most major-league-ready pitching prospect, and there’s a case to be made that he should be in the rotation to start the season. But I would be perfectly happy if he went back to Omaha to open 2013. While he had a fine 2.93 for the Storm Chasers this season, in 107 innings he struck out 88 and walked 40, a borderline ratio even at the Triple-A level, and a sign that he still has some things to work on.

Remember, last year in his first crack at Double-A, his strikeout rate dropped significantly – he K’d 11.8 batters per 9 innings in Wilmington before his promotion, but just 7.1 per 9 at Northwest Arkansas. So the Royals started him in Double-A again this year, and he dominated in seven starts (11.1 Ks per 9) before his promotion to Omaha, where his K rate dropped to 7.4 per 9. If history is any guide, Odorizzi could use a second audition in Triple-A to prove that he can miss bats there, and be ready for a permanent place in the Royals’ rotation by June or July. At the very least, he makes for a great #6 starter, the first understudy in the event that anyone in the projected rotation gets hurt during spring training. But the Royals should plan to break camp in 2013 with five starters better than Odorizzi.

Will Smith is a left-handed finesse pitcher who won’t kill you if you need him to fill in for two or three starts, but at least at this point in his development, he’s not a major-league starter. As a #7 starter, you could do a lot worse; as a #5 starter, you could do a lot better.

So right now, this is how the Royals’ rotation sets up:

#4: Luis Mendoza
#5: Bruce Chen
#6: Jake Odorizzi
#7: Will Smith

You may have noticed that there’s something missing at the top.

I have already analyzed Jeremy Guthrie’s performance extensively, so I’ll sum up here by saying that he projects as a very solid #3 starter, maybe with #2 upside. He certainly pitched like a #2 starter for the Royals this year, but you can’t completely ignore his performance with Colorado, he turns 34 in April…let’s just call him a #3 starter for simplicity’s sake.

I’ve been on the record as saying the Royals should offer him 2 years, $15 million; Sam Mellinger has suggested 2 and 18. Whatever. Somewhere in that range seems like something both sides can agree on; Dutton strongly suggests that the Royals will try to get something done with Guthrie in that range. If Guthrie gets a 3/30 offer elsewhere, he’s probably gone, but the odds of that seem low.

I do agree that the Royals should be aggressive in resolving Guthrie’s status sooner rather than later – but by “resolving” I mean “make him a quality offer, and if he says no, move on”, not “give him whatever he wants”. The Royals can negotiate with him now, whereas it will be a month before they can talk to other free agents. By the time free agent season opens, the Royals should already know whether Guthrie is in the fold or not.

But for now, let’s add him to the pile.

#3: Jeremy Guthrie
#4: Luis Mendoza
#5: Bruce Chen
#6: Jake Odorizzi
#7: Will Smith

Let’s stop for a second and ask, yet again, how on Earth can the Royals bring back Luke Hochevar?

It’s not just the 5.73 ERA in 2012 (the second-worst of any qualifier, behind only Ricky Romero) or the career 5.39 ERA. About that career ERA…oh, you guys are going to love this:


1. Kyle Davies, 5.59 ERA
2. Luke Hochevar, 5.39 ERA
3. Who the hell cares? Just look at #1 and #2 again

So yeah…Luke Hochevar. But setting aside for a moment just how bad he is…if the Royals bring him back, where exactly is the improvement in the rotation going to come from?

If Hochevar returns, that means there’s only one open spot in the rotation – unless you move Mendoza or Chen to the bullpen, which seems to me to be a waste of resources. Mendoza’s too good, and Chen doesn’t have the skill set to be a lefty specialist (LHB have a higher OPS against Chen than RHB for his entire career, which is quite unusual).

Whereas if you let Hochevar go, not only do you save $5 million in payroll, but you open up two spots for newcomers. The Royals have telegraphed that they’re willing to bring in at least one free agent, and are willing to explore trade possibilities to bring in one more. But if Hochevar returns, then you’ll wind up with a situation where either Mendoza or Chen – both of whom are better pitchers than Hochevar – have to move to the bullpen to accommodate him.

In the grand calculus of whether to bring Hochevar back, this pales compared to the consequence that bringing back Luke Hochevar means BRINGING BACK LUKE HOCHEVAR. But it’s just another reason to let him go. I’m an optimist, and I’m stubborn, so I continue to believe that the Royals will open their eyes to the harsh light of reality long enough to see what everyone else sees. But I admit that at this point, it’s a belief based more on faith than on evidence.

