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American League Two-a-Days: Kansas City Royals

LiveBall Sports Previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Kansas City Royals

2013 record: 86-76
2013 runs scored: 648
2013 runs against: 601
2013 pythag. record: 87-75

No American League team gave up fewer runs in 2013 than the Kansas City Royals.  Not coincidentally, there has not been a better defensive unit since 2005 than this past Royals’ team.  Most of the projections for the 2014 Royals center around pitching-based arguments.  Can you win games with a pitch to contact rotation and a strong bullpen?  This really does miss the point of the 2014 Royals: how much like the 2013 Royals can they be without falling into a trap of not participating in the modern game of baseball.

From a power-arms and power-bats perspective, the Royals have not quite arrived yet.  2014 is expected to be an improvement on 2013 in this regard, but the bottom of the lineup is still weak, the middle of the rotation still weak.  Problem is, looking at baseball through a narrow prism doesn’t explain why the Royals would wander aimlessly for two decades since the strike, and then turn around and win 86 games last year.  And if you mis-apply the reasoning for that on “veteran pitching” (the Royals led the AL in team ERA last year), you’ll miss on your projection from the team this year.

Who is having a good spring?

3B Mike Moustakas is the only player with four spring homers and sports a 1.658 OPS in 31 PAs.  SS Pedro Ciraco may be on the outside looking on this roster at the moment, but his spring line will have other organizations paying attention.  C Sal Perez is crushing the ball, as are OFs Alex Gordon and Justin Maxwell.  The top three guys in the rotation: RHPs James Shields and Yordano Ventura, and LHP Jason Vargas, have looked great.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Royals

The Royals have not put this much established talent on a roster since the 80’s.  James Shields and Greg Holland lead the pitching staff, while OF Alex Gordon, DH Billy Butler, C Sal Perez, and 1B Eric Hosmer are the top players on the roster.  The Royals picked up RF Nori Aoki and 2B Omar Infante in the offseason.  That’s a strong core to build a roster on.

Defensively, the Royals are the best in the business.  It starts behind the plate with Perez, but SS Alcides Escobar, CF Lorenzo Cain, and Gordon are also better at their positions than any in the AL.  Moustakas is an excellent defensive third baseman, and the Royals made a defensive upgrade at second with Infante.

Last year, the Royals had three pitchers throw 200+ innings.  The common refrain is that the Royals’ success here simply isn’t sustainable. But James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, and Ervin Santana combined for just 8.1 rWAR a season ago.  In fact, with none of those players contributing, the Royals could have easily still gone over .500 with their elite defense.  Shields and Guthrie are back, and Santana’s 3 WAR won’t be that difficult to replace.  The Royals, quietly, got below replacement production from the rest of the rotation, something they can improve on easily.  Even with a lot of projection systems betting the under on the Royals rotation to repeat 2013, you should be smart and take the over.  This rotation is better than a year ago.

The Royals should post their best team on-base percentage this season since 2000 when Carlos Beltran and Johnny Damon played for them in an offense-heavy environment.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Royals

Though the starting rotation is underprojected, the Royals’ bullpen is going to have a ripple effect resulting from Luke Hochevar’s season ending injury.  The assumption a lot of observers are making about the Royals is that they have a ton of bullpen depth and can just replace Hochevar’s innings with similar production, but sub-2 ERA relievers aren’t particularly common.  When you add to this the inevitable regression on Greg Holland’s sub-2 ERA 2013 season (Holland has been hit hard in the spring), the Royals bullpen depth is going to get tested early in the season.

The depth is also overstated, based on a year ago.  The Royals carried three relievers all year who struggled and tried to hide them in low leverage situations: LHP Tim Collins, RHP Luis Mendoza, and RHP Aaron Crow.  Crow is likely to rebound this season, but Collins isn’t the same pitcher he was two years ago, and Mendoza is pitching in Japan.  Of the relievers who the Royals relied heavily on last year, only RHP Kelvin Herrera is likely to get better.  Hochevar’s out, Holland is the closer and closers can be volatile, LHP Will Smith was dealt for Aoki, and Wade Davis is sliding to the back of the bullpen to take his spot.  Davis, Herrera, and Holland will be a strong back end of the pen, but that’s not necessarily better than what Oakland, Boston, or even Detroit are running out there.  For all the talk about Kansas City’s pitching depth, they might need to acquire a left handed relief arm at the deadline to catch the Tigers.

Offensively, the Royals are aggressive to a fault, and have a lot of young talent that doesn’t always consider patience at the point when it is most virtuous.  The Royals are adept at taking themselves out of innings with little assistance from the pitcher through bunts, pickoffs, baserunning errors, and bad plate approaches.  Normally, a team like this can lean on some home runs to take the edge off, but the Royals do not hit for a lot of power, and don’t seem to care all that much, despite periodic please from manager Ned Yost.  The Royals failed to slug .400 as a team last season.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Royals is 38.6, 7th in the American League.  Their 22.6 Batters WAR projection is 9th in the AL. Their 16.0 Pitchers WAR projection is 6th in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Royals to win 81 games, a 5 win decline over last season.  James Shields is the Royal with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 4.1.  Salvador Perez is the position player with the best average projection at 4.1 WAR.

The Royals vs the rest of the AL Central

The AL Central is an above average division this year.  The Tigers enter the season with one of the best statistical profiles of any team.  The Royals and Indians are above average opponents with some downside potential.  The Twins should be improved, and have the consensus best farm system, which should help avoid a repeat of the end of last year when they were running a sub-MLB lineup out.  The White Sox are more volatile this year than last, and will have some upside to go with the worst downside in MLB.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Kansas City Royals

It’s going to be tricky trying to catch the Tigers over 6 months, but one of the projection quirks is that the schedule ratings between the Royals and Tigers are so vastly disparate, that it is throwing off a lot of projections.  The team’s play more or less the same schedule, minus the 19 games they play against each other.  Those matter, but Kansas City went 10-9 against Detroit last season.  These teams are not equivalents, but 19 contests against each other is not enough to completely throw off the projections the way strength of schedule is affecting them.

