Late last night, the Royals announced that Joakim Soria was headed to the retroactive DL (you actually need a time machine to do this, but luckily Glass owns one, which has been key in maintaining Wal-Mart's labor standards) with Luke Hochevar coming up to take the available roster spot. In an unexpected twist, Sidney Ponson will shift to the bullpen.
Let's take a look at these moves individually, which on the whole represent a mix of the obvious and the curious:
Move One: Soria to the DL
If you buy into the Closer Myth, then this is the scariest move of all, sure tp produce a crushing ninth-inning loss within 48 hours, which will, in turn, send the Royals on a huge demoralization-fueled losing streak. I don't believe in that brand of thinking, though I do agree that a healthy Soria is not only the team's best reliever, but also one of the very best in the game. The problem is that he isn't healthy and that he's barely been around all season. Through the team's first seven games he appeared in four games, but since then, he's only thrown 4.2 innings, good for a total of 8.2 on the season. Even a healthy closer is only vaguely around most of the time and for all intents and purposes, the Royals have been without Soria for a month. Aside from a tense extra-innings appearance in Minnesota, Soria hasn't appeared in a really tough game anytime recently, and in that game, he faced one batter with the game tied, then got the save/win with a three run lead.
The larger concern, at least as I read it, is that no one quite knows what is wrong. He's on the DL with shoulder soreness with an official goal of rest, but he's rested before, to an extent, and still felt pain.
Sitting here, in my proverbial mother's basement, it's impossible to speculate about how this has been handled -- there's been rumblings of a disconnect between Soria and the team's staff -- or what the future holds. All that really matters, as a final takeaway here, is that this isn't a generic trip to the DL, where we have a clear understanding of how long he'll be out. He didn't tweak his hamstring or break a finger, for example.
Some have concluded that this should put the starter/closer controversy to rest, though considering that Soria is under team control for something like the next hundred years, I'm not sure how this settles much long-term. From where I sit, we should also take the last month as evidence for just how unimportant closers end up being.
Move Two: Hochevar to the Rotation
What Soria's injured allowed was for the Royals and their public leadership team/quote givers of Moore and Hillman to do the easy thing and slot Hochevar into the rotation, without having to lie about why this didn't happen from the beginning. As devoted men of faith, I'd hate to see that happen, especially for Moore, a man for whom, we all know, is deeply concerned with lies in print.
All along, this was a simple money-saving gesture, a gambit to game Hochevar's service time clock so that he avoided arbitration for a year longer, or, at the very least, Super Two status. Sometimes these moves work in spades, sometimes they become irrelevant due to a player's poor performance or injury, so who knows. Personally, I think this type of move makes more sense for position players, who remain easier to project and who tend to steadily get better in a more linear way than pitchers. Of course, the Royals have displayed this kind of overt gaming only with a pitcher, while doing the exact opposite with Butler and Gordon, but oh well. Let's just hope the Royals don't lose the division by a game.
Getting back to the rotation, it's interesting to note how quickly the Royals reshuffled their staff. It took 32 games for the Royals to replace 40% of their rotation, with the hated Ramirez-Ponson duo to be replaced by Bannister and Hochevar. Hochevar's the best pitcher of the lot, or at least should be, with the reason why he's the last to join the party described above. Still, it remains murky just how much of an upgrade he'll be. One imperfect way of looking at it, is that PECOTA pegs Hochevar to post a 4.95 ERA, while Ponson and Ho-Ram were at 5.36 & 5.37 respectively.As the team's only really ready pitching prospect, Hochevar's ability and impact has probablybe over-stated a bit by fans. He'll make the staff better, no question, but he's not the next Greinke. In part, Hochevar's value may be more a secondary one: if he's a tick better than Ponson or Ho-Ram, he may be able to pitch that extra inning that they weren't, thus making the next two games easier for the bullpen.
(I do think that Hochevar could have one start a month that's torpedoed by the Royals' infield defense. Hopefully I'm wrong.)
The interesting thing here is perhaps the re-emergence of Brian Bannister as part of the team's plans. Perhaps, for the next few years, this is just how it's going to be: Davies and Banny and probably Luke will have good and bad stretches, and we'll devote a lot of energy to ranking them, writing about them, wonderinng why the struggling one's (at that moment) have lost it, etc. Stay tuned, I guess.
