Friday, August 30, 2013

Five For Friday: 8/30/13.

Heads up, Kansas City: I’m coming to town next week. For the first time…well…ever, I’m going to be attending baseball games at Kauffman Stadium in September. Maybe it’s a long shot, but a long shot is better than no shot, which is what we’ve been stuck with for a decade. Meaningful baseball in Kansas City after Labor Day is something to be savored, and I want to be there. Hopefully many of you will want to be there too. I’m still working out the details with 810 WHB, but hopefully we’ll be able to set up some sort of meet-and-greet where I can get the chance to say hi to many of you. Stay tuned to my Twitter feed for more details.

And if the Royals are still in the race two weeks later, I might come back to town from September 20-22, the next-to-last weekend of the season. And as luck should have it, if the Royals somehow find themselves mathematically alive with three games left, the final series of the season is here in Chicago. If the Royals are playing for something, I hope some of you can make the trek up and we’ll turn U.S. Cellular Field a lovely shade of blue.

On to your questions. The general theme of your questions is that, while you’re all pleased that the Royals are relevant again, you’re already turning towards next year, and with quite a bit of concern. I share your sentiments.

AJ Exner (@AJExner): What is your ideal 5-man rotation come 2014?

Well, this is really the big question for 2014, isn’t it? The Royals seem to regard 2013 as a stepping stone – let’s not get into Dayton Moore’s whole “ahead of schedule” bunk, as I really don’t want to add hypertension to my list of problems – and seem to think that if they win 85 games this year, this will position them perfectly to win 90-95 games next year, much as Terry Ryan’s Minnesota Twins went 85-77 in 2001, and then 94-67 in 2002, winning the first of six division titles in nine years.

I imagine that thinking is predicated on the notion that a young offense will continue to improve, and that’s a reasonable expectation, given that last I checked the Royals still had the third-youngest offense in baseball, older than only the Astros and (surprisingly, perhaps) the Braves.

The problem is that the offense will probably have to improve A LOT if the Royals are going to take a step forward next year, because the pitching staff will almost certainly be worse. The Royals have the best ERA in the AL. That is amazing, and impressive, and almost certain not to be repeated next year.

Here are the starters that are under contract for next year, in order of the starts they’ve made for the Royals this year:

James Shields (28)
Jeremy Guthrie (26)
Wade Davis (24)
Luis Mendoza (15)
Danny Duffy (3)
Will Smith (1)

Santana and Bruce Chen are free agents, and they’ve combined for 261 innings and a 3.08 ERA this year. That’s going to be tough to replace. On the other hand, Davis has a 5.67 ERA, Mendoza has a 5.06 ERA, and the Royals should be able to improve on their performance quite easily. (Remember, they have one of the best defenses in baseball.)

If you just focus on their performance as starters, they’ve combined for 74 starts and a 4.14 ERA. The ERA shouldn’t be hard to match, but the sheer quantity starts will be difficult to replace. The Royals will have Duffy all season, although it’s a question whether they’ll allow him to make 32 starts or whether they’ll get spooked by his elbow surgery and hold his innings back past the limits of common sense. (Also known as “pulling a Strasburg”.) I’d like to see what Will Smith could do in the rotation, given the impressive strides he’s made as a pitcher the last two years – but he hasn’t started a game at any level since June 2nd, and precisely because he’s been so successful as a reliever, the Royals might not want to give up their security blanket.

This isn’t on the Royals alone; as Joe Sheehan recently wrote in his Newsletter, the whole industry has been too quick to turn young starters into relievers, and not long relievers: short relievers who throw an inning at a time, which makes the process of refashioning them back into starters fraught with peril. (Think Alexi Ogando, Neftali Feliz, Joba Chamberlain, or hell, Wade Davis.) I’d like to see the Royals give Smith a chance to win a rotation spot next spring, but if they don’t do it then, you might as well abandon the idea altogether – at that point Smith would have no more chance of becoming a starter again than Aaron Crow does.

