Saturday, February 23, 2008

Reason #17: The Enigma.

Twenty-five years ago, Jose Cruz Sr. was earning the title as “the most underrated player in baseball”, at least in sabermetric circles. There was good reason for this: he played in the Astrodome, a park that absolutely killed his power numbers, in an era when pretty much everyone outside of sabermetric circles seemed to be in denial that park effects existed. It became almost a running joke in Bill James’ annual abstracts: another year, another season in which Cruz put up MVP numbers on the road.

It was in the power department that the splits were most glaring. In 1980, Cruz hit 7 homers on the road, 4 at home. In 1981, it was 10 on the road, 3 at home; in 1982, it was 6 and 3; 11 and 3 in 1983; an amazing 12 and 0 in 1984; 8 and 1 in 1985. Over that six year stretch he hit 54 homers on the road, 14 at home. In 1984 he hit .344/.394/.545 away from the Astrodome, just .276/.367/.371 in Houston.

But here’s the funny thing: call a player underrated long enough and, at least in sabermetric circles, he might have become overrated. It’s not like the mainstream media didn’t notice him at all – he finished in the Top 10 in MVP voting in 1980, 1983, and 1984, and won Silver Sluggers in both 1983 and 1984. And the focus on his home run totals and his extreme splits in 1984 obscured the fact that most years, he wasn’t particularly hurt by his home park. In 1982, he had a higher OPS at home than on the road, as well as every year from 1977 to 1980. In 1978, he hit more homers on the road than at home (9 to 8), but he hit for a higher average at home (.312 to .288), drew more walks at home (41 to 28), and had more doubles and triple at home (23 to 18). His overall splits that year were .312/.394/.517 at home, .288/.344/.440 on the road.

For his career, Cruz managed to hit 106 homers on the road, just 59 at home, almost certainly one of the most pronounced home/road splits of any player in history with that many home runs. And yet for his career, his home splits (.289/.366/.418) are better than his road splits (.280/.344/.422). There’s no question that Cruz, at his peak, was hurt by an oppressive home field, but he was probably affected less than, say, any San Diego Padres hitter is today.

All of this is an incredibly long-winded, tangential, and possibly irrelevant way of saying that just as Jose Cruz was considered so underrated that he became overrated, I’m beginning to think that Luke Hochevar has been called overrated – or synonyms like “draft mistake” and “not Tim Lincecum” – so often that he’s now become underrated.

Ignore the fact that he was the #1 overall pick in 2006, that the Royals took him over Andrew Miller and Lincecum, to say nothing of guys like Joba Chamberlain or Clayton Kershaw (neither of whom, despite obvious talent, were considered realistic #1 overall picks at the time). Just look at his body of work:

In his first full professional season, he started the year in Double-A, moved up to Triple-A in August, and pitched well (2.13 ERA) in a September callup.
2) Struck out nearly three times as many batters as he walked (138 to 47) in the minors.
Showed no signs of fatigue or injury all season.

That’s not a bad debut for a prospect, even a top prospect, is it?

The criticisms of Hochevar seem to boil down to this:

1) He gave up way too many hits and home runs in the minors;
He was a #1 overall pick.

Also, owing to his holdout, he was awfully old for a draft pick, and is already 24. On the other hand, age is not nearly as meaningful a factor for pitchers as it is for hitters, and if there is such a thing as an injury nexus, Hochevar is probably past it.

The hits, and especially the homers, are concerning. Hochevar is a flyball pitcher, and he’s going to give up his share of big flies. But the high BABIP is likely to be one of those fluky things that won’t stay with him in the future. Not to make excuses for him, but the Royals reportedly would sometimes restrict his repertoire during the season to tighten up his breaking pitches. More importantly, the scouts who saw him did not feel that his erratic performance was reflected in his stuff, which was still #2-starter caliber.

I only saw him pitch in September, but what I saw reminded me a lot of Gil Meche. Like Meche, Hochevar works off a good fastball and an excellent big-breaking curveball, but all four of his pitches are at least average. Maybe Meche isn’t the comparison I want to be making, given that it took him 7 years for his stuff to translate into results. But Meche’s medical reports could fill a file cabinet; Hochevar’s wouldn’t fit inside the MacBook Air.

