Market Fresh: “Wait ‘Til Next Year” Edition


Royals starters have given up 4.77 runs per game, third worst in the American League. Their opening day starter, Luke Hochevar, entered 2011 with a 5.60 ERA and, only after a strong second half, has gotten his 2012 ERA under 5.00.  Their best starter has been Felipe Paulino, given away by Colorado, with a 3.45 ERA in 78.1 innings as a Royal.

The team almost went into a complete meltdown while the well-traveled Bruce Chen (career ERA+ of 95) was on the disabled list.

With a starting lineup full of guys picked from top prospect lists (past and present) and a bullpen loaded with young arms who are picking up high leverage innings and experience, the Royals feel like they might have a shot at contention in 2012.

There’s just that one thing – a big gaping hole known as the starting rotation.

Chen and lefty Jeff Francis are going to be free agents next year, and Kyle Davies was just released so the only true locks for next year’s rotation are Hochevar, Paulino and Danny Duffy.

Mike Montgomery has been up and down in Omaha but hasn’t shown anybody that he’s ready to make the next jump up (though by next spring he could be looking better).  Beyond Monty, the best looking options in Omaha’s rotation are Jeff Suppan and Luis Mendoza.  Suppan is trying for a last chance to get back to the majors, and if he doesn’t make it this year, it’s unlikely he’ll continue.  Even if he does, how likely is it that he’d stay with the Royals?  Mendoza is having a notable season, but the trick would be repeating it next year.  He’s walked 3.5 batters per nine innings in Triple A and only strikes out 5.1 per nine.  He doesn’t miss a lot of bats and his career MLB ERA of 8.43 leaves much to be desired.

Those last two spots in the 2012 rotation might be filled by Sean O’Sullivan or Vin Mazzaro.  Talk about underwhelming.

Now, there is talk about perhaps moving Aaron Crow, Greg Holland or Louis Coleman to the rotation next year (and with solid arms coming up like Kelvin Herrera and Kevin Chapman, the Royals could convert a current reliever to a starter).  Everett Teaford is another option.

It seems more like the Royals should look to the free agent market to fill their pitching needs.

That’s what messageboards and Facebook groups and Twitter tell me, at least.  The solution is just to go out and spend money!  Damn that Glass family for not letting us go get pitchers!

It’s not out of the question that the Royals could spend this winter.  Even picking up the mutual $4 million option on Jeff Francoeur and after Melky Cabrera and Alex Gordon are tendered contracts during arbitration (probably $6-8 million combined – just a guess) and Billy Butler‘s $8 million salary, the starting lineup may only cost $22-23 million in payroll.

Similarly, the bullpen and its bevy of rookies keeps its impact on payroll low.  Joakim Soria‘s option for 2012 has vested ($6 million) is the big contract in the ‘pen, but Holland, Coleman, Tim Collins, Teaford, Blake Wood and Nate Adcock would all be at or near the league minimum (Aaron Crow’s major league deal pays him $1 million for 2012).  That’s another $9.5 million.

Paulino is due a raise from the $790,000 deal he has this year, so let’s say he gets a raise to $1.6 million.  Hochevar will earn somewhere around $3 million in arbitration (just guesses, folks) and Duffy will get the league minimum.

That brings the Royals potential 2012 payroll (after figuring on $1.38 for Noel Arguelles and maybe another $2 million for a bench) to around $41 million.

From 2007 to 2010, the Royals average payroll was $67.7 million.  Even if the Royals stay conservative or opt to sign Gordon or Eric Hosmer to extensions, let’s say they may have $20 million to throw at free agents.

Starting pitching needs to be a priority (and I suspect it will be).

That being said, the market is fairly thin this offseason.  The top options:

LHP Mark Buehrle

Hardly an exciting pick, Buehrle has been a reliable anchor of the White Sox rotation for years.  Since joining the rotation full time, his low of games started is 30.  He’s amassed 200 innings every year since 2001 and is on his way again.

With a career BB/9 of 2.0 and ERA+ of 121, Buehrle would be more than an innings eater and would provide a veteran option with some good years ahead of him.

Buehrle is earning $14 million this year and before the season hadn’t had discussions with the team about an extension.  Ozzie Guillen says he’d like to keep Buehrle, but it’s out of his hands. Buehrle will be 33 on opening day 2012.  As a lefty, the Royals would pay handsomely for his services and would meet competition for Buehrle.

RHP Chris Carpenter

You should already see the risk here.  Carpenter has been an elite starter since going to St. Louis in 2004.  In 1265.2 innings as a Cardinal, Carpenter has a 3.07 ERA and a 3.61 K/BB ratio.

He’s making $15 million this year. He’ll turn 37 years old next season. He’s undergone labrum surgery (2002) and Tommy John surgery (2007).

