Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Royals Got Better; The Twins Stay The Same

Outside of Hammond Stadium, the biggest news regarding the Twins was the Royals' signing of power-arm reliever Juan Cruz.  This news is significant for reasons twofold: 1) It signifies the disinterest in securing a replacement arm for Boof Bonser of elite caliber in the bullpen (and thereby revealing the front office's confidence is the quality of arms existing) and 2) it makes an AL Central competitor that much better.
There is much to like about Cruz: his 12.37 strikeouts per 9 innings was the second-highest in baseball (behind only Tampa's Grant Balfour) and his 66.0% contact rate was the second-lowest in baseball (behind only Phildelphia's Brad Lidge).  He did not even have to bend pitches around the strike zone, even when throwing within the zone, he still led the league with the lowest contact rate (73%).  It would be there and hitters would miss.  Wielding his 94-mph fastball and his 80-mph slider, Cruz just made bats miss, plain and simple.  Like the deserts miss the rain.  But it isn't as if Cruz doesn't come without his warts.  Cruz hits the strike zone as often as tails appears on a coin-flip (just about half) which has caused a large number of free passes to be handed out (5.40 per 9 innings in 2008 to be precise).  And adding baserunners in close-and-late situations is as close to throwing fuel on the fire as one can get. 
It took a two-year commitment of $2.25 M in 2009 and $3.25 M in 2010 ($5.5 million total) and the Royals hold a third-year option for $4 M in 2011 with a $500,000 buyout - if the team should so choose to cut ties- to win Cruz.  Even with all of the ballyhoo surrendering a first-round pick on the Type A free agent Cruz, the Royals only have to forfeit their second round (55th overall) draft choice. The cost necessary to gain Cruz was extremely reasonable and within the Twins' fiscally conservative budget. 
The Royals have confounded baseball analysts all offseason, making those of us that review these sorts of things in-depth wonder "Are they or aren't they competitors?"  After all, the Royals have made curious maneuvers in the past few months: they traded solid bullpen arm in Leo Nunez to the Florida Marlins for power-only first baseman Mike Jacobs when they seemed to have viable in-house candidates in Billy Butler, Kila Ka'aihue and Ryan Shealy; they announced their intentions to reposition outfielder Mark Teahen to second base, a move I likened to doing the same with Michael Cuddyer; they committed $8-million to reliever Kyle Farnsworth who doesn't seem to have the slightest as to where is ball is heading when he released it but he could be fairly certain it was usually headed in the direction of the outfield bleachers (2.24 HR/Game in 2008).  In the business world, they call these transactions "crack-crazy".
Of course, while most of us scoffed at these trades, repositioning and free agent signings, the Royals had quietly moved forward with a quality one-two combination of starters in Gil Meche (14-11, 210 innings, 3.61 FIP) and Zack Greinke (13-10, 202 innings, 3.56 FIP) coupled with the moderately successful Kyle Davies (who in the last month of 2008 went 4-1 with a 2.27 ERA and a 24-to-7 strikeouts-to-walks ratio).  The bullpen has Joakim Soria at the back-end, battling only Joe Nathan for closer supremacy in the Central (that torch will be passed sooner than you think).  These are four pieces of concrete foundation.   Situating hard-throwing Farnsworth and now Juan Cruz to usher the game from the starting rotation to the "Mexecutioner" to close them out has greatly increased the Royals odds of protecting any lead.  In spite of their head-scratching transactions this offseason, the Royals are certifiable contenders in 2009 and the addition of Juan Cruz has just amplified their bid for the Central.