Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

Browsing Posts tagged Joakim Soria

A good writer creates an interesting topic, fleshes it out with solid research, expands on it with creativity and presents it with fluid prose.  Today, you get none of that.  NO SOUP FOR YOU!

I have an assortment of topics, which either are not quite robust enough to warrant a column on their own or which would require research and thought beyond my appetite.  

The Royals Made A Lot of Money Last Year

Forbes reported that the Kansas City Royals turned a $28.5 million profit last season, second only to the Cleveland Indians in all of baseball.  At best, that is an educated guess by Forbes, if not just a straight out shot in the dark.   I have no doubt that this revelation will stir up a bit of outrage among certain portions of the fanbase.

The truth is, however, that the Royals did not go cheap last year:  they went young.   If you believe David Glass and the team roughly broke even in past years with higher payrolls, then the Forbes’ number makes some sense.   It is nothing that should be used as an indictment of the Glass ownership, but simply a profitable portion of a very logical business cycle.

Now, the test is whether that $28.5 million (or whatever it actually was – my guess is something a little less than that) comes into play next off season or the season after that.  If Glass did make $28.5 million in 2011 and basically breaks even when the Royals’ payroll is around $70 million, then will a hopefully talented and contending Royals’ team in 2014 or 2015 be able to carry a payroll somewhere north of $80 million?   Basically, did David Glass bank the $28.5 million or, as my wife certainly would do, did he go on a bunch of really nice vacations and get four new cars…and a jet…and a boat?

Do Sabermetrics Undervalue Relief Pitchers?

In 2011, Craig Kimbrel had the highest WAR (according to Fangraphs) of any reliever in baseball:  3.2.   Thirty-eight starting pitchers posted an fWAR higher than Kimbrel’s.  In fact only seven relievers in the game would appear in the top 74 fWAR posted by pitchers in 2011.  One of those was the Royals’ Greg Holland, by the way.

Now, WAR has a lot to do with ‘showing up’.  A position player can have tremendous stats, but if he missed 25 games with an injury, his WAR will take a hit.   We may all disparage the ‘Replacement Player’, but not even Albert Pujols is better than Mr. Replacement if Albert is sitting on the bench.   When it comes to pitching, innings matter.

Jeff Francis was more valuable (in WAR terms) than any Royals’ relief pitcher last year based almost completely on the fact that Jeff ground his way through 183 innings of work:  nearly three times what any reliever pitched.  Now, the argument exists and I cannot really dispute the general theory, that a run in the third inning is really the same as a run in the ninth inning, but it sure does not feel that way.

I don’t think anyone would argue that a good starting pitcher is more valuable than a good reliever.   In fact, one can pretty effectively argue that an average starting pitcher is more valuable than a good reliever and, quite possibly, more valuable than even a great reliever.  However, WAR really tells us that a below average starting pitcher (Jeff Francis) is more valuable than almost every reliever in the game.

My current allotment of grey matter does not properly equip me with the ability to dive into the internal mechanizations of fWAR and debate that fact.   Nor does the fact that my gut disagrees with the above assessment invalidate the value of WAR as a statistic.   Baseball is certainly a game of numbers, but it is also a game of feel.

I know, I know, we are dancing our way into the world of intangibles where Jason Kendall and Dayton Moore sit amongst the clouds and lord over the baseball world, but there is something to it.   Baseball players and fans, as well, are conditioned that they will give up runs.  A starter gives up three runs and leaves the game tied after six innings and we applaud the effort.   The team feels good:  he gave them a chance to win, after all.   Everyone’s happy, until a reliever gives up a solo homer in the bottom of the 8th and the Royals lose.    Of course, if the starter had stranded on of those three runs in the fourth, the solo homer would not have triggered the loss, but in the clubhouse, the starter did his job and the reliever did not.

That run in the eighth inning may not be statistically different than a run in the fourth, but it certainly feels different and, I have to believe, it affects the team differently.  If your bullpen does that on a regular basis it can tremendously batter the collective psyche of the team.   Conversely, if your bullpen is truly a lock-down unit it can buoy that same team is a tremendously positive way.   

WAR may never truly love a good bullpen, but I have to believe that a good bullpen is more valuable than the sum of it’s WAR.

Catchers, Catchers, and More Catchers

Should Brayan Pena or Humberto Quintero every bat after the seventh inning? 

As Craig detailed yesterday, Quintero is a legendarily poor hitter and as I pointed out in the comments and on Twitter, Brayan Pena has spiraled into something that more closely resembles Quintero at the plate than Mauer.  The Royals are hoping for more offense out of Alcides Escobar (and I think they will get it), but one can only expect so much and the team may not get a whole lot of punch out of the second base position, either.   Given that, should the Royals take a big step outside of the box and plan on pinch-hitting for the catcher almost every night?

