by John Viril—
The recent report that the Kansas City Royals were one of the four teams that sent scouts to see free-agent pitcher Javier Vazquez in Puerto Rico indicates Royals GM Dayton Moore is not completely satisfied with his roster. Instead, he’s still looking to improve his starting rotation. This article will examine the remaining available available options that could possibly help the Royals this season.
While the starting rotation promises vast improvement over last season, questions still remain. Wade Davis, acquired along with James Shields in the Wil Myers deal, is the wild card. If the Royals get very lucky, Davis could translate the lessons he learned in missing bats last season after moving to the bullpen (K/9 11.13), into his role as a starter. If he manages to pull off the feat, Davis would be a top-of-the-rotation arm. On the other hand, Davis could struggle as he did in 2010 and 2011 as a member of Tampa’s rotation—establishing that his major league future lies in the pen.
The other major area of uncertainty lies with the no. 5 spot. While the team possesses numerous candidates that certainly seem capable of holding down the fifth spot, most of them have no reasonable expectation of an above-average performance. Even adding another arm with close to league-average career numbers increases the probability that sheer variance (a guy having a “good” year) will yield a second significantly above-average starter. Landing that second guy could prove the difference between a “one and done” playoff destiny and a team that plays deep into October.
The problem, of course, lies in cost. Either the Royals trade for such a player, or find an acceptably cost-effective option on the current free-agent market. The Royals have two places where they could reasonably expect to trim payroll. They could reneg on their arbitration tender to Luke Hochevar at the cost of $700,000—saving approximately $3 million, or they could deal Bruce Chen—which would save $4.5 million. While the team has shopped Chen without success early in the off-season, I believe he will have some demand as spring training draws near with teams that still lack an acceptable no. 5 pitcher. Chen is a relatively cheap starting option who has eaten innings and provided consistent performance (3 consecutive years with at least 11 wins).
The above suggests that the Royals could potentially add $7.5 million more in payroll and remain in a similar financial position. This article will examine potential roster upgrades around that price.
Javier Vazquez—Javier Vazquez‘s strong performance in the Puerto Rican winter league has led to significant buzz about the retired veteran. The 36-year-old Vazquez claims to be in shape and intends to pitch for Puerto Rico in the upcoming World Baseball Classic. Reports have indicated he’s throwing 93 mph, which bodes well for his marketability. Given that Vazquez missed the entire 2012 season, and he pitched on a $7 million one-year deal in 2011, Vazquez could very well come at a relatively cheap price on today’s market.
Vazquez has stated that he wants to play for a winner because he wants a shot at a title. The Royals, however, stack up well against the three other clubs that scouted him: Seattle, Boston and Tampa.
If the Royals could land Vazquez, I would be all for it—if he’s indeed throwing 93 mph, With that velocity, Vazquez is likely to repeat his 2011 performance (13-11, 3.69 ERA, 106 ERA+ in 192.2 IP). Vazquez has a career 105 ERA+, with his peak season coming in 2009 for Atlanta (143 ERA+).
Kyle Lohse—If we were living in a fantasy baseball world, or we were playing a video game, I’d be ecstatic to add Kyle Lohse to the roster. Real-world limitations, however, make such a deal unlikely.
Lohse enjoyed a career-year last season in St. Louis, posting an impressive 16-3, 2.89 ERA, 134 ERA+ in 211.0 IP. Lohse, however, has been a below-average pitcher over his career (97 ERA+) and struggled as recently as 2010 (6.55 ERA in 18 forgettable starts in St. Louis). Pitching guru Dave Duncan worked his magic two seasons ago and wrung a 109 ERA+ from Lohse 2011; and apparently the lessons carried over into last season’s ace performance (after Duncan’s retirement). The question is: can Lohse do it outside of St. Louis? Otherwise, Lohse’s best year came at age 26 (107 ERA+ in 178.1 IP in 2005) as a starter for Minnesota.
Aside from questions about Lohse’s ability to repeat last season, he is represented by notoriously hard-bargaining Scott Boras, he turned down a $13.3 million one year tender from St. Louis, and requires a compensation pick from any team that signs him. For a team outside the top 10, such as the Royals, that will only mean a second round pick. For everyone else, Lohse will cost not only their 1st round pick, but also the cap money associated with that draft position.
