Friday, March 28, 2008

Roster Review.

Say this for Dayton Moore: he’s not boring. Without checking, I’m willing to bet that the Royals rank in the top five in baseball for most trades made since he was hired, maybe top three. Just a week after acquiring Brad Salmon from Cincinnati for a player to be named later, he shook things up some more, moving another PTBNL to Colorado for Ramon Ramirez, and then trading Justin Huber for – there’s that guy again – a PTBNL. He also designated Jorge de la Rosa for assignment.

Using the mathematical skills that we at Baseball Prospectus are famous for, we can cross out the PTBNLs from the most recent trades, leaving us with:

Acquired: Ramon Ramirez
Lost: Jorge de la Rosa, Justin Huber

On paper, that’s a bad trade. The extenuating circumstance is that all three players were out of options, so in essence, what the Royals really acquired was Ramon Ramirez and a roster spot. I’d still rather have the latter than the former, but it’s closer now.

I don’t know how I ought to feel about losing Huber. I’m upset, but I’m not sure if I should be just annoyed or really, really angry. Moore said all the right things. Speaking to Dick Kaegel over at royals.com:

“There are three things that always have to happen to make a team,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. "They’ve got to have ability, which he has. You’ve got to perform, which he has. And the next thing is there has to be opportunity.

“And for us, the way our club was shaping up, we just didn't see any opportunity for him to be on our team. He was out of options, and I just wish we had more time, because he had a terrific spring and we think he's going to be a good hitter. It just didn't work out.

“I hope he goes out and does great. He’s a terrific person, and he works hard and he cares a lot about the Kansas City Royals,” Moore said. “And we wish we could've had an opportunity for him, but we don’t.”

At least Moore didn’t try to defend the move by claiming that Huber doesn’t have the talent to be on a major league roster, because he does. The fact that we all saw this move coming a month ago – and really, a year ago, when it became clear that the Royals had no interest in giving him an opportunity – doesn’t wash out the bad taste in my mouth. Justin Huber can be an everyday player in the major leagues today, and probably could have been two years ago.

I think the Royals recognize he can hit. They simply feel that he can’t hit enough to make up for his defensive shortcomings. And you know what? They might be right. Certainly, not every one-dimensional hitter who gets released turns into David Ortiz, who was released by the Twins in 2002, signed by the Red Sox in 2003, and has finished in the Top 5 in the MVP voting every year since. (Wow, even knowing how good Ortiz has been, that’s just ridiculous.)

For every Ortiz, you might have two or three guys like Jack Cust, who bounce around Triple-A for years before finally having a breakout seasons with their fifth major league team, a half-dozen guys who have to go to Japan to get an opportunity (Roberto Petagine, Tuffy Rhodes), and literally dozens of guys who, whether because they never get an opportunity or because they blow the ones they do get, never hit in the majors. Jeremy Giambi, anyone? Calvin Pickering?

Huber has hit well in the minors, but he’s only had one truly off-the-hinges campaign, 2005, when at age 22 he hit .326/.417/.560 between Double-A and Triple-A, won the Texas League MVP award and was MVP of the Futures Game as well. He’s been a .280/.350/.500 sort of hitter pretty much every season before or after 2005, and guys who hit .280/.350/.500 in the minors rarely become above-average first basemen in the majors.

The comparison that should scare Royals fans isn’t Ortiz, it’s Mike Sweeney, who let’s not forget came this close to being released by the Royals in Spring Training, 1999. (Jeremy Giambi pulled a hammy, which opened up a roster spot. I’m almost certain this was the most fortuitous injury in franchise history.) Huber and Sweeney are remarkably similar players, right-handed hitters with good bat control and line-drive power who started their careers as catchers and then struggled to find a position. Sweeney hit .310/.416/.548 as a 21-year-old in A-ball, when he played for Wilmington, which is one of the toughest hitters parks in the minor leagues. When he was 22, he hit .301/.372/.539 between Double-A and Triple-A. At that age, Huber was actually the better hitter.

The difference is that Sweeney made it to the majors late that summer as a backup catcher, and after two months in Triple-A the following year, has been in the majors ever since. Huber never got that opportunity, but neither has he matched his performance in 2005 again. It could be that his bat atrophied; it could be that the Royals were right in thinking that his 2005 season was a fluke. But it’s telling that Huber’s career line in the minors, .289/.369/.495, is virtually identical to Sweeney’s: .278/.369/.497.