You can convince me that the Tigers have the AL’s easiest schedule, but the Royals play the Indians, White Sox, and Twins just as many times.

Against an average schedule, the Royals 79-81 win projections sit closer to the 84-87 win range they were in last season.  This is a tick above where the vegas odds have them at.

I implored people above to take the over on those projections.  I’m skeptical that the Royals bullpen can repeat it’s performance from last year, but I also said the same thing about the 2013 Royals, and that bullpen got even better.  The offense looks problematic, but the projections are pretty friendly to most players (Moustakas, in particular).  It’s possible that Billy Butler and Alex Gordon are overprojected if you want to paint the scenario where the Royals fail to win 80 games: if both continue the decline they suffered last season, this team isn’t sniffing the playoffs.  Then again, if you don’t think the players on the Royals are any good, you should be picking them to be below .500.

The official LiveBall Sports prediction is 90-73, including a loss to the Tigers in a division tiebreaker game.  The Royals just don’t have enough to break through in the AL Central, though they will fall short by the slimmest of margins.  90 wins may very well break the Royals 28 season playoff-less streak, but it would have come up short by a game last season.  Whether this prediction is evidence of the Royals coming up short is entirely open to interpretation.

What if the Marlins and Royals made the trade of the offseason: a Thought Exercise

The Blue Jays and Royals are about to meet in Kansas City in a fairly high-profile mid-April meeting between a first place team (Kansas City) and a Toronto team that doesn’t want to get to the end of April having to climb uphill the rest of the season to justify the trade.  Today, I’m going to look at the trade that brought the Blue Jays about 25% of their team, and examine what might have happened if the team that was the other major buyer on starting pitching made this deal.

A brief reminder of the parameters of the actual trade, from the associated press:

The trade sends All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes to the Blue Jays along with pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, catcher John Buck and outfielder Emilio Bonifacio for seven players, none of whom has a big-money contract.

Miami received infielders Yunel Escobar and Adeiny Hechavarria, pitchers Henderson Alvarez, Anthony DeSclafani and Justin Nicolino, catcher Jeff Mathis and outfielder Jake Marisnick.

The components received by the Marlins will have to be at least matched by the Royals in this exercise, so Alcides Escobar (and his largely excellent contract) becomes the center of the trade from the Royals to the Marlins.  Hechavarria is a top 100 MLB prospect (as is Nicolino), so the Royals have to meet that value at some position, although not necessarily shortstop (thanks to Escobar’s long term contract).  The three pitchers the Royals would send over in this deal are easy to identify: they would have sent top prospect RHP Jake Odorizzi, as well as recent prospect LHP Mike Montgomery (who the Royals were ready to give up on), and to match Alvarez in value, they’d give up RHP Luis Mendoza, a pre-arbitration pitcher who is currently the no. 1 starter on the AAA Omaha Storm Chasers.

That’s not quite enough to receive Reyes in the trade though, so the Royals would also have to part with 17 year old SS Adalberto Mondesi, of “yes, that Mondesi” fame.  However, thanks to the salary they would be willing to take on, the Royals would have been able to pull off this trade without dealing away top prospect Wil Myers.  In the actual deal, the Blue Jays saved their two top prospects (which on the Royals were AA RHP Yordano Ventura, and Myers) to go to New York for ace knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.  The Royals are not necessarily making that move, having already bought Ervin Santana’s contract from the Angels.  Finally, instead of Mathis/Buck being in the trade, the Royals would simply receive catcher Brett Hayes from the Marlins as they actually did this offseason.

So to get in on the Miami fire sale, receiving SS Jose Reyes, SP Mark Buerhle and Josh Johnson, C Brett Hayes, and UTIL Emilio Bonifacio, the Royals give up SS Alcides Escobar and Adalberto Mondesi, SP Luis Mendoza, Jake Odorizzi, and Mike Montgomery, and outfielder David Lough, a major league ready player, but not OF Wil Myers or RHP Yordano Ventura, the Royals top high-level prospects.

The Marlins take on only Alcides Escobar’s $3 million salary in the deal, as well as roughly $1 million in major league contracts.  The Royals take on $10 million salary for Reyes, as well as the rest of his contract, another $11 million for Mark Buerhle, $13.75 million for Josh Johnson, $2.6 million for Emilio Bonifacio, and roughly $1 million for Brett Hayes, a total of $38.35 in salary for the Royals, who send just $4 million of that back to the Marlins.

This forces the Royals to non-tender RHP Luke Hochevar for salary purposes, which hurts their depth a bit (I suppose), and takes them effectively out of the running to re-sign RHP Jeremy Guthrie.  With the Ervin Santana trade factored in, the Royals have increased their payroll $45.35 million from 2012 to 2013.  In reality, the Royals are paying $9 million to James Shields, $5 million to Jeremy Guthrie, $4.56 million to Luke Hochevar, and $2.8 million to Wade Davis that they are no longer taking on thanks to the Marlins trade, $21.36 million the Royals will not add in this exercise.

The Royals would be spending an additional $10 million in payroll this year, assuming they still do the Ervin Santana trade (which happened before the Marlins firesale).  The Royals can support a $92 million payroll, despite protests of management to the contrary.  They’d be pretty much locked in at that figure (or lower) for the foreseeable future, but the Royals’ accounting books would not crash given two years with a payroll above $90 million.  Whether or not they’d lose money simply depends on your method of accounting.

