Friday, May 30, 2008

God, Why Have You Forsaken Us?

If you're a Royals fan, then you're intimately familiar with what happened this evening, familiar enough that this recap will only bring you additional pain. You are exempt from reading this.

But those readers who are not Royals fans are probably unaware of the proceedings of May 30th, a game which succinctly encapsulates the ego-crushing, character-building Royals Fan Experience of the last 15 years.

If you ever wanted to know what it's like to be a Royals fan, if just for one night, then read on.

The Royals ran into Cliff Lee, which didn't seem like a good way to end an 11-game losing streak. Giving up a home run to Grady Sizemore leading off the game didn't appear to be a good way either. But in the bottom of the second, the first two men reached base for John Buck, who belted a ball off the wall in right. A few more feet and it would have been a 3-1 lead, but Buck was stranded at third to end the inning. Still, the Royals had a 2-1 lead, and you could almost hear the announcer saying, "He's cut! The Indian is cut!"

In the fourth, Buck doubled again to plate Teahen, and with two outs DeJesus drove home Buck with a single. 4-1 Kansas City. In the top of the fifth, though, Sizemore went deep off Meche again, this time with a man aboard. Brett Tomko came out to pitch the sixth, and gave up a two-run homer to Casey Blake to give Cleveland the lead again.

And then the fun started. In the bottom of the sixth, the Royals once again got to Lee with a solid hitting approach. With one out, Joey Gathright took a fastball the other way for a single. Tony Pena took a fastball the other way...oh, who am I kidding, he swung right through an outside fastball for strike three. But DeJesus also poked a fastball to left field as Gathright moved to second. And then German took a fastball the other way, whizzing by Asdrubal Cabrera into right field as Gathright raced home with the tying run.

...except DeJesus took too wide a turn around second, and Franklin Gutierrez threw behind him. Peralta applied the tag a second before Gathright touched home plate.

At that moment, the odds that the Royals would lose were about 95%. The odds that they would lose by the margin of one run were probably 70%. If it were only that painful.

The Indians would not get another runner to second base in the game; they would not need to. In the bottom of the 7th, Guillen doubled off the strangely-hittable Rafael Betancourt with one out. After Olivo flied to left, Rafael Perez came into face Teahen. Topspin laced a ball into the right-centerfield gap, prompting Ryan Lefebvre to exclaim, "there it is!"

He was presumably referring to the tying run, but he might have been trying to point out the ball for the benefit of Gutierrez, who entered the TV screen at the last moment and made a shoestring catch.

The Royals had one last opportunity in the ninth inning, when the Indians graciously inserted Joe Borowski into the game. With one out, Esteban German belted a ball that kept carrying deep to left - and it hit off the wall, about 2 feet from the top of the fence. A double. Alex Gordon then flew out harmlessly to left. This brought up Jose Guillen with two outs, the tying run at second, and his reputation at the plate. Here was Guillen's chance to connect actions to words, to provide the Royals with leadership on the field as well as in the locker room.

The first pitch was a fastball outside. The second pitch was a fastball that, according to MLB's Gameday, was 86.7 mph and right down Broadway. Guillen crushed it to left-center - he walked towards first for a moment as if it were a no-doubt walk-off homer.

The ball came down in deepest left-centerfield, about a foot from the fence - and into the outstretched glove of Sizemore, who face-planted into the wall so hard that he fell to the ground afterwards. The Indians' trainer had to race onto the field to make sure he was alright. Sizemore was fine; the game was over.

Here's the thing: if you want to know what it's like to be a Royals fan, it's not enough to understand that the Royals should have won or at least tied this game half a dozen times, and that they were thwarted by little league baserunning or tremendous defensive plays or balls which missed carrying out by a few feet.

What you have to understand is this: watching this game as a Royals fan, AT NO POINT after Blake's home run did I feel that we had any chance to win. The last four innings were like a car wreck in slow motion, where you know things are going to turn out badly, but you don't know what the gruesome details are yet.

