The season starts in a week and we still have six more items to run down our list, plus I owe you some sort of season preview, so we need to speed things up here. My apologies if some of the upcoming items are not of the absurd length you are accustomed to.
Today I just want to catch up on all the happenings down in Surprise:
1) The Royals made their first trade of the spring, sending a PTBNL to the Reds for reliever Brad Salmon. I certainly see nothing wrong with picking up Salmon in the abstract: he’s been consistently effective in the high minors over the last three seasons, with 214 strikeouts in 212 innings, and held his own in his first major league audition last season (4.13 ERA, 22 Ks in 24 IP). He’s 28, but that’s hardly unusual for a middle relief prospect – most of those guys started their careers as starters, converted to the pen in their mid-20s, then spent a few years refining their repertoire in their new role before getting a shot. Salmon’s just eight months older than Neal Musser, and I don’t see Royals fans claiming Musser isn’t a prospect.
Salmon reminds me a lot, in fact, of Joel Peralta, who was picked up off waivers when he was almost 30, and has given the Royals two fine seasons in middle relief. Besides their age, the other thing they have in common is that both were essentially limited to situational relief because their platoon splits were so extreme. In his brief major league trial last season, Salmon held RHB to a line of .213/.294/.279, but LHB tattooed him at .310/.394/.586. His overall numbers were solid because he faced RHB more than two-thirds of the time. (He had similar, those less-extreme, splits in Triple-A.) Peralta’s line in 2006 was very similar (.234/.268/.403 vs. RHB, .338/.400/.613 vs LHB), so last year he brought out a new cut fastball Bob McClure had him work on, and he actually handled LHB better than RHB. If McClure can work the same magic with Salmon, the Royals will have made quite the pickup.
The difference between the two is that Peralta was picked up on waivers, whereas the Royals had to give up something for Salmon. Until we know what that something is, we can’t evaluate the trade. Some rumors have Blake Johnson going to Cincinnati, which would be a little disappointing – Johnson’s a legitimate prospect – but not heartbreaking. Johnson’s a polished control right-hander with average stuff, and while that can be a useful guy to have in the back of the rotation for a few years, it’s not worth getting upset over losing a slightly upgraded version of Mike Wood.
Who knows? It might turn out to be just cash. We were supposed to send the Reds a PTBNL for Jason LaRue, and unless I missed the transaction that never happened. Given the way LaRue played, I think they owe us a PTBNL. We’ll take Salmon and call it even.
2) Speaking of McClure, he apparently has Brett Tomko throwing a curveball for the first time in six years, and apparently it’s been good enough to be a difference-maker. (Though you wouldn’t notice that from his 8.59 Cactus League ERA.) I still think signing Tomko was a mistake, though I’m appreciative that his poor performance had Trey Hillman at least giving strong consideration to moving him to the bullpen – the days of the Royals throwing Jose Lima and Scott Elarton out there every fifth day just because they made a commitment to them are long over.
At the moment, Tomko appears likely to have a grip on the fifth starter’s role. The disconnect between his stuff and his results is pretty jarring; Joe Posnanski tells the tale of the scout who thinks Tomko could win 15 games this year. Tomko relies almost exclusively on hard stuff, so a pitch that comes in at a different speed could be particularly useful for him. If the curveball takes and Tomko has a good year, we ought to go ahead and sign McClure to a lifetime contract.
3) The reason Tomko’s the fifth starter is that John Bale has, against all odds, all but won the #4 starter’s role. I didn’t think this was likely, but I don’t think this is a mistake either. As I wrote in our book this year on the subject of a move to the rotation, “Given his strong peripherals, it’s not as crazy as it sounds.” And moving a 34-year-old who has made nine starts in the majors – all of them five years ago – sounds awfully crazy. Even in Japan he was used almost entirely in relief, at least in 2005 and 2006 (I don’t have stats for 2004.)
The reason I like this move is twofold. One, Bale struck out 42 batters in 40 innings last year, and surrendered just one homer. He missed the first half of the season with injuries and was slow to get started in July; he walked six batters in 1.1 innings in a memorable July 24th outing. From that point on, he worked 36 innings, and walked just 10 batters against 38 whiffs. I’m not expecting that kind of performance out of the rotation, but 180 league-average innings is a possibility. Secondly, moving Bale to the rotation was the only way to eliminate the logjam of lefty relievers that the Royals had created for themselves with the signing of Ron Mahay. Now the Royals can go with Mahay and Gobble, and still have spots open for five right-handed relievers. Soria and Yabuta have guaranteed spots, but that still leaves three spots open, which means the odds are much better that the Royals keep Leo Nunez instead of exposing him to waivers.