So the Royals basically have three starters they can use for next year – and Guthrie, at least, is walking a tightrope every time out. His ERA this year is 4.19, but his xFIP is 4.62 and his FIP is 4.87. I’m not saying he can’t continue to outpitch his peripherals – he’s always had a lower-than-average BABIP, and with his high-contact style of pitching, he’s benefited from the outstanding defense as much as anyone. I will continue to #EmbraceTheLuck. But I will also acknowledge that he’s going to be 35 next year, and if he loses even a little bit of effectiveness, he’s going to be a lot less effective, if that make sense.

Regardless, the Royals need at least two starters for next year. I would not be surprised if one of them is Bruce Chen. Barring a terrible September, Chen has probably positioned himself for a similar contract to the one he’s finishing, maybe for a little more money – 2 years and $12 million, say. He’s not as good a pitcher as what he’s shown this year, but then he’s not as bad as he was last year, when he had a 5.07 ERA despite a career-high strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 3-to-1.

It won’t be a terrible move if they do resign him; he’ll be 37, but maybe he really is the second coming of Jamie Moyer. But I still wouldn’t expect him to replicate this year’s performance. And that leaves one more rotation spot open – and keep in mind that we’re not accounting for injuries, ineffectiveness, etc; you really need to go into spring training with at least seven viable starters.

I would not be surprised if the Royals try to open next season with Davis and/or Mendoza in the rotation again. I would be surprised if that doesn’t end badly.

I think the Royals would love to have Kyle Zimmer or Yordano Ventura win a rotation spot in the spring. Realistically, I don’t think either one will be ready until mid-season, and I see them more as insurance policies for when someone in the rotation inevitably needs to be replaced, sort of like what Duffy was this year. (Except for the whole “let’s wait to replace the guy with the 5.67 ERA until the end of August” thing.).

So that leaves them doing the same thing they did last winter: find a veteran starting pitcher that’s either a free agent or a bounce-back candidate they can get cheaply in trade. The Royals did both last year; Guthrie’s been about what they expected, while Santana is perhaps the greatest trade of Moore’s career. The good news is that they probably only have to do it once; the bad news is that it’s hard to believe they’ll get anyone as good as Santana has been.

The Royals’ rotation ranks 6th in the AL with a 3.93 ERA, and 4th in the AL with 6.11 innings per start. Given the resources on hand, they’ll be hard-pressed to match those rankings next year.

Yooper_IA (@Yooper_IA): If the Royals market their bullpen for other pieces, what can they get since many believe bullpens can be built internally?

Here’s the other, maybe bigger, reason why I think the pitching staff as a whole won’t be as good next season: the Royals have the best bullpen in the AL, and given the inherent variability in relievers from one year to the next, it’s very difficult to maintain that kind of quality in back-to-back season. (Note: Atlanta excepted.)

Did I say the Royals have the best bullpen in the AL this year? I’m sorry – I mean they have the best bullpen in the AL in the last 23 years. The bullpen has a combined 2.57 ERA, a mark not matched by an AL team since the 1990 A’s had a 2.35 ERA. No other team in the AL has a bullpen ERA under 3.00. The Royals could have the best bullpen ERA again next year and STILL decline significantly. Regression’s going to be a bitch.

Given that the bullpen’s going to decline anyway, you might as well trade some of those guys before they regress for help elsewhere. The problem, as you state, is that except for the elite, most relievers don’t bring in a ton in trade. I think one of the bullpen guys could be a nice second or third piece to get a trade for a position player done, and I would be fine with that.

But if you’re going to trade a reliever by himself for impact, it pretty much has to be Greg Holland. Closers can still fetch talent, and sometimes they can even bring in a major league-ready position player. Mark Melancon for Jed Lowrie-plus. Andrew Bailey for Josh Reddick-plus. Matt Capps for Wilson Ramos.

