Thursday, July 31, 2008

Royals Today: Trade Deadline Edition.

Five hours to go. Let’s hope that Moore just has a good poker face, and that he’s not actually holding an off-suit 5-2.

- I compared Guillen with Meche yesterday, so it’s worth revisiting The Epic in light of his last three starts, which have been the most dominant three-start stretch for him since last May – 20 innings, 3 runs allowed, 12 hits, 4 walks, 18 Ks. His ERA has dropped half a run in that stretch, to an above league-average 4.22, and he’s won three consecutive starts for the first time in a Royals uniform. His peripherals (106 Ks vs. 46 BBs, 138 hits and 14 HRs in 141 IP) now look slightly better than last year. His ERA is higher, but that’s in part because he’s surrendered only two unearned runs this year, compared to 10 last year. Whereas last year he started on fire but was below average after mid-May, this season he has a 3.28 ERA since April ended. And with Greinke emerging as our #1, Meche compares favorably with any team’s #2 starter. The Royals have their problems, but the top half of the rotation is not one of them. Just so long as John Buck keeps getting his head shaved every fifth day.

- The top half (or bottom half, depending on your perspective) of the bullpen is in pretty good shape as well. Soria, Ramirez, Mahay, and Nunez have combined for 183 innings – and as a group have a 2.02 ERA.

Yet somehow, the team has a 4.60 ERA which is just 12th in the league. The gap between the haves and the have-nots on this staff is enormous. Fortunately, most of the have-nots, a roster spot they have not.

- Zack had his third double-digit strikeout game in his last 24 starts. That equals the total of every other Royals pitcher in the last seven years combined. He set a career high with 11, and if a few groundballs didn’t find holes he would have had a chance for a few more. Marks to shoot for: the last Royals pitcher with 12 Ks was Kevin Appier, in September 1996. The last with 13 Ks was Appier, the start before that. The last (and only) with 14 was Mark Gubicza, on August 27th, 1988. No Royal has ever whiffed 15 or more in a game.

- As you may have heard, Alex Gordon became the first Royal ever to draw five walks in a game. I could point out that two of those walks were intentional, which means that twice the opposition intentionally walked Alex Gordon to face the guy who pinch-hit for him 10 days ago. I could also point out that Gordon’s the first major leaguer since Barry Bonds in 2004 to draw five walks in a game without scoring a single run. But let’s not spoil the moment.

Splash may not be hitting all that well, but at least he’s doing something right. Yesterday was just the culmination of a trend – since June 10th, Gordon’s walked 28 times in 43 games, so despite a .237 average in that time he has a .360 OBP. Sometimes the walks follow the power, but sometimes the power follows the walks. The boom is coming. I can feel it.

- The Mexicutioner has now reached the New York Times. The revolution is nigh. Soria really belongs in a higher league at this point. On Tuesday night, he clearly didn’t have his best stuff, he was laboring and working slowly, he was having trouble throwing strikes, Buck had to come out to the mound to talk to him at one point. And he struck out two of the four hitters he faced, along with a lineout and a harmless single.

With two strikes on Jack Cust leading off, he shook off Buck several times, and then with everyone expecting the curveball, he threw a straight fastball on the outside corner that Cust is still looking at. When everyone expects him to drop the Guillotine, he switches to the Sniper Rifle instead. It's impossible to not love the guy.

- Now that Dayton Moore has solved the riddle of the Royals’ bullpen, can he work on the other massive weakness that this team has – the complete inability to catch pop-ups? It was amusing to hear Frank White the other day, when a lazy flyball dropped between Grudzielanek and Teahen in short right field that cost Meche a run, talk about how this has been a problem for the Royals all season. No offense, Frank – I know you’ve been managing in Wichita for a few years and haven’t been able to watch this team regularly in a while – but this has been a problem pretty much since you retired. I never feel safe on any flyball that’s hit between the infield and the outfield – the Royals let at least one of these drop for a hit at least once a month. As Bannister found out yesterday, not even infield pop-ups are safe.

Can someone take charge here? This isn’t a problem of defensive ability – it’s a breakdown of hierarchy, because no one seems to know who is supposed to take charge. Come up with a simple protocol: the centerfielder always has the right-of-way, outfielders always take charge over infielders, and the shortstop always takes charge in the infield. Presumably the Royals have a protocol like this, but for over ten years, they haven’t followed it. And it’s getting kind of tiring.

