Sunday, July 20, 2014

State Of The Royals: The Offense.

Oh, yeah, I guess I have to talk about the offense.

As you and I saw this weekend, it’s not so hot, and it’s not getting better. The Royals scored five runs while getting swept in a three-game series in Boston; about the best thing you can say about their performance is that at least Jon Lester didn’t no-hit them again. Today’s shutout drops the Royals to 12th in the AL in runs scored, and they're just eight runs ahead of the last-place Red Sox. (Yes, the Red Sox have scored the fewest runs in the league. No, I don’t know how that’s possible.) The Royals have scored 87 runs in their last 27 games. Maybe Dale Sveum isn’t a witch after all.

The Royals now have the 9th-best record in the AL, meaning that even with two Wild Cards in play they need to pass four other teams to make the playoffs. They are closer to last place (4 games ahead of Minnesota) in the AL Central than first place (7 games behind Detroit). They are nearly as close to last place as they are to the second Wild Card (3.5 games behind Seattle). Since their 10-game winning streak ended, the Royals are 9-17, which is to say, since their 10-game winning streak started, they are merely 19-17.

The winning streak not only looks like an enormous anomaly, it looks like it might have been the worst thing for the Royals in the long run. Had they simply played .500 ball for six weeks after they fell into last place on June 4th, the narrative of the season would still be that they have been enormously disappointing. The winning streak vaulted them into first place, into the national consciousness for a few glorious days, and took the focus off the front office at a critical time.

(And before you argue that the Royals are just unlucky because they’re 10-20 in one-run games, I’ll point out that they’re 12-5 in two-run games. For the season, they’ve been outscored by four runs, which is almost exactly what you’d expect from a 48-49 team.)

For purposes of this exercise, we will continue to treat the Royals as contenders, because their front office thinks they are a contender, and the question of whether their front office deserves to keep working will be left for another day. This is their last gasp, and I assume they will do everything in their power to turn the season around. Again.

Only…I don’t know exactly what they can do. Let’s take a look at their lineup regulars:

C: Salvador Perez. Hitting .282/.327/.432. Fantastic defender. Started the All-Star Game. Signatory to one of the ten best contracts in baseball. I think they’ll keep him.

LF: Alex Gordon. Hitting .269/.350/.421. Fantastic defender. Selected to the All-Star Game. Keeps himself in frighteningly good shape; the best lead-by-example guy the Royals have had in years. I don’t know if he’ll be a Lifelong Royal, but I wouldn’t complain if an effort was made to make him one. He’s not going anywhere.

CF: Lorenzo Cain. Hitting .297/.334/.413. Fantastic defender. Unable to play more than about 120 games a year, but the Royals are well-situated with a replacement to fill in the gaps, hiding his only weakness. He stays.

SS: Alcides Escobar. Hitting .281/.317/.383. Very good defender. Under contract with club options through 2017 that would pay him $14.75 million over the next three years – combined. When your shortstop has a higher OPS than your team as a whole, your shortstop isn’t the problem. Or at least not your main problem. He stays.

Okay, now it gets a little more serious, in increasing order:

2B: Omar Infante. Only hitting .279/.317/.389, but he’s rebounded nicely after a miserable start, hitting .344 since June 8th. He’s in the first year of a four-year, $32 million contract, and is hitting almost exactly his career norm of .280/.319/.402, which is to say he’s exactly what the Royals should have expected. He’s also a massive upgrade from the likes of Chris Getz; it’s hard to see how the Royals can upgrade here, or why they should try.

1B: Eric Hosmer. Three weeks ago this was a much easier call. After hitting .320 through May 11th, Hosmer hit .186/.229/.266 from then through the end of June; my suggestion in early June that he be sent down to Omaha was being picked up by, well, pretty much the entire fanbase. But he’s now on a 16-game hitting streak, and is batting .424/.493/.627 in July. The overall package remains unacceptable for a first baseman, but the Royals refused to bury him when he was terrible; they’re certainly not going to give him a break now. Hosmer has not only played every game this year, he’s played every inning this year.

3B: Mike Moustakas was hitting .152/.223/.320 when he was mercifully sent to Omaha in late May. Since returning, he’s hitting .221/.284/.402. That is both 1) unacceptable and 2) a huge improvement, not to mention 3) about what Moustakas’ true ability is. The Royals could upgrade here, although there is the matter of Danny Valencia, who is hitting .373/.397/.525 against LHP this year; if the Royals do upgrade, they would probably want just a platoon bat so they could continue to let Valencia do what he does best.

This doesn’t leave a lot of options; the Royals probably aren’t going to pay what it will take to get Chase Headley out of San Diego, and it’s not clear that they should. The obvious fit here is Luis Valbuena, who is hitting .246/.331/.408 for the Cubs, and who is eminently available. But Valbuena wouldn’t be THAT much of an upgrade on Moustakas, and he’s under contract for two more years after this one, driving up his price for value that the Royals aren’t really looking for.

Anyway, we know this ain’t happening. Moustakas, like Hosmer, was selected by Dayton Moore’s front office in the first round. They can’t bring themselves to admit they made a mistake on Bubba Starling and Christian Colon; they’re not going to bring in someone to take Moustakas’ job.

RF: The Royals would be happy for someone to take Nori Aoki’s job; they’ve been disappointed with him practically since Opening Day. He’s hitting .255/.324/.316 with defense charitably described as “creative”, so it’s not hard to understand why.

I could see the Royals going for a name player here, possibly Alexis Rios, who is hitting .302/.330/.435 and could be a free agent in three months. (He has a club option for next year; at $13.5 million, he’s on the fence as to whether it should be picked up.) But Rios won’t be cheap either, and again, I’m not sure he’s a significant upgrade. His defense is below-average, and as I’ve written several times, Jarrod Dyson’s defense is so far above average that his overall value is higher than Rios, or Marlon Byrd, another name that’s rumored.

I don’t understand why the Royals won’t simply embrace their identity and go with the All-World Defense outfield alignment of Gordon, Dyson, and Cain. Against lefties, Aoki can start over Dyson; even this year Aoki’s hitting .348 against southpaws, and while it’s extremely unusual for a left-handed hitter to have a “true” ability to hit lefties better than right-handers, Aoki’s batting style is so unusual that it might actually be the case for him.

Oh, and just for the record: Jarrod Dyson’s .351 OBP leads the entire team. The Royals, as they have pretty much every year since I was in kindergarten, desperately need OBP. Replacing him for a guy like Rios or Byrd, who would add power but subtract baserunners, seems like treading water. Trading away prospects to do so seems like a mistake.

DH: And finally there’s everyone’s favorite punching bag, from Caller Todd on line one to Ned Yost. Billy Butler is hitting .269/.320/.348. He has three home runs. He has grounded in 14 double plays. He was Jayson Stark’s pick for the AL Least Valuable Player in the first half. He’s been terrible.

I’m not completely convinced he’s done, but I’m growing more convinced by the day. Yeah, he’s only 28, and even slow overweight unathletic guys usually can hang on until they’re 30. But while Butler isn’t unusually overweight, he is unusually slow and (seemingly) unathletic; even at his best he had literally one baseball skill. I wish it wasn’t so, but this looks like the beginning of the end for Butler. Remember, this slump didn’t come out of nowhere – last season he hit .289/.374/.412, his lowest batting and particularly slugging numbers since 2008. He kept his on-base percentage high by being more selective at the plate, but now that pitchers don’t fear his power anymore, they’re just pouring strikes over the plate and he’s been unable to adjust.

Ben Grieve was Rookie of the Year at age 22. At age 24 he hit 40 doubles and 27 homers. That winter the A’s traded him to Tampa Bay in the three-team deal that brought Angel Berroa and Roberto Hernandez to Kansas City and sent Mark Ellis and Johnny Damon to Oakland. As usual, Billy Beane picked the perfect time to trade Grieve; at age 26 he hit just .251/.353/.432, and he was done as a full-time player by the time he turned 27.

Billy Butler hit .313 with 29 homers just two years ago. It doesn’t seem like he should be done. I don’t want him to be done. But he might be done. And with a $12.5 million option for next year looming, his time in Kansas City is almost certainly done.

So the question is, can you improve upon him? If the question is “can you improve upon his performance in the first half”, the answer is unequivocally “yes” – Butler is a below replacement-level player this season, and that’s the very definition of what replacement level means. But they don’t need someone better – they need someone MUCH better, is why futzing around with Raul Ibanez is so pointless. This is where Rios or Byrd would fit better, if they just slotted those guys in at DH and left Dyson to roam the outfield.

The rumors that the Mariners are still interested in Billy Butler seem too good to be true, but it’s been well known that the Mariners have had their eye on Butler for years; their interest in him was compared by a trustworthy source to Dayton Moore’s interest in Jeff Francoeur, which is to say it’s almost inevitable that he’ll end up there in some capacity at some point. Maybe my dream of snatching Nick Franklin away from Seattle is unrealistic, although there’s no question they’ve soured on him. But if the Royals can get something – anything – for Butler at the same time that they replace him with an upgrade, they should do it. Yeah, Butler may help Seattle, and the Royals are chasing Seattle in the standings, but given the way he’s hit this year he’s equally likely to hurt them.

Speaking of Franklin, there’s the guy I argued over the winter represented his absolute upside: Ben Zobrist, who is out there, and given his ability to play all around the field, would be the perfect solution for the Royals, who could trade for him first and figure out where he played second. But Zobrist 1) may be paired in a trade with David Price to extract maximum value and 2) even on his own would be very expensive. Would you give up Miguel Almonte and Sean Manaea for him? If you were fighting to keep your job, you might. And given the unpredictability of pitching prospects, you might even be justified.