I don’t think he’s ready for a rotation spot now. Another half-season in Triple-A would be ideal, but the notion of breaking him in as a reliever is not a bad idea so long as it remains a temporary one. Hochevar could also be compared to the Mets’ Aaron Heilman, a first-round pick who also spent his first full season in Double-A and Triple-A. Hochevar’s K/BB ratio last year was 138-to-47; Heilman’s K/BB ratio that year was 132-to-44. But Heilman struggled in the Mets rotation for parts of the next two years, and was starting to smell like a bust before the Mets moved him to the bullpen in 2005, where he’s been tremendous ever since. The problem is that the Mets are so concerned about his previous struggles in the rotation that they’ve decided to leave him in the pen permanently, despite a starter’s repertoire, and as a result his talents have been somewhat wasted.

If using Hochevar in middle relief for a season makes his transition to the rotation easier, I’m all for it. Better one year in relief now than a lifetime in relief later.

Do I wish the Royals had drafted Lincecum or Kershaw instead? Yes. Do I think that Hochevar could be an above-average major league starter in 2009? Yes. What’s past is prologue. The future for Hochevar is still pretty bright.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Reason #18: The Example.

Have you ever given much thought to which team, in the history of baseball, you wish you could have followed as a fan for one specific season? I first thought about this back in the winter of 1995-1996, when I was writing the New York Mets essay for our first edition of Baseball Prospectus (the one that was printed on paper stock, had a typeface that, when it was in bold, was almost unreadable, and sold about 160 copies.)

I made the point that few fans have ever enjoyed a season as thoroughly as Mets fans did in 1986. The team was a juggernaut during the regular season, winning 108 games (the most of any team in a decade), then won one of the most dramatic NLCS ever played. And then they came back from two down in the 10th in Game 6 against the Red Sox. (And then they came back from three runs down in Game 7.)

Ever since then, I’ve judged teams on the basis of how much fun it would be to root for them. Depending on your criteria, you could choose a number of them. For pure, unadulterated excellence, the 1998 Yankees won 114 games and then went 11-2 in the playoffs; except possibly for the start of Game 4 of the ALCS against Cleveland, there was no point after about April 15th that you had any doubt as a Yankees fan your team was going to win a world championship. For the guy with a chip on their shoulder, the 2005 White Sox had their doubters all the way until they went 11-1 in October. The 2001 Diamondbacks had to come back against Mariano Rivera in the 9th inning of Game 7, and even worse, from having Byung-Hyun Kim as their closer. For the underdog, nothing beats Orel Hershiser, Kirk Gibson, and the 1988 Dodgers. If you’re a history buff, the 1914 Boston “Miracle” Braves; if you’re a baby boomer, you’ve got the 1969 “Miracle” Mets. (Are there are any other teams that can claim “Miracle” as their middle name?)

Of course, none of these examples hold a candle to the 2004 Red Sox, at least if you take history into account.

But if you could only pick teams that did not win the World Series…you’d have to make strong consideration for the 2007 Colorado Rockies. I couldn’t have been the only person that was intensely jealous of Rockies fans last October. On the morning of September 16th, the Rockies were in fourth place in the division, 6.5 games out. They were 4.5 games out and in fourth place in the wild-card race. They had no hope. They were dead. The Baseball Prospectus postseason odds report pegged their playoff chances at 1.8%, and that seemed generous.

And then they got hot.

The funny thing is, the Rockies won their next 11 games, and all the while I kept thinking, “man, it’s a damn shame they didn’t play a little bit better earlier in the year.” I was rooting for the Rockies even though I didn’t think they had a chance in hell to make the playoffs. They had shed the legacy of the Mike Hampton/Denny Neagle Rockies, beefed up the farm system, and gone with young players everywhere. When the team found itself on the fringes of a pennant race in August, instead of bringing in veterans to patch up their holes, they doubled down on youth, promoted Franklin Morales and Ubaldo Jimenez, and stuck them in the rotation.