- Speaking of Bannister, his transition to becoming the new Nolan Ryan continues apace. In five innings, he walked four, struck out seven, and threw 111 pitches. It’s kind of cute, honestly. But as I keep emphasizing, the only significant difference between his performance this year and last year is that balls are finding holes this year. Last year his BABIP was .262, which we knew was unsustainable. This year, it’s .310. Regression is a bitch. Bannister knows that, which is why he’s trying to miss more bats, but recently the cost has been high. In his last 7 starts, he has 30 strikeouts in 37 innings – but 20 walks as well. Hopefully he’ll still be in uniform in six hours, giving us two more months to see how this experiment progresses.

- Mike Aviles. My goodness. He has 26 extra-base hits in 49 games. That projects to 86 extra-base hits in a full season. Jimmy Rollins, on his way to an MVP award last year, had 88. Hanley Ramirez had 83. It’s been a long time since the Royals lost anyone of consequence in the Rule 5 draft, but just remember: Aviles was eligible to be picked last year. The Royals never saw this coming; thank God no one else did either.

- After DeJesus and Aviles, the third-best hitter on the roster relative to his position is probably John Buck. He’s got five homers in July after hitting just three in the first three months, and he’s approaching a career high in doubles. He’s not a star and may never be one, but you can definitely make the playoffs with a guy like this behind the plate. I still hold out hope that he hasn’t peaked – visions of Mike Stanley keep dancing in my head.

- Ross Gload’s continued deployment at first base every day is the single most compelling piece of evidence we have that Trey Hillman, when all is said and done, has absolutely no idea what he’s doing. Or Moore, for that matter, given this quote he gave Jeff Flanagan yesterday: “We really like the job defensively that Ross Gload is doing,” Moore said. “That’s very important when developing a young staff that you have limited mistakes defensively.”

So we need to tolerate Ross Gload’s .333 slugging average because of his defense – but it’s okay to let Jose Guillen play right field on a Hoveround? Is anyone buying this crap?

- Quick trade rumor analysis:

Mahay for Donald? Favorable – Donald has an above-average bat and an average glove, and in a best-case scenario would be comparable to, I don’t know, Aaron Hill. He could either play a strong 2B, or play SS and allow Aviles to move over to 2B. Worst-case scenario, he’s Callaspo insurance. But this rumor is fading.

Mahay for Brandon Moss? Maybe. Moss reminds me of where Teahen was two years ago – a LH-hitting corner outfielder with mid-range power, decent walk rate, but tons of Ks. Teahen, unfortunately, has regressed from age 24 to 26, but two years ago he looked like a hell of a commodity. Moss doesn’t have Teahen’s 2006 season on his resume, of course, but I’m impressed that he’s hit as well as he has in the majors (.291/.348/.456 in 103 AB) as a part-time player. But he just adds to the glut of potentially-average outfielders on the team; he’s 10% better than Mitch Maier or Shane Costa, and is that worth trading for?

Grudzielanek to the Twins for anyone, now that they need a second baseman? If this means German plays 2B until Callaspo gets sober, sure. If this means moving Aviles to second base so that Pena can play more, HELL NO.

Zack Greinke for – NO.

Ross Gload for – YES.

I’m still waiting for the trade that no one expects to go through. We’ll know soon enough.

Update: I'll be on with Kevin Kietzman at 810 WHB at 4:05 CDT this afternoon. Hopefully we'll have some trades to talk about. (And no, I don't know of any secret trade that's about to go through. I do know they're talking, though.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Jose Guillen Is A Distraction. Film At Eleven.

Jose Guillen may or may not want to kill his manager, the Royals have won four in a row, the trading deadline approacheth…and your humble scribe has been felled by a nasty case of the stomach flu. I’m back to eating solid foods again, and I did lose four pounds in the ordeal, so that’s something. Let’s try to catch up quick before Dayton makes his move tomorrow. (He will be making a move. I refuse to believe otherwise.)

I’m not sure I can add anything about the Guillen situation that hasn’t already been said. I agree with Mellinger that this time, at least, it wasn’t Guillen’s fault. This wouldn’t the first time that ESPN Deportes has reported something that turned out to be meritless, and I’ve already heard from other sources that this story is complete bunk. But I also agree with Posnanski that the Royals are – and ought to be – at their wit’s end with Jose.

