Monday, October 22, 2012

For Want Of A Pitcher: The Elite Free Agents.

Before we look at the available options on the free-agent pitching market, there are two key points to make. The first is that this is the year to be bold and aggressive if you want to corral a high-end free agent. With TV revenues – both local and national – booming throughout baseball, expect payrolls to follow. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if free agents who sign this winter get 15-20% more money than comparable players on the market last winter.

Dayton Moore has a history of making big transactions within days of the end of the World Series, but they tend to be trades, and they tend to be ill-advised, like trading the former Leo Nunez for Mike Jacobs (October 31st) or trading Mark Teahen for Chris Getz and Josh Fields (November 6th) or trading David DeJesus for Vinny Mazzaro and Justin Marks (November 10th) or trading Ramon Ramirez for Coco Crisp (November 19th). By contrast, his big free-agent signings (Jose Guillen and Gil Meche) were both in December, around the time of the Winter Meetings.

I think this might be the year to try to get the jump on the market, and make a pre-emptive offer to a top-tier pitcher in November, an offer that might look overpriced when it’s announced, but that looks like a bargain when the rest of the market has settled in January. It means offering a potential #2 starter, the kind of guy who got $12-13 million in the past, closer to $15 million a year. But that same pitcher might cost $16 million a year, or get a five-year deal instead of a four-year deal, a month or two later.

And that brings me to my second point, which is that no matter what the Royals say publicly, THEY CAN AFFORD IT, and don’t believe them if they say otherwise. This has been done elsewhere, but here’s a quick breakdown of the Royals’ payroll obligations for 2013:

Already Signed (6 players, $33 million)

Alex Gordon, $9 million
Billy Butler, $8 million
Jeff Francoeur, $7.5 million
Bruce Chen, $4.5 million
Alcides Escobar, $3 million
Salvador Perez, $1 million

Arbitration Eligible (3 players, $4.5 million)

Felipe Paulino, $2.7 million
Chris Getz, $1.2 million
Blake Wood, $600,000

The figures for the arbitration-eligible players are estimates which I took from MLB Trade Rumors here.

That’s $38 million going to nine players. Here’s the thing: the other 16 players on the Royals’ active roster would all be pre-arbitration eligible players, earning only slightly more than the major league minimum of $480,000 on average.

We’ll throw in some extra costs here; Aaron Crow will make at least $1 million next season, the result of the major-league contract he signed out of the draft. Joakim Soria is owed $750,000 in a buyout, and will probably re-sign a smaller incentive-laden deal. After his surgery I suggested something like $2.5 million guaranteed, so let’s run with that. That’s $41.5 million for 11 players. Let’s say the other 14 players average about $580,000 each – let’s say $8.12 million. Throw in Noel Arguelles and the $1.38 million he’ll make to spend another year in the minors, and that’s a grand total of $51 million.

(By the way, you’ll notice who’s missing from my list: Luke Hochevar, who would earn around $4.4 million in arbitration next year.)

The Royals’ payroll this season was over $63 million. Their payroll was close to $75 million in both 2009 and 2010. As I argued earlier, the Royals will be earning an additional $27 million in national TV revenue in 2014 – so if we take the Royals at their word that they were only breaking even in 2009-2010, that means their break-even point would be over $100 million by 2014.

Let’s be charitable and say the Royals should have a payroll of $85 million next season. That’s $34 million to play with.


Let’s say they re-sign Jeremy Guthrie, and pay him $8 million in 2013. Let’s say the Royals spend another $2 million on low-end free agents, say a backup catcher, or even another reliever beyond Soria*.

*: Although why they’d do this is beyond me. Consider this: after the Royals traded Jonathan Broxton and waived Jose Mijares, EVERY SINGLE RELIEVER in their bullpen was pre-arbitration eligible. Not only that, but every one of them will still not be eligible for arbitration next year. A Soria/Holland/Herrera/Collins/Crow/Coleman bullpen would cost under $6 million next season, giving the Royals the leeway to spend their money elsewhere.

That still leaves $24 million. That means every single free agent is in play. Even if they go cheap and try to keep the payroll in the $75-80 million range, they can add an additional $14-19 million worth of contracts, which should include every free agent pitcher but one.

That one is Zack Greinke, of course, for whom the bidding will probably start at 5 years, $100 million – the contract he reportedly turned down from the Brewers before they traded him. After a rough early start with the Angels, that had people once again questioning his mental toughness, he finished strong: a 2.04 ERA in his last eight starts, allowing fewer than a baserunner per inning.

