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What can we say about Bruce Chen?

The guy is simply a freak of nature.

Yeah, the Twins offense is dreadful (except on Monday when it was pretty good) but whenever a starter puts up a line like this…

7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 5 SO

You’re thrilled.

Chen threw 88 pitches and 62 of them were strikes. He was cruising.

And they were largely low stress innings. The Twins put a couple of runners on second, but both reached there with two down – a double by Dozier and a single and a steal by Mastroianni.

I was surprised Yosty didn’t send him back out for the eighth inning. At only 88 pitches and with Chen being a low effort kind of guy (not exactly a flamethrower who runs out of gas) and with those low stress innings, it seemed like an opportune time. Save Greg Holland for another night and let Chen go eight before turning it over to the ninth inning guy.

Shows you what I know when Holland comes on and simply punches out the side.

Nice.

– The Royals gave their free baserunning out away early in this one when Alex Gordon was picked off first in following his first inning walk.

– Chen evened the ledger when he scored a pickoff of his own. Looked extremely close to a balk to me where the lefty isn’t allowed to bring his right leg past the pitching rubber, but it wasn’t called so good enough. Dozier was going on movement, so nice job by Chen to get the ball to first to start the out.

– The Royals seemingly had an opportunity to tack on an insurance run in the eighth when Gordon laced a one out double. Although he was the giver of the Royals Free Out on the bases in the first with his pickoff/caught stealing (that’s how it’s scored) I can’t hang a baserunning blunder on A1 in this situation. The ball was sharply hit, Gordon was going on contact when he saw it wasn’t hit to the left side of the infield, took two steps and was caught in a proverbial no man’s land. Maybe the proper play was to freeze until you saw the ball get by the pitcher, but I’m betting Gordon was thinking about getting a good jump so he could score on a single up the middle. With one out and Butler up, maybe he should have played it safe, thinking Butler could at least get him home with a fly ball. Dunno.

– The Jonathan Broxton highwire act came on in the ninth. Really, the only true scoring opportunity for the Twins all night came in the ninth inning. Antacid time. A double and a walk with one out and he gets a pair of fly balls to end the game. The Dyson grab was a little unnerving. He hasn’t exactly inspired confidence out there when asked to run far to make a grab.

Whew.

– The Royals now have three wins on the homestand. More importantly, they are still on track to win six of their nine games against the A’s, Twins and Pirates.

– Speaking of Pirates, with the glory of interleague the Royals will be forced to play Eric Hosmer in right, slide Jeff Francoeur to center in order to keep Butler’s bat in the lineup at first.

Seriously, with an interleague game scheduled every day of the season next year with the Astros moving to the AL, it’s time to put the DH in the National League. It’s laughable that the Royals construct their team the way they do and then are told they can’t use it in that fashion.

Fix it, Bud.

Ten straight losses.   Nine straight at home.  New and inventive ways to lose every day.  A player to the disabled list every week. Welcome to the 2012 Kansas City Royals, ladies and gentlemen.

There have been a lot of things that have gone wrong through 15 games.  In fact, at one time or another, almost everything has gone wrong.  Enough, in fact, to have Ned Yost remark that changes may be on the horizon.  It is a deep, dark hole and there really is no way around it.   Losing 12 of 15, while accentuated by having it happen to start the season, would be a bad stretch and extremely noticeable at any time in the season.   Three and twelve is three and twelve, folks.   If you are not panicking just a little, then you are just being a contrarian for the sake of being contrarian.

All that said, the Kansas City Royals could reach .500 by the end of the season by simply winning two more games than the lose in each month.  Of course, that assumes they right the ship and manage to play it even until we get to May Day.  Sadly, that is a rather optimistic, sunshine pumping assumption right now.

As bad as the 2012 campaign has begun, some things have gone right. 

  • Mike Moustakas, with three hits on Sunday, raised his average to .269 and now has eight extra base hits.  Along the way, Sunday’s error was the first blemish on what has been a very good defensive start for him.   One cannot trust defensive stats this early in the year (or a player’s career), but the stats and the eyes certainly are pointing to Moustakas being a far better defender than was originally thought when he was coming up.  Decent or better fielding coupled with a pace that puts Moustakas on track for fifty plus extra base hits is indeed something good.
  • Speaking of good fielding.  Well, let’s be serious, really good and probably great defense.  Even after an 0 for 3 on Sunday, Alcides Escobar is hitting .286 with a .322 on-base percentage.  Those numbers don’t get you in the Hall of Fame, but when combined with Escobar’s impact on defense, they are more than enough to get him deep into the positive side of the ledger.  Sure, he has a somewhat fortutious .341 BABIP, but it is not crazy lucky.  Prior to the season, if you were told that Escobar would have four doubles, a triple and a home run by game number 15, would you have even asked how often he was getting on base?  Oh yeah, he has four stolen bases without being caught.
  • Billy Butler.  I almost didn’t put Billy on this list because he has done exactly what we expected:  hit.  You have arrived when an early wOBA of .394 gets you a ‘yeah, that’s Billy, he can hit’ response.
  • I will probably draw some ire here, but I am not going to expound on the early season runs of Yuniesky Betancourt, Humberto Quintero or Mitch Maier’s .370 on base percentage.  Maybe it’s bias, but I see Butler, Escobar and Moustakas building on their good starts and see the first three players in this bullet point falling.  Yes, they have all three had moments and, quite frankly, more moments than many on the roster.  Long term, I don’t see Yuni, Humbo and Mitch as answers to anything.  I will make a deal with you:  if Yuniesky Betancourt has an OPS over .800 May 23rd, I will write 1,000 words of something nice about him.
  • Bruce Chen and Danny Duffy.  While Duffy had a rough day on Sunday, he was outstanding in his first two starts and I think most of us would be delighted if Danny could produce two good starts out of every three in his sophmore season.   As for Chen, I give up, he appears to be the next Jamie Moyer and, for right now anyway, the Royals can sure use him.
  • Not a lot has gone right in the bullpen.  What was supposed to be a ‘Super Pen’ has been decidedly average.  While both Aaron Crow and Tim Collins have been tagged for some runs, both have had some really outstanding outings as well.  Maybe the biggest positive of the entire pen has been Collins’ 12 strikeouts to just 1 walk in his first 8.2 innings of work.  With the injuries to Soria and Holland, the deep pen is no a bit shallow and being able to rely on Collins and Crow (who has allowed 5 hits in 8 innings) is a nice fallback.

