Monday, March 10, 2014

Royals Today: 3/10/2014.

I still owe you the article I promised last time out, but enough stuff has happened in spring training so far that I need to write a catch-up column first:

- Luke Hochevar’s career as a Royal may be over, as the former #1 overall pick blew out his ulnar collateral ligament and will undergo Tommy John surgery in the coming weeks.

As we learned with Danny Duffy two years ago, there isn’t always a sharp line between “healthy” and “torn” when it comes to the ligament; there’s a continuum between 0% and 100% torn, and pitchers can and do pitch with partial tears in their ligament. Hochevar has had a partially torn ligament since he first injured it in 2010; it took three-and-a-half years before it tore further, but this time the tear is irrevocable. Either the tear is so large that it will impede his velocity, or it’s so large it will almost certainly tear completely with continued pitching, or both.

It’s a terrible break for Hochevar, both because he finally found his groove as a dominant set-up man last season, and because he was set to be a free agent next winter and presumably could have cashed in on his new-found success.

I wouldn’t downplay just how good he was as a reliever last year; Hochevar was as good at relieving as he was bad at starting. Sum it up this way: last year, Luke Hochevar had the lowest WHIP (min: 40 IP) in Royals history:

Year  Pitcher         IP   W+H   WHIP

2013  Luke Hochevar  70.1   58  0.825
2008  Joakim Soria   67.1   58  0.861
2013  Greg Holland   67.0   58  0.866
1972  Roger Nelson  173.1  151  0.871
1972  Steve Busby    40.0   36  0.900

Sure, there was some luck involved there. But for a man who came into the season with a 5.39 career ERA, his conversion to the bullpen went better than anyone had a right to expect. And it wasn’t entirely a fluke – Hochevar’s strikeout-to-walk ratio more than doubled his previous career high. There was every reason to believe that he was a legitimately excellent relief pitcher. Now he’ll have to wait a year to prove that again.

While it sucks for Hochevar, it’s not the end of the world for the Royals, who as I’ve written many times had more quality relievers than they had roster spots for. Hochevar’s injury had the fringe benefit of ending the Wade Davis Rotation Experiment at the same time as it ended the Luke Hochevar Rotation Experiment, although I think the concerns that the Royals would actually give one of them a rotation spot over Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy were vastly overblown. Still, it means that Davis now inherits Hochevar’s spot in the bullpen, and like Hochevar, Davis looked like a completely different pitcher in his one full year in the bullpen. Look:

Wade Davis, 2012: 70.1 IP, 48 H, 27 UIBB, 87 K, 5 HR, 2.43 ERA
Luke Hochevar, 2013: 70.1 IP, 41 H, 16 UIBB, 82 K, 8 HR, 1.92 ERA

Hochevar had better command, but really these look like two seasonal lines from the career of the same pitcher.

The Royals still have Kelvin Herrera, who I think could be the breakout star of the bullpen this year (his strikeout rate jumped from 22.4% to 30.2% last year). They still have Aaron Crow, who only threw 48 innings last year even though he was on the roster all season. They still have Louis Coleman, who couldn’t stay on the roster for most of the season even though he entered the year with a 3.25 career ERA – and when he finally did get a chance to pitch, allowed just two runs in 30 innings, putting up the sixth-lowest ERA (0.61) in major league history (min: 25 IP).

Oh, and they have Greg Holland, maybe the best non-Craig-Kimbrel reliever in the game today. That’s five right-handed relievers, which is all they need. If anyone gets hurt or needs to be replaced, Michael Mariot is almost ready for his close-up after a fine season in Omaha in his first year as a full-time reliever.

So the Royals should be fine, even if Hochevar’s injury just reiterates the point about trading bullpen assets while you can. Even if they had traded Holland this winter, they’d still have an above-average bullpen – and the considerable assets Holland would have brought them. And if they had traded Hochevar, well, they might not have gotten a Grade A prospect for him, but anything would be better than nothing at all – not to mention the $5.21 million they would have saved on his salary.