Yes, it would hurt to lose Holland, who is having pitch-for-pitch the best season by a Royals reliever ever. His 1.38 ERA is just a point behind Jeff Montgomery’s 1.37 ERA as the lowest in Royals history for someone with 40+ innings. His .179 batting average against is 5th all-time, and one of the four guys ahead of him is himself two years ago. And his 41.5% strikeout rate is off-the-charts ahead of anyone else in team history; the next-best rate is 31.5%.

But here’s the thing: even the best closers rarely maintain their effectiveness for very long. As Buster Olney has pointed out, 27 of the 30 closers in baseball didn’t have the job with their current team two years ago. Matt Klaassen mentioned John Axford as a point of comparison; while Holland’s been a little better than Axford was in 2010-11, it’s close, and Axford has been a shell of his former greatness the last two years. (And like Holland, Axford sort of came out of nowhere to be an elite reliever for two years.)

Furthermore, it’s not like the Royals don’t have options to close. One of the three guys with a better batting average against than Holland is…Luke Hochevar, against whom hitters are batting .172 this year. I’m not advocating that the Royals make Hochevar their closer next year…no, wait, I AM advocating that, and no, I can’t believe it either. All due respect to the Royals for salvaging an excellent reliever out of the game’s worst starter.

And behind Hochevar, they have Collins, and Herrera looks like he’s fixed, and Louis Coleman has a 0.39 ERA and is in Wilmington for the week because they can’t find a spot for him, and Aaron Crow has been on the roster all year and they’ve only found 43 innings for him to pitch. If Will Smith is a reliever now, well, Will Smith looks like a hell of a reliever. And let’s not forget that Wade Davis was fantastic in the bullpen last year, and like Hochevar, maybe that’s just the place for him.

So trade Holland. Maybe there’s a team out there with a need for a closer and a second baseman to spare. The bullpen is going to be worse either way; at least this way you might be able to compensate by making a big offensive upgrade.

Tate Christgen (@TateCinKC): What are the chances they deal a top five prospect for a 2B or RF? If so, what are the chance Dayton Moore gets strangled?

Well, first off, they don’t have a top five prospect. I don’t mean that as an insult – I mean that in the sense that my specific objections to the Wil Myers trade involved a particular set of circumstances that can’t be replicated this year.

Hard as it may be to believe, I don’t have an objection to trading prospects for established talent. I do have an objection to trading prospects when they are top five overall prospects, when they are hitting prospects (and much less likely to get hurt or mysteriously lose their stuff), and when they are major league-ready themselves. Myers was as close to a sure thing as there is in the minors and he was ready to help the Royals in 2013. The Royals simply have no one who fits that description for 2014. Few teams do.

Which is to say, not only would I be fine if the Royals trade one of their top prospects for a real solution at second base or right field (or, I suppose, in the rotation), I would actively encourage it. Look at their top prospects, in no particular order:

- Raul Mondesi just turned 18. He’s two years from the majors. He might be a monster when he arrives – I could see him being a Top 20 or 30 prospect overall – but if you get an appropriate return, you can help your team significantly in 2014 and 2015 for a player unlikely to help you until 2016.

- Yordano Ventura is a pitcher. Who stands 5’11”. And has command issues.

- Kyle Zimmer is a pitcher. Who had to end his season a little early because of minor arm issues. Again.

- Bubba Starling is already 21, and just in A-ball, and while I think he’s quietly re-established himself as a prospect again (more on that in a future column), there’s a ton of risk here.

- Jorge Bonifacio might be the guy I’d be most reluctant to trade, in that I think he’s 90% of the prospect Myers was – he just turned 20 in June, he’s in Double-A already, and despite breaking a bone in his hand earlier this year he’s recovered and is hitting .301/.371/.441 since he was promoted to Northwest Arkansas. But even he’s not a can’t-miss.