I know, some of this is reaching for sunshine.  Perhaps this column should have been used to take  some shots at Yost (who should just pick a batting order and let the guys settle in – this team is thinking too much, give them at least one less thing to think about!) or Moore or Glass or the coaching staff or just about anyone.  We could truly panic and call for Johnny Giavotella, Nate Adcock and whomever else is someone different than Jason Bourgeois, but it is just a fraction too early.  Not by much, mind you, but a week or two weeks too soon.

There are some positives and some really bad luck (entering Sunday’s game, Alex Gordon had a BABIP of .235, Hosmer just .163).   The Royals have played horrific ball, but they don’t look like a team that should be this bad.   This 3-12 start almost certainly means that Kansas City won’t win the division this season, but it does not doom them to laughingstock…at least not quite yet.

xxx

 

The whole Opening Day starter thing is waaaaay overblown. Who really cares? I mean, other than the starter?

There is one thing that kind of bugs me about Chen getting the ball for Opening Day. One would assume it’s a reward handed to the best pitcher on your staff. In the Royals case, there isn’t exactly a stand out starter in the rotation. Fine. All winter the Royals have said there were three locks for the rotation: Hochevar, Chen and Sanchez. Understandable. Those three represent the three pillars of roster building: The high draft pick. The big money free agent.* And the big trade.

Given the pedigrees and the financial commitments, it’s no wonder these three guys were “locks.”

*Please bear with me here. When I say “big money” free agent, it’s relative. Although Chen did represent Dayton Moore’s most aggressive foray into the free agent market since 2008 when he splashed the cash on Kyle Farnsworth. So yes, Chen was a big free agent signing. And yes, that’s sad.

So what bothers me about Chen as the Opening Day starter is the fact he’s been horrible this spring. (At least before his start on Tuesday when he pitched six strong innings before faltering in the seventh.) It’s part of baseball’s caste system I suppose, where a guy like Johnny Giavotella has to battle Chris Getz and Yuniesky Betancourt for a roster spot – and is ultimately demoted for a sub-par spring. Meanwhile, Chen owns an 11.25 ERA in 18 innings where batters are hitting .405 against him and he gets the Opening Day carrot. Ahh… the luxury of being the veteran.

Big picture, it’s not a huge deal. We’ve seen Chen pitch the last two summers and while he’s not overwhelming, he’s at least been adequate. And I really can’t concern myself with spring stats for veteran pitchers. They work on certain things and pitch to prepare for the season. Completely different mindset as opposed to the real games. His command has been fine – just two walks with 12 strikeouts – so I’m not too worried about Chen. He’ll be underwhelming, win a few games and everyone will think he’s awesome.

And is it me, or does the whole “stack the rotation so it goes LHP-RHP-LHP-RHP-??? not really make a huge difference. I suppose there will be series where you throw a pair of lefties against a weaker side of a platoon, or vice-versa, but I just don’t really see how this matters. Really, what difference does a rotation make at all? Ideally, you want your best starters to make the most appearances. So if your each member of your rotation didn’t miss a single start all year, starters one and two would make 33 starts while three through five would toe the slab 32 times. Ho-hum. Certainly, at some point a manager could juggle the rotation to make sure his best two starters gained those extra starts.

And you have to love the people who worry about matching up their number one starter with the other team’s top guy. Because it doesn’t always happen that way.

Quick example: if the A’s decide to use a fifth starter in the first week of the season (anything can happen with the A’s since they’re opening the season Wednesday in Tokyo) that pitcher would match-up against Chen. In his second start of the season.

See what I mean?

It’s understood that Yosty is stacking his rotation so Hochevar gets the home opener against the Indians. That’s cool, I suppose. Personally, I’d much rather pay to see a Hochevar start instead of Chen. At least while I’m still intrigued to see if Hochevar can carry over his second half success from last season.

Somebody has to start Opening Day. Might as well be Chen.

More pressing is the same question we’ve been asking all spring: Who will hold down the fourth and fifth spots of the rotation? The fact the Royals and Dayton Moore obviously crush on Luis Mendoza – not to mentions that the dude is out of options – means he gets one of the two. I’d like to disagree, but damnit, he’s pitched well enough to earn a shot.

My hunch is the fifth spot goes to Felipe Paulino. I will stand by this prediction: Put the guy in the rotation, let him make 30 to 32 starts and at the end of the season he will have been the best starter on the staff. I truly believe that. Like Mendoza, he is out of options. This is a case where the option situation will save the Royals from doing something foolish. Yeah for rules!