But the trade market fits the Royals as poorly today as it did three months ago when it was clear they needed to beef up their offense if they wanted to contend. There just aren’t that many hitters out there worth acquiring, and the positions that could stand an upgrade the most are the positions where the Royals have the most invested in their incumbent.

As I speculated they would last week, they went out and made a small trade for a middle reliever, grabbing Jason Frasor from the Rangers in exchange for Spencer Patton. Frasor has accomplished the neat trick of being a middle reliever who’s never had a bad year; in 11 seasons in the majors, he’s never had an ERA above 4.58, and he’s had an ERA under 3.7 in six of the last seven years. Patton has pretty numbers in Triple-A, or at least a pretty hit total – he had allowed just 26 hits in 46 innings. But he had also allowed 22 walks and 9 home runs, and he’s 26 years old; he’s 18 months older than Tim Collins. He’s a fair price to pay.

But if the Royals are going to replicate their whiz-bang second half from last season, they’re going to need more than a reliever. They need offense, and it’s no easier to figure out where they’re going to get that offense today than it was in May. Maybe they’ll surprise me and deal for Zobrist, or Chase Headley, or someone who at least has the potential to be a middle-of-the-order hitter for the next three months. But, well, it will be a surprise. And if this is who the Royals are, after getting swept in Boston thanks to a combination of managerial and lineup failure, then writing columns about who the front office should go after suddenly seems a lot less relevant than writing columns about whether their front office should just go.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

State Of The Royals: The Rotation.

I may or may not have been wrong to put the front office on the hot seat last month, but as time goes by it’s becoming harder for me to argue that I wasn’t wrong about Jason Vargas. Despite not calling one of the best pitchers’ parks in baseball home for the first time since 2007, Vargas is doing what he always does: give up about a hit an inning and a home run every nine innings, and make up for striking out a below-average number of hitters with very good command. His FIP this year, which calculates his expected ERA based on his walks, strikeouts, and homers allowed, is 4.10. Last year, it was 4.09. In 2011, it was 4.08.

But his ERA this year is the best of his career at 3.31, and it’s not close – his previous career high was 3.78. Some of that is luck – batters are hitting .232 with men on base compared to .277 with no one on – but most of that is defense. Nine pitchers have thrown 35 or more innings for the Royals this year, and all nine have a lower ERA than FIP. As a team, the Royals are a lowly 10th in the AL in strikeouts, 7th in homers, and 5th in walks – but rank 3rd in fewest runs allowed. It can’t be emphasized enough – so much of the credit given to the Royals’ pitching staff is actually owed to their defense.

Specifically, their outfield defense. With the standard caveat that defensive numbers are unreliable and half a season is a small sample size, here are the players who have saved the most runs defensively in the AL this season according to Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved metric:

1. Josh Donaldson  17
2. Alex Gordon     17
3. Lorenzo Cain    15
4. Jackie Bradley  12
5. Jarrod Dyson    12
6. Leonys Martin   12

Keep in mind, Dyson has played less than 400 innings in the field, not even 50% of the games the Royals have played this year. You can make a compelling case that the Royals have the three best defensive outfielders in the league.

This raises a number of issues – like why the hell, exactly, are the Royals screwing around with Raul Ibanez – but for purposes of this column, it’s a reminder that the Royals’ rotation isn’t nearly as good as it looks. And that’s okay, because while the rotation isn’t great, it is perfectly designed to play to the Royals’ strengths. The Royals play in a ballpark that takes away home runs, and they have an outfield that takes away doubles and triples. That’s a setup perfect for a flyball pitcher, and Vargas is just such a beast – his career groundball rate of 37.5% is significantly lower than the league average of around 43-44%.

So while Vargas isn’t as good as he looks, 1) he’s still roughly a league-average pitcher and 2) his pitching style is perfectly catered to the Royals’ strengths. Which is pretty much exactly what the Royals claimed when they signed him. We’re only half a season into a four-year contract, and there’s still plenty of time for things to go wrong. But for now, this looks like a shrewd move by the Royals, and my criticisms of the signing look to be in error.

(Having said that…how good would Phil Hughes look in the Royals’ rotation right now? Hughes has a higher ERA (3.92) than Vargas, because he’s pitching in front of a defense that’s nearly as bad as the Royals’ defense is good. But his FIP is 2.62, thanks to a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 10-to-1 (!). He is quietly one of the breakthrough players in the major leagues this year; if he was pitching in front of the Royals’ defense, he’d probably be an All-Star. If I was wrong to think that signing Vargas was a bad idea, I wasn’t wrong to think that signing Hughes was a better idea.)

Thanks to Vargas, and thanks to the Royals finally developing two quality starters in Ventura and Duffy after not developing even one in the previous eight years, the rotation is in good shape overall. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t use an upgrade, because after getting pounded for 14 runs in 8 innings in his last two starts, Jeremy Guthrie has a 4.56 ERA. With this defense, that’s unacceptable. I expect him to do better in the second half – Guthrie is actually pitching better than he did last year, with a higher strikeout rate and the same rate of walks and homers. But last year he was gifted with an incredible and unsustainable split between runners on base and the bases empty. As much I want to #EmbraceTheLuck, the thing about luck is that it usually ends. Guthrie’s not a bad pitcher, and he’s easy to root for, but if the Royals want to contend, they need better from their fifth starter.

And then there’s James Shields. I know some people don’t want to face the uncomfortable fact that if he were pitching as well as he was expected to pitch, the Royals might well be leading the Wild Card race right now. But he’s not. His 3.65 ERA isn’t terrible, albeit not nearly an ERA worthy of an ace. But Shields’ ERA is deceiving, because he’s allowed nearly as many unearned runs (12) as the rest of the pitching staff combined (15). There’s plenty of evidence that the distinction between earned and unearned runs in modern baseball is pointless and silly; Michael Wolverton’s article originally published 10 years ago remains relevant today.

Factor in those unearned runs, and Shields has allowed 4.48 runs per nine innings – in front of the best defense in the league. (And if it doesn’t make sense why we give Shields credit for a good defense here but don’t cut him slack when the defense makes errors behind him – it’s because there’s no difference between, say, Alcides Escobar booting a groundball for an error and Escobar being unable to reach that ball before it goes into left field. When the Royals aren’t making errors, they’re getting to more balls than any other team in the league. For whatever reason, Shields is allowing more runs to score after an error than anyone else on the team.)

This is why Baseball Reference credits Shields with the grand total of 0.6 WAR this season. (By comparison, Kelvin Herrera has 1.0 WAR despite pitching just 39 innings.) Meanwhile, in Tampa Bay…you know I had to go there…Jake Odorizzi has a higher ERA (4.01) than Shields, but has allowed just one unearned run all year. And the Rays’ defense isn’t nearly as strong as it used to be. Baseball Reference credits Odorizzi with 1.0 WAR.

Yeah, Baseball Reference thinks Odorizzi has had a better season – despite pitching 30 fewer innings –  than James Shields. You might recall I wrote this in my Grantland column immediately after The Trade, in one of my rare lucid moments that wasn’t blinded by rage: “And if the Royals traded six-plus years of Wil Myers for seven combined years of control of Shields and Davis, this would almost be a fair deal…Ah, but the Royals also threw in three other prospects!”

And that’s the rub. Sure, Myers hit poorly for two months this year and then hurt his wrist. If the Royals had traded Myers for Shields and Davis straight up, you could make a strong case that the trade made the Royals a significantly better team in 2014, and that’s enough to justify it.

But they didn’t. They gave up Jake Odorizzi, who – by at least one measure – is outpitching James Shields. And is making the major league minimum. And is under contract for the next five years.

Here, let’s draw up a chart comparing what the Royals acquired and what they traded away. Start with 2013.

Acquired: James Shields (4.1 bWAR), Wade Davis (-2.1 bWAR), Elliot Johnson (0.7 bWAR)

Total value acquired: 2.7 bWAR

Traded Away: Wil Myers (1.9 bWAR), Jake Odorizzi (0.3 bWAR), Mike Montgomery (DNP), Patrick Leonard (DNP)

Total value lost: 2.2 bWAR

By this measurement, the Royals gained a grand total of a half-win in 2013…and spent roughly $12 million in extra salaries to do so.

Now 2014.

Acquired: James Shields (0.6 bWAR), Wade Davis (2.0 bWAR)

Traded Away: Wil Myers (-0.7 bWAR), Jake Odorizzi (1.0 bWAR)

(By the way, how bad was Wade Davis last year? So bad that even accounting for his performance this year, he is still below replacement value overall with the Royals.)

Seems like a big gap – the Royals picked up 2.6 bWAR and traded away 0.3 bWAR. But wait! We have to account for the fact that in order to fill the void in right field caused by Myers’ departure, the Royals traded Will Smith for Norichika Aoki.

Acquired: James Shields (0.6 bWAR), Wade Davis (2.0 bWAR), Norichika Aoki (-0.7 bWAR) = 1.9 bWAR

Traded Away: Wil Myers (-0.7 bWAR), Jake Odorizzi (1.0 bWAR), Will Smith (0.5 bWAR) = 0.8 bWAR

So far this season, the Royals have picked up about one extra win because of the trade – and spent roughly $19 million in extra salaries to do so. Even if you factor the Aoki/Smith deal separately, the Royals have spent an extra $17-18 million to pick up 2.3 additional bWAR. That’s higher than the market rate for wins if the Royals had just signed a free agent instead.

