Sunday, December 10, 2006

Looking Ahead: Kansas City Royals

  • The Cubs signed Jason Marquis to a 3-year deal worth reportedly $21 million. On the face of it, that's not bad. With Gil Meche getting 5/55 and Adam Eaton getting 3/24, Marquis is one of the cheapest free agent starters signed this offseason.
    That all sounds great. The problem is that there's a reason that Marquis came so cheap. All of Marquis' vital signs have been heading steadily southward for the past two years. And his work before that wasn't inspiring, either.
    Marquis started off as a big prospect in the Braves' organization who soon became famous for not getting along with Leo Mazzone. Talk about a really terrible way to make a name for yourself. Marquis' numbers would seem to confirm the idea that he wasn't listening to Leo. Marquis pitched parts of four seasons in Atlanta, and only once did he keep his ERA below 5.00. He never logged more than 22 starts or 130 innings, mainly because he was usually the team's 5th starter and didn't pitch well enough to move up in the world. Even in his one good season, 2001, Marquis' 3.48 ERA was belied by a 59:98 BB:K ratio in 129.1 IP. As time went on, Marquis' walk rate stayed high and his strikeout rate started to fall. The Braves wisely shipped him off to St. Louis in the J.D. Drew trade.
    Marquis experienced a semi-renaissance in St. Louis, at least in ERA terms. Perhaps because of the Cardinals' better defense, or simply due to luck, Marquis finished 2004 with a respectable 3.71 ERA. He also finally managed to stick in the rotation; he threw 201.1 IP in 32 starts. He finished the season with a Game 4 loss in the World Series, but it still seemed as though he had come a long way.
    Not so fast. Marquis' BB:K ratio in 2003 was 70:138, or little better than it was before. He also allowed 26 HR, a lot for Busch Stadium. In looks like, in retrospect, Marquis' ERA was better than it should have been given what he was doing on the mound.
    Over the past two years, all of his numbers have degenerated. He went from a still-decent ERA of 4.13 in 2005 to a 6.02 mark last year. His home runs increased to 29 in '05 and 35 in '06 (making him the league leader in home runs allowed and earned runs allowed). His BB:K ratio got worse; in 2005, he lost 38 strikeouts despite pitching more innings (69:100 in 207 IP) and in 2006 it was just as poor (75:96 in 194.1 IP).
    Let me get this straight -- you've got a guy who gives up a lot of walks and a lot of homers, and yet is one of the worst strikeout pitchers in the league? A guy whose peripherals (BB, K, HR) have all headed sharply downward in recent years? Yes, he's just 28 years old, but he's also already managed to alienate two of the best pitching coaches in baseball, Mazzone and the Cards' Dave Duncan.
    And you're going out of your way to sign this fellow?
    If Marquis can bounce back to his 2004-5 form (4.00-ish ERA), then he will be worth $7 million. But that's very doubtful. His peripheral stats don't suggest someone likely to rebound; they suggest someone likely to stay just as bad as he is. Which doesn't even take Wrigley Field into account; if Marquis gave up 35 jacks in Busch Stadium last year, how will he do in the Friendly Confines? How will his high number of baserunners and fly balls survive over on the North Side?
    Marquis is a terrible fit for the Cubs. There are several arms out there with a better short- and long-term future. Miguel Batista may be older, but he's at least effective. The Cubs could have put together a couple "B" prospects and gotten Rodrigo Lopez from the Orioles. Lopez is similar to Marquis, except he has stronger peripherals and has pitched against much tougher competition. He's also much cheaper.
    There are only two real consolations to this deal: 1) Marquis is at least durable. Even if his ERA is around 5.00 (which is most likely), he can still eat up innings. Not that that will really help the ballclub, or be worth $7 million annually. And 2) he's relatively cheap. At least the Cubs didn't go all in with Gil Meche for $55 million. But even Meche has a better upside than Marquis, who has every sign of a pitcher headed south -- not just for the winter, but for good.