So that leaves Danny Duffy as the odd man out. Sucks for Duffy, but I would bet that he goes down to Triple-A, dominates, and is back in the Royals rotation by May. He can take the place of Chen.

There are a lot of interesting things about Bruce Chen:

  • He’s 5 years older than the next oldest guy on the 40 man roster.
  • He’s played for 10 different teams.
  • He’s of Chinese descent, but he’s from Panama with a Panamanian accent.
  • He’s hilarious and he has a Will Ferrel moment.
  • His middle name is Kastulo which means “beaver”, according to the internets.
  • He’s the biggest off-season free agent acquisition that the Royals have made in their quest to win the World Series in 2012.

The last of those is both as good and bad as it sounds. In 2011 he was the third most valuable starting pitcher in what was a pretty terrible starting rotation. He was effective when he was healthy, but he missed a large chunk of the season on the disabled list. He ended up being better than I predicted and even with the time missed he was a solid asset.

However it says something about the intentions of Royals management when this is the centerpiece of their free agent acquisitions. Clearly the Royals, given their budget should probably avoid spending too much money on free agents, but I’m not exactly convinced that they made the best use of it this off-season.

That’s not to say I don’t like the signing of Bruce Chen. It’s a low risk signing for a guy that the team is comfortable with and has shown that when he’s on the mound he can contribute positively. I think the roster is better with him on it, but do they really have enough talent through trade and development to sign Chen and call it good?

The simple answer is no. But it gets significantly more complex when the budget and market are taken into account. The relevant question is whether the Royals have acquired the most talent for the money they’ve been allocated, my gut says no, but that’s really a separate point. We are supposed to be talking about Bruce Chen.

What I don’t get about Chen is that he averaged more walks and fewer strikeouts than Luke Hochevar, yet is considered by many to be the superior pitcher. Sure, he’s a crafty lefty, but in the end, he’s just a pitcher. He doesn’t have anything special and I don’t believe that he has found something unique this late in his career. At the risk of repeating my error before last season, I just don’t believe Chen can be effective in 2012.

That’s not to say he can’t be a benefit to the team or that he was a bad acquisition. However, he isn’t the late blossoming miracle that fans and some analysts think he is. He’s also not anywhere near the free agent acquisition that this team needed int he off season.

 

 

While some might like Wins Above Replacement level (WAR) to be that magic ‘one stat’ that tells us which player is more valuable than another, it is not.  Brett Gardner is a fine player, but his fWAR (Fangraphs) was basically the same as that of Albert Pujols this season.  That does not mean that WAR is useless, just that it is not the ONLY stat when it comes to evaluating players.

That said, WAR is a very good tool.   For position players, it attempts to consolidate hitting, baserunning and fielding into a tidy little package that gives us a general idea of his overall value.   It is not a fail safe option when calculating team wins.  

In 2011, Kansas City compiled a total team fWAR of 39.1 and won 71 games.   Chicago had 40.3 total fWAR and won 79, while Cleveland totalled up just 30.1 fWAR yet won 80 games.  If you want to know how many fWAR your roster needs to contribute to get 94 wins, I can probably find you 15 different answers…in the last five years.   Like I said at the beginning, WAR (be it fWAR or bWAR or some other WAR…good god, y’all) is not the be all and end all of the statistical world.

Here is what I know, if you want to win the A.L. Central, you have to have more fWAR than the other four teams.    Detroit won 95 games the division in 2011 with an fWAR of 48.5 (8.2 better than anyone else).   Minnesota won in 2010 with 94 wins and a fWAR of 49.7 (6 better than Detroit and 6.7 better than Chicago).  Minnesota only won 87 games in 2009, but it was enough to take the Central and their 41.2 cumulative fWAR was 4 better than second place Detroit.

How many fWAR will it take to win the Central?  I don’t know.   How many will it take to win 92 games?  I don’t know.   What I do know, is that the Royals are almost certain to need more than last year’s 39.1.   If you take my approach of last week that Kansas City should not make any drastic off-season moves (unless someone drops a gem in their lap), then what are the possibilities for the current roster to improve on last year’s mark?

Let’s start with the position players, who provided 25.6 fWAR in 2011.   Alex Gordon (6.9), Melky Cabrera (4.2) and Jeff Francoeur (2.9) accounted for 14 of that total.   All three played everyday, Gordon and Cabrera set career high marks and Francoeur had his highest fWAR since 2007.   Kansas City also got 1.1 fWAR from Mitch Maier, Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain.   If you believe the Royals’ outfield will total 15.1 fWAR again next year, then I have some start-up tech company stock to sell you.

Almost universally, people think it is far more likely that Alex Gordon is more likely to sustain his 2011 performance than Melky Cabrera.   You can count me among them, although I readily admit there is not any real logical reason to have such a clear cut division on two players of basically similar age.   Kansas City can afford to have Melky falter, but they cannot make up for a big Gordon drop-off.   Simply put, if Alex Gordon is a 2.3 fWAR player next year, the Royals are going nowhere.   I don’t think he will drop that far, but I also cannot see Gordon, Cabrera, Francoeur and Cain posting 15.1 fWAR in 2012, either.

Let’s set the outfield aside for a moment and look at three other positions:  third, first and DH.   Billy Butler was the Royals’ everyday DH and provided 1.8 fWAR – the lowest total in three years.   Hosmer provided 1.6 fWAR which we will use to quantify the first base position.  (Without getting too crazy, we know that Ka’aihue provided no value at first – fWAR speaking – and Butler played there when one of the outfielder’s took a half day and DH’d – it’s not exact, but close enough for this rough review).   At third, the Royals got 0.7 fWAR from Moustakas and 0.5 from Wilson Betemit for a total of 1.2.  All told, these three positions contributed 4.6 fWAR last season.

