Saturday, August 16, 2008

Draft Aftermath.

Well, if you needed another reminder that there’s a new sheriff in Kansas City, you got it last night. For the second straight year, the Royals drafted a Scott Boras client with one of the top three picks in the draft, waited until the dying minutes before the trading deadline…and got the deal done.

Last year, the Royals took Mike Moustakas with the #2 overall pick. Moustakas was represented by Boras, who probably wasn’t pleased when Moustakas gave quotes to the media that made it clear that he really wanted to play baseball. Leverage is worthless if the other side doesn’t think you’ll use it, and all summer the expectation around baseball was that Moustakas would sign. He did, for $4 million, the same bonus that Alex Gordon got as the #2 overall pick two years prior. In light of the depressed bonuses throughout the first round, Moustakas did well, but the Royals certainly did well too.

Eric Hosmer, by comparison, played his Boras client role to the hilt. He never deviated from the script: he would love to sign if the money was right, but if not, he would be thrilled to attend LSU. Whereas everyone thought Moustakas would sign, everyone thought Hosmer would sign for the right offer. It was clear from the beginning that the right offer wasn’t $4 million. Once Tim Beckham, the #1 overall pick, signed early on for $6.15 million (but spread out over five years, as for some reason two-sport athletes are allowed to have their bonus spread out over time) I felt this set a good ceiling for Hosmer. It would be hard to argue that Hosmer deserved more than Beckham given that 1) he was drafted after Beckham and 2) the Royals had made it clear before the draft that they would have drafted Beckham over Hosmer if they had had the opportunity. So mentally I pegged Hosmer’s price tag at between $5 and $5.5 million.

He got $6 million. While the Royals can claim they gave Hosmer less guaranteed money than Beckham, the reality is that when you discount Beckham’s contract for the time value of the next five years, Hosmer got more money. If both players put their money in a money market account earning 4% interest the day they get paid, at the end of four years (i.e. the day Beckham gets his last check) Hosmer will have $7,019,000; Beckham will have $6,662,000.

So the Royals blinked. On the other hand, so did every other team in the top 5. The Pirates signed Pedro Alvarez, the #2 overall pick, for the same $6 million bonus. (Although they didn’t give Alvarez a major league contract, a big win for them given that Pedro’s a college hitter and might be ready for the majors by next summer.) Brian Matusz, at #4, got only $3.2 million guaranteed but got a major league contract which could make his total contract worth over $6 million (but could be worth less than $4 million if he’s slow to reach the majors.) Buster Posey, the #5 overall pick, got $6.2 million from the Giants.

Would the Royals have been able to sign Hosmer had they held firm at, say, $5.25 million? Only Hosmer and Boras know for sure. The risk, from the Royals’ standpoint, is that Hosmer’s alternative was to go to college – and while a lot can happen in three years, as a college junior his price tag might be even higher. Someone like Alvarez, on the other hand, is already a college junior – if he doesn’t sign, then the next time he gets drafted he’ll be a college senior, with even less leverage.

The conventional wisdom has always been that college juniors have the most leverage, because they only have to wait a year to get drafted again. But with the new rules that force an August 15th deadline – eliminating the tactic of simply not returning to school in the fall, allowing you to negotiate for an entire year – I would argue that since a college junior has more to lose by not signing before the deadline than a high school senior, that high school picks actually have more leverage. They also have more risk – a lot can happen in three years – but going forward we might see premium high school talents command even more money than college juniors. (We might also see a premium talent threaten to attend a junior college, allowing him to be draft-eligible again the following year, when he’s just 19.)

Anyway, the important thing is that Hosmer signed. If he signed for $6 million instead of $5.25 million – what’s $750,000 in baseball terms? Less than two weeks of Jose Guillen, that’s what. In the long run, the continuing escalation of signing bonuses at the very top of the draft is a concern. But from the Royals’ perspective, if they still have a top-five draft pick in the next few years, we have much bigger concerns than the draft bonus structure.

So today, give it up to David Glass. Say what you want about his past – I certainly have – but he’s had a pretty flawless 2008. His name has all but disappeared from the newspaper, and that in itself is a good sign. Owners are like umpires – you never give any thought to the best ones. Ideally, the only input you want from an owner is that he opens his wallet when asked. Glass has opened his wallet for free agents each of the last two winters, and he’s opened his wallet for draft picks each of the last two summers.