Now, I know this won’t really happen and I also admit that this theory falls back on the possibly flawed idea that a run in the eighth is more important than a run in the third, but let’s take a quick look anyway.

I don’t care what the score is, just plus or minus five runs either way (basically any situation short of a Mitch Maier getting ready to pitch scenario), but what if the Royals simply assumed that any time the catcher came up in the sixth inning or later, they would pinch-hit for him?   Pena starts, his turn comes up in the sixth, and Maier pinch hits.   Quintero enters the game, comes up in the eighth, and Bourgoeis pinch hits, but then what?

Ah, you need to carry three catchers.  To do that AND pinch hit for said catchers, the Royals would have to carry three catchers AND a five man bench.  That forces them into breaking camp with just six relievers, which I know sounds like disaster when the starting rotation is what it is.   Except, given there is really nothing to prevent Kansas City from pitching the hell out of Louis Coleman and Tim Collins for three weeks, then sending them to Omaha to pitch sparingly while Kelvin Herrera and Everett Teaford come to KC to throw for two or three weeks.

The whole concept is dicey, unconventional and truthfully won’t work for any extended period of time.  Not to mention that the Royals’ options for pinch hitters are only slightly more productive than letting Pena, Quintero and even Cody Clark hit.  Right there, is the real problem with virtually any scenario that heavily involves using the Kansas City bench players.

Option 2013

With Joakim Soria headed towards a second Tommy John procedure, the question of whether the Royals should pick up Soria’s $8 million 2013 option will be a recurring theme throughout the season.   Personally, that eight million looks a lot better put toward an Eric Hosmer contract or, for that matter, even an Alex Gordon extension.

Sure, the Royals are on the hook for Soria’s six million this year, but does knowing that they might have an extra eight million available next year grease the wheels to getting Gordon locked down and out of the way?  Let’s also keep in mind that no one is going to be throwing money at Soria next winter.   Unless Joakim gets offended by the Royals turning down his option, there is nothing that says he could not come back on a lesser deal.  It seems like a no-brainer at this point.  I feel bad for Soria, but the game is a business and the Royals cannot afford to gamble with eight million bucks.

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The Royals enjoy an off-day today at what is basically the halfway mark of spring training.  Without a doubt, how a player performs in the second half of spring training is much, much more important than how he performed in the first half, but enough has transpired for us to know that the Kansas City Royals we thought we would see on April 6th are going to look a little different.

The consensus prior to camp was that the Royals would open up with this lineup:

  • Alex Gordon LF
  • Johnny Giavotella 2B
  • Eric Hosmer 1B
  • Billy Butler DH
  • Jeff Francoeur RF
  • Mike Moustakas 3B
  • Salvador Perez C
  • Lorenzo Cain CF
  • Alcides Escobar SS

Now, and admittedly it is still a long time until Opening Day, the lineup might well look like this:

  • Alex Gordon LF
  • Lorenzo Cain CF
  • Eric Hosmer 1B
  • Billy Butler DH
  • Jeff Francoeur RF
  • Mike Moustakas 3B
  • Yuniesky Betancourt 2B
  • Brayan Pena C
  • Alcides Escobar SS

Obviously, the injury to Salvador Perez and the revelation that he might not be back until deep into June, has thrown that position into uncertainty.   Whereas we thought Brayan Pena and Manny Pina would battle for the backup spot, we now have Pena entrenched as the starter, Pina hurt and minor league veteran Cody Clark the odds on favorite to backup Pena.   You have to kind of root for the 30 year old Clark, who is touted as an excellent handler of pitchers and good defender, but a tandem of Brayan Pena and Cody Clark does not excellent make the Royals strong behind the plate.

At minimum, the Royals have touched base with free agent Ivan Rodriguez, who at 40 years old is a shadow of the guy who tormented Kansas City for years.   I would not be completely surprised to see Pudge in a Royals’ uniform come April, once he realizes that the phone is not going to ring anymore.  Frankly, not a bad gig for a 40 year old:  play regulary for two and a half months, then enjoy the big league lifestyle for the summer and catch one a week.   In my mind, a Pudge/Clark tandem seems stronger than a Pena/Clark or Pena/Max Ramirez unit, but you would not be off base to disagree.

Of course, the Internet and Royals blogosphere consortium erupted with Ned Yost’s revelation that Yuniesky Betancourt was firmly in the mix for the regular second base job.  Many of us sensed that the Betancourt signing as a utility infielder would morph into 500 Yuni at-bats in 2012 and we may be looking right down the barrel of such an occurrence.

