Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Hot Stove Thoughts.

October is the month for writing about the playoffs, which I did extensively for Grantland. I also wrote a very off-topic article for Grantland on Ender’s Game and author Orson Scott Card, which I hope you’ll read if you haven’t already.

Unfortunately, once again October is not the month for writing about the Royals. But it is November now, so I guess I better get cracking. I appreciate your patience. Let’s catch up in bullet form.

1) The Royals finished the season 86-76, their winningest season since 1989, and Dayton Moore deserves credit for doing something that neither Allard Baird nor Herk Robinson was ever able to do. It wasn’t a fluke; the Royals outscored their opponents (something they hadn’t done since 1994) by 47 runs. They led the AL in ERA for the first time since 1978. (Even in 1985, they were only second-best.) They had the lowest bullpen ERA (2.55) by any AL team since 1990. It was a good year.

Lest anyone think that this changes my perception of the Myers/Shields trade, I point you to this. I’m not trying to do a victory dance here – I believe this is the first time I’ve ever nailed the Royals’ record precisely, and while they won exactly as many games as I thought they would, the way they did it was quite different than I expected. If I had known they would have the best pitching staff in the AL, I might have softened my criticism of the trade. On the other hand, if I had known that they would finish 11th in the AL in runs scored, I might have been even more critical. (And if I had known, rather than just suspected, that Wil Myers would win Rookie of the Year honors…)

While it’s nice that I got the Royals’ record right, this is the paragraph from my Opening Day article that has more relevance today:

“That leaves one last question: if the Royals win 86 games – but miss the playoffs, as I expect they will – does that justify the Shields trade? To me, the answer is obvious, but a lot of people share the opposite opinion. To a fan base starved of winning, for a team that has one winning season in the last 18 years, a team that hasn’t won 85 games since the 1980s, apparently it’s worth cashing in the farm system for respectability alone. And maybe the Royals share that sentiment. If the Royals win 86 games, a lot of people will declare the trade a success, I will claim that it’s a failure (at least pending 2014), and there may simply be no middle ground to compromise on. We may have to simply agree to disagree.”

I wouldn’t change a single word.

2) The first move of the off-season was hardly unexpected; Ned Yost received a two-year contract extension.

I could go off about what a terrible mistake this was and how Yost is never going to manage a team to the playoffs, but I won’t. Maybe I’m growing soft in my old age. Maybe I’m able to look at this decision with the perspective that comes in the off-season, when his tactical mistakes aren’t so in-the-moment. Or maybe I’ve come to accept that the tactical replacement level for managers is just incredibly low. I mean, Mike Matheny used a 23-man roster in the World Series, for some reason rostering Shelby Miller and Edward Mujica without any intention to use them. This is the same World Series in which John Farrell let middle reliever Brandon Workman take the first at-bat of his professional career in the ninth inning of a tie game. And those were your World Series managers. So maybe Ned Yost isn’t such a tactical nightmare, relatively speaking.

No, I won’t go that far. I think Yost cost the Royals specific games during the season with specific decisions. I think he will cost the Royals games in the future. But I also think that he deserves at least some credit for presiding over the best bullpen ERA in the AL in 23 years. Bullpen deployment is where a manager can make the biggest impact during the game in 21st-century baseball, now that teams have essentially abdicated the ability to pinch-hit by reducing their bench to three or four players. A 2.55 ERA from his relievers meant Yost had to be doing something right. He didn’t deploy his bullpen at all that fateful day against Detroit in September, but when he did deploy them, they pitched their ass off.

There’s also this to consider: if Yost had been fired, Dayton Moore would have faced the task of hiring a new manager even though he only has one year left on his own contract. (So far as we know – Dayton has been very coy about his own contract status.) It would be very difficult to get a quality managerial candidate to take the job knowing that his own boss was in his final year. If the Royals get off to a poor start in 2014, it’s possible that Moore could lose his job, and a new GM would understandably want to hire his own people, meaning that the new manager could get fired through no fault of his own.

