Under the Radar Free Agents – Pitching Edition


As the Royals enter an immensely important offseason, there are several roster holes they’ll need to fill, whether through internal options, trades, or free agency. Obviously, they’ll need to upgrade the offense at a few positions in order to improve upon one of the weakest offenses in baseball. But while the pitching was stellar in 2013, Dayton Moore will have to find at least one new starter to plug into a rotation that is losing Ervin Santana and his 3.24 ERA.

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The Royals will be making a qualifying offer to Santana after the World Series (probably in the neighborhood of $14 million), and Santana will almost assuredly decline the offer. After he declines, the Royals could still attempt to negotiate a contract, but they would be bidding against other teams on the free agent market, which could drive his price beyond where the Royals would like to go.

And if I’m being completely honest, I’d be ok with that.

Listen, I love Santana. The man was an excellent pitcher this year, and his excellence carried over to the Twitter world. Recently, he’s tweeted out his support of the Kansas City Chiefs and also a quote from Royals’ Hall of Fame closer Dan Quisenberry. How can you not want that guy pitching in Kauffman Stadium next year? Regardless of our emotional attachment, with premier free agent starting pitchers being rather scarce this offseason, Santana is likely going to receive a massive pay check, both in terms of years and dollars. If the Royals could get Santana to sign a 3 year deal in the neighborhood of $42-45 million, I’d definitely be interested. But going much beyond that seems too risky in my opinion, simply based on Santana’s history and his age. My best guess is some other team offers him a larger deal than the Royals can compete with, and Santana walks, leaving the Royals with a compensatory draft pick.

Now the question becomes, who will the Royals insert into Santana’s place in the rotation? Jeremy Guthrie is a nice pitcher who’s going to probably give you 200 innings with an ERA around league average. There’s value there, but for a team who needs to make the playoffs in 2014, that’s not good enough. Moore is going to have to add some more above average starting pitching.

You’re going to see a lot written about the big names out there. Guys like Matt Garza, A.J. Burnett, Ubaldo Jimenez, and the aforementioned Santana will likely have many suitors, so I wanted to discuss a couple of under-the-radar pitchers I wouldn’t mind the Royals pursuing on low-risk free agent deals.

Scott Baker

You may remember Baker from his time with the Twins, during which he posted a 3.41 ERA against Kansas City in 103 innings. Unlike some other Twins’ starters who befuddled Royals’ lineups, Baker was actually pretty good. He has a career K/9 rate of 7.18 to go along with very good control, evidenced by his BB/9 of 2.11. His career ERA isn’t anything special (4.14), but his FIP is a bit better (3.98). From 2007-2011, Baker accumulated yearly fWAR totals of 3.0, 3.6, 3.9, 2.6, and 2.8. For a frame of reference, Santana was worth 3.0 fWAR this season. Baker is a pretty extreme flyball pitcher, and while that isn’t always ideal, having Kauffman Stadium as a home park can help to limit some damage. Pitching in front of an elite defense probably wouldn’t hurt, either.

You may have noticed I haven’t referenced Baker’s statistics from the past two seasons, and therein lies the downside. Baker underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012, missing the entire season. He then signed a free agent deal with the Cubs in the following offseason, but only made 3 starts there late in the year. Because he only threw 15 innings this season, it’s tough to gather much data. After TJ surgery, you always want to see if a pitcher’s velocity returns. Baker’s never been a flame thrower, but he was averaging a tick under 92 MPH in 2011 on his fourseam fastball and about 91 MPH on his sinker. In an extremely limited sample size, Baker didn’t throw a single fourseam fastball in 2013, but his sinker averaged a bit over 89 MPH. Again, it’s almost impossible to draw any meaningful conclusions from that, but it could mean he hasn’t fully recovered from his surgery, which would be concerning.

If Baker’s medicals don’t look good, or if his workouts don’t show any kind of increased velocity, I would certainly move on to another target. However, if he passes all the medical tests, and his velocity ticks back up closer to his norm, I think a 1 year, incentive-based deal with a 2nd year option would be a good offer to acquire the 32 year old right hander. He may not be a 3+ WAR pitcher anymore, but no one thought Santana would be, either. He’s proven to be a very good pitcher in the past, so I think that, if he’s healthy, Baker could be a nice compliment to this starting rotation. He has expressed interest in returning to the Cubs in 2014, and that interest was returned by then-Cubs’ manager Dale Sveum, who is now a member of the Royals coaching staff. Read into that however you wish.

Colby Lewis

Lewis, whose contract in Texas expires this season, is another pitcher who missed significant time recently due to injury. His 2012 season was cut short after he tore a flexor tendon in his arm, and after missing the first several months of 2013, Lewis had a surgery to remove bone spurs from his hip that apparently had been bothering him for a few years. Lewis, like Baker, did a great job of throwing strikes and missing bats (8.14 K/9 & 2.40 BB/9 since returning from Japan in 2010). Also like Baker, Lewis gets a high percentage of flyballs, so getting him out of the launching pad in Arlington could potentially improve his results, which were very good even in that stadium. From 2010-2012, Lewis posted ERA+ of 121, 100, and 128, to go along with fWAR totals of 4.9, 2.5, and 2.2 (the last number was in just 105 innings).

Obviously, Lewis’ health is the big concern. His velocity was trending down for the last several years, falling from 90.7 MPH in 2010 to 88.8 MPH in 2012. He’s also 34 years old, so there’s no telling how durable Lewis would be over the course of the season. But if Lewis’s medical reports do come back clean, he would be well worth a 1 year deal, much like the one I proposed for Baker. The Rangers have said they’d like to bring Lewis back in 2014, but I do think the Royals’ defense and ballpark could be appealing enough to sway him to come to the Royals. If that’s not enough, the team can always show him the superiority of Kansas City BBQ to whatever they serve in Texas.

Neither of these two pitchers would be my top choices to replace Santana. I have my doubts about their health, and they don’t have the ceilings I’d like to see. But if Moore misses out on some of the premier guys, Baker and Lewis – among other buy low candidates – could be suitable backup plans. In fact, my preference would be to try and sign a couple of these kinds of pitchers to give the team more options. Having roster depth, particularly with starting pitching, is always a good thing. The best part about these options, though? There’s no such thing as a bad 1 year deal. If the Royals sign Lewis and he gets injured or is ineffective early on, they can move on with no future concerns. And because they aren’t likely to demand high salaries, the financial commitments won’t prevent the front office from going after the impact bats this lineup sorely needs.