Back in 2003 I had the opportunity to speak on a panel at the SABR Convention that was held in Denver that July, on the subject of “Baseball at Altitude”. The other two men on the panel were Robert K. Adair, PhD, who literally wrote the book on The Physics of Baseball, and Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd. One of these things is not like the other…

It’s so easy as an outsider to ridicule front office people, labeling the authors of stupid decisions as stupid people. O’Dowd had made some whopping errors in his time as the Rockies’ GM, Hampton and Neagle being front and center. By the time I sat on the panel, it looked like his job was already on thin ice. When it came to his turn to talk, I confess I expected him roll out the usual tired clichés about the difficulties of building a team in such an unusual environment. I expected him to use altitude as a crutch.

I learned that day that you don’t get to be a GM – even a bad GM – without being really smart. O’Dowd laid out the challenges of building a team in a high-altitude environment candidly and in impressive detail. He brought up issues I hadn’t even realized existed, like the fact that the low oxygen pressure in the atmosphere prolonged muscle recovery in athletes, making it particularly difficult for starting pitchers to recover from a typical workload.

He described studies the Rockies had done themselves on the resiliencies of baseballs at different temperatures and humidity, conducting such experiments as dropping balls from the top of the stadium and seeing how high they’d bounce. It was as a result of doing all this that the Rockies decided to implement the humidor, essentially accepting to exchange their home-field advantage (which was considerable) for a lower-scoring context that would make it easier to developing pitching.

He also agreed with my theories (which you can read about here) that since the overwhelming effect of Coors Field was to benefit power hitters, they should aim to build a team with power at every position, emphasize defense in the outfield, and eschew power pitchers in favor of groundball specialists with good control.

Four years later, O’Dowd is still at the helm, and it turns out that maybe he’s not such a bad GM anymore. Power at every position? The Rockies promoted Troy Tulowitzki at shortstop. Defense in the outfield? They traded for Willy Taveras. Pitchers that keep the ball down and throw strikes? Their pitching staff finished 14th in strikeouts, but third in walks and fifth in homers allowed.

But just as they went into the final weekend with a real shot at the playoffs - just two games behind Arizona, a game out in the wild-card chase – they lost to Brandon Webb on Friday night, and were dead in the water. They needed to win their last two games and the Padres to lose their last two games. They needed Tony Gwynn Jr. to earn the cold shoulder at the family dinner table for the rest of his life. (Great article on the most underrated story of 2007 here.) They needed to beat the best pitcher in the NL in a tiebreaker. They needed to come back from two runs down against the all-time saves record holder in the bottom of the 13th.

They did all that, then they swept the Phillies, then they swept the Diamondbacks. Twenty-one out of 22, people. In the last thirty years, going back to when the 1977 Royals won 24 out of 25, you could count the number of teams that won 21 out of 22 on your hands - at any point in any season. The Rockies won 21 out of 22 to get to the World Series when 20 out of 22 would have earned them third place and a hot start the following April.

The Rockies then faced an American League team for the first time in months, and…well, after the fifth inning of Game One I sent out the following email to the Baseball Prospectus mailing list:

“Is it just me, or does anyone else look at tonight's game and think back to the classic Simpsons baseball episode? The Rockies are Homer Simpson, blissfully unaware that their 21-1 streak (Wonderbat) is the result of facing inferior competition in the National League (the company softball league). Tonight's game features the Rockies/Homer finally standing in against Roger Clemens/the Red Sox, whereupon the 21-1 streak/Wonderbat immediately gets beaten down to a 13-1 pulp after five innings/disintegrates into thin air.”

It was still an incredible ride. In baseball history, the only pennant winner (but World Series loser) I can think of that matches the 2007 Rockies for pure exhilaration is the 1951 Giants.

The Rockies did the Royals – and all small-market teams – a favor. They showed you can with a small payroll (they ranked 25th in the majors with a payroll of $54 million, $13 million lower than Kansas City.) And they reminded us that there’s no better tonic for a team that’s driftless and without direction than a full-fledged commitment to a youth movement.