And next year, while the Royals will have Wade Davis on a $7 million option, and a draft pick for Shields, they will have lost Myers, Odorizzi, and Smith, all of whom will be making around the major league minimum again in 2015. And again in 2016. Oh, and Mike Montgomery, who’s having his best season in the minors since 2010, and Leonard, who’s hitting .288/.375/.489 as a 21-year-old in high-A ball.

And keep in mind that while I like to use Baseball Reference’s WAR stat because it’s convenient to use, if I had switched to Fangraphs’ WAR metric – which takes into account not just runs allowed but a pitcher’s peripherals – the results wouldn’t have changed much. Shields looks much better by fWAR…but so does Odorizzi, who has struck out 116 batters in 101 innings this year. That would be the highest strikeout rate in Royals history for anyone with 90 or more innings.

The Royals claim that Shields adds incalculable value in the clubhouse, and I agree. I agree that he adds value, and I agree that we can’t calculate it. Shields may indeed deserve tremendous credit for Danny Duffy’s turnaround, if his example has helped Duffy realize the value of harnessing his emotions on the mound and not losing his cool. It’s also possible that Shields deserves only a small amount of credit, and the true credit goes to that outfield defense, as Duffy is even more of a flyball pitcher than Vargas (career groundball rate of 35.7%). Maybe Duffy has realized that if he pitches to contact, Gordon and Cain and Dyson will run it down, and that’s why his walk rate is more than a third lower than it was prior to this season.

But to justify The Trade, you pretty much have to hang your hat on the notion that Shields is single-handedly the reason why Duffy and Ventura are two of the best young starters in the league this year, because you can’t justify it with his performance on the mound. Now if Shields goes into Anaheim on the final Monday of September and shoves it for seven innings against Mike Trout and Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and Wade Davis then comes in and overpowers the Angels in the eighth, and the Royals win the winner-take-all Wild Card game…well, that victory alone may justify anything and everything. But right now, I remain about as convinced that it was a bad trade as I was 19 months ago. If the Royals do make the playoffs this year, they probably would have made the playoffs had they not made the trade. And if they don’t make the playoffs next year – or in 2016, or 2017, or 2018, or 2019 – they might well have made the playoffs had they not made the trade.

Getting back to 2014, the question is whether the Royals would be best served by making a trade for a starting pitcher. I’m of the opinion that any trade which makes the Royals a better team this season has to be explored, but as we saw on Sunday, the Royals don’t have to be desperate here. Bruce Chen stepped in for Jason Vargas and was solid if not spectacular, and the Royals won. This shouldn’t have been a surprise despite Chen’s lofty ERA; he is the one exception to the ERA-is-better-than-FIP rule this year. He actually has a lower FIP (3.14) than Vargas, but has a 6.46 ERA thanks to a ridiculous .402 BABIP. That’s a fluke; he’s pitched all of 31 innings this year, and I remain confident in his ability to be the perfect swingman, capable of filling whatever role the Royals need him for competently.

The Royals have what every contender needs: six viable options for their starting rotation. As we saw when Aaron Brooks was called up, they sure as hell don’t have seven. And only four of those starters are guys you really want to see on the marquee in September. But with Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel off the market, and a dozen teams looking at David Price and Cole Hamels and every other halfway-decent starting pitcher on the market, I fear that the cost of upgrading the rotation is simply too steep for the Royals to pay. But I wouldn’t particularly upset if, in the next two weeks, they find a way to prove me wrong.

Monday, July 14, 2014

State Of The Royals: The Bullpen.

After doing their best over the last generation to send me to an early grave, the Royals are now trying to kill my professional reputation. Almost immediately after I buried them in the Kansas City Star and put the front office on double-secret probation, the Royals went on their longest winning streak in 20 years. When that streak had concluded and the Royals were atop the AL Central at the 70-game mark since before the AL Central even existed, I had no choice but to start the embarrassing yet exhilarating process of taking back all the mean things I had written about the team over the past two years.

Naturally, they then got swept at home by the Mariners, beginning a stretch in which they went 8-13, and lost six straight against the two teams they need to beat most, the Mariners (for the Wild Card) and the Tigers (for the AL Central) before winning yesterday. So I think it’s safe to say that I have no idea what’s going on with this team, and I should stop making any kind of predictions about them.

If you want to be pessimistic, you can focus on the fact that as bad as it has been for the Royals recently, it could be – should be – a lot worse. The Royals have won more than a few games this year either because their opponents gave the game away or through sheer dumb luck. The quintessential example of this is the opening game in Toronto on May 29th, when Salvador Perez hit a routine ground ball to shortstop Jose Reyes with the Royals losing and two out in the ninth. But Reyes bounced a routine throw to first base, Jarrod Dyson motored around from second base to tie the game, and the Royals won in extra innings.

Exactly one month later, the Royals won the rubber game at home against the Angels when in the sixth inning Albert Pujols was thrown out stretching a single into a double – no, that’s not accurate, he was thrown out sauntering a single into a double, because he apparently confused Alex Gordon with Alex Trebek and couldn’t be bothered to even slide into second base. It was the kind of Little League baserunning that would have caused a riot in the press box if, say, Yasiel Puig had done it, but because it was St. Albert, it was pretty much ignored even though Erick Aybar hit a home run two batters later. This meant the game was tied in the ninth instead of an Angels lead, and then Howie Kendrick muffed the pivot on a potential inning-ending double play ball by Perez, and Omar Infante hit the walk-off single one batter later.

And then there was Wednesday’s game in Tampa Bay, in which the Royals had stranded a hundred baserunners and appeared doomed to lose the rubber game just ahead of the crucial four-game series against Detroit. With two on and one out in the ninth, Perez skied a high fly ball that managed to travel 338 feet – into Crawford’s Corner down the left field line, where the fence at Tropicana Field juts in sharply, and turned a ball that would have been an out in 13 other American League parks (I’m guessing it would have hit off the Green Monster in Boston) into a game-winning home run. It might be the shortest over-the-fence home run of such import in Royals history. (It was only the 27th home run in team history that turned a deficit into a lead in the ninth inning or later, so that statement isn’t as outlandish as it sounds.)

And proving once again that the notion of momentum in sports is an absurd fallacy that should have been abandoned generations ago, the Royals followed up their biggest win of the season by coming home and getting spanked by Detroit, 16-4, their most lopsided loss of the year.

That’s what the pessimists will say. An optimist will point to the Royals' 10-18 record in one-run games and make the convincing argument that the Royals have simply been very unlucky in close games, and given that they have maybe the best one-two relief combo in baseball, there’s no reason why their luck can’t turn around in a heartbeat.

There’s validity in both arguments, which is why they cancel each other out. The Royals have outscored their opponents by five runs all season, which leads to an expected record of 48-46. They are 48-46.

The bottom line is that the Royals have not played well enough to make the playoffs, not even the Mediocrity Parade that is the second Wild Card race in the American League. If they continue to trend downward, they aren’t that far away from restoring the narrative that it’s time to blow everything up, including the front office – they are merely four games ahead of the White Sox and Twins, who are tied for last place in the division. But let’s assume that they’re still in it for this season, which is reasonable given that 1) they’re only 2.5 games behind the Mariners, who hold the final Wild Card spot right now, and 2) this front office is all-in for 2014, so unless and until they get fired, the Royals will be buyers, not sellers, at the deadline.

But with the All-Star Break upon us, it’s time to take an unflinching look at where the Royals are, how they can get better, and whether they can be good enough to win. Let’s start with the bullpen.

A year after posting the lowest bullpen ERA (2.55) by any AL team since 1990, the Royals’ bullpen ranks a mediocre 7th in the league with a 3.62 ERA. No position in baseball regresses as fast as relievers do, and we can’t be surprised by this.

What is surprising is that the two guys the Royals were most counting on haven’t regressed at all; they might even be better than expected. Greg Holland hasn’t been quite as good as last year; he’s given up more walks, hits, and home runs per inning than last year, and his ERA has jumped over 50%. Of course, it’s “jumped” from 1.21 to 1.82, and he’s surrendered fewer than one baserunner per inning. Last year, Holland had the highest strikeout rate (40.4%) in Royals history (min: 30 innings). This year, he has the third-highest strikeout rate (39.3%) in Royals history.

And the second-highest rate in Royals history (40.3%) is currently occupied by his set-up man, Wade Davis. Davis replaced Luke Hochevar, who was outstanding last year (1.92 ERA, batters hit .169/.227/.306 against him), and has been even better, with a 1.13 ERA and an opponent’s line of .112/.221/.112. Going back to last September, when he moved back to the bullpen, Davis has not allowed an extra-base hit in 39 straight games covering 43.2 innings.

With the caveat that the Play Index only allows you to search for consecutive games, not consecutive innings, here are the longest streaks without allowing an extra-base hit by a reliever that I was able to find:

Pitcher         Year        IP

Greg Cadaret    1988-89    47.1
Frank Linzy     1967       46.2
Larry Andersen  1990       45.1
Terry Forster   1978-79    44.1
Frank Williams  1986-87    44.0
Wade Davis      2013-14    43.2

Larry Andersen’s stretch was so impressive that the impending free agent middle reliever was traded during it for a prospect named Jeff Bagwell.

It’s much more difficult to search for starting pitchers, so it’s possible that a starter has had a longer stretch. But I can’t rule out the possibility that, with another week of dominant pitching, Wade Davis will have gone longer without giving up an extra-base hit than any pitcher in major league history.