Now, I am not going to get all wrapped up in angst over this just yet.   First, we don’t know that this will actually come to fruition:  a big couple of weeks at the plate for Giavotella could still net him the job.   Still, we know the club is concerned about Johnny’s defense and various reports from those who have been to spring training games (several of them who I know are Giavotella supporters) reinforce those concerns.   As Royals’ fans, we have seen Esteban German and Alberto Callaspo mangle second base, but Alberto did so while cracking almost 70 extra base hits that year.   The Royals have to see enough this spring to indicate that Giavotella is really going to hit (not just hit better than Getz) or they simply will not put up with his ‘no play is routine’ defense.

When I first heard of the Betancourt in the second base mix scenario, my initial thought was that the Royals were thinking Betancourt at second, Giavotella to Omaha, with Getz on the bench.  When they wanted to actually utilize Yuni in his ‘utility role’, then Getz would play second and Yuni third or short, but would that work to essentially rest Mike Moustakas against tough left handed pitching when it required inserting the left-handed hitting Getz into the lineup.   While I bristle at the idea of Yuni at second and Getz on the roster, I will admit that Chris Getz has higher career numbers versus lefties than against righties (.280/.330/.327 vs. LHP).

Now, what I really wonder, however, is IF Betancourt is the regular second baseman and IF Getz is on the bench, THEN does that mean that right handed third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff makes the roster over the fifth outfielder (either Maier or Dyson)?   Kouzmanoff, who has a career line versus lefties of .279/.322/.453, and carries a pretty good defensive reputation at the hot corner might make sense on this particular version of the roster.  Let me stop for a moment and offer that I am not onboard with this shift.  The Royals need to find out if Johnny Giavotella can hit enough major league pitching to justify his iron glove and the first couple of months of 2012 is a far better time see about that than the first couple months of 2013.

So, the position players that just ten days ago seemed almost locked in, could not break camp in a rather drastically different form than we expected.   We say that, without even mentioning the ongoing struggles of Mike Moustakas (a notoriously slow starter, by the way).   One backup outfielder, two backup infielders (both of whom play one just one position) and at least one catcher we did not even consider as a possibility last week.  Yep, things are different and then, Joakim Soria walked off the mound yesterday.

Soria, who has not gotten anyone out all spring as it is, left the game with a twinge or a pull or an ouchie in his elbow.  It frankly does not sound good.   Again, it could be nothing, but that is not how the Royals’ spring has been going.    Given that Soria has been dramatically ineffective this spring, Kansas City may well utilize this injury, however minor, to buy Joakim some extra time in Arizona to figure out what the heck is going on.

Such a move thrusts Jonathan Broxton or Greg Holland or, more likely, both of them into a closing role and opens up a spot in the bullpen for a Tim Collins and/or Everett Teaford.  I wrote last week about the tremendous depth the Royals enjoy in the pen, so this really does not weaken them at all.   It also would allow the team to keep Luis Mendoza on the roster AND carry a second lefty.   If there is a bright side to your All-Star closer not being healthy, I guess that is it.

To be honest, before Salvador Perez went down, I was pretty confident that I had the 25 players who would break camp down to the very last name.   Now, I am confident in about 20 or 21 of those names and that is without even mentioning the struggles of Bruce Chen and Jonathan Sanchez (again, it’s early and veteran starters tend to come on late in the spring).   Without question, things have changed down in Surprise and are likely to continue to surprise (pun intended) as we edge closer to April 6th.

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The bullpen was one of the strengths of the 2011 Kansas City Royals and is perceived to be one again heading into 2012.  In fact, with the anticipation that the team’s five man starting rotation is likely to be average at best, the Royals have made moves to bolster their already strong relief corps in an effort to forge a ‘super bullpen’.

I am not going to get into the validity of whether a great bullpen can counterbalance a poor rotation.  I know a bad bullpen can wreck a good rotation, but whether it works the other way around is yet to be seen.   Suffice it to say, the Royals expect to have a top tier bullpen in 2012, which is logical given the fine level of performances they received from so many reliever last year.

Of course, relievers are among the most volatile creatures on the planet.   One day you are Brad Lidge, premier closer in baseball, and the next day your, ugh, Brad Lidge.  Any Royals fan that was around and aware in 1990 is keenly familiar with the spectacular disintegration of Mark Davis.   The list of lock down relievers who imploded is long and ugly and every team in baseball has a long one.   Add the factor of youth and the possibility for disappointing results from highly thought of bullpen arms becomes even more likely.

