Bruce Chen has been really, really good this year. Actually, that might be under-selling it. A 1.62 ERA and a 253 ERA+ are numbers beyond great. No player who has made more than one start in 2013 has a better ERA+ than Bruce Chen. Some relievers, due to small sample sizes, manage other worldly numbers each season, but starters just don’t. So part of this could be Chen’s time in the bullpen except that he has been even better as a starter. Since moving back to the rotation batters have hit .144/.193/.220 against him and his ERA of 0.93 through his six starts this season is staggeringly good.
What needs to be remembered about Bruce Chen is his age and history. Chen is 36 years old, and made his big league debut in 1998 for Atlanta. Fifteen years and nine teams later he is having the best year of his life. According to Baseball-Reference only 37 pitcher years in history have had an ERA+ above 175 by a pitcher of 36 or older (if you go up to his current 250 ERA+ it’s only 2 seasons ever). Randy Johnson is four of them by himself, and his joined by two Roger Clemens seasons, two from Lefty Grove, a couple by Dazzy Vance, one from Cy Young and a few other random starters. After them there are 22 relief only seasons headlined by four seasons from Hoyt Wilhelm, Mariano Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, Tom Gordon, and others. All these great names, and yet, no one has had a season like Chen’s in history.
Chen is starting and relieving and only two players and seasons from the above paragraph fit that categorization. One of them, Bobby Shantz, had been a reliever for several years and seems to have spot started 3 times in a good year to make the list. The other is Al Benton, who at the age of 38 started 11 times and came out of the bullpen 29 times while posting an ERA+ of 188. Benton threw 77 2/3 innings as a starter and 58 as a reliever. As a starter he was okay with a 3.24 ERA and a .274/.343/.365 slash line against him. His ERA+ was so high because of his relief work where the ERA and slash lines were 0.62 and .192/.269/.232, much better than his starting work.
For the past 6 turns in the rotation Bruce has been the Royals ace, and even before then he was pretty great out of the pen. He is having an unprecedented year. What do the Royals do with such a player? Obviously he stays in the rotation as long as this keeps going, but it is time to start asking
him what he would want to come back next year.
The rotation next year is going to probably generate a lot of spring conversation. James Shields and Jeremy Guthrie are in already, but no one else should be guaranteed a spot. Erving Santana will likely be gone, Wade Davis has been terrible this year, Luis Mendoza played his way out, and then we start getting the interesting names. Both Felipe Paulino and Danny Duffy have been in the rotation before and are rehabbing from Tommy John’s. We saw Duffy’s ridiculous stuff once already this year, but he still has some control issues. Paulino has only thrown two rehab starts so we don’t know much yet. There are also some prospects that will get a look in Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer, and personally I think Will Smith should get a look and be in the rotation right now over Davis.
That means for three rotation spots there are a lot of candidates. Mendoza’s shot at starting is probably done, but that still leaves Davis, Paulino, Duffy, Ventura, Zimmer, and Smith. Bruce Chen, depending on what he would sign for since he will be a free agent, should also be considered due to his performance this year. Every single on of those six has question marks, and I am not sure how comfortable I am with any of them. Bringing Chen back might allow the questions to be relegated to the 4th and 5th rotation spots where most teams have questions, and if some of the young guys force their way into the rotation Bruce can go back to the pen where he has already proved some worth.
That just leaves one thing, how much are you willing to offer a player like Chen? He is thriving right now with a fastball 86.4 MPH, which is kind of awesome given how much the game has gone to mid and upper-90s as a way of life. This could mean Chen might fall apart, or it could mean he is going to have a late career like a Jaime Moyer. Guessing which is hard, but I think some money is in order to find out. Personally I would offer him a two year deal starting in the $6 or $7 million range, but I might be willing to go as high as $10 million. That leaves him in a similar pay range as his current $4.5 million, so I don’t think he would be insulted by it, and I have gotten the feeling that he likes Kansas City though that may just be that he is a happy guy in general. He makes at least part of the money worthwhile with the joke of the day.
Bruce Chen is now in the crafty lefty phase of his career, and by all accounts it suits him well. He is having the best year of his career, and doing something no other player has done at this age. Hopefully the Royals can find a way to keep him around to see if he has found something that can be of use for a few more years to come.