So the difference between this year’s bullpen and last year’s bullpen isn’t the 1-2 guys. It’s everyone else. What distinguished last year’s bullpen wasn’t simply that Holland and Hochevar were so good, it’s that literally no one was bad. And I mean literally no one: 13 pitchers made more than half their appearances out of the bullpen for the Royals last year, and every one of them had an ERA of under 4, all the way down to Everett Teaford, who threw two-thirds of an inning. This year, 13 pitchers have made more than half their appearances out of the pen, and six of them have ERAs above 4. (And that doesn’t include Aaron Brooks, who made one start and one relief appearance, and sucked both times.)

Louis Coleman had a 0.61 ERA last season. He has a 7.48 ERA this season. The Royals aren’t blowing leads in the 8th and 9th inning; they’ve lost just one game all year that they were leading after seven innings. But they’re getting killed in the middle innings, and in tie games. They’re 5-10 in games that are tied after six innings, and have a losing record in games that are tied at the end of every inning between the second and the seventh.

They have two other effective relievers besides Davis and Holland in Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow. My skepticism in Crow’s ability is well-documented, and he gave up two home runs to the Tigers Saturday night – he has a 2.75 ERA, but just 21 strikeouts in 39 innings, and that’s not sustainable. I have much more confidence in Herrera, and he has mostly justified it this year – he has a 2.08 ERA and hasn’t allowed a home run all season. He’s not pitching quite that well; his once pinpoint command is gone (16 walks in 39 innings), and while his fastball has lost a bit of velocity this year, he’s throwing his changeup a little harder, which isn’t a good combination. Still, he’s a very good seventh inning guy.

The problem is that in today’s game you really need two seventh inning guys, and you also need a lefty. Thanks to Tim Collins losing the strike zone this year, the Royals don’t have either. Collins is back in Triple-A, and while he’s dominating hitters down there, he continues to walk enough guys (six in 12 innings since his return engagement there started two weeks ago) that the Royals justifiably have no confidence that he can get hitters to chase his stuff if he returns to the majors. Collins’ absence means that a contending team is actually going with Francisley Bueno as its #1 left-hander out of the pen. The Royals claimed 38-year-old Scott Downs off waivers and have already given him important innings. Bruce Chen could have an important role as a lefty out of the pen, at least once Jason Vargas returns from his appendectomy.

But in the meantime, the Royals have a real need for one more good reliever in their bullpen, which is why they turned to Yordano Ventura in a key spot yesterday, a wise if unrepeatable decision. The lack of that extra reliever was glaring on Tuesday against Tampa Bay when the Royals entrusted Bueno to keep a 2-1 deficit from expanding in the eighth inning. (Kelvin Herrera was the obvious man to pitch there; afterwards the Royals claimed he had tightness in his shoulder and wasn’t unavailable.) A cynic would point out that they had the perfect guy for that role in Will Smith, who they traded to Milwaukee to get Nori Aoki for one season to fill the void in right field created by the…but we’re not going to go there. (And in fairness, after having a 1.36 ERA through the end of June, Smith gave up 9 runs in 2 innings in his first three appearances of July, taking the loss in two of those games and blowing a save in the other. I’d still love to have him on my team for the next five years.)

It seems kind of galling that the Royals, who had a historically good bullpen last year, would find themselves needing to trade for a reliever the very next season. But that’s the nature of bullpens, which are, after all, made up of relievers. The good news is that unless you’re trading for an elite closer-type guy, you can usually get a reliever of some utility at the trading deadline for a minor prospect. (We should know. The Royals have dealt many such relievers away over the years, and with rare exceptions – Collins himself in the Kyle Farnsworth/Rick Ankiel trade – haven’t gotten anything substantial in return.)

If the Royals have truly given up on Collins, you would think that he alone would bring back a highly useful reliever. Collins, keep in mind, is still just 24 years old – I mean, he’s younger than Michael Mariot. He’s under club control for three more years after this one, and even at arbitration-enhanced salaries, he’d be a heck of a guy to take a flyer on for a rebuilding team that’s looking to deal a quality reliever in his contract year.

Whether the Royals deal Collins – who I would miss, both for his unique physical characteristics and for his consistently above-average performance – or go the more conventional route of trading a second-tier prospect, I fully expect them to acquire a reliever sometime between now and the trading deadline. It’s almost de rigueur for a team that fashions itself a contender to make a deal for a reliever in July unless that team has a truly elite bullpen. Last year, the Royals had one. This year, they don’t. Last year, they won most of their close games. This year, they’re not. One more reliever might not change their fortunes, but the Royals can’t afford not to take the gamble that it will.

Friday, June 20, 2014

We're Going Streaking!

If you want to understand why the Royals fan base is so jacked up, it boils down to one thing: This is the team Dayton Moore wanted. This is the team Moore promised was the payoff for our patience. The 2014 Royals, the culmination of The Process, are in first place at the 72-game mark of the season for the first time since 1980.

A lot can happen in three weeks of baseball, but what has happened in the last three weeks of baseball is almost unprecedented in Royals history, which is why I can take the lede to a column I wrote for the Kansas City Star on June 1st and tweak a few words to make it mean the exact opposite of what it meant then. I’ve written many things that look ridiculous in retrospect – but it usually takes a lot more retro than this.

You might recall that as a sop to the organization I finished my column with a caveat – “Moore deserves a little more time to turn this season around — if the team goes on a stretch where it wins 15 out of 20, as the Royals did last year, they might lead the wild-card race and quiet their critics.” The team didn’t go on a stretch where it won 15 out of 20 – it was already in such a stretch, starting the day that Dale Sveum was hired as the team’s new hitting coach on May 29th.

Along the way they won 10 games in a row for the first time since 1994, the second time since 1978, and the fifth time in franchise history. (By comparison, the Royals have lost ten games in a row six times – just since 2005.) I wouldn’t argue that it’s the most unlikely winning streak in team history; I think the 9-0 start to the 2003 season was more unlikely, coming from a team that had lost 100 games the year before. But I don’t think any winning streak in the history of the Royals has changed the narrative of the franchise quite like this one has. On the morning of June 7th – 13 days ago! – they were 29-32 and tied for last place. Yet tonight I’m writing this column from the press box at Kauffman Stadium, looking out at what I believe is the first sold-out crowd I have ever witnessed here – a sold-out crowd to watch a first-place baseball team.

And it’s time for me to acknowledge that…well…I’m not saying I was wrong – about the Royals, the Shields trade, Jason Vargas, a lot of things. It is June, after all, even if the deliriously festive mood among Royals fans – and the incredulous reaction from the rest of baseball – would have you believing it’s late September. But I have to acknowledge at least the possibility that I was wrong. Very wrong.

The funny thing is that the standings are not all that different from what I (or a lot of observers) expected before the season began.

Team          W   L  Pct.   GB
Kansas City  39  33  .542  ---
Detroit      37  32  .536  0.5
Cleveland    37  36  .507  2.5
Chicago      35  38  .479  4.5
Minnesota    33  38  .465  5.5

I projected the Royals to win 85 games before the season, which at the 72-game mark would project to a 38-34 record – they’ve literally won one more game than I would have expected. The Tigers are two or three games behind where I expected them to be, but I thought they were vulnerable before the season – I saw them as maybe a 90-92 win team. Honestly, the most surprising part of the AL Central standings are that the White Sox and Twins are so close to .500.

But of course here are the standings on the morning of May 19th:

Team          W   L  Pct.   GB
Detroit      27  12  .692  ---
Kansas City  22  21  .512  7.0
Minnesota    21  21  .500  7.5
Chicago      21  24  .467  9.0
Cleveland    19  25  .432 10.5

It’s when you look at the standings from a month ago that you realize the real story of the AL Central isn’t the rise of the Royals – the Indians have actually played better (18-11) than Kansas City (17-12) in that span – but the collapse of the Tigers. Detroit has followed a 27-12 start by going 10-20 since. That, to me, might be even more surprising than what the Royals have done. I didn’t expect the Tigers to play .692 ball all season, but I also didn’t expect the three-time defending AL Central champions, who had the best record in baseball a month ago, to lose two-thirds of their games for the next month.

And so here with are, 90 games left in the season, the Royals and Tigers essentially tied. The two teams represent a fascinating contrast of styles, both in terms of the way they were built – the Royals largely from within, the Tigers mostly through trades and free agent signings – and in terms of strengths and weaknesses. The Tigers have the two-time defending AL MVP in Miguel Cabrera, an almost equally terrifying Victor Martinez, and an excellent rotation in which Justin Verlander is suddenly, and clearly, the worst starter. The Royals have a good rotation that looks great because it’s backed by the best defense in the game; excellent team speed; and a bullpen that has been as impervious as the Tigers’ bullpen has been leaky. This could be a fascinating pennant race because it’s as much a referendum on baseball philosophy as it is a clash of two equally-matched baseball teams. (Just watch: the Indians will wind up winning it.)

There are still reasons to think the Royals are the underdog here, for the simple reason that, objectively speaking, they’ve been a little lucky. I’m not just referring to the first win in this 15-of-20 stretch coming after Jose Reyes made a bad throw to first base on what would have been the final out, or the last win in this stretch coming when Alex Gordon’s routine grounder hit the second base bag and took a crazy bounce, allowing Eric Hosmer to score in what turned out to be a one-run win. Although those certainly count.

What I mean when I say the Royals are lucky is this:

The Royals are hitting .261/.314/.372. They’ve scored 304 runs.
The Royals’ opponents are hitting .252/.315/.383. They’ve scored 286 runs.