(It’s quite possible that Hochevar’s fate is tied to Guthrie’s. If Guthrie doesn’t re-sign, then the Royals would be left needing to fill three holes in their rotation instead of two, in which case they could easily talk themselves into sticking with the devil they know for one of those spots. All the more reason to get a deal done with Guthrie.)

Either way, the Royals need two pitchers to fill the #1 and #2 spots in their rotation. They won’t necessarily be “#1” and “#2” starters – the only #1 starter on the free agent market is Zack Greinke. But they need to be at least #3-plus, guys the caliber of Guthrie or better. The Royals can go to war next year with a #2, #3, #3, #4, #5 rotation and still hope to win. They just can’t go to war with what they had this year, with their two potential #2 starters both blowing out their elbows, and being left with a #4, #5, and a parade of #6s and #7s.

So if we are agreed that the Royals need to acquire two quality starting pitchers between now and February, let’s explore some options.

The two main categories to look at are free agent pitchers and trade candidates, but today I want to look at a third, largely-overlooked category, because I think there’s at least one gem there to be had there.

Both types of pitching acquisitions come with a downside. In the case of free agent pitchers, to sign the best ones, you almost always have to give them too many years, or too much money, or both – while they may improve your team in the short term, you’re going to feel some heartburn by the end of the contract.

In the case of going the trade route, while you might get a young pitcher who is still improving, and while you might not have to pay him nearly as much money, it’s going to cost you prospects – and for a truly impact pitcher, it’s going to cost you a LOT of prospects. Yes, the Nationals got Gio Gonzalez and he’s fantastic, and they’ve signed him for at least four more years. But they gave up Tom Milone and Derek Norris and A.J. Cole and Brad Peacock. Yeah, the Reds got Mat Latos – but did you see what Yasmani Grandal did in San Diego as a rookie?

But what if I told you that the Royals could acquire an established, quality starting pitcher, without surrendering any top prospects, and who would only require a one-year contract commitment? You’d be interested, wouldn’t you?

They can. It just requires them to be creative.

There are a number of starting pitchers around baseball whose current teams have club options for 2013. Bob Dutton mentions some of them in his column: Dan Haren, Tim Hudson, Jake Peavy, Ervin Santana, and James Shields. Hudson’s contract will probably be picked up by Atlanta; Shields (who actually has options for two more years) will certainly get picked up by Tampa Bay, at least until they trade him.

The White Sox have already indicated that they will not pick up Jake Peavy’s option. This, even though Peavy was healthy in 2012 for the first time in four years and had a terrific season: 219 innings, a 3.37 ERA in a hitters’ park, 194 Ks and just 48 walks. His option is for $22 million, which gives you pause, but consider that the White Sox owe him a $4 million buyout if they don’t pick up his option. So the marginal cost to them is $18 million. If it were me, with the White Sox’s payroll, I’d pay the extra $18 million to keep Peavy for one year. The White Sox seem to think they can decline the option and sign Peavy to a longer-term deal. Even if they couldn’t, they’re not about to trade Peavy to an in-division rival. So he’s out.

But then look over in Anaheim, where the Angels have Dan Haren and Ervin Santana. The Angels have options on both players for 2013. Santana has an option for $13 million (with a $1 million buyout) and Haren has an option for $15.5 million (with a $3.5 million buyout). Take out the buyouts, which the Angels have to pay either way, and they can keep either player on essentially a 1-year, $12 million contract.

As reported here, the Angels are inclined to let them both go.

Now, in Santana’s case that’s understandable. He did, after all, have a 5.16 ERA this year, and led the AL with 39 homers allowed. However, Santana was much better in the second half after some mechanical changes to fix his slider. From July 30th until his next-to-last start of the season, he had a 3.08 ERA in 10 starts, with 42 hits and 16 walks allowed in 64 innings. (He did get hammered in his last start.)

Selective endpoints can make even Luke Hochevar look good, but in the context of his career, 2012 is the anomaly for Santana – he had a 3.38 ERA in 2011, a 3.92 ERA in 2010, and threw over 220 innings each year. He’s definitely on my list of second-tier free agents who would be good gambles in the $5-8 million range. Only having to make a one-year commitment would be tempting, but at $12 million, you might be better off waiting until he’s a free agent and offering him $16 million for two years instead.

But then there’s Dan Haren. The same Dan Haren who has a 3.66 career ERA, including a 3.33 ERA from 2007 to 2011. The same Dan Haren who led the AL in strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.00) just last year, and led the NL in both 2008 and 2009. The same Dan Haren who made at least 33 starts and threw at least 216 innings every year from 2005 to 2011.

