Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. Jeremy Guthrie had always been a solid pitcher. He’d put in some above-average work for the Orioles in the past, and his ineptitude for the Rockies seemed unfounded. Yet, with an ERA of 6.35 and a 3-9 record, he appeared to be on the ropes. His stock had fallen so far that the Colorado Rockies had just dumped him for a dumpster fire named Jonathan Sanchez and cash.
Then something amazing happened.
No longer plagued by the mile-high home run rate he had at Coors Field (2.1 HR/9), Guthrie turned around his season and saved his career with a 5-3 record and 3.16 ERA after being traded to Kansas City. Suddenly, Dayton Moore had traded Melky Cabrera for Jeremy Guthrie instead of Jonathan Sanchez. Suddenly, an All-Star Game MVP for worst pitcher in baseball swap had turned into Jeremy Guthrie for a suspended performance-enhancing drug (PED) user (Cabrera).
Things had turned out better than the Royals ever could have hoped. Indeed it is better to be lucky than good. So good, in fact, that Dayton Moore decided to double down on his winning hand from last season by giving Guthrie a three-year deal worth $25 million dollars ($5 million in the first year, $11 million the second year and $9 million the third year). What does this mean for the Royals' pitching staff going forward? And has Moore perhaps shown more than just the cards he laid down by re-signing Guthrie?
In order to best understand just what impact the signing might have, it is first important to look at what kind of on-field impact Guthrie can expect to make. Before last season, Guthrie had compiled a 4.12 ERA during his five seasons in Baltimore. This is nothing to sneeze at, but the numbers suggest that playing in the AL East and a hitter's ballpark in Camden Yards (Rany Jazayerli does a great job of detailing this here) make that ERA even more impressive.
If Guthrie’s true talent as an AL Central pitcher includes a sub-four ERA, then the Royals have found their best pitcher since Zack Greinke and a great number three starter. More importantly, Guthrie doesn’t look to be losing anything off his fastball as he maintained a velocity around 93 mph for the sixth-straight season. This bodes well for how he might age. These factors combined make Guthrie look like a steal. And his impact isn’t limited to just his performance.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Kansas City Royals locking up Jeremy Guthrie is that it allows them to make another big move. Signing Guthrie means that the Royals have filled their two middle-of-the-rotation spots (Guthrie filling one and new trade acquisition Ervin Santana the other). The fourth and fifth spots have a bevy of capable candidates including Luis Mendoza, Bruce Chen and Jake Odorizzi.
The team can now complete its goal of overhauling its rotation by adding a proven top-of-the-rotation starter via trade. The signing of Guthrie helps provide the salary flexibility the team needs to do this. Guthrie will make only $5 million dollars in the first year of his deal, so the Royals can make this signing salary neutral by nontendering Luke Hochevar, who is scheduled to make around that much in arbitration this year.
The fact that Hochevar will likely be nontendered could make this move a win. Despite having one of the highest ERAs of any pitcher in baseball HISTORY with over 120 starts, the Royals seem reluctant to remove Hochevar from the rotation for fear he might turn it around. They might do well to follow the advice of T-Pain and realize, “If you ain’t got it by now, you just ain’t gettin’ it.” If resigning Guthrie is their way of acknowledging this, then it can’t be a bad thing. The signing doesn’t come without risks though.
Jeremy Guthrie will turn 34 next April. While not exactly an old man, he is getting up there in baseball years. While pitchers do not age like batters do, regression is highly possible (or even likely). And despite having a fastball velocity that says otherwise, Guthrie’s Top Ten Baseball Reference Comparisons through age 33 show little cause for optimism. They averaged 0.4 WAR (wins above replacement) for the rest of their career and only played two more seasons on average.
Things get worse than Guthrie’s possible regression, though. Guthrie will make $11 million and $9 million, respectively, in the 2014 and 2015 seasons. This happens to coincide with the arbitration years of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. In order for the Royals' rebuild to work, these players will have to develop, thereby raising their price tags in arbitration.
Should Guthrie fall apart in the next couple seasons, the team may be forced to part with a young star due to the salary of a washed-up pitcher (provided they can’t raise payroll). This would represent the absolute worst-case scenario for the team.
Small market teams have to be aggressive in order to succeed. The signing of Guthrie gives the team a chance to take their shot at contention. In getting Guthrie for only $5 million next year, the team can still add a front-line starter and has effectively moved their contention window up to 2013.
Of course the risk is only worth it if the other necessary moves are made. Hochevar HAS to be replaced and another starter brought in. Without these moves, it is an unnecessary risk with little upside. Still, the team has a better chance at contention than they did last week without Guthrie. For this reason, the trade gets a tentative stamp of approval and looks to be a good bet.