The Jeremy Guthrie Signing: Outrage and Context


Here are the facts:

Those who dislike the deal don’t see Guthrie recreating his Kansas City performance and reverting – at least – back to the pitcher he’d always been with Baltimore, a generally average pitcher with occasional strong seasons and at worst blowing up as a pitcher in his mid-30s is prone to do.

Aug 14, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie (33) delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Oakland Athletics at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-US PRESSWIRE

My take is that if Guthrie is the only improvement beyond trading for Ervin Santana that the Royals make this offseason, then the signing is suspect. I recognize the age concerns for Guthrie and his best production other than as a Royal last summer happened in his late-20s. He’s got a track record of durability, throwing at least 175 innings every season starting in 2007. His strikeout rates and walkrates have been fairly consistent each year with no significant regression or control issues. His velocity has stayed consistent as well.

If the Royals add another pitcher who pushes Guthrie out of the Opening Day start, I don’t see a problem with the signing. Many are upset about the third year in the deal, and he’ll be 36 when the third year starts.

But here’s a question – if the Royals are supposed to improve the rotation, and Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino are hurt, Mike Montgomery, John Lamb and Chris Dwyer aren’t ready, Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer still need more experience and the Royals also shouldn’t trade a hitter for a frontline pitcher, then where are they supposed to get help for the rotation?

I went off the the list compiled by MLB Trade Rumors to see which other starting pitchers were available who the Royals might have signed. I looked at the last five seasons for all options and considered how many innings they’d thrown (with the idea that more innings suggests that they’re durable and have been less injury-prone), their WAR (as calculated by Baseball-Reference) and their ERA+ (to consider who was above league average or not). I also looked at the average salaries over that five year period just for an idea of who might be looking for bigger deals as free agents (though with the understanding that some are past the point where they can ask for similar contracts that they’ve just completed).

Here are the options who have logged more than 900 innings over the last five seasons who were above average (ERA+ of 100 or more) and had 10 or more WAR (a nice average of 2.0 WAR or better per season):

  • Dan Haren – 1095.1 innings, 18.3 WAR, 117 ERA+ – he’ll be 32 when the 2013 season starts
  • Zack Greinke – 1035.2 innings, 23 WAR, 123 ERA+
  • Ryan Dempster – 997.1 innings, 16.4 WAR, 114 ERA+ – he’ll turn 36 during the 2013 season
  • Edwin Jackson – 996 innings, 12.1 WAR, 105 ERA+
  • Jeremy Guthrie – 989.2 innings, 12.4 WAR, 101 ERA+

Greinke is going to cost too much for the Royals to bring him back. Dempster has a better track record than Guthrie, but is already older than Guthrie will be when his third season starts and will probably need a bigger contract. Haren has enough questions about his health that it caused the Cubs to balk at trading for him last month, but he might still be an option if the Royals think they have the payroll to sign him. Guthrie’s 2013 salary of $5 million might permit them to get Haren on a one year deal to see if he’s healthy. Jackson’s a longshot still and didn’t seem interested in signing in Kansas City last season. Not much has changed that would change his mind.

Other options out there include Sanchez (106 ERA+ since 2008), but he’s going to be the second biggest pitching contract this offseason and the Royals are stubbornly not pursuing a big money pitcher. Shaun Marcum might be a good signing, but he has injury concerns that they can’t bank on. Kyle Lohse (5.7 WAR in 809 innings, 101 ERA+) isn’t much better in the last five years than Guthrie and is going to be much more pricey and not any younger. That isn’t any good.

The other options would be iffy propositions at best. Players with recent or long-term injury problems (Roy Oswalt, Erik Bedard, Rich Harden, Brandon McCarthy), players who are well past their prime (Freddy Garcia, Kevin Millwood, Carl Pavano), or players who are just going to cost too much for the marginal production they’d provide (Daisuke Matsuzaka, Carlos Zambrano).

Two pitchers intrigued me in this project, though. Joe Blanton has under-performed his peripheral stats in the last three seasons (his ERA has been 4.82, 5.01 and 4.71 in the last three seasons, but his xFIP was 3.87, 3.15 and 3.39 in each season, respectively), and surpassed 175 innings in every season but 2011 since being a regular big leaguer. In 2011, he had some elbow problems, but there was no structural damage. He’ll turn 32 in just over two weeks.

Another dark horse option is Joe Saunders. He’s been a steady but unspectacular pitcher for the Angels and Diamondbacks throughout his career. He doesn’t strike out a lot (5.1 K/9 career rate) but doesn’t walk a lot either (2.7 BB/9). He’s very much like a left-handed Jeremy Guthrie in that regard. He’ll turn 32 in the June. He could possibly have been a more affordable signing, but he’s not a difference maker either.

Frankly, there weren’t a lot of great options out there. The pitchers who can make a significant impact are ones who will cost too much or have other questions marks. By signing Guthrie, did the Royals push themselves out of an opportunity to sign Sanchez or Greinke? I don’t think so, as they weren’t going to sign either by most assumptions anyway. Guthrie’s salary for 2013 doesn’t price them out of signing a speculative pitcher like Marcum or Haren if they can get an agreement (and probably non-tender Luke Hochevar and save whatever arbitration figure he’d command).

Maybe they miss out on Edwin Jackson as a result, but he’d be a larger commitment – either in years or dollars – than Guthrie. He’s younger and could still have upside over Guthrie. Until someone out of the Royals starting pitching prospects – Jake Odorizzi, Montgomery, Zimmer, Ventura, et al – step up to be ready to lead a staff, these are the kind of deals Kansas City has to make.

Think of it like this – did the Royals get worse by signing Guthrie? Would a rotation of Santana, Hochevar, Luis Mendoza, Bruce Chen and Will Smith be better than one of say, Guthrie, Santana, Mendoza, Chen and Smith? Doubtful. If the Royals trade for another pitcher and get a James Shields to lead the rotation, shifting everyone one slot down in the pecking order starts to look reasonable. Guthrie’s not a perfect signing, but within other moves to come and based on what was available, he’s hardly the worst we’ll see in baseball this offseason. The Royals paid market value for a league-average pitcher who can chew up 200 innings. What’s the harm in that?