As a result, this year’s draft has the potential to be one of the best in Royals history. They landed Hosmer, who has much power potential as anyone the Royals have ever drafted. Yesterday they also signed fourth-round pick Tim Melville, who was a Top-20 talent who dropped because teams were worried he was asking for too much money. Melville’s signing was an open secret for almost a month now, but the final reports are that his bonus was just $1.25 million. If that’s the case, the Royals got a steal – and that’s already the consensus around the game. Melville’s signing bonus would have been roughly slot money for the #28 pick; of the 27 first-rounders who signed, only two got less money. There may be more to the story here, but it looks from here like Melville would have made more money if he had just let the draft play out, as he likely would have gone somewhere in the middle of the first round.

That’s two of the top 20 players in the draft who just signed. The Royals already had supplemental first rounder Michael Montgomery, a polished high school lefty, and third rounder Tyler Sample, a 6’7” beast of a right-hander who was was considered a solid second-round talent by most people. Montgomery has a 1.76 ERA in rookie ball, with just 22 hits and 7 walks to go along with 24 Ks in 31 innings. Sample was wild as sin at first – 23 walks in his first 16 innings – but over his last two starts walked just one batter in 9 innings, allowing just 6 hits and striking out 12. Montgomery and Sample are polar opposites as pitchers, but along with Melville they were considered three of the 7 or 8 best high school pitchers in the entire draft. Pitching has been Moore’s focus since he was hired, and the farm system had impressive depth in that department even before this draft. With Melville signed, only two or three teams in baseball have more good pitchers in the minor leagues than the Royals.

Then there’s Johnny Giavotella, the 5’8” runt of a college second baseman taken in the second round, the exact antithesis of the tools guy that Moore and Ladnier like to draft. The fact that the Royals deviated from their script so strongly to take Giavotella suggested that they really, really, really liked him, and so far he’s done nothing to disappoint. He signed almost immediately, went straight to full-season ball with Burlington in the Midwest League, and in 54 games so far is hitting .297/.357/.420. He’s also a little young for a college junior, having turned 21 just last month. He’s got a long way to go, but so far he’s rolling along the Chuck Knoblauch/Dustin Pedroia track nicely.

The Royals threw a bunch of six-figure bonuses at other guys well down the draft list, but even if no one else pans out, the Royals’ first five picks alone have the potential to make this a historic draft. They also have the potential to burn out in Double-A; high school pitchers will break your heart. But so far so good.

The only blemish on the draft is that seventh-rounder Jason Esposito didn’t sign. Esposito is a third baseman from New England with a scholarship to Vanderbilt in hand, and those guys are tough to pry away. On draft day I speculated that since Esposito was drafted in the seventh round – the first round on the draft’s second day – that it suggested the Royals had time to contact him overnight and make sure he was signable before spending the pick. As it turns out, I was right – this report makes it clear the Royals kept throwing more money at him until he finally caved in the morning when he was offered $1.5 million. Unfortunately, after the draft he had second thoughts and decided to attend Vandy after all. It’s easy to be upset with the kid, and if this were a negotiating ploy I would be. But I’m not going to fault anyone for wanting a college education. I don’t know what my price tag would have been to forego college, but I’m glad I didn’t have to find out.

(Sources have told me that the Royals were close to signing Esposito up until the deadline, which makes me wonder if money was the issue after all. I guess everyone has their price tag.)

Even without getting Esposito to take their money, the Royals spent an obscene amount of money in the draft. Jim Callis of Baseball America raved about the Red Sox this morning for breaking the $10 million barrier, stating that this “may be a first in draft history.” Callis seems to have missed the fact that the Red Sox didn’t even spend the most money in this year’s draft. The Royals did. Kansas City’s first five picks alone cost $9,525,000; factor in bonuses to the rest of their top 10, and you reach a figure of $10,165,000. I don’t have signing bonus information after the first 10 rounds, but I’m fairly certain that Derrick Saito (16th round), Jake Kuebler (17th), and Greg Billo (28th) got six-figure bonuses, and there may be more.

Sure, that number may be inflated by the fact that Hosmer got $6 million, where as the Red Sox never got the chance to draft anyone worth $6 million. But the dollars count the same no matter who the money goes to. This summer, the Royals have apparently spent more money on their draft picks than any other team. Ever.

It’s hard to remember this when the Royals are getting their brains beaten in at U.S. Cellular Park every other month, but help is on the way. For all the money the Royals have spent, it better be.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

How About A Nice Hawaiian Punch?

If you haven’t read it already, I heartily recommend Sam Mellinger’s piece on Kila Kaaihue in the Sunday Star. I think this column strikes the perfect balance of wonder, optimism, and skepticism for the most monstrous season any Royals minor leaguer has put together in years.

Here’s the gist of the column:

1) Kaaihue, out of nowhere, is having an utterly ridiculous season.