This reality explains the slow market for Lohse. Paying more than $13 million plus a 1st round draft pick, plus a compromised rookie cap is a stiff price to pay for a 34-year-old who carries a significant risk of reverting to below league-average performance.
Shaun Marcum—Shaun Marcum is 31-years-old, carries a 112 career ERA+ and is a Kansas City area native ( high school in Excelsior Springs). The reason he’s still on the market is health: elbow problems limited him to 124 IP last season. Not only did his arm troubles limit his innings, Marcum’s velocity has also slightly declined the last two seasons. All of these signs, plus the fact he missed 2009 with Tommy John surgery, make Marcum a risky acquisition. If Marcum’s elbow is indeed giving out, he’d be looking at his second TJ surgery. Recovery rates for the 2nd TJ surgery are significantly worse than the first time, and are much more challenging for starters vs. relievers.
Unless Marcum is overcome with a sudden desire to play for his hometown team and takes a bargain contract, the Royals need to stay well away from him.
Joe Saunders—31-year-old Joe Saunders is probably the most reliable option left on the market. Saunders has a 103 career ERA+ and is coming off a solid 2012 campaign which saw him pitch in both Arizona (NL) and Baltimore (AL) (combined ERA 4.07 in 174.2 IP with 28 starts). He has no known arm issues, has a history of eating innings, and will provide another “lottery ticket” for an above-normal season courtesy of variance.
His best years came in California, where he posted an 131 ERA+ season with 17 wins for the Angels in 2008 followed by a 16-win season in 2009 (with a mere 95 ERA+). Saunders is said to be demanding a 3-year deal.
While I would love to see him on the KC roster, the years and money are probably more than Dayton Moore wishes to commit to yet another middle-of-the-road arm. Vazquez is much more attractive due to his one-year window.
Justin Upton—recent reports indicate that the Diamondbacks are again shopping 25-year-old outfielder Justin Upton. Signing Upton would add another young bat with middle-of-the-order potential. Despite his youth, Upton actually has a solid track record, with two-all star appearances, a career OPS of .832, and 108 HRs in the equivalent of 5 full seasons.
Upton is a right-handed bat with an adequate arm in right field (though Alex Gordon would probably slide to right if Upton came to KC). Upton is also coming into his prime and is signed to three more years of team control (2013: $9 million, 2014: $14 million and 2015: $14 million). His 2013 salary is doable if the team were to ditch Hochevar, Chen and eat most of Jeff Francoeur’s salary in a deal.
Despite Upton’s solid production, he’s been something of a disappointment relative to the huge expectations he carried as a former overall no. 1 pick (2005). Even so, he would still cost a significant haul in prospects. Demands would likely start with former no. 5 overall pick Bubba Starling, and require at least two more significant prospects to get done.
Jason Kubel—The Diamondbacks inexplicably signed OF Cody Ross while they had 3 solid outfielders ready in place. Consequently, trade rumors have swirled around all three Arizona outfielders. Kubel and Upton, however, have been the targets considered most likely to be available in trade.
Kubel is 30 years old (turns 31 in May), with good power. He possesses a career OPS of .800, hit 30 HRs last season, and sports a nice .334 career OBP. The problem, however, is he also gives up a lot of the value from his bat with his leaky glove. Last season, fangraphs estimated him as only a 1.9 fWAR player due to negative fielding and baserunning values.
Kubel, however, would provide left-handed power and a solid .OBP, which would give the team a nicely balanced lineup with 4 left handed bats (Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, and Kubel). He also has only one more year of obligation remaining at an affordable $8 million with a team option for 2014. Though he does not carry Upton’s upside, he also is much more affordable in terms of financial commitment and price in prospects.
Conclusion—While many moves could make potential sense for the Royals the rest of the winter, I see them only in the market for “bargain-bin” type of acquisitions. The team is quiet on the rumor front after being quite active on the MLBTradeRumors.com feed early this winter. My guess is the team will wait until the season is underway to make any substantial changes to the roster.
While the front office continues to express confidence in RF Jeff Francoeur, the team’s recent signing of veteran outfielders Xavier Nady, Endy Chavez, and Willy Taveras to minor-league contracts is a clear signal that Francoeur is on a short leash. They are not likely to tolerate another implosion like last season’s -2.7 bWAR fiasco. I see these three veterans as emergency stop-gaps that give Dayton Moore time to swing a mid-season deal in case of another Francoeur failure.