There is an assumption in certain circles that the Royals simply have no chance of signing Greinke, given the awkward way he left town. I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think the Royals have as much of a chance to sign Greinke as they would any pitcher who was clearly the prize of the free-agent market. Which is to say, exceedingly slim, but not zero. If anything, their chances might be slightly higher, simply because some free agents want to seek out the bright lights of the big cities, and would cross Kansas City off their list before even talking numbers. Greinke, it’s safe to say, does not want to play for the Yankees come hell or high water.

The two obstacles for the Royals are the same as always: their willingness to spend, and their ability to win. Regarding the first, I think that it’s going to take something in the range of 6 years and $130 million to sign Greinke. While the Royals can afford that, it would require them to put a substantial amount of their payoll into one player – a pitcher, no less. If Greinke gets hurt, you’ve just flushed a quarter of your payroll down the drain.

In Greinke’s defense, his combination of mechanics, low workload in his early 20s (thanks in part to his sabbatical), and injury history make him about as good a bet to stay healthy as any pitcher in the major leagues. My friend Will Carroll publishes his injury risk scores for every player during spring training, and two or three years ago, Greinke had the lowest score Carroll had ever given a pitcher. After he was called up in 2004, Greinke didn’t miss a start until he walked away from the team two years later; after he went back into the rotation for good in August, 2007, the only time he’s missed a start was when he broke some ribs playing basketball in the spring of 2011 and missed the month of April.

He’s as good a bet for 32 starts and 200 innings a year as anyone in baseball. He just turned 29 yesterday, so even a six-year deal would only take him through his age-34 season. I understand the risk of putting too many eggs in one basket. But this is one sturdy basket.

The other obstacle is simply that Greinke doesn’t want to play for a team that doesn’t have a chance of winning; that’s the reason he forced his way out of town in the first place. And let’s face it – the Royals didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory by going 72-90 this year. You’d like to think the Royals can sell Greinke on the young talent on the team – not just on the farm, but on the team – and the fact that the only thing that is keeping the Royals from a winning record is the same thing that his addition would correct.

But there’s another way the Royals can convince Greinke that they mean business about winning. Ten years ago, the Royals signed Mike Sweeney to a 5-year, $55 million contract that contained an unprecedented clause: if the Royals failed to finish at .500 in either 2003 or 2004, Sweeney would be able to void the last three years of the contract. The contract was actually held up briefly until MLB approved the language of the deal, because it was the first deal to contain a provision of this kind.

The Royals went 83-79 in the first year of the contract, rendering the clause moot, and then Sweeney started getting hurt so much that fans wished the Royals hadn’t finished above .500 so that Sweeney could have walked away. But that doesn’t change the fact that the clause was an inspired idea, making it possible for the Royals to sign one of their best players to a long-term deal while providing some guarantees to the player that he wouldn’t play for a loser forever.

If the Royals want to be serious about pursuing Greinke, they should offer him the same proviso – if the Royals don’t have a winning record in 2013 or 2014, he can walk away. If the Royals are as good as they think they are, there’s no risk in the guarantee. (And if you’re Dayton Moore, you know that if you’re not over .500 by 2014, you’re going to be out of a job anyway.) But from what we know of Greinke, that kind of reassurance might mean the difference between coming back to Kansas City and going elsewhere.

I doubt that he returns, because I doubt the Royals are serious about pursuing him. But they should be. He’s the only guaranteed game-changer on the market, and that’s worth the premium they’d have to pay.

But if they can’t land Greinke or don’t want to try, then they need to go all-in on Anibal Sanchez. Those of you who catch my radio spots have heard me talk up Sanchez as the ideal free-agent target for months now; he’s this year’s version of Edwin Jackson for me.

Sanchez was a highly-regarded prospect with the Red Sox when he was traded along with Hanley Ramirez for Josh Beckett after the 2005 season. He had a fine rookie season in 2006 (2.83 ERA in 114 innings) but tore his labrum in early 2007, and missed more than a year. He returned in 2008 and was not effective; in 2009 he regained his effectiveness, and in 2010 he added durability to his talents. He has thrown between 195 and 196 innings each of the last three years, with ERAs ranging from 3.55 to 3.86.

The injury history has to be somewhat concerning; labrum tears are no joke. But in a way he reminds me of Gil Meche, who missed over TWO years following labrum surgery, but had been healthy for years before the Royals signed him – and if the Royals hadn’t criminally neglected his shoulder pain in the third year of his contract, he might still be pitching today.

