Friday, April 11, 2014

Royals Today: 4/11/14.

There’s nothing boring about being average. The Royals have won four games and lost four games; they’ve scored 27 runs and allowed 25. They are, 5% of the way through the season, a .500 team. But that hardly means nothing interesting is happening. Let’s dive in.

- A 4-4 record at this point is nothing to complain about, given that the Royals have played five of their eight games so far against teams that made the playoffs last year (and are favorites to make the playoffs this year). By not getting buried in the season’s first three series, the Royals are now well positioned to make their move.

The Royals’ next nine games come against the Twins and Astros, who combined for 207 losses last year. They won’t be that bad this year, but this is a much easier slate of games than the ones the Royals just finished, particularly for the Royals’ beleaguered offense. After facing the likes of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Matt Moore, and Chris Archer in their first eight games, the Royals will be facing the likes of Kyle Gibson, Kevin Correia, Lucas Harrell, and Dallas Keuchel in their next five games. Yum. If the offense still hasn’t come around at that point, then we can start getting worried.

Looking longer term, the Royals follow this nine-game stretch with series against the Indians, Orioles, Blue Jays, Tigers, Padres, Mariners, Rockies, Orioles again, White Sox, Angels, Astros, and Blue Jays again. Their next 48 games, taking us to June 2nd, include just three against a team (Detroit) that I projected to make the playoffs before the season began. That is an incredibly favorable schedule, and the Royals could well go, I dunno, 30-18 in that stretch, and at 34-22 they’ll be the talk of baseball as well as the talk of Kansas City, perfectly positioned to attract enormous crowds to the K once school lets out.

Schedules are designed to even out, of course, and it gets harder from there. In September alone, the Royals face the Rangers, the Yankees, the Tigers, the Red Sox, and the Tigers again. They need to go 30-18 if they want to stay in the race all season long. If they go 24-24 in this stretch, they’ll have a respectable .500 record, but be behind the 8-ball when it comes to making a playoff run in the second half. And if they replicate last year’s May this year…turn out the lights.

But they shouldn’t. They should be comfortably over .500 going into June. So it’s okay to get excited about where the Royals might be in two months. Just don’t forget that just as they have the wind at their backs in April and May, they’ll be running into a headwind after that.

- The unfortunate thing is that while the Royals are a respectable 4-4, they could be 5-3 or 6-2 very easily. I’m not going to get into every tactical decision that Ned Yost has made – I could, and have, written thousands of words on a single decision in the past, and there are only so many hours in the day. And truthfully, Yost’s reputation makes it easy for people to rip on him even when he’s done nothing wrong – or at least, nothing that 90% of the other managers in baseball wouldn’t have done as well.

That’s an interesting philosophical question to ask: if a manager makes a decision that is demonstrably wrong – but is the same decision most of his compatriots would make – how much should we criticize him for it? It’s demonstrably a bad idea that Yost went to Tim Collins in the tenth inning of a tie game against the Tigers instead of going to Greg Holland – but probably 25 of the other 29 managers in baseball would have done the same thing. Maybe more than 25. Managers just don’t go to their closers in tie games on the road. It’s maddening, and it deserves to be called out, but I don’t think Yost deserves to be criticized any more than Mike Matheny or Bruce Bochy would in the same situation.

I’m more critical of Yost’s decision to not pitch Holland in a tie game in the ninth inning on Opening Day, choosing to stick with Wade Davis for a second inning, because once there were runners on first and third with one out, then Yost called on Holland with no margin for error. The lack of consistency bothers me. If you don’t want to “waste” Holland to start the inning in a tie game because you want to save him for a lead that he can close out, then how you can justify wasting him later in the same inning? And if the answer is, “because the game was on the line in that situation”, well, the game was on the line when the inning started. It was a tie game. In the bottom of the ninth. I don’t understand how Yost can acknowledge the former situation calls for your best reliever, but not the latter.

But the decision that got Yost the most attention – it’s never a good sign when your tactical decisions are inviting controversy two games into the season – was the decision to let Alcides Escobar bat in the eighth inning of Game 2, with the Royals down a run and the tying run at second base. I don’t want to rehash Yost’s ridiculous “Pinch-hitting for guys gets in their dome” comments – because Yost has shown faith in Escobar in these situations for the last three years, and it’s been so helpful in developing his bat – I just want to focus, once again, on the lack of intellectual consistency here.

Jarrod Dyson was on second base at the time, because Dyson had pinch-run for Salvador Perez after Perez led off the inning with a double. Was Yost not worried about getting into Perez’s dome? An inning later, after Omar Infante hit a one-out single, Yost pinch-ran for Infante with Pedro Ciriaco. After Eric Hosmer walked, Billy Butler also walked, putting the tying run at third base and the winning run at second – and Yost pinch-ran for the runner at first base, because that runner was Billy Butler and Yost is apparently contractually obligated to pinch-run for Butler at every opportunity.

I mean, seriously: if removing a player from the game in key situations because of a perceived weakness is getting into his dome, shouldn’t Butler have PTSD by now? Yost pinch-runs for him even when his run doesn’t mean anything. Butler represented an insurance run at first base, but Yost pinch-ran for him – and took his bat out of the lineup for extra innings – to remove the remote possibility that a batter might hit a groundball too slowly to nail the batter at first base, but not too slowly to nail Butler – who would have a lead off the base, remember – at second base. The odds of that aren’t zero, but they’re a damn sight smaller than the odds that Escobar would make an out when a pinch-hitter might have driven in the tying run in the eighth inning.

So again: which is it? Is Ned Yost worried about his players’ psyche so much that he’ll take the tactical hit now so that they play better in the future, or is he not? If you’re worried that pinch-hitting for Escobar might destroy his confidence, how can you not be worried that calling for a wheelchair for Butler the second he touches first base will destroy his confidence?

The only thing I can think of is that Yost thinks that hitting ability, unlike running ability, is something you can develop over time. A poor hitter can become a good hitter with practice; a slow runner is a slow runner. Maybe he thinks that Butler will accept being pinch-run for because he knows he’s slow, but if Escobar is pinch-hit for he’ll suddenly realize he’s a poor hitter and this will break him. He might be right. But after three seasons with the Royals, it’s time to accept Escobar for who he is, and it’s time he accept who he is as well.

This obsession with pinch-running combined with disdain of pinch-hitting is hardly new. Last year Yost led all AL managers by calling for 48 pinch-runners, but called for only 79 pinch-hitters, and that was his highest number since joining the Royals. (Back in 2011, when the youth movement started and Yost wanted to give them every opportunity to learn, he only called on 36 pinch-hitters all year.)

By comparison, Bob Melvin used only 14 pinch-runners all season – but called on a pinch-hitter 166 times. Jim Leyland used 40 and 105. John Farrell used 40 and 93 – and didn’t have anyone remotely as bad as Escobar in his lineup. Yost is more aggressive than anyone when it comes to a speed edge – but is utterly uninterested in looking for an edge at the plate.

I don’t know why. But if Yost is worried about getting into Escobar’s dome, after over 2500 career plate appearances and a career .258/.295/.342 line, he has bigger issues than just having Escobar’s bat in his lineup.

- The Royals came up with an elegant solution to the complaints of people who thought they should be willing to pinch-hit for the player with the lowest OPS of any everyday hitter last year: they dropped Ciriaco, leaving them – as rumored all spring – without a backup middle infielder.

And hey, give them credit: it took almost three whole days before this decision may have cost the Royals a game. When Infante got hit in the jaw by a fastball on Monday – an injury which could have been a hell of a lot worse than it appears to be – the Royals were forced to play Danny Valencia at second base the rest of that game, and then started Valencia at second base on Tuesday. The Royals, a team with legitimate playoff aspirations, started a shortstop who can’t hit and a second baseman who can’t field – and had absolutely no one on the bench to substitute for them. They were reduced to making backup catcher Brett Hayes their emergency option at third base; presumably Mike Moustakas would have played shortstop if it came to that.

In the ninth inning of a scoreless game – scoreless even though the Royals had nine hits and three walks in the game – James Loney hit a hard but playable shot to Valencia’s right. Valencia was unable to get his glove on it and the ball rolled into right field, allowing Wil Myers to score the game’s only run from second base. Maybe a real second baseman wouldn’t have been able to get to the ball either – although even keeping the ball on the infield would have kept Myers at third base. Maybe the Royals would have lost the game in extra innings anyway. But it’s distinctly possible that having a real second baseman on the roster might have been the difference between victory and defeat.