You’ll notice the timeframes I mentioned in the last paragraph ended in 2011, because this season, Haren dealt with some back issues that affected both his ability and his availability. But even this year, even dealing with back problems, Haren made 30 starts, had a 4.33 ERA, and in 177 innings, struck out 142 batters against 35 walks (a ratio of better than 4-to-1). In 2011, he struck out 20% of the batters he faced; this year that ratio dropped all the way to 19%.

His ERA jumped because he was more hittable (his BABIP jumped from .276 to .306) and because more flyballs left the yard (12.8%, vs. 7.5% last year). There’s a lot of variability in both of those stats, so he’s likely to improve in both regards next year. While the back problems can be worrisome, I’m much more worried about them with hitters – they can sap you of your power permanently, as they did with Don Mattingly and, to a lesser extent, Mike Sweeney – than with pitchers. Randy Johnson won his first Cy Young Award in 1995, then missed half of the 1996 season with back problems – and then came back in 1997 at full strength, finishing 2nd in the Cy Young vote.

And for what it’s worth, Haren pitched much better after a brief DL stint around the All-Star Break – he made 13 starts after he returned, with a  3.58 ERA, and in 73 innings he allowed just 68 hits and 14 walks. In his last seven starts, he walked 5 batters in 42 innings, and struck out 34.

There is some risk here – notably, the Angels play in a very strong pitchers’ park, which means he might be worse than he looks. On the other hand, he actually pitched better on the road (3.95 ERA) than at home (4.68 ERA) this year.

To me, this is a no-brainer. If Dan Haren goes on the free agent market, he’s getting a three-year deal as a bare minimum. To get him on a one-year, $12 million deal is a steal – and yet, that seems to be in play. The Angels are planning to decline his option and get nothing in return – if the Royals offer them even a modest package of talent, and only ask that the Angels pick up the buyout portion of his contract, why wouldn’t they say yes? They’re getting something instead of nothing.

The more I analyze the trades that teams make, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that the most important step in making good trades is to find the right teams to trade with. There are always teams that, for whatever reason, don’t know what they are doing at the moment – their front office is either incompetent or dysfunctional. Consider how the Royals were able to turn Jonathan Sanchez into Jeremy Guthrie – the Rockies don’t seem to have a clue what they’re doing, and announced a restructuring of their front office during the season that hasn’t clarified anything.

Once upon a time, the Red Sox had the most competent front office in the game. By the time the lights went down on last season, the knives had come out, owners were backstabbing managers, GMs were fleeing the scene, players were being outed for eating fried chicken in the clubhouse…you think it’s a coincidence that the Sox got absolutely fleeced by the A’s (Bailey for Reddick+) and Astros (Lowrie for Melancon)?

It brings to mind the classic opening line to the movie “Rounders”: “Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then YOU are the sucker.” (I think Allard Baird is still trying to spot the sucker, actually.)

If you’re not convinced that the other team in a trade negotiation doesn’t know what they’re doing, you have to at least consider the possibility that YOU don’t know what you’re doing.

If this were the Tampa Bay Rays talking about declining Dan Haren’s option, I’d be very concerned that they know something the rest of us don’t. But it’s not the Rays; it’s the Angels, who have a very competent GM in Jerry DiPoto, but also seem to be going through a power struggle at the moment between DiPoto and manager Mike Scioscia, with an impatient owner (Arte Moreno) who wants to know why all the millions he spent on Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson didn’t lead to a playoff spot this year. So the fact that the Angels seem prepared to decline what should be a gimme option for Dan Haren doesn’t worry me all that much.

Instead, it strikes me as a golden opportunity for the Royals to buy low, acquiring a true #2 starter while only having to make a one-year commitment, and giving up precious little talent to do so. The Angels were done in this year by a very leaky bullpen – their bullpen finished 12th in the AL in ERA, despite pitching in a very good pitchers’ park. So maybe offer them, I dunno, Louis Coleman? In 111 career innings, Coleman has 129 strikeouts and a 3.25 ERA, and he’d be under club control for five years. If the Angels are letting Haren go anyway, why not get a pitcher who could work in the seventh inning for you for the next half-decade? And from the Royals’ perspective, would they really miss Coleman at all?

Those of you who have listened to me on 810 WHB this season have probably already heard me make the case for Dan Haren – a few weeks ago I even “predicted” that Haren would be the Royals’ Opening Day starter next year when Soren Petro asked me to give him a name. It wasn’t a forecast so much as a wishcast, but there’s no reason why it can’t happen. All it requires is some out-of-the-box thinking.