    The Cubs' are the consensus "winners" of the offseason so far, judging by the comments I've heard from columnists and commentators. This just goes to show that everyone still thinks that the best thing a GM can do is be active. Whether all of that action really helps the team is irrelevant.
    I've even heard talk that the Cubs are the favorites in the NL Central. Pshaw. The Cubs lost 96 frickin' games last year. They'd have to improve by at least 18-20 wins to win the division. That's a lot of wins, folks.
    Let's make a quick comparison to see how much better the 2007 Cubs look than their predecessors.
    Center Field: '06: Juan Pierre (5.2 WARP3); '07: Alfonso Soriano (10.2 WARP3)
    (Soriano's WARP3 is his 2006 number)
    Looks like 5 wins right there, correct? But Soriano's 2006 numbers were as a left fielder. Given his (perceived) trouble in shifting to center field, we can likely revise that number slightly downward.
    2006 was also a career year for Soriano. His WARP 3 in the two previous seasons were 5.7 and 5.0. So it's more likely that the Cubs will be gaining at most one or two wins with Soriano in center field. And that's not even taking age-related decline into account.
    EST. WINS ADDED: 1.5 (let's be generous)
    Second Base: '06: Todd Walker (2.3 WARP3); '07: Mark DeRosa (5.7 WARP3)
    Looks like a gain of about 3.5 wins here, right? In fact, since Walker shared the position with the terrible Ronny Cedeno (1.7 WARP3), it could be as much as 4 wins added!
    But again, not so fast. DeRosa's 2006 was a giant career year (yet another signed to a big contract by Hendry). It was, in fact very far outside of his expected performance. DeRosa's WARP3 in the 3 years prior to last year were: 1.2, 0.1, 2.0.
    So even assuming that DeRosa doesn't lose any offensive or defensive value as he ages next year, he's only a marginal improvement over the Walker/Cedeno team. But let's be optimistic and assume that DeRosa keeps some of his unlikely offense from 2006.
    EST. WINS ADDED: 0.5 (generous again)
    Starting Pitcher: '06: Greg Maddux (3.4 WARP3); '07: Ted Lilly (5.6 WARP3)
    Two wins added here, right? In fact, it's probably a little more than that, since Maddux was traded to Los Angeles for the last two months of the season, and his spot was taken over by awful pitchers. So even assuming that Lilly takes a step back from his strong 2006 performance, the Cubs should get 2 wins here.
    Starting Pitcher: '06: Sean Marshall (1.7 WARP3); '07: Jason Marquis (1.4 WARP3)
    It looks like the Cubs are just breaking even here. This gives us even more insight into the Marquis deal; the Cubs already had some marginal starting pitchers who were just as productive as Marquis without having to go out and spend $21 million. Even if we assume that Marquis takes a step forward (not likely), there's no reason to expect that he'd do much better than the fleet of marginal pitchers the Cubs trotted out there last year. And those guys at least had the advantage of being younger, cheaper, and with better upside.
    EST. WINS ADDED: 0, for $21 million
    Jim Hendry has spent nearly $200 million to add about 4 wins to his team (and 4 is the optimistic answer).
    That is not a victory.
    Granted, there are some other areas where the Cubs can improve besides free agency next season (a healthy Derrek Lee, for one). But to me, they're still about a 70-75 win team, and that won't win even the NL Central. To statheads and mainstreamers alike: jump the hell off the Cubs bandwagon and put your thinking caps back on.
  • The Tigers signed Brandon Inge to a 4-year, $24 million contract extension. Inge was scheduled to be a free agent after 2007, I believe, so this was their effort to lock him up long-term.
    I don't mind the money so much; $6 million isn't bad at all for a solid third baseman. But I'm not sure why they'd extend it to four years. Inge will be 29 next year, so the deal will lock him up through his age 33 season. There's not much reason to extend it that far; Inge is a career 241/302/398 hitter, and once he starts to decline, he'll be a big liability. I know that the Tigers don't have any third base prospects breathing down his neck. But I still question the wisdom of locking up a marginal player for four years, well past the point where he's due to decline.

