When the Royals re-signed Bruce Chen to a one-year, $4.25 million contract this week, it was generally met with tepid approval. One could argue that he’s 90 percent of the pitcher Jason Vargas is for half of the salary and one-quarter the commitment. So, that’s not bad.
But then came the fallout.
First, it was made clear by the team that Chen is being handed the fourth spot in the rotation that seemed to belong to Danny Duffy, who returned from Tommy John surgery to post a 1.85 ERA in five starts last season. Now it’s being advertised that Duffy, Luke Hochevar, Wade Davis, top prospect Yordano Ventura and the newly signed Brad Penny are all competing for the fifth spot.
Second, versatile speedster Emilio Bonifacio, who just signed a non-guaranteed $3.55 million contract, was designated for assignment to make room for Chen. So, essentially, he’s being dumped to fit Chen on the payroll.
Bonifacio will almost surely be traded. That might have been for the best anyway, considering that the outfield is five deep without him and he wasn’t in line for a lot of playing time behind the newly signed Omar Infante at second base. Still, if anyone was willing to give up anything of significance for Bonifacio, the deal would have happened already. After all, he’s been on the block since at least the winter meetings. The Royals won’t get stuck with his salary, but they’re not likely to get much of a prospect in return.
Also, shedding Bonifacio does nothing to alleviate the Royals’ bench logjam. He’s going to have to be replaced on the roster by another backup middle infielder, which probably means Pedro Ciriaco now makes the team. Unless someone gets hurt this spring, there’s still going to be room for just two from the group of Justin Maxwell, Jarrod Dyson and Danny Valencia, and since all of those guys are out of options, it’s not like they’ll just be able to stash one in Triple-A.
Plus, the pitching staff is more crowded than ever. Duffy and Ventura are both candidates to step up and become the Royals’ second best starter behind James Shields, but it’s possible neither will make the staff out of spring training. That’s because Hochevar ($5.2 million) and Davis ($4.8 million) are the sixth and eighth highest-paid players on the Royals, respectively. If those two were making half as much, the Royals wouldn’t try to justify the salaries by giving them yet another opportunity to start when both are clearly so much more valuable out of the pen. Both would likely be perfectly respectable closers given the chance. But that chance won’t come in Kansas City with Greg Holland in town.
On the one hand, all of this looks like a good problem to have. Last year, the Royals’ pen was so good that there just wasn’t enough for Aaron Crow, Tim Collins and Louis Coleman to do. Coleman, for instance, spent most of the season in the minors, yet had a 0.61 ERA in 29 2/3 innings when he was called on.
On the other hand, it’s only a good problem to have if the Royals make the most of it. The Royals certainly didn’t while giving 39 starts to Davis and Luis Mendoza last year. If they open this season with Duffy in the rotation and Hochevar and Davis working in setup roles, then they’ll be in pretty good shape. If they instead have Davis starting and Duffy and Ventura in Triple-A, it’d be a bad sign.