Thursday, November 1, 2012

For Want Of A Pitcher: That's More Like It.

So it took less than 24 hours for my last column to be rendered completely obsolete. I believe that’s a personal record.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you.

It turns out that Dayton does have money to spend after all. And it turns out that the Royals were able to think outside the box a little too. Four weeks after I wrote that they should trade a reliever to the Angels for the non-buyout portion of Dan Haren’s 2013 option, they traded a reliever to the Angels for the non-buyout portion of Ervin Santana’s 2013 option.

It’s not ideal, but it’s close enough.

The positives regarding Santana:

1) He’s durable. He’s made at least 23 starts every year since 2005, and has made at least 30 starts each of the last three years. He threw 229 innings in 2011, 223 innings in 2010.

2) He’s not terribly old. He’ll be 30 next month, which is to say, he’ll be 30 when his contract is up. He’s past his peak, but given that age is less of a factor for pitchers than it is for hitters anyway, there’s no reason to expect an age-related collapse in the next 12 months.

3) He was a fine pitcher in 2010 and 2011. He had a 3.92 ERA in 2010, a 3.38 ERA in 2011. He was an All-Star in 2008, when he had 214 strikeouts and just 47 walks in 219 innings. He is certainly capable of brilliance.

The negatives:

1 )He sucked in 2012. He had a 5.16 ERA, and in just 178 innings, he managed to surrender a league-leading 39 homers.

2) The Angels play in one of the best pitchers’ parks in the league, making his numbers look better than they are (and they weren’t good to begin with). His ERA+ was 73 this year. Will Smith’s ERA+ was 77. Luke Hochevar’s was 71.

3) This isn’t the first time he’s sucked. He had a 5.03 ERA in 2009, and a 5.76 ERA in 2007.

The positives will be afforded the opportunity for a rebuttal.

4) Even though his ERA skyrocketed this year, Santana still maintained a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio. He whiffed 133 batters in 178 innings, and walked 59. His K rate of 6.7 per 9 was just a smidge off his career norm of 7.1 per 9; his BB rate of 3.1 was just a tick above his career rate of 2.9.

5) While Santana has always been fairly homer-prone throughout his career, his home run rate this year was a fluke. He’s actually become a more groundball oriented pitcher the last two seasons. His groundball rate from 2005 through 2010 ranged from 35 to 39%. The last two years, it’s been 43.5% and 43.2%. He used to be a flyball pitcher; now he’s pretty much average in that regard.

Here’s a listing of Santana’s HR/FB ratios starting in 2005: 9%, 8%, 12%, 9%, 13%, 9%, 10%, 19%. One of these things is not like the others…

6) While Santana was terrible for the season as a whole, he was considerably improved in the second half. In his first 19 starts, he had a 6.00 ERA and was the worst starting pitcher in the majors. But from July 30th onwards, Santana he had a 3.76 ERA; in 67 innings, he walked 17 and struck out 58, including two starts with double-digit strikeout totals. (He still gave up 16 homers in those 67 innings, amazingly enough.)

His turnaround might have been a fluke, but it coincides with this article from the Orange County Register, indicating that the Angels had subtly changed Santana’s release point, which put more bite back on his slider and helped him command his fastball better. Notably, the article was published on August 16th; Santana continued to pitch well after the article came out, so it has more validity than if it had been written as an ex post facto article after the season.

Negatives, you have the floor.

7) Santana might have been unlucky on homers, but he was also very lucky on hits – his batting average on balls in play was .241. Granted, his career mark of .284 is very good, but .241 is unsustainably low.

8) Santana’s fastball was down a full mile per hour last year – his fastball averaged 91.7 mph in 2012, down from 92.7 mph in 2011. Historically, when a pitcher loses that much velocity off his fastball from year to year, it’s rare for him to regain it.

Positives, your final statement?

9) In 2009, Santana didn’t lose one mph – he lost 2.3 mph, from 94.8 to 92.5 mph. His ERA jumped from 3.49 in 2008 to 5.03 in 2009. If velocity were everything, he would have been finished. But instead, in 2010 and 2011 – despite not regaining any velocity on his fastball – he was an above-average and durable starter each year.

Even last year, Santana was substantially more effective in August and September even though his fastball didn’t regain any velocity – if anything, he threw a little slower late in the year than early in the year.

Negatives, you get the last word.

10) You made my point for me. Santana’s velocity continued to decline throughout the 2012 season, and at some point he simply won’t throw hard enough to make batters respect his slider any more.

Alright, time for the judgment.

This isn’t a great trade, not by any means. The Royals will pay Ervin Santana $12 million in 2013, making him their highest-paid player. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll be their best player. It’s not even clear that he’ll be an above-average player. Right now, if you told the Royals that Santana would give them 200 innings with a league-average ERA, they’d take that no questions asked. $12 million is a lot of money for league-average innings.

And yes, there is certainly the potential for Santana to go completely Sanchez on us next year. If his velocity continues to slide, and he starts nibbling more to compensate, and his walks shoot up…you’ll have a guy with a 5+ ERA making $12 million. If the Royals wanted that, they could just keep Luke Hochevar for half that. Oh wait, they’re doing that as well.

So no, it’s not a great trade. But ultimately it’s a trade I endorse. While acknowledging that there is a LOT of variance in what we can expect from Santana next year, I think 30 starts and an ERA in the mid-4s is a reasonable midpoint. His xFIP last year was 4.48, and it’s ranged from 3.48 to 4.55 the last five years. While the Angels play in a much better pitchers’ park than the Royals, Kauffman Stadium is actually a little tougher to hit home runs in, and given that the long ball is Santana’s biggest weakness, that’s a good fit.