The Kansas City rotation in 2013, given involvement with the Marlins would look like:

  • RHP Josh Johnson
  • LHP Mark Buerhle
  • RHP Ervin Santana
  • LHP Bruce Chen
  • LHP Will Smith

And the Royals lineup (though not opening day lineup):

  1. SS Jose Reyes
  2. LF Alex Gordon
  3. DH Billy Butler
  4. 3B Mike Moustakas
  5. C Salvador Perez
  6. 1B Eric Hosmer
  7. RF Wil Myers
  8. CF Lorenzo Cain
  9. 2B Emilio Bonifacio

The problem for the Royals is that this is a much poorer allocation of the salary they are spending because the money that is currently tied up in giving them great rotation depth is essentially now dead money given to Jeff Francoeur to be a bench guy/DFA candidate.  Futhermore, while the Royals rotation is still strong, it has got to stay healthy because it’s already starting a AAA pitcher in the fifth spot, and Bruce Chen as the fourth starter means that he can’t also be in the bullpen.  The Royals bullpen is still loaded, but there may great incentive to rush Yordano Ventura to the majors in case of injury because there is no help there for the Royals rotation in triple A.

Consequently, would the Blue Jays have been better off if they had stayed in the division (the horrors!) and made the play for James Shields and Wade Davis that the Royals did?  They would still have to have given up Adeiny Hechavarria and Jake Marisnick to be involved in the trade, not to mention their top pitching prospect, RHP Noah Snydergaard (who went to the Mets in the Dickey deal), and Justin Nicolino to acquire James Shields, Wade Davis, and IF Elliott Johnson from the Rays.  And they wouldn’t have Jose Reyes, who is kind of leading their offense right now.  But they would have more rotation flexibility, and more prospects sitting around without having to go get R.A. Dickey to justify their offseason.

The Blue Jays rotation, having taken the Royals route:

  • RHP James Shields
  • RHP Brandon Morrow
  • LHP Ricky Romero (or RHP Henderson Alvarez)
  • RHP Wade Davis
  • LHP J.A. Happ

A perfectly adequate rotation with some depth.  It lacks the wow factor of the kind of names the Blue Jays are actually running out there, but name value in baseball is great in the spring, while I’d argue people would be more optimistic about this version of the Jays rotation — given ERAs in the threes and fours for Shields and Davis respectively against the early season rotation struggles that the Blue Jay acquisitions have had — and they still have their top catching prospect Travis D’Arnaud.  Is their lineup better?  Eh, perhaps?  It’s missing a big part without Reyes, however:

  1. 3B Brett Lawrie
  2. LF Melky Cabrera
  3. RF Jose Bautista
  4. 1B Edwin Encarnacion
  5. CF Colby Rasmus
  6. DH Adam Lind
  7. C J.P. Arencibia
  8. SS Yunel Escobar
  9. 2B Elliott Johnson

The Blue Jays certainly have a better lineup when Jose Reyes is up there at the top, and are probably a better team right now…because they did go and get Dickey from the Mets.  It hasn’t helped them much through three series because even though that prospective lineup would be underachieving, it needs to be mentioned that the Jays actual rotation IS underachieving.

I guess the takeaway from this exercise is that sellers always have the inside position on buyers in major league baseball: it’s much easier to get the value when you have the assets that have established value instead of speculative value.  It also means that an incredible burden of return is put on the team that is trading away the top player.

And also: the Royals only had a couple of options to go improve their team: they either had to go make a deal with a team that was looking to dump all of it’s salary (Miami) with return as a secondary factor in the trade, or they had to make a deal with a team that was dealing from a position of strength into a strong market (Tampa Bay) with the need to grab a strong return.

And given what actually happened, the Royals and the Marlins actually came out pretty well: the Marlins grabbed a bunch of prospects in a deal where the salary relief should have been adequate to pull the trigger on that deal.  And the Royals had to give up one of baseball’s best prospects.  But they received a very efficient allocation of payroll increase with no inefficiency in salary.  The downside for the Royals comes on the offensive end: that prospective lineup above looks incredible and could easily drive the Royals to the playoffs.  But if you cross your eyes enough, you can see the rotation that the Royals have assembled doing the same thing for them.  And I think if they accept that they are going to be a pitching-dominated team, then the Royals have accomplished the main goal of making the trade: they bought themselves more time to develop their young hitters.

Which, I think was the whole goal of the Royals offseason: they needed to buy a full year for Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas to develop, and Wil Myers was the price tag on the pitching that buys them that year.  At some point in the future, I’ll probably do an analysis on whether a team can stretch its development resources too thin by having too many prospects, but it makes sense to conclude briefly that having two strong young players out of three is no different than having to give up on a young player because a team needs to win more quickly.

2013 Major League Baseball Mega-Preview: the American League

The American League begins it’s 113th season with a stranglehold on MLB dominance in the regular season.  However, no American League team has managed to take home the World Series since the Yankees did in 2009.  Given where the Yankees and Red Sox are with regard to rebuilding their rosters and restructuring their finances, AL teams have a ton to prove this year.

Five teams have won multiple World Series since the Toronto Blue Jays last made the playoffs in 1993: the Yankees have won five times, and the Red Sox twice.  But the other three teams: the Florida Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals, and most recently, San Francisco Giants.  The remarkable thing is this has happened over a period of AL dominance.

Lacking the consensus best team in baseball for the first time in awhile, the American League looks to reclaim bragging rights over the National League as interleague play becomes an all-the-time thing for the first time ever.

The American League Central

The Detroit Tigers (2012: 726 runs scored, 670 runs allowed) enter the 2013 season as the clear favorites to represent the AL in the World Series for the second straight year — and the third time in the last seven.  The Tigers are a three man team in many ways, as the only way that Detroit can overcome a down year from RHP Justin Verlander, 1B Prince Fielder, or 3B Miguel Cabrera is for the other two to pick up the slack.  The problems facing the Tigers are numerous: the team declined from its peak in 2011 through the 2o12 season, either slightly (run differential) or significantly (wins) depending on what measure you use.  And outside of getting DH Victor Martinez back from an injury that cost him his 2012 season, it’s not exactly clear where all the Tigers’ perceived improvement is going to come from.