I don’t think this trade will come back to haunt us in 2008, because I don’t think the Padres really know what to do with him. They have Adrian Gonzalez at first base, and while they have a huge hole in left field, the reality is that Huber is not an outfielder, and it’s ridiculous to think otherwise. It’s even more ridiculous when you have an outfield the size of Rhode Island, as Petco Park does. Kevin Towers is a smart GM and I think he couldn’t turn down Huber’s bat, but it’s going to take some time for the Padres to figure out what to do with him. Much like the Royals may yet regret trading Eric Cordier, the talented-but-injured pitcher they traded to Atlanta for Tony Pena Jr, the day may come when they regret their cavalier disregard for Huber’s offensive ability.

As for de la Rosa, once again you could see this coming, and once again I don’t understand why the Royals spent the better part of two years trying to develop a left-handed pitcher with electric stuff and no idea how to control it, yet not once did the idea of trying him in the bullpen come up. I discussed this earlier about Joakim Soria, but the ideal starting pitcher to try in the bullpen is the guy with a ton of strikeouts, but who gives up lots of homers and walks. Ring a bell?

There’s a reason Dan Duquette once called de la Rosa “the Mexican John Rocker.” He wasn’t referring to de la Rosa’s penchant for ethnic slurs and anti-immigrant rhetoric; he was referring to de la Rosa’s stuff. You might have noticed that, before he set fire to his career, Rocker had a couple damn fine years for the Braves. As a reliever.

Soothing my frustration somewhat is that Ramon Ramirez appears to be the goods, and frankly I’m not sure why the Rockies couldn’t find room for him. (I guess they just couldn’t bear to part with Kip Wells.) Ramirez is a converted outfielder whose stuff was so good on the mound that he started his pitching career as a starter, which is pretty unusual for a converted position player. He was very good as a starter – he had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of close to 3 to 1 – before the Rockies made him a reliever after they got him from the Yankees in the Shawn Chacon deal at the 2005 trading deadline. By the next April he was in the majors, where he set a team record for most consecutive scoreless innings to start a career (15.1) and was named the team’s Rookie of the Year. Last year was pretty much a lost season, 17 innings and an 8.31 ERA, due to issues with a strained elbow.

The nice thing about elbow injuries is that they usually only affect a pitcher’s availability, not his ability. Shoulder injuries can reduce a pitcher to a shell of his pre-injury self, but once an elbow injury heals (or is corrected by surgery) that pitcher can be back to 100%. Ramirez was outstanding this spring, and if he pitches as well as he did in 2006 he’ll be a revelation.

Even factoring in 2007, Ramirez’s career ERA is 4.45, and as has been reported in several places, his career ERA away from Coors Field is just 1.08. I wouldn’t read too much into that; he’s pitched just 33 innings on the road in his career. But that in itself is relevant, because he’s pitched 52 innings at home. A pitcher with a 4.45 ERA despite pitching 60% of his innings in Coors Field? And he’s only 26? Yes, please.

The rest of the roster seems to have fallen into place. While I had pretty strong suspicions that Huber wouldn’t make the roster, I was much more on the bubble with Leo Nunez, who I think is one of the most underrated pitchers in the organization. The acquisition of Ramirez may have pushed Nunez onto waivers, but thankfully, that appears unlikely to happen. Nunez hasn’t officially won a spot, but this quote from the Star is quite reassuring:

“He’s a guy with a power arm,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “We felt we needed to acquire somebody with some power from the right side to go along with (Leo) Nuñez.”

With Miguel Olivo’s suspension finalized (four games) and word coming that Jose Guillen’s suspension is likely to be commuted, here’s the Opening Day roster, best as I can tell:

Catchers: John Buck, Matt Tupman (holding the seat warm for Olivo)
Infield: Gload, Grudzielanek, Callaspo, German, Pena, Gordon
Outfield: Teahen, DeJesus, Guillen, Gathright
Nofield: Butler

Starters: Meche, Bannister, Greinke, Bale, Tomko
Relievers: Soria, Yabuta, Gobble, Mahay, Ramirez, Nunez

That’s 24 players; once Olivo’s suspension is up the Royals can add a 25th player, which they have indicated will be a reliever. I think it’s nuts for any team to have 7 relievers and four bench players, but this would solve the sticky situation of what to do with Hideo Nomo: use his minor groin pull put him on the DL with a retroactive move, and activate him when Olivo’s suspension is over. If the dates don’t work, they could call up Ryan Braun for a few days or something, while simultaneously giving Nomo a chance to make a few “rehab” appearances in Triple-A and prove that he really does still have major-league stuff.

