Ball Star

Point/counterpoint: Building the Royals' pitching staff

Updated: 2012-11-28T16:51:11Z

Star columnist Sam Mellinger wrote about his desire to see Royals owner David Glass spend more money on pitching for the 2013 season.

For the last week, The Star’s Pete Grathoff and Ben Nielsen have exchanged emails on that subject. Here’s their give and take:

PETE: This flies in the face of what most Royals fans think, but I like the way general manager Dayton Moore has gone about building the pitching staff for 2013.

I think the $17 million spent on Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie is smarter than throwing $100 at Anibal Sanchez, who is overpriced heading into free agency. The Royals simply can’t afford to spend that kind of money on one player, because if Sanchez gets hurt or is ineffective, the Royals would be hamstrung throughout the life of the contract.

Santana’s contract will go off the books in 2014 and that money will more than cover what is going to Guthrie that season. Factor in the TV money all the clubs will be getting and the Royals will be sitting pretty in 2014. The market for free-agent pitching is thin this winter. Not overspending now is the right decision. I believe Moore will make a good trade for a young pitcher that will help make the Royals a contender next season.

Don’t overspend for a Sanchez or Greinke now. Santana, Guthrie and another solid young arm will make a big difference in 2013.

BEN: If the idea is to compete for a division title then the Royals are no closer today to that goal than they were at the end of the season. While I am pleased to see that the Royals are being aggressive in their attempt to fix an anemic starting rotation, the way the Royals are going about finding solutions is simply not going to work.

In an isolated setting, the individual acquisitions of Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie are not bad ones, but when put together it forms a wasted opportunity. The issue the Royals faced heading into the offseason was not just "starting pitching" but "top of the rotation" starting pitching. Neither Guthrie or Santana fits the bill as a top of the rotation starter. Santana has as many seasons with an ERA over 5 as he does seasons with an ERA under 4, and Guthrie’s last three seasons - at ages 31, 32 and 33 no less - total up to exactly league average, a 100 ERA+. Those are not top of the rotation numbers and does not fill the real need Kansas City had going into the offseason.

Also, if the Royals are going to commit $17 million to two lottery tickets, then why not spend that same money on something more certain like Anibal Sanchez? Moore is committing dollars to two guys who had respective ERA’s of 5.97 and 6.68 at the end of July last season. Meanwhile, Sanchez, who will turn 29 in February, has had an ERA under 4 in each of the last four seasons and has shown the kind of production and consistency the Royals need from the top of their rotation. Is Sanchez an ace? Not right now, no. But is he a top of the rotation starter? Yes he is.

The Royals still have to answer the question, "What pitcher do we send out to matchup against Justin Verlander?" and they still don’t have an answer, and now have $17 million fewer dollars to find the solution.

PETE: I think it’s important to remember that Dayton Moore is not finished building the rotation, and your assertion that the Royals are no closer to competing couldn’t be farther from the truth.

If you’re going to trot out ERA+, let’s keep in mind that in 2011, Luke Hochevar (71), Bruce Chen (81) and Luis Mendoza (97) all fell short of the 100 plateau you so snidely dismissed.

By adding Guthrie and Santana, the Royals have two inning-eating starters on board a year after we witnessed too many games that were over in the third inning because the starter was shelled. The Royals have a stellar bullpen and the offense will improve with Wil Myers in the lineup in place of Frenchy and a bounce-back year by Hosmer (which you fully expect to happen).

So Guthrie, Santana and a third starter to come will make the Royals’ rotation better. Remember, hovering around .500 will keep the Royals in the hunt in baseball’s worst division.

Anibal Sanchez would be a nice addition, but at five or six years at $15 million per? That’s just too high a price for a guy who’s already had an arm injury. You can’t pin one-fifth of your payroll (from 2013 to 2018) on a guy who could be one of the better starters in the AL. Should he stay in the AL, we’ll see how he performs in a full season of not facing a pitcher at the plate.

The moves made by Moore and the one to come will be enough to make the Royals contenders in the Central in 2013.

BEN: Ervin Santana had an ERA+ of 73 last season, worse than Mendoza and Chen while on par with Hochevar. Jonathan Sanchez’ ERA+ was 82 the year before he was traded to KC. Just trotting that out there. Also, unless Moore is able to pull off another deal, the Hochevar/Chen/Mendoza threesome will be in the 2013 rotation for at least half of the season.

Second, while I am willing to trade one of Myers, Butler, Gordon, Hosmer and Moustakas for starting pitching, it needs to be noted when/if a trade happens Kansas City will be filling one hole while opening another.

While another deal may be coming for a true frontline starter, I am not convinced whoever they obtain paired with Guthrie and Santana would make them division contenders. The Royals are spending $17 million on fourth and fifth starters when they need top of the rotation starters. Kansas City would have been in a better position if they spent the money on trading for Bud Norris and signing Edwin Jackson or giving the money to Anibal Sanchez.

The numbers suggest it would have been a better risk, too.

PETE: Thanks for showing us how ridiculous it is to depend entirely on metrics to make baseball decisions. Anyone who watches baseball can tell you that Santana was lights out the last 6 weeks of the season, and he’s going into a contract year, so he’ll be especially motivated to produce.

I’ll wrap it up with six names: Denny Naegle, Mike Hampton, Barry Zito, Kevin Brown, Chan Ho Park, Darren Dreifort.

History is littered with terrible contracts thrown at pitchers, ones that at the time either seemed smart or at least like a decent risk. All blew up in their teams’ faces. The Giants are the lone exception, having worked around Zito’s ineptitude to win two titles in three years. But they’ve won in spite of him not because of him, and a bad signing would hamper the Royals.

They’re on the the right road and we’ll see that next season.

BEN: Baseball-Reference tells us Santana benefited from a .185 batting average on balls in play in his final 10 starts of the season. This was key because his home run rate, the biggest issue of his season, stayed the same in those starts (15 home runs allowed). Fangraphs also tells us his fastball dipped a full mile per hour, and hitters made the most contact off of him since 2007. Will Santana be Jonathan Sanchez? Unlikely. But he will not be the difference maker the Royals need either.

For every Denny Naegle, Mike Hampton, Barry Zito, Kevin Brown, Chan Ho Park and Darren Dreifort there is a Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez… we could do this all day. Indeed, history is littered with bad contracts given to pitchers who at the time seemed worth it. It is also true Kansas City’s last two decades is littered with bad contracts and hundreds of losses at the hands of “promising” affordable pitchers like Darrell May, Runelvys Hernandez, Brian Anderson, Mark Redman, Jose Lima, Scott Elarton, Odalis Perez, Kyle Davies and Jeff Francis. Sure, Redman was an “All-Star” and the Royals hit on Paul Byrd and Bruce Chen was decent for two years, but for the most part everyone else failed. The Royals lottery ticket system for building a starting rotation hasn’t worked for two decades and it will never work.

We both agree the best way to build a rotation is for a team to develop its own aces. The Royals have failed at “plan A” and are now forced into acquiring pitching through trades and free agency, “plan B.” It isn’t optimal, but if the Royals signed Anibal Sanchez then they could make a serious push for a division title without having to chip away at their nucleus of position players. KC should go for it.

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