Winter Meetings are a week away and with the dust yet to settle from the David Price signature in Boston, the free agent market is starting to take shape. For pitchers, anyway.
The Royals were never in for Price (obviously), nor are they in on Zack Greinke. Top tier pitchers are way out of the Royals market. Always have been. Always will.
The developments of Tuesday and the rest of the week underscore how important it is for Dayton Moore and company to draft and develop pitchers. Or failing the development part (which is the norm for the Royals) they at least need to draft well enough to flip those prospects for real major league talent. Moore has inked a handful of free agent starters the last couple of seasons. Jason Vargas signed for four years at $32 million. Edinson Volquez joined for two years at $20 million. Vargas’ injury aside, those deals look quaint in the current economic landscape. And they aren’t especially old deals. That’s how fast the money is flowing around the game.
At the time of the Vargas signing, I thought Moore made a bit of a shrewd gamble. He was paying for a guy who was a back of the rotation starter, but locking him in at a rate that was affordable to the team and could return some value. Early estimates are 1 fWAR will cost around $8 million on the market this year. That contract was a good risk.
So while Moore figured out the fourth starter market, that leaves the front of the rotation. If the top tier are signing these megadeals, that means the secondary market – think guys like Mike Leake and Wei-Yin Chen – are going to cash in as well. The Royals could get frozen out of the starting pitching market forever.
That places a massive burden on the draft. Which means it comes down to the development of starting pitchers. For all the accolades Moore has received the last couple of seasons, he’s gotten a bit of a pass here. But the evidence is clear and disturbing: The Royals have consistently failed when it comes to this aspect of the game.
Matt LaMar did some nice work on this at Royals Review last summer. He went through the prospect lists and found a consensus of Top 100 talent the Royals possessed in the starting pitching ranks. Out of 13 pitchers he identified, exactly one has developed into a quality starting pitcher – Yordano Ventura. The rest reads like road kill: Mike Montgomery, Chris Dwyer, John Lamb. Danny Duffy has continually vexed. At times he’s looked like a solid rotation candidate. Other times he looks more comfortable coming out of the bullpen. I still don’t know where his future lies. Although I know he’d do himself and the Royals a huge favor if he would just fill a role in the rotation.
Obviously, some of those guys were dealt for parts who just helped this team win a championship. That’s massive.
Yet, the point remains: In nine seasons in charge, the Royals have exactly one starting pitcher they have developed who is a lock to contribute in the rotation this coming season.
They say There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect (TINSTAAPP) but this is ridiculous. Why is it so difficult for the Royals to produce a starting pitcher who can contribute? Is it an organizational philosophy where they have treated their young pitchers in a cookie cutter manner, limiting long toss and issuing an edict limiting sliders in young pitchers? It sounds as if their philosophy has shifted – they are a bit more relaxed on individual training regiments – but the Royals have been a team that was risk averse with their young pitchers. Again, understandable. They want to protect their assets. But sometimes caution limits results. A pitcher like Montgomery was particularly vexing. He rolled through the low minors and was actually a candidate to make the team out of spring training a few years ago. He didn’t and was shipped to Triple-A where his Royals career came to a crashing halt. And sometimes caution still yields a worst case scenario. Here I’m thinking Lamb and his Tommy John surgery and subsequent slow recovery.
Whatever the Royals are doing, the results demand a rethink. And the economics of the game demand a quick rethink. We worry about the offensive core departing via free agency the next couple of seasons, but the lack of development of starting pitching could be the real reason the Royals see their window of contention close faster than they expect.