When German singled Gathright home, as soon as I saw Gutierrez make a quick throw to second base, I thought "watch this - he's going to pick DeJesus off." Even after DeJesus was called out, as the Royals' feed went to commercial Lefebvre made it a point to say that the run counted, and the on-screen scoreboard showed a 5-5 tie. Even so, I was utterly sure that after the commercial break we would learn that the run did not count, not because I thought that Gathright didn't touch home plate in time - I hadn't seen a replay - but simply because this is what happens to the Royals. The first image we saw coming out of commercial was the back of Hillman's jersey as he was arguing with the home plate umpire. That's all I needed to see.

When Teahen lined the ball in the gap, even as Lefebvre yelled in anticipation of the game-tying hit, I knew that the ball was hanging up long enough for Gutierrez (one of the finest rightfielders in the game defensively) to have a shot. When the leftfielder kept racing to the wall on German's drive in the ninth, I had no doubt that it would stay in the park. And even for that half-second when Guillen stood at home plate admiring his walk-off homer, I knew that no ball hit to the deepest part of Kauffman Stadium is a no-doubter.

If you're a Royals fan who ignored my warning and have read this far, you're no doubt nodding your head. If you're not a Royals fan, well, now you know what we live with. It's not enough that we lose, night after night after night. It's that defeat stalks us in our homes, it chases us into dark alleys and up fire escapes and down manholes like Freddy Krueger. It's that we live in this nightmare that we can't wake up from, and that long before Defeat hunts us down and eviscerates us, we suffer all the more from knowing that no matter how hard we try, no matter how long we run, eventually Defeat will catch up to us, that we will meet our demise, and it will be painful and bloody.

Defeat toyed with us longer than usual tonight, but we know his game well, well enough to know that we never really had a chance to escape this time. If you had looked out your apartment window and seen us high-tailing it down the street with a hideous clawed beast in pursuit, you might have thought we had a chance to make it to safety. Try running in our shoes for one night, and see how you feel.

I had an idea...

(I posted this piece a few hours ago, only I just noticed that - because I had started this post a few days ago before all hell broke loose - the blogger software posted this under Wednesday's date, halfway down the screen. Bad blogger. So I'm posting again and deleting the original post, although this may result in a few comments being lost.)

As we wait for our long national nightmare to end - again - there are so many things I want to talk about. I still haven't given my thoughts on the Soria extension, the draft is coming up in four days and I want to get my thoughts on that, and of course we still need to finalize some nicknames. (I figured the last thing on the list ought to wait until the Royals pull out of their tailspin - otherwise everyone's going to end up with awful nicknames like "scumbag" and "dorkface" and "Tony Pena Jr.")

But right now, everyone wants to talk about how to fix the team's offense. And so I brainstormed a little, and I came up with a trade idea that might benefit the Royals. And unlike most trade ideas that fans come up with, I'd like to think my trade idea might actually make sense for both sides. Maybe. Possibly.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the state of our offense, my idea for improving the team's offense away two of our hitters. So here goes.

The Royals trade: David DeJesus, Esteban German, and a pitching prospect to Chicago.
The Cubs trade: Felix Pie & Ronny Cedeno to Kansas City.

Settle down, everyone. Here's the rationale for both teams.

For the Royals: David DeJesus is a fine player, but he epitomizes solidity. From the Royals standpoint, the problem with DeJesus isn't that he's a problem - it's that he isn't part of the solution. By trading DeJesus, the Royals would get Felix Pie, who may never rise to the caliber of player that DeJesus is, but whose upside exceeds that of DeJesus. Pie hit .362/.410/.563 in 55 Triple-A games last season. He's not that good, and he's a free swinger and a high-risk prospect, but he has the ability to hit .300 in the majors, with 15-20 homers and better speed than David. He's just 23, whereas DeJesus is 28. By 2010 or 2011, which is the earliest the Royals should be targeting contention, he may be the better player of the two.