Hosmer is, well he HAS TO BE, the real deal.   It seems as though the question is not ‘will Hosmer progress in 2012?’, but instead is ‘how much will he progress?’.     In addition, Moustakas seemed to ‘get it’ as the season wore on and while he is not a lock to improve, I would say the odds are decent that he will.   I would also expect improvement from Butler, who probably won’t spend the first three months of the season being put off about not getting to play first base.

Is it realistic to say the the outfielder, corner infielders and designated hitter can contribute the same 19.7 fWAR as they did in 2011?  Certainly, the contributions might be weighted more heavily to the infielders than the outfielders in 2012, but I can envision Hosmer, Moustakas, Butler making up the difference from the expected regression (hopefully minor) of the three everyday outfielders.

If so, then the Royals would be looking to Alcides Escobar (2.2 fWAR), the catchers (2.9 fWAR total in 2011) and second base (1.1 fWAR total) to hold the line.   Salvador Perez, who provided 1.4 fWAR himself, might be hard pressed to get to 2.9 in his first full season as a regular, but one can hope that Escobar might hit just a little more and that second base might add a little more as well (not exactly sure how, but we can hope).

At any rate, all of the above considered, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the Royals’ position players could contribute close to their 2011 output.  If they do that, then the pitchers need to hold up their end of the bargain.   Wow!  I bet you didn’t see that coming did you?

In 2011, the Royals’ pitching staff contributed a pretty awful 13.5 fWAR.   Felipe Paulino and Jeff Francis each contributed 2.6, Luke Hochevar 2.3, Greg Holland 2.0 and Bruce Chen 1.7 (remember, throwing innings is big part of fWAR for starters and Chen threw just 155).   Joakim Soria chipped in 0.9 fWAR, the lowest of his career (his previous marks were 2.4, 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0).    Those pitchers right there get you to 12.1 of the 13.5 fWAR total.

Danny Duffy’s 0.6 is cancelled out by Sean O’Sullivans -0.5.   Kyle Davies, yes KYLE FREAKING DAVIES, provided 0.7 fWAR which was cancelled out by the negative contributions of Vin Mazzaro, Jesse Chavez and Robinson Tejeda.   WAR, in any form, really does not think much of relief pitchers – which points out how good Greg Holland was in 2011 – and as such, Louis Coleman gets a skinny 0.1, Aaron Crow 0.3 and Blake Wood 0.4.   I do believe that WAR undervalues the contributions of a relief pitcher, especially a non-closer, but that is a debate for another time.

Let’s get back to the starting rotation.   We pretty much know that Hochevar, Paulino and Duffy will be in the 2012 rotation.   Can they better their combined 5.5 fWAR?  To begin with, baseball history is full of young pitchers who are not very good as rookies and take a big step forward in year two.   I think Danny Duffy is likely to do the same.   I am not saying his going to become an ace, but it is reasonable (albeit hardly a sure thing) that he could become a 2.5 fWAR pitcher in 2012.   If Paulino can give the Royals another 2.5 fWAR and Hochevar finally, FINALLY, put it all together and become a 3.5 fWAR guy, the Royals could have 8.5 fWAR out of just three starters – that’s not horrible.  Problem is, that is just one win more than Francis, Paulino and Hochevar gave them last year.

Now what? 

Does bringing back Bruce Chen give you another two wins?  After that, can the number five spot, in combination with the spot starts and injury fill-ins from other starters, get you a ‘barely-head-above-water’ 0.5 fWAR?  You would certainly hope for better, but I am not sure logic will back us up on that one.  Let’s say that Kansas City does gleen 2.5 fWAR total out of the number four through eight starters.    Now, you are at 11 fWAR heading into the bullpen.

Can Joakim Soria bounce back?  If he can, Soria is probably good for 2.0 fWAR.   Then you have Greg Holland coming off a terrific year, Louis Coleman and Tim Collins (0.0 fWAR by the way) setting him up.   Combined, those three accounted for 2.1 fWAR in 2011, you have to get at least that much again in 2012.   Now, the Royals are at 15.1 fWAR out of their staff with the back of bullpen coming into play.   Basically, there was an entire negative win contributed by a bunch of arms last year, which is not uncommon, but it would be nice to avoid.   If the Royals would somehow not have the negative numbers and get another win out of Wood, Herrera, Crow (?) et.al. would that translate into a net gain of 2.0 fWAR?  Maybe….maybe just.

If the above scenario played out, Kansas City would have 17.1 fWAR from their pitchers and another 26 from the position players for a total of 43.1.   Would that translate into a division title?  That is hard to tell, but it almost certainly would get the Royals around or above .500, maybe even into the high 80′s in wins. 

In my opinion, getting an eight at the front of your win total and hoping for some luck and good breaks in 2012 is better than stretching to make a risky deal in a skinny off-season market.   I would rather the Royals shop for that one arm to put them over the top coming off an 84 win 2012 campaign than to do so now, coming off a 71 win season.

xxx

 

 

It was a pick that lacked imagination, but Bruce Chen was named as the Royals Pitcher of the Year on Thursday.