I don’t even blame the Royals for starting Valencia for this particular game – once Infante went down, the Royals were still in that ten-day window where they couldn’t bring up a player on the 40-man roster without putting someone on the DL. The very next day, that window expired and the Royals brought up Johnny Giavotella, someone I certainly didn’t expect to see batting second in the Royals lineup on April 9th.

But I do blame the Royals for dropping Pedro Ciriaco in the first place. For what? For Aaron Brooks – a soft-tossing control specialist who hadn’t even pitched in Triple-A yet? The Royals also brought up Michael Mariot and Donnie Joseph when Tim Collins and Francisley Bueno were put on the DL; Joseph and Brooks are back in Triple-A, and not one of the three pitchers have thrown a pitch.

You want to know why? Because the Royals don’t need seven relievers. James Shields led the AL in innings pitched last year, and the Royals are paying Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie millions of dollars for their ability to soak up innings. Even though it’s early April and arms are not fully stretched out yet, in their eight games so far the Royals’ starters are averaging 6.67 innings a start. That leaves seven outs a game for the relief corps, and you don’t need a reliever for every single out.

Just as Yost’s emphasis on pinch-running over pinch-hitting is baffling, so too is the Royals’ collective emphasis on relief options over bench options. This isn’t on Yost specifically; the GM is supposed to have final say on personnel decisions. The Royals were so terrified of running out of pitchers in the 14th inning that they elected to go without a backup shortstop or second baseman in the first inning.

The decision to go with 12 pitchers isn’t atypical in today’s game. But the decision to go without a backup middle infielder is essentially unprecedented. There’s a reason why no team ever does it – because not only does it leave you exposed in the case of an injury, but it forces you to stick with what are typically two of the weakest hitters in your lineup. The Royals decided to defy 140 years of baseball conventional wisdom, and they got burned.

And the worst part is that everyone saw this coming. I mean, I wrote this at the end of January:

With Maxwell, Dyson, the backup catcher, and Emilio Bonifacio, I don’t even see where Valencia fits on the roster unless the Royals go to an 11-man pitching staff. I would support such a move – the Royals don’t need seven relievers – but of course, they have so many good relievers that it will be hard for them to get down to seven, let alone six. So I expect another move at some point, possibly late in spring training after Moustakas has already earned himself back in the Royals good graces. I expect Valencia or Maxwell to be on the move. But I’ll confess that the Royals rarely do what I expect.

Well, I got that last part right: the Royals rarely do what I expect. I said that the roster didn’t fit together then, but I never thought the Royals would go without a backup middle infielder. But they have. Emilio Bonifacio was the odd man out – and oh, by the way, is hitting .452/.500/.524 and leads the NL in both hits and stolen bases.

I am sometimes too certain with my criticisms of the Royals. I am sometimes not willing to entertain the possibility that the Royals might possess wisdom or insight that escapes me. (This is a subject I plan to write about in more detail later in the season.) I am guilty of not always acknowledging the possibility that I could be wrong.

But this is a prime exhibit in why my criticisms sometimes devolve into exasperation and outrage. The Royals refuse to carry a backup middle infielder. This refusal may have already cost them a ballgame. They have deliberately placed themselves in a situation where they can not pinch-hit for one of the game’s worst hitters last season under any circumstances. And they don’t seem to care.

Well, they cared enough to bring up Giavotella, which means they do have a backup second baseman. They still don’t have a backup shortstop. And Alcides Escobar will continue to bat come hell or high water.

- It’s too early to draw any conclusions about individual players after just eight games, so I’m just going to focus on one player and one conclusion: after eight games, Salvador Perez has eight walks.

You might think that eight games isn’t a meaningful sample size, and it’s not. But walk rate stabilizes pretty quickly; impatient hitters don’t look like Gene Tenace over even a week’s worth of games very often. Perez’s career high in walks is 21. He had never before drawn more than six walks in a calendar month. This year, he’s drawn eight walks by April 9th. (One of those is intentional, but he had also drawn one intentional walk in the months where he had six walks in the past.) This seems significant, as does the fact that he’s, you know, leading the majors in OBP.

Perez has drawn walks in six straight games, in fact. That’s not unprecedented for a Royal; it was last done in 2012, by Jarrod Dyson of all people. But it’s certainly not common. And it’s distinctly uncommon for a player who, prior to this season, had walked just 40 times in 989 plate appearances.

Plate discipline was literally the only relevant skill that Perez had not displayed prior to this season – I’m not counting speed, which is both rare and irrelevant for a catcher – and now, overnight, he seems to be the most patient hitter on the team. Yes, he’s been batting ahead of Mike Moustakas, and maybe teams are just pitching around him – but he’s never let being pitched around stop him from swinging in the past.

Anyway, it merits watching. Perez is unlike any Royals player I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve never before seen a Royals player who not only matches, but exceeds, every expectation put on him.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Opening Day Preview 2014.

I have two predictions regarding the Royals’ finish in 2014:

1) They will finish 85-77.
2) Prediction #1 is almost certain to be off, probably way off; I just don’t know if I’m on the high side or the low side.

That’s just the reality of predicting the sum of what are essentially 162 weighted coin flips. Even if I knew the exact quality of the 2014 Royals – how likely they were to win each game – mathematics dictates a limit to the accuracy of my projection. A fair coin should land heads 50% of the time, so 162 coin flips should yield, on average, 81 heads – but the standard deviation of that number is 6.36. By the laws of the bell curve, 16% of the time a .500 team will finish more than one standard deviation above the mean – more than 87 wins – and 16% of the time they’ll finish more than one standard deviation below the mean – fewer than 75 wins.

If you find this hard to believe, remember that the 2012 Orioles – which were a .500 team on paper (they outscored their opponents by seven runs all year) – won 93 games. That works out to almost exactly two standard deviations above normal, an outcome which should occur about 2.3% of the time. (And 2.3% of the time a .500 team will finish two standard deviations below normal, meaning 69 or fewer wins.)

So my lucky success last year notwithstanding, there would be huge error bars on that 85-win projection even if I knew exactly how every player on the Royals would perform this season, which I don’t. (The new FiveThirtyEight site has a good article on this phenomenon.)

I could easily see a best-case scenario for the Royals, which goes something like this:

- Eric Hosmer builds on his success last season with a breakout, MVP-caliber performance.

- Salvador Perez builds on his success last season with a breakout, MVP-caliber performance.

- Mike Moustakas patches the holes in his swing from last season and hits .270 with 25 homers.

- Alex Gordon and Billy Butler both bounce back significantly, with Gordon approaching his .303/.376/.502 line from 2011, and Butler his .313/.373/.510 line from 2012. (By the way, I hadn’t appreciated just how similar those lines were until now. Very different players, but at their best, very similar performances at the plate.)

- Alcides Escobar bounces back at least somewhat from the disaster of last year; maybe he doesn’t hit .293 like he did in 2012, but he hits .270, and even with no power and few walks, .270 combined with his speed and defense makes him a valuable shortstop.

- Lorenzo Cain stays healthy, and wins a Gold Glove.

- Norichika Aoki’s BABIP finally befits a player with his speed and extreme groundball tendencies, and he hits .310 with a .380 OBP, making him one of the game’s best leadoff hitters.

- Omar Infante stays healthy enough to play 145 games and hits a solid .280 with solid power and solid defense, making him an enormous upgrade at second base.

- James Shields does James Shields things, throwing 220 innings with an ERA in the low 3s.

- Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie do Vargas and Guthrie things, combining for 400 innings with an ERA in the low 4s.

- Yordano Ventura wins Rookie of the Year.

- Danny Duffy takes over for Bruce Chen at mid-season and, finally harnessing his command, finally pitches up to his potential. Kyle Zimmer comes up in August and is so dominant that he beats out Vargas and Guthrie as the Royals #4 starter in the playoffs.

- The bullpen isn’t quite as dominant as last season, but is close enough, finishing with an ERA around 3. Greg Holland is fantastic if not as otherworldly as he was last season; Wade Davis replaces Luke Hochevar without a glitch; Kelvin Herrera makes The Leap with 70 innings, 100 strikeouts, and an ERA around 2.

- The Royals win 97 games and the AL Central, and are the biggest story in baseball from August 1st on. They defeat the Rays in the ALDS, with Wil Myers striking out in all 14 of his at-bats, then wipe their feet with the Yankees in the ALCS when Hosmer hits a crushing homer into the right-field upper deck at Yankee Stadium to ice the final game. The Royals then sweep the Cardinals in the World Series, the lasting image of the series being a weeping Will Leitch sitting all alone at Busch Stadium.

