Saturday, September 6, 2008


Before we get to the future of the pitching staff, a few bullet points on some recent developments:

- Trey Hillman has gone on record as saying that Miguel Olivo will be the primary starter behind the plate the rest of the season. This flip-flopping will almost certainly cost Hillman the election.

I understand his thinking; Olivo has played somewhat better than Buck this year, he’s thrown out a lot more runners, and if there’s any way to repair the rift between him and Olivo and leave the door open for Olivo’s return, it’s worth pursuing. But let’s not overstate Olivo’s case. He remains, as always, a one-trick pony: he mashes left-handed pitching (.287/.326/.598), but is unplayable against right-handers (.246/.265/.385). If Olivo is amenable to returning next year, an Olivo/Brayan Pena platoon might be the best internal option the Royals have, but having fought for more playing time all year, methinks Olivo isn’t going to quietly accept the short end of a platoon in 2009, especially given Hillman’s legendary communication skills. I hope Posnanski is right that Hillman is trying to make amends, because Hillman has apparently had a worse year in the clubhouse than he’s had on the field.

In the Introduction to “The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers”, James wrote, “There is one indispensable quality of a baseball manager: The manager must be able to command the respct of his players. That is absolute; everything else is negotiable.” I agree with James, which is why Hillman’s fondness for small ball strategies and Ross Gload, bizarre use of the intentional walk, and inability to get his hitters to take more pitches are small fish relative to the fact that his own players are mocking him behind his back. If Hillman doesn’t regain their respect – and once lost, respect is almost impossible to regain – his days as manager are numbered. And fair or not, the fact that Olivo is earning more playing time after blasting Hillman in the press for not getting a fair shake is likely to only add to the perception that Hillman treats different players differently.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that getting Olivo more playing time may help him move up the Elias rankings a little, as Olivo appears to be on the bubble for Class B free agent status, which would earn the Royals a supplemental first-round pick if he leaves as a free agent.

- As you will soon see, the pitching staff appears to have a much happier future than the offense. But you can never have too much pitching, and when a talented pitcher is available for free, you should pounce on him.

Such a pitcher has just become available, as the White Sox have just designated Charlie Haeger for assignment. If you’re not familiar with Haeger, here’s all you need to know in four words: he throws a knuckleball. A few more words: he throws a really, really good knuckleball. As I documented in this column, Haeger’s preternatural ability to throw the knuckler got him to the majors at age 22 – just two weeks older than Charlie Hough was when Hough became the youngest knuckleball pitcher ever to reach the major leagues.

Since I wrote that column, Haeger has regressed some. He spent the last two years toiling for Triple-A Charlotte, and after his outstanding 2006 season (3.07 ERA), he had a 4.08 ERA in 2007 and a 4.45 ERA this year. Even so, those numbers really aren’t that bad; this season, for instance, he allowed just 167 hits in 178 innings, with 77 walks and 117 strikeouts, and surrendered just 13 home runs. (The low homer total is a Haeger staple – he is as stingy with the homer as any knuckleballer in a generation.) More importantly, he doesn’t even turn 25 for another two weeks. It’s not an exaggeration in the slightest to say that he’s at least five years away from his peak.

The last knuckleballer before Haeger to get us all excited was Charlie Zink, who I ranked as the #50 prospect in the game after a promising 2003 season (and I received an incalculable amount of grief for ranking him so high.) Zink was bloody awful in 2004 and 2005, and mediocre in 2006 and 2007, before suddenly re-emerging with a terrific season in Triple-A this year and finally making his major league debut (one admittedly terrible start). Zink is still just 28; his best is likely still to come.

Haeger is just 24. He just had the highest ERA in the five seasons he’s worked with the knuckleballer, and it wasn't even a bad year. I wouldn't hesitate in the slightest to give him a spot in the majors next season in long relief; with a little more experience, he could be ready to be a #3 starter. As Charlie Hough told me when I interviewed him, “when you’ve pitched a thousand innings you’ll know what you’re doing.” Haeger has now thrown 781 innings with the knuckleball, so if Hough’s Law holds, he’s due for a breakout within a year or two. Zink came into this season with 741 innings, and finally reversed his four-year slide.

Zink is still with the Red Sox, because the Red Sox know just how valuable a knuckleballer can be (if memory serves, Tim Wakefield is their longest-tenured player), and they know how difficult the pitch is to master. The White Sox’ impatience can be our gain, and the only cost is a spot on the 40-man roster.

What’s the downside? Sure, the knuckleball is a novelty pitch, but what’s wrong with a little novelty for this franchise? To the best of my knowledge, the Royals have never had a knuckleball pitcher in their history. They’ve also never had a 40-homer hitter in their history. Some traditions are not worth keeping.

Do it,
Dayton. I think we can find a way to survive the loss of Jeff Fulchino.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Royals Today: 9/3/2008.