The Rockies didn’t do anything particularly sexy: they just stopped worrying about how to win at altitude, and focused on how you win everywhere else. Almost every key player on their roster – Tulo, Atkins, Holliday, Hawpe, Helton, Francis, Cook, Morales, Jimenez, Corpas – was drafted or signed as an amateur by the Rockies. Taveras, Jeremy Affeldt, and Brian Fuentes were acquired in trade. The most prominent players on the roster that were signed out of free agency were Kazuo Matsui and Josh Fogg.

The Royals aren’t following the Rockies’ blueprint exactly. Their farm system hasn’t been nearly as productive so far, but they’ve been far more aggressive in free agency, and Meche alone is more valuable than all the Rockies’ free agents combined. But long-term, the Royals are doing everything in their power to build from within. A Rockies-like miracle, if it occurs, won’t happen until 2010 when Mike Moustakas and Danny Duffy come up in mid-season.

For 2008? Even I can’t put much stock in such miracles. But miracles do happen. We just saw the first 18-0 team in NFL history, a team that set the record for points scored, for touchdowns passed by one player, and for touchdowns received by one player, play the NFC’s #6 seed in the Super Bowl. And the #6 seed won, paced by – most miraculous of all – Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning.

I have no expectations that the Royals will anything substantial in 2008. But I'm prepared to have my expectations altered. If the Rockies can win 21 out of 22 games, if a 10-6 team can topple Team Undefeated, nothing is impossible. Or impossible is nothing. That's a good slogan; a shoe company should market that.

A few housekeeping notes:

1) Last week, showing the bluntness and insensitivity that bloggers are famous for, I took some minor shots at longtime Royals’ scout/executive Art Stewart. What I didn’t know at the time was that Art’s wife Donna was dying of cancer; she passed away this Tuesday. Donna was a permanent fixture at Royals games, a loyal supporter of the team to the very end. She will be missed. Our thoughts are with her and with Art.

2) Rob and I turn off the lights over at Rob & Rany. It’s going to be weird not having someone to bounce immediate impressions off of when the Royals make big moves. But it was time. Rob was already thinking of closing up shop when I mentioned to him that I was planning on starting this blog; I think he was more excited than I was.

But please, guys: just because Rob has been, shall we say, less optimistic than I have been over the years is no reason to attack his loyalty to the team or tear him down for walking away at this time. Yes, he’s been down on the Royals a lot more than I have – can you blame him? We started our discussions of the Royals in 1998, having no idea that we were about to witness one of the worst decades for a baseball team in major-league history. Whenever I see Royals fans rip on Rob for not keeping the faith, all I can say is, “have you guys been watching this team for the last 10 years?” If you have, how can you argue that someone has been too pessimistic about the franchise? Is that even possible? Whatever negative things Rob has had to say about the Royals, they’ve earned it. And then some.

We’re leaving on good terms, I’m happy to say; Rob even sent me his 2003 Mike Sweeney Bobblehead Doll as a sort of blogwarming gift the other day. (Despite being packaged carefully, when I took the doll out of its box, I found that Sweeney’s bat had cracked in two. I wish I was making this up. At least it wasn’t his back.

3) Just an FYI: don’t expect these posts to continue to run this long. I started writing some of these entries weeks ago – even I can’t write this many words on a daily basis. What, do I look like Joe Posnanski?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Reason #19: The Coach.

There are many, many ways to describe how poorly the Royals were run during their dark period, a period which I can only hope is finally lifting. One of my favorite ways is to simply point out this fact: the Royals employed seven different pitching coaches in a little over six years, and eight pitching coaches in a little under eight years.

The chronology, as best as I can figure:

Bruce Kison (1994 – mid 1998)
Mark Wiley (mid 1998 – end of 1999)
Brent Strom (beginning 2000 – May 2001)
Al Nipper (May 2001 – June 2002)
John Cumberland (June 2002-June 2004)
Mike Mason (June 2004 – end 2004)
Guy Hansen (2005)
Bob McClure (2006-present)

McClure, assuming he doesn’t get axed before the season starts, will become the Royals’ longest-tenured pitching coach since Bruce Kison. Not coincidentally, it was under Kison’s tutelage that the Royals last had anything remotely resembling a pitching staff. From 1994 through 1996, the Royals ranked 3rd, 4th, and 2nd in the league in runs allowed. In 1997 the team fell to a still-respectable 8th; in 1998 the team finished 13th as Kison got fired and the pitching funhouse began.

