The Royals are a team on the upswing. They still have holes on the roster, but with a rapidly improving talent base, they have assets to try and fill those holes even if they don’t have the direct replacements on hand.
The question that I ask is whether it is better to use their closer as bait to fill those holes for now and in the future. Would the return be worth what they would be giving up?
What Can They Get?
If you would have asked me this at the end of the season, I would have likely been a bit down on Soria’s trade value. He had a down year, posting his worst numbers as a major leaguer. His rate stats were all down significantly. His ERA, FIP, WAR, strikeout rate, walk rate, home run rate, WPA, and swinging strike rate were all career worsts. His arsenal still looks very much like that of a successful pitcher. His average velocity is still very close to what it has been in the past. He hasn’t gone from throwing high 90’s to the high 80’s. He’s never been the kind that has thrown smoke, and he hasn’t lost the low 90s velocity with which he came into the big leagues. His curve and slider are still very effective pitches. It also seems worth mentioning that his xFIP was only half a run lower than it had been in 2010, when he was still accepted as an elite reliever in his prime.
Aside from the qualitative aspects of Soria himself, there are intervening facts to look over. First, since the end of the season, we have seen several teams give fairly expensive contracts to “proven closers” on the free agent market. The most obvious of these is Jonathan Papelbon, who inked a deal for four years totaling $50 million with a vesting fifth year at $13 million.
Heath Bell signed with the Marlins for $27 million over three years with a $9 million option for 2015 that can vest. Bell himself is an example of a far more dangerous investment than Soria. He is coming out of a run-scoring environment that inflated his numbers. His strikeout rate crashed. His WAR, FIP, xFIP, and ERA all declined. He also is several years older than Soria. I am not alone in being pessimistic about him.
These three big contracts happened after there was a significant drama that took place in Philadelphia involving Ryan Madson. Madson is a perfectly good reliever, and a good example of how you can manufacture a reliever just as effectively as you can buy one. He was very good as a closer after years of doubt from the Philly coaching staff and front office. They only put him in the role because everybody else was either injured or wildly ineffective. So before the Papelbon signing, the Phillies reportedly were on the verge of signing Madson to a four-year contract for $44 million to be their permanent closer.
With all this in mind and given the risk inherent in relievers given that even the best tend to burn brightly but briefly before fading away and joining the Eric Gagnes of the world in the “where is he now?” file, note that Soria has one of the friendliest contracts in baseball. He is locked up through the 2014 season at a total of just under $23 million, but each season is an option year. The team can walk away if he blows out his shoulder or starts walking everybody in the stadium.
Given the overheated market for closers, Soria and his contract should have plenty of trade value, even if you don’t buy the idea that he is a good bet to bounce back in 2012 when he doesn’t overuse the cut fastball.*
*This is a popular theory among Royals fans and analysts used to explain how everything could have declined in 2011 given that his velocity and breaking balls all seemed to be fine.
Do they have somebody in line to take the job and are they at a point in the success cycle where they should even care?
It’s funny you ask that. Despite the free agent market being absolute insanity, the Royals signed reclamation project Jonathan Broxton to a one-year pact worth $4 million with $1 million in incentives. Broxton was awful in 2011, finishing off the decline from 2009, when he was among the best relievers in baseball. He had bone spurs in his elbow removed and when he attempted to come back from the surgery to remove those bone spurs, he felt some pain in his shoulder. Obviously, health is a concern, which is why he was so cheap compared to the other experienced firemen. But if he can regain some manner of health, he obviously has a lot of upside.
In the event that Soria is traded and Broxton’s arm blows up, you have a gaggle of young relievers who either performed well or demonstrated skills that could portend a career ending games and getting handshakes from teammates. Aaron Crow has been tagged as a potential conversion into the rotation. I have my doubts as to the potential effectiveness of that particular project given his complete inability to throw an effective changeup and his utter failure as a starter in the minors. I see him as a fastball/slider reliever only.
