Saturday, March 23, 2013

Can Luke Hochevar and Jeff Francoeur be worth the money?

The Kansas City Royals will have a payroll of roughly 80 million in 2013.  The acquisitions of James Shields, Ervin Santana, along with the 3 yr/ 25 mill deal given to Jeremy Guthrie are the reason that KC has seen a significant payroll rise from the just over 60 million they shelled out last season.  Another 11.4 million dollars in 2013 is going to the duo of Luke Hochevar (4.65 mil) and Jeff Francoeur (6.75 mil).  After doing some crude research pertaining to WAR and having a dollar value per win, the past two years look to be right around 4.5 million dollars per win.  With this in mind, Luke Hochevar would have to be worth one win with Francoeur’s game giving him a WAR right around 1.5.  Both these figures are widely considered to be bad deals for the Royals, but I want to know if there a chance that both these players can play up to the level of their salary in 2013?

The Royals could have made the decision to non-tender Hochevar and cut ties with the former #1 overall pick, but they instead decided to offer him arbitration.  As a result of the signings to get much needed help to the starting rotation, Hochevar quickly lost out in an attempt to earn a rotation spot during spring training and will now start the year as a long reliever/ swing man type player for the Royals.  This role will give him some starts throughout the year it is going to limit the amount of innings he will give the club compared to the 198 in 2011 and 185 over 32 starts last season. 

Since 2008, Hochevar has been between 1.5 and 2.5 WAR while always throwing more than 100 innings during the season.  I think best case scenario sees Hochevar playing a role similar to that of Carlos Villanueva for the Blue Jays over the past two seasons.  This would mean giving Hochevar roughly 35 appearances including 10-12 starts and around 110-120 innings.  I think this is a realistic, yet optimistic, projection. Hochevar managed a 1.5 WAR last season due largely in quantity of innings rather than quality of performance, so it is realistic to see Hochevar’s WAR dip under 1.0 if he does not become a better pitcher than he was last year. 

Becoming a reliever typically helps pitchers become more effective, as they are able to throw harder, see hitters only once, and the manager is better able to put pitchers in situations in which they can succeed.  While most projection systems gave an output based on Hochevar, it is fair to think that Hochevar will stabilize the huge number of home runs he gave up last season but it is hard to say if we will see a rise in strike outs or a dip WHIP, which are necessary if he is going to be effective in any role.  If we see a drop in ERA and FIP to about 4.50, which I think is realistic, the Royals have a player in Hochevar worth about 1-1.5 WAR, or basically just earning his salary but providing little extra output. 

Jeff Francoeur had a forgettable 2012 season.  Widely considered the worst offensive player in 2012, Royals fans still see Frenchie atop the depth chart in right field coming into 2013.  In the final year of his 2 year/ 13.5 contract there is pressure on Francoeur to show both the Royals and the rest of the major leagues that he is skilled enough to provide true value to a major league club.  We saw a .235/.287/.378 AVG/OBP/SLG line with poor base-running and defense (even with his strong arm).  All in all the WAR stat tells us that Jeff Francoeur was about -1.2 wins below a ‘replacement’ player.  With this in mind, it will take some major strides in order for Francoeur to help a team hoping to make the playoffs this season. 

There are enough viable options in the Royals system that I suspect Francoeur to have a shorter leash than last season.  Players like Jerrod Dyson and David Lough should get some starts in place of Francoeur, which really should help his overall value.   That being said, this is a player that has had over 600 plate appearances the past two seasons, but it is possible he plays more.  Francoeur is widely known an effective hitter against left handed pitching, having a .820 career OPS against southpaws compared to .702 versus RHP.  In 2012 these numbers were .695 and .662, respectively.  Even most haters would concede that they expect his numbers to improve, even if ever so slightly.  We should expect about 150 AB’s versus left handed hitters, and KC Royals fans should expect somewhere around his career OPS v LHP (it was .934 in 2011).  Fans should also expect more time on the pine versus righties.

A best case scenario in my mind for 2013 would be for Francoeur to turn into a Jonny Gomes like platoon player.  Gomes has a much different style of play, but provides similar value as a player who mashes vs lefties but can be a liability on the field and the bases.  Gomes provided 2 WAR mostly based on his .974 OPS in 164 at bats versus lefties.  The A’s only gave him 115 at bats versus right handed pitching.  I do not expect to see Francoeur match Gomes numbers from last season, but I think we will see him regain his ability to hit lefties.  Still only 29, it is also possible we will see slight improvements in defense and on the bases compared to 2012.  If used correctly, Francoeur could be a productive player in terms of WAR, but it will probably not add up to a full ‘win’.  

It is not an eye popping conclusion that I came to that Francoeur will most likely not earn his 2013 salary.  He was, however, a 3 WAR player in 2011 during his 20HR/20SB season.  If we would have seen a match in ability (and luck) in 2011 the Royals would have him at a discount.  There is no secret that the Royals have tried to move him, but fans will just have to deal with him for this season.  With Hochevar, the Royals could have let him go during the offseason, but instead decided to keep him around.  I wonder if they did this with the idea that he would be back in the rotation, or if they had an idea of their plan to add enough arms to bounce Hoch to the pen. 

I really have no major problem with these contracts, but it is pretty telling that about ¼ of their salary goes to these two along with new Royal Ervin Santana, another youngish player with some talent and upside, but his 5.16/5.63 ERA/FIP over 178 innings was good for -0.9 WAR in 2012.  The Royals have a ton of young talent on offense and in the pen, and I understand that many fans appreciate the obvious push for a playoff run.  For the Royals sake, let’s hope that these 20 million dollars do not go to waste in 2013.  

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