Sanchez was traded to the Tigers this summer, and in 12 starts gave them a 3.74 ERA. Even though it was only 12 starts, it is very reassuring that he proved he could handle AL competition. His performance did suffer a little – his strikeout rate dropped to 6.9 per 9 innings, which would be his lowest rate since returning from surgery. But that’s still an acceptable rate for a starting pitcher in the AL, particularly one with well above-average (and improving) command. Sanchez’s walk rate has dropped from 3.2 per 9 in 2010, to 2.9 per 9 in 2011, to 2.5 per 9 before he was traded, to 1.8 per 9 after he was traded. This is the progression you’d expect to see from a starting pitcher as he ages – his strikeout rate dips slowly, but his walk rate drops as well, allowing him to maintain his effectiveness.

Plus, Sanchez’s strikeout rate is starting from a high enough point that he could lose some of his stuff and remain effective. He struck out 202 batters in 196 innings just last season; the only qualifying starters with a higher strikeout rate were Greinke, Brandon Morrow, and Clayton Kershaw. I’d expect a small bounce upward in Sanchez’s strikeout rate next year, particularly since his fastball is not losing velocity – according to Pitch f/x, his average fastball velocity has been between 91.5 and 91.8 mph each of the last three years.

Sanchez isn’t an ace, but he’s perfectly capable of being a #2 starter. He has shown remarkable consistency over the last three seasons, has taken the ball every time out, and has the ability to miss bats. He’s had the opportunity to face AL competition and has passed the test so far. He’ll turn 29 next February, so he’s young enough to justify a long-term deal. And – like Greinke – because he was traded during the season, he won’t cost the Royals draft pick compensation. That’s a rule change in the new CBA; the Tigers won’t get a draft pick if he signs elsewhere, and the team that signs him won’t lose one.

Really, the only thing not to like about him is that he keeps pitching well for the Tigers in the postseason and jacking up his price. He threw 6.1 innings against the A’s in the ALDS, allowing only two runs, then threw seven shutout innings against the Yankees in the ALCS. Postseason performances attract attention; probably too much attention, given how small of a sample size they are.

The more I think about it, the more I like the Gil Meche comp – Sanchez can be a durable #2 starter for 3-4 years, and perhaps longer. The problem is that while only a few teams believed in Meche given his track record, there’s a much longer line of teams interested in Sanchez. Throw all the new TV money on the pile, and what was 5 years, $55 million for Meche is probably going to be 5 years, $70 million at the minimum for Sanchez. I could see 5/$75 or even 5/$80 as the asking price.

The thing is, I’d probably pay it. Assuming his health woes are behind him – and he’s pitching better than ever, so I’m thinking they are – he’s already an above-average starter, and there’s upside here that he could refine his command even more and be a 210 inning, 3.30 ERA pitcher for the next few years. And given that the Royals are unlikely to convince Greinke to sign quickly no matter what they throw at him, the single piece of advice I would give Dayton Moore is this: the moment teams are allowed to talk to free agents, get Sanchez’s agent on the phone, offer him 5 years and $70 million, and don’t let him hang up until you’ve got a deal done.

If the Royals are unable to get this year’s version of Edwin Jackson, they would be well-advised to get in touch with the real thing. They showed no interest in him last winter, so instead he signed a 1-year, $11 million deal with the Nationals, and then went out and did pretty much what you’d expect him to do: he made 31 starts (his sixth straight year with 31+ GS), threw 190 innings, and had a 4.03 ERA. His ERA was a little inflated by giving up eight earnies in 1.1 innings in his next-to-last start of the year; he actually set a career-high with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.17.

Speaking of consistency, Jackson’s xFIP – my favorite single stat to evaluate a pitcher’s effectiveness, scaled to ERA – the last three years reads 3.71, 3.73, 3.79.

Oh, and the Nationals led the major leagues with 98 wins. That probably should count for something.

I’m actually not quite as high on Jackson as I was last winter. While he went out and had a season essentially identical to his performances the previous three years, part of my obsession with him was the small chance that he would have a breakout season and establish himself as an ace-level starter. That could still happen, but he’s a year older now and the odds are slightly less. Also, given that he spent the whole year in the NL for the first time in his career, I would have liked to see him take a step forward just because the quality of competition was worse.

But honestly, these are small quibbles. Jackson is still young enough to break out – he turned 29, making him one month older than Greinke and five months older than Sanchez. While his ERA drifted over to the wrong side of 4, what’s more important is that he set a career high in strikeouts per nine innings at 8.0 (helped no doubt by facing opposing pitchers at the plate). And while Sanchez has raised his price tag in October, Jackson’s lukewarm performance this month – he allowed four runs in five innings in his only start, then gave up a run in a relief inning when Davey Johnson got desperate for bullpen help in Game 5 – seems to have knocked his price down a peg.