The Royals handled their excess a lot better than they handled Joakim Soria on a last-place club years ago, at least. They did trade one of their relievers – Will Smith – to Milwaukee for their starting right fielder. And with Hochevar out, the Royals no longer have an excess of great relievers. They have exactly the right amount.

I also wouldn’t overstate how much this hurts Hochevar in the long run. He’s already guaranteed his salary this year, which will push his lifetime earnings past the $20 million mark. And by having surgery now instead of trying to rehab for a few months, there’s a good chance Hochevar will be ready to pitch early in 2015 if not be ready by Opening Day.

Besides, with the market having finally adjusted to the fact that even the best relievers only throw 70-80 innings a season, and that even the best relievers are a highly unpredictable commodity – the fact is that an eight figure salary is not in the cards for any but the best relievers in the game. Sure, Craig Kimbrel got a 4-year, $41 million deal – but he’s Craig Kimbrel, the most dominant strikeout pitcher in baseball history. Joe Nathan, who is the second-best reliever of the 21st century, got $10 million a year from the Tigers – but only got two years guaranteed. Jonathan Papelbon’s contract is a dinosaur that may go extinct once the man who gave it to him (Ruben Amaro, everyone!) is finally shown the door. Even with a great, healthy season for the Royals this season, Hochevar probably wasn’t looking at more than a 3-year, $24 million next winter.

Instead, Hochevar will probably need to sign a make-good contract along the lines of the one Joakim Soria signed with the Rangers last year, a two-year, $8 million contract with a team option for a third year. That seems like a reasonable parameter for Hochevar’s next deal; while Hochevar doesn’t have nearly the track record in relief that Soria did, he’s also not undergoing Tommy John surgery for the second time – Soria wasn’t expected to be ready at the start of last season, and in fact he wasn’t on the mound for Texas until July.

If Hochevar is amenable to a contract of that nature, I think he’s much more likely to fit into the Royals payroll structure. The Royals seem to like him, obviously; they gave him far more chances in the rotation than they should have, and they were genuinely and understandably thrilled by his success last year. So while his injury is not a good thing for the 2014 Royals, it may have the paradoxical effect of keeping him in a Royals uniform for longer than he would have been otherwise. If he pitches anything like he did in 2013 upon his return, that’s hardly a bad thing.

- Rumors are swirling that Ervin Santana is about to finally sign a free-agent contract, at a massive discount from what he originally wanted and at a significant discount from what everyone thought he’d get. On Saturday the word was that the Blue Jays had him for a one-year, $14 million contract – the same contract he would have gotten from Kansas City had he signed the qualifying offer – but then word came in that the Orioles are in the bidding, and that the Twins may even have made a three-year offer.

As Buster Olney wrote, the one thing that’s clear is that Santana and/or his agents overplayed their hand at the start of the off-season, and he’s left holding the bag. There have been repercussions – Santana apparently has left his original agent, Bean Stringfellow (yes, that’s really his name), although it’s not clear whether he fired Stringfellow or whether he simply kept Jay Alou as his counsel while Alou, who used to work at Stringfellow’s agency, went out on his own. If I cared about agent-on-agent dynamics, I’d watch Jerry Maguire. But something apparently happened. It’s not even clear it’s the agents’ fault in the first place; it’s quite possible that those initial contract demands came from Santana, who directed his agents to act accordingly.

I gave the Royals some flak on Twitter when it broke that Santana was going to get a one-year deal, which was partly in jest and probably a little unfair – it’s not the Royals’ fault that Santana’s getting smacked down in free agency, but I couldn’t resist expressing my displeasure with the Jason Vargas deal once again. I do think that the Royals are too eager to make a significant move at the start of the off-season. It remains to be seen whether the Vargas deal (November 21, 2013) was a mistake, and it remains to be seen whether the Royals overpaid when they gave Jeremy Guthrie a 3-year, $25 million deal (November 20, 2012) – Year One went fine, but with more red flags than you’d find in a souvenir shop in China.