But whose fault is that? Dayton Moore bid against himself to sign Guillen, offering him $12 million per when there were no credible offers from other teams that were anywhere close. Guillen’s behavior this season isn’t a revelation; it’s a logical extension of his actions from his previous decade in the majors. Moore’s acting like he signed Harvey Dent and ended up with Two-Face.

Moore signed Guillen because he got desperate to upgrade the offense, put too much emphasis on adding an RBI guy when he should have been looking to add an R guy, and let’s be honest – he wanted to add a little fire to the team. What he got instead was a lot of fire, and now he acts surprised when he has to pick up a fire extinguisher every other week. If signing Gil Meche was an example of how brilliant Moore can be when he thoroughly researches a player before making a bold and risky move – signing Guillen is an example of how Moore is as fallible as anyone else when he targets a player for the wrong reasons. The Royals signed Guillen because they couldn’t get Torii Hunter to take their money, and they decided they had to sign somebody. So they did. They signed somebody with a .287 OBP and anger-management issues.

Here’s my biggest beef with the Guillen situation: it’s an accepted fact that the easiest way to set Guillen off is to keep him off the field, and that as long as you keep him in the lineup everyday he’ll be happy. This isn’t a terrible trait for a player to have in the abstract – there are worse problems than to have a player that doesn’t want to take a day off. But the Royals are taking this approach to an absolutely absurd extreme.

The Royals have played 10 games in the last 10 days, and Guillen has started all but one of them, playing the outfield every time. And the man can’t run. He’s got a strained groin, an injury that hurts just to think about. He aggravated the injury last Saturday, but stayed in the game even though he had to waddle after flyballs. The Royals lost the game after an easy flyout dropped in for a double in the 8th; the fans let Guillen have it; everybody loses. Guillen got the next day off, but was back in the lineup playing right field for the entire Oakland series. Today he drove in the winning run with a sacrifice fly in the tenth, then admitted after the game he was surprised he was still playing because “I could barely walk.” He can’t walk, and he can’t hit – he’s just 9-for-his-last 62. He looks like a beached whale in the outfield. So why is this man not on the DL?

Because he’s Jose Guillen, and he wants to play. And the Royals are letting Jose Guillen play when he wants to play. And everybody loses.

Happier topics to discuss in the morning. (I'd write more now, but is down at the moment, and I'm helpless without it.)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Trade winds...

Since God knows the Royals aren't doing anything remotely worthy of discussion on the field - unless you want me to yell at Trey Hillman some more* - the trade rumor in the Star today is a timely development.

* What should we be more upset about? That the Royals didn't pull Jose Guillen after he pulled his groin in the fifth inning yesterday - when he started walking with the gait of a penguin - or the fact that in a tie game in the eighth inning, Horacio Ramirez was on the mound? Give a free pass to Hillman if you want, since he had been thrown out of the game by that point (though managers can still make decisions from the clubhouse.) But who do we blame for the fact that over the last 9 games, a span in which the starters have struggled to throw five innings and the relief corps is completely gassed - Joakim Soria has thrown all of two innings? Have I mentioned before how much I hate modern closer usage? I thought Hillman was going to think outside the box. Well, he does play Ross Gload at first base, come hell or high-water. I guess that's thinking outside the box - most teams just aren't savvy enough to play a first baseman with a .345 slugging average every single day.

Anyway, Bob Dutton reports that the Yankees are interested in Brian Bannister, and are willing to part with Melky Cabrera.

Obviously, this isn't your standard trading deadline move, where a bad team (i.e. the Royals) trades a veteran in the final year of his contract to a contending team for a prospect or two. In this case, both players involved are established major leaguers with years to go until free agency. Bannister came into the season with 1.158 years of service time, and (according to Cot's Baseball Contracts) Cabrera had 1.157 years, which means they'll almost certainly be arbitration-eligible after this season, but they're both two weeks shy of a second full year of service, which means neither player will be a free agent until after the 2012 season.

So you're trading four-plus years of Bannister for four-plus years of Cabrera. A 27-year-old starting pitcher for a 23-year-old centerfielder. Written out like that, it looks like a no-brainer, but I'm not so sure. When Cabrera was 21, he looked like a potential star - he hit .280/.360/.391 in 2006, and anyone who can make it in the majors as a league-average hitter at age 21 has star, if not superstar, potential. But Cabrera has regressed two straight years; he hit .273/.327/.389 last season, and he's at .250/.306/.351 this year. PECOTA expected him to take a modest step forward this year, projecting a line of .283/.341/.404. Instead, his performance is around the 10th percentile of his PECOTA projection, which can only be construed as a huge disappointment.