Last year, I suggested that the Royals offer him 4 years, $50 million. He might not have accepted it at the time, but it’s noteworthy that he got rid of Scott Boras as his agent. The Pirates offered him a 3-year, $27 million contract that he rejected in favor of the one-year deal. While Boras was probably right to reject it – Jackson’s going to make more than $16 million over the next two years – Jackson’s decision to drop Boras suggests an unwillingness to play hardball.

Frankly, even though Jackson’s not quite as appealing as he was a year ago, the market inflation is so great that 4 and $50 sounds like a great deal right now. If Sanchez is worth $14 million a year for 5 years, then Jackson’s worth at least $13 million a year for 4, or $12 million a year for 5. If that sounds like way too much money, consider that after Jackson, the quality of starting pitchers available drops off a cliff.

The man standing at the edge of the precipice is Kyle Lohse. If I could give Dayton Moore a second piece of advice, it would be this: STAY AWAY FROM KYLE LOHSE.

Not that I expect Moore to listen to me. As Bob Dutton reported earlier this month, “there are indications the Royals have right-handers Anibal Sanchez and Kyle Lohse at the top of their list.” And if Dutton’s reporting it, you can take that to the bank.

So let’s compare the two, shall we?

- Sanchez turns 29 in February. Lohse turned 34 earlier this month.

- Sanchez has made 31+ starts each of the last three years. Lohse made just 18 starts in 2010, missing half the season following surgery to relieve compartment syndrome in his elbow.

- Sanchez has had ERAs ranging from 3.55 to 3.86 each of the last three years. Lohse had a 6.55 ERA in 2010.

- Sanchez’s ERAs the last three years are a fair representation of his performance – he has a 3.69 ERA, and a 3.63 xFIP. While Lohse has a 2.86 ERA this year, and a 3.39 ERA last year, his xFIP was 3.96 this year, 4.04 last year. The take-home conclusion: while Lohse has had better ERAs the last two seasons, he has actually pitched worse than Sanchez, but has been the beneficiary of good luck and good defense.

- On that subject, Sanchez’s BABIP the last three years have been eerily consistent - .310 this year, .310 last year, .305 in 2010. Lohse, on the other hand, had a .262 BABIP this year and a .269 BABIP last year. Those are not sustainable – his career BABIP is .297. (In his disastrous 2010, it was .364.) If you don’t like the fancy-pants numbers, just trust me on this: Lohse has been lucky for the last two years. Sanchez hasn’t. And since Kansas City is the place where luck goes to die, I’d rather have the pitcher whose success doesn’t depend on it.

- Sanchez misses bats. He struck out 7.7 batters per 9 this season, and his career rate is 7.6 per 9. Lohse does not. His strikeout rate was 6.1 batters per 9 this season, and that’s his highest rate in a full season since his rookie year in 2002.

- Sanchez at least spent half of this season in the AL. Lohse hasn’t pitched in the AL since the Twins traded him away in 2006. He has a career 4.88 ERA in the AL, vs. 4.07 in the NL. That’s not entirely fair to him – he’s a different pitcher now than he was in his 20s – but it’s fair to wonder whether he can make the adjustment back to the better league.

On the subject of Lohse being a different pitcher today, that’s one of the things that worries me most about him. He joined the Cardinals in 2008, a 29-year-old pitcher who had just come off a mediocre season for the Reds and Phillies – a 4.62 ERA in 193 innings. Of course, Dave Duncan’s specialty has always been, more or less, 29-year-old veteran starters with mediocre results, and sure enough in his first year with the Cardinals, Lohse had a 3.78 ERA in 200 innings, as he cut both his home runs and walks by about 20%.

That’s what Dave Duncan did – by preaching command of the sinker above all, he got pitchers to throw more strikes and give up fewer homers. In five seasons with the Cardinals, Lohse has walked 2.2 batters and allowed 0.9 homers per 9 innings. Everywhere else, he’s allowed 2.8 walks and 1.2 homers per 9 innings. Granted, Duncan retired after last season and Lohse was better than ever this year – but I’d be very worried that whatever made Lohse such an effective pitcher in St. Louis will stay in St. Louis when he leaves.

I made the point with Sanchez that as a pitcher ages, his strikeout rate tends to suffer, but because his walk rate drops in tandem, his overall effectiveness may not decline. The problem for Lohse is that his walk rate is so low that there’s not much more he can improve in that regard.