In order to attract the best managerial candidates, in other words, the Glass family would probably have to extend Moore’s contract. I’m not arguing that Moore should be fired; the Royals did win 86 games, after all. But I do think that the option should be on the table in 2014 if the Royals regress. Bringing Yost back for two years seems like a reasonable premium to pay in order to keep that option open.

(Again, if Moore has already received an extension, then the last two paragraphs are invalid. I can only go with the information that I know.)

The alternative is what’s happened in Seattle, where Eric Wedge got fired, yes, but Jack Zduriencik got extended – and Lloyd McClendon, who had a .430 winning percentage in five seasons with the Pirates, got hired to replace Wedge. If that’s the alternative, giving Yost another two years doesn’t sound so bad.

3) The Royals made some changes to the coaching staff. Dale Sveum, recently manager of the Chicago Cubs, was brought on as an infield coach; Don Wakamatsu, recently manager of the Seattle Mariners, was hired as the new bench coach. Minor-league lifer Mike Jirschele finally got called up to the show after 37 years in the minors, the last 11 as manager of the Omaha Storm Chasers. It’s an experienced and fairly impressive group.

Dave Eiland and Pedro Grifol were both retained as the pitching and hitting coaches, respectively. Eiland’s done good work, certainly; while the team’s ERA was largely a reflection of the defense, there really isn’t anyone on the pitching staff who you would call a disappointment. Well, aside from Wade Davis.

It’s hard to judge Grifol based on barely a half-season of work, taking over from the mess that Jack Maloof and Andre David left him. Hosmer turned things around; Moustakas didn’t. Butler had a disappointing season; Gordon was quietly pretty bad at the plate after a scorching start. I don’t think it’s fair to make any judgments on Grifol until he’s had at least a full off-season and spring training to work with these guys.

But I’ll stand by what I’ve said before, that letting Kevin Seitzer go had at least something to do with the offensive disappointment this season, and given where the Royals finished in the standings, may have been the difference between making the playoffs and finishing on the outside. I think Seitzer is an excellent hitting coach, and his approach was tailored to the Royals’ home park, and I would have loved to see the Royals own up to their mistake and bring him back into the fold.

That didn’t happen, and honestly I would have been shocked if it had. Seitzer interviewed with the White Sox and Blue Jays, and ultimately accepted the Jays’ offer to be their new hitting coach. I’m fascinated to see how that goes, because the Jays’ hitting philosophy – swing early and swing hard – is pretty much the polar opposite of what Seitzer has preached over the years. It’s had some stellar success stories (Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion), and some massive flops (J.P. Arencibia). If Seitzer does his job well, the Blue Jays might be playing in October. If he doesn’t, he might lose his job before October.

Anyway, that door is closed. The Royals don’t think they need to make any significant changes in their offensive approach, despite finishing 11th in runs scored. Not only that, but…

4) Billy Butler is apparently being shopped, per Buster Olney, whose word on these things is impeccable. We don’t know how hard he’s being shopped, whether this is one of those situations where the Royals will entertain offers to see whether anything appeals to them, or a Zack Greinke situation where they have no intention of opening camp with him, and it’s just a matter of how much they can get. I assume it’s the former.

I hope it’s the former. Butler didn’t have a good year by his standards; his 1.5 bWAR was his lowest since 2008, when he was a 22-year-old in his first full season. And at that, he still had a .374 OBP, set a career high with 79 walks, and played in every game.

Yes, his OBP is less valuable than almost any other player in baseball, because he’s one of the two or three slowest runners in the game. And yet even so, according to Baseball Reference, his lack of speed costs the Royals only about four runs a season; when you factor in the double plays (he led the league for the second time in four years), it’s more like seven runs a season. That’s not good, but it’s not a reason, in and of itself, to dump the most consistent hitter on the team the last five years.