2) A lot of baseball men, both inside and outside the organization, still have major reservations about him.

3) Those same baseball men agree that if he continues to put up these kinds of numbers, he deserves a chance to prove them wrong.

Let’s take these one by one.

1) Kaaihue, out of nowhere, is having an utterly ridiculous season.

Kila Kaaihue — pronounced KEE-la KY-uh-hooey — is as close to an overnight, Internet sensation as we can have in this time of oversaturated sports coverage. Four months ago, he was a non-prospect. Baseball America didn’t list him among the Royals’ best 30 prospects, and nobody in the team’s scouting department would’ve disagreed.

Since then, he has torched minor-league pitching, putting up on-base and slugging numbers comparable to recent big-league MVPs, and strong-arming his way to the Royals’ top affiliate here in Omaha.

Since this article posted, Kaaihue has played in four more games, hitting two more homers and drawing four more walks. He started the year for Northwest Arkansas in the Texas League, and in 91 games hit .314 with 26 homers and 80 walks. Then he was promoted to Omaha and got really hot: in 13 games so far, he’s hit .386 with seven homers. For the season, he’s hitting .323/.467/.656 with 33 homers and 90 walks. (Lay your eyes on his pretty numbers here.)

If you translate Kaaihue’s minor league numbers this season into what he would have hit had he played at the major league level, here’s what you (or more precisely, Clay Davenport, the creator of the Davenport Translations) will arrive at:

356 AB, 93 H, 10 D, 28 HR, 78 BB, 58 K, .261/.394/.525. Yeah, that'll play.

I struggle to come up with more than a handful of Royals who have ever had comparable seasons in the high minors. Calvin Pickering, as Mellinger pointed out, was the last player with a season even remotely as good – in 2004, he hit .314/.444/.712 with 35 homers and 70 walks in 89 games. There are a few others I’ve been able to come up with, as we shall see.

2) A lot of baseball men, both inside and outside the organization, still have major reservations about him.

[T]here are real questions to go along with the faux skepticism Kaaihue sees in those text messages.

“I still don’t see him as an everyday major-league player,” says a scout for an opposing American League team. “I still see a slow bat. But I hope I’m wrong, because he’s a guy you root for.”

You can’t blame scouts for their skepticism – Kaaihue has simply never done anything like this before. He has 33 homers this season; in six previous minor league seasons, his previous high was 21. He’s hitting .323; his previous high was .304, and that was set in 2005 in the thin air of High Desert, which was such an unrealistic environment for baseball that the Royals bolted out of town back to Wilmington at their first opportunity. Aside from that season, Kaaihue had never hit better than .259, and that was in rookie ball.

The plate discipline, at least, is not a new thing. Kaaihue drew 97 walks that year in High Desert. He drew 76 walks last year. In his first two full pro season, he drew over 60 walks despite getting fewer than 400 at-bats each year.

Kaaihue came into pro baseball with what we call “old player’s skills” – good plate discipline, and the ability to use that plate discipline to hit for power because he’d see a lot of 2-0 and 3-1 counts, but no speed or defensive value. Prospects with old player’s skills can be immensely valuable, but the downside is they tend to age very poorly. Almost all players lose foot speed as they age, and eventually bat speed, but they compensate by judging pitches better as they age. A lot of guys reach the majors with tremendous tools but no concept of the strike zone, and the aging process works in their favor. Sammy Sosa is the classic example of this; if you want a player closer to home, look at Jermaine Dye.

The problem with a guy with old player’s skills is that he already does a good job of pitch recognition; that’s how he has compensated for his lack of athleticism in the first place. If he loses even a little bat speed over time, he has no ace in his sleeve; he has no other skill he can improve to compensate. When the bat speed goes south, the career can follow in a hurry. See also Hafner, Travis.

And this is a significant concern with Kaaihue. Consider the comparison to Pickering, which is hardly a flattering one. But I would submit the comparison is both unfair and not particularly relevant. Unfair, because Pickering didn’t flop in Kansas City so much as he just disappeared. The big guy came up in August of 2004 and hit two homers in his first game, and batted .246/.338/.500 over 35 games. The following year he was the DH on Opening Day, started the year 4-for-27…and was sent to Omaha, never to return. Pickering had tendonitis in his knee, if memory serves, and got off to a horrible start in Omaha, but recovered to hit a respectable .275/.384/.528 for the O-Royals. He hasn’t played a game in organized baseball since; the last I saw him he was playing with the T-Bones in the Northern League.

