Last week, we took a look back at the changes Dayton Moore has made to the big league roster since taking over during the 2006 season, specifically the position players. Part II examines the pitching staff, which has been subject to a much more radical transformation.
Dayton Moore inherited a bad team in 2006. The Royals would only win 62 games, which was actually their highest win total in three season. The '06 Royals couldn't hit, were bad defensively and were terrible on the mound. Although Moore's earliest moves were aimed at upgrading the offense (Gathright, amazingly, and Shealy) it quickly became apparent that his top priority was building a pitching staff. And for good reason, for while the offense was bad (12th in the AL in runs scored), the '06 pitching staff was legitimately worthy of the label "historically bad".
The '06 staff struck out the fewest hitters in the league and walked the most, while allowing the second most home runs. The team ERA was over 5.00 during every month of the season, en route to allowing the most runs in the league. Overall, the Buddys gave up 971 runs, easily the most in baseball, and as I discovered that fall, the 21st highest total ever allowed. Lastly, perhaps the most amazing thing about the '06 pitching staff was this: Jimmy Gobble led the team in strikeouts. That's right, a semi-effective relief pitcher who once posted one of the lowest K/9 for a starter in the modern era led the team in strikeouts.
A staggering number of bad pitchers have shuttled through Kansas City in the last twenty years and 2006 was the annus mirabilis of failed pitchers. Essentially, every significant idea Allard tried failed as the staff reeled from the Spring Training departure of Zack Greinke. Even trying to assign labels to this group is difficult. Just who was the "fifth starter" on the '06 team? By performance level, basically they all were and with seventeen pitchers making a start, there are something like nine or ten guys who might qualify. Anyway, before your humble servant cranks out any more sentences with punchlines in italics lets compare the starting rotations, then as now. Remember, I'm going with Baird's guys more or less out of the gate, although it went south so quickly its a legitimate challenge to define things.
Aside from the technical exception of Jimmy Gobble, no one who started a game for the Royals in 2006 is now a part of the organization's plans. Brandon Duckworth (8 starts) and Luke Hudson (15 starts) are still around in some vague sense, but are not likely to contribute to the big league club ever again and only Affeldt is a good bet to appear on any 25-man roster in 2009.
Moore eventually acquired Odalis Perez and inserted them as Jorge de la Rosa rotation regulars, and combined Odie and JDLR made 71 starts in blue and white, albeit in different circumstances. Thanks to a second-half surge of adequacy, Luke Hudson emerged as the quasi-ace of the staff, and was poised to earn himself something like at least two more contracts and maybe $20 million more in earnings, thanks to his workman like 92 ERA+. Unfortunately, Luke has battled injuries since 2006, and will likely have to support himself with a non-baseball job for may decades after retirement.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the 2008 rotation, despite some disappointing numbers, is the actual coherence of the rotation as an idea. Leaving aside the fact that Greinke is clearly the best pitcher (now and going forward) of the bunch, you've got a reliable Meche at the top, a potentially reliable Banny behind him, an emerging Hochevar and then some #5 flotsam, which is perfectly normal. The 2006 rotation was like twelve versions of Tomko battling it out for five months.
The question remains however, just how excited we should be about Moore's progress on the rotation. As with every other facet of the roster he inherited, the staff he was charged with improving was incredibly horrible. So on one hand, we need to be reminded of the need for patience, on the other, making the worst staff in baseball a little bit better shouldn't be so hard. You mean he had to choose not to make another run at Joe Mays and Steve Stemle? Greinke remains a potentially special player, but most realistically a second-tier ace type. Meche is now a career league average pitcher right on the nose, which I think is a decent approximation of his performance going forward, with extra value added for durability. Hochevar could be at Meche's level by season's end, and certainly should be moving forward. That leaves the franchise with three starters who are demonstrably better than anybody employed in 2006, and represents a very promising rotation core. Brian Bannister should probably best be seen as what Allard saw Scott Elarton as back in 2006: a dude who sorta gives you a chance every time out. As your fourth best starter, that's valuable. Looking at the rotations from another perspective, although I'm pretty lukewarm on Banny, I nevertheless feel better about his future than I did any member of the 2006 rotation. As for the fifth starter of the future... isn't that an oxymoron? Honestly, hopefully it's Bannister and in the meantime someone better emerges above him.