The Royals are allowing more offense than they’re generating – pretty much the same OBP, and a touch more slugging. (The Royals have hit for a higher batting average, but once you’ve accounted for OBP and slugging – remember, batting average figures into both of them – there’s no advantage to a higher batting average.) Yet they’ve outscored their opponents by 18 runs. Some of that may be team speed; the Royals have stolen 31 more bases than their opponents while being caught only five more times. But that’s a difference of three or four runs, which might make up for the slight edge in power but no more. The Royals are, on paper, a .500 team.

The Tigers, meanwhile, have hit .272/.325/.431; their opponents have hit .259/.322/.409. Again, the Royals have an edge in speed, and these numbers don’t take into account the Royals’ amazing ability to throw out baserunners from the outfield. But at least on paper the Royals are the slightly inferior team.

But they don’t play games on paper, and they’re only slightly inferior. And the Royals have one additional asset the Tigers lack – a farm system capable of bringing back premium talent. I don’t get the Jeff Samardzija rumors at all; it’s not just that it might take someone like Ventura or Duffy to get the deal done, but that I’m not even certain Samardzija would represent that much of an upgrade on the five starters the Royals have now. (Keep in mind that I still consider the NL to be an inferior level of competition, and am always leery of players who move to the superior league.)

If David Price is available, then yeah, everything is on the table. I just don’t think the Royals need to waste valuable farm system resources on pitching when they still have an acute need for a hitter. The Ben Zobrist rumors intrigue me; Zobrist is arguably the most underrated player of the last decade, and from 2009 to 2013 ranked third in all of baseball in bWAR. They also frighten me – he’s 33, having an off-year that may or may not signal a real decline, and you know how I feel about the Royals trading with Tampa Bay. But he would fill a need at the one position the Royals seem willing to upgrade – right field, with the added benefit that 1) he could fill in at third base if Moustakas continues to hit .170, or second base if Infante gets hurt again, or pretty much anywhere else on the diamond; and 2) he has a club option for 2015, which would give the Royals another year to develop a long-term solution (hopefully Jorge Bonifacio, who is hitting .225/.295/.332 in Double-A but is only 21) at the position.

Dayton Moore has indicated the Royals are still a few weeks from making any big moves to upgrade the team. That makes sense if the Royals need more time to figure out where their needs are – but it’s pretty clear what this team needs, and it’s pretty clear that even one less win that is the result of waiting a month to pull the trigger on a trade could make the difference between playing in October and going home early.

But at least we’re talking about who the Royals need to acquire instead of who they need to deal. A few weeks after we were talking about what we could get James Shields, we’re talking about who the Royals would have to give up for David Price. Yeah, it’s only June. But if you think being in first place in June doesn’t matter, you need to see what I’m seeing right now, a packed house at Kauffman Stadium watching a first place team. Thanks to Alex Gordon, Danny Duffy, and yes, the Tigers, this season is turning out to be a hell of a lot more fun than we thought it would be a month ago. I’m going to hold off on proclaiming the Royals’ greatness, or flogging myself for daring to question the wisdom of the Shields trade, for a while longer. Let’s just enjoy being in a pennant race for now. For now, that’s enough.

Friday, June 13, 2014


If you can figure out the 2014 Royals, well, you’re smarter than I am.

Two weeks ago the Royals hit their low point of the season, what Alcides Escobar called the low point of his time in Kansas City. They got swept at home by the Houston Astros, a team that had lost 106 games each of the last three years, which meant one of two things: 1) the Royals got swept – no, dominated – at home by a terrible, terrible team; or 2) the Astros are not a terrible team anymore, which meant that in his third year as general manager, Jeff Luhnow had accomplished what it took Dayton Moore until his seventh full season to do. The Royals then proceeded to fire their hitting coach, moving on to their sixth hitting coach since the end of the 2012 season.

From May 1st to May 28th, against a relatively easy schedule, the Royals had gone 10-16. They headed to Toronto to play the first-place Blue Jays, the beginning of a much more difficult part of their schedule.

Naturally, they’ve gone 9-4 since.

Which means I really should revise that opening sentence to read: if you can figure out the 2014 major league baseball season, well, you’re smarter than I am. Because if there’s one thing that the first 10 weeks of the season have taught us, it’s that you can throw out all your preconceived notions from before the season of which AL teams are good and which teams are bad, making my distinction between the easy and hard parts of the Royals schedule meaningless. About all we know is that the A’s are really good, the Blue Jays are better than expected, and that the Rays are a mess. Everything else is arguable.

Going into last night’s games, every AL Central team except the Twins had exactly 33 wins; 3.5 games separated first from last. Twelve of the 15 AL teams are within 3.5 games of .500. To put it another way, the 14th-place Boston Red Sox are just 6.5 games behind the 3rd-place L’Anaheim Angels. No one knows anything. The Astros aren’t that bad. The Tigers aren’t that good.

Ah yes, the Tigers. The Tigers, who started the year 27-12 and had me writing off the Royals – or any other AL Central team’s – divisional title hopes completely. It’s not that I expected the Tigers to play .692 ball the rest of the way – it’s that they had built such a lead that, if they were to simply go 62-61 the rest of the way, they would win 89 games. And I figured that a team that starts 27-12 – and has won the last three AL Central crowns – is probably going to do better than 62-61.

Instead, the weaknesses that were apparent in their roster prior to the season – and that they somehow rendered irrelevant for 39 games – finally showed up expecting payment with interest. The kryptonite of Dave Dombrowski’s SuperGM act – his inability to build a bullpen, and his strange willingness to overpay for veteran closers – has been brought out of hiding. Joe Nathan, who had a 1.39 ERA last year and got a two-year, $20 million contract this winter, has an ERA over 7. The Tigers’ bullpen as a whole has a 4.68 ERA, which is the worst in baseball. And their inexplicable hubris after Jose Iglesias went down – content to completely punt the shortstop position rather than sign the Stephen Drew that was just sitting there – has burnt them badly. Their shortstops have combined to hit .204/.267/.277 and are 8 runs below average defensely according to Baseball Info Solutions. Last week they turned to Eugenio Suarez, a prospect of modest status, after just 13 games in Triple-A. It might work; knowing the Tigers, it probably will.

But in the meantime, after starting the year 27-12 the Tigers went 6-16 before winning last night. Put it this way: if the Royals had won just one of the five games between the two teams, they would have been tied for first place before last night’s game. Against the other 28 teams in baseball, the Royals are 33-27 and the Tigers are 29-28.

Beyond the wins and losses, the Royals look to be in a much stronger position than they were two weeks ago. When Yordano Ventura walked off the mound on May 26th, I didn’t expect to see him on a mound again until July of 2015 or so. The Royals waved off the injury with almost shocking insouciance, and it was fair to be skeptical of their claims that Ventura only needed to miss one start. This is a franchise that has downplayed setbacks to minor league pitchers like John Lamb and Kyle Zimmer over and over again.

But if there are two guys in the organization who I trust, they are Nick Kenney and Kyle Turner, and sure enough Ventura was back on the mound ten days later. He’s won both of his starts since, although I think it’s relevant to point out that 1) he has struck out just four batters in 13 innings since returning and 2) according to his velocity charts, his average fastball velocity is down about 1 mph compared to before his elbow hurt. If that’s just a case of Ventura being a little more careful about airing out his arm, it’s no big deal. If that’s a sign that his arm isn’t 100%, that’s a problem. For now, it merits watching.

Equally concerning was Danny Duffy’s arm after he got bombed on May 28th with a fastball that dropped from his usual 94 mph average to around 92 mph. The Royals once again downplayed it as a “dead arm”, and once again subsequent events have proven them right – Duffy’s velocity returned to normal his next time out, when he allowed one hit in six innings. As important as this 9-4 stretch has been to the Royals, having their two best young starters apparently healthy – when the health of both of them was very much in question the last time I wrote – is even more important in the long run.

And while Ventura and Duffy appear healthy, they were healthy before their last start of May and the Royals were still 24-28. What’s made the difference is that the lineup, starting the day Dale Sveum was hired, has actually resembled a major league caliber offense. The Royals have scored 60 runs in 13 games with Sveum as their hitting coach, or 4.62 runs per game. In their 52 games before that they had scored just 197 runs, or 3.79 runs per game. I’m certainly not attributing improvement in that small a sample size to Sveum – but it’s a happy coincidence for the Royals, at least.

The end result is that a franchise which was teetering on a revolution two weeks ago – forget the fan base or deranged bloggers, even Ken Rosenthal had written an article hinting that a major shake-up might be necessary soon – has righted the ship. It’s symbolic that after enduring a six-game losing streak by Memorial Day for each of the previous ten years, the Royals have so far avoided such a fate this year. They came right up to the line – they lost five in a row and then needed extra innings in San Diego to avoid a sixth straight loss – but so far they’ve been able to stop the bleeding.

The Royals might be surprised to learn that the #1 complaint I received to my column in the KC Star was that I didn’t go far enough. When I wrote that, “Moore deserves a little more time to turn this season around — if the team goes on a stretch where it wins 15 out of 20, as the Royals did last year, they might lead the wild-card race and quiet their critics,” I heard from a lot of people that I was being soft on the front office for not demanding they clear out their desks immediately. The criticisms were neatly summed up by Scott McKinney’s comment at the very end of this thread:

“So at the end of June, the Royals will probably be a little higher in the standings than the[y] are now, and Rany will still not be calling for Moore to be fired. I admire his restraint.

In all honesty, Rany is being as patient, and thus as incompetent, with regard to Dayton Moore as David Glass has been.”