1999: 14th (i.e. dead last)
2000: 13th
2001: 11th
2002: 13th
2003: 12th
2004: 14th
2005: 13th
2006: 14th

It has to be difficult to develop your career in any field when you have a new boss every year. I don’t suspect it’s any easier to develop as a young pitcher when you have a new pitching coach every year, particularly when each coach is telling you a different thing. It’s not like the pitching coach has a minor role on the team – the pitching coach has more influence on a team’s success than anyone other than the manager, certainly more influence than the hitting coach.

Hitting is reaction – you can have the best coach in the world, but in the end you have less than a quarter-second to react to a pitch, decide whether to swing, and determine where you place your bat to make contact with the ball. You can have the best hitting approach in the world, but if it takes half a second to execute, it’s worthless. Pitching, on the other hand, is action; baseball, after all, is the only major sport in which the defense, not the offense, controls the ball. And if pitching is action, that means that pitching, unlike hitting, can be planned.

And so a pitcher who does a good job of preparing each pitch, placing each pitch in the right location, changes speeds, uses finger pressure to subtly move the ball around, mixes his pitches so the hitter never knows what’s coming next – that pitcher can succeed beyond his natural abilities. Greg Maddux was the best pitcher in baseball at his peak, one of the best the game has ever seen, and rarely broke 87 on the gun. Almost all the best starting pitchers in the game are noted for their intelligence. Conversely, some of the greatest wastes of talent on the mound have been guys who simply didn’t have the brainpower to make smart decisions out there.

You don’t have to be smart (in the traditional sense of having a high IQ) to be a tremendous hitter. I have no idea if Manny Ramirez is really a budding Rhodes scholar under that façade, but he certainly doesn’t come across as a brilliant human being. Juan Gonzalez does not appear to have any Nobel Prizes in his future. I have no idea how smart Vladimir Guerrero is – is there any future Hall of Famer about whom we know less than Guerrero? But his approach at the plate doesn’t require intelligence. See ball, hit ball. If you have tremendous hand-eye coordination and enough fast-twitch muscles, that’s a perfectly acceptable approach at the plate.

A prepared pitcher is a better pitcher, and it’s the pitching coach’s job to make sure his pitchers are prepared, which is why a pitching coach can do much more to impact his charges – positively or negatively – than a hitting coach. It’s not a coincidence that there are very few hitting coaches with a “guru” reputation. Royals fans are of course familiar with Charley Lau, but he passed away 24 years ago, and who else rises to that rank? Whereas on the pitching side, you’ve got Leo Mazzone, of course, but at various times people like Ray Miller, Roger Craig, and Dave Duncan have been described as miracle workers.

Bob McClure isn’t a miracle worker, but he’s done good work. He change Gil Meche’s delivery to make him land on his toe instead of his heel, and wonder of wonders, Meche had the best season of his career. He helped Brian Bannister junk his cutter in favor of a refined curveball last spring, and Bannister was a surprise Rookie of the Year candidate. Joakim Soria pitched like a 10-year veteran out of the bullpen; Zack Greinke resurrected his career and got stronger as the season went on. He’s gotten good work out of the modest talent of Joel Peralta, and Jimmy Gobble seems to be adjusting to life as a LOOGY.

McClure wasn’t perfect; he almost worked a miracle with Jorge de la Rosa, who in his first nine starts had a 3.59 ERA and 12 walks in 58 innings, but then de la Rosa went to hell. McClure didn’t fix Kyle Davies, although there’s still time for that. He didn’t save Scott Elarton, but no one this side of God Himself could have done that. Overall, the good definitely outweighs the bad.

As important as McClure’s ability is his stability – it made no sense that the Royals would turn over their pitching coaches as often as they did, as a few of those guys almost certainly would have done better had they been given more time to do it. Guy Hansen was a tremendous pitching coach for the Royals in the early 1990s; he also scouted Kevin Appier, recommended the Royals draft Bret Saberhagen (a 16th round pick), and after a stint as the pitching coach at UCLA, returned to the Royals and recommended they take a flier on one of his pitchers who could really hit – and the Royals drafted Jeff Conine in the 58th round. But after one admittedly unimpressive season, he was axed.