Kansas City, however, has a valuable commodity when it comes to overcoming the potential devastating volatility of a young bullpen:  a lot of arms.

Right now, the favorites to break camp in the pen are Joakim Soria, Jonathan Broxton, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Jose Mijares, Aaron Crow and Luis Mendoza.   Based on what we have heard out of camp, I don’t know that you can make an argument on the first six (you can make an argument about the logic that leads to the first six and whether it is right or wrong, but you pretty much have to admit that those six names are at the top of a whiteboard in Dayton Moore’s office).  With Mendoza pitching well in camp to date (it is admittedly early), one gets the feeling that the Royals will want to keep him around, even if Paulino and Duffy win the final two rotation spots – which I think they will.

If that is the seven man pen, then the Royals will have these familiar names starting the year in Omaha:  Kelvin Herrera, Tim Collins, Blake Wood, Everett Teaford, Jeremy Jeffress and Nathan Adcock.  

In Herrera, you have the organization’s closer of the future (or at least back of the bullpen fixture of the future, anyway).   Possessing the best fastball in camp, the 21 year old would have been a lock to make virtually any bullpen of the past ten years. 

While Wood is something of a whipping boy amongst Royals fans, he did throw 69.2 pretty decent major league innings in his second season.  He also cut his home run allowed rate in half and upped his strikeouts per nine innings to 8.0 from 5.6 the year before, and did so without elevating his walk rate (which is still too high).    Blake is no star, but he has gone from THE 8th inning guy in 2010 to a pitcher who probably won’t make the club in 2012 while improving his game.

Last spring, Tim Collins was the darling of camp.  He was a strikeout machine in the minors and Tim got off to a quick start in the majors only to be undone by spotty (at best) control.   Still, Collins threw 67 innings last year, struck out 60 and allowed just 52 hits.   Early on this spring, he is showing much better ability to consistently throw strikes and, wait for it, he is lefthanded.  Like Wood and Herrera, he would have been a lock to make this team in most any other year – hell, he WAS a lock just last year.

While it is possible that Everett Teaford, another lefty, will start if sent back to Omaha, his big league future is probably as a reliever.  In 2011, Teaford appeared in 23 games out of the pen, started 3 more and basically did everything you could ask.    That is not enough to make this year’s bullpen.

There are four pitchers with experience (save for Herrera, who has the best arm of the bunch), who the Royals can draw on and barely miss a beat.

Broxton not healthy?  No problem, pull up Herrera or Wood.   Mijares not worth the trouble?  Go to Collins or Teaford. One can create quite a doomsday scenario and still have a hard time getting this bullpen down to average. 

Let’s say Joakim Soria is ineffective and Jonathan Broxton never healthy:  the Royals’ closer would become Greg Holland, with Aaron Crow and Kelvin Herrera setting him up.   At the same time, let’s say the league figures Louis Coleman out and Jose Mijares is a disaster.   Enter Tim Collins and Blake Wood.   That may make you a little nervous, but remember we are talking about sixth and seventh inning guys at this point.   Simultaneously, Luis Mendoza reverts to pre-2010 form or has to go into the rotation.   The Royals can call upon Everett Teaford (who might be a better options as the long man anyway).

All of the above could happen and the Royals would still have Nathan Adcock in Omaha, who frankly wasn’t bad in 2011 and probably will be better in 2012.   They also have an electric arm down there in Jeremy Jeffress.   Like many, I am not sure Jeffress will ever ‘figure it out’, but if you have to replace half your bullpen before you resort to calling up a guy who can throw 100 mph, that is pretty nice situation to be in.

All that and we have not mentioned any of the non-roster guys like lefties Tommy Hottovy and Francisley Bueno, the highly thought of Brandon Sisk (yes, another lefty) or the ‘other guy’ in the Melky Cabrera trade:  Ryan Verdugo.   Another lefty, Verdugo is a guy who would have gotten a serious look when the Royals were stocking their bullpen with the Jamey Wrights of the world.  Now, he has zero shot at making this team.

There are few real failsafes in the world, much less in baseball and certainly not when it comes to bullpens, but the 2012 Kansas City Royals’ group comes pretty close.   Depending on who is healthy and who is effective, they may not be great, but are almost certain to be good and, at the very worst, likely to be no worse than above average.

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We all know that 2011 was not a vintage Joakim Soria campaign.   He blew seven saves, one more than in the two previous seasons combined.   Soria surrendered two runs or more in seven different outings in 2011:  again one more than in the two previous seasons combined.   Strikeouts were down, walks were up and home runs (1.04/9) were dramatically higher than at any time in his career.  To be fair, a home run rate that was nearly double his previous career average means that Soria gave up two more home runs than in 2008 or 2009, so let’s not read just a whole lot into that number.