This is the move Dayton Moore needs to make, and needs to make now. Jeremy Guthrie can wait. Trading three Top Ten prospects for James Shields or Josh Johnson can wait. You can’t even talk to free agent pitchers until November. But right now, you can add a premium starting pitcher to your 2013 rotation, and neither break your payroll nor dip into your farm system. Do it now, Dayton. Before some other GM does.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

2013 Is Our Time. Or Else.

What’s high in the middle and round on both ends? Yes, Ohio. But also, the 2012 Kansas City Royals. The Royals were determined to finish the season as poorly as they started it. But between their 3-14 start and their 2-9 finish, the Royals went 67-67. They were a .500 team for 83% of the season. Progress!

(That’s the longest stretch in which the Royals have played .500 or better in almost four years. From May 31st, 2008 through May 7th, 2009, the Royals were 71-64. In other words, the Royals are almost as good in Dayton Moore’s sixth full season on the job as they were in his second season on the job. So not really progress, no.)

Despite the Royals fade at the end, I remain completely convinced that they can contend in 2013. You might chalk this up to my boundless and perpetually irrational optimism, but my buoyancy comes with some rough edges. By that, I mean that I expect the Royals to contend in 2013, and you should too, whether your name is Joe Smith or, say, David Glass. Dayton Moore has been on the job for OVER SIX YEARS, and whatever the condition of the franchise when he took the job, there is no team in the history of baseball – or at least in the history of the Draft Era, beginning in 1965 – that couldn’t be turned around in seven years. The 2003 Tigers lost 119 games, and were in the World Series three years later.

The Kansas City Royals won 71 games last year. The Baltimore Orioles won 69 games. The Orioles play in the AL East. The Orioles’ farm system was so weak compared to the Royals that going into the 2011 season, Kevin Goldstein remarked that the Royals’ #18 prospect (who was, incidentally, Salvador Perez) would have ranked THIRD in the Orioles system.

The Baltimore Orioles are in the playoffs in 2012. Yes, I know that they have been the luckiest team in close games in, roughly, the history of baseball. (Their 29-9 record in one-run games is the best since 1900.) But they also have a positive run differential. They’ve improved steadily as the season progressed. They have a manager – a manager who I routinely put at the top of my list every time the Royals had a managerial opening over the last 10 years – who pushes every right button. Maybe it’s magic, but there’s nothing in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that prohibits magic. The Orioles are in the postseason, and anything can happen.

And then there’s Oakland. Of course there is. The A’s have been the polar opposite of the Royals since Sandy Alderson was the GM and Billy Beane was a fourth outfielder. The A’s are the team of Moneyball; the Royals, as I outlined in my last article, have been the most anti-Moneyball team in the major leagues for the last quarter-century. It’s not just the walks, although of course they have the fewest walks in baseball over that span. It’s the attitude that the Royals have towards using modern baseball theory.

To give you an example: the A’s won 74 games last year, and quite reasonably decided that a 74-win team didn’t need an elite closer. So Andrew Bailey, who in three seasons with the A’s had a 2.47 ERA and 81 saves, was traded to Boston for three young players. The Royals, who won fewer than 74 games year after year despite having a better closer than Andrew Bailey, chose to hold on to Joakim Soria because of some mystical notion that a great closer was like a security blanket, and that if they forced another pitcher into the ninth inning role, the psyche of the entire bullpen would collapse. So they kept Soria, and wound up with bupkis.

Meanwhile, without Soria this season, the bullpen nevertheless had the best season in franchise history. Greg Holland was forced into the closer’s role after Jonathan Broxton was traded, and was so traumatized by the pressure that he saved his first 13 opportunities.

This has nothing to do with OBP or WAR or stats in general. These are simple principles espoused by baseball analysts: even the best relievers are unpredictable. The impact of even an elite reliever on a bad team is minimal. When a bad team has an elite reliever, the benefit of keeping him pales compared to the potential benefit of trading him.

One team – the Oakland A’s – embraces this philosophy, and traded Andrew Bailey for Josh Reddick, Miles Head, and Raul Alcantara. Bailey was hurt and missed the first half of the season, then finished with a 7.04 ERA in 15 innings. Reddick, meanwhile, hit .242/.305/.463 and swatted 32 home runs this year. Head and Alcantara remain interesting prospects.