I say that because there’s always two options among the writers when voting: Starters and closers. That’s usually the way it should be in these things. (Although, if you know me, you know I think the closer has to be pretty damn exceptional to get votes.) So that’s the problem with the Royals this year. The rotation was extremely limited: Hochevar had a solid second half and Paulino showed flashes, but that was pretty much it. And we know about the closer.

Make room in the trophy case. (Minda Haas/Flickr)

So the writers chose the guy who missed part of the year with injury, but was fairly steady when he took the ball.

 

You won’t get an argument from me that Chen was the Royals best starter for the entire 2011 season, but was he the Royals best pitcher? I say no. That would have been Greg Holland.

Holland had the second best walk rate in the bullpen at 2.9 BB/9 and his strikeout rate of 11.1 SO/9 was by far the best. He was the only pitcher who allowed less than a baserunner per inning (0.93 WHIP) and he did throw 60.1 innings, which was just one-third of an inning less than Soria.

And Holland did most of this work under some pressure. According to Baseball Reference, he entered the game in 25 high leverage situations. That ranked him 31st among all AL pitchers, which meant he mostly trailed only closers when it came to pitching under pressure situations. Holland ranked third on the Royals, behind only Soria and Aaron Crow.

Working against Holland, was the fact he pitched in the seventh and eighth innings. While that was good enough to get Crow an All-Star nod, it wasn’t enough to get Holland end of the season hardware.

End rant.

Back to Chen… Even though he was coming off a strong 2010 campaign, last winter Chen was something of an unproven commodity. Simply, he had been either out of the majors or basically terrible in each of the previous five years, that there wasn’t a team willing to commit multiple years to Will Ferrell’s favorite pitcher. Understandable. Nobody wants to give a long contract to a player who found something for a season and then could flame out (again) just as quickly.

Now, things have seemingly changed. In the last two seasons, Chen has posted a 3.96 ERA with a 1.8 SO/BB ratio and a 105 ERA+. Those aren’t the numbers of an ace, but they are the numbers of a solid, middle of the rotation contributor. It’s entirely likely some team will see his performance and give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s made the transition to crafty, veteran left-hander.

According to Dutton, that’s already happening. He sent out a Tweet shortly after Chen was announced as the Royals top pitcher:

LHP Bruce Chen says he’s already been contacted by two other clubs expressing serious interest.

Well, then…

Two things can be inferred by this. One, teams are truly starting to look at Chen as a guy who can fill out their rotation. Or two, Chen is posturing. I don’t know what’s going on, and I’m not sure it matters. It takes at least a month for the free agent market to evolve and nothing happens (generally) until the winter meetings. There may be teams with “serious interest,” but it’s highly unlikely anything happens until the guys ahead of Chen in the pecking order go off the board.

(And can we please stop referring to Chen as the Royals ace? He’s not. The Royals don’t have one. That’s why we’re going to spend the next four months discussing the starting rotation. If they had an ace, we wouldn’t be obsessing over pitching.)

Let’s try a little exercise: If you are a major league GM and are interested in signing Chen, what do you offer? Myself, I think it will take two years at a total of $8 million to get his signature. I’m sold that he’s going to find someone who will offer him more than one year. If you have a guess, leave it in the comments. We can revisit when he actually signs.

– The hot stove finally fired up as the Royals found themselves in the middle of their first trade rumor of the winter. According to a report on MLB.com, the Braves called the Royals and discussed the possibility of unloading Jair Jurrjens. Speculation has the Braves interested in Wil Myers or Lorenzo Cain.

Jurrjens is a risk. Plain and simple. The guy has made 43 starts over the last two seasons and although his ERA looks shiny at 2.96, his strikeout numbers were down. Plus, according to PitchF/X, his average fastball lost two mph from the year before. In his best two seasons, he’s outperformed his xFIP by more than a run each time, suggesting those strong seasons are the exception, not the norm. He’s a medium risk, medium reward kind of guy. And that’s the upside.

Now, let’s talk cost. If the Braves want Cain, fine. He’s yours. The Royals are set with their outfield, making Cain surplus. I’d prefer they keep him around, just in case the Melk-Man spends his winter in the buffet line, but if they can swing him for a starting pitcher, do it. Even one with an injury history and a true mediocre track record. That price seems about right.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t trade Myers for Jurrjens. No way. That doesn’t even require any kind of thought. Insanity. Keep in mind that the Arizona Fall League is a hitter’s wonderland, but he’s hitting .338/.471/.632 with 11 extra base hits in 68 at bats and looks to be back on track after struggling through his first season of Double-A. I’m not saying that Myers is an untouchable. It’s just that if you’re going to deal a prospect of his caliber, the return has to be better than Jurrjens.

It’s just another reminder of the sad state of the rotation when we can look at Jurrjens as a potential upgrade for the back half.

Bruce Chen has started 48 games for the Kansas City Royals over the last two seasons.   In 2010, Chen threw 131 innings as a starter, posting an ERA of 4.26 and an xFIP of 4.73.   He struck out 6.11 batters per 9 innings and walked 3.37.   In 2011, Bruce threw 155 innings with an ERA of 3.77 and an xFIP of 4.68.   Along the way, Chen struck out 5.63 batters per 9 innings and walked 2.9.   It was his best season since 2005.    He will turn 35 next June.

So, do you resign Chen as a free agent?

The Royals, whether they intend to resign Chen or not, will almost certainly offer him arbitration.   Doing so, will net the Royals a sandwich pick as compensation should Bruce, a Type B free agent, sign with another team.   Notable sandwich picks on the Royals’ 40 man roster are Mike Montgomery and Mitch Maier.   Another Royals notable, who happened to be a sandwich pick in the same draft as Montgomery, is Jake Odorizzi.   

