It was just a little while ago that Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore stubbornly refused to throw in the towel and concede defeat. To the media, at least. Though Moore acknowledged his team was below .500 this season, he said he thought they still had a run in them — that the team hadn’t yet settled into a groove. The Royals, he said, weren’t going to be sellers. If anything, Kansas City was going to be buyer. Based on Moore’s words, the Royals were going to keep going for it, and we criticized that here. And lots of people criticized it in lots of places.
There might be a lesson here, about judging general managers by their words instead of by their actions. Sometimes, you have to say one thing while you try to do another, to keep up appearances. And while the Royals have played fine baseball since Moore delivered his message to the press, there are reports Moore’s position isn’t exactly what he suggested. From Wednesday:
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) July 24, 2013
Availability of #Royals’ Santana changes market for starting pitching. 3.18 ERA in 130 1/3 innings, .641 opponents’ OPS, 104 Ks, 28 BBs.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) July 24, 2013
Of course, there still haven’t been any actions, and every player in baseball would be moved for the “right offer.” If it wasn’t quite fair to blast Moore for saying he wasn’t giving up, it’s similarly not fair to compliment Moore on his willingness to move Santana somewhere else. But there’s some substance here, as it would appear that the Royals have put Ervin Santana on the trade market. That changes things.
For the Royals, this wouldn’t be too hard to swallow. Though Santana’s been a terrific pitcher, they now have Danny Duffy healthy and pitching in the minors; Santana is a free-agent-to-be. Odds are he didn’t factor into the 2014 plans, so trading Santana wouldn’t hurt next year’s playoff chances. Other reports have the Royals looking at Alex Rios, who’s under contract beyond this year’s home stretch.And if you consider both that and the team’s unwillingness to talk about James Shields, it looks like the team is prepared to move on from 2013 while focusing on a run in a year. That’s not altogether unreasonable.
After this season, without a trade, the Royals would extend to Santana a qualifying offer and then he would probably sign a multi-year contract somewhere else. The Royals then would be entitled to compensation, so whatever they might move Santana for now would have to exceed that compensation draft pick in value. If this were still the Ervin Santana of before, that might’ve been a tall task. But Santana seems to be something of a new man. He’s improved from the pitcher the Angels dumped on the Royals simply to clear salary. This time, in a trade, Santana could fetch more than Brandon Sisk.
Here’s a table to consider, showing Santana’s monthly average fastball velocities:
Last season, Santana’s fastball declined, and while he never went on the disabled list, he acknowledged he experienced some elbow discomfort. It’s not the first time he had some issues with his elbow, but he’s bounced back in 2013 and right now he’s pitching strong and easy. Santana’s pitching with familiar arm strength, and that seems to be driving some truly promising results.
I count 67 starters who have thrown at least 100 innings in both 2012 and 2013. In terms of drop in ERA-, Santana ranks first. In terms of drop in FIP-, Santana ranks first. In terms of drop in xFIP-, Santana ranks second, between Homer Bailey and Justin Masterson. Santana’s trending in the right direction: He’s thrown more strikes, he’s walked fewer batters, he’s whiffed more batters and he’s put more balls in play on the ground. In all the ways a pitcher can improve, Santana has improved. And while he’s still not one of the very best pitchers in baseball, what he is is perhaps the best pitcher on the market. If not that, he might have the most trade value.
Matt Garza just got traded from the Cubs to the Rangers, and Garza is good. But Garza was pitching in the National League, and earlier this season he missed time due to injury. Jake Peavy is back and being dangled by the White Sox, and he’s quite good too, but he’s missed time due to injury. In reality, teams don’t quite know what he’s capable of right now. Santana has recent health and recent success, and he’s pitched in the AL. He’s always pitched in the AL, and he has postseason experience. Throw in the fact Santana has a live fastball, and the Royals should expect at least as much as the Cubs got for Garza. What Peavy has, that Santana doesn’t, is another year of team control, since he’s under contract in 2014. But Peavy also has reliability issues and Santana requires little commitment.
It helps the Royals to have seen what Garza was able to fetch, and that kind of package easily exceeds the value of a compensation draft pick. They’re similar pitchers with similar talents and similar contract situations, and now that market’s been set. Some feel like the Rangers paid steeply, but the Rangers obviously found the deal fair. It wouldn’t be outlandish for the Royals to ask for even more. Santana has the lowest walk rate of his career, and the second-highest strikeout rate. For the first time ever, he might be considered a moderate groundball pitcher. There haven’t been sweeping changes in Santana’s repertoire, but there have been changes in how he’s used it. That’s how he has basically the same ERA-, FIP- and xFIP- as Madison Bumgarner. The Royals got Santana on the cheap and they’re in position to turn him into long-lasting value.
The Royals think they’re close, but a run in 2014 is a hell of a lot more likely than a run in 2013. Kansas City could trade Ervin Santana without appearing like they’re entering another rebuild. Santana’s unlikely to re-sign after the season, and it shouldn’t be hard to turn him into more than a late-first-round draft pick. There’s an argument to be made that the Royals should do more — a lot more — like look to trade Shields, too. But let’s deal with one thing at a time. It’s right to put Santana on the market. And Santana might just have the most trade value of anyone there. The Royals saw what the Cubs did with Matt Garza. A move like that would be great for the Royals.
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