The Royals didn’t like Pickering, didn’t think he would succeed, and looked for every piece of evidence that would confirm their suspicions. Not that Pickering would have been an All-Star or anything, but the Royals replaced him at first base with Matt Stairs, who moved in from left field to accommodate…Terrence Long. I fail to see how Pickering could have been a significant downgrade over Long.

More specifically to our discussion, Pickering and Kaaihue are very different players. Pickering was a one-time top prospect with the Orioles who had gotten hurt and missed most of the previous two seasons; Kaaihue was drafted by the Royals and aside from one season ruined by a knee problem has developed steadily over the past six years. Pickering was 27 at the time; Kaaihue is 24.

Pickering was a 6’5”, “275”-pound monster who didn’t hit for power so much as he took advantage of the basic principles of Newton’s Second Law of Motion. Kaaihue is listed as a well-built, but less freakish, 6’3” and 233 pounds. Pickering was sort of a poor man’s Ryan Howard; he swung hard because his sheer mass gave him a chance at a home run every time he made contact, which meant that with home runs came tons of strikeouts; he struck out 85 times in 89 minor league games, and for his minor league career averaged more than a whiff per game. Kaaihue, on the other hand, has just 52 strikeouts this season in 104 games. That is a phenomenal ratio – 33 homers against just 52 strikeouts, a ratio of 0.63 HR/K. In Royals history, no player other than George Brett has had that high a ratio in a season of 400 plate appearances. (Brett did it four times.)

So I think that Pickering’s failures have essentially no bearing on Kaaihue, who is younger, in better shape, and has much fewer holes in his swing. The problem is, Pickering isn’t the only bad comp.

A decade ago this season, the Royals had a player who hit .372/.466/.634 in Omaha. Unlike Kaaihue, this player was a more well-regarded prospect, having been drafted in the 6th round out of a top college program two years prior, and who had hit .326/.426/.529 between A-ball and Double-A the year before. He was just 23 years old the entire season. He had a decent cup of coffee that September, then returned to Omaha the following year and in 35 games hit .346/.475/.685. I would have bet my car that Jeremy Giambi was going to be a star. He wasn’t.

Of course, there are extenuating circumstances. We must start with the fact that, well, he took steroids. I don’t know how much of his success through the minors was a chemically-induced mirage, but it certainly explains why his career would quickly go in the toilet along with all his syringes.

And even then…Giambi had his moments. The Royals never liked him – as you probably know if you’re a Royals fan, the Royals don’t like guys who do nothing but walk and hit homers – and after a rookie year in which he hit .285/.373/.368, they traded him to – surprise! – Oakland, for Brett Laxton, whose career peaked when he pitched LSU to an NCAA championship as a college freshman. Giambi was just okay for the A’s in 2000, but in 2001 and 2002 he hit .283/.391/.450 and .259/.414/.505 before his career came crashing down over him.

I don’t claim to have an exhaustive knowledge of every minor league star in Royals history, but I’d be remiss to not bring up Ken Phelps. Phelps was – like Kaaihue – a 15th-round pick in 1976, but out of college, and hit out of the gate. He reached Omaha in 1979, and in 1980 he hit .294/.456/.532 with 23 homers and 128 walks, numbers as impressive in that era as Kaaihue’s are today. The Royals didn’t really have a place for Phelps, but that doesn’t excuse John Schuerholz for trading him for Grant Jackson (career innings in Kansas City: 38).

With the Expos in 1982, Phelps reversed Kaaihue’s travels and played for Wichita (then a Triple-A team) and had a remarkable season, one of the best minor league seasons by anyone in the 1980s: .333/.469/.706 with 46 home runs. The Expos, duly impressed, gave him to the Mariners for cash. (And you wonder why Bill James was so revolutionary.) Seattle finally gave him a shot, albeit in a strict platoon role, and at-bat for at-bat he was one of the best hitters in the American League from 1984 to 1988, when the Mariners cashed him in for Jay Buhner.

Then there was Dwayne Hosey, who signed as a minor league free agent with the Royals before the 1994 season, at age 27, and hit .333/.420/.628 for Omaha. He wasn’t called up in September because there was no September, but the following year he was sent back to Omaha and hit .295/.363/.535 when, on August 31st, he was finally called up to the majors…by the Red Sox. After the Royals had designated him for assignment the same day. Hosey hit .338/.408/.618 for the Red Sox in September and helped them reach the playoffs, while I spent hours carefully crafting a Herk Robinson voodoo doll so that I could stick pins into it. But Hosey hit just .218 in 28 games for the Red Sox in 1996, and never played in the majors again.