The reason the Tigers are favored heading into the year is because they have the clearest path to the playoffs through the AL Central: having just the White Sox, Royals, and Indians nipping at your heels gives you plenty of leeway.  The Tigers are gambling that they can score 800 runs in 2013 because of an improved outfield, featuring Andy Dirks and Torii Hunter in full time roles instead of Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch.  Actually, truth be told, the Tigers are gambling on a lot of things, especially a flimzy bullpen.  However, improved defensive efficiency in the outfield leads me to bump the Tigers slightly to a 91 win team.

That should be good enough to win a division where there’s unlikely to be a trio of 85+ win teams, but wouldn’t it be nice if the Kansas City Royals (2012: 676 runs scored, 746 runs allowed) could push the Tigers this year.  The Royals best profile as a 83-79 team, but that’s not totally going to take them out of contention for the second wild card, and should make things interesting with the Tigers into early September.  The Royals have a chance to do special things with their bats this year.  LF Alex Gordon enters 2013 a legitimate candidate for AL MVP, as you could make a charitable case for the two time Gold Glove winner as a poor mans* version of Mike Trout.  The Royals spent an obscene amount of money to take the variance out of their pitching staff, which really lead their team’s run prevention through the first two and a half months last year before regressing to it’s true talent level of “minor league.”  The upgrades make the Royals one of the safest, easiest teams in the AL from a projection standpoint: there’s not a ton of upside here, but the dark days appear to be over in Kansas City.

*Although Gordon will make about 22 times more than Trout will this season.

The Chicago White Sox (2012: 748 runs scored, 676 runs allowed) may be the most average team in baseball this year, as they head towards one more year of 82 wins.  The excellent run prevention unit of the White Sox is likely to stay in the ballpark, so to speak: this is a strong defensive team led by SS Alexi Ramirez, C Tyler Flowers, and CF Alejandro De Aza, and a top-level pitching staff featuring LHP Chris Sale and RHP Jake Peavy.  However, after shocking the world and putting up 748 offensive runs and leading the division in run scoring, the White Sox will have a really tough time doing that again.  Run producers like Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn are aging quick and there’s not much the White Sox can do to score if those two stop hitting bombs at such a high rate.  It should be easier for the Cleveland Indians (2012: 667 runs scored, 845 runs allowed) to catch the Tigers in run scoring as the Tribe features a premier lineup, headlined by C Carlos Santana and 2B Jason Kipnis.  But the Indians giving up 845 runs last year wasn’t a fluke: it was just horrific pitching.  That’s a problem that went largely unsolved this offseason, shaping the Indians as a 77 win team.  And Minnesota Twins (2012: 701 runs scored, 832 runs allowed) fans still get to enjoy C Joe Mauer’s best seasons, which is awesome.  They won’t get to enjoy a whole lot a good baseball, but the Twins should be able to avoid 100 losses through some combination of dark magic and veteran contributions.  Pencil the Twins at 65 wins.

The American League East

Dynastic.  While most of the baseball universe realizes that we’re entering a year where the Red Sox and Yankees are strong underdogs against the Tampa Bay Rays (2012: 697 runs scored, 577 runs allowed), I don’t think the baseball universe much realizes how FAR the Yankees and Red Sox will have to go in order to reach where the Rays are going to be in three years.  There’s no question that the Rays — division favorites as far as I’m concerned — have holes on the current team: they tentatively will DH Luke Scott, will play Ryan Roberts at second base, and James Loney at first base, we’re talking about a team that traded away RHP James Shields to Kansas City, and may set a modern American League record for runs prevented this year.  They allowed just 577 runs last season, which is less preposterous when you consider the ballpark effect of Tropicana Field, but the Rays find a way to rank at the top in terms of defensive efficiency every single year.  That won’t change with Desmond Jennings patrolling CF.

But more than any other team in the league, the Rays are injury-proof.  Sure, they’d have just as much a problem as anyone replacing the lineup production of 3B Evan Longoria or 2B/RF Ben Zobrist in extended absence of their two best offensive players.  But they can replace any member of their pitching staff using their lush farm system.  Improving just a bit in terms of run scoring, I think the Rays are capable of a division winning 94 wins.

Their main challenger went all-in on their pitching staff this offseason, making the Toronto Blue Jays‘ (2012: 716 runs scored, 784 runs allowed) win-now tactic a sharp contrast to the win-always scheme preferred by the Rays.  The Blue Jays had two main problems last year: every pitcher got hurt or struggled, and everyone on the offense underachieved or was hurt (save for DH Edwin Encarnacion).  Similar to the Royals, the move all-in to acquire a new pitching rotation (added: RHP R.A. Dickey (Mets), LHP Mark Buehrle (Marlins), RHP Josh Johnson (Marlins))  means the Jays won’t be reliant on recovering pitching arms and prospects (such as Kyle Kendrick ->Tommy John surgery), which is a positive.  But the Blue Jays had a second problem last year which isn’t necessarily going to be fixed purely through regression: their lineup really sucked.  To fix that, they acquired a lot of the Marlins spare contracts, which made a lot of sense in theory until we consider the Marlins lineup also struggled last season.  The cause for optimism is that the Blue Jays are now spending money, which makes them competitors in the AL East this year, and their rotation has a chance to be really, really good.  But the makeover happens on a foundation that won 73 games last year.  90 wins would make them the most improved team in baseball, but the foundation would not fundamentally change unless the Jays push 100 wins, in which case a lot of things got a lot better pretty quickly.