Going back to the 2007 draft, here are some notable sandwich picks:   Brett Cecil, Julio Borbon and Travis d’Arnaud.   Obviously, there is value to be had in that range of the draft.   Value, of course, that will likely take four or five years to be realized.

Chen is a likeable guy, by all accounts a good clubhouse presence and certainly one to be admired for getting the most out of his ability.    A lot of guys with a lot better stuff than Bruce would have packed it in several years ago:  having a couple of guys (dare we say ‘gritty’?) on the roster is good for overall team chemistry.    Sure, the very phrase ‘team chemistry’ is open for ridicule and impossible to truly define, but it is a factor (rightly or wrongly) that is considered by every general manager in baseball.

While Chen’s xFIP would suggest that Bruce might be due for some regression, it is also very possible that Chen is simply a perennial outlier.  He may be a pitcher who defies the common logic of advanced statistical metrics.   I have seen games where Chen simply cannot keep the ball in the park, but have also seen many starts where there seemed to be nothing fluky about his ability to stymie the opposing team.

Chen is an enigma wrapped in a riddle.  He is ‘Bruce F’ing Chen’.

The downside of Chen is that he will be 35, has missed time due to injuries in both of the last two seasons and is just as likely to turn into a guy who can’t get anyone out as he is to turn into Jamie Moyer (of course, it is possible he turns into no one and simply stays Chen, which ain’t all bad).   He might well be looking for a two year deal as well.   A year of Chen at $5 million sounds pretty good, two years at $10 million?  Maybe not so much.

The Chen question really plays into the entire ‘are the Royals ready to contend in 2012 or not’ question that is swirling around the team.   Does having Chen on a .500 team in 2012 outweigh having another possible major prospect in 2016?   Keep in mind that not every sandwich pick turns into Mike Montgomery or Jake Odorizzi and that, frankly, what don’t know what Montgomery and Odorizzi are going to turn into yet, either.  

Signing Chen won’t kill the Royals, but letting him go and getting a draft pick won’t kill them, either.   Does signing Bruce help stabilize a shaky rotation on a team that, should everything break just right might contend?   Or does he stand in the way of the development of a younger pitcher who could possibly be a key player in a strong rotation on a realistic playoff contender in 2013/2014?

Let me rephrase that last question:   is it more important for the Royals to get Mike Montgomery through his rookie season (ala Danny Duffy this past season) with an eye toward Montgomery being a front line guy in 2013 than it is for the team to have Chen piling up quality starts for the 2012 team?   Are the two mutually exclusive?

I have yet to form a final opinion on this issue, but right now I would lean towards letting Chen go and taking the compensation pick.  

xxx

We’re getting closer to firing up the hot stove, so this seems to be a great time to look at the Royals contract obligations for the upcoming season.

Guaranteed Money
Billy Butler – $8 million
Jeff Francoeur – $6.75 million
Aaron Crow – $1.1 million

The Butler contract hits the second year arbitration escalator. And if that number seems hefty for a player with that kind of service time, remember he signed for less that he submitted to the Royals prior to the arbitration process last year. According to FanGraphs, Butler’s production was worth $8.1 million. And that was probably the least productive year of his last three. Still a good piece of business by GMDM, I say. Even if he clogs the bases. That number does not include what is thought to be a pro-rated signing bonus of $500k.

The Frenchy money is an estimate based on his two-year, $13.5 million extension.

The Crow deal is a leftover from his major league deal signed after the 2009 draft.

Options
Joakim Soria – $6 million ($750k buyout)

No-brainer. The option would have escalated to $6.5 million if he had become a starter. But he didn’t.

First Year Arbitration Eligible
Mitch Maier – $459k
Chris Getz – $443k
Aaron Laffey – $432k

Laffey, as I wrote earlier, is insurance. The deadline to offer contracts for the 2012 season is December 12. If GMDM isn’t able to bring in a couple of bullpen arms by then, Laffey will get tendered a contract. Simple as that. He could be gone before then if the Royals are super aggressive and need the room on the 40-man roster.

Maier would probably get around $650k, I imagine. That’s not too much for a fourth outfielder. Do the Royals want to dip into the prospect pool for the fourth guy? I don’t think so. They know what they have in Maier… A guy who shows up, works hard and doesn’t complain. (And when they’re short an arm, he can pitch!) If they’re really looking to save a few bucks, the could bring up David Lough. Clearly, they don’t think of him as anything more than a fourth outfielder at this point. I’d rather they spend a few hundred thousand more and keep Our Mitch around for another season.

And you know my opinion on Getz. There’s no reason for him to be tendered a contract. He’s a utility player without utility. The Royals picked up their 2012 utility guy when they grabbed Yamaico Navarro from the Red Sox. He may play with less GRIT, but he can play more positions.

Second Year Arbitration Eligible
Brayan Pena – $660k
Felipe Paulino – $790k
Luke Hochevar – $1.76 million

Pena is an interesting case. He stands to make around $800k next year, but has confirmed that he can’t play defense and the lone reason for him to be kept around – his OPB ability – has vanished. Manny Pina would be an adequate backup and the Royals have gone on the record saying they don’t think they need to have a veteran catcher on the roster. Besides, with new bench coach Chino Cadahia in the fold, there’s the catching experience right there. I don’t think Pena will be tendered a contract.

