Saturday, March 8, 2008

Reason #13: The Kid.

Royals fans may long rue the final day of the 2006 season, the day the Royals beat the Tigers in 12 innings, completing an improbable sweep, one that coincided with the Devil Rays’ getting swept in their final series, tilting the ownership of the #1 pick in 2007 draft from Kansas City to Tampa Bay. I was watching the game on Extra Innings, and I honestly don’t think I’ve ever rooted harder for the Royals to lose. Less than 48 hours earlier they held a 2.5 game “lead” on the Devil Rays for the first pick in the draft, and were playing the AL Central-leading Tigers. Suddenly they were in mortal danger of losing that pick, and as I have shown in the past, the difference in value between the #1 and #2 overall picks is the largest drop at any point in the draft.

In the bottom of the 11th, the Tigers had the bases loaded with one out, but with the winning run ninety feet away, Joe Nelson struck out Brandon Inge. He was immediately lifted for Jimmy Gobble, who struck out Curtis Granderson to get out of the inning. The Royals would score two in the 12th to win. That may well prove to be Joe Nelson’s final pitch in the major leagues. No truth to the rumor that he spent all of last season on the DL with an evil eye.

As bad as I felt at the time, I felt even worse about that day the following spring, when it became increasingly clear that 1) David Price was head-and-shoulders above the pack as the best player available in the draft, and 2) no one could agree on who was the second-best player in the draft.

But if there was a consensus #2 player in the draft, it was Rick Porcello, the high school right-hander from New Jersey who some have called the best high school pitcher of the decade. The Royals did not draft him. Worse still, the Tigers, who figure to be one of the team’s biggest roadblocks to a playoff spot over the next five years, landed him with the 27th pick in the draft, then signed him for a major-league contract worth about $7 million.

For the span of almost 24 hours last August, it appeared the while the Tigers had signed their man, the Royals were not going to come to terms with the player they selected at least in part because he was more signable than Porcello. Fortunately, Mike Moustakas accepted the Royals’ $4 million offer minutes before the deadline.

You have to wonder at least a little about an organization that thinks the proper answer to the equation “Rick Porcello” – “Mike Moustakas” = “Brett Tomko.” And the talk out of Tiger camp this spring certainly hasn’t made me feel better about passing on Porcello. In his first outing of the year, he retired all six batters he faced, didn’t let the ball out of the infield, and struck out Frank Thomas. In his second outing he wasn’t quite as dominant; a front office source told me “he looked a lot like Justin Verlander in his first camp.” And that was on a bad day. (And Verlander was 22 in his first camp; Porcello’s 19.) He could easily be in Double-A by the end of the year.

Having said all that, Moustakas isn’t exactly chopped liver. He’s a guy the scouts and the stats can agree on. The scouts love his athleticism (he served as his high school team’s closer and touched 97 on the mound) and a swing that’s perfectly tailored for power. The stats say that he set all-time California records for home runs in a season (24) and in a career (52) while hitting .577 as a senior. While we don’t typically put much stock in high school stats, the level of competition in California is pretty darn high, and a lot of major league stars have gone to high school there without ever hitting that many home runs. If Moustakas hit 24 home runs in South Carolina – hello, Roscoe Crosby! – I’d be a touch more skeptical.

The fact that Moustakas has already hit for prodigious power is important, because he doesn’t have the build that projects for additional power down the road (he’s a compact 6’0”, 195 pounds.) That doesn’t mean he can’t hit for power in the majors – Hank Aaron stood 6-foot even, and Willie Mays was 5’11" – but it certainly helps that he already has shown that skill in spades.

The negatives here are that Moustakas was very old for a high school draftee; he turned 19 less than a month after signing. By comparison, Josh Vitters (who the Royals almost took instead of Moustakas, and went #3 overall to the Cubs) is about 11 months younger. On the other hand, Moustakas had better numbers as a high school junior than Vitters had as a senior. Age is important, and an additional year of development can make an enormous difference at that age, but it’s not everything.

The other negative is that while Moustakas should hit well enough to hit at any position, no one knows what position that will be yet. The Royals are keeping him at shortstop for now, which is nice, but no one outside the organization thinks he’ll last at the position, and even a whisper that a minor league player will have to switch positions almost invariably comes true. This is one instance where his height serves him well – if Moustakas has to move, it’s because he doesn’t show the range for shortstop, not because he “outgrows” the position.

If he can last even a few years at shortstop in the majors, sort of like Stephen Drew with the Diamondbacks, he’ll be an immensely valuable player. But even that seems wishful thinking. Third base would make a lot of sense, but that position is sort of taken for the next five years. He has the arm for rightfield, but you lose a lot of positional value if you move him there. There’s even been talk that, given his arm and build, he could move behind the plate. Moving a top hitting prospect to catcher is the baseball equivalent of day-trading on the NASDAQ – the one or two success stories (Brandon Inge, Michael Barrett) get all the buzz, while the 99% that crash and burn get swept under the rug.