That's all the big news. Things should be pretty quiet over the holidays, at least in terms of free agent deals. The Red Sox and Matsuzaka are still rumored to be a couple miles apart in negotiations. I've read some interesting views on this, especially from Peter Gammons and Nate Silver. But this will make for some interesting headlines in the weeks to come.

And now for the slightly less dreadful but still pretty much hopeless Kansas City Royals.

2006 W-L Record: 62-100
2006 pW-pL Record: 63-99
Runs Scored: 757 (12th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 971 (14th in AL -- dead last by a mile)
Free Agents: Doug Mientkiewicz, Mark Redman

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Ryan Shealy
2B -- Mark Grudzielanek
SS -- Angel Berroa
3B -- Mark Teahen/Alex Gordon
LF -- David DeJesus
CF -- Joey Gathright
RF -- Emil Brown/Reggie Sanders
C -- John Buck/Jason LaRue
DH -- Mike Sweeney/Billy Butler

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Gil Meche
Scott Elarton
Zach Greinke?
Luke Hudson
Odalis Perez/Brian Bannister/??

2007 Proj. Closer: Octavio Dotel

The defense may still be wretched, but there are encouraging signs that the Royals' offense is getting better. This is due to some shrewd trading (Teahen, Shealy) as well as some (gasp) farm products such as uber-prospect Alex Gordon and professional hitter Billy Butler. The Royals also have more outfield prospects than you can shake a stick at, which certainly means that guys like Emil Brown, Reggie Sanders, and even the venerable Mike Sweeney could be traded to make room for them. The Royals right now are dealing with the clash of "old, bad team" and "young, good team," at least in their lineup. It creates a lot of gridlock, but there are worse problems you could have than having too many big-league hitters.
With Sweeney stuck at DH (and the possibilities of a team taking his contract next to nil), the Royals will have to fit all of their prospects onto the diamond. Ryan Shealy will be at first base. He was purloined from Colorado in the deal that sent disappointing pitchers Jeremy Affeldt and Denny Bautista over. There was no place for Shealy in Denver with Todd Helton around, but he's got a spot with his name on it in KC. The Rockies' system is hitter-friendly, but even then, Shealy's numbers look good, with his career minor league stats at 319/408/591. He started out 2006 in Colorado Springs (284/351/568) and spent 5 games with the big club before getting trade to KC. He hit well enough there, a 280/338/451 clip. Shealy is old for a prospect (27 next year), but that's mainly due to being blocked by Helton. He projects as a quality hitter and will be cheap for several years now. The Royals may want to look into trading him, though, if the outfield gets too crowded and no one wants to take Reggie Sanders.
At third base, the incumbent (for now) is Mark Teahen. Teahen became famous in the Moneyball draft and unfortunately had to live up to that as he ascended to the majors. Teahen's first season in the majors was a disappointment (246/309/376), and he got off to a slow start in 2006 before he went on an absolute tear. He finished the season at 290/357/517 and was one of the league's best third basemen despite ending the season early due to injury. Teahen will be just 25 next year, and most of the signs are that his breakout was for real.
In a way, though, Teahen's success complicates things, because the Royals' #1 prospect is also a third baseman. Actually, you could argue that Alex Gordon is the majors' best prospect. He's the only #1 overall pick the Royals have ever had, and statheads and scouts alike salivate over him. Gordon starred with the University of Nebraska before signing with the Royals. The soon-to-be 23-year-old has only spent one season in the minors: 2006 with Double-A Wichita, where he was dominant (325/427/588). The Royals believe that he's ready for the majors right now, and it's hard to argue with that.
The only question is where the Royals will play him. Teahen has good defense at third, and with his productive 2006, it's hard to move him. Gordon is also strong defensively, but his superior bat may get him moved to right field. Either way, it's good news, as Gordon projects not only as a star but as a possible MVP. The only trouble is that it complicates the outfield picture.
But we'll get to that in a minute. The middle infield, as compared to the corners, looks pretty dismal. There was even some talk (perhaps idle) of moving the athletic Teahen to shortstop, but I doubt that would ever happen. It wouldn't be a bad idea, though, since the Royals' incumbent shortstop is Angel Berroa.
If you took a poll among statheads to elect the worst player in baseball, Berroa would likely win. Yes, there are worse guys playing as part-timers. But none as bad as Berroa play everyday, nor were they given long-term contracts based on one good year.
Berroa won the 2003 Rookie of the Year Award (which should have gone to Hideki Matsui), and then got a 4-year, $11 million contract from KC. Unfortunately, Berroa's 2003 was an aberration, and he's been thoroughly awful ever since. The Royals owe him $8 million over the next two years, and no team in baseball would take a player so worthless. If the Royals can afford to pay Gil Meche $55 million, then they can afford to eat that $8 million and release Berroa. Because no one else can combine poor conditioning, poor work ethic, and poor defense with such awful hitting (234/259/333 last year).
At second base, the incumbent is Mark Grudzielanek. Grudz did a good job with the Royals last year (297/331/409 with solid defense). So good, in fact, that the team didn't just exercise his 2007 option -- they signed the 36-year-old to a new contract with a 2008 option. That's a bit overeager for a middle-aged second baseman.