Paulino and Hochevar are no-doubters. MLB Trade Rumors has Paulino doubling his salary to around $1.6 million. Given he proved to be a durable and decent starter for the Royals, I can’t argue with that. Hochevar will get a nice raise as well. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million.

Third Year Arbitration Eligible
Alex Gordon – $1.4 million

This is where the Royals are going to have to reach for their pocketbooks. Gordon was worth $31 million on the open market based on his 2011 production. Obviously, he’s not going to get that kind of coin, but it just gives you some perspective at how good he was for the Royals last year. Domination.

Gordon lacks a solid track record and that’s kept his salary depressed as he enters his third go around on the arbitration wheel. It will continue to hurt him here, as he stands to get a raise somewhere around $5 million. That’s assuming the Royals don’t do the right thing and extend him.

Fourth Year Arbitration Eligible
Melky Cabrera – $1.25 million

Cast off from the Braves last year, the Melk-Man took a hefty pay cut to play for the Royals. He made $3.1 million in 2010. Look for him to bounce to the $4 million range.

Free Agents
Bruce Chen
Jeff Francis
Jason Kendall

Sigh… Another Kendall sighting. Last one. Promise.

Chen projects to be a Type B free agent which means the Royals could be in line for some compensation if they offer him arbitration. Last winter, Chen shopped for a two-year deal, but returned to the Royals when it was obvious he couldn’t find a taker. He’ll be looking for something similar this time around. And again, I think he will have some problem finding what he’s looking for. He’s proven himself, but as Ozzie Guillen so eloquently put it, it’s “Bruce F’n Chen.”

I think the Royals will offer Chen arbitration. At least, they should. If he accepts, the Royals have a serviceable starter for around $3.5 million. If he declines, they get a supplemental. Win-win.

Assuming Getz and Pena are non-tendered, and assuming Laffey sticks and Chen departs as a free agent, the Royals are somewhere in the range of $38 million for their guaranteed and arbitration contracts. Add another $7 million for the remaining 15 players filling out the roster (assuming each of the remaining players have less than three years of service time), and you have a current projected payroll of close to $45 million. Probably a little more because they will certainly have a couple of guys on the 25 man roster that aren’t currently in the picture.

Of course, this is all extremely preliminary. Trades will be made. It’s possible a free agent may be lured to KC. What this represents is a snapshot in time of where the Royals are with their payroll. I’ll revisit this from time to time this winter. It will be interesting to see how the off season payroll evolves.

This is the worst time of year to blog about a perennial also-ran. October baseball means another post season spent on the sidelines and it also means front office inertia. I don’t mean that the Royals brain trust has shut down for the month… Just, there’s not much happening that is actually newsworthy.

– The Royals announced their player of the month for September and gave it to Eric Hosmer. Interesting choice if only because there was an actual plethora of excellent candidates from which to choose. When was the last time we could say that? Check some of these numbers.

Mike Moustakas – .352/.380/.580, .227 ISO
Sal Perez – .375/.400/.513, 14 runs
Eric Hosmer – .349/.360/.557, 5 HR, 21 RBI
Jeff Francoeur – .329/.345/.600, 5 HR, .271 ISO

And we can’t forget Billy Butler who hit 10 doubles, or Alex Gordon and Alcides Escobar who both had identical .367 OBPs. I cannot remember a month like this where seemingly everyone in the lineup was a difficult out. (Except when Yost was playing for one run and sac bunting. Small Ball!)

What a month for the hitters.

That was a tough ballot for the writers. For sure. I can make a case for any of those guys.

Allow me to climb on my soapbox for a moment: The monthly awards are voted on by “Kansas City media.” I assume that means dudes from the Star with press passes who attend the game where the ballots are distributed and the odd TV guy who just happened to be at the stadium that night. The Royals made an effort to include “social media” this year, but it’s time for them to open this voting to include the blogs. There are a bunch of writers out there who follow this team as close as any professional writer. It would be a heckuva gesture if the Royals opened up their voting.

– Having said that, if I had a vote, I’d give it to Alex Gordon for Player of the Year. I don’t think that is a shock to anyone who regularly reads this blog. The guy lead the team in OBP and slugging, OPS+ and WAR. And outfield assists. Can’t forget the assists.

To me, it’s a no-brainer.

– For Pitcher of the Year, I’d give my vote to Greg Holland. The guy was absolute nails coming out of the bullpen, with an 11.1 SO/9 and 1.80 ERA.

Sure, it’s a little unorthodox to give a pitcher of the year award to a set-up guy, but since the closer struggled for most of the season and the starting rotation was… Let’s be nice and call it inconsistent, Holland is my guy.

I’m sure Chen will get some consideration because he led the team in Wins (Old School!) and ERA, but Hochevar, with his strong finish, posted stronger overall numbers and Paulino was better as well.

Nope… The bullpen was a strength of this team for the most part, so the award has to go to a reliever.

– Actually saw Trey Hillman’s name mentioned in connection with the vacancy in Boston. Then, Pete Abraham, who is the Red Sox beat writer for the Globe, brought it up again on Tuesday:

When the Red Sox last hired a manager, in 2003, general manager Theo Epstein went with a 44-year-old bench coach who had a background in player development and a brief, unsuccessful run as a major league manager.

Terry Francona did not seem like a particularly inspired choice at the time. But he proved to be the most successful manager the Red Sox ever have had.

Assuming Epstein remains with the Red Sox, he’s going to stick with the plan that worked so well the first time.

