The Royals, they always me keep me guessing.
I didn’t think the Royals were going to add another pitcher this late in the off-season, and if they were, I didn’t think it was going to be Bruce Chen. Ervin Santana, maybe, although 1) I thought those chances were overrated by fans who wanted their security blanket back, and 2) I didn’t think it made sense to bring him back at the price he wanted, or even at the (much-lower) price it looks like he’ll get.
But Chen? I love the guy, but what did the Royals need with another innings-eating #4 starter/swingman type? The Royals already have plenty of mediocre security in the rotation, and they have more relievers than they can possibly put on the roster. I have no idea how Chen fits on the roster.
And yet you know what? I love this deal. One guaranteed year? $4.25 guaranteed million, including his option for 2015? This is pocket change in today’s game. Chen can make an additional $1.25 million if he makes 25 starts, and the Royals could bring him back in 2015 for an extra $4.5 million, although the “mutual” part of the option renders it essentially meaningless.
I really don’t get this pitching market. I still think Phil Hughes’ three years and $24 million could be the bargain of the winter. Maybe Matt Garza’s arm is really in such bad shape that four years and $50 million is all he could get, but it’s clear that neither Santana nor Ubaldo Jimenez, both durable #3 starters at the very least, are going to get close to the five-year deals and $15 million annual salaries they were expecting to get. But then there’s Masahiro Tanaka getting $155 million from the Yankees, plus the $20 million posting fee, plus an opt-out after four years. Scott Feldman got three years and $30 million from the Astros to be a really good #4 starter.
And then there’s the Royals, once again jumping the gun on the free agent market back in November, signing Jason Vargas for four years and $32 million, and once again looking like they would have been far better off keeping their powder dry.
Because the very reasons that I love this deal for the Royals make the Vargas signing look even sillier and more unwarranted. I made this very comparison at the time, but to repeat myself:
Over the last 5 years (when Chen joined the Royals), Chen has a 4.32 ERA.
Over the last 5 years, Jason Vargas – pitching in the two best pitchers’ parks in the AL – has a 4.07 ERA.
“Wait,” you say, “Kauffman Stadium is a great place to pitch as well.” Well, not exactly. It’s a great place to not give up homers, but a pretty terrible place to not give up singles, doubles, or triples. Over the past five years, Kauffman Stadium has been essentially neutral in terms of its effect on overall run scoring, and if it leans in any direction, it’s in favor of the hitter. In 2013, for whatever reason, Kauffman Stadium increased scoring by about 5%, but from 2009-2012 the K increased scoring by less than 1% overall.
Now, Bruce Chen is a flyball pitcher, and he’s probably benefited from Kauffman’s dimensions more than most pitchers would. And it’s true: over the last five years, Chen’s ERA at home is 4.00, but his road ERA is 4.66. That’s a slightly bigger home/road disparity than most pitchers have.
Except here’s the thing: over the last five years, Vargas’ ERA at home is 3.37, and his road ERA is 4.83.
Over the last five years, Bruce Chen has a better ERA on the road than Vargas. The Royals signed one of them for 4 years and $32 million guaranteed, and the other for one year and $4.25 million guaranteed. This does not compute.
Sure, Chen’s road ERA benefits from the fact that he gets to make occasional road starts in Seattle and Anaheim, while Vargas doesn’t, but at the very least they’re essentially equal pitchers on the road. And while Chen is an extreme flyball pitcher, Vargas is pretty neutral in that regard, so Chen fits Kauffman’s blueprints much better. True, Vargas has averaged more innings (190 to 152) over the last four years than Chen, but Chen’s innings count is diminished by the fact that he worked out of the bullpen in parts of 2010 and 2013. And Vargas was the only one who was on the DL last year. Just two years ago, Chen led the American League with 34 starts.
Yes, Chen is six years older than Vargas, and for any other type of player that would make this comparison moot. But lefty finesse types, once they’ve learned to survive in the majors, tend to age very well. The aging process robs pitchers of velocity over time, but if you’ve already learned to succeed in the majors without it, you’re basically immune. Chen turns 37 in June; Jamie Moyer’s four best seasons came at ages 35, 36, 39, and 40.
If you put a gun to my head, and forced me to choose only one pitcher for 2014…you might wind up pulling the trigger before I could decide. Vargas is likely to throw more innings; Chen is likely to pitch better inning-for-inning. It’s essentially a tie.