It could be worse.  The New York Yankees (2012: 804 runs scored, 668 runs allowed) haven’t even made it out of Spring Training in a state where Brennan Boesch is not considered an upgrade.  Injuries to 1B Mark Teixiera and OF Curtis Granderson have headlined the spring in New York.  But the Yankees are about to take the field on opening day with three regulars from last years lineup only: Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki, and Robinson Cano.  The rotation is rather promising, and should keep the Yankees out of the cellar by a good margin, but the bottom line is that the Yankees are a 79 win team this year.  That should keep them in company of their rivals, the Boston Red Sox (2012: 734 runs scored, 806 runs allowed), also at 79 wins.  Whereas the Yankees have some semblance of a plan, the Red Sox appear to be trying to tear down to rebuild and compete at the same time.  On the positive side, the Red Sox were 5 games over .500 at the end of June last year, and this isn’t a completely hopeless ballclub.  The rotation isn’t great shakes, but it’s littered with name guys like Jon Lester, Ryan Dempster, and John Lackey, which will probably end poorly in a couple cases, and work out well in others.  You can say that about a lot of areas of a .500 team.  And I think .500 happens to be a bit aggressive for the Baltimore Orioles (2012: 712 runs scored, 705 runs allowed), who finished 2012 impressively, winning all the games that Boston would lose.  Baltimore shakes out as a 75 win team thanks to weaknesses in the rotation, and a team-wide issue with on-base percentage.  There’s upside on the offensive end here with Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, and Chris Davis all entering their age 27 seasons.  The bullpen, led by closer Jim Johnson, doesn’t have to be as dominant as it was last year for the O’s to exceed 75 wins, but it must still be quite good.

The American League West

The AL West is the strongest division in the American League, and possibly all of baseball.  It would be even stronger if the Houston Astros (2012: 583 runs scored (NL), 794 runs allowed (NL)) didn’t move into it.  The Astros will be fighting to avoid losing 100 games all year.  I think they’ll come close, topping out at 61 wins.  But the real story is at the top of the division, where the Oakland Athletics won their final six games last season to steal the division from the Texas Rangers (2012: 808 runs scored, 707 runs allowed).  The Rangers return as division favorites in my eyes, although many others prefer the Los Angeles Angeles of Anaheim, a California-based baseball club (2012: 767 runs scored, 699 runs allowed).

Texas has been routinely criticized for “losing” in an offseason where they allowed Josh Hamilton ($125 million) to sign with the Angels, failed to reel in Zack Greinke ($147 million) after his contract expired (hard to blame them at those price tags).  They ended up grabbing Derek Lowe on the cheap while biding their time for Colby Lewis to return from arm surgery.  Here’s the thing though: I don’t hear a lot of people arguing that Texas’ offense won’t be alright without Hamliton (they’ll survive) even as most laud the Angels’ aggressiveness in the market.  Texas is being criticized for not acquiring pitching.  But after giving up just 707 runs playing 81 games in the Ballpark in Arlington (Park factor: 112) last season, people are under-rating the quality of the Texas bullpen.  And their biggest offseason acquisition flew mostly under the radar, when the Rangers plucked Joakim Soria from the Royals at rehabilitation (torn UCL) prices.

Although there’s not a ton of pitching depth here, expect the run prevention of the Rangers to improve and they’ll lead the AL in wins this year at 98.  The Angels on the other hand may feel confident in a lineup that can make pitchers face Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton in the first four batters.  The issue with the Angels is that the pitching is a disaster.  They don’t have the bullpen the Rangers do.  They don’t have a bullpen that can consistently get outs.  And unlike last year, they don’t feature a rotation that can get deep into games.  The Angles jettisoned both Torii Hunter and Kendrys Morales to get…something.  Hamilton and Mark Trumbo are a major improvement over Vernon Wells and Hunter, but since neither can play a premium defensive position anymore, the Angels opening day lineup will likely feature Peter Bourjos, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Alberto Callaspo, and Chris Ianetta playing those tougher defensive positions.  Those players will absorb about half of the team ABs for the Angels this year.  Not only is this not a 1,000 run lineup, but it’s likely not even a 750 run lineup.  The Angels are an 80 win team this year.

Does this mean the Royals are in the playoffs?  Not exactly.  The AL West is strong after the Angels as well, and the Oakland A’s (2012: 710 runs scored, 614 runs allowed) did win the division, posting a run differential exactly on par with the Rangers, and plucked the division on the season’s final weekend.  They would have made a lot of noise if they had beaten the Tigers in the ALDS, but as is, the team returns a lot of it’s pieces from 2012.  Brett Anderson will replace Brandon McCarthy (signed with Arizona) atop the rotation.  Anderson is finally healthy after missing more than two thirds of last year with the torn UCL he suffered in 2011.  The A’s don’t have the front line pitching to allow just 614 runs again, although 660 is a very reasonable expectation for a strong defensive team playing in the hitter graveyard that is the Oakland Coliseum.  I think that 83 wins is a strong expectation for the A’s.

And that will not quite make the playoffs in the AL West.  I am predicting the second wild card will fall to the Seattle Mariners (2012: 619 runs scored, 651 runs allowed), which I’m sure will make Ichiro happy.  The Mariners have done well to rebuild their outfield on the fly, acquiring Michael Morse from the Nationals (in a questionable trade), to match with Casper Wells and Michael Saunders, who both came into their own last year.  With the lineup looking like something other than the worst offense in the AL this year (although still pretty bad), Mariners fans and league observers can finally appreciate the dominance of Felix Hernandez every fifth day.  But after making a lot of quietly sharp moves this offseason (possibly excluding the Morse deal, although that should help out in the aggregate), I think 85 wins might actually qualify them for the playoffs this season.  If not, they’ll at least be right in it.