Move Three: Ponson to the Bullpen
This one caught me off-guard and still doesn't fully make sense. It's not a terrible move, but as with the Hochevar moves, it's likely heavily influenced by non-directly-baseball issues, a way of stashing Ponson on the big league roster so that the Royals can't lose him. Ponson has only appeared as a RP fifteen times in what has been a long career, and the bulk of those were back in 1998.
Treyball has described him as a possible "ground-ball guy" out of the 'pen, which is actually accurate, at least compared to similar options like Mahay, Wright, Farnsy, Tejeda, etc: Ponson's consistently posted GB%s around 50%. Sure, imagning a scenario in which Treyball (does a man who calls Soria "Jack" really deserve to be called by his name?) brings in Ponson with runners on first and third specifically to get a double play sounds horrifying to me, and probably you, but there is some logic to it.
In thinking about the post-Soria bullpen now, what jumps out is what an odd mix it is: three failed starters (Ho-Ram, Tejeda, Ponson) who are probably in some vague long-man/low-leverage role,a journeyman failed starter who has been elevated to greater prominence (Wright), a shiny setup man who can't get guys out despite his paycheck (Farnsworth), another shiny setup man who may or may not be the lefty-specialist who also may be toast (Mahay) and one guy who is just a classic, legitimately good reliever (Cruz).
Royals Bullpen (non-Soria) Leverage Ranks, 2009:
If the rules of the game were changed, and baseball games were played in 11 innings, the Royals would be in great shape with all those long-men. Considering however that Ponson really won't pitch that much (or if he will, it'll be at the expense of Tejeda or Ho-Ram) it's hard to envision how anything is served by having all three of them around, especially in a rotation with Zack Greinke pitching every five days. So if you're looking for the patented RR complaint or dose of negativity it is this: I'd rather have an extra position player the failed starter based bullpen.
This is where the Farnsworth, Ho-Ram and Ponson signings continue to hurt the Royals, because it isn't just about money, it's about roster space. We all know that the Royals, short of just outrighting one of those guys, are stuck with all three. So that means we're talking about Tejeda versus an extra bat. He's the only guy who can be demoted or released realistically,, absent another "injury" like Waechter's, other than Ponson, and the reason why I'm writing this is that Ponson is still around.
If you want to think about it another way, as yourself this question: is there any real difference between Ponson, Ho-Ram, Tejeda and current darling Jamey Wright? They're all just guys. (As I say now about Treyball, "he's just a guy.") They're guys who you probably don't want starting too much, and who are decent options out of the 'pen. At any given moment, two will probably be a little hot, in terms of their performance, two cold. They have value to a team, but only to a point: I can see a real benefit to having two of these guys around, especially if one of them catches fire as a reliever. Maybe three, maybe, if you don't trust your rotation. But four?!?!?!? That's a huge chunk of the roster when they're all in the bullpen. Add in the fact that you have another guy in Farnsworth who you pretty much can't use, and it creates a problem.
Given how much Hillman has displayed a proclivity to pinch-hit in the late innings, I think I'd prefer the extra position player. The man has been pinch-hitting Willie Bloomquist for goodness sakes! If he's going to do that, I'd rather it be Ryan Shealy or John Buck/Olivo (with more use of them thanks to a third catcher and/or more positional flexibility) than Bloomy. I'd rather give Hillman one more toy to PH or PR or defensive sub with than carry the fourth member of the Ho-Ram/Ponson/Tejeda/Farnsworth quartet of emergency low-leverage guys who essentially never appear at moments that matter.
Regarding swing-men/long-men/fifth starter types, the Royals certainly have depth, which is a good thing. On the Major League roster however, depth one place usually means you're shallow somewhere else. The Royals currently have a bullpen that's built for an eleven run game, but ill-equiped to handle a close game in the sixth inning. Assuming Cruz becomes the magical closer who we'll only see in the 9th with a 1-3 run lead, then suddenly the Ron Mahay/Jamey Wright duo becomes the key to the whole bullpen.