But trading Melky Cabrera for Jonathan Sanchez (November 7, 2011) didn’t exactly work out – obviously, in retrospect we can’t fault them for trading Melky, but Sanchez was the worst starting pitcher to suit up for the Royals since Jose Lima’s second go-round. And trading David DeJesus for Vin Mazzaro and Justin Marks (November 10, 2010) was a really bad trade that’s been largely forgotten. DeJesus had just hit .318/.384/.443 and had an option year left on his contract. Mazzaro and Marks looked like Quadruple-A pitchers at the time of the trade, and that was borne out (Mazzaro did resurrect himself as a middle reliever for the Pirates last year).

Maybe I’m wrong about Vargas, and maybe Guthrie will continue to outpitch his fundamentals and none of this matters. But if they don’t, I hope the Royals will give the market at least until Thanksgiving to shake out next year. Let others set the market; as Shakespeare wrote, they stumble that run fast.

So yeah, it would be nice if the Royals had the payroll flexibility and roster space to bring back Santana cheaply. But honestly, I’d rather have the draft pick. If and when Santana signs, the Royals will be awarded the 30th (give or take) pick in the draft. Conservatively, that pick is worth somewhere between $5 and $10 million. Let’s say Santana would sign with KC for 1 year and $14 million – counting the pick, the true cost of Santana would be somewhere between $19 and $24 million. If Santana repeats his 2013 performance, that’s not a bad price to pay for a #2 starter for one year – but there’s more downside than upside in that contract.

I guess what I’m trying to say is the same thing I’ve said since the season ended: gimme the pick. The most important takeaway from the Santana news this week is that it does appear he’s going to sign soon, and he’s not going to hold out until after the draft, which means the Royals will get their pick. Add that to the #18 pick they already have, as well as their competitive balance pick (somewhere between #35 and #40), and the Royals have three of the top 40 picks in the draft. For $12 million and Brandon Sisk, the Royals got a fantastic season out of Ervin Santana and a draft pick that by itself is almost worth the money. No matter what I think of Vargas, that’s a hell of a trade.

- Speaking of competitive balance picks: Sean Manaea is looking like a steal so far. I wrote a couple of weeks ago, when I aggressively ranked him as the Royals’ #4 prospect, that I was extremely curious how he’d look in his initial outings of the spring.

In his first outing – which was just a side session – Manaea was pitching free and easy with good command and life on his pitches, though he only pitched in the 88-90 range. I was a tiny bit worried about the velocity, but was optimistic that he was just working into his fastball and didn’t want to push things.

But Friday, Manaea took the mound in a minor league game for the first time, and that 88-90 was more like 92-94. Jason Parks has a scouting report up at Baseball Prospectus today; on Twitter he previewed it by saying that it “reads like pure smut”. (This being Parks, that’s a compliment.) Andy McCullough has more here.

Granted, it’s March 10th, and Manaea has yet to throw a pro pitch in anger. But even if he doesn’t get back to the 94-96 range he had in college – and he very well might – left-handed pitchers who throw 92-94 with a good slider, long levers, and a deceptive low-three-quarters delivery tend to move quickly. I don’t want to put this level of expectation on him, but that scouting report reads a lot like the Pitcher That Got Away in the draft three years ago. Maybe drafting Manaea will make up for not drafting Chris Sale.

- John Lamb’s name has come up a few times this spring, sometimes bearing good news (the Royals reported he was throwing in the low 90s in one outing), and sometimes bearing bad news (he was 86-89 in his start on Saturday and was knocked out in the first inning).

At this point, any news from Lamb is good news. The reports that he was throwing in the low 90s were almost literally unbelievable – Lamb was throwing 83-85 while getting his ass kicked in low-A ball for most of last year. Even 86-89 would represent some real improvement for him, which would be highly unusual for a pitcher nearly three years after Tommy John surgery.