- After the season, Dayton Moore is rewarded with a five-year contract extension.

Aside from my slightly creative take on the playoffs, I don’t think anything that I’ve proposed is all that unlikely. Unfortunately, here’s the worst-case scenario:

- Hosmer hits about as well as he did last season, which is to say he’s a perfectly acceptable, average first baseman, but not a star.

- Perez gets hurt and misses two months, and afterwards the Royals openly talk about moving him out from behind the plate to keep him healthy. In his absence, Brett Hayes hits even worse than his career averages of .220/.266/.374.

- Like last year, Moustakas’ spring training is a mirage. By mid-season Danny Valencia is getting most of the playing time; after the season Perez will make news by taking a few reps at third base in winter ball.

- Gordon and Butler hit about as well as they did last season, which is to say not that great. Gordon is still a valuable player because of his defense, but the Royals decline to pick up Butler’s option after the season.

- Escobar doesn’t have the lowest OPS of any qualifying hitter in baseball again, but he’s in the bottom five.

- Escobar bats second for half the season because Infante misses half the year with assorted injuries resulting from playing second base. In his absence the Royals alternate Johnny Giavotella and Christian Colon every two weeks; neither one hits.

- Cain doesn’t stay healthy, and doesn’t win a Gold Glove.

- Aoki, now 32 years old, loses a step, and hits .270 with a .340 OBP, which is just okay, and his lack of power makes him barely an asset in right field.

- Shields does Shields things, just not quite as often, finishing with 220 innings and an ERA in the high 3s.

- Vargas and Guthrie pitch the way their road performance (Vargas) and peripherals (Guthrie) suggest they’ll pitch, combining for 300 innings and an ERA around 5.

- Ventura is unable to hold up over a major league season and tails off badly in the second half.

- Duffy continues to walk the ballpark and is finally moved to the bullpen for good in August.

- Zimmer continues to battle arm problems and stays in the minors all season.

- The bullpen regresses massively. Holland finishes with an ERA close to 3, and no one matches Hochevar’s performance as the set-up man last year.

- Felipe Paulino, who has been named the White Sox’ #2 starter, wins AL Comeback Player of the Year honors. (Seriously – this is the guy I fear the Royals will really regret letting go. Remember: he was under contract for this season; they just flat-out released him.)

- Will Smith moves into the Brewers’ rotation at mid-season and is lights-out the rest of the way.

- Jake Odorizzi wins Rookie of the Year. (Am I a bad person for rooting for this to happen? No. Am I a bad Royals fan? Maybe.)

- Wil Myers finishes in the Top 5 of the MVP race. The Rays win the World Series.

- The Royals finish with 73 wins, dead last in the AL Central.

- After the season, Dayton Moore is rewarded with a five-year contract extension.

This scenario is a little melodramatic, but again, none of the individual results are that far-fetched.

I think the season will wind up a balance between Column A and Column B, which is why I’m projecting 85 wins. And look: projecting 85 wins is not an insult. I realize that this would be a one-win drop from last season, after the Royals made a bunch of moves this winter to go for it this year. But teams that improve by 14 wins from one season to the next, as the Royals did between 2012 and 2013, tend to drop back significantly the year after. The standings aren’t an escalator; you don’t just keep getting better and better. Regression to the mean is a bitch, and like Mondays, you can’t avoid her.

Back-to-back 85-win seasons would actually be quite the accomplishment. Last season, as you know, the Royals won 86 games for the first time since 1989. Well, do you want to know the last time the Royals won 85 games in back-to-back years? Try 1979 and 1980. In fact, aside from doing it six years in a row from 1975-1980, the Royals have never had consecutive seasons with 85 wins. That would be an achievement worth acknowledging, if not celebrating.

(And if you think 85 wins is pessimistic, consider that PECOTA is projecting the Royals to win just 79 games. But then PECOTA projected the Royals would go 76-86 last year, so screw him.)

It’s just that 85 wins and another playoff-free season would have to be considered a disappointment given what the Royals have been building towards, and given what they sacrificed to make this year possible. They would then be looking at 2015 without Shields, without Aoki, with Gordon and Butler going into the final year of their contracts, and with free agent signees Vargas, Guthrie, and Infante a year older and more expensive.

If the Royals really are an 85-win team on paper, in other words, variance is their friend. If they fall a few wins shy of that total, well, there’s not much difference in the consequences of being an 82-win team versus being an 85-win team. But if they end up a couple of wins above that total, well, 88 wins just might be enough to sneak away with the division this year.

I wouldn’t have said that at the end of last season. But since the end of last season, here’s what the Tigers have done:

1) Traded Doug Fister, maybe the best #4 starter in baseball, to the Nationals for a non-Top-100 prospect in Robbie Ray, a lefty specialist in Ian Krol, and a utility infielder in Steve Lombardozzi. It is the consensus around baseball that this was the most inexplicable move of the winter. Honestly: you can make a strong case that Fister should have had as much trade value this winter as Shields had last winter.

(Fister, like Shields a year ago, has two years left before free agency. He’s making $7.2 million this year; Shields made $9 million plus incentives last year. In the two years before the trade, Shields had 7.9 bWAR; over the last two years, Fister has 7.4 bWAR. If we go back three years, Fister has considerably more bWAR than Shields. Shields brought back a Top-10 prospect and a Top-100 prospect; Fister brought back flotsam and jetsam. As much as the Royals bought high, the Tigers sold low.)

2) Let Jhonny Peralta leave – they had already traded for his replacement in Jose Iglesias, but still, Peralta hit .303/.358/.457 last year.

3) Let Omar Infante walk as a free agent, then…

4) Replaced him by trading Prince Fielder – and $30 million in cash – to the Rangers for Ian Kinsler. I actually liked this deal for Detroit at the time, because while I think Fielder is a better player at this time, the money they saved gave the Tigers the opportunity to sign a premier free agent, like Shin-Soo Choo. Instead, they…

5) Signed Joe Nathan for two years and $20 million. Nathan is the second-best reliever of the century, and had a 1.39 ERA last year. But he’s 39 years old, and while paying $10 million to a reliever might not be a bad move, it’s hard for it to be a good move.

6) Lost starting left fielder Andy Dirks for half the season after back surgery.

7) Lost Iglesias for possibly the entire season with tibial fractures in both legs. Iglesias is a brilliant defender who was the key to the Tigers’ radically improved defense; now he’s gone.

8) Traded the aforementioned Lombardozzi to the Orioles for Alex Gonzalez – does it matter which one? – to replace Iglesias. They could have signed Gonzalez to a minor-league contract earlier in the off-season.

9) Let Joaquin Benoit, their best reliever last year, leave as a free agent to the Padres, then...

10) Lost Bruce Rondon, who throws 101 and was supposed to be Benoit’s replacement as the set-up man this year, to Tommy John surgery.

11) Had Max Scherzer turn down their offer of a long-term contract extension.

12) Had Miguel Cabrera accept their offer of a long-term contract extension, which doesn’t improve their chances to win this year or next year at all – they already had him! – but does guarantee that they’ll pay $32 million to a bat-first player when he’s 40 years old.

Dave Dombrowski is arguably the most underrated GM in baseball – I may have an article for Grantland next month on this subject – and he deserves the benefit of the doubt for now. But let’s be honest: if Dayton Moore had this offseason, I’d be in either a penitentiary or an asylum right now.

Meanwhile, the Royals' worst news of the spring was losing Luke Hochevar, essentially matching #9 above. And Hochevar’s loss was made up for and then some by the show Ventura put on in March.

I still think the Tigers are the favorites, so long as they have Cabrera in their lineup and so long as their top three starters in Justin Verlander, Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez stay healthy. But their margin for error has been reduced significantly. And unlike the Royals, they don’t have much in their farm system to help out if need be. (PECOTA projects the Tigers, who won 93 games last year with a Pythagorean total of 99 wins, to finish just 85-77 themselves.)

Even if the Tigers stumble, the Indians might be there to catch them. But the Twins and White Sox would need a miracle to win more than 85 games. This is a three-team race, and I give the Royals about a 25% chance to win the division. I give them one-in-six odds of snagging one of the wild card spots if they don’t win the division, which puts their chances at playing at least two playoff games at one-in-three.

Every game matters, and every slight edge is important. Ned Yost has yet to prove that he won’t be a tactical liability for the Royals. On the one hand, the Royals are sensibly opening the season with a backup middle infielder and only 11 pitchers; on the other hand, it took an injury to Louis Coleman to make it happen. On the one hand, Yost planned to elevate Alcides Escobar – who had the lowest OPS of any qualifying hitter in the majors last year – to the #2 spot in the lineup if Infante started the season on the DL; on the other hand, Infante has made it onto the active roster, forestalling that calamity at least for the moment.