Ryan Shealy may deserve a spot, but he has options, and I see no downside to letting him go back to Omaha and prove that 2007 was a stone-cold fluke.

What really stands out for me is that other than Tupman, who might play in one game before he’s sent to Omaha, everyone on the roster is worthy of the spot. In particular, the pitching staff is as deep it’s been in many years. Tomko’s shaky as a fifth starter, but every other pitcher has the potential to be above-average. When Ramirez or Nunez is the last guy in your bullpen…you have a deep bullpen.

The Royals have had exactly one winning April in the last 18 years, and one of the reasons for that is that every year the Royals start the season with two or three guys who have absolutely no business being on the roster, and it takes a few weeks for those guys to prove their incompetence to the Royals’ satisfaction. I don’t see those guys on the roster this year. I’m not saying the Royals are going to have a winning April, but I am saying they won’t be nine games out on May 1st, like they were last year.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

I believe the 25th roster spot will go to Peralta, who will only be sent down for the first few days because he still has options - but he definitely should be making the team. I'm pretty sure Nomo was signed to a minor league deal and I think that means they can send him to AAA, though I'm no expert on how these contracts work and don't know how minor league deals work with veterans...

NYRoyal said...

I will never understand the over-hype about Justin Huber. Yes, there are many times in the past when he should have gotten some kind of shot in the majors. But should we really think that he'll be a decent major leaguer? PECOTA certainly doesn't think so. He has been a good, but not great hitter in the minors. He's basically a .850 OPS hitter in the PCL. That's worse than Timo Perez. On top of that, he's a liability in the field at any and every defensive position.

He's a very common kind of mediocre prospect who isn't quite good enough to make a team and has to be dumped when he's out of options. Huber will likely never be a decent major league player, just like Cal Pickering and Craig Brazell. And despite that fact that probably no major league team will offer him a major league contract in a few years, some people will say "boy he would have been good if he'd just been given more playing time" just like they said about Pickering and Brazell. GM's make mistakes. I really doubt every MLB GM made a mistake by passing on those guys. Huber will join the list in a few years.

NYRoyal said...

I also think Peralta will be the man to fill out the roster's 25th spot as soon as his 10-day option period is over. He's likely better than Nomo and he actually has a future in Major League Baseball.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of teams would like to be able to call up Ryan Braun for a few days.

Anonymous said...

The crime on the "Huber treatment" is that the Royals wasted several years because they coldn't make a simple decision about where/if he could handle a defensive position. (C, then 1B, then OF).

They made the same mistake with Butler (3B, then OF, then 1B).

My opinion is that one or the other should have been given the chance, with the other at DH. No one will ever convince me that defense at 1B is more than an afterthought when compared to offensive production there. I'd much rather have gambled on the upside of Huber at 1B and live with the defense than watching another year of mediocrity from Ross Gload.

Let's hope the franchise learns something from this. Butler and Huber probably both should have been put at first FROM THE BEGINNING; maybe that way one or both would have become barely adequate defensively given the extra years to play it in the minors...

Antonio said...

The overhype has never been about Justin Huber. It's been about Small-Market Wasting Opportunity After Opportunity to See if A Prospect Can Pan Out. It's about 100-loss team going with old veterans without a chance in the world to actually make said team better while not giving an opportunity to see if a young player can develop into something useful.

And, as Rany mentioned, he has similiar numbers to Mike Sweeney in the minors...and Mike Sweeney could have EASILY joined that Brazell (who doesn't really belong on your list) and Pickering on your list. And don't forget that some players, Jack Crust f. ex, once belonged on that list.

Jeff said...

Also recall that KC only gave Matt Diaz 89 at bats before deciding he wasn't useful.
His last two seasons:
2006 - .327/.364/.475/114 OPS+
2007 - .338/.368/.497/124 OPS+

One of my gripes about Huber is that he only got 10 at bats last September. Billy Butler should have played 1st base everyday and Huber should have DH'd. But they didn't do that, they kept giving playing time to Emil knowing fully well he wasn't going to be on the team in 2008.