Is 180 innings and a 4.50 ERA worth $12 million a season on the open market? Probably not. But it’s also not worth merely a one-year contract. If Santana were a free agent, he might be looking at 2 years and $16-18 million. It’s possible he might get more money if salary inflation really takes hold this winter, or he might get more years if a team was really desperate to clinch the deal.

In effect, what the Royals have chosen to do is to modestly overpay Santana in 2013 – on the order of about $4 million – rather than overpay him (or another pitcher) by an even greater amount in the long term. Essentially, the Royals have three ways to add a starting pitcher for 2013, and they all have downsides:

- They can sign a free agent pitcher to a long-term deal. The downside here is that while you’ll probably pay close to what that pitcher is worth in 2013, the risk of injury and decline goes up with each year, and you’re almost certain to have to guarantee three years, if not longer, for any pitcher worth his salt. There’s a good chance that almost all the money you’re paying that pitcher in 2016 or 2017 is dead money. (See also: Meche, Gil.)

- They can trade for an established pitcher approaching free agency. Here, you’re much less likely to overpay the pitcher, but you’re forfeiting prospects.

- They can do what the Royals did with Santana, and what I advocated they do with Haren: trade essentially nothing for a pitcher on a one-year deal. The downside is they’re paying too much money in 2013, but only in 2013, and they don’t touch their farm system at all.

(I have a soft spot for Brandon Sisk; four years ago one of my nurses, whose boyfriend had decided to plan independent baseball five years after his college career ended, told me that one of his teammates in the Continental League had been signed by the Royals. Sisk pitched very well in the low minors, but he’s a left-handed reliever whose stuff is a little short, and in 99 innings at Triple-A he’s walked 48 batters. He might have a long career as an up-and-down second left-hander, but he’s not someone the Royals are likely to miss at all.)

The Royals chose door #3, and I think that – at least to fill one of the holes in their rotation – it’s the way to go. The Royals think that they will have many more internal options for their rotation in 2014 than in 2013, and I agree with them. With their need for a starter being much more acute in 2013 than in future years, I think it’s reasonable for them to overpay for 2013 if it gives them flexibility in 2014 and beyond. That’s exactly what the Royals have done. They’ve improved their rotation for next year without making any financial commitments beyond that, and without touching their farm system.

That exact sentence could have been written a year ago for Jonathan Sanchez, and I probably wrote one very similar to it at the time. But that’s just it: we’ve already seen what the absolute downside is to acquiring Santana. It’s almost physically impossible for him to be any worse than Sanchez was this year. And yet as bad as Sanchez was, it was only one season. Forget for a moment that the Royals turned him into Jeremy Guthrie. Suppose they had just cut him in July, after he had done his best to single-handedly destroy their playoff hopes. As bad as he was, there was no more damage he could do. Compare that with, say, Jeff Francoeur, or to a lesser extent Bruce Chen, who both got two-year deals. Not only did they fail to help (or in Frenchy’s case, actively hurt) the Royals in 2012, we have to go through an entire off-season where they’re on the roster, where they’re on the payroll, and they serve no purpose other than to take up payroll and block better options.

The worst-case scenario involves him putting up a 7+ ERA in the first half of the season before he gets cut. But you know what? That’s no worse than the worst-case scenario if the Royals had signed Santana as a free agent to a one-year, $2 million contract. No matter what happens, he doesn’t hurt the Royals in 2014 and beyond, neither financially nor in terms of giving up future talent to get him.

Sure, he’ll cost the Royals a ton of money in 2013, money that could be used elsewhere – but at least that money is there in the first place. Maybe I overreacted to Moore’s comments after the Volstad signing, but if I did, I was hardly the only one. But now, not only has the Glass family authorized adding $12 million to the payroll, but according to Moore (who, admittedly, misled us with his previous comments), “We’re not done,” he said. “We’re going to try to continue to upgrade our rotation through trades that make sense…and we’re certainly going to explore free agency.”

That’s the most important part of this transaction. If Ervin Santana is the Royals’ Opening Day starter, we’re in trouble. If they add one more guy in front of him, they’ve got a chance to contend. If they add a guy in front of him and another guy next to him – say, Jeremy Guthrie – they have an even better chance to contend.

The addition of Santana puts the Royals’ payroll for next year at $71 million. Keep in mind, that includes $7.4 million for Luke Hochevar and Chris Volstad. If those two are just placeholders for a real starting pitcher, the Royals could add another $12 million-a-year guy – someone like a Josh Johnson in trade – cut Hochevar and Volstad, and still be around $75 million.

They could also backload a free agent contract, pushing some of those dollars to 2014 – when Francoeur and Chen come off the books – and beyond. Moore said so himself: “We can backload whoever we end up signing or whoever we end up trading for. We can structure the contract in a way that allows us to balance the dollars out.” And then we’ll find out how serious David Glass is about winning, and whether he’s willing to push the payroll another $5-10 million in 2013 to bring Guthrie back or add another comparable starter.

But for now, at least we know he’s serious enough about winning to add Ervin Santana and his salary. And we know that Dayton Moore is not letting his dream of dominating in 2015 or 2016 keep him from at least trying to contend in 2013. That’s damning with faint praise, perhaps. But it’s a much better look for the organization than where they were even 48 hours ago.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

For Want Of A Pitcher: Really?!

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.