(And while a lot of people dislike Yost’s lineup because Hosmer or Gordon would make for a much better #2 hitter, I have to do the unthinkable here and defend Yost. I like this lineup a lot. In modern baseball, NOTHING is more important in lineup construction than left-right balance. Nothing. You can not, can not, CAN NOT bat three lefties in a row, or four righties in a row, because you will be eaten alive by second-tier specialist relievers in the middle innings. The Royals’ current lineup goes L-R-L-R-L-R-L-R-R, and they literally can’t do better than that. Maintaining left-right balance doesn’t justify batting Escobar 2nd, especially since you could get the same thing by moving Lorenzo Cain into that spot. But it does justify batting Infante there.)

It all starts tomorrow, and it ends in late September the way it did last year, with a four-game series here in Chicago. Last year’s series was rendered irrelevant just before it started, and if the Royals wind up with 85 wins this year, this year’s series may suffer the same fate. But it takes just a little wind behind their sails to make that series the most important series the Royals have played since I was ten years old. I haven’t bought my tickets yet. But only because I’m hoping a couple thousand of you will join me there.


This seems as good a place as any to put this: while I’m not making any promises, this is very likely the last season I’ll be writing Rany on the Royals. I’m not announcing this ahead of time because I want a retirement tour or anything – although gifts are always appreciated – but because if the Royals suck this year I don’t want people to think I’m giving up out of despair, and if they kick ass this year I don’t want people to think I’m giving up because I hate the front office and can’t stand to see them be successful.

And again, I reserve the right to change my mind on this. If the Royals win the World Series, I’ll probably have no choice to stick around if only to profusely apologize to Dayton Moore every chance I get. If the Royals collapse and everyone gets fired, I’ll probably stick around to see what happens next. But most likely, this is my last go-round.

I wish I could give you some really awesome or poetic reason why this is likely it; I was really looking forward to my farewell piece if I had gotten that job with the Cubs. But the real reason is blessedly banal: life and family. I started this blog before the 2008 season, when I had two children; now I have four. My medical practice has grown and so have my responsibilities. I never wanted this blog to feel like a job, which is why I stayed away from running advertisements – a decision which in retrospect probably cost me more money than I’m comfortable admitting to myself – but as my free time has dwindled, it’s felt more and more like a job anyway. An unpaid job at that.

And beyond that, as hard as this may be to believe, I really don’t like criticizing other people. Dayton Moore and his front office seem like good people trying to do their best. They know that criticism is part of the job, but as much as I’ve tried to restrict my criticism strictly to their baseball decisions, I can’t deny that many times I’ve driven past criticism and into the land of insults and mockery. Even if they were deserved, that hasn’t been very nice of me. And they haven’t all been deserved.

Besides, it’s just baseball. When presidents make terrible decisions – and both the current and previous one have – hundreds of thousands of people can die. When Moore makes a bad decision, I have to watch Yuniesky Betancourt wave at routine groundballs. But I’ve written hundreds of times more words about the latter than the former. Maybe in time I’ll balance that ratio out a little.

I’m not planning to stop writing about baseball entirely after this season; I just need to tame this obsession with writing thousands and thousands of words about the same team every month, an obsession which has gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion. And anyway, we’ve still got a long way to go this year. I would love to go out on a winner. And if it means this blog’s final words will be, “I was wrong, Dayton. Forgive me.” – well, that’s a trade-off I’ll be happy to make.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Secret Ingredient.

I know that many of my newer readers are under the impression that I am a pessimist by nature who enjoys skewering the Royals at every opportunity. Those of you who’ve been around a while know that if I’m guilty of anything, it’s of being unrealistically positive about the Royals; there’s no way I could have kept writing about the Royals when they lost 100 games back-to-back-to-back years otherwise. But it’s true that of late, I’m better known for criticism than praise. But I really do want the Royals to succeed, and I really do want to say nice things about their front office. So today, I have a column for you that’s nothing but sunshine and roses – and, best of all, completely truthful.

Once upon a time, the Royals didn’t do a good job of scouting Latin American talent.

That’s a euphemism. And not a small euphemism either; that’s not like saying that someone who died has “passed away”. That’s like saying that someone who died is actually alive and well, cleaned out the hospital’s stash of applesauce, and led the nursing team in singing a spirited karaoke of “Let It Go.”

By “once upon a time”, I mean the entirety of the franchise’s history before Dayton Moore was hired. And by “didn’t do a good job”, I mean the Royals conducted themselves as if the most popular sport in the Dominican Republic was jai alai. They acted as if there was no amateur talent in Latin America to speak of.

Back in 2011, I believe I wrote somewhere – and you’ll have to forgive me, I can’t find the reference – that the Royals probably had more Latin American talent in their farm system at that moment than they had developed in the 37 years before Dayton Moore was hired combined. Now, I know I can be guilty of hyperbole sometimes, hyperbole that occasionally tiptoes the line of outright untruth. But I stand by that statement 100%.

Here is a list of every amateur player that the Royals signed out of Latin America from 1969 to 2006, that would bat even 500 times or throw even 150 innings in the major leagues. (It’s possible that I missed someone, but I tried to be extremely thorough in my search.)

Player            Signed  Career    bWAR

Melido Perez       1983  1987-1995  11.3
Luis Salazar       1973  1980-1992   9.1
Hipolito Pichardo  1987  1992-2002   6.3
Carlos Febles      1993  1998-2003   3.5
Runelvys Hernandez 1997  2002-2008   3.3
Andres Blanco      2000  2004-2011   1.2
Ambiorix Burgos    2000  2005-2007   0.7
Onix Concepcion    1976  1980-1987   0.0

This is an astounding list. In 37 years, the Royals came up with eight players that would last the equivalent of just one season in the major leagues, barely one every five years – two in the 1970s, two in the 1980s, two in the 1990s, and two in 2000. And it’s actually worse than that, because only three of those players amassed even 4 bWAR – the equivalent of basically two league-average seasons – in their careers.

And it’s actually worse than that, because the two best players the Royals developed contributed nothing to the organization. After making three starts for the Royals in 1987, Perez was one of four players traded to the White Sox in an ill-conceived move for Floyd Bannister. (Sorry, Brian!) Perez would be a league-average starter for most of the next seven years. (Greg Hibbard, also included in the trade, would be a league-average starter for the next five years. Bannister would be a serviceable but below-league-average starter for the next season-and-a-half.)

But Perez, at least, was developed by the Royals until he was ready for the major leagues. Salazar, who played every position except catcher during his 13-year-career in the majors, was signed by the Royals in 1973…and released in 1974, after playing two games in the Gulf Coast League. In 1976, he resurfaces in pro ball with the Pirates, and reached the majors four years later. I don’t know the story here, but I’m going to say that the Royals deserve exactly zero credit for his development as a player.

Over 37 years, the best Latin American player the Royals developed who made a contribution to the team was Hipolito Pichardo. That is one of the most astoundingly depressing facts about the franchise that I’ve ever written, and I’ve written a lot of astoundingly depressing facts.

Just for a fun comparison, I thought I’d look at how the Blue Jays fared in Latin America. The Blue Jays started play in 1977, and soon thereafter Pat Gillick took over as their general manager. Here’s a sampling of the players they signed out of Latin America over the ensuing decade:

1978: Fred Manrique (2.6 bWAR)
1979: Luis Leal (10.6 bWAR), Tony Fernandez (45.2 bWAR)
1981: Luis Aquino (10.3 bWAR), Jose Mesa (11.7 bWAR)
1982: Nelson Liriano (3.0 bWAR)
1983: Tony Castillo (6.3 bWAR), Geronimo Berroa (7.5 bWAR)
1985: Junior Felix (6.1 bWAR), Francisco Cabrera (1.0 Franchises Murdered)

And so on. (The Jays would sign Carlos Delgado in 1988.) The Blue Jays were coming up with a useful player out of Latin America roughly once a year; even the guys without a lot of WAR, like Manrique and Liriano, played over 10 years in the majors. In their first five years, the Blue Jays came up with more 10-win players than the Royals have in their history. And they came up with a franchise player in Tony Fernandez.