But Grudzielanek was pushed last year by Esteban German. German doesn't have Grudz's reliable glove, but he did bring a good batting average and superb on-base skills to the job in 2006, hitting 326/422/459. That may be a bit over his head, but his minor league numbers support his OBP. He's cheap and will be just 28 next year. I'm hoping that the Royals will use German primarily (he'd be a fine leadoff man) at second, with Grudz as his defensive backup. But since they've given him a new contract, I fear the offensively inferior Grudzielanek will get the lion's share of playing time.
Behind the plate, the Royals supplemented disappointing rookie John Buck (career 242/292/400 in 3 seasons) with disappointing veteran Jason LaRue (194/317/346 in '06). The Royals may be tired of waiting for Buck to develop; he was supposed to be a major-league ready catcher, but he turns 27 next year, and we may have already seen his best. LaRue is a free agent after next season, but came cheap from Cincinnati, obtained for a PTBNL, with Cincy even picking up a chunk of his salary. LaRue is normally a good source of power with a penchant for leaning into one now and then (93 career HBP) to give him a decent OBP. He struggled mightily in '06, but he's a good pickup and should give the team a bit of a boost from behind the dish.
As far as the outfield goes, let's start with the incumbents. David DeJesus was stretched as a center fielder and was eventually moved over to left last year when the team got Joey Gathright. DeJesus has very little power, but he hits for a decent average and draws some walks (career 292/362/434 hitter). He's not a bad solution in left field, but may soon be pushed out of the role by the likes of Billy Butler. DeJesus may be one of the more desirable trade chips the Royals have; he's still arbitration-eligible, can play center field in a pinch, and has a strong offensive game.
The trouble is that the Royals' true center fielder, Joey Gathright, just isn't much of a hitter. He hit a woeful 262/332/328 with the team after being traded from Tampa Bay. His speed had made him a very overrated prospect in the Tampa Bay system, and it was the Royals who took the gamble on bringing him in. His minor league stats show strong plate discipline and good contact hitting. But his defense in center just isn't that good. If he can't handle the position defensively, then there's really no point in using someone like Gathright as more than a fourth outfielder. If his defense doesn't improve, he may not keep the job; and that's even if his offense does come around.
In right field, you've got free agent Reggie Sanders and Emil Brown. Sanders was another in a long line of useless free agents signed by the Allard Baird regime. He didn't sign for much money, but it was for a two-year deal, and the Royals were never really lacking for corner outfielders. Sanders looked like he was ready to decline when he left St. Louis, and did he ever: 246/304/425 in only 88 games due to injury. The 39-year-old isn't going to get any better, and the Royals would love to trade him if anyone will take him. I doubt it. They'd probably be better off releasing him and freeing up the roster spot.
(This may be off the subject, but do you know those people who are embarassed of their middle name? Add Sanders to the list: his full name is Reginald Laverne Sanders. And Laverne & Shirley was on right when he was a kid. Ouch.)
Emil Brown is, like David DeJesus, a talented player who still isn't quite good enough to fit into your long-term plans. He's defensively limited, so he's not going to take over center anytime soon. But like DeJesus, he has a strong offensive game; he hit 287/358/457 last year. He has a little more power than DeJesus (15 HR in '06) but not as much plate discipline (95 strikeouts). He's another one of those guys who's great to have when you're losing, but is also ripe for an upgrade. His name will likely be mentioned in trade rumors, as the Royals can't play all of these guys.
The player most likely to elbow his way into the outfield scene is Billy Butler. Butler is a defensive loss; he'd be better served as a DH, which makes it more likely that Mike Sweeney will be leaving somehow. He started as a third baseman, but wasn't even in the same hemisphere as Teahen and Gordon, defensively. Since then, he's been an outfielder/DH, but Baseball Prospectus 2006 quotes one scout as saying that Butler was the worst defensive outfielder he'd ever seen. So right now, he's a player without a position.
But his big bat will likely force the issue, meaning that somebody's going to get benched or traded. At the wee age of 20, Butler spent 2006 in Double-A Wichita and hit 331/388/499 with 15 HR and 33 doubles. He hits for a high average, has great power potential, and has much better plate discipline than you'd expect for such a slugger (41:67 BB:K ratio in '06). The fact that he hasn't reached Triple-A yet, combined with the lack of a spot for him on the big league roster, may mean that Butler starts 2007 in the minors. But it won't be long before he swats his way into the big-league lineup, and he's the kind of corner outfield stud that GMs can salivate over. And he'll just be 21!!
There are some other outfield prospects making some noise in the minors (Shane Costa, Chris Lubanski, Mitch Maier) as well as another 1B/DH type, Justin Huber. Having this much hitting talent isn't just good news for the Royals, whose offense should vastly improve in the next couple years; it also means that there are a lot of useful spare parts around to potentially make a trade for pitching. This should be one of the organization's top priorities. Hitters like Gordon and Butler will be ready soon. Unfortunately, the Royals' pitching staff looks abysmal in the short term, long term, and any other term, for that matter.