 In a season that spawned high hopes for many players and saw several maligned acquisitions come through as only Dayton Moore could have imagined, Soria was one of the few dark clouds (which is kind of a funny thing to say when discussing a team that lost 90+ games…again).     The Royals’ closer’s issues were discussed by our own Craig Brown and by Jeff Zimmerman just a few weeks ago. 

Truth is, Joakim Soria had a very similar year to 2011 back in 2008.  Then, however, aided by an unsustainable .207 BABIP, Soria saved 42 games and sported a 1.60 ERA (against a 3.62 xFIP).  Fast forward to 2011, change the BABIP to .312 and you have the worst season of Joakim’s career.   Again, though, his xFIP was actually lower than in 2008 (3.38).   With a little luck and a couple less home runs and Royals fans might not have had discussion after discussion regarding their closer.

That said, as both Craig and Jeff document in the links supplied above, things were different.   Soria was throwing a cutter, especially early in the year and it simply was not an effective pitch.  Given that the cutter became Soria’s weapon of choice in lieu of his curveball from the middle of 2010 through the first half of 2011 and given how poor a pitch that cutter turned out to be, the answer to Soria’s problems might be that simple.   Ditch the cutter, give the curve another try and get back to being the Soria of old.

Of course, that is easier said than done.  The curve was a horrible pitch for Soria in 2010.  He could not throw it for strikes and could not get the swing and miss when he did.   It was actually better in 2011, but by then Joakim had moved onto the cutter and was throwing the curve half as often as he had in past years.

It is odd, but for a guy who was among the best closers in the game for three straight seasons, Soria spent much of 2011 lost; searching for answers when he probably did not need to be asking any questions in the first place.   It happens:  the classic ‘outhink yourself’ maneuver.

The burning question, of course, is was 2011 just a dip in the road or the start of a career implosion.  Baseball has seen its share of closers seemingly overnight go from dominant to awful.   Any of us who lived through the Mark Davis nightmare can attest to that.   To that end, Soria was not consistently awful in 2011.   He had stretches of outstanding effectiveness interspersed with gut wrenching implosions, so there is a lot of evidence that Soria might well be dominant once again in 2012.

Thus we come to the burning question of the off-season:  to trade Soria or not to trade Soria? 

The contract has progressed from great to merely good and is no longer the bargaining chip it used to be.   The Royals have Soria under control through the 2014 season and a vintage Soria, no matter how good Greg Holland is, looks awfully good finishing out important games in 2013 and 2014.   Provided, of course, that the Royals HAVE the vintage version of Soria those two years and not a deteriorating shell of that guy.

Let’s be clear, you are not getting an established number two starter in exchange for Joakim Soria:  there is no precedent that should make anyone think any team gives that up for a closer.   The Royals might get some organization’s version of Mike Montgomery in return, but not two of those (as Dayton Moore reportedly asked the Yankees for at some point).  That’s your return, so start there if you want to debate whether the prudent move is to trade Soria.

That statement comes off as a ‘don’t trade Soria’ argument and I am not really in that camp.  I think there is a 20% chance that Joakim Soria’s days as an elite closer are over, so there is a risk going into 2012.   The argument that a closer is an uneccesary luxury on a non-contending team holds water and likely will apply to the Royals in 2012, but hopefully not after that.

Do you leverage the risk that Soria’s value might continue to decline against the risk that a prospect you trade for washes out?   The downside for the Royals is trading Soria, who remains effective for his new team, for a player or players who do not help Kansas City win in 2013 or 2014 and find yourself a closer away from the playoffs through the bulk of Eric Hosmer’s run with the Royals.

In my opinion, the Royals should stick with Soria, at least through July:  hoping he returns to dominant form and is either helping Kansas City stay in contention or jumping his trade value to a higher level.    There are a lot of teams that expect to contend that have less than solid closer situations right now.   Come July, if Greg Holland is still lights out and the Royals are not in the race, maybe then you pull the trigger and get more than a prospect, however good, in return.

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Rumors, news and notes from the Winter Meetings in Dallas…

– Ned Yost says the Royals will, “Play much better than .500.

And I’d like to be an astronaut.

What Yost just said is, he thinks the Royals are going to be contenders. Because “much better than .500” in the Central, means you’re in the hunt. As much as I like the idea of Project 2012, I think the smart money is on using this year (again) as a developmental year and targeting 2013. I’d be more optimistic if the starting rotation wasn’t so unsettled.