Gillick is arguably the most successful baseball executive of my lifetime. He won two World Series with the Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993, assembled the Mariners team that tied the all-time record for regular season wins in 2001, and put together another world champion in Philadelphia in 2008. And his success in player development certainly wasn’t limited to Latin America; the Blue Jays were unusually successful in the Rule 5 draft (George Bell, Kelly Gruber), and of course they drafted well (Dave Stieb, Jimmy Key, Lloyd Moseby, Jesse Barfield). Aside from Fernandez and Leal, most of the Blue Jays’ Latin American talent from their early years moved on from Toronto before they found success. But the Blue Jays, a team that was starting from scratch in 1977, nonetheless came up with a talent stream that the Royals completely ignored.

The irony is that when the Royals were starting from scratch, they came up with a talent stream that every other team in baseball ignored. I’m speaking of the Royals Baseball Academy, still one of the most radical and innovative ideas ever implemented by a major league team. The Academy opened in 1970, taking undrafted American high school graduates who were short on baseball ability but long on tools. The Academy closed in 1974 because of its expense, and while closing it was a mistake, you can maybe understand that the Royals had yet to see its benefits but were definitely feeling its costs.

Many years later, Royals owner Ewing Kauffman would say, “If I were a younger man, I’d reinstitute it. That’s a disappointment in myself, because I wasn’t smart enough to see it and I let the finances of it bother me too much and, of course, at the time I didn’t have as much money as I did later on.” The shame isn’t that the Academy closed in 1974, but that in 1980 – when the starting middle infield of their World Series team, UL Washington and Frank White, were both Academy graduates – they didn’t re-institute it.

But maybe it’s understandable that the Royals, or any team, wouldn’t want to start an Academy to develop the best American teenagers that were left over after 1000+ players were drafted each year. Their reluctance to invest in developing the best Latin American teenagers, when there’s no draft siphoning away hundreds of players every year, is inexplicable. But that’s what happened. Kauffman passed away in 1993, and over a decade later the Royals still had as small a presence in Latin America as any team in the majors.

You have probably read this before – I know I’ve written it before – but according to Buster Olney, from 1995 to 2006 the Royals spent approximately a quarter million dollars in signing bonuses on Latin American talent. Not annually – total. That’s a total signing budget of barely $20,000 a year. That’s absurd, and it’s why during that entire time, the best players the Royals signed were Carlos Febles, Runelvys Hernandez, Andres Blanco, and Ambiorix Burgos.

It’s also at least part of the reason why the Royals sucked for pretty much that entire timeframe.

Dayton Moore was hired in 2006. He was hired in mid-June, too late to influence the draft that year, but not too late to influence the Royals’ ability to sign amateur talent south of the border. And almost immediately, the Royals’ fortunes began to change.

In 2007, the Royals made their first big financial push into Latin America, signing a pair of infielders from the Dominican for real money - $250,000 for Yowill Espinal, $230,000 for Geulin Beltre, each getting about as much as the Royals had spent in the last decade combined. The Royals also opened a new academy in the Dominican Republic that year. I’m not entirely certain whether this was something instigated by Moore or whether it was already in the works under Allard Baird – it takes more than a year to build an academy from scratch, I think. Whether the academy was Moore’s brainchild or whether it was just a coincidence, the fact is that the Royals had already started turning things around before the academy opened.

Because you see, in 2006, the Royals signed two players who have already made an impact in Kansas City. In October, they signed Salvador Perez. In December, they signed Kelvin Herrera.

With barely two seasons in the majors, Perez, with 8.6 bWAR, has already had the best Royals career of any player the franchise has ever signed out of Latin America. With one more half-decent season he’ll the greatest player the Royals have ever signed out of Latin America, period. With just two promising but not spectacular seasons in middle relief, Herrera, with 2.1 bWAR, is already seventh on that list.

In his first six months as the Royals’ GM, Moore signed two Latin American players who may well turn out to each be better than any Latin American player the Royals had ever signed before.

And that was just the first year. 2007 proved to be a fallow year, despite the bonuses to Espinal and Beltre. But since then:

In 2008, the Royals signed Yordano Ventura (#2 Royals prospect per Baseball America) and Angel Baez (#27).
In 2009, the Royals signed Jorge Bonifacio (#4) and Cheslor Cuthbert (#14).
In 2010, the Royals signed Miguel Almonte (#5) and Orlando Calixte (#13).
In 2011, the Royals signed Raul A. Mondesi (#3), Elier Hernandez (#11), and Pedro Fernandez (#16).

So by the end of 2011, the Royals almost unquestionably had more Latin American talent in their organization than they had developed in the 37 years before Dayton Moore was hired. Acknowledging that some if not most of these prospects won’t pan out, the Royals had Ventura, maybe the pitching phenom of this spring, who opens the season as their #3 starter; they had Bonifacio, who might be their starting right fielder next year. They had Cuthbert, who has had two disappointing years in a row but is still just 21 and already has Double-A experience. They had Almonte, who might be in their rotation at some point in 2015. They had Calixte, who’s an offense-minded shortstop who spent all of last year in Double-A at age 21, and will probably have a long career in a utility role if nothing else.

And in 2011, they signed the guy I consider the best prospect in the system in Mondesi; a potential prototype right fielder in Elier Hernandez who hit .301/.350/.439 in the Pioneer League at age 18 last year; and Pedro Fernandez, who is this year’s Almonte, the Dominican right-hander who is expected to emerge from obscurity onto the prospect radar by season’s end.

(As I mentioned when I wrote about Mondesi a couple of articles ago, he is pretty clearly the best shortstop prospect in Royals history. And the reason for that is pretty simple: shortstops, more than any other position on the field, tend to hail from Latin America. The reasons for that are multi-faceted and I’m not going to get into it here, but it makes sense that a team that ignored Latin American prospects suffered its most glaring development failure at the position most associated with Latin American prospects.)

And of course the Royals already have maybe the best young catcher in baseball, and a reliever who touches 101 on the gun. Put that on one side of the scale, and on the other side you’re putting a #3 starter (Melido Perez), a utility infielder (Salazar), a swingman (Pichardo), and a short-lived second baseman and #4 starter (Febles and Hernandez). We probably won’t have to wait until the careers of all of these prospects play out completely before we can declare a winner.

The Royals, truthfully, haven’t drafted all that well under Dayton Moore. While they drafted Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, they had to spend a top-five pick on each, and they also used top-five picks on Christian Colon (bust) and Bubba Starling (the next good scouting report I read on him this year will be the first). And while they’ve drafted several fine relievers, most notably Greg Holland, from 2007 to 2011 the only impact player they drafted after the first round is Wil Myers.

The irony is that the Royals’ ranking as The Best Farm System Ever three years ago was built on the backs of their draft picks. All nine Royals in Baseball America’s Top 100 were American-born; Jake Odorizzi was acquired in a trade, but the other eight were all Royals picks. Hosmer, Moustakas, and Myers have (generally) lived up to their rankings; Colon and the non-Odorizzi pitchers have not.

And it’s possible that the Royals will have as little success with their Latin American talent as they have with their American talent. But Perez and Herrera are already ensconced on the roster, Ventura has already won a rotation job, and it’s hard to imagine that every other prospect will fail. Using Baseball America’s ranking list, four of the Royals top five prospects, and eight of their top 16, were signed out of Latin America. The renaissance of the organization might have been started with talent from the draft, but it will be completed – if it is completed – with talent from Latin America.

As impressive as the Royals ability to find talent south of the border has been since Moore was hired, it’s possible that it’s just a fluke, much like a team that just has a lucky run in the draft. But I don’t think it is. For one thing, Latin Americans occupy a significantly larger portion of major league talent today than they did a generation ago. As Nate Silver wrote about back in 2005, the percentage of major league players from outside the US – almost all from Latin America – more than doubled from 1985 to 2005.

And as Silver also wrote, that percentage would almost certainly continue to increase over time – simply because population trends dictate it. In 2005, the birth rate in the Dominican Republic was about 70% higher than in America. More babies mean more 16-year-old boys 16 years later; more 16-year-old boys mean more potential major leaguers. The trend of more and more baseball players from Latin America isn’t going to reverse itself any time soon, and will probably accelerate. It is for this reason that investing in Latin America is simply not an option for major league teams anymore, the way it obviously was for the Royals, who built a model organization and won a World Series without doing so.

It also means that a team that leads the way in Latin America today has more to gain than a team that did so 30 years ago, because there’s so much more talent. The Blue Jays’ record in Latin America is even more impressive when you consider they were fishing in a much smaller pond in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But it means that the Royals might actually find more major league talent in Latin America today than the Jays did in their salad days. They’re already well on their way.