And honestly: I’d probably wind up picking Chen, because if everything goes according to plan for the 2014 Royals, at least one and maybe two minor league starting pitchers will be ready for a rotation spot at some point in the season, and Chen has proven the ability to go back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen without difficulty. Vargas does not. So there you go: I think Chen is a better fit for the 2014 Royals than Vargas, at half the salary, and without the messy commitment for 2015, 2016, and 2017.
I know it’s gauche to complain about Vargas again when the Royals just made a nice move to re-sign Chen, much the same way it’s considered poor manners to complain about the Valentine’s Day gift your spouse got you while opening your birthday present. But I’m sorry: the contrast is just so jarring. The Royals signed two remarkably similar players, and one of them got twice the annual salary and four times the contract length of the other.
Insomuch as what’s past is prologue, and Vargas was already under contract, I still like the re-signing of Chen, particularly since he is at least tentatively slotted to start the year in the rotation. The scenario I outlined above – where Chen can move to the bullpen once Yordano Ventura or Kyle Zimmer is ready to go – seems to be the plan; it’s not a coincidence that the bonuses in Chen’s contract kick in if he makes more than 15 starts, as I’m sure in an ideal world the Royals would plan to have him in the bullpen before he gets to his 16th start. This does mean the Royals plan to start the year with a rotation of James Shields, Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, and Bruce Chen – basically, a good #2 starter and then three #4 starters. The fifth spot ought to go to Danny Duffy, and if re-signing Chen relegates Duffy to a lesser role, his return will be costly in more than just dollars.
I suspect – because I’m generally a nice guy who wants to believe the best in everyone – that the Royals want Duffy to be the #5 starter and will give him every opportunity to win the job, but feel that giving him legitimate competition for his job will spur him to work harder and excel. That’s what I suspect drove the acquisition of Danny Valencia, to spur Mike Moustakas, and Moustakas showed up to FanFest noticeably thinner than last year. (He also sported a Mohawk, but nobody’s perfect.)
That means there’s no spot in the rotation for Ventura, at least not to start the year, and that’s not the worst thing in the world. He’s made just 14 starts in Triple-A, and another month in Omaha would delay free agency by a year, and he could still work to tighten his command a little. In an ideal world, Ventura returns to Omaha, makes Triple-A hitters cry for a month or two, then gets promoted to Kansas City when a rotation spot inevitably opens.
And in a less-than-perfect world where one of the Royals’ projected five starters gets hurt in spring training, or where Duffy can’t find the strike zone, then Ventura can slide right into the rotation. The Royals have six major league-caliber starters on their roster right now, which is something a team with playoff aspiration has to have. Ideally three of them wouldn’t be innings-eating veteran finesse pitchers, but we’ll take what we can get. If the defense and bullpen are as elite as they were last year, the Royals should still be one of the best teams in the league at run prevention.
So I was completely prepared to give a thumbs-up to this move, and even compliment ownership for spending the money they saved by reworking Jeremy Guthrie’s contract. And then the other shoe dropped: to make room for Chen – on the payroll more than the roster – the Royals designated Emilio Bonifacio for assignment.
Bonifacio had agreed to a contract for $3.5 million for 2014, but it wasn’t guaranteed; by DFA’ing him now, I believe the Royals aren’t on the hook for a penny. (Update: I've had it confirmed that the Royals are still on the hook for one-sixth of Bonifacio's salary, assuming he isn't claimed on waivers - so this move saves them about $2.9 million.) So the Royals have basically replaced Bonifacio’s salary with Chen’s. And in so doing, they are sending a pretty strong signal that their payroll is tapped out at – pending the resolution of Greg Holland’s arbitration case – a little under $89 million.
And I’m sorry, but that’s not acceptable. Last year’s Opening Day payroll was roughly $81 million; it wound up a tick north of that, largely thanks to the Royals’ shrewd claim of Bonifacio on waivers in August. The Royals, as we’ve been noting for the past 18 months since the contracts were signed, are due roughly an extra $25 million annually from their national TV deals. It’s actually about $27 million a year, but I’m figuring some of that will go to expenses. The Royals – and every other MLB team – would like you to think that it’s all going to expenses. Here’s an article featuring a rare breakdown by an owner (Rockies owner Dick Monfort) of where that money is allegedly going.