Yes, I think the 2012 team is going to be better than the 2011 version, but 10 games better? I don’t think so. Not yet anyway. I’m good with Hochevar and Chen is fine. I’m not a fan of Sanchez and I’m a little surprised at the talk that Paulino has to “earn” his spot. Right now I see three middle of the road starters, a back of the rotation guy in Sanchez and a wild card for the last spot.

Besides, it’s a little early to be placing markers on win totals. Talk to me in March when there is some clarity to the pitching situation. Right now, I’d peg the 2012 Royals at 76-80 wins.

– Jayson Stark says the Royals are listening on Joakim Soria, but want a young, controllable, front line starter.

Given how the market for closers has unfolded, that doesn’t seem unreasonable. It would be better if Soria hadn’t struggled with his mechanics (according to Yost) for a good part of the season. Teams will use that to try to drive down the Royals asking price, but the Royals are so infatuated with their closer (and his team-friendly contract, that is about to become a little less friendly) that they will hold on.

I’ll bet that Soria opens the year with the Royals.

– Within the same Tweet, Stark said the Royals were balking at the idea of moving Wil Myers.

Good.

If you trade Myers now, you would be selling at near his low value as a prospect. His performance in the Arizona Fall League helps a little, but like with Soria, his last season was a disappointment. Yes, a number of factors worked against him, but the numbers are what teams will point to when trying to drive down the price.

– Billy Beane reportedly shot down the Gio Gonzalez to Royals rumors.

Good. Earlier in the day we saw the A’s were asking for either Myers, Mike Moustakas or Eric Hosmer. Uh… What? Sorry, but I see Gonzalez as overrated. The walk rate is too high, and he trends to the fly ball. He’s benefitted from playing in a home park where foul territory is so expansive, it comes with mile markers. I just don’t see more than a number three starter.

Yeah, I know there’s upside. He’s 26 and has 89 career starts under his belt. He’s also gained velocity each season he’s appeared in the big leagues. There’s a lot to like, but that’s why he’s overvalued, in my opinion. He’s shown no indication he can tame the control issues and that’s going to hold him back. Too many base runners, plus a HR/FB rate that will regress to the mean… That doesn’t hold my interest.

I’m more interested in his teammate, who was mentioned in rumors, Trevor Cahill. Huge ground ball rate and he can throw in the strike zone. Plus, he’s signed for four years with two club options. If the options are picked up, the deal totals around $55 million. And at the end of the contract, he’ll be 30.

Now does that warrant a “top” prospect. Given the contract, yes it does. I’d try like hell to avoid trading Myers, but this one is tempting.

If we’ve learned anything from all this there are two things teams overvalue: Prospects and pitching. That makes a deal awfully difficult.

– The Royals were linked to Carlos Guillen.

Once upon a time, I was a huge Guillen fan. Each year from 2000 to 2006 he improved his batting average. I thought that was kind of cool. (Kind of big if you’re playing fantasy baseball.) Reportedly, five teams are in the hunt and view him as a utility-type of player. He will come on the cheap because his performance has been declining since 2006 and because he hasn’t played in more than 81 games at any point over the last three seasons. But he is a switch hitter who has played all the infield positions at some point in his career. Those pesky injuries though have really cut down on his range.

I’m not against this signing (for only a year and for minimal salary) but I’d rather the Royals stay in house (i.e. cheap) on this. The infield is set and hopefully the only reason you’d need a utility guy is to have the bat off the bench and to give the infield guys an occasional day off.

I definitely wouldn’t get pulled into a bidding war for Guillen.

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

 

 

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.

In part 1 of this series, I looked at the offense and came to the conclusion that it’s not the teams biggest problem, but rather it’s their inability to prevent runs. In part 2 I looked at the defense and found it to be missing some pieces but again not a huge problem. That leaves us with the pitching. This isn’t really a shocking conclusion. We all knew it was leading us there, but I think it’s instructive and helpful to get there step-by-step. The pitching neatly breaks up into two distinct parts: starting and relief. Today we’ll focus on relief.

Here is a chart showing the Royal relieves ERA and the league rank for the past few years.

Year ERA AL Rank
2011 3.69 5th
2010 4.46 14th
2009 5.02 14th
2008 4.26 10th
2007 3.89 6th

The Royals have clearly had a contending level relief core this year, but history shows that it’s a fickle thing. One year you can have a great bullpen and the next year it can be putrid. There’s a number of reasons for this phenomenon. Bullpens have high turnover, small inning sample sizes can skew the numbers, more players means more possibility for injuries or other changes and pitching is just a fickle art.