If I bought my own major league franchise tomorrow, Brent Strom would be one of the first guys I’d hire. He’s smart, educated, and willing to learn new things, to an extent that’s very unusual for a baseball lifer. He gets bonus points for reading “Rob and Rany” regularly while he worked for the Royals, and while he didn’t agree with much of what we wrote, he took at least some of it to heart, particularly our frequent blatherings about pitch counts. He was made the scapegoat for the team’s terrible start in 2001; apparently after winning all of 75 games the year before, the Royals expected great things from the likes of Chad Durbin, Dan Reichert, Mac Suzuki and Chris George.

We exchanged some emails shortly after he was fired, and I’ll never forget something he wrote about Jeff Suppan. Commenting on how difficult it was to fix the mechanics of some of the team’s young pitchers, he held up Suppan as a model for pitching mechanics and wrote, “If Suppan ever hurts his arm, I’ll turn gay.” In the seven seasons since, Suppan has made at least 31 starts every year. I think we can let Strom off the hook now, which should be a relief to his wife. (Not to mention gay men everywhere.)

My point is that the Royals have had good pitching coaches before, but never gave them enough time to succeed. McClure has been given that time, and he’s delivered on it. As important as the hiring of Trey Hillman was, almost as important was the fact that the hiring of a new manager did not reflexively lead to a new pitching coach as well. McClure’s done good work so far, and I’m glad he’ll have the opportunity to build on it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


We’ll get back to the Top 23 list soon enough, but at the rate I’m going the whole list won’t post until mid-March, and in the meantime spring training is underway and stories are starting to emerge. So let’s talk about them.

1) Does anyone think that if Hideo Nomo was from Jersey instead of Japan, that he’d be getting one-tenth as much attention? I understand why the Japanese press is following him around in hordes – he’s a legitimate legend, the man who not only broke the hemisphere barrier but also the man who proved that Japanese baseball was not a vastly inferior product to the American version. (A sentiment that was held by scouts and statheads alike in the early 90s.)

Having said that, he’s done. He hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2005, and his ERA in his final two seasons were 7.24 and 8.25. (His 8.25 ERA in 2004 is the second-highest in history for a pitcher with more than 15 starts – only Steve Blass’s final season, the one that got a disease named after it, was higher.) He had an ERA over six in winter ball this year. Is there any reason to think he still has something left?

I see no harm in bringing him in. His success was so dependent on his splitter that if he finds it again, I suppose he could be successful again. The bullpen has always been a haven for broken-down starters, and the splitter is definitely a pitch that translates well there. But I think it’s telling that the Royals signed him without ever scouting him over the winter: they really don’t care how he pitched. He’s here for one reason, to be Yasuhiko Yabuta’s buddy. If he shows something on the mound, great. But let’s not talk about him anymore unless and until he does.

2) Do the Royals need to hire some new Spanish translators? First, there was the “confusion” with Jose Guillen as to whether he was guaranteed to play rightfield after he was signed – Guillen thought he was, Trey Hillman said no decision had been made. Hillman managed to smooth things over with Guillen, and coincidentally enough he has been promised the rightfield spot, with Teahen moving over to left.

I don’t have a problem with the positioning; Teahen’s defensive numbers last year were not very good (with the notable exception of his 17 assists.) He showed a good arm in the outfield, but a lot of those assists came because runners were testing his surgically-repaired shoulder early in the year. But I like to have defensive alignments picked out by the manager, not by the players; I’m old-fashioned that way.

And now we have a mini-flap brewing with Miguel Olivo, who apparently thought he was promised the starting catcher’s job when he signed. The Royals have done their best to assuage his feelings and paper over any problems. But you have to wonder who was doing the talking when the Royals signed these guys.