Nathan said...

Gun to head I guess I'd rather have Jose Guillen on the roster than Diaz or Huber, but I'd sure rather have one of them and $36million than Guillen. Both are capable of equally Guillen's production at the plate, and defense isn't nearly worth the difference in cost.

NYRoyal said...

"Gun to head I guess I'd rather have Jose Guillen on the roster than Diaz or Huber, but I'd sure rather have one of them and $36million than Guillen. Both are capable of equally Guillen's production at the plate, and defense isn't nearly worth the difference in cost."

That is a joke. That is an absolute joke. They could equal Guillen's production. That is laughable. Huber would be lucky to manage a .725 OPS. And Diaz is basically a platoon-only player.

I love the "I don't want talent, I want efficiency!" fetish which is so common nowadays. Who cares if we win fewer games, let's just play efficiently!

This team needed a genuine upgrade this year for at least two reasons:

1. to win more games to increase the interest from the fan base (and thus revenues)

and

2. to win more games to help lure free agents. Recently the Royals have lost out on multiple free agents when we made the biggest contract offer. So we're losing out on top tier free agents even when we offer the most money. We have to get competitive in order to get good free agents to accept our contract offers.

Matt Diaz and Justin Huber efficiency would help this team tread water. And the next offseason, no top tier free agent would accept our offers (again) and we'd have to sign someone like Jose Guillen then. We needed to build this year, using Guillen as one building block to get a better free agent next year.

Or, we can just see how many games we can win with a $50M payroll. Hey, it works for the Florida Marlins!

Jim said...

Hopefully Guillen will be ready to play with all his inactivity. MLB needs to get their stuff together

Nathan said...

nyroyal,

You might be right, but PECOTA disagrees. Here are the projected weighted-mean slash stats for Guillen and Diaz.

VS RHP:

Guillen: .275/.327/.429
Diaz: .290/.330/.448

VS LHP:

Guillen: .292/.352/.470
Diaz: .311/.354/.486

That adds up to a .5 game WARP advantage in Guillen's favor, which isn't really too far from what you might expect given that Jose Guillen is a 32 year old with a career .772 OPS. Now, PECOTA isn't infallible, Dayton Moore has a good eye for talent, and Guillen has spent a lot of time in pitcher's parks, so I wouldn't be surprised if he beats his weighted mean by a fair bit. But even his 75% projection is worth a little over two wins more than Diaz's 25%. Is two wins going to lure free agents to KC?

PECOTA also has Huber putting up a .751 OPS. That's not great, but it's markedly better than you say he would be lucky to do. Or if you dislike Huber and Diaz both, compare Guillen to players who've been available cheap or free this winter: Matt Murton, Elijah Dukes, Lastings Milledge, Milton Bradley. My objection isn' that he's better than them, but inefficient; it's that he's just not better than them at all. We're not paying for talent and wins, we're paying for service time and name recognition.

I think the Royals badly need to win this year for both the reasons you cite. And I think they have a good chance to do so. But it won't be because of Guillen, it'll be because of Butler, Gordon, Meche, Grienke, Bannister and Soria.

Clinton said...

um.. Joel Peralta?

Antonio said...

Also, the idea isn't to pocket the money save through efficiency, but to spend it elsewhere. Take the 32, get a better shortstop, some prospects and put the rest into the draft...it's a lot easier way to build a model franchise that will compete than hoping Jose Guillen will help us lure in more free agents...as if anyone has ever followed Jose's lead. And what the heck, wasn't Gil Meche enough? At least Meche was in his prime. And PLEASE, Royals fans, STOP referring to Jose Guillen as a power hitter! He is not!

Carl Willingham said...

I agree with Antonio about putting the money into the draft but that only really works if your willing to go outside of Bud's slot recommendations. If the R's are willing to take the best player regardless of cost and backlash from the major league roster (which will happen). If David Glass wrote the KC Star and open letter and said that he was putting all the free agent money that goes to the Sanders, Elarton, Grudz, Guillen, Mahay, etc grouping back into the team through the draft and Latin America I think most fans would be fine with that. More importantly take that money and make sure we can keep Gordon, Butler, Grienke and Soria. In the first three players case we have already used 5 combined years of service time for very little in return. I don't mind that as a fan but I sure hope they don't start getting expensive right about the time we might actually need to fill some spots to make a run.