With all of these different possibilities it’s hard to make any concrete conclusions on whether or not the Royals will continue to have a contention level relief corps.  However, there are some things that can help guide us. Primarily age and team control. Here is the list of the important relief pitchers this season for the Royals and the year that they become a free agent

Player Free Agency Season
Joakim Soria 2015
Blake Wood 2017
Tim Collins 2017
Aaron Crow 2017
Louis Coleman 2017
Nate Adcock 2017
Greg Holland 2017
Everett Teaford 2017
Jeremy Jeffress 2017

Why am I just now realizing that other than Joakim Soria (and Mitch Maier of course) every relief pitcher of note is a rookie this season? The chart should make it clear that the bullpen shouldn’t turnover much based on free agency. That doesn’t mean that injury, trade or a move to the starting rotation won’t change things, but based on the results from this season and the youth, we can for the near future rule out the bullpen as a major area where the Royals should focus in order to improve their ballclub to make it a contender.

Next time we’ll get into the heart of the matter and discuss the starting pitching, and more importantly how to fix it.

 

 

Nick Scott hosts the Broken Bat Single Podcast and writes a blog for the Lawrence Journal World. You can follow him on Facebook or email him at brokenbatsingle at gmail dot com.

It wasn’t a 22 run, 3 grand slam outburst, but if nine runs is enough for a win (as it should be) I’ll take it.

Some quick notes from Thursday’s game:

– All Clark has to do is write a nice post about the man we know as Country Breakfast, and he collects four hits in five plate appearances. Billy Butler’s .374 OBP is tops on the team and he’s second in wOBA at .364. The guy has been on fire the last month and a half. Not surprisingly, my Twitter feed is void of Butler hate.

– I don’t know that Johnny Giavotella would have been my first choice to bat leadoff with Alex Gordon out of the lineup, but Nervous Ned does so many things that defy logic, it wears me out to get irritated. Although the way the top of the order has been clicking, I don’t know who you would drop into that spot. Gio it is!

– By going with that 13 man bullpen, it exposes a thin bench whenever anyone needs to leave the game. It happened again last night when Jeff Francoeur got drilled right below the knee cap in the top of the ninth. That forced Alex Gordon, himself nursing a bruise after being hit by a pitch the previous night, into the field. The good news, we’re less than a week away from when the rosters can expand, so we won’t have to put up with this nonsense much longer. The bad news is, Omaha’s season ends September 5, and they’re probably going to the playoffs. It could be the middle of the month before we see anyone in Kansas City.

– Mike Moustakas had another multi-hit game, his third in a row and fifth in his last eight games. Same approach as I wrote about on Wednesday… Laying off the high fastballs. The strange thing was, the Blue Jays didn’t give him a ton of off speed pitches down in the zone. Almost every slider he saw this series was up in the zone and they hardly threw any change-ups.

– I don’t know if I even want to discuss the disaster known as Joakim Soria. I was surprised to see him in the game in the non-save situation, but figured this was Yost’s way of getting him so low pressure work in an attempt to boost his confidence.

It was just two pitches, but when the first bad pitch is a low cutter over the middle of the plate (That was absolutely ripped. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a ball squared up like that.) and that’s followed by a slider up in the zone… Well, that’s how two pitches turn into two runs. Although, it should be noted the slider was away and Encarnacion basically muscled it to the opposite field.

Soria is still striking out hitters, but when he’s missing, he’s been way too high in the zone – like he was to Encarnacion. It’s not a coincidence that his worst two months of the season (May and August) have seen more fly balls in play against Soria than ground balls.

– Strong showing from Jeff Francis even if the wheels came apart in the seventh. His pitch count after six was relatively low, so I wasn’t surprised Yost sent him back for the top of the inning. I was surprised Yost let Greg Holland throw two innings in that situation. Unfortunately, by throwing 45 pitches, he’s going to be unavailable for the start of the Cleveland series.

– Two Royals wins and zero appearances by either Aaron Crow or Tim Collins. When was the last time that happened?

Last night’s five run debacle in the bottom of the ninth brought back memories of some really, really bad Royals’ teams of the past.   Although charged with just one error in the inning, the Royals committed enough gaffes and bobbles to make one wonder if the ghost of Chip Ambres was not lurking somewhere near.

Let’s start at the beginning.  

After Melky Cabrera mashed a three run homer in the top of the ninth to give Kansas City a four run lead, Ned Yost opted to go with Aaron Crow instead of Joakim Soria to start the bottom of the inning.    Soria, who had not pitched since throwing 11 pitches on Sunday, was already warm when the decision was made to switch to Crow.  I can only assume that the primary driver behind this decision was that the bottom of the ninth was no longer a save situation.  