2013 AL Predictions

East Champ: Tampa Bay Rays (94-68)
Central Champ: Detroit Tigers (91-71)
West Champ: Texas Rangers (98-64)
AL Wild Card #1: Toronto Blue Jays (90-72)
AL Wild Card #2: Seattle Mariners (85-77)

The Kansas City Royals and $40 million pitching rotations

February 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Baseball’s Pitching Rotations, by projected salary of top six starters for 2013:

-Los Angeles Dodgers $78.2 million
-Philadelphia Phillies $72.7 million
-San Francisco Giants $69.5 million
-New York Yankees $58.2 million* (excludes $8.5 million sent to Pittsburgh w/AJ Burnett)
-Toronto Blue Jays $50.45 million (excludes $8.5 million received from Miami in six player trade)
-Boston Red Sox $47.6 million
-Los Angeles Angles $46.9 million (exclues $1 million sent to KC with Ervin Santana)
-Detroit Tigers $45.2 million
-Chicago White Sox $41.25 million
-St. Louis Cardinals $40.1 million
Kansas City Royals $40.1 million (excludes $1 million relief from Angels for Ervin Santana)
-Pittsburgh Pirates $38.5 million* (excludes $13.5 million relief team has for AJ Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez)
-Chicago Cubs $37.4 million
-Cincinnati Reds $36.3 million
-New York Mets $34.1 million
-Washington Nationals $32.0 million
-Seattle Mariners $29.8 million
-Texas Rangers $23.3 million
-Cleveland Indians $20.6 million
-Atlanta Braves $19.85 million
-Baltimore Orioles $19.1 million
-Colorado Rockies $17.1 million
-Arizona Diamondbacks $16.7 million
-San Diego Padres $16.1 million
-Tampa Bay Rays $15.7 million
-Miami Marlins $15.15 million (excludes $8.5 million sent to Toronto in six player trade)
-Milwaukee Brewers $14.5 million
-Minnesota Twins $13.3 million
-Oakland Athletics $10.75 million
-Houston Astros $6.3 million (not counting $5 million owed to former pitcher Wandy Rodriguez)

All data via Cot’s/Baseball Prospectus

The Kansas City Royals appear out of place on this list, relative to their market size.  Actually, they’re just out of place on this list in general.  When you look at the small market teams on this list, they’re pretty much universally collected at the bottom: Oakland and Tampa have made the playoffs recently as have the mid-market Diamondbacks.  But low-revenue teams such as the A’s, Brewers, Marlins, Padres, Rays, Indians, and Pirates (considering salary relief) are all paying between $10 million and $25 million for entire rotation, which comes out to between $2 and $4-5 million per pitcher.

Broken down into a wins above replacement argument, small market teams are almost universally structured so that the money they pay to their pitching rotation year after year comes in under an average of 1 win per pitcher on the open market.  It’s practically impossible to not operate with a surplus in return on investment, because small market teams are highly invested in young arms who can get hitters out without costing the team a lot.

$40 million rotations on the other hand mean that the team sits between 1-2 wins above replacement per pitcher in terms of average compensation.  Only 10 rotations in baseball are at this pay-grade,  and every team (perhaps with the exception of the White Sox) is in go-for-it mode every year.  You can’t rebuild while paying $40+ million for your starting rotation: it’s lunacy.  The risk of losing your payroll dollars to the disabled list is extremely high.

Whether the Royals are spending their payroll most efficiently is a different argument entirely.  Their overall payroll isn’t extreme: it will be a fraction under $80 million this year, but the mid-market Twins consistently held an $100 million payroll when they were competing for the division every year, and there’s little doubt that most teams can do the same.  The Indians are in exactly the same financial situation as the Royals, and are spending the same amount.  But the percentage of the payroll the Royals have put towards pitching IS extreme.  The Royals have just three position players on their roster making more than $3 million this year: RF Jeff Francoeur, DH Billy Butler, and LF Alex Gordon.  Their entire rotation, with the exception of Wade Davis, will make more than $3 million each.

The Indians are invested very differently.  They spent the same kind of money the Royals did this offseason, but waited out the market and ended up signing hitters instead of pitchers.  They signed four position players this offseason (OF Michael Bourn, OF Nick Swisher, IF Mark Reynolds, IF Mike Aviles), committing a grand total of $116 million in salary, though just $26.25 million for this season.  To upgrade their rotation, they acquired Brett Myers (most recently of the White Sox), and will convert him to the starting rotation.

Both teams saw a relative opening in the AL Central, and tried to fix their biggest weakness to get there.  The Royals got 7.5 wins from their rotation last season, which would essentially be worth $40 million on the open market.  But it’s not like the Royals had to keep their entire rotation from hitting the market, nor would they have paid that amount to keep those guys had they needed to.  The Indians got 4.6 wins from their rotation last season, which is worth about $25 million on the market.  From a salary perspective only, neither team can expect to receive a boost in terms of pitching performance from last year.

It’s a weird position for the Royals to be in because it’s the same position that large market teams find themselves in year after year: paying big bucks to remain relevant/not lose ground.  The Yankees have been in this cycle for years.  The Dodgers appear ready to enter it.  The Phillies are stuck in it.  The Giants are still winning world series, but have no way of improving their run prevention at this point.  The top of this list suffers from this investment effect every year.

The problem of course is that the Royals won 72 games last year and the Indians won 68.  Paying for arms is not going to improve either team, so the improvement has to be made on the other side: with the position players.  Both teams are hoping that they improved enough from the outside (Indians) or through internal development (Royals) to make their financial investments worth the trouble.  The Toronto Blue Jays, who only received 5.5 wins from their rotation last year (and won just 73 games), are hoping for the same kind of thing: they’ll be expecting at least 2-3 more wins from their rotation this year.

There may not be an optimal strategy here, but simply spending money on the rotation has worked for National League teams in recent years such as the Pirates and the Cardinals, not to mention large market teams like the Giants, Nationals, and Phillies.  It hasn’t worked quite as well in the American League, for a number of reasons.  Instead, teams like the Rays, Athletics, Orioles, and Rangers have won in spite of their abilities to shed large contracts to players while the Red Sox, Tigers, Yankees, and Angels, who spend the most on pitching, consistently have the weakest results.

I’m skeptical that the Royals’ investment is going to work out for them.  It certainly can, but there will likely be other factors at play here, including the improved health and training/development of their current staff.  If that had worked over the last three years with their young pitchers, the Royals wouldn’t have been in this position to begin with.  So the team’s methodology must improve across the board.  And in the American League this year, there are enough bottom feeders to keep a team like Kansas City afloat.  But to get to the playoffs, their approach is going to have to prove stronger than teams in like situations, such as the Indians and Blue Jays, and the track record of high pitcher salary in the American League in recent years is simply not that good.