Cedeno, of course, immediately represents a massive upgrade on Tony Pena Jr, primarily because any animal that walks on two legs and has opposable thumbs ought to represent an upgrade. Cedeno was a massive flop in his one opportunity as the Cubs' everyday shortstop, in 2006, when he hit .245/.271/.339. But the year before, he hit .355/.403/.518 in Triple-A; the year after, he hit .359/.422/.537 in Triple-A. We're all excited about Mike Aviles and his .338/.369/.634 line in Omaha, but 1) he's never hit this well before; 2) most people feel he can't handle shortstop in the majors; 3) he's 27 years old.

Cedeno is 25, and he's had two seasons in Triple-A as good as Aviles' best season. He's hit .321/.402/.444 for the Cubs in limited playing time this year. He would not be a free agent until after 2012; Pie wouldn't be one until after 2013.

German had an OBP over .380 for the Royals the last two years, and 38 at-bats this season don't change the fact that he's a terrific utility player who can play second base, third base, and the outfield. He does everything that Cedeno currently does for the Cubs, except that he's a backup shortstop in an emergency only.

Basically, this trade would at the very least not hurt the Royals offense in 2008, because any loss of offense in centerfield would be made up for at shortstop, and the Royals simply have no playing time available for German. The Royals could put Pie directly into their lineup, although given his struggles this year (both in Triple-A and the majors) I'd prefer they stash him in Omaha for a few months, try to teach him some plate discipline, and tell Joey Gathright he's got one last opportunity to play every day, and let's see what you got.

For the Cubs: the Cubs have the most potent offense in the National League. They are in first place in their division. They have an excellent shot at the playoffs, and have to be considered one of the favorites to come out of the National League. As you may know, this would be a rather unusual event for this franchise, and would be met by much applause throughout the land.

The Cubs are playing to win now. They've got a great lineup - but they have one massive, gaping, festering, chest wound of a hole. They have no centerfielder. Well, they have Pie, but they don't think he's ready, and pennant races in a big media market are not kind to rookies struggling to establish themselves. So now, they have Jim Edmonds, which is great except this is 2008, not 1998, and Edmonds is evoking the memory of Willie Mays in 1973 right now - a once-great player reduced to such a degree that he's almost painful to watch. They've started Reed Johnson out there the last two nights.

The Cubs also have a problem which may not hurt them now, but will almost certainly haunt them come playoff time - even their longtime fan George Will thinks they lean too far to the right. Eight Cubs have batted 100 times or more this season - and seven of them (all but Fukudome) bat right-handed.

DeJesus would solve both of these problems. While he's not a great hitter, his career line is a perfectly respectable .282/.357/.412. Factor in the league difficulty factor, and you can add 5-10 points to those numbers. Plus you can't help but think that once he escapes the swirling vortex of doom that is the Royals' offense, his performance will go up a bit. He won't need to bat at the top of the lineup in Chicago - he'll probably bat 7th, behind guys like Ramirez and Soto, sandwiched between DeRosa and Theriot. With a fresh start on a winning team in a weak division in the inferior league, DeJesus could easily hit .295/.370/.440 the rest of the way.

Secondly, DeJesus is signed to a very favorable contract. He's making $2.5 million this season, and is signed for $3.6 million next year, $4.7 million in 2010. His contract has a club option for 2011 at $6 million, or a $500,000 bonus. (Thanks, Cot.) The Cubs would have him under contract for three more years after this one, and yet they'd be on the hook for less than $9 million in guaranteed money if his career goes south and they elect to decline his option.

Keep in mind, the Cubs are still in the midst of being sold, and so having guaranteed player commitments on the books is a good thing for them - at least that's what we were told when they offered Alfonso Soriano $136 million and the rights to Lake Michigan. Having a centerfielder under contract into the next decade may be appealing to the Cubs' management team for that reason.

