The Royals got closer to finalizing their 2012 rotation Wednesday when they agreed to a two-year deal worth a guaranteed $9 million with left-hander Bruce Chen. Chen’s contract also includes a $1 million roster bonus and no more than $1 million in incentives, according to SI.com's Jon Heyman.
Chen originally came to the Royals as a “free talent” acquisition by general manager Dayton Moore, who signed the veteran southpaw to a minor league contract in late February of 2009. Chen more or less dominated Pacific Coast League hitters for Omaha the first part of 2009, allowing just 57 hits in 82 innings of work.
The Royals rewarded him with a call-up to the big league club on June 27, 2009. Chen was totally ineffective in 17 games for Kansas City that year, going 1-6 with a 5.78 ERA in 17 games (nine starts). Despite his struggles, the Royals brought him back on another minor league deal for 2010. That’s when everything started to change for the native of Panama.
Over the course of 2010 and 2011, Chen was arguably the Royals most reliable starting pitcher. He’s fought through injuries, but when healthy, he’s given Kansas City above-average production for a modest cost of just under $3 million: Almost 300 innings of 105 ERA+ baseball.
However, this contract is a bit of a gamble for the Royals. A potential payout of $11 million through 2013 wouldn’t be financially crippling if Chen’s tumbling strikeout rate and abnormally low home run rate come back to bite him.
However, it could cost the Royals wins if that happens. Players with higher salaries are investments. As such, they’re usually given opportunities no matter how much they may struggle. Kyle Davies got chance after chance thanks in large part to his seven-figure salary. This contract pretty much guarantees Bruce Chen will be a fixture in the rotation going forward. Moore is rolling the dice that the 34-year-old has discovered how to be more effective with a variety of arm angles, better location and ability to change speeds.
There’s certainly reason to believe that could be the case. It’s become popular to compare Chen to another crafty lefty who got several chances and improved as he aged. Through his age-34 season, Jamie Moyer posted a 100 ERA+, struck out just over five batters per nine innings pitched, and allowed nearly three walks per nine. Chen, now 34, has racked up more strikeouts (6.8) and walks (3.4), but has a 97 ERA+ in his career up to this point.
The question is whether Chen can continue an upward swing like Moyer, who improved in his mid-to-late 40’s and is even looking to pitch next year at age 49. They’re pitchers similar in style, but Moyer owns Chen in one key category: Durability. From 1998 to 2010, Moyer averaged 196 innings per season and was a 200-inning workhorse every year from 2001 to 2006 for Seattle.
Chen, on the other hand, went on the disabled list for more than a month last season and has seen injuries limit his time on the mound in previous seasons. Only once in 13 seasons has Chen thrown more than the 155 innings he gave Kansas City in 2011, a 197.1 inning performance for the Orioles in 2005.
The warning signs are there, and it’s not just a strikeout rate that fell to a career-low last season. Chen has found a way to lower his home run rate, which could be an effect of pitching in Kauffman Stadium. It could also be good fortune and normalize if the league finally figures Chen’s game out.
There’s little margin for error for Chen and the Royals here. It’s possible he could follow Moyer’s career path, but it’s probably more likely he won’t. At about $5 million per season, it’s not a bad gamble, but the Royals need to be ready and willing to dump Chen if youngsters such as Mike Montgomery are ready and Chen isn’t effective in games that matter.