And finally, we reach my favorite comparison, that of Karl Derrick Rhodes, best known as Tuffy. Rhodes was a decent Astros prospect in the early 90s who got a few short opportunities and didn’t do much with them. After languishing on the Astros’ bench in the early part of April 1993, he was released and signed by the Royals. Sent to Omaha, he hit .318/.382/.603 with 23 homers in 88 games. Like Kaaihue, he was just 24 years old; he looked for all the world like a tremendous pickup, a guy who could start in our outfield for years to come. The Royals had other plans for him, just like every other player on this list. On July 30th that year – the Royals were nominally in contention that year, but not really – they sent Rhodes to the Cubs in a three-way deal. In exchange, from the Mets, they got…wait for it…John Habyan. (The next day, the Royals traded Jon Lieber and Dan Miceli to the Pirates for Stan Belinda. The day after that, Ewing Kauffman passed away. Bad, bad weekend.)

Habyan threw 14 innings in his Royals career. Rhodes, on the other hand, went to Triple-A Iowa and continued to mash, so the Cubs called him up in September and he hit .288/.413/.538. Intrigued, the Cubs elected to start the 1994 season with Rhodes in center field. On Opening Day, Rhodes went 4-for-4 with a walk. Oh, and he hit THREE HOMERS, all off Dwight Gooden. If Hosey made me break out the voodoo doll, Rhodes had me frequenting all the firing ranges in the neighborhood and inquiring about advertising rates in Soldier of Fortune. But Rhodes, like others on this list, could not live up to the promise; he finished the year hitting just .234/.318/.387, and was even worse in a brief appearance in the majors in 1995.

In 1996, Rhodes headed to Japan, and has had arguably the greatest career of any American player in Japanese history, punctuated by his 2001 season when he tied Sadaharu Oh’s Japanese record with 55 homers in a single season. Last year, he came out of retirement at age 38 and hit .291/.403/.603.

With three weeks left in the season, Kaaihue is on pace to have one of the most prodigious, if not the most prodigious, season of any Royals minor league player. As you can see, that’s hardly a guarantee for success.

3) Those same baseball men agree that if he continues to put up these kinds of numbers, he deserves a chance to prove them wrong.

“You gotta believe what you’re seeing,” says Royals general manager Dayton Moore. “He continues to earn the opportunity and a reputation as a future major-league player. But I’d rather (promote him) a month or two too late than a month or two too early.”

Here, at least, we see that the Royals are willing to take a different perspective with Kaaihue than just about every player listed above. They have a healthy skepticism, as they should. They just don’t have an unhealthy skepticism. It’s true that none of the guys above, with the possible exception of Phelps, ever gave the Royals any long-term regrets for letting them go. At the same time, it’s not like they should be patting themselves on the back for cutting bait on these guys. Giambi did have three good years after the Royals traded him for a guy who never won a game in the majors. Phelps for Grant Jackson was a terrible trade, and just because the Expos made an even worse decision to let him go doesn’t mean the Royals get off scot-free.

Hosey and Rhodes at least temporarily looked like they had big futures, and Rhodes certainly might have had he stayed stateside. As far as I’m concerned, the Royals were very, very lucky that none of these guys didn’t come back to burn them. Just remember, the Royals were just days away from adding a sixth guy to this list, a young hitter without a position who hit .301/.372/.539 in the high minors in 1996 at age 22. But just before Opening Day, a roster spot opened up for Mike Sweeney when – talk about your coincidences – Jeremy Giambi got hurt. I’d venture to say that this was the most fortuitous injury in Royals history.

The Royals weren’t always so dismissive of young, slow, patient power hitters with monster numbers. On the contrary, one of the great trades in franchise history came at the 1971 winter meetings, when GM Cedric Tallis snookered the Astros into giving up John Mayberry for Lance Clemens and Jim York. Mayberry’s minor league numbers are a little sketchy, but we know he was playing in Triple-A at age 20, and over the next three years he slugged .522, .498, and .559 – amazing numbers in that era. He was no more than an average hitter after age 26, but from 1972 to 1975 was one of the best first basemen in baseball, and his peak outshines Sweeney’s as the best first baseman the Royals have ever had.

So the mere fact that the Royals are taking Kaaihue’s production seriously means something has changed. Maybe the Royals are taking statistical analysis a little more seriously than they used to. Maybe they recognize that when Ross Gload has played 70% of your team’s innings at first base, you don’t have anything to lose by letting a guy with Kaaihue’s credentials get a shot. Or maybe they look at Kaaihue and see a different player than all the failed sluggers of the past.