In return, the Cubs would give up Pie, who is a top prospect, but they have reason to be concerned - his #1 PECOTA comparable going into this season, of the thousands and thousands of minor and major league players over the last 50 years, is Corey Patterson. Pie hasn't hit well in a small sample size this year. They may well decide that a bird in the hand is better than a bird in the bush. And Cedeno is basically a utility infielder for the Cubs at this point, with little hope of starting in the future - replacing him with German would be almost a wash for 2008.

Is it a fair deal? I asked Kevin Goldstein for his opinion - originally, the trade was DeJesus for Pie and Cedeno - and he felt, not surprisingly, that I was greatly overrating DeJesus and that the deal was tilted in the Royals' favor. Adding German balances the trade considerably, but even so I can see the argument that two young potential starters are worth more than one ready-now league-average player and a good utilityman. So I've included the generic "pitching prospect" as an equalizer, with the exact value of that player to be negotiated by the teams.

The Royals have had quite a year on the farm in terms of the development of their pitchers - more on that at some point - and so I think they could afford to part with some depth. Certainly, a Grade C prospect like Blake Johnson or Henry Barrera could be given away without any regret. Would I put Julio Pimentel into the deal? Probably. Blake Wood? Probably not. But I am not a scout; I would trust Dayton Moore and friends to get together with the Cubs and arrive on a mutually agreeable player. Or they may well decide that the trade is even, two-for-two.

Will this happen? If it does, it will be the first time in the history of these here internets that a trade suggestion made by a blogger comes to fruition. (If I'm wrong about that, somebody please let me know.) But it should. Both teams would benefit. God knows the Royals could use all the benefit they can find right about now.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Don't Mess With The Guillen.

Say what you want about being a Royals fan, but it's rarely boring. Painful, humiliating, soul-sucking...but never boring.

Here's what I learned in the last 18 hours:

- I do not ever want to piss off Jose Guillen. Ever. If I do, I'm hiding up in the press box with Jay Mariotti.

- If Guillen has a big game tonight and the Royals win, he will immediately become the most popular player on the team.

- If Guillen goes 0-for-4 and the Royals lose, he may need a police escort from the stadium.

There's no in-between here. I don't blame Guillen for saying what he said one bit - I was saying far worse things last night, and I didn't have nearly as good a view of Monroe's game-tying homer. And the mere fact that today people are talking about Guillen's outburst as much as they are about the collapse last night and the 10-game losing streak is proof that he's done some good.

On September 19th, 1999, the New York Mets were 92-58, a game behind the Braves and four games ahead of the Reds in the wild-card race with 12 games to go. They would lose their next seven games in a row, and were 2.5 games behind Cincinnati with 5 games left. It was at that point that their manager, Bobby Valentine, went on a much-publicized tirade in which he fell on his sword, declared that the collapse was all his fault and that the media should lay off the players.

This being Bobby Valentine, many members of the media viewed this outburst as another manifestation of Valentine's ego, a sign that in Valentine's world, everything was about him, him, him. Needless to say, a controversy ensued over the next 24-48 hours about what Valentine's intentions were, whether he was trying to fire up his team, whether he was trying to deflect attention away from the team, whether he'd be fired if they didn't make the playoffs...and for a day or two at least, the issue at hand - that the Mets had just lost seven in a row to potentially cough up a playoff spot - was lost in the shuffle. Which was almost certainly Valentine's real motivation. It was a brilliant move, and the Mets won four of their next five games, tied the Reds for the wild card, then won Game 163 to advance.

Contrast this with the Mets' collapse last year, when Willie Randolph basically sat around and waited for the wind to change direction. Valentine would take the Mets to the World Series the following year; Randolph may not last the summer.

So if nothing else, Guillen's outburst has taken the focus off the 24 other players, even as he was calling out those same players. I don't know if it was intentional or not, but it was an inspired move. Now all he has to do is back it up.

