Say what you will about Dayton Moore, but the guy doesn’t waste any time. Once the postseason is over, it’s like he’s on the clock, and has to make a move.
Again, he strikes while the recently completed World Series is fresh in our minds. This time he brings a pair of left handed pitchers, starter Jonathan Sanchez and minor leaguer Ryan Verdugo to the Royals in exchange for last year’s starting center fielder Melky Cabrera.
If you were going to select a guy off the 2011 roster to trade, it would have been Cabrera. It’s a savvy move by GMDM, picking a guy off the scrap heap (he was non-tendered by the Braves last winter) and then turning him into a pair of arms after he experienced a career renaissance in Kansas City. Talk about selling high… The Melk-Man was at his absolute peak. I was extremely skeptical that he was going to be able to repeat his .305/.339/.470 performance. It’s going to be even more difficult now that he’s moving to the National League and the Giants.
If the Royals were selling high on Cabrera, you would have to say the Giants sold low on their left-handed starter, Sanchez. He struggled last year for San Francisco, taking two trips to the DL, while hobbling to a final ERA of 4.26 against an xFIP of 4.36 with a 5.86 BB/9. Maybe it was the injuries, but he lost a little giddyup on his fastball as he wasn’t able to break 90 mph on average for the first time in his career.
Royals PR was quick to point out that Sanchez has the third highest strikeout rate among starters since 2006. His 9.36 SO/9 trails only Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw. And his hit rate of 7.02 H/9 is the second best behind only Kershaw. Wow! Sounds excellent, doesn’t it. It’s as if the ace we’ve been dreaming about has fallen into our collective laps.
Not so fast…
What Royals PR won’t tell you is that Sanchez has a difficult time finding the strike zone. His career 4.78 BB/9 is horrendous. And if we’re going to do the whole compare and contrast thing, Sanchez’s walk rate is the third WORST in baseball since 2006, trailing only Oliver Perez and Daniel Cabrera. See… There’s a cause and effect thing at work here. Sanchez’s hit rate is low because batters are either swinging and missing (good) or they’re laying off the wild stuff and taking their base (bad).
When looking at his raw numbers like ERA, remember that Sanchez was toeing the slab in one of the more favorable ballparks for pitchers in San Francisco’s AT&T Park. With it’s expansive outfield and swirling winds off the bay, only Barry Zito could struggle there. Sanchez will be challenged to repeat his modest successes away from San Francisco and the NL. Consider Sanchez the first test for new pitching coach Dave Eiland. For his entire major league career, Sanchez has known only one pitching coach – Dave Righetti – so it will be interesting to see how he interacts with a new tutor. It’s the ultimate “change of scenery” type of deal that could pay dividends. Then again, Sanchez is moving from a pitchers league and a pitchers park… If last year was his “true” talent level… 2012 could be ugly.
As such, Sanchez has made a career out of living around 4 with his xFIP. That’s not great, but it’s solid mid to back of the rotation kind of stuff. Meaning, he’s not a number two starter, rather a number four, with the upside of a number three. And that number three designation is a bit of a long shot. Those control problems have plagued him his entire career. They’re not going to just disappear. Acquiring Sanchez doesn’t elevate the Royals pitching staff. Think of this as simply a band-aid move on the rotation. It stops the bleeding… For the moment. It’s useful, but Moore and the Royals need to seek a better, longer term cure.
This means the Royals – who entered this winter with what appeared to be a set lineup – will now welcome Lorenzo Cain into the fold as the starting center fielder. There are a few question marks about Cain (more on those in a moment) but the one thing we can be certain about is the guy can flat out play defense. He is a huge upgrade over Melky Cabrera in center. Yes, the Royals outfield was defensively all kinds of awesome last summer, but the Melk-Man was absolutely the weakest link. Losing his glove only helps solidify the outfield.
The questions about Cain come with his bat. While we may look at his .380 OBP in Omaha and think we’ve found a leadoff hitter for the future, he walked just 7.3 percent of the time in Triple-A, a number that is extremely low for someone you want in the leadoff spot. He finished with a .366 BABIP, which was well above average and not to mention, accomplished in the PCL, a league that favors hitters. With that kind of plate discipline, it just isn’t realistic to expect that Cain can come close to repeating his 2011 Triple-A performance in the majors in 2012.
Aside from the fact he doesn’t statistically profile as a leadoff hitter, there are several scouts who have been less than impressed with his bat speed and think that Cain has several “holes” in his swing that can be exploited. Of course, since scouting is an inexact science, I’ve also heard exactly the opposite… That Cain is just fine at the plate and will experience little difficulty making the jump to a major league regular.
One side effect of Cain in the everyday lineup that I’m worried about is that Ned Yost won’t be able to resist the speedy Cain at the top of the order. That would be a mistake after the season that Alex Gordon had as the Royals leadoff hitter. I give Yost all the credit in the world for the unconventional move of having Gordon at the top of his lineup card for the majority of the games (although maybe I shouldn’t give him too much credit… It was clear from the beginning of the season that the Royals lacked a “true” leadoff hitter. Gordon was kind of a last gasp attempt that happened to have an enormous payoff.) Cain swiped 16 bags for the Storm Chasers in 22 attempts, but he would be better served by opening lower in the lineup.
Financially, Dayton Moore thinks this trade will be a wash. I agree. Both players will clear around $5 million in their final round of eligibility next year, but Sanchez will probably end up making slightly more money. Maybe that’s why GMDM got Brian Sabean to throw in left handed prospect Ryan Verdugo in the deal.
Verdugo is a little like Sanchez in that he misses a bunch of bats, but has difficulty controlling the strike zone. According to Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus, his best pitch is his change while his fastball is average at best. He was a starter last year in Double-A where he finished with a 9.2 SO/9 and a 4.4 BB/9, but profiles more as a situational lefty out of the pen. If that’s the path the Royals choose to pursue with Verdugo, he could be in Kansas City at the start of the season as the second lefty with Everett Teaford getting a shot at the rotation. A clever piece of business by GMDM to get the extra arm.
I know there’s always a need or desire to declare a winner in a trade, but this one feels fairly even to me. The Giants are getting someone who had a great year prior, but will almost certainly regress, while the Royals found a guy who struggled last year but has a enough upside that he’s worth a shot. Both players fill holes on their new team’s roster. I like that GMDM sold high on the Melk-Man and I like that he got a pitcher with potential. While Sanchez may be a long shot to improve, it’s worth it in that he’s around for just a single season at an affordable rate. I’d rather have him in my rotation than Jeff Francis. This move doesn’t make them appreciably better as the team still lacks the front line depth in the rotation that you need to play in October. Still, I suppose Verdugo tips the scales in the Royals favor. Anytime KC can grab an arm that is close to the majors, that’s a plus.
One final thought: If I’m a major league general manager, I keep Brian Sabean in the top three on my speed dial. For sure.