Another team – the Kansas City Royals – clings to the long-outdated notion that there’s a psychological benefit in having a closer you can rely on, even if your team isn’t very good. They kept Joakim Soria, and for their efforts they were rewarded with a $6 million contract for a pitcher who missed the season with Tommy John surgery.

Last year, the A’s won 74 games. True, the Royals have only won 74 games once since Dayton Moore was hired, but work with me here – the A’s weren’t fundamentally any better than the Royals a year ago. (The Royals actually had a better run differential – they were outscored by 32 runs, while the A’s were outscored by 34 runs.) As mentioned above, they then traded their closer. THEY ALSO TRADED THEIR TWO BEST STARTING PITCHERS FOR PROSPECTS.

They traded Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals, and in return received four prospects. Tom Milone, a soft-tossing lefty with impeccable control, was dropped into their rotation this year and made 31 starts, threw 190 innings, and had a 3.74 ERA. Derek Norris, a catcher out of the Mickey Tettleton mold, started the year in Triple-A, hit .271/.329/.477, and was promoted to Oakland. He hasn’t played great for the A’s – he hit .201/.276/.349 this year – but unlike a certain second baseman in Kansas City, they didn’t bury him when he failed to hit right out of the chute, and this afternoon he hit a home run in the A’s victory.

Milone and Norris, incidentally, were considered the two worst prospects in the trade. Pitchers A.J. Cole and Brad Peacock are farther away, but both have mid-rotation upside. (In fairness, Peacock took a step back this year.)

And the A’s traded Trevor Cahill to the Arizona Diamondbacks for, essentially, Jarrod Parker, with Ryan Cook tossed in. Parker, a highly-touted prospect who was drafted 9th overall, had missed all of 2010 with Tommy John surgery, and was still in Double-A last season. Yet as a rookie, Parker outpitched Cahill this year, with a 3.47 ERA in 181 innings for the A’s. Cook made the All-Star team as a rookie set-up man, finishing with a 2.09 ERA in 73 innings.

Throw in an aggressive move to sign Yoenis Cespedes, the emergence of Chris Carter, some shrewd platooning (Yes! Platooning! What a radical concept!) of guys like Jonny Gomes and Brandon Moss and Seth Smith, underrated mid-season acquisitions like George Kottaras and Stephen Drew, and you have Billy Beane’s finest performance yet. The Oakland A’s, winners of 74 games last year, 37-42 and 13 games out at the end of June this year, are AL West Champions.

SO DON’T TELL ME THE ROYALS CAN’T WIN NEXT SEASON. The time for low expectations is over. The time for excuses is over. If the Royals don’t have a winning record in 2013, then Dayton Moore shouldn’t have a job.

Fortunately for him, the Royals are well positioned to have a winning record in 2013. It shouldn’t be hard to upgrade their production in right field, for instance. And it also shouldn’t be hard to upgrade their rotation. But for 25 years, nothing has been easy for this organization. So I’m here to help. In the coming weeks, I’ll be reviewing the many starting pitchers available this off-season, whether by trade or free agency.

But before the Royals can analyze the market for starting pitchers, they need to do a good hard analysis of the starting pitchers they already have. And by that, I mean they need to cut Luke Hochevar, who wrapped a pretty bow around his season with a 9.56 ERA. He might have done us all an enormous favor; after Dayton Moore issued his vote of confidence for Hochevar, Luke finished with an 8.25 ERA in his last four starts. Judging from Moore’s comments on TV last night, he might just be re-considering his perpetual defense of Hochevar. We can hope, anyway.

Of course, in the same interview, Moore was asked whether he thought Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout was the deserving MVP. As Buster Olney wrote (and Bob Dutton confirmed), with one exception, EVERY front office person he’s interviewed has said that they'd (correctly, in my not-so-humble opinion) vote for Trout, who is nearly Cabrera’s equal with the bat and is vastly superior with his legs and glove.

Moore, naturally, picked Cabrera, because he won the Triple Crown, and by the statistical standards we used in 1975, that makes him the best player. Only it’s not 1975 anymore. The A’s led the way into the 21st century, and are going to the playoffs in a year in which even their most fervent supporters thought was a rebuilding year. The Royals lag behind, and they’ve treaded water in a year in which most people thought they’d take a step forward.

This isn’t rocket science, people. As the A’s have shown, an analytical approach to baseball works. As the Royals have shown – over and over and over again – the opposite approach doesn’t. If Dayton Moore’s methods fail to yield results one more time, it will be time to bring in someone else. Someone, preferably, who is willing to use all the weapons at his disposal – scouts and stats alike – to build a winning franchise.