 

Girardi, Cashman deserve all the credit for 2012 Yankees Dominance

Brian Cashman has long been one of the better personnel guys in baseball.  He was hired in 1998 to one of the most fertile baseball environments in the sports history: a championship roster that was predominantly young and plays in baseball’s largest market.  Initial success for the 31 year old Cashman was practically guaranteed.  Sustained success over multiple decades was not.

Cashman, now 45, deserves a ton of credit now that the Yankees are still the premier organization in baseball all these years later.  Having a payroll of the Yankee’s size is an incredible advantage, but also works as a curse over time.  With large-market resources comes the large-market committment to winning.  Every. Single. Year.  Even with a market as large as the one the Boston Red Sox play in, Boston’s management was at least afforded an opportunity to declare a “rebuilding” season every now and then.  Cashman has missed the playoffs just once in his tenure, which is really remarkable.

The curse of a large market team is that albatross contracts are practically unavoidable.  A good small or mid market general manager always has the option to act in a financially prudent manner and can be incredibly judicious about what kind of player they give extensions to.  Let’s take a look at one of the smallest markets in baseball, the Kansas City Royals.  The last seven players to get long-term extensions from the Royals: RHP Zack Greinke, LHP Bruce Chen, OF Alex Gordon, 1B Billy Butler, SS Alcides Escobar, OF Jeff Francoeur, and C Salvador Perez.  Five of those contracts looked great when they were signed, and look even better today.  The remaining two (Chen and Francoeur) were relatively short term, managable deals to players who have enjoyed success in Kansas City already.  Neither deal looks good right now, but there is plenty of time left.

The Yankees have to deal instead with players like CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez opting out of their contracts at the peak of their value.  They have to deal with paying Derek Jeter like a top three MLB shortstop, even as they know he isn’t.  For the small and mid-market teams, they have the option of letting players like Sabathia and Rodriguez walk, and even in the case of a hometown superstar like Jeter, they at least have the option of taking the moral high ground by making a competitive offer and moving the responsibility to re-sign to the star’s side.

The point is that every team would have been wise to extend CC Sabathia, no one would have been wise to give an 8 year deal to Rodriguez, and the Jeter deal seems pretty fair for both sides.  If this was Dave Dombrowski in Detroit or Alex Anthropolos in Toronto, they have the autonomy to at least make those decisions.  Cashman, however, is stuck with the burden of having the Yankees win every year.  If Rodriguez wants 8 years, and Cashman needs him this season, Rodriguez is practically entitled to eight years.

This is why the Yankees’ payroll is in such dire straits.  But you wouldn’t know it by looking at the standings.

The Yankees have so much money and job security tied up in players like Jeter, Mark Teixiera, Rodriguez, and even players in their prime such as Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson.  I’m not asking for sympathy on behalf of the Yankees: they’ll live, but it is remarkable that they are this good relative to the rest of the league.

Holes in the Yankees’ roster next year are inevitable.  They’ll need a starting pitcher, a shortstop acquisition to replace Derek Jeter, a contract with C Russell Martin (or a replacement), payroll space to pay Cano and Granderson (meaning that Nick Swisher is unlikely to be in New York next season), and all of this is really going to tax the Yankees depth.

But thanks to their successes in 2012, they are so much better off as an organization than they appeared to be at this time last year.  Granderson’s power has actually gotten more impressive, which has helped them weather an injury to Brett Gardner.  Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova have pitched better, and Hughes is still a Yankee through 2013.  The bullpen has been better, despite missing Mariano Rivera.

The Yankees have enjoyed an extraordinary 2012 against the odds, and the bottom line is that their future payroll obligations will not look so dire as long as they are winning.  All the credit in the world goes to Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi for this development.

The best Shortstop in the American League

Derek Jeter and Elvis Andrus will represent the American League in the all-star game among shortstops.  That’s pretty cool, I guess.  But who is the best shortstop in the American League today?  And is he going to represent the AL in the all star game anytime soon?

Derek Jeter

Jeter is starting the all-star game carrying a .304/.351/.408 batting line, which is actually really good.  With the exception of Jeter’s MVP caliber 2009 season, this is really who “mid-thirties Derek Jeter” has been for the last five years.  The problem now is on defense.  It’s fair to surmise that Derek Jeter has worked incredibly hard on his defense in order to be a better shortstop throughout his thirties than his twenties.  But this year, we’ve reached the point where Jeter isn’t physically able to handle the position anymore.  It’s not a conditioning issue, clearly: Jeter is himself at the plate this season.

Jeter’s run at shortstop for the last seventeen years may turn into one of the biggest stories of the offseason for the Yankees.  It’s not clear where he will move to if the Yankees acquire a better defensive shortstop in the offseason, but Alex Rodriguez is getting very close to “full time DH” territory, and at that point, the natural move for Jeter might simply be a couple steps to the right.

Either way, when the Yankees move Jeter, that’s going to end his all-star candidacy at short.  There are three obvious picks to take his place before we get to prospect types like Francisco Lindor and Jurickson Profar.

Asdrubal Cabrera

Asdrubal Cabrera is a gold glove winning shortstop who is more similar to Jeter than different because defensive numbers have shown that Cabrera has not been a good defensive player throughout his 20’s.  There isn’t a debate though that Asdrubal Cabrera is a really fantastic hitter, regardless of his position.  Beyond that, since Jason Kipnis has locked down the second base job in Cleveland for the forseeable future, Cabrera is going to become the most attractive trade piece for the Indians as Francisco Lindor progresses through the system.  In fact, Cabrera is one of the most likely options to eventually replace Derek Jeter at shortstop for the Yankees via trade, although Lindor is not likely to see the majors in the 2013 season.