A year ago, Butler hit 29 homers; prior to 2013 he had at least 60 extra-base hits in four straight years. Speed is less of an issue when you’re already on second or third base (or you drive yourself in). Last year, for some reason, Butler had trouble getting to second base on his own, although he continued to reach first base as often as ever. Figuring out the reason and fixing it seems like a better use of the Royals’ resources than trading Butler. Particularly with the league-wide trend of getting away from full-time DHs to give teams roster flexibility, Butler’s trade value just isn’t high enough to warrant moving him.

Again: the Royals finished 11th in the AL in runs scored. They were 1st in runs allowed. Even with Santana being a free agent, trading a guy who helps you in the former for guys who might help you in the latter seems like a weird allocation of resources. This isn’t robbing Peter to pay Paul. This is robbing the mailroom clerk to pay the CEO. The Royals need offense. Trading Billy Butler seems like a strange way to fill that need.

5) Luis Mendoza was released to pave the way for him to sign with the Nippon Ham Fighters. Good for all parties. Mendoza was a valuable innings-eater when the Royals need one; from September of 2011 through 2012 he made 27 starts (and five relief appearances), threw 181 innings and had a 3.99 ERA. But in 2013 he didn’t pitch as well, and the Royals didn’t need him nearly as much. He was probably going to get non-tendered anyway; the Royals had better uses of both his roster spot and the salary he would have earned, as he would have been arbitration-eligible for the first time.

This way Mendoza gets a seven-figure payday, he’s likely to be an above-average starter in Japan, and if he turns out to be even better than that he can always come back, Colby Lewis-style, to the majors in a few years. Good for him, good for the Fighters, and good for the Royals for letting him earn some bank. We’ll miss him. Or at least his luscious, flowing locks. (Said the bald guy.)

6) Speaking of Ervin Santana…as expected, the Royals made him the 1 year, $14.1 million qualifying offer, and as expected, he declined it. Ken Rosenthal has reported that Santana is looking for a 5-year, $100 million contract. I’m looking for world peace and a unicorn for each of my daughters. Santana probably isn’t getting $100 million – although with the new TV money hitting 30 different teams, I’m not ruling it out entirely. But my expectation of 5 years and $75 million doesn’t seem out of reach at all. And if the bidding gets to that point, or anywhere close, the Royals should gracefully take their draft pick and bow out.

Santana had an excellent season, but like every other Royals pitcher, he benefitted tremendously from the defense behind him. The contract he gets is likely to reflect the benefit of that defense. Rather than paying Santana a premium because of Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain and David Lough, the Royals are better off signing another pitcher who resembles where Santana was a year ago, and see if that defense can turn that pitcher into a guy who resembles what Santana was this year.

6) A guy like…Phil Hughes, who Jon Heyman reports the Royals are very interested in. Hughes makes an enormous amount of sense. (Actually, the four guys that Bob Dutton mentions as piquing the Royals’ interest – Hughes, Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson, and Carlos Beltran – are all very high on my wish list. I find this very unnerving.)

Could Hughes be next year’s Ervin Santana? Let us count the ways:

Phil Hughes had a 5.19 ERA this year. Ervin Santana had a 5.16 ERA last year.

Hughes’ ERA has bounced around a lot: over the last four years (since he became a regular starter), his ERAs are 4.19, 5.79, 4.23, and 5.19. But his xFIPs, a better measure of his true ability, are much more consistent: 4.13, 4.90, 4.35, and 4.39. They’re also generally better than his ERAs.

Santana’s ERAs the last six years before the trade were 5.76, 3.49, 5.03, 3.92, 3.38, and 5.16. But his xFIPs were also more consistent, and also generally better: 4.70, 3.48, 4.55, 4.31, 3.93, and 4.48.