The deeper well of talent is an advantage for the Royals, but then it’s an advantage for every other team as well. For the Royals to take real advantage, they need find more of that talent than every other team. The question is whether they can continue to do that, particularly given that since the new CBA went into effect in 2013, there is a soft cap to how much money teams can spend in Latin America. (I say “soft” because the penalty for going over is weak enough that it’s sometimes worth it to go over, and the Rangers and Cubs decided it was a trade worth making last year.)

But I think that, cap or no cap, the Royals are going to be fine. It’s true that the Royals’ success in Latin America coincided with them finally deciding to spend some money, and most of their big investments so far seem sounds. The only seven-figure bonus the Royals have doled out that looks unwise so far is Humberto Arteaga ($1.1 million), who has a slick glove but doesn’t look like he’ll ever hit. But Hernandez ($3 million) and Mondesi ($2 million) look like they’re worth the investment and then some; Cuthbert ($1.45 million) and Calixte ($1 million) still have time to pay off. (Edit: I was remiss not to mention Noel Arguelles, the Cuban defector who got $6.9 million and then had shoulder surgery almost immediately afterwards, and hasn't remotely looked like a prospect since. Cuban defectors are so hard to scout that they're almost an entirely different animal than the typical Latin American amateur, and I give the Royals a bit of a pass given that we never saw a healthy Arguelles in uniform.)

But what makes the Royals success in Latin America particularly remarkable – and why I think it will continue under the new CBA – is that they’ve done so well with players who didn’t get big bonuses.

Salvador Perez signed for $65,000. Yordano Ventura got $28,000. Miguel Almonte? $25,000. Jorge Bonifacio got lavished with cash – he had the major league bloodlines – to the tune of $135,000. The Royals potentially got two everyday hitters and two starting pitchers for $253,000 – basically the slot money for a sixth-round pick – combined.

They were able to do this because the nature of Latin American signings – players are eligible to be signed once they turn 16 – radically increases the variance in players. It increases the odds that a top prospect will bust, and increases the odds that a lightly-regarded kid suddenly gains 10 mph on his fastball, a la Yordano Ventura, and becomes a top prospect. If American kids were eligible to be drafted after their sophomore year of high school, we’d see first-round picks turn to mush and 37th-rounders become superstars all the time. (And conversely, if we raised the age limit we’d see fewer busts and fewer surprises. Stephen Strasburg wasn’t drafted out of high school; a year later he would have been a sure first-round pick if he were eligible.)

Signing 16-year-old players has two strategic impacts. It means that teams need to cast a wider net, signing more players rather than putting all their eggs on one or two baskets, because you never know when the malnourished kid you’re looking at today might be an absolute beast of a ballplayer a year from now. And it means that money is less important than connections.

Having a lead on the 16-year-old kid who can’t catch up to a fastball now but will grow three inches once he starts getting three square meals a day is immensely valuable. Developing a relationship with the family of a kid who might take a lower bonus because they trust your organization is immensely valuable. Having a relationship with the buscones, the unlikeable but indispensible trainers who find prepubescent players with promise and train them until they’re old enough to sign with a major league team, is immensely valuable.

Which is why the person who is key to the Royals’ Latin American success isn’t Dayton Moore at all, as I’m sure Moore will tell you himself. It’s a man who most Royals fans have never heard of. It’s Rene Francisco.

Francisco was one of the first hires that Moore made when he took the job, luring Francisco to be a Special Assistant to the General Manager/International Operations – basically, their international scouting director – in August of 2006. A few weeks later he was down in Venezuela watching a tryout where kids did their best to impress him. One of those kids was Salvador Perez.

Francisco was hired from the Atlanta Braves, and as much as we’ve made fun of Moore for his reliance on familiar front office hires from a familiar organization, he certainly nailed this one. Francisco had been the Braves’ Director of International Scouting for about a year; he had held the same role with the Dodgers for three years, and before that he had been with the Braves from 1993 to 2002 as an international scout and later a Latin American coordinator. He was “instrumental” in the signings of Rafael Furcal and Wilson Betemit, among others.

(I’m taking this from the Royals’ media guides, as online information on Francisco is, perhaps appropriately for a man whose contributions are so overlooked, scarce.)

That’s not to say that Moore doesn’t deserve credit for the Royals’ success in Latin America, because of course he’s the guy who hired Francisco in the first place, and hiring the right people is 80% of management success. It wasn’t Pat Gillick who was personally scouting Latin America; it was legendary scout Epy Guerrero, who Gillick hired soon after he became GM of the Blue Jays in 1978, and headed international scouting for the Blue Jays until 1995. Like Gillick, Guerrero’s tenure with Toronto roughly corresponds to the glory years for the franchise. (This obituary of Guerrero also tells the story of how Guerrero helped the Blue Jays land George Bell in the Rule 5 draft by arranging to keep him out of winter ball so that other teams wouldn’t get a good look at him.)

One of Moore’s unquestioned assets as a GM and as a person is that he’s the kind of GM that other people want to work for; the Royals have had remarkable stability in their front office, particularly on their minor league side, even as they developed the best farm system in the game and some of those employees would presumably be highly coveted by other organizations. J.J. Picollo, who was hired from the Braves the same day as Francisco, has run the player development operation since then. Picollo added “Assistant GM” to his title in 2008, and Francisco did in 2012, and presumably their responsibilities have increased over time – but they’ve remained with the organization and loyal to Moore since the beginning. They’re not the only ones – the turnover in the front office over the last eight years has been remarkably low, which says something about the man they report to.

I’m obviously not privy to the inner workings of the Royals’ operations, and I don’t want to suggest that it is only Rene Francisco who deserves credit for the team’s success in Latin America. Certainly there are scouts on the ground who do the grunt work and should be recognized. But just as the buck stops with Moore for the results of the team as a whole, the buck stops with Francisco on the international side. He, and those who work under him, have done a phenomenal job these last eight years. And they continue to do fine work.

In 2012, with the new CBA limiting their spending power a bit, the Royals backed off on their Latin American spending relative to previous years. But their #1 guy, a first baseman named Samir Duenez, has shown an advanced bat (albeit no defensive skills) so far. And last year the Royals broke new ground internationally by ponying up $1.3 million to Italian shortstop Marten Gasparini, the biggest signing bonus any team has ever paid to a European prospect.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with this organization for longer than I care to admit, and I’ve probably flipped back and forth between loving and hating this front office a half-dozen times. I was perhaps irrationally exuberant about the farm system three years ago; I was perhaps unfairly bitter about the team’s inability to convert that promise into results in 2012, and then the Myers trade broke me for a full solid year.

But I’m getting my groove back again, and I’m doing my best to see the Royals as a capable and competent organization that simply let desperation coax them into making a single terrible move fifteen months ago. An organization isn’t defined by one trade, it’s defined by their accumulated decisions and – dare I say it – processes over years and years. For many years, beneath the surface, the Royals have put together a process of finding and developing Latin American talent that is unlike anything they’ve ever done before, and has become a huge competitive advantage for them.

They deserve a huge amount of credit for that, so much so that I’m even willing to try to see the bright side of Moore’s notorious comments about rebuilding being an eight-to-ten year process. That timeframe has been conveniently flexible, and suspiciously forgiving, and doesn’t simply excuse the fact that the Royals never won more than 75 games in his first six seasons on the job. And that timeframe is too long when it comes to draft picks, many of whom are college players who are 21 or 22 at the time. I mean, Luke Hochevar, who was drafted a week before Moore started, is 30 years old.

But the one place where an eight-to-ten year timeframe is entirely reasonable is in Latin America, where most kids sign when they’re 16 years old. It’s now nearly eight years since Moore was hired, and the first two kids they hit upon in Latin America, Perez and Herrera, will be just 23 years old on Opening Day. Perez, in particular, should still be three or four years from his peak. But they’re old enough now that they’re here and they’re contributing. This year they’re being joined by Ventura. Next year Bonifacio and Almonte should arrive; Mondesi could be ready the year after that; Elier Hernandez could follow, and now you can project new prospects coming off the assembly line at regular intervals into perpetuity.

No rebuilding process should take eight years. But those eight years are in the past, and now we can finally enjoy the fruits of the part of the rebuilding process that takes the longest, but that the Royals have done best. Maybe it won’t be enough to get the Royals over the playoff hump this year or next; maybe it won’t even be enough to save this front office in the end. But building a Latin American pipeline that is the one of the best in the game from scratch is this front office’s greatest legacy, and they deserve all the credit in the world for it.