Here’s how far Lamb’s stock had fallen before this spring training: he wasn’t listed in Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook this year. I don’t just mean that he wasn’t ranked among the Royals’ Top 30 Prospects. I mean that Baseball America also lists a “depth chart” of prospects in each organization by position, and they go a lot deeper than 30 names. They had 68 players listed on the Royals’ depth chart, including 13 left-handed pitchers alone. Here, I’ll name them for you: Sean Manaea, Sam Selman, Chris Dwyer, Donnie Joseph, Cody Reed, Crawford Simmons, Justin Marks, Buddy Baumann, Daniel Stumpf, Jon Keck, Colin Rodgers, Scott Alexander, and Jon Dziedzic.

John Lamb wasn’t listed. That’s how far his stock has fallen. The fact that we’re even discussing him at all is a sign of progress. But he still has a long way to go.

- The most interesting roster decision lurking this spring is whether Yordano Ventura or Danny Duffy will win the fifth starter’s spot. (I would go with Duffy, for service time reasons if nothing else, but I’m not so wedded to the idea that I wouldn’t let what happens over the next month factor into my decision.) But the second-most interesting roster decision is how the Royals are going to fit six bench players into four spots. Since they seem utterly committed to carrying 12 pitchers – I can’t muster the energy to be upset about this anymore, particularly since just about every other team is doing the same thing – they need to jettison a couple of hitters.

Carlos Peguero seems an obvious choice; he was just claimed on waivers, and while he has excellent raw power doesn’t have the track record of either Jarrod Dyson or Justin Maxwell. Dyson and Maxwell give the Royals a left-handed and right-handed option off the bench, one with game-changing speed and the other with good pop. Peguero’s chances probably hinge on whether Lorenzo Cain can make it to Opening Day without getting hurt.

The other roster cut is a much more interesting decision. The Royals have to keep a backup catcher – presumably Brett Hayes – and they have to keep a backup middle infielder, so I guess that means Danny Valencia is the odd man ou…WAIT A MINUTE.

The Royals seem committed to keeping Valencia, which would mean they would open the season without a backup middle infielder. And I guess it’s possible that this could work. Back when Cal Ripken was playing every day, Earl Weaver was fond of saying “my backup shortstop is in Rochester”. But even those Orioles, I’m pretty sure, had someone on their roster capable of playing shortstop in a pinch. (It helps that teams back then typically carried 15 hitters and just 10 pitchers).

And anyway, the Royals don’t have Cal Ripken on their roster. They have Alcides Escobar, who is very durable in his own right – he’s never been on the DL, and in his three years with the Royals has played in 158, 155, and 158 games. But they also have Omar Infante, who missed six weeks with an injury last season and has never played in 150 games in his career.

Infante is ostensibly the backup at shortstop in case Escobar gets hurt, and the Royals are hoping that Valencia can be the backup at second base in case either one of their starters gets hurt. On the one hand, I admire their creativity – there’s no point in carrying a guy on your roster that you never plan on playing. Teams have to carry a backup catcher because no catcher can start more than 10 days or so in a row – but in theory, there’s no reason you can’t start a middle infielder every day, and the minute an injury rears its head, you can dial Omaha and have a replacement delivered to you by an Amazon drone before the start of the next game. A middle infield of Infante at shortstop and Valencia at second base would be grisly, but the world won’t end if you have to line them up that way for a single game.

To me, though, the bigger downside to not carrying a backup infielder isn’t that you have to start Escobar and Infante every game, but that you have to finish with them too. If Escobar hits like he did in 2012 again (.293/.331/.390), everything is hunky-dory, but the fact that the Royals would even contemplate going without a backup infielder suggests that they’re in denial that Escobar was, you know, the worst everyday hitter in the majors last year. His 559 OPS was the lowest of any qualifying regular in baseball.

That’s a problem, but it’s an even bigger problem when you can’t pinch-hit for him in any situation because you don’t have anyone who can play his position. And it’s an even bigger problem than that when the other team knows you can’t pinch-hit for him, and may pitch around or even intentionally walk other hitters in a key late-inning situation in order to get Escobar to the plate, knowing that Ned Yost is going to let 2013’s worst hitter bat no matter what the circumstances are.