The Royals are turning over a new leaf along with the calendar. Last night was the sort of game that makes you wonder why this team has won 70 games exactly once this century. I mean, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Zack Greinke throws 7 terrific innings, Ramon Ramirez and the Mexicutioner throw two scoreless. Bam Bam gets three hits, including a three-run bomb that essentially ices the game in the first inning, and finally gets his slugging average over .400. The Royals start someone other than Ross Gload at first base, and are rewarded for their ingenuity with a homer. Trey Hillman brings in two defensive subs in the late innings and manages to improve the defense at five separate positions: Pena at SS, Aviles at 3B, Teahen in RF, Gathright in CF, DeJesus in LF.

So as Dayton Moore prepares to blow up this roster in the off-season – and it’s about time he admits that it needs to be done – it’s worth noting that not every roster spot is a problem, and some are even solutions. Let’s not throw Jose Guillen’s babies out with the bathwater. (Throwing Jose Guillen out, on the other hand…)

With a month to go, let’s evaluate who needs to go and who needs to stay.

- Let’s start with the easy decisions, the guys that should be safe for next year. Alex Gordon will start somewhere. Mike Aviles will start somewhere. Billy Butler, who is hitting .329/.360/.526 since the All-Star Break, will start somewhere. It’s a testament to just how unsettled this roster is that of the three definite keepers for next year, none has a firm lock on a position. Third base is still the most likely destination for Gordon, but it’s set in a sandbox, not in stone. Aviles will move to second base, or possibly even third, if the Royals find a true shortstop willing to take their money. Butler will likely continue to DH most of the time, but could play first base anywhere from 0 to 100 games next year.

Also sure to come back is Jose Guillen, unless there’s a GM out there dumb enough to trade for a guy making $12 million a year with bad defense, an abrasive personality, and a .284 OBP. Moore was dumb enough to sign him the first time around, so there’s always the bigger fool theory to hold your hat on. Barring the return of Chuck LaMar to a major league front office, I don’t think there are any fools out there big enough to take on this player with this contract at this time.

- Big ups to Moore for promoting Kila Kaaihue. I can understand why the Royals might have been reluctant to do so: they want to evaluate Shealy – who just turned 29 and is looking at his last opportunity to show he can play – and there’s not enough playing time to go around in September. But however limited the benefit of promoting Kaaihue is, it has to outweigh the downside, which is negligible.

Kaaihue has to be added to the 40-man roster after the season, so there is no roster benefit to keeping him on the farm. Kaaihue only has a month of Triple-A experience, but nearly three seasons’ worth in Double-A, so it’s not like he’s being rushed to the majors. And he was simply so dominating in the minors all season that it would be stupid not to give him a look. He had a 1087 OPS in Double-A, and in Triple-A his OPS dropped all the way to 1079. The fact that he didn’t miss a beat after his promotion bodes very well for him. His strikeout-to-walk ratio declined, but on the other hand he hit for more power, and pounded southpaws for Omaha after struggling against them in Arkansas. For the season, he finished fourth in the minors in homers (37) and second in slugging average (.628) – and led the minor leagues in walks (104) and OBP (.456).

Shealy started against the lefty and went deep, but hopefully they will platoon this month, giving Kaaihue the bulk of the at-bats. Shealy just doesn’t profile as an everyday first baseman in the majors anymore. He hit .283/.376/.503 for Omaha this year, which translates to marginal numbers in the majors. His career line in the majors is .267/.332/.402. He might get lucky and have a good year or two a la Chris Shelton, and realistically, if that was the case it would already have happened. Shealy’s a platoon player at best; Kaaihue could be the real deal.

It’s hard to stick in the majors as a right-handed first baseman with mid-range power – just ask Justin Huber. But left-handed first basemen with tremendous power backed up by great plate discipline? That describes some of the best first basemen of the last decade. Kaaihue may not have the power of a Ryan Howard or the patience of a Travis Hafner or the all-around excellence of a Carlos Delgado. But the mere fact that he’s in the discussion means that he deserves every opportunity for us to find out just how good he can be. Moore did his job and found him a roster spot; now Hillman has to do his job and find him at-bats.

- Hey, remember when David DeJesus was having a career year? Yeah, not so much. He’s down to .288/.348/.426 on the year, which is actually a touch below his performance in 2005 (.293/.359/.445) and 2006 (.295/.364/.446). If you ignore 2007, when he lost 40 points of batting average for no reason, he’s been a remarkably consistent player, a guy who flirts with .300 every year with some walks and a little power. Consistency is nice, but consistently mediocre is not. DeJesus remains the same tweener he’s always been – his bat plays well in center but his glove is a little short out there; his range is well-suited for left but his bat is a little weak.

He’s not old (he’s four months younger than Shealy, for crying out loud), and he’s signed to a favorable contract, and he remains a tempting trade target for a team that’s in a win-now mode but has a hole to fill in its outfield. When Moore talks about blowing this roster up, I hope he means trading someone like DeJesus, who’s good enough to help a team in contention but not good enough to pull a team into contention. I suspect this is his final month in a Royals uniform. It’s been a good run, if not quite as good as we had all hoped.