But he’s a name and he’s been a strong starter despite the injuries.  The risk, however, is just too great (and that’s assuming St. Louis doesn’t exercise his $15 million team option).

RHP Edwin Jackson

Jackson will turn 28 next month and at least offers some upside.  He’s thrown a no-hitter (albeit with ten walks in the game).

Jackson really fits in better as a #3 type of starter.  Is he an upgrade over Mazzaro or O’Sullivan? Absolutely.  Is he enough of an upgrade to pay whatever it might take to get him in a thin pitching market?

Not in my eyes.

He’s a lot more hype than substance.  With a 3.7 BB/9 over his career and only a 6.7 K/9 to compensate, Jackson doesn’t do much more than provide league average innings.

To be fair, over the last three seasons, Jackson’s walk and strikeout rates have improved and since 2009, he has a 3.1 BB/9 and 7.2 K/9.  Better, but not great.  He’s making $8.35 million this season and on the market he should command a contract in the neighborhood of 4 years at $12 million a season.  Just not worth it to me.

RHP Ryan Dempster

Since returning to starting pitching in 2008 after years as a closer, Dempster has thrown 769.1 innings of solid baseball.  His 3.71 ERA and 8.3 K/9 would look great in the Royals rotation.  Moving from Wrigley Field to Kauffman Stadium would potentially help his numbers, as he game up 77 homers, almost 20 a season.

He’s not an ace and his best years might be behind him, so the investment is a risky one, but he’d offer better innings than Mazzaro and O’Sullivan.

It’s unlikely he hits the market, though.  Dempster has a player option for $14 million to stay in Chicago in 2012.  I doubt he’d make that much in free agency on the wrong side of 30, so my hunch is he’ll take it.

LHP C.J. Wilson

Wilson may be the prize of the offseason (as long as C.C. Sabathia doesn’t void the rest of his contract).  Left-handed and showing signs of #1 starter potential, Wilson is also relatively young after a couple of seasons as a setup man and closer for the Rangers.

Over the last two seasons, he’s thrown 371.1 innings with a 3.32 ERA over that span.  His control (3.7 BB/9) isn’t great as a starter the last two years, but he does strike out nearly eight batters per nine innings.

Comparing his FIP to his ERA, he may be lucky, considering his walkrate.  In 2010, his ERA was 3.35 and his FIP was 3.56.  That’s not a huge jump, and it seems like it would have been sustainable.  This season, his ERA of 3.28 is actually higher than his 3.14 FIP.

Even pitching often in The Ballpark at Arlington, Wilson has surrendered only 20 total homeruns.  Over his career, his HR/FB rate is better than average and has been great since converting to starter last season.  He keeps the ball in the ballpark and induces groundballs while also striking out batters at an above average rate.

That goes a long way into balancing out his walkrate and while his xFIP (which projects FIP based on league averages) has been higher than his ERA, it’s not so high as to suggest a stark regression in upcoming years.

Wilson may never be a true ace, but he could fill in as a high-quality left-handed pitcher at the top of nearly any rotation.  He signed to a $7 million deal to avoid arbitration before 2011, and after improving on 2010’s numbers, he’s in line for a big deal.  Were the Royals to sign him, they’d be fending off any other team with payroll flexibility and a need for a southpaw starter.

The Royals have money to spend this offseason if they choose to.

My best hope, if they’re to sign anyone this offseason, is to go after Buehrle and Wilson, perhaps with a three year deal worth $12-14 million a year for either one.  Dayton Moore’s signing of Gil Meche to a $55 million deal shows that he’s not shy about offering a big deal, and Buehrle and Wilson are both pitchers with better track records and injury histories than Meche ever had.

It may cost an extra year of guaranteed money for the Royals to get either one.  The right-handers, Jackson, Carpenter and Dempster, are less attractive options.  Carpenter’s the best of the group, but at his age, after his injuries in the past and with a shift from the National League to the American League, he may not fare as well (with Toronto, Carpenter had a 4.83 ERA over 870.2 innings).

Similarly, Dempster would have to shift leagues, and while Jackson is among the better options, I don’t like how he’d fit for the Royals, even if he is trending towards improvement.

Another option, if the Royals miss out on the free agents, is to resign Jeff Francis.  He’s been better than his 4.51 ERA and his control is among the best in the league.  He’s deserving of a raise from the $2 million he’s making now, so $5-7 may be fair.  He doesn’t put the Royals over the top, but with improving offense behind him and a strong defense (feels good to be able to say that about a Royals team), there’s still upside in the former first round pick.

Then again, there’s always that idea of moving Joakim Soria to the rotation.  (Let’s get that debate going for the 1000th time…)

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