The similar, dissimilar offseasons of the Royals and Cubs

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Two bad teams tried to get better in the winter by reworking their starting rotations, but the Royals took more risks.

The Royals entered the offseason in a mad scramble for pitching. This is usually what happens when Bruce Chen makes an Opening Day start and two of your best young pitchers fall to elbow injury. It's like something you could test at a science fair -- build a mock volcano out of Bruce Chen, pour in Tommy John surgeries, and watch the mad scramble for pitching froth over the top.

But other teams go on similarly mad scrambles for pitching, and they usually come out the other end with less money or fewer prospects. It's a rare feat to have both happen. And it's even rarer to lose money and prospects and have a rotation that makes you say, "Huh." Presenting the 2013 Royals:

James Shields
Jeremy Guthrie
Ervin Santana
Wade Davis
Bruce Chen

Huh.

I can see the upside, I guess. It was just a year ago that Shields finished third in the Cy Young voting, and his strikeout-to-walk ratios and velocity both improved. Santana has fallen off the face of the Earth before (2009) and rebounded with two strong seasons. Davis was a top starting-pitching prospect for a reason, and it's not like his two seasons as a starter were atomic disasters. Guthrie is usually solid when he's not in Colorado. Chen is Panama's all-time innings leader, and you can't take that away from him.

But as a rotation you want to count on? It's missing the sure things, the foundational pillars. As the end result of an offseason pitching scramble? It's underwhelming, and that's being charitable.

I know that what I'm about to type is counterintuitive. Here, proof:

Screen_shot_2013-02-26_at_9


I did it the Internet way, too, in case you were wondering. The Cubs and Royals were in similar spots when the offseason started. Both of them lost a ton of games last year, and both of them were in danger of starting Glendon Rusch if they didn't address their end-of-season depth chart. The Cubs rebuilt their pitching staff, too. But instead of "Huh," you get "Mmmeh?"

It's unfair to do a straight one-to-one comparison because the Cubs already had Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija. The Royals had a Bruce Chen. If the two teams were building houses, the Cubs had a little lumber and some permits, whereas the Royals had an avocado, an ice pick, and a snorkel.

Focus on the pitchers they acquired or re-signed, then.

Pitcher Salary obligations 2012 WAR (FanGraphs) 2010-2012 combined WAR Projected WAR (ZiPS)
James Shields $21 million 4.3 11.2 3.1
Jeremy Guthrie $25 million 1.0 5.6 0.8
Ervin Santana $12.2 million -0.9 4.2 0.3
Wade Davis $7.6 million (min.) 1.1 2.6 1.4
$65.8 million 5.5 23.6 5.6

Pitcher Salary obligations 2012 WAR (FanGraphs) 2010-2012 combined WAR Projected WAR (ZiPS)
Edwin Jackson $52 million 2.7 10.5 3.3
Scott Baker $5.5 million 0 5.4 1.7
Scott Feldman $6 million 2.3 3.9 1.3
$63.5 million 5.0 19.8 6.3

There are differences. The Cubs' salary obligations are mostly tethered to a single pitcher, which maximizes the risk. Baker is coming off Tommy John surgery, and that $5.5 million salary is a gamble. Davis has several team options that could make him a steal if he adjusts well to the starting rotation.

But there's another column that makes all the difference: Wil Myerses given up. The Royals have it all over the Cubs in that category. They also take the "Jake Odorizzis given up" category, the "Mike Montgomerys given up" category, and the "Patrick Leonards given up" category.

The Cubs spent a fair amount, took some risks, and rebuilt the majority of their rotation.

The Royals spent a fair amount, took some risks, rebuilt the majority of their rotation, and decimated their farm system.

One of those is probably what a 90- or 100-loss team should try first. The other one seems like a ton of risk for a reward that isn't as close as the GM might think.

It gets even worse with the benefit of hindsight. The Royals could have made a push for Kyle Lohse, considering their first-rounder is protected. They could have looked into Ted Lilly or Chris Capuano instead of hoping for a return to form from Santana. They could have pushed for Trevor Bauer, hoping the Diamondbacks would give him up to them for nickels on the dollar instead of pennies on the dollar. They could have done all of that, and then if they really, really needed to, they could have traded Wil Myers for another pitcher on top of all that.

That's all with hindsight, though, and that's not especially fair. But the moral of the story is that the Royals could have been more creative. They locked onto the idea of an ace-type workhorse, and they didn't waver from that idea. I'm not sure if the Cubs' new acquisitions will be better than the Royals' new pitchers this year, but I don't think the difference will be substantial. And considering how hard it is to emerge from a 90- or 100-loss hole, I don't think it will matter either way.

The Royals should have done what the Cubs did. There. There are now four results on Google for the last half of that sentence. That's a pretty bad sign for the Royals.

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