Ultimately, talent wins. The signature weakness of the Royals during their dark ages was that they simply didn’t develop enough of it. It remains to be seen whether the Royals’ current front office can produce the talent to constitute a playoff team. But when it comes to this one vital source of talent, they most certainly are.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Royals Today: 3/10/2014.

I still owe you the article I promised last time out, but enough stuff has happened in spring training so far that I need to write a catch-up column first:

- Luke Hochevar’s career as a Royal may be over, as the former #1 overall pick blew out his ulnar collateral ligament and will undergo Tommy John surgery in the coming weeks.

As we learned with Danny Duffy two years ago, there isn’t always a sharp line between “healthy” and “torn” when it comes to the ligament; there’s a continuum between 0% and 100% torn, and pitchers can and do pitch with partial tears in their ligament. Hochevar has had a partially torn ligament since he first injured it in 2010; it took three-and-a-half years before it tore further, but this time the tear is irrevocable. Either the tear is so large that it will impede his velocity, or it’s so large it will almost certainly tear completely with continued pitching, or both.

It’s a terrible break for Hochevar, both because he finally found his groove as a dominant set-up man last season, and because he was set to be a free agent next winter and presumably could have cashed in on his new-found success.

I wouldn’t downplay just how good he was as a reliever last year; Hochevar was as good at relieving as he was bad at starting. Sum it up this way: last year, Luke Hochevar had the lowest WHIP (min: 40 IP) in Royals history:

Year  Pitcher         IP   W+H   WHIP

2013  Luke Hochevar  70.1   58  0.825
2008  Joakim Soria   67.1   58  0.861
2013  Greg Holland   67.0   58  0.866
1972  Roger Nelson  173.1  151  0.871
1972  Steve Busby    40.0   36  0.900

Sure, there was some luck involved there. But for a man who came into the season with a 5.39 career ERA, his conversion to the bullpen went better than anyone had a right to expect. And it wasn’t entirely a fluke – Hochevar’s strikeout-to-walk ratio more than doubled his previous career high. There was every reason to believe that he was a legitimately excellent relief pitcher. Now he’ll have to wait a year to prove that again.

While it sucks for Hochevar, it’s not the end of the world for the Royals, who as I’ve written many times had more quality relievers than they had roster spots for. Hochevar’s injury had the fringe benefit of ending the Wade Davis Rotation Experiment at the same time as it ended the Luke Hochevar Rotation Experiment, although I think the concerns that the Royals would actually give one of them a rotation spot over Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy were vastly overblown. Still, it means that Davis now inherits Hochevar’s spot in the bullpen, and like Hochevar, Davis looked like a completely different pitcher in his one full year in the bullpen. Look:

Wade Davis, 2012: 70.1 IP, 48 H, 27 UIBB, 87 K, 5 HR, 2.43 ERA
Luke Hochevar, 2013: 70.1 IP, 41 H, 16 UIBB, 82 K, 8 HR, 1.92 ERA

Hochevar had better command, but really these look like two seasonal lines from the career of the same pitcher.

The Royals still have Kelvin Herrera, who I think could be the breakout star of the bullpen this year (his strikeout rate jumped from 22.4% to 30.2% last year). They still have Aaron Crow, who only threw 48 innings last year even though he was on the roster all season. They still have Louis Coleman, who couldn’t stay on the roster for most of the season even though he entered the year with a 3.25 career ERA – and when he finally did get a chance to pitch, allowed just two runs in 30 innings, putting up the sixth-lowest ERA (0.61) in major league history (min: 25 IP).

Oh, and they have Greg Holland, maybe the best non-Craig-Kimbrel reliever in the game today. That’s five right-handed relievers, which is all they need. If anyone gets hurt or needs to be replaced, Michael Mariot is almost ready for his close-up after a fine season in Omaha in his first year as a full-time reliever.

So the Royals should be fine, even if Hochevar’s injury just reiterates the point about trading bullpen assets while you can. Even if they had traded Holland this winter, they’d still have an above-average bullpen – and the considerable assets Holland would have brought them. And if they had traded Hochevar, well, they might not have gotten a Grade A prospect for him, but anything would be better than nothing at all – not to mention the $5.21 million they would have saved on his salary.

The Royals handled their excess a lot better than they handled Joakim Soria on a last-place club years ago, at least. They did trade one of their relievers – Will Smith – to Milwaukee for their starting right fielder. And with Hochevar out, the Royals no longer have an excess of great relievers. They have exactly the right amount.

I also wouldn’t overstate how much this hurts Hochevar in the long run. He’s already guaranteed his salary this year, which will push his lifetime earnings past the $20 million mark. And by having surgery now instead of trying to rehab for a few months, there’s a good chance Hochevar will be ready to pitch early in 2015 if not be ready by Opening Day.

Besides, with the market having finally adjusted to the fact that even the best relievers only throw 70-80 innings a season, and that even the best relievers are a highly unpredictable commodity – the fact is that an eight figure salary is not in the cards for any but the best relievers in the game. Sure, Craig Kimbrel got a 4-year, $41 million deal – but he’s Craig Kimbrel, the most dominant strikeout pitcher in baseball history. Joe Nathan, who is the second-best reliever of the 21st century, got $10 million a year from the Tigers – but only got two years guaranteed. Jonathan Papelbon’s contract is a dinosaur that may go extinct once the man who gave it to him (Ruben Amaro, everyone!) is finally shown the door. Even with a great, healthy season for the Royals this season, Hochevar probably wasn’t looking at more than a 3-year, $24 million next winter.

Instead, Hochevar will probably need to sign a make-good contract along the lines of the one Joakim Soria signed with the Rangers last year, a two-year, $8 million contract with a team option for a third year. That seems like a reasonable parameter for Hochevar’s next deal; while Hochevar doesn’t have nearly the track record in relief that Soria did, he’s also not undergoing Tommy John surgery for the second time – Soria wasn’t expected to be ready at the start of last season, and in fact he wasn’t on the mound for Texas until July.

If Hochevar is amenable to a contract of that nature, I think he’s much more likely to fit into the Royals payroll structure. The Royals seem to like him, obviously; they gave him far more chances in the rotation than they should have, and they were genuinely and understandably thrilled by his success last year. So while his injury is not a good thing for the 2014 Royals, it may have the paradoxical effect of keeping him in a Royals uniform for longer than he would have been otherwise. If he pitches anything like he did in 2013 upon his return, that’s hardly a bad thing.

- Rumors are swirling that Ervin Santana is about to finally sign a free-agent contract, at a massive discount from what he originally wanted and at a significant discount from what everyone thought he’d get. On Saturday the word was that the Blue Jays had him for a one-year, $14 million contract – the same contract he would have gotten from Kansas City had he signed the qualifying offer – but then word came in that the Orioles are in the bidding, and that the Twins may even have made a three-year offer.

As Buster Olney wrote, the one thing that’s clear is that Santana and/or his agents overplayed their hand at the start of the off-season, and he’s left holding the bag. There have been repercussions – Santana apparently has left his original agent, Bean Stringfellow (yes, that’s really his name), although it’s not clear whether he fired Stringfellow or whether he simply kept Jay Alou as his counsel while Alou, who used to work at Stringfellow’s agency, went out on his own. If I cared about agent-on-agent dynamics, I’d watch Jerry Maguire. But something apparently happened. It’s not even clear it’s the agents’ fault in the first place; it’s quite possible that those initial contract demands came from Santana, who directed his agents to act accordingly.

I gave the Royals some flak on Twitter when it broke that Santana was going to get a one-year deal, which was partly in jest and probably a little unfair – it’s not the Royals’ fault that Santana’s getting smacked down in free agency, but I couldn’t resist expressing my displeasure with the Jason Vargas deal once again. I do think that the Royals are too eager to make a significant move at the start of the off-season. It remains to be seen whether the Vargas deal (November 21, 2013) was a mistake, and it remains to be seen whether the Royals overpaid when they gave Jeremy Guthrie a 3-year, $25 million deal (November 20, 2012) – Year One went fine, but with more red flags than you’d find in a souvenir shop in China.

But trading Melky Cabrera for Jonathan Sanchez (November 7, 2011) didn’t exactly work out – obviously, in retrospect we can’t fault them for trading Melky, but Sanchez was the worst starting pitcher to suit up for the Royals since Jose Lima’s second go-round. And trading David DeJesus for Vin Mazzaro and Justin Marks (November 10, 2010) was a really bad trade that’s been largely forgotten. DeJesus had just hit .318/.384/.443 and had an option year left on his contract. Mazzaro and Marks looked like Quadruple-A pitchers at the time of the trade, and that was borne out (Mazzaro did resurrect himself as a middle reliever for the Pirates last year).