Well, it’s not even the middle of June yet, but the Royals are alone in second place, 2.5 games out of first place and a game out of the wild card, and guess what, Scott? I’m still not calling for Moore to be fired yet. And you know why? Because they’re alone in second place, 2.5 games out of first place and a game out of the wild card. That’s the way the world works. After eight years, Moore needs to be judged by the performance of his team today rather than the potential of his team tomorrow. But at least at the moment, the performance of his team doesn’t merit a housecleaning.

I’m not entirely convinced that will remain the case. The Royals are above .500 but have been outscored by eight runs on the season; more concerning, they have scored more runs than expected from their underlying performance and they have allowed fewer runs than expected from their underlying performance. According to Baseball Prospectus’ adjusted standings page, the Royals second-order winning percentage – what their winning percentage should be based on the number of singles, doubles, homers, walks, etc. they’ve both scored and allowed – is .444. That’s terrible – the equivalent of a 72-90 record. There may be good reasons for the discrepancy between how the Royals have played and how they should have played, but I remain leery that the Royals can play better than they have, which is something they’ll need to do if they want to reach the playoffs.

But for the moment, at least, they’re in it to win it. Talk of trading James Shields has stopped, although there are still seven weeks until the trading deadline. Speaking of Shields, as I am legally required to bring up The Trade at every opportunity, I should link to Sam Mellinger’s excellent piece here, which I almost entirely agree with. To wit: it’s still too early to declare a winner. If the Royals go to the real* playoffs this year – with Shields starting Game 1 of the playoffs (or winning the Wild-Card game) and Wade Davis the eighth-inning shutdown option, I will happily declare victory for the Royals. Ending a 29-year playoff drought is a legacy no one can take away from Dayton Moore.

*: As I’ve said before, if the Royals reach the Wild-Card game but lose – particularly if Shields starts the game – the legacy of the trade becomes much more ambiguous. Is half a playoff spot still a playoff spot? How you answer that will determine how you view the trade.

But can I just say that people who keep harping on Wil Myers’ performance (or lack thereof) this season are missing the point? If Myers were raking, but the Royals were running away with the AL Central, most people would say that the trade was worth it – and they’d be completely justified. The Royals made the trade not to get rid of Myers, but to acquire Shields, and they acquired Shields with one purpose: to make the playoffs in 2013 or 2014. That’s why I get so rankled when the Royals distance themselves from those playoff expectations. Myers didn’t hit well at all this year – although he still has a higher OPS than Nori Aoki! – and then hurt his wrist, so 2014 may well be a lost season for him. But in 2015, he’ll be a 24-year-old starting right fielder for the Rays, and the Royals’ starting right fielder will be…uh, we’ll get back to you on that.

Wade Davis has been as dominant as any reliever in baseball this year…but keep in mind that to acquire Aoki – to replace Wil Myers’ bat in the lineup for just one season – the Royals surrendered Will Smith, who has a lower ERA (0.88) than Davis (1.23). I’d rather have Davis too – but after this season, the Royals will have to pay Davis $25 million for the next three years if they choose to keep him. Smith, meanwhile, won’t be arbitration-eligible until 2016. I highly doubt that the Brewers would trade Smith for Davis straight-up today.

We’re getting deep into the weeds here, and we haven’t even mentioned Jake Odorizzi. I’m not trying to build a trench around my position that the Royals got screwed in the trade. On the contrary: I’m acknowledging that if they make the playoffs this year, and if (as is likely) they would not have made the playoffs with Myers and Odorizzi, the trade may prove to be everything the Royals expected it to be, and I may owe Dayton Moore a huge apology. But that depends very little on what Myers is doing in Tampa Bay, and very much on what the Royals are doing in Kansas City.

Two weeks ago, what they were doing was getting their ass kicked by a team that’s five years behind them in their rebuilding process, and harsh criticism was warranted. Today, it’s not entirely clear what the Royals are doing. Which is a good thing. They’ve got a little more than three months to justify the trade. More importantly, they’ve got a little more than three months to bring playoff baseball back to Kansas City for the first time in a generation. If they do the latter, I’ll suck up my pride and admit I was dead wrong about the former.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Year Nine.

I may not have the time to write about the Royals nearly as often as I used to, but when the Kansas City Star asks me to write for the Sunday paper 1200 words of hot fire (TM, Sam Mellinger) on the developing nightmare that is the 2014 season, I’m there. If you haven’t read it already, you can do so here. I hope you like it.

Because newspapers are not printed on scrolls, I didn’t have the time to expound on every little detail about the Royals; fortunately, that’s why I have this blog. Let’s talk about some those other issues.

- To be completely fair, it’s a little early to characterize this season as a disaster quite yet, which is why I stepped just short of the line of calling for Dayton Moore to be fired this instant. The 2014 AL is just crazily compressed, more than I can ever recall a league being at the beginning of June. 

Yes, the Royals are in last place in the AL Central as I write this, but they’re also just two games out of second place. They’re in 13th place in the American League (!), but just 3.5 games out of the wild-card spot. Call it the 15-out-of-20 rule, in honor of Moore’s drop-the-mic moment from last year: so long as the Royals can reasonably expect to lead the wild-card race if they win 15 of their next 20 games, it’s premature to give up on the season – and the front office – entirely.

But I am becoming more and more skeptical that such a thing is possible by the moment. It’s not just that the longer the season goes on, the more likely it is that Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler and the newly-returned Mike Moustakas are not just in an epic early-season slump, but that this is simply who they are. It’s not just that the longer the season goes on, the more likely it seems that the Royals may in fact finish with fewer home runs than Barry Bonds hit by himself in 2001.

For one, there’s the schedule. As I wrote back in early April, the Royals actually had one of the easier early-season schedules in baseball, easy enough that it was entirely reasonable that they would be 34-22 at this point. Instead, they’re 26-30, and now it gets harder – with the necessary caveat that it’s not entirely clear which teams are good and which teams are bad this year. They’ve finished their entire season series with the Astros, for instance – and didn’t that go well! – but have yet to play the Yankees or Red Sox at all. If you believe the current standings, that doesn’t sound so bad. If you believe that there’s some relevance to the Red Sox being defending world champions, it doesn’t.

They just played a Blue Jays team which looks like it will be a force in the AL East all season, and were lucky to get a split – if Jose Reyes simply completes a routine throw from shortstop to end Thursday night’s game, the Royals would have lost three of four. From now until June 30th, the Royals play the Cardinals, Yankees, Indians, White Sox, Tigers, Mariners, Dodgers, and Angels. There are no patsies in that bunch. They could easily repeat their 12-17 May with a 12-16 June, in which case they’ll be 38-45 and the pressure will be on the front office to sell as the trading deadline approaches. Specifically, the pressure will be on them to trade James Shields. For a lot less than they acquired him for. It’s a lot to ask your general manager to make a move that almost by definition will acknowledge that the signature transaction of his tenure was a mistake.

Beyond that, there’s the stark reality that there ain’t no cavalry coming from the minors this season. While the farm system is pretty good overall, let’s not mince words: most of the Royals’ prospects have been disappointing this season, and the best of them are still in A-ball. The one who hasn’t, Yordano Ventura, gave us all a frightful scare last week, and while reports couldn’t be better – he might well be back on the mound this week – the reality is that the Royals are 26-30 with Ventura, and his availability the rest of the season is not entirely certain.

Kyle Zimmer, who was supposed to lead the cavalry, may not be on a mound until August after a strained lat muscle further delayed his recovery from “minor” arm soreness – and once again raised the question of whether the Royals are being entirely straight with us. Who else can the Royals call on? We’ve already seen their options in the lineup – Johnny Giavotella, Jimmy Paredes, Pedro Ciriaco – which are collectively so appealing that when Danny Valencia had to go on the DL today, the Royals brought Mike Moustakas back after eight whole games in Omaha and declared him fixed. (And it speaks volumes that through all this, Christian Colon – who’s hitting .280/.333/.372 – is the one guy we haven’t seen in Kansas City.)

And on the pitching side…um, did you see Aaron Brooks’ start on Saturday? Actually, maybe it’s better if you didn’t. If you’re thinking of jumping someone from Double-A, the Northwest Arkansas Naturals are 18-36, so don’t. (Actually that’s not fair – Angel Baez could be the Royals’ next fire-breathing reliever, and it’s entirely possible that Orlando Calixte could be the Royals’ best option at third base by September. But no one's going to help right now.)

Realistically, the only way this roster is going to be upgraded is from outside the organization…which means doubling down on trading future prospects for present talent. That’s a fine thing to do if the Royals are in the thick of a wild-card race. Right now, it’s Russian Roulette with only one chamber that doesn’t have a bullet.

Making this season particularly frustrating is that, once again, the Royals can’t blame injuries – they’ve been pretty healthy ever since Luke Hochevar went down with Tommy John surgery. Lorenzo Cain has been on the DL, but that’s what you get with Cain, and the Royals are well covered there with Jarrod Dyson. Omar Infante has been on the DL, but that’s what you get with Infante, and the Royals got him back as fast as they could. And now Valencia is on the DL, but if the Royals’ chances come down to a healthy Danny Valencia, they might as well pack it in right now. And on the pitching side, Tim Collins and Francisley Bueno were on the DL, and Bruce Chen is on there now, but that’s it – the Royals’ #5 starter and two situational relievers.

Maybe the Royals’ individual players will show improvement, but that improvement is likely to be counteracted by injuries to core players. Losing Ventura for just one start showed how little pitching depth the Royals have right now. The Royals didn’t make much of it, but Danny Duffy’s velocity was way down his last time out, and forgive me if I don’t accept Ned Yost’s excuse of a “dead arm” until I see that velocity come back. And if Gordon or Alcides Escobar or Salvador Perez goes down for an extended period of time…God help us.