And look, if you traded for Shields to be all-in for 2013 and 2014, then you’re all-in for 2014. If 2013 really is a stepping stone year, then anything short of a playoff berth next year will be a failure. I suggested something along the lines of Ventura for Howie Kendrick at the trade deadline, and I’d certainly be willing to trade him for an above-average regular at a position of need.

I don’t have detailed trade proposals for you at the moment. But the general principle is fine. The Royals, as constituted right now, probably aren’t good enough to win in 2014. But they’re close enough to it that trading future talent for present talent this winter isn’t just warranted, it’s practically a necessity.

Eric Loes (@LoesEric): Thoughts on possibly bringing Beltran back to play right field. Make sense? Possible?

Make sense? Hell yeah. Beltran will be 37 next year, but he’s hitting .310/.343/.526 for the Cardinals this year; his 138 OPS+ is actually higher than he had at any point when he was with the Royals. He has about as broad a skill set as you can possibly have; he’s one of just eight players in history with 300 homers and 300 steals. Interestingly, he actually has the lowest walk rate of his career. Generally, hitters walk more late in their careers, as they learn to compensate for the loss of bat speed by swinging less. The fact that Beltran is not swinging less – but still hitting for a high average – makes me think that he still has that adjustment in his bag if he needs it. If he’ll sign another deal similar to the one he’s on now (2 years, $26 million), I would jump on it.

Here’s the thing: the argument so many made in favor of trading for Shields was that by making the Royals more respectable this season, it would make them a more favored destination for free agents in the future. Beltran – a still-excellent player who has made a ton of money in the game and probably wants to win more than anything else at this point – is a perfect test case for this theory. If Beltran signs with the Royals, and does so in part because of their record in 2013, I will grant you that this would be a fringe benefit of the Shields trade that I have not really accounted for. Mind you, if Beltran signs with the Royals because they finish 85-77, he might have signed with them if they finished 82-80 with the Rookie of the Year in right field. But it’s at least something you can point to.

I’m skeptical that will happen, because there are a lot of teams that look like they can win in 2014, and Beltran will probably sign with the team that offers him the most money. Free agents usually do.

Matt Erickson (@MattEricksonKS): What in the world is up with Alex Gordon’s L/R splits this year?

I’m already approaching 3000 words for a Five For Friday, so let’s end with a quickie. Here’s Gordon’s splits this year:

vs. LHP: .316/.370/.532
vs. RHP: .246/.311/.374

Gordon has 21 extra-base hits vs. lefties in 171 at-bats, and 24 extra-base hits vs. righties in 345 at-bats. It’s a huge difference.

And it’s almost certainly just random variation. For his career, Gordon has hit .251/.321/.413 vs. LHP, .278/.356/.448 vs. RHP. If you just want to consider his career since he rebuilt his swing, he was better against right-handed pitching in both 2011 and 2012. In fact, last year his splits were almost a mirror image of this year’s:

vs. LHP: .248/.311/.357
vs. RHP: .320/.398/.510

The difference is that you face roughly twice as many right-handed pitchers as left-handed pitchers, so his overall numbers are down significantly.

This happens sometimes. Not often, though. In fact, in Retrosheet history (i.e. since 1946 or so, with isolated games going back to 1916), the difference between Gordon’s OPS vs. LHP (.903) and his overall OPS (.757) is the fifth-highest of all time for a left-handed batter (min: 150 PA vs. LHP):

Player          Year  OPS vs. LHP  OPS overall  Diff.

Garret Anderson 2000     1.010        .827      .183
Chase Utley     2010     1.003        .832      .171
Mo Vaughn       1999     1.032        .866      .166
Barry Bonds     2002     1.532       1.381      .151
Alex Gordon     2013      .903        .757      .146

(Looking at Barry Bonds’ numbers always make me laugh.) If you go by percentage difference, Gordon moves up to third overall.