Maybe I’m wrong about Vargas, and maybe Guthrie will continue to outpitch his fundamentals and none of this matters. But if they don’t, I hope the Royals will give the market at least until Thanksgiving to shake out next year. Let others set the market; as Shakespeare wrote, they stumble that run fast.

So yeah, it would be nice if the Royals had the payroll flexibility and roster space to bring back Santana cheaply. But honestly, I’d rather have the draft pick. If and when Santana signs, the Royals will be awarded the 30th (give or take) pick in the draft. Conservatively, that pick is worth somewhere between $5 and $10 million. Let’s say Santana would sign with KC for 1 year and $14 million – counting the pick, the true cost of Santana would be somewhere between $19 and $24 million. If Santana repeats his 2013 performance, that’s not a bad price to pay for a #2 starter for one year – but there’s more downside than upside in that contract.

I guess what I’m trying to say is the same thing I’ve said since the season ended: gimme the pick. The most important takeaway from the Santana news this week is that it does appear he’s going to sign soon, and he’s not going to hold out until after the draft, which means the Royals will get their pick. Add that to the #18 pick they already have, as well as their competitive balance pick (somewhere between #35 and #40), and the Royals have three of the top 40 picks in the draft. For $12 million and Brandon Sisk, the Royals got a fantastic season out of Ervin Santana and a draft pick that by itself is almost worth the money. No matter what I think of Vargas, that’s a hell of a trade.

- Speaking of competitive balance picks: Sean Manaea is looking like a steal so far. I wrote a couple of weeks ago, when I aggressively ranked him as the Royals’ #4 prospect, that I was extremely curious how he’d look in his initial outings of the spring.

In his first outing – which was just a side session – Manaea was pitching free and easy with good command and life on his pitches, though he only pitched in the 88-90 range. I was a tiny bit worried about the velocity, but was optimistic that he was just working into his fastball and didn’t want to push things.

But Friday, Manaea took the mound in a minor league game for the first time, and that 88-90 was more like 92-94. Jason Parks has a scouting report up at Baseball Prospectus today; on Twitter he previewed it by saying that it “reads like pure smut”. (This being Parks, that’s a compliment.) Andy McCullough has more here.

Granted, it’s March 10th, and Manaea has yet to throw a pro pitch in anger. But even if he doesn’t get back to the 94-96 range he had in college – and he very well might – left-handed pitchers who throw 92-94 with a good slider, long levers, and a deceptive low-three-quarters delivery tend to move quickly. I don’t want to put this level of expectation on him, but that scouting report reads a lot like the Pitcher That Got Away in the draft three years ago. Maybe drafting Manaea will make up for not drafting Chris Sale.

- John Lamb’s name has come up a few times this spring, sometimes bearing good news (the Royals reported he was throwing in the low 90s in one outing), and sometimes bearing bad news (he was 86-89 in his start on Saturday and was knocked out in the first inning).

At this point, any news from Lamb is good news. The reports that he was throwing in the low 90s were almost literally unbelievable – Lamb was throwing 83-85 while getting his ass kicked in low-A ball for most of last year. Even 86-89 would represent some real improvement for him, which would be highly unusual for a pitcher nearly three years after Tommy John surgery.

Here’s how far Lamb’s stock had fallen before this spring training: he wasn’t listed in Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook this year. I don’t just mean that he wasn’t ranked among the Royals’ Top 30 Prospects. I mean that Baseball America also lists a “depth chart” of prospects in each organization by position, and they go a lot deeper than 30 names. They had 68 players listed on the Royals’ depth chart, including 13 left-handed pitchers alone. Here, I’ll name them for you: Sean Manaea, Sam Selman, Chris Dwyer, Donnie Joseph, Cody Reed, Crawford Simmons, Justin Marks, Buddy Baumann, Daniel Stumpf, Jon Keck, Colin Rodgers, Scott Alexander, and Jon Dziedzic.

John Lamb wasn’t listed. That’s how far his stock has fallen. The fact that we’re even discussing him at all is a sign of progress. But he still has a long way to go.

- The most interesting roster decision lurking this spring is whether Yordano Ventura or Danny Duffy will win the fifth starter’s spot. (I would go with Duffy, for service time reasons if nothing else, but I’m not so wedded to the idea that I wouldn’t let what happens over the next month factor into my decision.) But the second-most interesting roster decision is how the Royals are going to fit six bench players into four spots. Since they seem utterly committed to carrying 12 pitchers – I can’t muster the energy to be upset about this anymore, particularly since just about every other team is doing the same thing – they need to jettison a couple of hitters.

Carlos Peguero seems an obvious choice; he was just claimed on waivers, and while he has excellent raw power doesn’t have the track record of either Jarrod Dyson or Justin Maxwell. Dyson and Maxwell give the Royals a left-handed and right-handed option off the bench, one with game-changing speed and the other with good pop. Peguero’s chances probably hinge on whether Lorenzo Cain can make it to Opening Day without getting hurt.

The other roster cut is a much more interesting decision. The Royals have to keep a backup catcher – presumably Brett Hayes – and they have to keep a backup middle infielder, so I guess that means Danny Valencia is the odd man ou…WAIT A MINUTE.

The Royals seem committed to keeping Valencia, which would mean they would open the season without a backup middle infielder. And I guess it’s possible that this could work. Back when Cal Ripken was playing every day, Earl Weaver was fond of saying “my backup shortstop is in Rochester”. But even those Orioles, I’m pretty sure, had someone on their roster capable of playing shortstop in a pinch. (It helps that teams back then typically carried 15 hitters and just 10 pitchers).

And anyway, the Royals don’t have Cal Ripken on their roster. They have Alcides Escobar, who is very durable in his own right – he’s never been on the DL, and in his three years with the Royals has played in 158, 155, and 158 games. But they also have Omar Infante, who missed six weeks with an injury last season and has never played in 150 games in his career.

Infante is ostensibly the backup at shortstop in case Escobar gets hurt, and the Royals are hoping that Valencia can be the backup at second base in case either one of their starters gets hurt. On the one hand, I admire their creativity – there’s no point in carrying a guy on your roster that you never plan on playing. Teams have to carry a backup catcher because no catcher can start more than 10 days or so in a row – but in theory, there’s no reason you can’t start a middle infielder every day, and the minute an injury rears its head, you can dial Omaha and have a replacement delivered to you by an Amazon drone before the start of the next game. A middle infield of Infante at shortstop and Valencia at second base would be grisly, but the world won’t end if you have to line them up that way for a single game.

To me, though, the bigger downside to not carrying a backup infielder isn’t that you have to start Escobar and Infante every game, but that you have to finish with them too. If Escobar hits like he did in 2012 again (.293/.331/.390), everything is hunky-dory, but the fact that the Royals would even contemplate going without a backup infielder suggests that they’re in denial that Escobar was, you know, the worst everyday hitter in the majors last year. His 559 OPS was the lowest of any qualifying regular in baseball.

That’s a problem, but it’s an even bigger problem when you can’t pinch-hit for him in any situation because you don’t have anyone who can play his position. And it’s an even bigger problem than that when the other team knows you can’t pinch-hit for him, and may pitch around or even intentionally walk other hitters in a key late-inning situation in order to get Escobar to the plate, knowing that Ned Yost is going to let 2013’s worst hitter bat no matter what the circumstances are.

So while I admire the Royals’ willingness to think outside the box on this one, I guess I’d sum up my feelings by saying that I can not recall a team ever opening the season without a backup middle infielder on their roster. I’m not saying it’s never happened – and if you know of such an instance, please share it in the comments – but if it has, it’s escaped my attention. And I think there’s a good reason for that. It seems to me the Royals are playing a little too cute here, and would be better off just going with Pedro Ciriaco or Christian Colon for the final roster spot.

When the Royals acquired Valencia, I thought it made sense given that they didn’t have a spot for David Lough, and Valencia at least could play third base against lefties. Even then, though, this roster issue was evident; I just assumed the Royals would make a move at some point over the winter to solve it. They still might; if Mike Moustakas keeps raking, they may well decide that Valencia has served his usefulness by scaring Moustakas into getting into better shape, and look to trade him before the season begins.

Otherwise, though, it looks like the Royals need a hitter to get hurt before Opening Day to clear up their roster issues. And I suppose that strategy just worked for the bullpen. But as a general rule, I don’t think it’s sound policy to rely on an injury happening to make roster decisions easier.