Lohse reminds me of no one so much as Joel Pineiro, who washed ashore in St. Louis after the Mariners and Red Sox gave up on him. Duncan got him to cut his walk rate in half, and in 2009 he threw 214 innings, walked 27 batters (the lowest walk rate in the NL) and allowed just 11 homers. Even though he struck out just 105 batters, he was very effective, with a 3.49 ERA.

Pineiro then signed a two-year, $16 million contract with the Angels. In his first year, he only made 23 starts but posted a solid 3.84 ERA – in one of the best pitchers’ parks in the league, mind you. In 2011, he had a 5.13 ERA in 146 innings. He then tore his labrum and his career is in jeopardy.

Pineiro was a more extreme version of Lohse, granted. In his walk year, Pineiro struck out just 4.4 batters per 9 innings. But like Pineiro, Lohse owes his success primarily to not walking anyone. And unlike Pineiro, you’re not getting Lohse for 2 years and $18 million. On 810 WHB, Buster Olney speculated that it would take 5 years and $75 million to sign Lohse.

Which is insane. It’s one thing to give $75 million to a pitcher with strikeout stuff in his late 20s. It’s quite another to give that much money to a command-and-control pitcher in the inferior league for his age 34 through age 38 seasons. It’s telling that the Cardinals did not sign Lohse to a long-term deal this summer, even while they were signing teammate Jake Westbrook to a two-year extension.

Oh, and assuming the Cardinals offer Lohse a qualifying offer (a 1 year, $13.3 million deal, which they almost certainly will), signing Lohse will cost the Royals the supplemental draft pick they got in the new competitive balance lottery. That will probably be around the #35 pick overall – that’s not chump change. (This would also apply to Edwin Jackson, I should point out.)

My suspicion is that one of the reasons the Royals have interest in Lohse is because they think he just needs a good defense behind him, and they’ve bought into the fiction that the Royals have a great defense. I hate to tell them this, but the Royals don’t have a great defense. There’s no evidence that they even have a good defense. There is evidence that they have one of the worst defenses in baseball.

Our ability to evaluate a player’s defense using statistics is still developing. However, our ability to evaluate the defense of a team as a whole is actually quite good. The statistic Defensive Efficiency – essentially, the percentage of balls in play that are turned into outs – is a fairly strong measure of team defense.

In 2012, the Royals ranked 28th in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, at .689. They ranked dead last in the AL, ahead of only the Brewers and Rockies, and right behind the Tigers.

Like you, I look at the team on the field and I wonder how this can be true. Mike Moustakas is Gold Glove-caliber, as is Alex Gordon. Alcides Escobar wasn’t quite as brilliant as he was in 2011, but was still above-average. Lorenzo Cain was terrific in center field. Salvador Perez is Ivan Rodriguez Jr. But again, this isn’t a measure of a single player, where errors are more likely, but the measurement of an entire team. It’s the difference between a political poll that surveys 300 voters vs. 3000 voters – the larger the sample size, the smaller the margin of error.

And if you look at what Defensive Efficiency says about other teams, you have to concede it’s a pretty accurate measure. The Tigers are winning despite a brutal defense, using the same philosophy the Brewers did last season. The best two defenses in baseball are the Angels and Rays, which makes sense. The A’s aren’t far behind them. The Orioles have a good defense. The Indians don’t.

So instead of fighting that conclusion, we need to figure out what that’s the case. Is Eric Hosmer’s positioning still hindering his defense? (Probably.) Is Jeff Francoeur just that bad? (In terms of his range – ignoring his arm – absolutely.) Can anyone on this team play defense at second base? (Maybe not – all five guys the Royals used there ranked below average, and as a whole, they were 25(!) runs below average.)

It’s possible that the Royals’ pitching staff was so bad that they made the defense look worse than it was, but I imagine such an impact was minimal. For one thing, as bad as the rotation was, the bullpen was above-average. So I have no choice but to come to the conclusion that the Royals have a bad defense. Maybe they’ll bounce back next year, now that Yuni is gone and Francoeur is likely to be put out to pasture soon. But for now, at least, I wouldn’t be signing a starting pitcher whose greatest virtue is that he puts his defense to work.

Which means I wouldn’t sign Kyle Lohse. Certainly not for the money it will take to get him.

I’ll get to the other free agents later, guys like Hiroki Kuroda and Shaun Marcum and the rest. But for now, the Royals could hardly do better than to find a way to reel in one of Greinke, Sanchez, or Jackson. And they could hardly do worse than to sign Kyle Lohse.