3) Speaking of Olivo, Hillman has reportedly discussed the idea of playing him some in left field. This sounds ridiculous on the surface. Moving a slow, squat guy with a shaky bat to a position where speed and offense are at a premium is, generally speaking, stupid. You don’t have to remember Carlton Fisk’s infamous move to left field in 1986 (thank you, Hawk Harrelson!) to know that.

It’s not quite as ridiculous when you look at the specific circumstances here. For one, Olivo can run a little better than your typical catcher – in his last year in the minors, the White Sox let him go, and he somehow stole 29 bases in 42 attempts. (He’s never swiped more than seven bases in any other season, majors or minors.)

Secondly, Olivo has a fairly enormous platoon split, one of the largest of any active player. Against right-handed pitchers he’s hit a weak .220/.258/.362, but against southpaws he has a career mark of .291/.319/.524. That will play at any position. If Olivo were backing up a left-handed catcher, he’d be an enormous asset, but he’s backing up John Buck, a remarkably similar player. It may well make sense for the Royals to play both Buck and Olivo against left-handers, and better to have Olivo play the field than at DH, where you’d lose the DH altogether if Buck had to come out of the game for any reason.

But does this mean Teahen becomes a platoon player? Does Teahen play first base against LHP? All of this is still in flux – we have no idea who the primary first baseman is going to be, for one thing. I like out-of-the-box thinking in a manager, I’m just not sure this is one of those decisions that should be out of the box.

4) The Star reports that Luke Hochevar may be looked at as a bullpen option this year. As long as this is temporary – one never knows with the Royals – I’m all for it. We don’t see nearly enough teams develop pitching prospects for a year in the bullpen before moving them into the rotation. It works – look at Johan Santana’s career – and for good reason: pitching out of the pen is easier than pitching in the rotation. Nate Silver’s work with PECOTA has shown that if you project a pitcher to move from full-time starter to full-time reliever, his ERA drops as much as 25%. A starter with an ERA of 5 – barely replacement-level – suddenly becomes a reliever with an ERA in the high 3s, which is a useful pitcher.

Hochevar may not be ready for the majors, and given the logjam on the back of the pitching staff, may be best served by another few months in Triple-A. But just because he has a starting pitcher’s arsenal doesn’t mean he can’t thrive in the bullpen and develop his pitches at the same time.

5) Dick Kaegel’s weekly mailbag feature for the team’s website is not normally on my list of useful columns for Royals fans – I swear some of the questions seem so contrived that you wonder if they’re made up. But he dropped a very useful piece of information on Monday:

Which Royals pitchers are out of options? -- Chris K., Lincoln, Neb.

Pitchers with no options remaining are John Bale, Jorge De La Rosa, Jimmy Gobble, Luke Hudson, Ron Mahay, Gil Meche and Leo Nunez. You didn't ask about position players, but here they are: Buck, Alberto Callaspo, Joey Gathright, Esteban German, Ross Gload, Jose Guillen, Justin Huber and Tony Pena Jr.

Going at this player by player: Bale, Gobble, Mahay, Meche, Guillen, and Pena have roster spots locked up. Callaspo, Gathright, German, and Gload presumably do as well – but if you assume they’re all bench players, and toss in Olivo, that means the Royals’ bench is completely set. With a lineup that’s guaranteed to include Teahen, DeJesus, and Guillen in the outfield, Gordon, Pena, Grudzielanek on the infield, Buck behind the plate and Butler at DH, and assuming the Royals go with 11 pitchers, that leaves only one position unfilled: first base. (If Gload starts at first base, then a backup 1B/OF/DH type instead.)

And this is where Huber’s lack of options come into play. The Royals have mangled Huber’s career as badly as any prospect they’ve had this decade – he came over with a lot of pomp and ceremony, he won the Texas League MVP with a .343/.432/.570 performance as a 22-year-old, and the Royals have screwed with him ever since. It’s now or never for him, as there’s no chance he’s getting through waivers (Billy Beane is already salivating, I’m sure.) The saving grace is that Ryan Shealy does have an option available, and given that he needs to show the team that last year was an injury-marred fluke, there’s an obvious solution here. I just have this bad, bad feeling that the Royals won’t see it.