I wouldn't write him off by any means - he's still just 23. I've long noted the similarities between Cabrera and another switch-hitting Yankees centerfielder who was lightly-regarded at the beginning of his career, Bernie Williams. Williams, three years into his career, was considered by many as a disappointment and by most as a good fourth outfielder at best. In 1994, at age 25, he took a big step forward, and from 1995 to 2002 he was arguably the best centerfielder in the game.

Cabrera, like Williams at the same age, has no obvious strength, but does everything well. He has good plate discipline - although that has eroded over time - hits for a little power, plays very good defense, has a little speed. I certainly can see the argument that if the Royals trade for him, in a year or two he could blossom into a guy who hits .300 with 20 homers and 80 walks. There ain't nothing wrong with that.

I've written about Bannister enough, and if you want to know more just read Posnanski's article in the Star today. I still believe that, going forward, Bannister will be an average to slightly above-average starting pitcher. I freely admit that I'm as emotionally tied to the guy as anyone on the Royals, and that may be clouding my judgment. But the reason I'm emotionally tied to the guy isn't just that he and I could have a conversation about baseball that no one else on the team would understand: it's that I firmly believe that intelligence is a vital and underrated attribute for a starting pitcher, and that Bannister's intelligence will serve him well in the long run.

But my biggest concern with this proposed trade is what it does with the rest of the team. Cabrera takes over in centerfield, moving DeJesus to left, and presumably Teahen takes over at first base. Which means that, in order to accomodate Cabrera, the Royals will move two other starting position players to less demanding positions - positions at which more offense will be expected of them. DeJesus is hitting .301/.361/.468, and that's excellent production out of a centerfielder. Out of a leftfielder? It's only slightly above average. Meanwhile, Teahen's .245/.313/.393 line looks even more pathetic at first base than it does in the outfield.

DeJesus has already played more games in leftfield than centerfield this year, and his defense is more valuable there as well, so that part of the equation doesn't hurt the team much. But I don't see how Teahen - learning his fourth position in two years - can be expected to be a defensive upgrade over Ross Gload at first base. More importantly, while Gload can (we hope) be looked at as a temporary solution, the Royals are more likely to look at Teahen as a long-term fixture at first base. This is a big problem, because while I haven't written much about Kila Kaaihue this year, the Royals need to accept that he's going to deserve a shot very, very soon.

There hasn't been a ton of great news coming out of the minors this year, but Kaaihue's performance in Double-A has been unreal: .307/.462/.614 with 25 homers and 80 walks in 89 games. His breakout was unexpected, but that doesn't mean it isn't real. He's not the second coming of Calvin Pickering: Kaaihue is still only 24, he's not 300 pounds, and whereas Pickering struck out at Ryan Howard-like proportions, Kaaihue has remarkable contact ability for a power hitter, having struck out only 40 times. (Only two Royals in history have walked twice as often as they struck out in a season with 300+ at-bats. George Brett - 1977, 1980, and 1985 - and of all people, the guy Brett replaced, chiropractor and nine-time groom Paul Schaal in 1971.)

Naturally, the Royals have done their best to pretend that Kaaihue doesn't exist. You'd think that the performance of the other surprise breakout candidate of the season, Mike Aviles, might make a few of them say, gee, maybe we should find out if this Hawaiian kid can out-hit Ross Gload. Instead they're thinking about installing Mark Teahen at first base.

The general rule of thumb in trades is, get the better talent in the deal, and work out the details later. If the Royals are convinced that Melky Cabrera can get turned around, if they think he can turn into Amos Otis Lite, then do the deal. But centerfield isn't exactly a problem at the moment, and the timing on Bannister is terrible - he had a lot more value six months ago, and he probably will have a lot more value six months from now.

I concede that Dayton Moore knows more about the two players than I do, and I still trust his judgment on potential impact players. But to win this trade, they have to do more than get Cabrera - they have to realign the rest of their talent appropriately. The best way to do that is to move either Teahen or Jose Guillen to another team. If only some team (like, say, Atlanta) had expressed an interest in Guillen. If only...