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January 17, 2011
Agreed to terms with RHP Luke Hochevar on a one-year, $1.76 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/12]
With these moves, the Royals should have their initial rotation fairly well set up in terms of the likelies. Consider the crew lined up now that they have brought back Bruce Chen and struck a bargain with Jeff Francis:
A few words to explain terms: StartIP is innings pitched as a starter, while QS+BQS is the guy's total of quality starts (using runs, not earned runs) and quality starts through his first six innings (but blown later in the game).
I've been beating the drum for Francis for a few months now, but you have to worry about his return to full functionality in the aftermath of labrum surgery. We cannot make claims that he'll be massively better off getting away from Coors; he's a command/control lefty moving to the DH league, and his road record was much the same as his performance at altitude. Unless he lucks into facing the Indians in every series, I'm not going to be wildly optimistic about the outcome involving a complete return to his early-career brand of goodness.
But this is very much a win/win move for both parties. From the Royals' perspective, he's worth the inexpensive level of risk the team has taken on. If he's healthy enough to pitch, that's lovely, and if he pitches well, better still. From Francis' POV, he'll have every opportunity to log 30 or more starts, and earn a deadline trade to a contender and/or a better free-agency prospectus than he did this winter.
As for Chen, he was fairly lucky, both in getting the gig and winding up looking as good as he did. His season-ending three-start run of quality spins helped considerably, as he shined against the already-dead Tigers and Indians before his finest hour, a complete-game shutout of the Rays that put them a half-game behind the Yankees with two to play in the epic combat to determine which was the wild-card club. Mild stuff, sure, but admittedly, he's someone I've held a rooting interest in for years, which means squat for the Royals or their fans or the wisdom in re-signing him, but after seeing his career nearly go away like that of so many other Braves pitching discards, it's nice to see him eke out something of a career for himself (albeit as one of so many recycled Braves populating Dayton Moore's roster). On some level, you have to judge improvement not against an average, but against what else you had on hand. If Chen's still here, it's a sign that the Royals have not yet conjured up better alternatives. Once he's gone, you shouldn't celebrate his passing so much as thank him for time served.
The other three are prospects of different vintages and provenance. Kyle Davies is still hoping to make good on an Octavio Dotel rental since his pickup at the deadline in 2007. Whatever your level of investment in him, true-blue believer or a modest faith in his competence, Vin Mazzaro ought to make Moore look good for several seasons in what figures to wind up as a win/win trade with Oakland. And Luke Hochevar, heading into his fourth year as a rotation stalwart and now 27, really has to deliver to show that he's ever going to be something more than just another fourth or fifth starter despite being selected first overall in 2006; take his consistently improving rate of swinging strikes as reason for hope.
Admittedly, it is perhaps too kind to list O'Sullivan, but he is on the 40-man and notionally still ahead of a purposeless Gil Meche, not to mention NRIs like Zach Miner (recuperating from TJS) or Gaby Hernandez or the like. Looking at this lot, it's all too likely that someone who will finish in the top five for 2011 big-league starts with the Royals isn't even in the organization yet.
Frankly, even if that turns out to be the case, that's totally OK. Job one for Dayton Moore and his assorted underlings where the rotation is concerned is not to guarantee that they have a good rotation in April, but to guarantee that they have one to fill their season's slate of games with. The last thing the Royals want to have to do, either in terms of rushing talent or starting arbitration clocks ticking, is to start hauling up the members of their broad, deep wave of young pitching talent before it's ready.
The duty of the present is to fulfill their obligation to their own future. The pitching staff has been stocked because that's what responsible management must do, not unlike the hapless, hopeless Phillies using guys like Les Sweetland or Claude Willoughby in the late '20s and '30s. It was never really a question of whether they were any good, or good enough to be anybody else's starting pitcher. These oft-drubbed duellists seemed to be selected and retained with all of the thoughtful consideration with which a city's circus selects its clowns--gotta have 'em, the show must go on, and these guys were available. As one partner among 30 in the enterprise to play a full schedule in every baseball season, the point at the major-league level is less about who plays, than that the Royals have players.
Happily, the near-future boasts a bevy of better things as far as starting pitchers. While you would normally expect that somebody from among that front wave of Danny Duffy, Chris Dwyer, Mike Montgomery, and John Lamb is going to get hurt or struggle, it's possible none of them will, and that all of them are in the picture for a 2012 Opening Day rotation that bears next to no resemblance to this hard-bitten crew of expendables. If it's to Moore's credit that he hasn't indulged in some sort of Meche-level multi-million-dollar mistake, you might also note there aren't many mistakes left that you could mistake.
Stepping outside the subject of the Royals for a second, going back almost 60 years to look at the worst rotations of all time (using what's available to us through Retrosheet), where might this Royals crew finish up? Employing SNLVAR per game, you'll see that four of the 10 worst have occurred in the last decade, including one Royals team (the 2005 edition). Switch over to staff-wide FRA from starting pitchers, and you'll find five rotations from the last decade among the 10 worst--with the 2005 Royals joined by the 2006 team. You'll also find the 2010 Royals not that far beyond that decemvirate of infamy, ranking 33rd among 1,408 team-seasons from the Retrosheet-recorded era in their rate of SNLVAR, and 112th in rotation FRA. That wasn't the worst rotation of 2010, however; the Pirates handily claim that loathsome distinction; the Royals have to settle for being the next-worst.
It might be hard to suggest that the team that traded Zack Greinke is going to get better, but the more I ponder the proposition, the more I think the Royals rotation is one of those underdog crews you can't help but pity and pull for as they try to avoid winding up among history's worst. In the meantime, Royals fans, this is your team. There's solace in the fact that they're not tomorrow's team, and they may not even be your team in August, but that's not something to blame the specific front fivesome for. They are the initial burnt offerings sacrificed to what has got to be a better future.
Even so, seeing someone like Chen or Francis sustain a comeback, or Hochevar and Davies finally deliver on the expectations once held for them, has some entertainment value. Seeing if any of the non-Mazzaros has a shot at sticking around for 2012 may not be dramatic, but just as Ned Yost shouldn't be judged by whether or not the Royals finish fourth or fifth, seeing what can be salvaged from the mess in the majors represents the most important thing they can achieve, in the rotation as with every other component of the club.