So I’m not convinced that the Royals can play that much better than they already have – and I’m fairly convinced that given their schedule, they’ll have to play better just to maintain their disappointing record so far. They’ll have to play a lot better to get back into the wild-card race, because eventually one of the other nine teams ahead of them will get really hot. The Tigers and A’s will almost certainly win 90 games; I think the Blue Jays have a good chance to get there too, particularly if they make a move to pick up a pitcher (you may have heard that James Shields would look awfully good there). The Angels strike me as a team that could get hot awfully fast, especially now that Josh Hamilton is ready to re-join their lineup. That just means one team – the Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers all seem like good candidates – needs to go on a tear, and the Royals will be left in their wake.

Even if it takes just 88 wins to make the playoffs in the AL this year (it took 92 last year,) that would require the Royals to go 62-44 the rest of the season. I’m not saying it can’t happen – they did go 43-27 after the All-Star Break last year. I’m saying that betting on another second-half rebound is betting on hope. And as the Royals have demonstrated year after year after year, hope is not a strategy.

David Glass doesn’t have to make any decisions now. He shouldn’t, quite frankly; the draft starts in a couple of days, and you might recall that Moore was hired just before the draft the last time around, and the lack of clear leadership in the war room led to Luke Hochevar #1 overall, and (nearly as damning) not a single major leaguer of note drafted between Hochevar and their final pick, Jarrod Dyson. For that reason alone the front office should be left alone for the next week or two.

But I don’t think I’m being unreasonable when I say that if 2014 was the make-or-break year for Moore, then June is his make-or-break month. If the Royals can climb back to .500 by month’s end, then maybe the grim reaper should be held back for a little while longer. If they get over .500 and are a serious threat in the wild-card race, maybe it will even be best to let the season play out, even if it means holding onto Shields and taking the draft pick the way the Royals did with Ervin Santana last year.

But if the Royals aren’t any higher in the standings at the end of June than they are at the beginning of it, it’s time for the owner to do what only the owner can do. I was 30 when Moore was hired; I turn 39 in two weeks. I’ve come to the realization that I may have wasted my 30s rooting for a payoff that never came. I have no intention of wasting my 40s the same way.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Tale Of Two Narratives.

We’ve reached Dayton Moore’s mythical 40-game mark, a quarter of the way through the season, the point at which we’re finally allowed to make an assessment of the Royals. Given that they are exactly a .500 team right now, there are really only two things which we can say with any degree of confidence about the Royals, and what’s interesting is that they play to two entirely different narratives:

1) The Royals are quite unlikely to contend for the AL Central crown;

2) The Royals are quite likely to contend for a wild-card spot.

Point #1 is pretty clearly true, not because of anything the Royals are necessarily doing right or wrong*, but because the Detroit Tigers are once again playing like one of the best teams in baseball, and Dave Dombrowski is once again showing why he’s the most underrated GM in baseball.

*: Except beat the Tigers, of course, against whom they’re 0-5. If the Royals had won 3 of those 5 games, they’d be tied for first place right now.

I wrote about Dombrowski for Grantland when the season began, and broke down his trade record since he joined the Tigers. I knew that he had a formidable track record, but even I was surprised by just how lopsided his overall trade performance was. By a very approximate method, I estimated that the Tigers had won more than nine extra games a year since he was hired because of his trades.

The Tigers looked like they would be down in 2014 in part because of two trades they made this winter, one that made financial sense (Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler), and one that made no sense at all (Doug Fister for Robbie Ray and Ian Krol). No sense, that is, except that Dombrowski was the one making it.

Sure enough, as I write this Kinsler is hitting .303/.337/.441 while playing second base, and Fielder is hitting .252/.366/.367 as a 1B/DH. The trade allowed Miguel Cabrera to move to first base and installed rookie Nick Castellanos at third base, which upgraded the team’s infield defense, and sure enough, groundball/contact-oriented Rick Porcello is having his best season (3.22 ERA, 3.09 FIP). And while it’s way too early to weigh in on the Fister trade, the fact is that Ray – who wasn’t a Top 100 prospect before the season – has already reached the majors and was terrific in his first two starts. Yes, those two starts were against the Astros and Twins, but put it this way: Ray has already had more major league success than Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, and Chris Dwyer combined.

Anyway, the point is that even with his relatively poor player development record, as long as Dave Dombrowski is running the show in Detroit, the Tigers will be formidable. A team that had him in charge of the major league roster and Dayton Moore in charge of player development (particularly in Latin America) might win 100 games a year.

The Tigers are 24-12 with fundamentals to match; while it’s always possible they could go into a tailspin, the odds that the Royals catch them already seem formidable. (Particularly since their biggest weaknesses are their bullpen, which is easy to upgrade – they already signed Joel Hanrahan, who should debut soon – and shortstop, a spot which Stephen Drew may fill as soon as the draft is over in three weeks.)

And yet…if the season ended today, the Royals would be a game behind the second Wild Card spot. They are tied for the sixth-best record in the AL…and that’s not a fluke, as they have the sixth-best run differential in the AL as well.

So with three-quarters of a season left, we’re looking at a situation in which the Royals have very little shot at a playoff spot – but an excellent shot at half of a playoff spot. It’s quite possible that the Royals will come out of the All-Star Break with no chance at winning the division, but will spend the entire last half of the season chasing – and understandably so – the right to play in a single winner-take-all game that might well serve as a referendum for not just this season, but for the entire Dayton Moore era.

If the Royals sneak into the Wild Card game but lose it, were they really in the playoffs? Technically, yes, and the Royals will no doubt spin the experience as a huge success, as they absolutely should given not just the history of the franchise but the emphasis they put on this season* when they traded for James Shields.

*: An emphasis they are, naturally, backing away from now that 2014 is here. Maybe they haven’t been contenders on the field in a long time, but when it comes to moving the goalposts, the Royals are a dynasty.

But if three glorious hours constitutes the entire Royals’ playoff experience, and if they don’t build upon that success in the next year or two, can anyone with a straight face define the Moore Era in Kansas City as a success? Maybe the Royals should ask their neighbors across the parking lot what a series of three-hour playoff appearances is worth. As professional sports leagues insist on letting more and more teams qualify for the playoffs, they have to accept that they’re cheapening the experience. Making the playoffs in 1993 was tremendously meaningful even if you got swept out of the LCS. Making the playoffs in 2014 only means that you were in the top third of 30 major league teams. By definition, that’s something the average team accomplishes every 3 years, so if that’s the pinnacle of the Dayton Moore Era, then the Era was a huge disappointment.

It’s not fair to judge a team by what happens in a single game, but if you don’t want your legacy to be defined by a single game, you can always win your division. And if the Royals do win that game, the season will be judged much more favorably even if they lose in the LDS round. The Pittsburgh Pirates won their Wild Card game against the Reds last year, and even though they fell to the Cardinals in five games in the LDS round, I think Pirates fans all agree that they had a legitimate playoff experience. (It helps that they hosted the Wild Card game. If you lose the Wild Card game on the road – if Kauffman Stadium doesn’t host a single playoff game – it’s much harder to call that a true playoff team.)

So – barring a Tigers collapse, which is certainly not impossible, given their second-half swoons in 2006, 2012, and 2013 – the Royals’ best-case scenario is to get into what Joe Sheehan derisively calls the Coin Flip Game, and then hope the coin turns up heads. If it does, no matter what else happens, this front office will have accomplished more than its two predecessors do. If they win that game behind a dominant performance by James Shields, they might win The Trade in the process.

But first they have to get there. And there’s where the Two Narratives come into play. The Royals look for all the world like a .500 team, in a season where playing .500 might just keep you into contention into September. If you assume that the Tigers and A’s will win their divisions, and if you assume the Red Sox will eventually get in gear and win the AL East, you’re looking at a bunch of incredibly flawed competitors:

The Orioles are 13th in the AL in runs – just ahead of the Royals – despite playing at Camden Yards, and they don’t know how long they’ll be without Matt Wieters, their second-best hitter this season as a catcher.

The Yankees have been outscored by 13 runs this season, and have basically one effective starter (Masahiro Tanaka) in their rotation right now. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that Yangervis Solarte doesn’t continue to hit .325/.403/.504 all season, in part because I had literally never heard of Yangervis Solarte before the season started.

I committed sabermetric heresy before the season by saying that I wasn’t all that high on the Rays this year, for one simple reason: I didn’t think their offense was all that good. Their offense hasn’t been that bad, but their pitching hasn’t been its usually stellar self either, and Matt Moore is out for the year after Tommy John surgery.

I’m rooting for the Blue Jays, not just because of the Kevin Seitzer connection but because they’ve gone longer without a playoff berth than any professional sports team other than the Royals. But that’s not a good pitching staff, and that bullpen is a HAZMAT zone right now.

The White Sox lost 99 games last year. The Twins lost 96 games last year. I think they’re both better, maybe significantly better, but in the history of baseball, no team that lost more than 97 games the year before has ever made the playoffs. Both teams face tough odds based on that alone.

The Indians just sent down Danny Salazar, who some were trumpeting as a bigger phenom than Yordano Ventura before the season started.

The Angels have a weak pitching staff that’s covered up by their ballpark some. Raul Ibanez, who is hitting .152/.268/.276, is their starting DH.

The Mariners are run by Jack Zduriencik.

The Rangers are 20-21, but they’ve been outscored by 33 runs (!) – only the Astros have a worse run differential in the league. Martin Perez is out for the year, and Matt Harrison is too.