Santana was a flyball pitcher for most of his career, although that was trending downward – his FB% ranged from 41 to 46% from 2005 to 2010, but dropped to 37-38% in 2011-2012, which is about league average, and with the Royals it dropped to 33%, while his groundball percentage rose to 46%. (By the way, this is actually very unusual – a pitcher’s groundball/flyball tendencies almost never change this much during their career unless they learn a completely new pitch.) But at least at the time he was acquired, it was thought that Santana’s flyball tendencies would play well at Kauffman Stadium.

Hughes is more of a flyball pitcher than Santana ever was, and shows no signs of change – his career FB% is 46.0%, and this year it was 46.5%.

Now, Santana was probably a better pitcher overall a year ago than Hughes is now. Santana’s career ERA was 4.33; Hughes’ is 4.54. (Although by xFIP they’re just a couple of points apart.) But Hughes has several advantages:

- He’s younger. Santana turned 30 the month after the Royals traded for him. Hughes doesn’t turn 28 until next June.

- Whereas Santana had spent his entire career pitching for the Angels, in one of the game’s best pitchers’ parks, Hughes has spent his career pitching for the Yankees in Yankee Stadium. Mostly in New Yankee Stadium, which is very kind to left-handed power hitters, and very mean to right-handed pitchers who, like Hughes, face a lot of left-handed power hitters. And who give up a lot of flyballs.

For his career, Hughes has a 4.96 ERA at home – and a 4.10 ERA on the road. He’s thrown about 8% more innings at home than on the road – but he’s surrendered more than twice as many homers (76 at home, 36 on the road). This is a guy who needs a change of scenery badly.

If that scene happens to include Kauffman Stadium’s spacious dimensions, a Gold Glove left fielder, and two other Gold Glove-caliber defenders in the outfield…well, so much the better.

There’s no visible change in Hughes’ velocity – his fastball averaged 92.3 mph this year, compared to a career mark of 92.2 mph. He averaged exactly 5 innings a start in 2013, but it appears his lack of stamina wasn’t because of health issues, but simply effectiveness issues.

And even this year, his problems seemed to be confined to Yankee Stadium. At home, he had a 6.32 ERA and allowed 17 homers in 78 innings. On the road, he had a 3.88 ERA and allowed 7 homers in 67 innings.

I’m not really sure you could design a better buy-low rotation candidate for the Royals than Phil Hughes. There’s risk here, certainly. He was awful in the second half, throwing just 43 innings in 11 starts, and giving up four runs while recording just one out in his only relief appearance. He made four starts in September and somehow threw just 10 innings, even though he only got hit hard in one of those starts; there has to be a story there. And he’s a pitcher; he could be great for a year and then get hurt.

But all the indicators point to improvement next season, and his age makes you think he could sustain that improvement for a couple of years. I’m just throwing out some numbers out there, but if Marlon Byrd can get $16 million for 2 years in this new market, I think the Royals can take the money they’re paying Santana and give it to Hughes for the next 2-3 years. Two years and $24 million? Three years and $30 million? I’d do that easily. If the Royals are convinced that Hughes’ arm is in good health, and his mechanics are likely to keep him in good health, I’d even consider a longer deal. Four years and $48 million? The Gil Meche special (5 years, $55 million)? It’s not as crazy as it sounds, particularly in this market.

Hughes, like Meche, is unusually young for a free agent (Hughes is actually nine months younger than Meche was). Like Meche, he’s a former first-round pick who hasn’t put it together yet. He doesn’t have nearly the checkered injury that Meche had before he signed. And before you ask why on earth I would compare Hughes to Meche like it’s a good thing: signing Gil Meche was one of the best, and certainly one of the boldest, decisions that Dayton Moore has made as GM. It’s just that the decision to send Meche out to the mound with a tired arm in the summer of 2009 is the worst – hands down, no questions asked – decision of his administration.

I don’t think it would take Meche money to lure Hughes to town. But you could make a case that it would be money well spent. Moore likes to make a quick splash in the off-season, and signing Hughes would be a cannonball off the high board.

And then the Royals can spend the rest of the winter figuring out ways to improve their offense.