Cabrera is probably the top shortstop in the American League right now, however, there are two players who come with higher upside who are younger than Asdrubal Cabrera.

Alcides Escobar

Escobar has been a sensational defensive player for the Royals since coming over in the December 2010 Zack Greinke trade, but this year he’s added a bat to go with that glove.  Escobar always hit in the minor leagues and was a prospect of great stature in the Brewers system before struggling in the full time role in 2010.  Moving to the American League in 2011 made things even more difficult, though he showed some life with the bat during the summer last year after the Royals demonstrated great patience with him throughout the spring.

Alcides Escobar is now a .309/.352/.413 hitter up to the minute.  He’s still striking out a lot more than he walks (whereas someone like Asdrubal Cabrera is essentially one to one), and is a much better earlier in the account than he his when he sees a bunch of pitches, which has been a formula that has made him a poor hitter in the clutch this year.  But the bat is real, and he looks like a legitimate top of the order hitter for the Royals with about five gold gloves in his future.  The only problem is everything I’ve said about Escobar is true of another American League player about two years younger.

Elvis Andrus

Andrus leads all AL shortstops in fWAR with 2.7 prior to the all-star break.  He has combined consistently effective defense with a developing bat.  Andrus isn’t quite as effective with the bat this season as Escobar has been for the Royals and he is never going to be in the same class as Cabrera, but Andrus could easily have a Jeterian-like career for the Rangers.  He’s that young and that good.  There’s just one thing about that.

I think the 23 year old Andrus is the best shortstop in the American League right now, and the only threat to that title is a guy in his own system by the name of Jurickson Profar.

MLB Quarter Pole Team Capsules: the Kansas City Royals

It’s difficult to figure out which direction the Kansas City Royals are headed in.  On the surface, they aren’t heading anywhere.  This is the youngest team in baseball, and its performance on the year has been identical to the team’s performance from a year ago, when they were even younger.  In a lot of ways, the 2012 Royals have been disappointing, in that: the team was so young that it was expected to improve, and then a bunch of core players have come in and haven’t produced.

A bit of digging shows you that the main problem with the 2012 Royals  has been injury.  The Royals have been playing with replacement level performances at most positions: catcher, second base, center field, and first base.  That’s actually most of the lineup.  Of the four replacement positions on the Royals, only first base has underperformed without attribution to injury.  The Royals lost their first and second string catchers in spring training, Sal Perez and Manny Pina.  They lost their starting centerfielder Lorenzo Cain in the fifth game of the year.  And they lost their second baseman, Chris Getz, to the 15 day DL about two weeks ago.  1st baseman Eric Hosmer may have only himself to blame for a .220/.281/.376 batting line, but that’s up considerably over a recent nine game hitting streak.

Beyond injury though, the healthy members of the 2012 Royals have actually OVERperformed.  Injuries have struck the Royals rotation pretty hard as well, sending Felipe Paulino, Danny Duffy (out for season – Tommy John surgery), Jonathan Sanchez, and Everett Teaford to the DL this year, forcing the Royals to pull two starts out of Omaha every time around the rotation.  On top of that, Luke Hochevar (who at least has stayed healthy) has been wildly inconsistent (6.63 ERA).  And amazingly, the Royals rank fifth in the American League with a team FIP of 3.95.

The Royals rank highly on the strength of their excellent bullpen, which has thrown the most innings in all of baseball, but their rotation also deserves credit for keeping the ball in the ballpark.  The Royals have been a highly disappointing defensive team, ranking at the bottom of the AL with a .679 defensive efficiency, ahead of only the Detroit Tigers.  But as long as the Royals pitchers continue to keep the ball in the yard (of Royals who have thrown 24 or more innings, only Kelvin Herrera has a higher HR rate than 1.0/9 IP), the defense can improve the run prevention unit when it gets healthy.  The Royals pitching staff is doing this in a year where Kauffman Stadium has played like an extreme hitters’ park.

Which is a fact that really helps to frame how disappointing the starting lineup has been for the Royals.  When you’re 13th in the AL in defensive efficiency and 13th in the AL in runs scored, exactly what are you doing to help your pitching staff?  For the most part, what the Royals’ lineup has done is suck up money, and not a whole lot else.

The exceptions to the rule have been 3B Mike Moustakas and DH Billy Butler, both of whom are enjoying all-star caliber seasons, and with the all-star game being played in Kansas City this year, it’s going to be a travesty when Ron Washington picks the highly inconsistent Jonathan Broxton for the team instead.  Broxton is the member of the Royals most likely to be traded before the end of the season, and they haven’t played the all-star game in KC in 39 seasons.  Naturally, this will happen.

The 2012 Kansas City Royals can still conceivably trend towards either the outhouse (worst record in baseball) or the penthouse (shocking AL Central champs) and once the team is healthy, their plight will likely be determined by their reinforcements.  And rather than buying veteran talent at the deadline, the Royals enjoy the luxury of being able to promote from within.  There aren’t many teams who can choose to add a middle of the lineup bat to a punchless order without giving up the farm to do so, but the Royals can (and likely will) call up OF Wil Myers who now has more home runs than any player in minor league baseball this year, when he hit his 20th HR–a grandslam–off Roy Oswalt today in Omaha.  They also have SP Jake Odorizzi, who today dropped his triple A ERA to 2.22 (28.1 IP) in five games this year.

The Royals aren’t going to rush their prospects to the majors, but at this point, both top prospects appear to be MLB ready.  And while the Royals are probably going to be pretty patient through interleague play and try to win with the roster they have now, the Royals are going to look very different on July 1st than they do right now.  Up to 30% of the 25-man roster could be modified over the next month.

At the end of the year, it might not matter.  The Royals appear to be headed clearly towards another fourth place finish.  But then again, it might matter.  And until someone steps up and runs away with the AL Central, the Royals should do what they have to in order to stay in the race.