Other candidates include undersized fastball maniac Greg Holland, righties Blake Wood and Louis Coleman, and everybody’s favorite fun sized lefty Tim Collins. It would be a short-term downgrade to go from Soria to any of these options, but would likely not be disastrous. The team’s xFIP from relievers was 17th in baseball even with the down year from Soria and one of the worst disasters in baseball history from Vin Mazzaro. In a year when most of the innings in the pen came from pitchers who were just breaking in, the bullpen wasn’t a liability.
So What do they Need?
Well, the obvious short-term need and potentially the biggest long-term need is in the rotation. As it stands today, they enter the season with a rotation of Jonathan Sanchez, Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen, Felipe Paulino, and Danny Duffy. That is a stronger rotation than what they entered 2011 with, but it isn’t likely to propel them forward in an effort to compete for the AL Central crown in 2012. It is more likely to hold serve in case the young hitters explode. Sanchez, Paulino, and Duffy in particular have the ability to post gaudy strikeout totals and/or produce even more gaudy walk rates.
They also may or may not need a center fielder. Lorenzo Cain is penciled in as the starter. He will help the pitchers quite a bit as his glove is a big upgrade over that belonging to Melky Cabrera. But he might not be a big league caliber hitter. Behind him is Mitch Maier, who is a classic fourth outfielder and Jarrod Dyson, who I feel pretty certain is not and will not be a big league caliber hitter. The position is not strong in the minors either.
Short Term? Long Term?
A big question at hand is whether the Royals should be pushing to compete in 2012 after finishing 27 games out in the division in 2012. There is a case to be made that if they can get to around 84 or 85 wins, they might luck into being in the hunt. Detroit was dominant, but with a roster that was set up to work on the strength of their stars. This is still a team that started Ryan Rayburn, Delmon Young, and Brandon Inge on the corners not occupied by Miguel Cabrera. They are also vulnerable to regression from Alex Avila, Doug Fister, Jhonny Peralta, Brennan Boesch, and Jose Valverde.
The Indians also rode the backs of a small number of players that carried the rest of the team. Carlos Santana is good, and several players like Jason Kipnis are promising, but they need big comebacks by Shin-Soo Choo and a repeat performance from Asdrubal Cabrera.
The White Sox and Twins were grease fires for most of the year dealing with gaping wounds in their lineups all year, declining farm systems, and organizational chaos that led to management changes in the offseason.
The Royals themselves seem to be hedging their bets thus far. The trade that brought them Jon Sanchez was an exchange of two players who are free agents following 2012, so it feels more like shuffling temporary assets. One team sent a bit of organizational depth in outfielders to the other team because they needed a competent starting pitcher. The other team sent that organizational depth in starting pitching for an outfielder who can outhit the pitchers.
They also tied up Jeff Francoeur and Bruce Chen for two years each. This is a short term gamble on two players who performed well in KC after years of disappointing returns and a nomadic existence. Their contracts are worth $22.5 million combined. Chen is the riskier investment, as he is a finesse lefty who has learned how to get by with weak stuff by never walking anybody. But he is also the cheaper investment. Frenchy gets the majority of the cash, but his skill set is demolishing lefty pitchers and playing a competent corner outfield. He’ll only be 29 years old when the contract is finished while Chen will be 36 at the end of 2013.
The longest commitment the team has on the books is with Billy Butler, who will turn 26 in April. He is signed through 2014 with an option for 2015. The team is wide open and rose into the top half of the AL in run scoring for the first time since 2003 and only the third time in a year that began with a two. They did this despite having the lowest payroll in the game by a margin of more than $5 million and despite ending the season with the youngest roster in all of baseball by a margin of almost a year and a half.
The team was 12th in the league in quality starts and runs allowed. To have a real shot at this thing you have to improve that. If there is a deal available out there that will offer a short and long term improvement in the rotation, but would send Soria away, then the Royals have to at least kick the tires. There are starting pitcher prospects in Omaha and Northwest Arkansas, but they are all best described as unready. The gap between Holland or Crow or a healthy Broxton and Soria might be significantly less than the difference between the worst performer in the Royals rotation and the replacement you would be bringing in.