Five years ago, the Royals took a flier on left-hander Bruce Chen.
Despite missing the 2008 season after having elbow surgery, Chen got a minor-league deal with the Royals. Not long after, the Royals signed Sidney Ponson and there was basically a collective yawn around baseball.
Baseball Prospectus wrote: “From the ‘where are they now?’ files, the same team signed up Bruce Chen and Sidney Ponson? Talk about dialing the wayback machine to Baltimore circa 2005. … Chen managed to fall back into major league favor by doing his best for Panama in the WBC after warming up with some work in the Puerto Rican Winter League.”
While the 2009 season proved to be Ponson’s last, Chen has found a home with the Royals after pitching for nine teams in a 10-year span. That’s not your normal career path for a player, something that even Chen had to chuckle about.
“Sometimes guys have a background where they play five or six years and then bounce around,” Chen said. “It’s funny, I bounced around and now I’ve been with the Royals for five years.
“I feel very privileged to be with the Royals and am now in a position where I can help them win and get back to the playoffs.”
Chen, 36, is coming back to the Royals for a sixth season after agreeing to a one-year contract with a mutual option for 2015.
After a rough start to his time in Kansas City (Chen was 1-6 with a 5.78 ERA in 2009 when his season ended because of a torn left oblique), he has won 44 games over the past four seasons. He was the Royals’ Bruce Rice Pitcher of the Year award in 2011, led the league in starts in 2012 and was solid last year.
After beginning last season in the bullpen, Chen made 15 starts after the All-Star break, going 6-4 with a 3.61 ERA. That included a stretch where he had a 0.93 ERA over six starts.
Chen’s strikeouts-to-walk ratio in each of the last two years are the best he’s had over a full season since he was a 23-year-old in 2000 when (no surprise) he pitched for two teams, the Braves and Phillies.
Additionally, Chen’s FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, if you didn’t know) a year ago was 4.12, his best season in the majors. According to FanGraphs, Chen’ s WAR over the last four seasons is 6.0, a sizeable chunk of his career total (9.4).
That’s a long way of saying Chen seems to have found his niche with the Royals.
“I have learned a lot of things over the years,” Chen said. “I am a better pitcher now because of my philosophy. I know I don’t have a Clayton Kershaw curveball and I don’t have a change-up like James Shields. But I’m getting better because I have a better idea of how to pitch.”
It seemed like Chen’s tenure in Kansas City was done after this season. But he said the Royals checked in a few times during the offseason, including after they signed pitcher Jason Vargas.
Chen confirmed that the Royals’ offer was less money than he could have received elsewhere, but, as they say, money isn’t everything.
“What it all came down to, the money wasn’t huge, but when I was analyzing everything, I’ve been treated very well by the Royals and we are a winning club,” Chen said.
The Royals’ win totals since Chen arrived in 2009: 65, 67, 71, 72 and 86 a year ago.
“I have been through the rebuilding process,” Chen said. “I’ve seen all these guys come in and start winning. I want to get to the playoffs. I want to do it for me and I want to do it for the fans.”