I've already ranted about the signing of Gil Meche. But, as marginal a pitcher as he is, he's also probably the best starting pitcher the Royals have, making him their de facto ace. That's a dubious compliment for Meche, just as it was for Mark Redman last year.
Behind Meche is . . . well, another nice Meche. They've still got free agent hurler Scott Elarton. But the Elarton signing was similar to the Meche signing (minus about $30 mil.); the Royals couldn't afford to sign good free agent pitchers, so they signed bad ones. Elarton was coming off a 2005 with Cleveland where he posted a 4.61 ERA -- and that was a career year! Coming to Kansas City, Elarton was just a hair better than replacement level, making 20 starts and posting a 5.34 ERA with a 52:49 BB:K ratio -- yes, he actually walked more batters than he struck out, which is a bad pitcher's badge of honor. The 31-year-old will be back again in 2007. Uggh.
The status of Zach Greinke, who was supposed to be the Royals' ace of the future, is still uncertain. Greinke broke through with an excellent debut in 2004, but then struggled mightily through a dreadful sophomore campaign in 2005. In the midst of the 2006 season, Greinke left the team to deal with "personal issues." He never came back. The team has refused to comment on the nature of these "issues," but they've gone on record as supporting Greinke and hoping that he will return.
We can all speculate as to what these "issues" are, but unless we know for sure, we can't guess when he will be back, or at what level of effectiveness. Greinke still has the potential to be a very effective starter, so the Royals are holding out hope. But until he does return, hope is all that any of us can do.
Those are the three "stars" of the Royal rotation (which is pretty hideous). Behind them, the Royals will be scraping the bottom of the barrel for anyone or anything that can keep an ERA under 5.00. The likely fourth starter will be Luke Hudson, the former prospect who turns 30 next year. He's in Kansas City now after the Reds gave up on him (!). He threw 102 innings last year with a 5.02 ERA, which is at least good enough for thr #4 spot in this rotation.
Brian Bannister, obtained from the Mets, is a possible #5. The Royals also have Odalis Perez, obtained from the Dodgers in a trade. The Dodgers may be picking up a chunk of his big salary, but still, you'd rather watch a pitcher spontaneously combust on someone else's nickel.
The Royals may not be done picking up starters on the free agent market. But with the Meche contract in mind, let's hope that they are.