The thing is, if you look at their career numbers, all four players hit RHP better than LHP. The platoon advantage is something inherent in the game, in the kinetics of the swing and in the biology of the way the eyes track a ball moving towards or away from you. (Mind you, the platoon advantage does not always apply for pitchers.)

So I don’t think it means anything, other than that Gordon is not one of those lefties who is completely helpless anytime a lefty specialist who throws 87 but can spin a breaking ball comes into the game. It may not be a coincidence that the other four guys all had long, successful career. The ability to hit left-handed pitching this well, even in a small sample size, is a pretty strong indicator that you’re a damn fine hitter.

And finally, and unfortunately, your bonus question:

Jared (@JWoodOMFS): I’d like to see a short commentary on possible US intervention in Syria and some details about Assad.

I’d really like to write a full-length column on Syria at some point. I haven’t for a variety of reasons, the first one being that at least back in 2011, I was concerned that writing about Syria might jeopardize the security of family back home, or of my parents, who were still venturing back and forth between America and Syria at the time.

That, in itself, should tell you something about the Syrian government. One of the great tragedies of the Iraq War, in my opinion, is that we as Americans are no longer as willing to acknowledge that true evil does exist in the world, and true evil can not be eliminated by diplomacy or political maneuvering. The Assad family is basically a mafia family in charge of an entire country, only with less morals. They are responsible for the fact that I’m writing to you about baseball, in English, from America: their oppression of the Syrian people is responsible for the mass emigration of a Syrian diaspora of literally millions of people over the last 40+ years, including my parents, who had no intention of permanently settling in America when they arrived for my father to perform his medical residency in 1970, and who then had no intention of ever raising their children in Syria after they returned to see what had become of the country by 1977.

Officially, over 100,000 people have been killed in the last two and a half years; unofficially, I would be stunned if the true number wasn’t double or even triple that, given the number of people who have simply disappeared. The lucky ones are dead; the unlucky ones are being tortured in a prison system that I would describe as medieval, except that they didn’t have the benefits of technology in medieval times. The world has finally awoken to the true nature of the Assad family after they used poison gas to kill about 1300 Syrian civilians, mostly women and children, and this wasn’t the first time they used chemical warfare this year. There are 2 to 3 million Syrian refugees outside the country right now. Mind you, the population of Syria before protests began was about 23 million. So multiply these numbers by 12 or 13 to scale it to America’s population, and you’ll get some idea of the degree of misery.

The rebels aren’t all perfect, which isn’t surprising when the government responded to the initial non-violent protests with wholescale murder, and when the only foreign entities willing to help were the fundamentalist Arab governments of the Gulf region, who were more than happy to provide money and weapons to people who were willing to subscribe to their extremist ideologies. But the majority of the rebels are simple, moderate, middle-class Syrians who are tired of watching their sons murdered, their daughters raped, their brothers thrown into a dungeon for six months before his barely-recognizable body is returned to their family.

I don’t know if I have the answers for you, largely because the right answer was to have done something two years ago, before the extremists gained ascendancy, before the conflict spilled into Lebanon and Iraq, before hundreds of thousands lost their lives and millions lost their homes. But no one did. One of the reasons why I am forcefully in favor of doing something is that we’ve already seen the fruits of doing nothing. We did something in Libya – not a lot, but enough, and at the right time. Libya certainly still has its issues today, but it’s a veritable paradise compared to Syria. We had two very similar situations in 2011 – two long-standing Arab dictators threatening genocide against a population that had finally had enough. We saw two very different reactions from the international community. In the country where foreign powers applied a brief but effective military response, the dictator was neutralized and killed, and the people are trying to dig themselves out of a half-century of oppression. In the country where foreign powers did nothing, one of the great international tragedies of the 21st century has unfolded.

Given that, I am at a loss to understand how people can look at Libya and Syria and conclude that the solution to the Assad family’s latest atrocity is to do nothing. But then, there’s a lot I don’t understand about politics. Which is why I’m not a politician. Thank God.