“In respect to the qualities that we’re looking for, this is a tough job,’’ Epstein said. “I think I’ll use the same process that we used eight years ago when we identified and hired Tito. Looking back at that process eight years ago, I think we found the right guy and hired the right guy.’’

One potential candidate who fits largely the same profile that Francona did is Dodgers bench coach Trey Hillman.

When it comes to baseball, I’m a pretty forgiving guy. I believe in second chances and that managers (and players) can sometimes experience a reawakening when given a change of scenery.

However, in the case of SABR Trey, I’ll lay it out there… There’s no way he can ever be a successful major league manager. The guy had plenty of time in Kansas City to prove he learned something… Anything. Yet he was as horrible at his job the last day as he was on the first. When I say that, Hal McRae comes to mind for the opposite reason. When he took over as manager, he had an extremely difficult time adapting. Yet, by the time he was fired in 1994, he had evolved as a manager. He was not the same guy who came into the position as a rookie a couple of years earlier. He learned and he improved. You can’t say the same about SABR Trey.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against Hillman getting another managerial job. In fact, I welcome it. Let another fan base experience the wonder of the Trey Hillman Experience. They’ll love it in Boston.

Probably won't see this next year. (Photo: Minda Haas/Flickr)

The Royals announced they will shut down starter Jeff Francis after his next start on Thursday. Francis, who is making $2 million this year, will finish the season with somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 innings. That represents the most work for Francis since he topped 215 innings back in 2007.

At the same time, the club also let it be known that Everett Teaford will make two more starts before he’s finished for the season. His final start will be on September 25 at Chicago, three days before the end of the season.

Back to Francis… At $2 million the left-hander provided the Royals with the following line (current through Tuesday):

30 starts, 177 IP, 4.88 ERA, 1.429 WHIP, 4.5 SO/9, 1.9 BB/9, 4.27 xFIP

The lack of walks is a delight. The lack of strikeouts is a problem. But that’s the way Francis has always pitched. Since his injury, he’s sped up the evolution to control pitcher.

Remember back to those days when the mantra for Royals pitchers was “pitch to contact?” Let’s just say Tony Muser and Brent Strom would have loved Jeff Francis. Over 80% of all plate appearances ended with the ball in play. Additionally, 10% of all plate appearances, batters went for extra bases. Although there’s no shame in his 1.0 HR/9.

His xFIP may indicate there’s a level of bad luck on his side, but the truth is, Francis just isn’t the kind of pitcher who can go out and make success for himself on a regular basis. He’s more likely to get lit up than to dominate in one start. Although, to be fair, he’s really more likely to pitch a solid game. Maybe a quality start, maybe not. (He had 15 quality starts this year for the Royals, a rate of 50%.) It seems difficult to imagine over the course of a full season of starts that Francis could give his team enough for them to win over half their games. But he gives you a chance, and for a team like the Royals, that’s what it’s about.

Francis wasn’t here to be a front line starter, or even a number two or three guy. He was here to eat innings. That’s kind of a gutsy move to make for a player with a pretty serious shoulder history. Even though the Royals could only win nine of his 30 starts, Francis did pretty much what the Royals asked… He took the ball every fifth day and usually went until the sixth inning. On this team, with this rotation, that’s something.

According to FanGraphs, that’s worth $11 million dollars on the open market. Not a bad piece of business from Dayton Moore. But those numbers just seem arbitrary. Even though they are assigned to a player based on WAR, they aren’t real. Francis would never get that kind of money on the free agent market. But the numbers do give us a measure of some kind of worth to the Royals rotation. Subtract Francis and the team’s record may not be much different, but the strain placed on an overworked bullpen certainly would have increased. Francis the innings eater was just what the Royals needed this year.

So as Francis prepares for another spin in free agency, there will doubtless be talk from both team and player about a mutual respect they have for each other, and how it would be really nice if he could return for another year. With free agent pickings looking slim this winter, and with no immediate help coming from The System, it’s not a horrible thought that Francis could be back in Royal blue next spring.

We just need to realize we’ve probably seen him at or near his post injury peak. If the Royals could bring him back for another year at under $3 million, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

The Royals will be in a similar position with last night’s starter, Bruce Chen. Against the helpless Twins lineup, Chen was, dare I say, dominant.

8 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 8 SO

He threw 119 pitches and 82 of them were strikes.

His Game Score was 85, which made his effort last night the best Royals start of year. And it’s the highest Game Score since October 1 of last year when Chen posted an 88 against the Rays. He finishes strong.

Chen has been a different pitcher ever since he started varying his arm slot, dropping it lower when he throws a sinker. He’s not dropping his arm as low as he did last year, but I’m not sure that makes a lot of difference. Here were his release points from three starts in September, 2010:

Compare that to his release point in his last three starts:

Like I said, not as low this year, but that’s more about finding his comfort zone in his delivery and release than anything. The results have been fairly consistent from last season.

Chen is another pitcher whom the Royals will have to make a decision on this winter. He’s been a good starter for the Royals, but I don’t get the hype from those who wish to anoint him the best starter on this staff. For my money, Paulino has been better. So has the second half version of Hochevar. That’s not a slight against Chen, just how I see the starters stack up according to performance. But that’s OK… If Chen is the best starter on your club, your staff needs some serious help. Not that Chen can’t help a rotation… We know he can. It’s just he’s better suited to the back of the rotation. Not the front.

I’d prefer to have Chen back in the fold next year, but at a price tag under $4 million. And if by some stroke of luck, the rotation entering 2012 is good enough that there is only a single opening… I’d opt for Chen ahead of Francis.

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