That leaves second base, which at least one respected baseball man thinks is his best position. It’s a waste of his arm, and the injury rate among second baseman is almost as bad as among catchers, but the impact of a power bat at the position can not be overstated. Chase Utley, anyone?

I’d still rather have Price, and not just because he got a standing ovation in spring training – on the Yankees’ home field. (Granted, the Yankees play in Tampa…) I strongly feel there’s a window for the Royals to win the division in 2010, and Price not only will be in the majors by then, he might well be a Cy Young candidate. Moustakas will be 21 in 2010; he might be in the majors, but to expect him to be any more than an average major leaguer by then is incredibly optimistic.

But the Royals, at least for the moment, seem to have enough pitching. They certainly don’t have enough hitters. Moustakas might not be a better player than Price or Porcello, but he might prove to be the better fit for the Royals in the long run. No regrets here. At least not yet.

xxx

If you can’t get enough of the Brian Bannister Phenomenon, our buddy Jeff Passan has a terrific article that sums it all up.

8 comments:

Jack Campbell said...

I was as upset as the next guy when the Royals lost that #1 pick, but if it's any consolation I do believe in drafting hitters high. Is there any evidence that highly touted hitters work out more often than highly touted pitchers? It sure seems that way (on the other hand, maybe a 10% chance of getting a Cy Young candidate is better than a 20% chance of getting a power hitter). I should do a study, I'm willing to bet that more good pitchers rise up from low draft positions (daniel cortes) than hitters do. With hitters, I get the sense that what you see is what you get. And after Colt Griffin, et al, I'm liking the fact that we got a hitter (wouldn't you rather have Evan Longoria than Luke Hochevar right now? Be honest).

Jeff said...

Personally, I don't think KC would have been able to sign Price or Porcello. But they do need hitters more than pitchers at this point so I'm happy with the pick.

Shaun P said...

Rany, FWIW, Jorge Posada (currently listed by b-r.com as 6'2", 190 lbs.) was a middle infielder at the start (he played 2B) before the Yanks moved him to catcher. That seemed to have worked out pretty well. I'm not sure if he was ever considered a top hitting prospect, though.

Craig Hooten said...

I did some research and posted this on Joe Posnanski's Blog last month, but if you look at the players drafted in the first round from 1997-2006 the breakdown looks like this.

*I'm sorry, there are 30 teams, I only counted players taken in the first 30 picks... You can call other players "first rounders", but IMHO they are not first round picks.

Of the 298(J.D. Drew and John Mayberry were picked twice) players drafted:

101 Players were College pitchers.
77 Players were High School position players.
63Players were College position players.
56 Players were High School pitchers.

Of those 298 players 22.8% (68 of 298) were categorized as Star or Impact(Posnanski's rating).

34.9% (22 of 63) of College position players were listed as Stars or Impact.
20.7% (16 of 77) of High School position players were listed as Stars or Impact.
19.6% (11 of 56) of High School pitchers were listed as Stars or Impact.
18.8% (19 of 101) of College pitchers were listed as Stars or Impact.

On the negative side of things:

41.1% (23 of 63) of High School pitchers drafted had a rating of No Value(drafted 2003 earlier and have not appeared in the majors).
31.1%(24 of 87) of High School hitters had a rating of No Value (Chris Lubanski made this list).
20.8% (21 of 110) of College pitchers had a rating of No Value.
15.9%(10 of 63) of College Hitters had a rating of No Value.

In conclusion, while I'd have rather seen a top college hitter taken, Moustakas has a better chance statistically of having a long and productive major league career than Price or Porcello.

Brett said...

Jack Campbell, did you used to write on a Royals blog with me a couple years ago?

Carl Willingham said...

I'm with Jack, too many variables come with drafting the pitcher. My philosophy for years is to build through the draft and minors for hitters and relievers, and use your free agent money on durable starters. If you draft a good mix of hitters and projectable types you will hit on enough to have good hitters who are athletic up the middle of the diamond and use your corners for big boppers. Not exactly reinventing the wheel but managers are so hesitant to use young pitchers in relief it makes doing this much tougher. Weiters would be nice for this organization but he is very tall and I'm not sure he will be a catcher for long. I'm much happier with Moustakas than I was about Hochevar..

Antonio said...

The problem with what Campbell has done is that he's using very small sample sizes (one player) to back up his argument. For every Cortes, you can come up with a player that counters the argument pro-Cortes. For every Longoria versus Hochevar, you can come up with a college pitcher out doing a college hitter.

Antonio said...

"Personally, I don't think KC would have been able to sign Price or Porcello. But they do need hitters more than pitchers at this point so I'm happy with the pick"

There's should never be one single reason to not get the sign. Never. And you shouldn't draft based on need, especially in the opening rounds of the draft. As your prospects mature, you can later trade for need. If you need a left-handed hitter and there is an influx of right-handed power pitchers with amazing talent, you go with the pitchers. Drafting on need hurts your team a ton when your need doesn't match up with the best talent available.