Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Yankees and Royals: Birds of a Feather?

The New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals should NEVER be mentioned in the same column, let alone the same sentence or headline. The Yankees are baseball’s consummate high rent tenant, perennially fielding the sport’s best paid team while playing in America’s largest city and media capital. Oh, and they’re pretty good too, having made the playoffs in 13 of the last 14 seasons. The Royals, on the other hand, play in one of baseball’s smallest markets, continually have one of the game’s lowest payrolls and have finished over .500 just ONCE during those same 14 seasons.

Their differences aside, the Yankees and Royals actually shared the back page this morning when both teams made superb personnel decisions. New York signed veteran lefty Andy Pettitte to a bargain basement one–year contract worth $5.5 million plus incentives, while Kansas City inked young ace Zack Greinke to a four-year deal worth $38 million.

To state each of the reasons why the Pettitte move was a good one for the Yankees would be an academic exercise at this point as every media outlet from ESPN to ranyontheroyals.com has dedicated valuable time and effort to that very task. However, the one benefit of the deal we feel obliged to discuss is the tremendous amount of flexibility it gives Yankees skipper Joe Girardi.

In Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, Girardi has at his disposal two young, ultra-talented right-handers. Yet both have serious questions as the 2009 season approaches. After bouncing from the bullpen to the starting rotation in ’08, Chamberlain’s assignment for this season is still somewhat murky, as is the general consensus regarding his durability as a starter.

Hughes endured a horrid ’08 campaign after logging only a handful innings in Triple A, and many in the game feel strongly that he needs more minor league seasoning before giving the big leagues another shot.

The re-signing of Pettitte allows New York greater latitude in dealing with Chamberlain and Hughes. Rather than having to once again force feed Hughes, the Yankees now have the luxury of giving Hughes all the time he needs in AAA. However, should the 22-year-old be lights out this spring and prove that he’s ready for primetime, Chamberlain can shift to the bullpen (where many analysts, including this writer, feel he belongs anyway), where he can serve as a caddy for Mariano Rivera. Rivera, it should be noted, turns 40 later this year and is recovering from shoulder surgery.

As an aside, we feel Pettitte will have a strong year. Not only will he be supported by a better defense and lineup, as well as have the incentive of earning an additional $6.5 million in assorted roster/performance bonuses, but he’ll also be pitching for a shot at the Hall of Fame. With 215 career victories, a 15+ win season would probably convince the native Texan, still just 36, to stick around in 2010. And if he gets into the 240-250 wins range, his sterling 18-7 postseason record, would help him considerably.

Halfway across this great country of ours, the Royals’ signing of Greinke was received with pure glee. And with good reason, as GM Dayton Moore hasn’t exactly impressed anyone with the moves he’s made this winter. With new arrivals Willie Bloomquist, CoCo Crisp and Mike Jacobs joining Jose Guillen and Miguel Olivo in K.C.’s starting lineup, Moore will be paying over $24 million this year to five guys with career OBPs of .331 and under.

And then there’s Kyle Farnsworth, who was rewarded for his 1.53 WHIP last year with a two-year deal guaranteeing him almost $10 million.

But, alas, Moore finally got one right by locking up Greinke through his first two years of free agency. Greinke had a breakthrough 2008, finishing in the top ten in the A.L. in ERA, total strikeouts, strikeouts per nine innings and strikeouts-to-walks, and at 25 is poised to emerge as one of the Junior Circuit’s top pitchers.

The new contract will pay Greinke $3.75 million this year, $7.25 million in 2010 and $13.5 million in 2011 and 2012. Assuming Greinke remains healthy (not an unreasonable assumption since he’s never missed time due to arm trouble), he would be a very sound investment for Moore and the Royals.

To illustrate this point we’ve used the table below to compare Greinke’s metrics with other right-handers of the same body type (i.e. between six-feet and Greinke’s six-foot-three) and pitching style who earned more than $10 million in 2008. In the spirit of conservatism we’ve assumed that Greinke at 27 and 28, his prime years when he’ll be earning $13.5 million, will perform exactly as he did as a 24-year-old in ’08 and not experience the statistical spike most power pitchers do when they reach their late twenties.

Player Salary Innings ERA WHIP K/BB

Greinke $13.5mm 202.3 3.47 1.28 3.27

Oswalt $13.0mm 208.7 3.54 1.18 3.51
Hudson $13.0mm 142.0 3.33 1.16 2.13
Vazquez $11.5mm 208.3 4.67 1.32 3.28
Sheets $11.0mm 198.3 3.09 1.15 3.36

After examining the evidence provided, it’s clear that even with the conservative estimate of his future performance, Greinke is easily on a par with his contemporaries earning eight figures per season. Now throw in the fact that salaries will escalate between 2008 and 2011-12 (when Greinke is due his $13.5 million per annum) and it becomes obvious that the Royals got themselves one heck of a deal.

And for that they have the privilege of sharing the headlines with the vaunted Yankees.

At least for a day.

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