This offseason, the Royals have already added a starting pitcher, in Jason Vargas, as well as a starting right fielder, in Norichika Aoki. One may think that the team could be done with their winter shopping with a couple of weeks to go before Christmas. I would disagree with that assessment. It’s possible the Royals don’t add any more pieces to their roster, but I think standing pat with the current roster would be a mistake, and will equate to no major improvement beyond last year’s 86 wins. It looks like it will take 92 or 93 wins to make the playoffs next year, so Dayton Moore has more work to do.
Obviously adding a power bat is something many fans want to see. A new second baseman would be nice, and it is possible one may be added. However, I would also argue that the team needs to find one more front-of-the-rotation pitcher to really boost their odds for next season. Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie are fine pitchers. They’ll both likely give around 200 innings with a league average ERA. But if Vargas and Guthrie are the second and third best starters in your rotation, making the playoffs seems like even more of a longshot.
Instead of rehashing the under-the-radar free agent starters one more time, it may be better to look at the trade market, and in particular, the Cubs’ Jeff Samardzija.
Samardzija is coming off his second season as a full-time starter, and in those two seasons, he’s been very good. Despite having an ERA- of 103 in that time (3% worse than league average), Samardzija’s peripherals suggest he should have gotten better results. His xFIP- is 89, which makes sense considering he pitches half his games in homer-friendly Wrigley Field. If the Royals were to bring Samardzija into Kauffman Stadium, pitching in front of the Royals’ defense, one could assume his results would improve significantly.
Also, only 5 qualified starting pitchers in all of baseball have a higher K/9 than Samardzija (9.13) in the last 2 seasons: Chris Sale, Jose Fernandez, Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Yu Darvish. Pretty good company. Samardzija does have a BB/9 of 3.11 since 2012, but a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 3 is nothing to sneeze at.
Another thing to like about Samardzija is his improved ground ball percentage. As a reliever, he had a GB% of 41.5, but that number has jumped to 45.7 in his time as a starter, and he was better in 2013 (48.2%) than 2012 (44.6%). That’s a nice trend to see, and while the Cubs weren’t terrible defensively (9th in MLB in DRS), they weren’t as prolific at saving runs as the Royals in 2013.
If the Royals were able to trade for Samardzija, they would acquire 2 years of team control, which means they would have a 2 year window to attempt to extend him, if desired. Samardzija made just $2.6 million last year, and is projected to make $4.9 million in 2014 in arbitration. For a pitcher who could be worth 3+ wins in Kansas City, that is an enormous bargain.
Of course, the Cubs are a well-run organization, so they’re aware of Samardzija’s value, meaning they will likely be asking for a hefty return. I would love it if the Royals could build a trade package similar to what the Nationals gave the Tigers for Doug Fister, since Fister is a better pitcher than Samardzija. But, Theo Epstein almost certainly isn’t concerned with dumping that small salary, meaning trading spare parts for a very good starter probably isn’t an option. This saddens me.
However, the Royals could still fit as a trading partner. The Cubs are rumored to be interested in bullpen help, particularly Aaron Crow, but I doubt the Royals would be able to make Crow the centerpiece of a deal. I’m guessing it will take at least someone like Jason Adam in addition to Crow, and probably one other young player, to pry Samardzija from Chicago. It does seem like the Cubs want to move the soon-to-be 29 year old righty, since an extension doesn’t appear likely, but they do have more leverage in the situation, with those 2 years of control remaining. There will also be multiple suitors calling about Samardzija, so if the Royals are really interested in upgrading their rotation for the next couple of years, they’ll need to come with a strong offer.
The Royals may feel confident enough in their young starters to not add any more pitchers to the rotation, but when it comes to quality starting pitching, you can never have too much. Adding Samardzija would give the organization a real replacement for the departing Ervin Santana, and allow the team to shift Vargas and Guthrie to the back of the rotation, where they are much better fits. Trading prospects for Samardzija could hurt a bit, but his presence could give the Royals a very valuable piece for what should be a playoff push in 2014.