The other player on the bubble is Leo Nunez, who rescued himself from Huber-like purgatory with a fine performance for the Royals down the stretch. He’s still not guaranteed a roster spot. He should be; he’s a valuable swingman, and with his fastball and his command, deserves a much greater role on this team than the Royals are planning for him.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Reason #20: The Steal.

In the long-simmering cross-town rivalry between the Cubs and the White Sox, few moments are looked back at more fondly by the Southsiders than July 29th, 1998. The Cubs, trying to reach the playoffs for the first time in nine years, made a desperation deadline deal with their neighbors, and wound up pulling off one of those WTF? trades (what we in the heartland like to call a “Neifi”) that you see every few years.

The Cubs traded their first round pick from the year before in exchange for an unremarkable reliever with a 5.15 ERA. This trade turned out as badly as that previous sentence suggests, if not worse. Matt Karchner, who had served as the Sox’ part-time closer prior to the deal – he had 26 saves over the previous year-and-a-half – gave the Cubs 28 innings and a 5.14 ERA the rest of the season. He pitched just 33 innings over the next two years before his career ended.

In return, the Pale Hose got Jon Garland, who at the time was 18 years old and pitching in the Midwest League. By the end of the following season, Garland was in Double-A while still a teenager; he debuted with the Sox in 2000; and after getting drubbed as a 20-year-old rookie he settled into the rotation the following year and has been an average to above-average starting pitcher ever since. Garland was just traded to the Angels, but not before giving the White Sox a 92-81 record and a 106 ERA+ in about seven full seasons as a starting pitcher. Garland-for-Karchner ranks as one of the ten most lopsided trades of the last 20 years.

How ironic, then, that when the Royals acquired Daniel Cortes for another middle reliever that was stretched in the role of a closer (Mike MacDougal) at the trading deadline in 2006, the comparison I heard multiple times regarding Cortes was that his upside was…Jon Garland.

MacDougal’s a better pitcher than Karchner ever was; in terms of pure stuff he should be a lights-out closer. A lot of guys throw in the mid-90s and a lot of guys throw a sinker, but few guys throw a sinker in the mid-90s. Only MacDougal never really learned how to pitch when he was with the Royals, and just when it looked like he had put it all together for the Sox in 2006, he came back last season and was 31 flavors of awful. It’s possible he simply is incapable of learning how to pitch.

And Cortes wasn’t supposed to be the key to that trade for the Royals – he was supposed to be Tyler Lumsden’s wingman. While Lumsden was beaten to a pulp in Triple-A last year, Cortes made the biggest leap of any prospect in the Royals system, and one of the biggest of any pitcher in the minors. His fastball jumped a few ticks and now sits in the low-to-mid 90s, and his curveball added bite. He was dominant during the season's second half, allowing just 3 earned runs in his final 41 innings, and he’s still just 20.

Will he be as good as Garland? He’s about a year behind Garland’s pace through the minor leagues, but he’s still likely to make his major league debut sometime this year, when he’ll be just 21. Like Garland, he’s mostly a fastball-curveball pitcher who works high in the zone and gives up lots of flyballs (according to, Cortes’ groundball-flyball ratio last year was 0.71, which is very low.) You can’t say it’s likely that he’ll be as good as Garland, because aside from the complete Josh Beckett-level studs, any pitcher in the low minors has less than a 50/50 shot at becoming an above-average major-league starter. But Cortes certainly has that potential.

Actually, he has the potential to be even better. The big knock on Garland has been that he’s never been a strikeout pitcher – his career high is 115, despite throwing over 190 innings each of the last six years. It’s hard to be successful in the majors with a low strikeout rate and flyball tendencies, and Garland represents pretty much the upper limit of that skill set. Cortes, though, struck out 120 batters in 123 innings in Wilmington last year, 8.78 per nine innings. Even in the minors, Garland’s best strikeout rate over a full season was just 6.32. And Kauffman Stadium’s deep power alleys make it a much better fit for this kind of pitcher than U.S. Cellular.

A lot can happen between A-ball and the major leagues, but by 2010 Cortes could be a #3-caliber starter earning the league minimum, with plenty of upside to boot. Call us anytime, Kenny Williams.