November 7, 2011
The Melk Man Cometh to San Fran
Kansas City’s desire to add a veteran starting pitcher has been one of baseball’s worst kept secrets this offseason, yet credit Dayton Moore for finding a deal that did not drain his farm system. Instead, Moore swapped an outfielder (an organizational strength) to aid a rotation dealing with the potential departures of Jeff Francis and Bruce Chen. Sanchez is no ace, workhorse, or assured long-term fit (he qualifies for free agency at season’s end), but he sure is a polarizing figure.
Enigma is the word bandied about when Sanchez’s name comes up. Sanchez’s greatest marketing point is the perceived upside he carries despite turning 29 before month’s end. The ability to miss bats and compile more than a strikeout per inning pitched during his major league career has turned Sanchez into a perpetual breakout candidate, derailed only by his inconsistency in throwing strikes and getting results. Sanchez has walked almost five batters per nine innings pitched during his career and has yielded about a home run per nine even though his home games have come in spacious AT&T Park.
Sanchez’s inconsistent rap is no figment of imagination or selective memory but a tag earned by his volatile outings. No pitcher with a sub-4 earned run average and more than 20 starts since 2009 has recorded a lower rate of quality starts than Sanchez’s 37 percent. Comparable pitchers with 50-plus starts and fewer than 40 percent quality starts during the same period include the likes of Kevin Slowey, Brian Matusz, Derek Holland, and Chris Narveson. Meanwhile, two former Royals that missed inclusion are Kyle Davies (40.3 percent quality starts) and Brian Bannister (40.8 percent)—a factoid sure to give Kansas City faithful pause.
Pitchers with Sanchez’s rate of quality starts do not tend to have successful earned run averages. Sanchez has managed because of a forgiving park and defense, although the latter will change with a move to Kansas City. The offseason is young, and Moore could take steps to improve his defense, but whereas Sanchez benefitted from a unit that ranked within the top 10 in park-adjusted defensive efficiency three-straight seasons (and twice inside of the top five), the Royals’ latest offering checked in at 24th.
Pitching coaches look at what a pitcher could be, and Sanchez could be something special. Results have to take precedent over potential at some point, and Sanchez seems more likely to never improve beyond his current one-to-two Wins Above Replacement Player level than to ascend to ace status. New pitching coach Dave Eiland will swoon over Sanchez during spring side sessions but, once the games start to count, could find himself heartbroken by the results—particularly if Sanchez’s earned run average conforms to the company his quality start rates keep.
A ninth-round pick in 2008, Verdugo was a good college starter at LSU with average stuff and an ugly injury history, including a Tommy John surgery. Developed initially as a reliever, he entered the season with a career ERA of 1.75 with more than 13 strikeouts per nine innings, but scouts did not see him as a late-inning type due to his dependence on deception more than stuff. With a changeup as his best pitch, the Giants gave him another shot at starting in 2011, and he continued to miss bats with more than a strikeout per inning, but that came with a 4.35 ERA due to command issues. Verdugo's fastball has average velocity with a bit more at times, but his changeup is a true plus pitch. He mixes in a fringy breaking ball, but his biggest issues are his wavering command and a tendency to work up in the zone. He has an outside shot at turning into a No. 5 starter, but situational relief is the more likely outcome. —Kevin Goldstein
Acquired OF-S Melky Cabrera for P-L Jonathan Sanchez and P-L Ryan Verdugo. [11/07]
Danny Knobler reported last week that the Giants were more willing to spend money on a center fielder than shortstop in free agency. Maybe Brian Sabean employed a smokescreen, or perhaps he found the prices too lavish for his tastes. Whatever the reasoning, Sabean cashed in on an excess starting pitcher to acquire a new center field option.
Cabrera, like Sanchez, will reach free agency at season’s end and is maddening to his employing team because of his inconsistencies. A major league regular since age 21, Cabrera has posted WARP scores of 2.1, 1.6, -0.6, 1.3, -0.2, and 2.9, failing to meet expectations and confusing everyone involved. Cabrera found success in Kansas City because of a career-high .305 batting average—a far enough cry from his previous high mark (.280) to warrant skepticism. In a way, the Giants turned Jonathan Sanchez the pitcher into Jonathan Sanchez the tweener outfielder.
The Giants ended the season with Brandon Belt and Carlos Beltran flanking the corners, and Cabrera could wind up stuck in the middle if the Giants elect to re-sign Beltran and keep Belt in the outfield. Otherwise, the plan could be to shift Cabrera to a corner where his defensive skills, or lack thereof, are better suited. That would mean, ostensibly, that Andres Torres would receive the center field job. The Giants could pit Torres and Cabrera against each other should they acquire another corner outfielder in what becomes a battle of statistical clones. Cabrera and Torres feature virtually identical career True Averages, although how they reach those numbers differ in style.
The reason the Giants could make this trade is their rotational depth. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Ryan Vogelsong appear to be locks, and the Giants have some options for the fifth spot. Barry Zito will reprise his role as the overpaid underperformer while Eric Surkamp is the closest prospect to the majors and could earn a spot thanks to his polish. —R.J. Anderson
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @r_j_anderson