Kaaihue, after all, has been with the organization since he was 18, and was well regarded from the beginning. He dropped to the 15th round, but if memory serves it was thought he would be drafted much higher; certainly he was considered a draft steal by the end of the summer. If you ignore his injury-riddled 2006 and account for the hot air in his 2005 numbers, he has shown signs of steady development as he has moved up the minor league ladder. It’s quite possible that the Royals don’t see Kaaihue as a flash in the pan, as a guy whose numbers won’t translate to the major leagues. Mellinger quotes an AL scout as not being a believer in Kaaihue, but I can tell you that’s not a consensus opinion at all.

I asked my colleague and minor-league expert Kevin Goldstein to give me 25 words about Kaaihue. Understand that Goldstein is not one to mince words or hedge his bets with prospects; if he (or the scouts he talks to every day) thinks that someone’s no good, he’ll say so. For instance, if you’re a Royals fan you probably don’t want to hear what he has to say about Joe Dickerson.

So I was expecting to hear the typical pessimism about Kaaihue that I’ve heard about almost every hitter in the farm system other than Mike Moustakas. I was pleasantly surprised. “Two words: Scouts Believe.” He gave me a few more. “His approach, power, and hitting skills project as an everyday MLB first baseman. A scout I talked to put a 50 on him.” On the scouting scale that runs from 20 to 80, 50 is dead average – so a scout felt he could be a league-average first baseman in the majors, perhaps along the lines of what Carlos Pena is doing this season (as opposed to the highs and lows that Pena has traversed in previous years.)

And I think that is what’s really different about this situation. The Royals look at Kaaihue differently than they did Pickering because they see a different player. They see a player who really has taken a giant step forward this season, a player who may not be a future star, but someone who can play every day at first base.

Talk is cheap, of course. I understand Moore’s line about not promoting him too soon, but let’s face it: when Omaha’s season comes to an end on September 1st, there’s nothing left for Kaaihue to do at the minor league level. If the Royals have learned nothing else from Mike Aviles this season, they’ve learned that no matter how skeptical you are, sometimes you just have to let a player prove his minor league performance is a fluke. Come September, if Kaaihue isn’t playing at least semi-regularly for the Royals, it will be time to break out the voodoo dolls and the Soldier of Fortune magazines again. I’m hopeful I won’t have to.

Barely two months ago, I wrote that “Other than shortstop, there isn’t a position the Royals need filled more than first base.” Who would have thought when the season began that the Royals might have filled those two holes with Mike Aviles and Kila Kaaihue? And moreover, that we’d be thrilled with that arrangement?

But that’s why baseball’s such a great game: it always surprises you, if only you’re willing to let it surprise you. The Royals let themselves be surprised by Aviles. Let’s hope they give Kaaihue the same opportunity.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Weird Thoughts Late On A Saturday Night.

First off, many thanks to all of you for the wondrous outpouring of support that you have given me and my friend Mazen. It’s easy to search the web and come across forums and comment boards that make me double-check the locks on my doors and wonder what kind of country my daughters are growing up in. It is deeply gratifying to be reminded once again that the vast majority of Americans are wonderfully tolerant people who not only believe in our constitutional rights, but are willing to stand up in defense of the rights of every other American. I thank God every day that I was born here. I don’t thank my parents enough that they immigrated here.

And thanks to those of you who shared a different perspective as well. You have as much right to your opinions as I have to mine, and it’s not fair for me to expect you to see my point of view if I refuse to see yours. Social progress comes from a free exchange of ideas, and that can’t happen if free speech is muzzled.

So let us not speak of this again, and hope that there will be no reason for me to break into our regularly scheduled Royals coverage again anytime soon. (Or, God forbid, that I should have to write something like this again.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly in light of what I’ve been preoccupied with lately, I’m in a weird philosophical mood about the Royals. Maybe it was the sight of Kyle Davies proving, once again, that what limited success he has had this year has been the product of serendipity more than talent. Davies has a 4.66 ERA this season, and all things considered you’d take a 4.66 ERA from your fifth starter.

But even that modest ERA is deceptive. Batters have hit .298/.368/.477 against him this year, virtually indistinguishable from what they hit last year (.284/.369/.494), when he had a 6.09 ERA. The reason he’s been able to walk the tightrope this year – at least occasionally – is that while hitters are slugging .563 against him when the bases are empty, they have a modest .375 slugging average with men on base. There’s no reason why a pitcher should do that much better from the stretch than from the windup – if there was, pitchers would pitch from the stretch all the time. Davies’ performance is a mirage, one that seemed to evaporate before our eyes on Friday.

But my point isn’t that Davies is worthless and should be discarded like so many pitchers before him. On the contrary, my point is that Davies is clearly a pitcher with talent, and the fact that Davies – and so many pitchers like him – bounce around from team to team tasting only occasional success represents a failure of creativity on the part of major league baseball teams.