- The whispers that the Royals will be looking at Rafael Furcal this winter won’t go away, and the whisperers have been pretty good at predicting the Royals’ intentions in the past. The risk with Furcal is more medical than anything else; he’s had an above-average OPS three of the last four years, and he’ll be 31 this winter, so as long as his back is healthy he should be an above-average shortstop for a few more years. But if the Royals don’t like his medical reports or his price tag, they could do worse than to give Alberto Callaspo the everyday role at second base.

A second baseman who can hit .300 with more walks than strikeouts is valuable even if he doesn’t hit for much power. The question is whether Callaspo can hit for any power, or if he really is a Gathright-class singles hitter. In 318 major-league at-bats, Callaspo has just 14 extra-base hits and has yet to hit a home run. He’s been good for about 5 homers and 40 extra-base hits a year in the minors, but he’s had the benefit of some good hitters’ parks. Given his plate discipline, his lack of power, and his propensity to hit into double plays (given his average speed and groundball tendencies), I think he’s currently the Royals’ best option in the leadoff role. After all, you can’t hit into a double play when you’re leading off an inning.

- At third base, we’ll know more if and when Gordon returns, which fortunately appears soon. Teahen has played competently enough that I think the Royals are confident he can play the position going forward, though not necessarily that he will. I know a lot of Royals fans’ ire has been directed towards Teahen as the symbol of the Royals: the personable, nice guy who can’t hit. I don’t disagree with any of that, but I do disagree with those people who think the Royals will or should release Teahen this winter.

He’s likely to get around $3 million in arbitration, which is a lot of money for a fourth outfielder, but not a lot of money for a guy who can play all four corners adequately. More precisely, it’s not a lot of money for a guy who can play all four corners adequately and still has some offensive upside. Teahen is on his way to becoming the left-handed Casey Blake; like DeJesus, he’s a valuable player for a contending team that needs some depth, but not nearly valuable enough to help a bad team rise from the ashes. The difference between the two is that I think there’s a much stronger market for DeJesus than for Teahen. If Moore can find a buyer, more power to him, but I expect Teahen will be back next season to once again drive us to distraction.

- You know, just a month ago John Buck was having arguably his best season, with numbers of .247/.323/.407, and looked like he had finally graduated into being a league-average catcher, the sort of guy the Royals could live with for another two years. He’s 7-for-65 since, and now we’re resorting to hoping that Hillman and Miguel Olivo can kiss and make up. Don’t count on it. I expect Moore to be very active in looking for a long-term solution behind the plate this winter. Catchers are always a seller’s market; any catcher worth acquiring is going to be very expensive. (This problem could have been avoided if the Royals had drafted Matt Wieters instead of Moustakas last summer.) Dark-horse option: Brayan Pena hit .303/.376/.462 in Omaha this year, and will be just 27 next year. Frankly, I’m surprised he didn’t get a callup – he’s almost certain to be the backup catcher next year, and wouldn’t be completely stretched as the starter in a Johnny Estrada sort of way.

Many, many years ago, Joe Sheehan and I dubbed Gregg Zaun “The Practically Perfect Backup Catcher.” Zaun plays passable defense, draws walks, and hits from both sides of the plate – and eventually the Blue Jays realized that such a perfect backup catcher wouldn’t be an embarrassment as an everyday catcher. Pena is also a switch-hitter, he’s batted over .300 in five straight minor league seasons, and strikes out in under 10% of his at-bats. Essentially, Pena impersonates The Practically Perfect Backup Catcher without the walks. Which is appropriate, because the Royals impersonate a Major League Franchise without the walks.

So looking to 2009, here’s how the offense lines up in a best-case scenario:

C: Buck/Pena or Imported C
1B: Kaaihue?
2B: Callaspo or Aviles
SS: Aviles or Imported SS
3B: Gordon or Teahen
LF: Guillen
CF: Imported CF (or DeJesus)
RF: Gordon or Teahen or Imported RF
DH: Butler

You know, all the talk about the Royals is that they should focus on bringing in a shortstop, but I think they need another outfielder more than anything else. There aren’t that many stud free agents in the outfield, but there are probably more options for the outfield than at shortstop.

But honestly: that’s a pretty sad state of affairs. If Moore is really bold, he can blow a wad of cash on a corner outfielder – Adam Dunn comes to mind, but so does Bobby Abreu. He can put Dunn or Abreu in left field, move Guillen back to right field, move Teahen to center field, trade DeJesus for a catcher, and pray his revamped lineup can score runs faster than they give them up on defense.

2B S Callaspo
SS R Aviles
LF L Dunn/Abreu
DH R Butler
3B L Gordon
RF R Guillen
1B L Kaaihue
CF L Teahen

Yeah, that’s a dumb idea – that might be the worst defense in major league history. But I’m hard-pressed to come up with any smart ideas that will significantly upgrade the lineup for 2009, and I imagine Moore is as well. If you’ve got any brilliant ideas, by all means, share them with the group. Whatever your ideas are, they can’t be much worse than the current state of affairs.