Fangraphs.com has put together a list of the "10 worst transactions of The Winter," and Chen's deal is right there at No. 9. To the average reader outside Kansas City, it's a perfectly sensible inclusion. But numbers alone can't tell this story.
Let's start with the breakdown by Fangraphs:
Bruce Chen is 35-years-old and has been a below average pitcher for nearly his entire career, and he showed no real signs of improvement last year — his low ERA was essentially just about preventing hits with men on base. There’s no reason to think that Chen has turned a corner at this point in his career, and he’s still just a generic #5 starter nearing the end of his career.
That might seem true based on Chen's career numbers. He's 60-58 with a 4.52 ERA. Those sound like fifth-starter numbers, the kind of seesaw results that were so frustrating to watch with Kyle Davies. But the reality is that in two full seasons with the Royals (Chen came over in 2009), he's been 12-7 with a 4.17 ERA and 12-8 with 3.77 ERA, pitching at least 140 innings in both of those years. In 2010, his ERA was exactly the same as Zack Greinke, and last year's numbers were better by two-thirds of a run than the team's ERA of 4.44.
It's not a stretch to say Bruce Chen was the best starting pitcher for the Kansas City Royals last year. Luke Hochevar showed that he could be dominant as did Danny Duffy, when he wasn't struggling with walks. But neither was as consistent as Chen, who ended up outperforming Jeff Francis — a free-agent signing with a theoretically higher ceiling because of his success in the hitter-friendly park of Coors Field.
A two-year, $9 million commitment isn't a huge burden for the Royals. It's a short-term deal that gives the Royals a valid starter who is holding a slot until a slew of minor league prospects are ready to take their shots at being in the rotation. I think it also signifies something to the current players, showing that the Royals are willing to sign a player who performed for them. Chen's signing and Jeff Francoeur's two-year contract extension are the first steps toward demonstrating that the hometown team will spend money to keep the likes of Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer.
With a roster full of young pitchers, it also doesn't hurt to have a veteran hurler who once was heralded as a valuable prospect. Fangraphs wrote this piece in 2010 that Bruce Chen was rated the No. 4 prospect by Baseball America back in 1999. Chen's ability to continue to pitch long even after the shine had worn off his stuff is a testament to what it takes to succeed in baseball.
This past season, I felt like Chen gave the Royals a chance to win a lot of the games where he was on the mound. He typically kept the score close. He was steady, even if it was like watching Greg Maddux throw in pudding.
Chen has never had velocity. He's never been a strikeout artist. Therefore, there was nothing that age could rob from his skill set. Instead, he has learned how to challenge hitters and use their lack of patience against them. He is now a tactical pitcher, and the Royals' decision to keep him was the right tactical move. This is a team that is in need of substance, and regardless of his spot in the rotation, that's exactly what Chen provides when he takes the ball.