The Royals have another guy on their staff who, like Davies, debuted to much promise only to see that promise leak out over time. Robinson Tejeda had a 3.57 ERA as a rookie with the Phillies in 2005. His ERAs after that read 4.28, 6.61, and 9.00 (in 6 innings) this season before the Rangers designated him for assignment.

Tejada was used exclusively a starter in 2006 and 2007 even as he became increasingly ineffective. He’s been used exclusively as a reliever since he was picked up by the Royals, and you’ve seen how effective (if not flat-out dominant) he’s been ever since: in 21 innings, he’s allowed just 10 hits while striking out 23.

Tejeda fits the profile of struggling starter turned dominant reliever: a hard-throwing right-hander with control and home run issues. But the Royals have another converted starter in their bullpen who, like Tejeda, was picked up for nothing and has been a revelation after his career as a starter went up in flames. What’s interesting is that Horacio Ramirez is the polar opposite of Tejeda: he’s left-handed, pitches to contact, and keeps the ball down. Tejeda owes his improvement in the pen to the fact that he’s blowing hitters away a lot more; Ramirez’s secret is that he’s getting even more sink on the ball (his G/F ratio this season is an excellent 2.63, compared to a career figure of 1.68) while throwing nothing but strikes. In 24 innings he has just 11 Ks, but he’s surrendered just one homer and walked just one batter.

I can’t stress this point enough: relieving is easier than starting. It’s much easier to go through a lineup once then it is to go through it four times. It’s easier to air it out – or focus on hitting the corners and keeping the ball at the knees – for an inning or two than to pace yourself for six or seven innings. Some pitchers may benefit more than others, but almost every starter in the majors would perform better on an inning-for-inning basis if they pitched in relief. The difference isn’t enough to justify making your 200-inning ace into a 70-inning closer (the Joakim Soria debate revisited), but it is enough to justify taking your borderline #5 starter and seeing if he can become a quality setup man. As a general rule of thumb, you should never give up on a pitcher until you see what he can in relief.

Just take a quick look at the closers around baseball. Bobby Jenks was released – flat-out released – by the Angels in 2004, and a year later as closing for the world champs. Granted, his release was precipitated by being hurt, but the fact is that Jenks pitched for the Angels for five seasons, and made a grand total of three relief appearances. The man threw 100 mph and was wild as sin off and on the field – and the Angels never thought to try him in the pen. You would think the Angels would have learned from their experience with Francisco Rodriguez, who was a wildly inconsistent starter for three years in the minors, was moved to the pen to start 2002 and ended the year with a major-league record five postseason wins and a world championship ring.

Mariano Rivera never made a relief appearance in the minors; he was a solid prospect as a starter, but never showed a hint of dominance until he was moved to the pen. Joe Nathan started for two years with the Giants, with ERAs of 4.18 and 5.21. After one good year in middle relief he was packaged to the Twins in the infamous A.J. Pierzynski deal. And that’s just a look at the AL saves leaders. The NL seems to be the home of the broken-down starter turned closer – Brad Lidge, Kerry Wood, Salomon Torres, etc.

My point isn’t just that the Royals should hesitate to give up on Davies until they see how he handles a stint in the bullpen, although that’s certainly true. My larger point is that the inherent advantage to pitching in short stints presents a hell of a market inefficiency that a small-market team with nothing to lose could exploit. If 12-man pitching staffs are here to stay – and unfortunately that appears to be the case – why not use all that manpower to try something really radical? Why not make all your pitchers relievers? Take your three best starters and tell them they’re going to throw 3 innings or 60 pitches every third day. Pair them up with a good reliever – ideally someone who throws from the other side – who will be expected to throw 2-3 innings or 50-60 pitches every third day as well. Now you’ve got 5-6 innings covered in every game from 6 pitchers, and you can use the other 6 guys on your staff in traditional relief roles.

Your three best pitchers would be limited to roughly 160 innings in this kind of setup, but on the other hand, being limited to short stints probably means they’ll be 160 awfully effective innings. If Greinke or Meche know they’re only out there for 60 pitches, they’re going to be able to step it up a notch. And if three innings a start doesn’t sound like much, keep in mind you’re getting 54 starts from them.

By now some of you are thinking that all the stress I’ve been under the last few days has knocked a couple of screws loose. But not only is this idea not inconceivable, it’s not even that original: it’s already been tried before, albeit briefly.