(Incidentally, I completely agree with Sam Mellinger's take that the fact that Guillen went out of his way to defend his manager is a good sign that Hillman still has respect in the clubhouse. It may seem silly to you or me, but the fact that Hillman never played in the majors can present a significant credibility problem to his players. He's just the third Royals manager to have never played in the majors. The other two were Jim Frey, who lost control of the clubhouse so fast that he was fired half a season after he took the Royals to the World Series, and Jack McKeon, who also lost respect in the clubhouse and had to be fired. I have some developing beefs with Hillman, but none of them involve his interpersonal skills.)

- Apparently, Billy Butler is a baby. And I don't just mean he is the youngest player on the team. Or was.

Maybe Guillen wasn't calling out Butler, though it's telling that he was the first guy I thought of when I heard Guillen's comments. And anyway, if the Royals had to make a move, who else could they send to Omaha? Butler might be the only hitter on the roster who had an option remaining - well, other than Gordon, who's not going anywhere.

I think it's a risky move, scapegoating one of your most important players. There was no reason to worry about Butler in the long-term even though he wasn't hitting well; he's barely 22, and the only number in his batting line that's worrying is the home run column. I think he would have made the necessary adjustments in due time had he been left alone. Those changes might come faster in Triple-A, as they did with Teahen. But the Royals have to understand that there's a small but real risk that they lose Butler over this.

- So Mike Aviles starts at shortstop tonight. That's pretty cool. What's not cool is that we're excited about the fact that a 27-year-old hitter is making his major league debut tonight. I've made the case before that Aviles' best-case scenario translates into something like Rich Aurilia, a below-average defensive shortstop who nonetheless hit well enough to make up for it. Aurilia had some sweet seasons in his late 20's, but then again, he was in the majors when he was 24. If Aviles hits well enough to convince the Royals to live with his defensive inadequacies at shortstop, it will be a minor miracle. That doesn't mean we can't pray.

- It's a fool's errand to try to predict the outcome of a single game, but I'll say this. Last night notwithstanding, I still believe this team is fundamentally on better footing than it was in 2005. The pitching, day in and day out, is better and deeper. Case in point: our #4 starter goes today, only our #4 starter is Luke Hochevar, who is erratic but certainly has the ability to dominate on any given night. And if the game is close in the late innings, Soria is available, and he's the one player on this team that seems immune to the loser virus.

Kevin Slowey is exactly the sort of pitcher the Royals inerrantly turn into Cy Young - a right-hander with tremendous control of an average, but diverse, repertoire. If the Royals are jumpy and overeager to put last night's debacle behind them, Slowey will carve them up. If they stay within themselves and wait for their pitches to hit, they could eke this one out. How the Royals approach their at-bats tonight should teach us a little something extra about Hillman.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

And Finally Tonight, As Promised, A Special Comment.

On August 9th, 2005, the Royals were struggling to break a 10-game losing streak, but it finally looked like it was their day. They took an early lead on the Indians, and the bullpen held the lead into the ninth inning. With three outs to go, the Royals were up by five runs, 7-2. Mike MacDougal came into preserve the lead.

Five of the first six Indians he faced roped base hits. Even so, after Ronnie Belliard grounded into a fielder's choice, the Royals still led, 7-6, with two outs and men on first and third.

Jeff Liefer was the Indians' last hope, and he lofted a routine flyball to left that Chip Ambres settled under for the final out.

And then he dropped it.

The game was still tied, there were still two outs, but if you had given 10-1 odds that the Royals would win the game at that point, you wouldn't have found a Royals fan anywhere in the Midwest who would have taken your bet. Aaron Boone doubled to take the lead; Jimmy Gobble came into pitch; an intentional walk, single, walk, and grand slam later, and the score was 11-7.

The Royals would go on to lose their next eight games for good measure.

The sad thing was that, at the time, the losing streak was almost liberating for Royals fans. We had a pathetic manager, an impotent GM, a meddling, cheapskate owner: we deserved to lose 19 in a row, and in the most excruciating way possible. More than that: we wanted to lose 19 in a row, because we wanted it to get into the thick skulls of all the people running this team that THEY HAD NO IDEA WHAT THE HELL THEY WERE DOING. And it worked, sort of. Nine months later Allard Baird was fired, Dayton Moore was given carte blanche, David Glass & son moved into the shadows. It took a while longer for Buddy Bell to be shown the door, but the momentum had shifted.

