According to reports, two of the best free agent starting pitching options available are possible targets of the Royals. Jim Bowden tweeted that Kansas City was among thirteen teams considering Mark Buehrle, while Jerry Crasnick has suggested the Royals are potential suitors for Roy Oswalt.
Crasnick also reported that the Royals were meeting with Bob Garber, Oswalt’s agent.
Let’s play a game and say that the Royals sign either or, even more interesting, both pitchers this winter. What would be the ramifications?
We’ve covered a lot of the background of these two veteran starters, and by now, if you don’t know their names and resumes, then I don’t know what game you’ve been watching. Kevin Scobee responded to the news of Oswalt becoming available already, and I was wishing and hoping for Buehrle well before 2011 had ended.
In signing one or both, the Royals would add consistent pitchers with the potential to lead any staff in baseball. Both are among the top 15 active pitchers in ERA+, mixed in with a who’s who of Cy Young winners and aces. Adding those two to the front of a Royals staff, with a developing offense and improved defensive team, would make the Royals significantly better and legitimate contenders right now.
Only three teams walked more batters than the Royals last year, and nobody else in the American League offered more free bases. As a result, Bob McClure was let go, Dave Eiland was brought in with the goal of throwing more strikes. What better way to do so than to bring in two of the best control pitchers in baseball?
Buehrle’s career worst BB/9 (3.3) would have placed him fourth among Royals starters last year, behind Jeff Francis, Luke Hochevar and Bruce Chen. However, since that 3.3 BB/9 (which occurred when Buehrle was a rookie), his high has been 2.4 BB/9 – and only Francis walked less per nine innings in 2011. Oswalt’s career worst BB/9 is 2.5, but his career rate is 2.1. Even in an injury-ridden 2011 campaign.
That’s the scary part of signing Roy Oswalt. He’s 34 right now, he’s coming off a relatively weak season, and he’d be switching leagues. He ran into back troubles, which can be a tricky injury, as many pitchers will compensate for the discomfort involved by changing their delivery a bit, which can then create arm problems. That’s the risk.
But the reward is so great that Oswalt could lead the Royals to a place that many of my generation have never seen – the playoffs.
Adding Buehrle as well would nearly make them the favorites in 2012.
Buehrle has no such injury issues, as he’s surpassed 200 innings pitched every single year he’s been a full time pitcher. He’s used to being the workhorse and despite having low strikeout totals (career 5.1 K/9), he can be just as effective as Justin Verlander, Tim Lincecum or any other Cy Young contender. He’s not flashy, but he simply gets the job done.
As Mitch Hall pointed out back in May, teams don’t have to have a superstar pitching rotation to make the playoffs or win the World Series. None of the past six champions have had the kind of dream team the Phillies had this year or the Braves of old had. A staff should be reliable, and should have at least one starter perform better than average. Similarly, some of the shortcomings of a staff can be overcome by a solid bullpen and/or strong closer.
For the sake of argument, I’ll borrow some of the new projections from Baseball Info Solutions (presented via FanGraphs):
That’s a total of 884 innings from your starters in 138 starts, short of the 1000 innings Dayton Moore names as his goal every year. Also, it’s only 138 projected starts, 24 short of a full season. The Royals have options to fill in if necessary, including Danny Duffy, Everett Teaford or maybe even Aaron Crow. We can’t assume everyone will make every start, but if we guess that Hochevar and Paulino can make a more starts than projected, that would help eat up innings, and any spot starters would only have to average five innings a start to get above the 1000 inning mark.
Moreover, the league average ERA last year in the American League was 4.08. Based on the projections, the Royals could have three pitchers with an ERA better than that, not just the one recommended by Mitch. The Royals have one of the elite closers in the game (2011 be damned) in Joakim Soria, and with players like Aaron Crow, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman and even Blake Wood and Tim Collins in the bullpen, they could have all the components of a playoff team in place.
Now, the unfortunate thing is that the Royals probably won’t sign one of Oswalt or Buehrle, let alone both. But supposing that they did, the biggest concern some have stated would be how much to pay them.
Buehrle made $14 million last year. Oswalt made $16 million. That’s a lot of cash, but if there’s any team who could absorb that payroll, it’s the Royals. Heading into 2012, they’ll have about half the roster making the league minimum or just barely above it. They’ll have somewhere around $35 million tied up among Billy Butler, Soria, and Jeff Francoeur, and after raises to Alex Gordon, Sanchez (in his last arbitration year) and Hochevar. Adding ten players at $450,000 (around league minimum) and assuming the Royals sign Oswalt and Buehrle at their 2011 salaries, the Royals would be at a (roughly) estimated $70 million. They spent that much in 2009 and 2010 and it earned them a 132-192 record.
Consider also that the Royals will host the All-Star Game this year, that attendance increased as the season wound down (and fans came out to see the promising rookies) and that signing both veterans would end up injecting enthusiasm and a potential playoff push, both great things for increasing attendance. The Royals could handle such a payroll, and that’s just assuming that both pitchers signed at their previous salaries. Oswalt likely won’t make that much again based on his age and injury concerns. Additionally, since they could handle a spike in payroll, signing two veteran starters would allow the Royals to keep their farm system intact since they wouldn’t have to trade top prospects for the Jair Jurrjens of the world.
There is always a potential downside lurking around the corner. Oswalt could stay hurt or worse, stay healthy but ineffective. Buehrle has been steady, but he’s had some fairly average seasons too. The Royals can’t afford that.
Also, to sign both, it would likely take some extra money at the end of a deal or an extra year. Buehrle and Oswalt may be good bets in 2012, and maybe even in 2013, but what about 2014 and beyond? The Royals could end up stuck with two old, overpriced pitchers.
Again, the odds of the Royals signing either pitcher are slim. Other teams are looking at them and see the consistent track records. The Royals couldn’t win a bidding war with the Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox or, well, anybody.
No, signing both isn’t likely, but it would send a message to the rest of the league about the Royals that would resonate loud and clear – “We’re here.”