On July 19th, 1993, with his once-vaunted A’s languishing at 39-49 and in sixth place in the AL West, Tony La Russa went to a three-man rotation of sorts. La Russa had a 13-man pitching staff at the time, which would be a little unusual today and was utterly unthinkable back then, and divided nine of the pitchers into three “groups” – Ron Darling was paired with Todd Van Poppel and Kevin Campbell, Bobby Witt with Mike Mohler and John Briscoe, Bob Welch with Kelly Downs and Goose Gossage. The other four pitchers were used as traditional relievers in the late innings.

Darling, Witt, and Welch were the traditional “starters”, but did not actually start the games, entering in the middle innings instead. Why? Because they would not have been eligible for the win had they started and thrown less than five innings. (Many thanks to this link for the exact details.)

The plan lasted for about a week, partly because of the resistance to the idea and partly because it didn’t seem to work. Looking at the names above, it’s obvious why it didn’t work – none of the pitchers were any good. The entire pitching staff consisted of longtime veterans who were pitching on fumes, or overhyped rookies who would never amount to much (I’m looking at you, Todd.) The A’s gave up the most runs in the league that year – which is why La Russa was desperate enough to try something that radical to begin with.

I’m not frustrated with the fact that the Royals would never consider such a move so much as I’m frustrated that no team in the majors would consider it. Say what you want about La Russa (I know I have) – as a manager he’s creative, and he’s original. The fact that we lament the “LaRussaization” of modern baseball – the incessant pitching changes, the pitchers who appear in 70 games and throw 40 innings – is not the fault of La Russa so much as it is the fault of so many other managers who, lacking any originality of their own, simply ape what the successful guy is doing.

I had to watch “Casablanca” when I was in college and at first I wondered what the big deal was, because the film was full of movie clichés – until it hit me that the reason so many scenes seemed clichéd was because so many of the movies I had seen had cribbed ideas from “Casablanca” in the first place. La Russa is sort of like “Casablanca” – its easy to look at his handling of his pitching staff and pan it as conformist, until you realize that it’s the other managers that learned to conform to him and not the other way around.

It’s easy to forget that baseball strategy from a generation or two was radically different than it is today. Fifty years ago, the notion of a “pitching rotation” didn’t exist: managers selected their starting pitchers based on the team they were facing and the park they were in, and if that meant starting Whitey Ford on 2 days’ rest, or letting him skip the series against the Senators and letting him pitch on 6 days’ rest instead, so be it. Thirty years ago, it was absurd to suggest that a team should use its best reliever in save situations only. Twenty years ago, the notion that your closer only came in to start the ninth inning was ridiculous.

Baseball strategy has evolved, but in the case of pitching strategy it has devolved – there are piles of evidence that suggest the straitjacket approach to pitcher usage is counterproductive to the whole goal of winning. Today it’s considered radical to use your closer for two innings; it’s considered unthinkable to go to a four-man rotation. One of these years a team is going to break out of the box and try something new, and it’s going to win them some games. It’d be nice if that team were the Royals.

Hey, I said I was feeling philosophical. And weird.

Anyway, on some level Dayton Moore does get it, because he’s the guy who put together this bullpen in the first place. Right now, six of the seven guys in the Royals’ pen have ERAs under three, and yes you read this sentence correctly. Two of them (Tejeda and Horacio) are failed starters who were picked up for free. One of them (Leo Nunez) is a converted starter who was inexplicably rushed to the majors by Allard Baird. Two of them (Mahay and Ramon Ramirez) were relievers before the Royals acquired them. And Soria, of course, was starting in the Mexican League when the Royals drafted him.

Relievers come from all walks of life, and pretty much the most inefficient way to acquire a good reliever is to pay the going rate for established talent. Compare this with Allard Baird’s approach, which included paying actual US currency to sign Ricky Bottalico, and which was followed by trading Johnny Damon to land Roberto Hernandez – well, there’s really no comparison.

Even as I'm writing this, Moore has proven again that he gets it, because he just sent Horacio Ramirez to the White Sox in exchange for a toolsy outfield prospect named Paulo Orlando. Orlando’s a Grade C prospect because he’s still learning how to hit (.264/.310/.412 in A-ball) and he’s 22, but as Grade C prospects go he’s got a lot of upside. He’s fast as hell, plays great defense in center field, and he’s from Brazil, and as you would expect from a Brazilian baseball player, he has a lot less experience than most guys his age.

Given that the Royals picked up Horacio for nothing just three months ago, they just got an intriguing outfield prospect for free. Josh Newman, another lefty recently acquired on waivers, takes Horacio’s place. Given the nature of relief work and Moore’s track record, there’s no reason why Newman can’t be equally successful.