Or so we thought. Which is why tonight's game may have been even more painful. The Royals had lost 9 in a row, but we weren't losing because we couldn't hold leads - we were losing because we were less likely to get a lead than Maxwell Smart.

But tonight we had our young ace going, and Greinke didn't disappoint. He gave up a couple of early runs and the lead, but the Twins graciously responded by starting Livan Hernandez, and even the Royals can take advantage of 85-mph fastballs. Thirteen hits off Livan - who's on pace to give up 315 this year, by the way - and eight runs. After the 12-inning affair last night, Hillman tried to milk another inning out of Greinke that he probably shouldn't have, but Greinke went 1-2-3 in the eighth. Once again, the Royals took a five-run lead to the ninth inning.

And unlike in 2005, or 2006, or pretty much every year since Jeff Montgomery lost his fastball, there was no reason to have even the slightest bit of fear that the Royals would blow a five-run lead in the ninth. As an anonymous poster had just commented this morning, the Royals had not lost a game all year in which they were leading after even 7 innings, and only one game they had led after 6. It's not just that the Mexicutioner (yeah, that name is growing on me) has been lights out, but that the Royals have three relievers who have all pitched better than their best reliever in seasons past. And Ron Mahay hasn't been bad.

Ramon Ramirez comes in. Strikeout. Single. Strikeout. The Twins need four more baserunners to score just to tie the game, with one out to play with - basically, they need to channel the 1986 Mets twice. Single. Single. Single. 8-5, two on, tying run at the plate.

I don't fault Hillman for not getting Soria up, not one bit. He was absolutely right to pitch Soria on Monday to get him some work, and he was absolutely right to pitch Soria two innings in a tie game yesterday. And he was absolutely right to give Soria the day off today.

But with the tying run at the plate and two outs in the ninth, when a home run will tie the score, with an all-or-nothing slugger at the plate, how on God's Green Earth do you call upon Joel Peralta, a flyball pitcher who has given up 3 homers in 17 innings already (and 28 in 213 innings in his career) instead of Leo Nunez, who is clearly a different pitcher this season and hasn't given up a homer all year? Nunez pitched an inning and threw 23 pitches last night, but didn't pitch the night before that. And you only needed him to get one batter.

And the moment the ball left Craig Monroe's bat, you couldn't have set the odds that the Royals would still win high enough for me or any Royals fan to take them. The irony is that if I had had the time this morning, I had planned to write that last night, when the Royals tied the game with three runs in the ninth on a freak inside-the-park home run, the first thought that ran through my mind (the first being, of course, "WTF?") was "we're only tied." As a Royals fan, you know that momentum means nothing. Being the home team in a tie game in the ninth inning means nothing. Having the other team's ace reliever blow only his second save ever against the Royals means nothing.

If the tables had been turned - if the Royals had taken a 3-0 lead into the ninth, but our manager stuck with our young starter for way too long (five of the last ninth batters Blackburn faced reached base safely, and one of the four outs was a lineout-double play), if Soria had come in and blown a three-run lead on a fielding misplay, if we had been on the road and Joe Nathan was already warming up to pitch the tenth...I mean, there's no way in hell the Royals would have come back to win. The only question would be, will we lose it in the ninth, or will we go meekly in the 10th and then lose it in the bottom of the inning? As we saw tonight, when the shoe is on the other foot, the Royals might as well forfeit the game on the spot so the fans can get home at a reasonable hour on a weeknight.

The Twins couldn't get to Soria, but they didn't have to. They got out of the 9th, they got through the 10th and 11th, and they scored in the 12th. They could have waited until the 18th inning to score - we would have been waiting with them.