I did not like this move at the time (my wife will sign an affidavit stating such).    Crow jumped ahead of both Matt Joyce and Johnny Damon 0-2, but yielded ground ball singles to both.   Does Chris Getz get to Joyce’s ground ball?  Maybe, but more on that in a minute.

In comes Soria, entering a game in the middle of an inning for just the fourth time this season and just the second time since April.   Now, it should not matter to an expeirenced reliever when they come in, who is on and who is up.  In the convuloted world of closers and bullpen management, however, relievers seem to have all sorts of comfort zones and I am pretty sure the Royals were outside of Soria’s at this point.

Don’t get me wrong, going to Soria was the right move at this juncture.   The problem was that Yost should have stuck to his plan despite Cabrera’s home run and let Soria start the ninth inning (particularly considering Crow has been nursing a dead arm or sore shoulder or whatever we are calling it this week).  

Okay, Soria is in and promptly is tagged on a ‘double’ by Evan Longoria.  I note the ‘double’ in that Melky Cabrera, who had spent the ninth inning changeover yapping at some fans who had been razzing him, fielded the hit and threw to third instead of second.   Does Longoria go to second if the throw is headed that direction instead?  The angle on television I saw was not clear, but both Ryan Lefevbre and Frank White (two guys who make a living generally making excuses for the players) seemed to think that Cabrera threw to the wrong base and allowed Longoria to turn a single into a double.

The relevancy of that play immediately came to light when Ben Zobrist grounded out to second baseman Johnny Giavotella.  There are a lot of variables that come into play, but there was a chance that, had Longoria been standing on first this was a double play ball.   I don’t know, the defensive positioning, the pitch selection and likely Zobrist’s approach at the plate all are different given where Longoria is on the bases, but I do know that there is a much better chance to turn a double play if the runner is on first instead of second.

Next up is Casey Kotchman who grounds to Giavotella’s right and right into the play that, according to Lee Warren  is the most troublesome for the rookie second baseman.   Johnny bobbles the backhand, turns and jump throws to first to give Kotchman a hometown infield single.  Again, not sure Chris Getz does or does not make that play:  Chase Utley does and probably a fair portion of major league regulars at the position do as well.

After Soria strikes out B.J. Upton (easily one of the most dislikable players in the league), Sam Fuld triples into right center.   Fuld is fast and that ball was a triple from the beginning even with Jeff Francoeur fielding the caroom well and firing a strike to cut-off man Johnny Giavotella.

Now, Giavotella is young and just failed to make a play and, as you might expect, tries to make up for it.   His throw to third was good right up until the time that it hit the sliding Fuld’s foot.   The two good throws gave the Royals a slight, slight mind you, chance to throw out Fuld, but I’m pretty sure he’s safe regardless.   Let him have his triple and hope that Soria gets Kelly Shoppach and the Royals at least get to play more baseball.

At any rate, here is a question that I don’t have the answer to.   Where was Joakim Soria in all of this?  Obviously, he would have been moving to back up home as soon as Fuld hit the ball, but once the play started heading towards third, should Joakim have been up the line to back up an errant throw to that base?

I will be honest in that one replay of what happened was enough for me to turn off the television before seeing if I could locate Soria on any of the replay angles.   I do know that in the bottom of the eighth, in a similar situation, Greg Holland could be seen busting his tail up from behind home up to third to back up a possible play there.   Again, not so much a criticism as a question and, honestly, maybe not even a relevant one.

At any rate, it was simply a horrific display of baseball in the bottom of the ninth, but these sorts of innings even happen to good teams sometimes and to young teams more often.  The latter, of course, is what the Royals are:  young.

Ned Yost could have inserted Chris Getz into the game for defense in the ninth, but that does not do Johnny Giavotella any good in 2012.   I know, a lot of you are tired of playing for next week or next year or the year after that, but the Royals need Giavotella to learn what he can and cannot do and when he should and should not do it.     That is what this seven week experience is all about for both him and Salvador Perez:  getting used to making big league decisions in the big leagues.

Let’s face it, with the possible change of one outfield position, last night’s lineup is going to be the 2012 lineup and could very well be the 2013 lineup as well. They are going to have some ugly innings out there.   That they do post a stinker more often than we would like is not an indictment of the lineup or, dare we say it, The Process.

Last night sucked and there might be others like it as the Royals play out the string in 2011, but I can live with that if this same group or something close to it makes the move from ‘young and promising’ to ‘youthful and good’ by next year.

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