I have no doubt that one of these teams is going to get hot and win 90 games or more. But I’m not so certain that two of these teams will do the same. This could be a year where 87 or 88 wins gets you into the Wild Card game. If that’s the case, the Royals will have no one to blame but themselves if that team isn’t them.

So which narrative do you prefer? The Bad Narrative says that the Royals have scored the second-fewest runs in the AL.

The Good Narrative says that the 1985 Royals also scored the second-fewest runs in the AL.

The Bad Narrative says that the Royals have hit 18 home runs in 40 games, a near-historically bad pace.

The Good Narrative says that the Royals have also allowed the fourth-fewest homers (34) in the league, and they have more hits (350 to 327) and doubles (78 to 61) than their opponents.

The Bad Narrative says that the corner hitters – and core hitters – on the roster are horrendous this season. Moustakas is hitting .161. Hosmer is hitting .302 but with one homer. Alex Gordon is hitting .261/.317/.366, also with one homer. Billy Butler is hitting .232/.291/.296, also with – you guessed it – one homer.

The Good Narrative says that the Royals are getting better-than-average production from up the middle positions. Salvador Perez is hitting .277/.338/.447, which isn’t a surprise; Alcides Escobar is hitting .285/.336/.409, which is. Lorenzo Cain is hitting .319/.367/.403.

The Bad Narrative says that the bullpen isn’t nearly as good as it was last year – their ERA has jumped 90 points to 3.45.

The Good Narrative says that the bullpen is still pretty damn good, and the rotation actually has a better ERA (3.43) than the bullpen – the third-best rotation ERA in the league.

The Bad Narrative says that the Royals are six games behind the Tigers, and it’s only May 16.

The Good Narrative says that the Royals are in the thick of the wild-card race.

How we cover this team over the next four months depends on which narrative you prefer. To this point, the narrative that most in the media – myself included – have leaned on The Bad Narrative, not because we’re haters, but because this was supposed to be the year. The Royals’ front office has been building to this season for eight years, and they were supposed to be better than this by now. They weren’t supposed to be six games behind the Tigers in the middle of May already. The fact that we’re already focusing on the Wild Card game just a quarter of the way into the season is reason enough to favor The Bad Narrative so far.

Also, there’s the matter of the Royals having one of the two cornerstones of their rebuilding project, the first official draft pick of the Dayton Moore Era, the #2 pick overall, hitting .161. It’s not simply that Mike Moustakas has played so poorly, but that it’s Mike Moustakas. If, I don’t know, Omar Infante was hitting .161, it would be a huge disappointment and it would call into judgment Moore’s ability to identify major league free agents, but it wouldn’t be an indictment of the organization’s entire mission statement. But from the moment Dayton Moore was hired, he has emphasized scouting and player development above everything else. He was absolutely right to do this, because it works, and for a small-market team, developing talent from within is almost the sine qua non of a successful franchise.

But you have to develop the talent. And that’s why Moustakas has become such a lightning rod for this team – not simply because he’s played so poorly, but because he’s supposed to be (along with Eric Hosmer) the best of what the Royals can develop from within. It doesn’t help that Hosmer, who is a success only by relative standards, has turned into a singles hitter. He’s basically Hal Morris. Actually, that’s not fair to Morris:

Eric Hosmer, 2014: .302/.341/.414, 106 OPS+
Hal Morris, career: .304/.361/.433, 111 OPS+

It also doesn’t help that Moustakas, unlike Alex Gordon, or Billy Butler, or Mark Teahen, hasn’t been sent to Omaha. For years, critics of the organization – I’m not exclusively referring to myself here – have pointed out how the Royals front office is so unwilling to admit mistakes that they keep giving the players they acquired opportunity after opportunity that they wouldn’t give to players they inherited. Well, Gordon, Butler, and Teahen were all acquired by Allard Baird. Moustakas was drafted by Moore. When the Royals continue to find excuse after excuse* not to send Moustakas to Omaha – even though he’s hit considerably worse than all three of those players – they simply feed into that narrative.

*: Pick your favorite: “We don’t have any alternatives!” (Whose fault is that, Dayton?) “He helps our team in other ways!” (Enough to make up for a .161 average? Hardly.) “He’s still driving in runs!” (Really, Dayton? It’s 2014 and you’re still using RBIs as a defense?)

Going forward, if the Royals can stay above .500 and if the AL continues to be a bastion of mediocrity, the Royals have the power to change the narrative. They’ve done a legitimately good job in building their pitching staff. Their bullpen isn’t as good as last year’s, but it’s still one of the best in baseball, and given the variability in bullpens from one year to the next, that’s an accomplishment worth celebrating. Shields has been everything the Royals expected him to be. Yordano Ventura is the Royals’ first pitching phenom since Zack Greinke 10 years ago, and he’s having the kind of immediate success that Royals’ prospects so rarely have. Jeremy Guthrie keeps living on the right side of the dagger’s edge. Jason Vargas has shut my trap – even if I still like to yap about Phil Hughes – awfully fast. If Danny Duffy can just harness his control a tiny bit more, this is a championship-caliber pitching staff.

And maybe, in a year of flawed contenders all over, that’s all the Royals need. Maybe they don’t need their offense to live up to its long-lost potential; maybe they don’t even need an average offense, just one that isn’t one of the worst in baseball. Maybe they can dip into their still-fertile farm system to trade for a hitter who would fill one of the holes in their lineup. (I’m thinking specifically of Chase Headley here, who would be a huge upgrade at third base, and is a free agent at the end of the season. However, given that Headley is hitting as poorly as everyone else in San Diego – he’s hitting .195/.278/.368 right now – I understand if the Royals want to wait a few more weeks to see how things shake out.)

If the Royals can ride their excellence at half of baseball to take command of the wild-card race, then more power to them, and The Good Narrative will take over at least until that game in October. But in the meantime, if I may make a suggestion to the Royals, it’s this: STOP WORRYING ABOUT THE NARRATIVE. Stop worrying about what the media thinks. Stop being defensive about our criticisms. We have every right to be skeptical, and the only way to quell our skepticism is to win games.

The Royals have reached the point where we, as fans, are less critical of the team on the field than of the excuses that the front office keeps proffering. The Royals have been a solidly average team for the last season-plus. They are no longer an embarrassment on the field or anything close. But the front office seems to keep forgetting something: THEY WEREN’T HIRED BEFORE LAST SEASON. The six-and-a-half seasons before that still count. If Dayton Moore and friends were hired after the 2012 season, immediately decided to go for it by trading for James Shields and led the Royals to their winningest season in a quarter-century, they’d be hailed as geniuses by the fan base. But they weren’t, and their feigned innocence is irritating. YOU DON’T GET TO ACT LIKE THOSE SIX YEARS DON’T COUNT. I mean, Jack Zduriencik won 85 games in his FIRST season as the Mariners’ GM. Mariners fans are sick to death of him, and he was hired MORE THAN TWO YEARS AFTER Moore was hired in Kansas City.

Given long enough, any front office is going to be able to point to occasional episodes of success. We’re all .500 teams in the infinitely long run. A .500 record is supposed to be the natural order of things – not a reward for six seasons of sucking. I mean, Dayton, Cubs fans are already getting restless with their front office after just TWO years of sucking, and their President and GM have two World Series rings. Astros fans are getting restless – what few of them remain, anyway – and their GM was hired less than three years ago. I can guarantee you: if the Cubs remain under .500 until 2018, and that year they win 86 games without a playoff appearance, and in 2019 they’re a .500 team – Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are going to feel the heat if they haven’t been sent out of town on a rail. If the Astros are still losing 100 games a year in 2017, Jeff Luhnow isn’t going to be able to keep talking about the future. So what makes you so special? What makes your front office immune to criticism?

So a word of advice (because I know how much the Royals heed my advice): stop complaining about the fan base. Stop telling us what the industry thinks of your rebuilding movement. Other front offices aren’t going to criticize the Royals any more than I’m going to criticize the guy in my fantasy league who keeps drafting poorly and making bad draft picks. National sportswriters aren’t going to be as critical as local sportswriters because they don’t have anything invested in the Royals. Stop telling us that you inherited a franchise with “sub-expansion-team-level” talent and infrastructure and please don’t notice Gordon and Butler and Zack Greinke behind the curtain. Stop telling us that the rebuilding project will take five years, no, six, no, eight-to-ten. Stop telling us that we’re going for it in 2014 when we trade for James Shields, but we really didn’t mean going for it in 2014 now that it’s actually 2014 and Shields will be a free agent after the season.

Don’t tell us it takes 1500 plate appearances to judge a hitter when it didn’t take even 500 plate appearances to judge Miguel Cabrera or Austin Jackson or Ian Kinsler or Joe Mauer or Brian Dozier or Juan Jose Abreu or Alexei Ramirez or Jason Kipnis or Asdrubal Cabrera or Carlos Santana, to pick just other players from the AL Central. PLEASE don’t tell us it takes 1500 plate appearances and then, when one of your top prospects reaches 1500 plate appearances and hasn’t hit worth a damn in two years, you STILL refuse to send him to Triple-A. (Oh, and don’t tell us it takes 1500 plate appearances to judge a minor-league hitter when Bubba Starling is hitting .156, and every non-Royals scout in America thinks he’ll be lucky to make it as a fourth outfielder.)

Don’t piss down our legs and tell us it’s raining, is what I’m saying. If you win, everything will be forgiven; if you lose, all the spin in the world isn’t going to change our perception of you. You alone have the power to change The Narrative. As hard as this may be for you to believe, we’re all rooting for you to do so. But we’re also waiting with pitchforks if you don’t.