With memories of "All-Star Mark Redman" dancing between our ears, let us take a look at the bullpen work Dayton has done:
With bullpen roles and hierarchies as fluid as they are, I've simply tried to list the most common guys in the middle, with the designated closer up top and the designated longman/swingman at the bottom. The 2006 has a million guys appear in the pen, but aside from Wood, that is more or less the bully as Baird wanted it heading north in 2006. Nunez would also appear in 2006, but in fairly limited duty. As strange as it sounds, the bullpen was the strength of the team in 2006. They weren't good, per se, but they weren't presented to you by FEMA either. (Although ERA based numbers for relievers are pretty problematic.) Without getting too complicated (which I welcome in the comments) the bullpen had some decent guys. Elmer Dessens was decent. Joe Nelson was decent. Current holdovers Jimmy Gobble and Joel Peralta were decent. (How odd is it that those were the guys who remained?) Yes, the '06 pen ended up posting a league-worst 5.36 ERA, but considering the starters came out at 5.85 ERA, that league-worst performance still helped mitigate disaster. Moreover, compared to the starters, the bullpen was a much more stable group.
Still, the 2008 edition is plainly better. Throwing out Ho-Ram's small sample size glory, the current pen claims four fireballers who are markedly better than any reliever the Royals had in 2006. Moore deserves no genius plaudits for signing Ron Mahay and having Leo Nunez mature on his watch, but should be applauded for finding studs Joakim Soria and Ramon Ramirez. Although bullpen performances remain extremely unpredictable from year to year, Moore has emulated the White Sox model of accumulating a number of guys who can miss bats, an element the Royals have lacked on the mound for a decade. Although the bullpen's ERA has fallen back to 9th best in the AL (3.84), Royals relievers are 8th in K/9 and 4th in K/BB in the AL. In those same three categories in 2006, the Royal pen ranked 14th, 11th and 12th respectively. Hopefully, Moore will be able to maximize his most clearly demonstrated skill thus far as a GM, an ability to find pitchers. To do so, he'll need to flip finds like Ramirez for more talent in other areas. Thus far, we've seen nothing resembling a sell-high trade from Moore.
Dayton Moore has famously said that pitching is the "currency of baseball" and let it be known that his plan is to develop the organization's pitching depth, before using those assets to acquire offense. As outlined in Part I, the offense is certainly not much better two years into his regime, and in fact may be worse, so Moore's purported strategy is a either a telling admission of policy or a convenient excuse. The logical implication of the "currency of baseball" ethos is that building an offense is easy, something that can be done casually or on the side. If this is the case, why are the Royals so far from having a league average lineup and why does Moore need to trade pitching in the first place to construct one? Essentially, Dayton has told us that he is confident he can not only build one good pitching staff, he can build one and a half good staffs. The question is, do we believe him?
Looking ahead to 2009 and 2010, it isn't hard to imagine that Moore has the pieces in place to field a good, not great, starting rotation and a good, maybe great, bullpen. (Forget for a moment that these adjectives, which so many of us Royals fans have accepted as articles as faith are not backed up by the numbers.) Barring a major leap by Hochevar -- another player Moore really shouldn't receive much credit for -- it looks very much like one of the milquetoast rotations we've seen do well in the National League (the mid-decade Cardinals, last year's Rockies) and look much less impressive against the American League. That being said, if everything breaks right, you don't need a 2006 Johan Santana on your team to have a good pitching staff (i.e. this year's White Sox). However, as we continue to wind back and forth between positive and negative ways of looking at the same uncertainty, good soldiers like Gil Meche and Brian Bannister and someone from the Davies/Tomko/Bale pool are going to have to actually be what we treat them as, or wish they were, and not not-quite-there imitations. Of course, playoff teams with #2,#2,#3,#4,#4 type rotations almost always have above-average offenses. As with our hopes for the pitching staff, an above average staff remains, like a stress-free Thanksgiving, something that we can easily imagine, yet also likely to fall short of.