This offseason, I feel like I’ve been very fair in regards to Dayton Moore’s moves. I’ve praised him for acquiring players who fill holes in the roster, even if the players weren’t stars. I have disagreed with a move here and there, but overall, I think my reactions have been quite kind. I’ve made it clear that I thought the team still needed an impact starting pitcher, and while I thought the Royals were going to just stick with the guys they have, in my heart of hearts, I felt Moore might still have a good, surprise move up his sleeve.
As it turns out, that surprise move shouldn’t have been all that surprising. And it wasn’t good, either.
Yesterday, reports stated that the Royals and Bruce Chen had agreed to a 1 year, $3 million contract with a $5.5 million mutual option and a $1.25 million buyout. Apparently Moore just couldn’t stand to let Chen walk away, so he had to sign the crafty lefty to a free agent contract for the fifth time. Yes. Fifth.
I should preface everything you’re about to read by saying that in isolation, I really don’t mind the deal at all. Getting a 5th starter/long reliever for $3 million is a decent bargain, and I do like Chen. He’s an easy guy to root for, he’s coming off a very good season, and while he does come with a significant risk for regression (more on that later), he should provide production that is close to average when he’s on the mound. In a vacuum, it’s hard to say this was a bad deal.
However, baseball isn’t played in a vacuum (which is a good thing because the players wouldn’t have any air to breathe and they would all die).
We have to evaluate a move like this in context, taking the current roster and previous moves into account. And while I would like this move for quite a few teams around the league, the Royals are not one of those teams. Based upon what Moore has done this winter, and what is already on the roster, Chen simply doesn’t fit. I don’t mean he’s like a square peg being jammed in a round hole. I mean he’s like a square peg being jammed in a square hole that already contains several square pegs. He’s redundant.
Let’s take a look at what role Chen may be expected to fill. First, he could be a starter at the back of the rotation. We’ll assume that Chen beats out Yordano Ventura, Wade Davis, Luke Hochevar, and Brad Penny for the final rotation spot. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say Danny Duffy is already locked into the 4th spot. The rotation would then be comprised of three pitchers who rely on the defense for nearly all of their success. Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, and Chen all allow a ton of batted balls in play, meaning that the only way they can put up respectable results is if the defense is terrific. Don’t get me wrong; the Royals have an excellent defense. But relying on them to bail out their pitcher so frequently can be a very risky strategy. The other potential result of having Chen as a starter would be Ventura getting pushed back to Omaha. It is possible the young flamethrower could use a bit more seasoning on his changeup, but removing his upside from the rotation in favor of a pitcher with zero upside lowers the team’s ceiling considerably. Ventura could struggle in 2014, but if he performs as expected, he’s a Rookie of the Year candidate. Chen could succeed in 2014, but his best performance is going to result in maybe 2 WAR. Maybe. And as I’ll get to in a moment, Chen’s success is far from a guarantee.
So let’s say that the Royals put Chen in the bullpen instead, and give the 5th starter spot to Ventura. They now have a pitcher with no upside taking a roster spot away from a younger, less expensive pitcher with a higher ceiling. The Royals have an abundance of electric relief arms. They have a bullpen in Omaha that could probably perform as well as some major league bullpens. What can Chen provide that a guy like Donnie Joseph can’t? Or Louis Coleman? Or even Francisley Bueno? There aren’t enough innings for the good relievers to pitch, so why would the team want to add a mediocre one? It doesn’t make sense.
There isn’t anything Chen is going to do for $3 million that basically any other pitcher couldn’t do for $500K. And that’s if Chen performs well, which is no certainty.
I’ll admit that Chen had very good results in 2013, but let’s not forget that just one year earlier, he had an ERA over 5.00 in 191.2 innings. Also, I would argue that a good bit of luck was involved with his successful 2013 campaign. Chen’s always been a fly ball pitcher, but he took it to another level last year, allowing a fly ball rate of 51.9%. And while he did allow 13 home runs, his HR/FB rate was a meager 6.7%, the lowest of his career, and nearly 5 percentage points lower than his career average. As Dave Cameron points out, home run rates can wildly fluctuate over time, and they have a profound impact on a pitcher’s overall success. Chen has been able to cut down on his home run rate in recent years, and while part of that is due to Kauffman Stadium, it doesn’t tell the whole story. The funny thing about home run rates is that they can be unpredictable, which means Chen could allow similar home run numbers in 2014, or he could turn back into a pumpkin, a la 2012. When a pitcher’s results depend on something that is somewhat out of his control and can be unpredictable, it makes relying on that pitcher a gamble. Home runs aren’t the only potential area of regression, however.
In his career, Chen has allowed a BABIP of .280 and he has a strand rate of 73.6%. The BABIP may seem a little low, but for a fly ball pitcher, it’s not that extreme. Plus, his LOB% is right around league average, as one would expect. But last season, opposing batters had a .255 BABIP, and he had a strand rate of 78.3%. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see both numbers normalize next season, which would lead to worse results for Chen. If you think you would be surprised by a poor season, you’re lying to yourself. Chen is a 36 year old pitcher with an 86 MPH fastball and roughly average control. His margin for error is incredibly small, and as I said before, even if he pitches his absolute best, he’s still just an average pitcher.
There is obviously value in “just average” pitchers, but the Royals have enough “just average” pitchers. They don’t need another one, and they definitely don’t need another one taking a roster spot away from a pitcher with more upside. Pitchers of Chen’s caliber can be had on minor league deals at any time during the winter. Giving Chen a guaranteed roster spot and $4.25 million (including the option buyout) is, quite frankly, absurd.
Speaking of the money, I mentioned that this deal isn’t terribly costly by itself. But, when looked at in context of the rest of the roster, it becomes an even bigger problem. This season, the Royals will be paying Chen, Davis, and Hochevar about $13 million. All three pitchers could be replaced by younger guys at league minimum salary. It’s not that I’m worried about David Glass’ money, but it’s the opportunity cost of having those three guys that really bothers me. That money (and Emilio Bonifacio’s $3.5 million, if you want to include it) could be used to pay better players with higher ceilings. That $16.5 million could come close to what it will take to sign A.J. Burnett. Or, that $16.5 million could go toward bringing Ervin Santana back to Kansas City. Instead, Moore will be paying that money to three middle relievers and a utility player.
For a team that is supposedly on a tight budget, that is a terrible use of resources.
The Royals just handed a contract to a player who not only does not improve the club, but one who also lowers the team’s ceiling this season. If he’s starting, he’s taking starts away from a better pitcher with more upside. If he’s relieving, he’s taking a roster spot from a better pitcher with more upside. This signing was unnecessary and did not fill the biggest void on the roster. Moore had a refrigerator that was making a weird noise, and he just stuck another magnet on it. It accomplishes nothing.
Once again, the move, in itself, is defensible. It’s the move taken in context of the entire situation that is the problem. The Royals are no closer to the Tigers than they were yesterday. They just have another square peg.
TL;DR version of my thoughts on the Chen signing here.
And for an opposing viewpoint of the deal, read David Hill’s post on the topic here.