(Usable) Pitching’s Getting Thin


It has begun.

Zack Greinke, the lovable eccentric and part-time pitcher*, has signed his gazillion dollar deal and set the market for starting pitchers this off-season. He set it extremely high, a problem for cash strapped teams like the Royals, but they still have some room left to spend in the free agent pitching market if they would like to.

*I am, of course, joking. Greinke is an outstanding pitcher.

The problem? There’s not much left in the way of potential impact pitchers.

Sep 28, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Rangers starting pitcher Ryan Dempster (46) throws a pitch during the first inning of the game against the Los Angeles Angels at Rangers Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s have a look at them:

Anibal Sanchez

Kyle Lohse

Edwin Jackson

Ryan Dempster

Francisco Liriano

Shaun Marcum

Roy Oswalt

Joe Saunders

Daisuke Matsuzaka

(this list via the ESPN.com MLB Rumors page)

Once we remove Sanchez, who the Royals either can’t or won’t afford, this list isn’t awe-inspiring. I’m going to toss a couple other names off that list as well, mostly because they’re terrible: Liriano, Saunder, and Matsuzaka.

That leaves five potential free agent targets, and it’s important to look at free agency before trades because a trade is looking less and less likely. The Royals don’t want to give up Wil Myers, and he’s the only player teams want for significant, major-league-ready pitching. I don’t think a trade’s going to happen for starting pitching at this point so free agency is the best bet for the Royals to improve.

Let me also note that not making an aggressive play for Brandon McCarthy was a mistake. Bill James is predicting a 3.46 ERA for McCarthy next season; the Royals could surely use that. Add to that the fact that he went for $7.75 million a year for two years, and it seems like the Royals missed the boat. He’s a guy who can impact the top of a rotation, and that’s the perfect contract for them. Added bonus, he could have educated the Royals coaching staff on statistical analysis.

But back to the guys still available. Do you have any favorites? I do, though each is a significant gamble. First, though, let me tell you about the guys I’m not wild about. I know Rany Jazayerli is into Marcum, but I can’t get on board with that. I know he’s a local guy, but there are too many red flags for me. He gets hurt a lot, and even when he doesn’t I think he’s overvalued. He had two healthy years in 2010 and 2011 and had xFIP of 3.71 and 3.89 respectively. That’s pretty good, but it’s not out of this world. And when you factor in his age and terrible track record making it to the mound (those two years are the only years he’s pitched more than 151 innings), I can’t get on board. It would be one thing to take a chance on an aging and unhealthy guy if he’s had a track record as a lights out pitcher (I’ll give an example later), but to take a chance on a guy whose ceiling is a decent number two, I can’t get behind that.

I can’t get behind Lohse either. To me, he’s an albatross of a contract waiting to happen. Someone is going to give him more money or more years than he’s worth and be stuck with another pitcher who had a couple decent seasons in St. Louis, got a payday, and flamed out. He’s hitting the market at just the right time. Teams are pitching desperate and the market for them is soaring. I hope the Royals stay out of the conversation with Lohse. He’s aging, he’ll demand a big contract, and he’s not nearly as good as people think he is.

There are three pitchers remaining who could help the Royals, maybe not in the front-line starter way they’re hoping, but help them for a reasonable price none-the-less: Dempster, Jackson, and Oswalt. That’s right I said Oswalt. I know he’s older than the dust that collects on dirt, but why not take a chance on him? I don’t think many are courting him. Demand is low after what looked like a pretty bad stint with the Rangers last year. But was it that bad? No. In fact, the peripherals were great. He struck out 22.4 percent of batters (9.00 K/9), walked only 4.2 percent (1.68 BB/9), and had an xFIP of 3.27. His ERA was out of control because he gave up a crazy number of homeruns (1.68 HR/9) and his BABIP was enormous at .378. Bill James projects Oswalt to have a bounce back year with a 3.64 ERA and 3.52 FIP. His average fastball in 2012 was 91.5, the same as 2011 with the Phillies and just a shade under his heyday. The Royals should at least inquire. Maybe he won’t want to come here, but they should try. If they can get 28 starts out of him, it would be more than worth what they would have to pay him, and he’d probably be willing to take a one-year deal.

Jackson is another guy the market seems to have cooled on. He had a lot of juice around him last year because people wondered if he might not emerge into greatness. That didn’t happen. Jackson had another Jackson-like year. Right around 3.75 xFIP, high threes to low fours ERA. That’s what Jackson is. He’s also a reliable pitcher who can eat innings. He’s gone at least 189 innings every year since 2009 and made at least 31 starts every year since 2007. He made $11 million last season on a one-year deal. I’m not sure the market is as hot for him this year, but he might command around the same figure, something the Royals could afford if he’s ok with taking another one-year deal.

Most of the buzz around the Royals and free agent starting pitching over the last 24 hours has centered on Dempster. He wants three years; no one wants to give it to him. Here’s an article from Michael Engel about the situation. In the comments, I posit a compromise in which the Royals make it an option year with incentives that would guarantee it. So, if Dempster makes 30 starts in his first two years with an xFIP of 3.9 or under, his third year becomes guaranteed. I have concern about Dempster’s ability to pitch in the American League, because of his terrible stint in Texas. But for the most part, he’s a known quantity. He had a rough 2011 ERA-wise, but his XFIP was right on track with his usual 3.7 range. He’s good for about 3.0-3.5 WAR virtually every year (excepting 2011 when it was 2.7 and 2008 when it was 5.2). Dempster would be the best pitcher on the Royals’ roster, but they can’t afford to sink the ship for him. According to Mlbtraderumors.com, they’ve offered the most money of any team interested over two years. If I were the Royals, I’d hold on that offer until it looks like someone might up the money for two years and then start talking about an option year with incentives (it’s a good idea GMDM should use it). That would be my ceiling though. No guaranteed third year.

If none of this sounds too hopeful, that’s because it isn’t. Each of these guys is a gamble and a stopgap. The Royals can’t let a contract they give this group be the thing that prevents them from signing talent long term. They also don’t want to have taken on Ervin Santana’s contract for nothing. They need to try to compete in 2013, which is looking less likely as the starting pitching market thins. Sure, if everything goes right, they can compete. But how often does everything go right? That’s a strategy for 70 win seasons.

I suppose in retrospect the odds of the Royals nabbing a front-line starting pitcher were never great. Now, it looks nearly impossible unless they make a really stupid decision and trade Myers. But, hey, I’ve heard Luke Hochevar is just about to turn the corner so maybe all the Royals’ problems are solved.