Of the $27 million, Monfort claims $8 million goes to baseball’s central fund – which sounds like an expense, but of course that money belongs to MLB, and if they spend it in other ways, that’s money they would have spent regardless of the new TV deal. Monfort also plans to pay $5.5 million back to the MLB credit line to pay for a previous loan – again, that loan would have to be repaid regardless, and it’s a matter of convenience to claim that the money to repay the loan comes from the new TV deal. Monfort claims the Rockies can only add about $11 million to the payroll, but the very numbers he presents make it clear that the Rockies could increase payroll by $16.5 million and still be revenue-neutral, and that’s not counting MLB’s central fund.
The Royals haven’t raised their payroll by $16.5 million, or even $11 million. They’ve raised their payroll by about $8 million. They would have raised their payroll by about $11 million – and saved me the trouble of criticizing them – had they not just let Bonifacio go. But they did.
You could argue that Bonifacio is overpaid as a utility player, and you might be right. But I’d argue that the one thing that seems to separate the 2014 Royals from the 2013 Royals, or any other Royals squad in the last 20 years, is their depth. With the exception of St. Salvador, the Royals were perfectly positioned to weather an injury to anyone in their starting lineup; with the addition of Chen, they could weather an injury to a starting pitcher, and they’d probably have to lose three or four relievers to an outbreak of dysentery before they’d felt the pinch.
Bonifacio was the critical cog in that depth; he’s capable of playing second base every day, but he has the ability to play every non-battery position in the field. He’s not someone you want playing shortstop a lot, but he started 61 games there for the Marlins in 2011 and was at least adequate. He’s started at least 20 games at all three outfield positions and all three skill positions on the infield; he’s never played first base, but presumably because he hasn’t needed to. He has the ability to get on base, and he’s a terrific baserunner, which means on the days when he’s not in the starting lineup he’s a very good bench player.
In a best-case scenario, Bonifacio wouldn’t be in the starting lineup much, but would still have value off the bench. In a worst-case scenario, Bonifacio would be forced into the starting lineup for a month or two, and save the Royals from a big scar in their lineup.
I’ve seen the argument made that Bonifacio was not prepared to be a utility guy at this point in his career, and the Royals let him go to avoid the clubhouse discord that he might have provoked. We’ll set aside that since we’re all just speculating here, it’s possible that Bonifacio’s presence in spring training might have been a boon to his younger brother Jorge, who happens to be one of the best prospects in the system and the probable starting right fielder in 2015. We’ll also set aside the fact that worries about how an everyday player might adjust to a utility role didn’t keep the Royals from re-signing Yuniesky Betancourt two years ago.
We’ll just make the case that if the Royals really did let Bonifacio go for his own good, they sure picked a curious time to do so, cutting him from the payroll just as they were about to add Chen to it.
Frankly, if I had to choose between the two, I’d probably prefer Bonifacio. The Royals, as I’ve detailed a few times, have a roster crunch. They need to make room for Danny Valencia if they only plan to keep 13 hitters; cutting Bonifacio does that, except of course that leaves the Royals without a backup middle infielder, which is impossible. I assume Pedro Ciriaco will take Bonifacio’s spot, and the Royals still don’t have room for Valencia.
Meanwhile, Chen just makes a roster squeeze on the pitching side of things more acute. Even if Ventura opens in the minors, here are the pitchers the Royals have on their 40-man roster:
Barring a trade – any day now, guys – the Royals have seven relievers they have to carry, unless they really want to send Louis Coleman and his 0.61 ERA back to Omaha. There’s no room for Donnie Joseph, to say nothing of Chris Dwyer or Francisley Bueno, and when Chen moves to the bullpen they’ll have to make another move.
But hey, pitchers get hurt; these things have a way of sorting themselves out. The roster isn’t the issue, because this really isn’t about Bonifacio at all. Maybe the Royals don’t need him; maybe they’ll get comparable production from Ciriaco, who has a career line in the majors of .277/.307/.385 – but he has less than a season’s worth of playing time in the majors, and his career line in Triple-A, in nearly three times as much playing time, is .267/.285/.368. Or maybe none of their infielders will get hurt and they won’t need Bonifacio, although keep in mind that Omar Infante missed a month last season and has never played 150 games in a season.
But the Royals didn’t let Bonifacio go because of talent; they let him go because of money, or at least it seems that way. So my criticisms here have nothing to do with Dayton Moore and the front office, and everything to do with ownership. If the Royals surprise us and acquire another player, and the payroll closes in on $95 million, then I will withdraw my criticisms. But right now, it appears for all the world like the Royals are tapped out, precisely when the roster is close enough to being playoff-caliber that a few million judiciously-applied dollars could be the difference between breaking a 29-year playoff drought, and extending it.