Should we blame Trey Hillman for this? I'm willing to cut him some slack, if only because he's been in Japan for all these years, and so hasn't had the opportunity to watch the Royals up close the past five years so he could see just how star-crossed this franchise is.

(Late update: it turns out we have to give Hillman some slack, because Nunez didn't pitch tonight only because he couldn't - he's going on the DL. So Hillman, without his two best relievers for one night, did everything he could - he let Greinke go eight innings, and he turned to his third-best reliever to protect a five-run lead. He did everything he could - except to pick a team other than the Royals to manage.)

If he had been following the Royals the last five years, he would know that the Royals are the team that bad stuff happens to. If any team can blow a five-run lead in the ninth, the Royals can. If any team can lose 7 or 10 or 19 games in a row, the Royals can. If any team can get no-hit in a series opener and give up two grand slams in the series finale, the Royals can. And it doesn't matter how good the Royals are playing - the worm can turn at any time.

Remember 2003? Remember the glorious month of April, when the Royals started 9-0, and 16-3? Remember when it all started to go wrong? Let me refresh your memory. The Royals were 16-3, they went to Toronto, lost the first game of the series 6-5 when Vernon Wells led off the bottom of the ninth with a homer. But the next night Ken Harvey hit a three-run homer in the ninth to win it, 9-6. And in the series finale, the Royals scored early and often; they were up 8-4 after eight innings. They scored a run in the top of the ninth. They had a five-run lead with three outs to go.

They gave up six runs in the ninth and lost, 10-9. They would lose their next three games, and 24 of their next 35, and fall under .500 by the first week of June. They would rise again and lead the division for much of July and August, but the chance to build an insurmountable lead had died, and a small lead was not enough for the Royals to hold onto against the irresistible pull of reality. The beginning of the end came on a night when the Royals held a five-run lead in the ninth inning.

Tonight wasn't the beginning of anything, nor was it the end. It was just another loss in a series of losses, some spectacular, some excruciating, but all of them the mark of a team that has no business calling itself a major league team. If 2005 is any indication, tonight may in fact just be the middle: the middle of a really, really long losing streak.

Only this time, there's no silver lining here. No one is going to lose their job over this. Ten days ago, this team was a game under .500, two games out of first, and we all thought that Moore and Hillman had managed to do the impossible - they had managed to overcome the perpetual stink of loserdom that had overwhelmed this franchise since Billy Butler was in third grade. Turns out it really was impossible after all.

(Second Update: we just learned from Ryan Lefebvre, by way of Posnanski, that David DeJesus - who might have ended the game with a catch that Ross Gload couldn't make in the ninth - left the game because he broke out in hives. Hives, people. Apparently I'm responsible for the Royals losing - if only I had been in the dugout with some medicine on hand, none of this would have happened. You don't see the Red Sox or the Indians or the Rays or even the freakin' Pirates lose games because one of their players broke out in a rash. So I say...)

Welcome to Kansas City, Dayton and Trey. Welcome to the nightmare the rest of us have been living in for a long, long time.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Royals Today: 5/26/2008.

So…we have now reached that part of the calendar whereby all but the most hopelessly optimistic Royals fan (i.e. even more optimistic than I) officially give up any hope of contention this season.

I guess we should give thanks that the Royals gave us reason to believe as long as they did. With the White Sox looking like they’ll never lose again (man, Carlos Quentin would have looked nice in powder blue*), the Royals are now 7.5 games out. In each of the last four seasons, they were 7.5 or more games out by May 1st. (May 1st!) They let us believe this year for longer – a week ago, they were a game under .500 and two games out – than any time since 2003.

*: I know it’s trendy for Royals fans to whine about the fact that Dayton Moore didn’t try to get Quentin, when it was obvious that the Diamondbacks were willing to move him cheap and he still had youth and a tremendous track record on his side. And the guy the Diamondbacks got in return was Chris Carter, a fine prospect but one of just six guys they would later send to Oakland for Dan Haren.

