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.