So while I admire the Royals’ willingness to think outside the box on this one, I guess I’d sum up my feelings by saying that I can not recall a team ever opening the season without a backup middle infielder on their roster. I’m not saying it’s never happened – and if you know of such an instance, please share it in the comments – but if it has, it’s escaped my attention. And I think there’s a good reason for that. It seems to me the Royals are playing a little too cute here, and would be better off just going with Pedro Ciriaco or Christian Colon for the final roster spot.

When the Royals acquired Valencia, I thought it made sense given that they didn’t have a spot for David Lough, and Valencia at least could play third base against lefties. Even then, though, this roster issue was evident; I just assumed the Royals would make a move at some point over the winter to solve it. They still might; if Mike Moustakas keeps raking, they may well decide that Valencia has served his usefulness by scaring Moustakas into getting into better shape, and look to trade him before the season begins.

Otherwise, though, it looks like the Royals need a hitter to get hurt before Opening Day to clear up their roster issues. And I suppose that strategy just worked for the bullpen. But as a general rule, I don’t think it’s sound policy to rely on an injury happening to make roster decisions easier.


Fast Eddie said...

I see that Lamb was sent to NW Arkansas today. I live in NW Arkansas and attend some of the games. I'll try to get to the park when he pitches and file a report.

Regarding the backup infielder dilemma, I think the Royals fouled up when they let E. Bonafacio go. He could have backed up in the infield or outfield and they could have traded Maxwell, if there was any way to do that. In other words, he is more versatile than any of the current candidates, and you need versatility if you're going to carry 12 pitchers.

Michael S. said...

I totally disagree with you on Santana. If its possible to get him on a one year deal its a no brainer. We will lose Shields after this year as well, so we have to be all in this year. Sign Santana and make this team a legitimate playoff contender.

Its time to stop looking towards the future and try to win now. I'm sick and tired of the "Wait till next year" Royals mantra.

Simon said...

Zzzzz. On roster decision. And Will Smith = Vargus, Aoki will struggle early. Infante is prone to injury Gia might actually get some time. Both Ventura and Duffy should be in AAA clearly are not ready for 200 innings. Throwing 100 in the 2nd inning will result in expiration date.

Ryan Brady said...

Why does everybody think that this HAS to be the year. With so many talented young pitchers possibly ready to step into the rotation next year, are we really out of it if Shields walks? If we have a zimmer, ventura, guthrie, vargas, duffy rotation next year (in no particular order) then it is reasonable to think we could compete. Almost seems like we are giving up on next season too early.

Michael S. said...

Here's why Ryan. In the last 20 years the Royals have developed exactly one above average starting pitcher: Zack Greinke. I do not have faith in them to trust that Duffy, Zimmer, or Ventura will ever develop into the kind of starter we hope they will become.

Ryan Brady said...

A great point, I guess I'm just looking at this from an optimist's point of view. There is so much talent in the minor league system that even the Royals have to hit on at least one of them.

McGoldencrown said...

Why don't they just keep 11 pitchers and use that Amazon train to shuttle in a fresh(er) AAA RP overnight when necessary? If Hererra has thrown too much of a 2-week period, send him to Omaha to relax on the bench and throw BP sessions for a week and bring up Joseph or Coleman to fill in briefly and gain big league experience...I must be missing something. Seems to me it could be a huge disaster to not have a backup IF and I really would like Colon to make the roster.

twm said...

What are the chances that Ventura is used in the bullpen? Because whatever they be, those chances closely mirror the likelihood that I forever quit on DM and company. Hyperbole? Maybe. But not by much.

Antonio. said...

Ryan, same was said of Montgomery, Lamb, Duffy, Dwyer, Odorizzi. And the Royals have hit on none of them. The list that you'd listed would have to be pretty amazing to replace Shields. It's playing out the way many imagined it would when Shields was brought in.

pjbronco said...

Now that we know both Escobar and Infante have health issues, can we just end the Danny Valencia experiment now before it leads to disaster?