Here’s the problem: if the Royals wanted to beat the White Sox offer of Carter, who as a 20-year-old hit .291/.383/.522 in the South Atlantic League last season, there’s really only one hitter in the entire farm system that would have trumped the offer: Mike Moustakas.

The Royals are making strides in this department – particularly on the pitching side of the equation – but it’s going to be a few years yet before the Royals have a well of hitters deep enough that they can tap into it without feeling the pain.

Which is why it’s good to remember that for all the time we spend arguing about whether Hillman knows what the heck he's doing or whether there’s anything Dayton can do to wake up the offense, the most important work to resurrect the franchise is being done far from Kansas City. Now that the Royals are 21-30, it makes it easier to focus on what’s going on away from Kauffman Stadium.

- The chief problem with the Royals offense – and the reason why their problems are to a large degree intractable – is that the team is overrun with solidity. Ten or fifteen years ago, I was having a conversation with Joe Sheehan on the phone, trying to trade him one of my players in our Stratomatic league. I tried to sell him on some pitcher I didn’t need – I don’t recall exactly who – by calling him “a solid pitcher.” Joe responded bluntly, as he usually does, “you do realize that ‘solid’ is just a nice way of saying ‘he sucks’, don’t you?”

I didn’t have a good response for that. Ever since, I have kept tabs on the usage of that term, and it turns out Joe’s right: when a player is described as “solid” by the media, it usually means that he’s just not very good. It means that he doesn’t have any major weaknesses, except for one: he doesn’t have any strengths.

And that describes two-thirds of the Royals’ lineup to a T. David DeJesus? A fine centerfielder who does everything well, except…he’s never hit .300, he’s never reached double digits in homers, he walks about once every 10 at-bats, his career high in steals is 10. Solid. Mark Teahen is a terrific baserunner, a good defensive player, can play five different positions in a pinch, he draws a good number of walks…and he’s hitting .249 with as many homers (2) as Matt Cain. Solid.

John Buck (.259/.328/.362) is a solid catcher. Mark Grudzielanek (.290/.349/.361) is a solid second baseman. Billy Butler has star potential, but right now (.261/.330/.339) he’s just a solid young player. Jose Guillen is streaky as hell, but overall (.249/.279/.439) he’s a solid outfielder.

The point isn’t that “solid” is an insult, because it’s not. If any of these guys were the worst, or even second-worst, hitters in your lineup, you’d have a terrific lineup. Every championship team needs two or three solid players at their weaker positions, rather than suffer a festering sore at the position. The Rockies had Yorvit Torrealba last year; the Tigers had Brandon Inge two years ago; the White Sox had Juan Uribe in 2005.

The point is that the Royals have six solid players in their lineup every day. They have Alex Gordon, who I think we can comfortably place in the “quality starter” category, and then Pena and one of Gathright/Gload, who we can comfortably place in the “needs to be replaced ASAP” category. But the other six spots? None of these guys are playing so badly that they have to be replaced ASAP. More to the point, none of them are bad enough that it’s easy to find a replacement for them that would represent an improvement.

The Royals have three hitters in Omaha (Mike Aviles, Shane Costa, and Mitch Maier) who are having great years and probably deserve to be called up. But all three of them themselves project to be solid players, nothing more. If Aviles could play a credible shortstop, he’d be up by now, but he can’t, so he’s in that German/Callaspo group of guys who can hit but simply don’t have the range to play shortstop every day.

So I don’t see any easy solution to this problem. If a market opens for Grudzielanek, he ought to be moved, which will open regular playing time for Callaspo, enable German to get more at-bats, and open up a roster spot for Aviles. Beyond that, the Royals are just going to have to suck it up and hope that a few of these guys separate themselves from the pack. The team would be much better off if three of these guys take steps forward and three take steps back – at least then you’ve identified a few solutions, and you’ve identified a few problems that can be fixed. But right now the Royals are in no-man’s land with their hitters, most of whom are just good enough to keep their jobs but plenty bad enough to contribute to the worst offense in baseball.