The Royal bullpen was equally culpable in the 2006 team's near-1000 runs allowed (the next-worst team allowed 899, 72 runs less than KC). The woeful defense also deserves mention (12th in the league in defensive efficiency). But the bullpen certainly wasn't doing anybody any favors.
One of the culprits was woeful closer Ambiorix Burgos. But, despite the fact that he still has good potential, Burgos is gone, replaced by free agent Octavio Dotel.
Dotel didn't cost much and is a good choice for a low-payroll team looking for some stability in the closer's role. Dotel hasn't had a lot of success closing, but has been one of the top strikeout pitchers in all of baseball for several years now, posting good ERAs along the way.
The troubling aspect of the Dotel deal is health. Dotel is supposed to be recovered from the health problems that limited him to 10 IP last year, but that's a questionable issue for any 33-year-old. He also had problems in 2005, where he only pitched 15.1 IP. So Dotel hasn't pitched a full season since 2004, the last time he was tried as a closer (in Oakland). Despite his strikeouts (72 K in 50.2 IP), he pretty much bombed (4.09 ERA).
But I'm guessing that the Royals knew the risks with Dotel. And even if he does post a 4.00 ERA, he's still a strikeout machine. And it's not like the Royals will give him as many save chances as Oakland did. You could do worse.
Behind Dotel is a very, very questionable bunch. Andy Sisco was, like every other Royals pitcher, rushed through the minors under the Allard Baird regime. He was still supposed to be a future star, but after struggling in 2005, Sisco's 2006 in Kansas City was even worse: a 7.10 ERA in 58.1 IP (4o walks allowed). One thing we can all agree upon is that when your ERA starts looking like an airplane, you're in trouble.
Jimmy Gobble, having failed in the starting rotation, moved into the Royals' bullpen as the long-relief man last year. He posted a 5.14 ERA, but also ate up 84 innings and struck out 80. He's no star, but he's necessary on this team, especially if the starters end up being a bunch of 5-inning men again.
The reliever who had the most success with KC last year was Joel Peralta. Peralta was a minor league veteran in the Angels' system when he finally got the call to the majors in 2005 (3.89 ERA). His time in Kansas City was less successful (4.40 ERA), but his peripherals are encouraging enough (17:57 BB:K ratio despite 10 HR allowed) that he should do about as well again in 2007.
By the way -- One of the "bad" kind of surprises: it was recently discovered that Peralta is four years older than he originally claimed. This sort of "mistake" is common among Latin American prospects, anxious to improve their chances of getting signed. So Peralta went from 26 to 30 overnight (he'll be 31 next year).
Former Cub Todd Wellemeyer posted the best ERA in the bullpen, a 3.63 mark. But in his 57 innings of work, he managed a dead even BB:K ratio of 37:37; not a good recipe for future success.
And behind these guys, the Royals have the same band of cast-offs as usual. There will be plenty of chances for an outsider to win a job during Spring Training.
The Royal bullpen of 2007 should be somewhat better than that of 2006, if for no other reason than because it can't get a whole lot worse.

Offseason Game Plan:
You've done enough damage already; keep that wallet in your pants.
Shop around your spare outfielders to see what kind of pitching you can get. It may be a longshot, but it's at least worth the effort.
Small Market 101: get as many possibilities as you can invited to Spring Training. Avoid signing major league deals when a minor league deal will suffice.
In short: get pitching. If at all possible.

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