4) One of those bullpen spots may well go to Hideo Nomo, and you can’t deny that’s awfully cool. A month ago I said the signing of Nomo was mostly a gimmick, but I did say that there was a small chance he could get a shot to show us his famed splitter would work well in relief. Well, he’s only topping out at 87 on the gun, but the splitter is working so well that he’s still striking out over a man an inning. It might mean taking advantage of Peralta’s final option, but why not see what he has left?
5) After getting ripped from here to Salina for even suggesting that Alex Gordon might bat 7th, Trey Hillman is now talking about batting him 3rd. That might be swinging the pendulum too much the other way – I thought the whole problem last spring was that the team put too much pressure on the kid, and now we want him in the 3 hole? Anyways, rumors have the lineup going like this:
CF L DeJesus
2B R Grudzielanek
3B L Gordon
RF R Guillen
DH R Butler
1B L Gload
LF L Teahen
C R Buck
SS R Pena
It’s a decent lineup from a pure ranking standpoint; the only quibble I have is that Teahen should move ahead of Gload. But I don’t like the idea of going R-R-L-L when you can easily go R-L-R-L; in today’s game, the proliferation of relievers means that avoiding a run of LH or RH hitters might be a more pressing priority than bunching your best hitters together. Given these nine players, here’s the Rany on the Royals-approved lineup:
CF L DeJesus
2B R Grudzielanek
LF L Teahen
RF R Guillen
3B L Gordon
DH R Butler
1B L Gload
C R Buck
SS R Pena
You can’t do anything about having Buck and Pena bat back-to-back, but frankly if Hillman’s any kind of manager he’s going to pinch-hit for Pena against a tough RHP in crucial situations anyway.
6) The trade rumor mill is churning, and Bob Dutton sends a pair of good ones our way. “One has the Royals discussing a deal to send utilityman Esteban German to the Dodgers for right-handed pitchers Jonathan Meloan and Miguel Pinango.”
Me like. Me like very much. German has been a great asset to the team the past two years, and represents one of Allard Baird’s finest moves. But his defense is legitimately bad, and with Alberto Callaspo around the Royals really have no need for another player who can fill in at second, third, and the outfield. Callaspo plays better defense, might be able to fill in at shortstop in a pinch, and is comparable with the bat, plus he’s five years younger.
But the reason you make this trade isn’t to get rid of German, it’s to get a hold of Meloan. You don’t normally want to trade for relievers, given how easy it is to scour one off the waiver wire or from the husks of failed starters. But Meloan could be special. Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus both rated him as the #8 prospect in the Dodgers organization, which is amazing for a reliever in one of the game’s deepest farm systems. He throws a good sinking fastball and a slider that Kevin Goldstein calls “plus-plus” and “a true wipeout offering.” Between Double-A and Triple-A last year he threw 67 innings, allowed 36 hits, 27 walks, and struck out 91. The stuff calls to mind Jeff Nelson, and his numbers resemble vintage (2000-01) Nelson, but with better control.
I’d do this trade in a heartbeat just for Meloan. Pinango is just gravy, and not that processed gravy you find at Old Country Buffet – he’s a polished control pitcher who could be a down-rotation starter for a few years if everything breaks right, perhaps comparable to the rumored-to-be-headed-out-of-town Blake Johnson.
And a not-insignificant bonus is this: if German gets traded, that opens up another roster spot for a hitter. Assuming the Royals are comfortable with Callaspo as their only utility infielder, this opens up a place for Justin Huber to stick around. At this point, it might be his only hope.
Next? “The other rumor has the Royals agreeing to pay half of shortstop Angel Berroa’s $4.75 million salary in order to send him”
Done! Where do we sign? Oh, you mean we get something in return too?
“to Washington for right-hander Zech Zinicola.” Zinicola’s a relief prospect of modest means, more famous for his ZZ initials than for anything he’s done on the mound. But really, does it matter? Someone is offering to give us $2.375 million dollars. Who are we to turn that down?
7) Looks like Billy Butler’s going to be the DH. I’m really not broken up about this at all. It would have been great if he could handle first base, but it’s not a secret that he simply can’t play defense worth a damn. He’s going to be a full-time DH soon enough, and by putting him there now, the Royals have no choice but to confront the fact that they really don’t have a first baseman who can hit. If that forces their hand into selecting Pedro Alvarez or Justin Smoak in the draft, so much the better.
8) Nothing’s official yet, but you might want to keep the weekend of July 25th-27th open. The Rays come to Kauffman Stadium, giving us a look at what happens when a youth movement is done right. Hopefully they won’t be the only attraction at the K that weekend. More details when they’re available, probably not for a while.