Thursday, October 30, 2008

Memo to DMGM: WTF?

So I guess Mark Teahen isn’t moving anywhere after all. It’s not often that a rumor that was reported at the highest levels gets shot down with such authority, but that’s what happened here. Even as Bob Dutton himself reported that “Sources from both clubs said Teahen could be dealt for one of three outfielders: Franklin Gutierrez, Ben Francisco or Trevor Crowe,” Dayton Moore begged to differ. “It’s unbelievable. I don’t doubt that somebody said that, but that somebody lied. Mark Shapiro will tell you the same thing.” If that wasn’t a strong enough denial for you, here’s another one: “That's an absolute lie,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore told, “an absolute lie. It's a lie.”

O-kay then. Fortunately, I adhere to the Blogger Code of Conduct, which frowns upon reporting or commenting on unconfirmed trade rumors. The fact that I was in LA all weekend for my brother’s wedding and unavailable to wildly speculate is purely coincidental.

Teahen is still a Royal, but if nothing else, what we can take from the rumor is that, much to the surprise of many Royals fans, Teahen has actual trade value. He may be a below-average hitter (though just barely; his career OPS+ is 98), but he compensates with his baserunning instincts, broad base of skills, prime-of-career age, and his defensive versatility. The last one is key; the rumor was that the Indians wanted Teahen to play third base, which makes a lot of sense when you consider that a few months ago I described Teahen as “a left-handed Casey Blake.” By re-establishing that Teahen can still play third base, the Royals have made him a viable trade target for half-a-dozen teams. If they want to trade him this winter, they probably can.

In the meantime, let’s talk about the trade rumor that Moore won’t deny. That rumor has the Royals working hard to dislodge Mike Jacobs from the Marlins’ loose grip. The initial rumor stated that the teams were discussing a trade of Jacobs for Carlos Rosa; we are now being told that the Marlins are concerned about Rosa’s health (he was shut down in August with a forearm strain), and given that they’re looking for a major league-ready reliever, a bullpen arm – perhaps Leo Nunez, who was almost traded 15 months ago for Milton Bradley – might be substituted instead.

Now, the Royals need offense, no one questions that. And given the fungibility of relievers, and Moore’s proven ability to put together strong bullpens with low-cost talent, trading from the Royals’ excess of relievers in order to upgrade elsewhere makes perfect sense. But let me be clear about this: trading for Mike Jacobs is a terrible idea.

Three years ago, the Marlins traded for Jacobs, when he was 25 years old and still had his rookie eligibility, and was coming off one of the more impressive pre-rookie campaigns you’ll ever see: 11 homers and a .710 slugging average in 100 at-bats for the Mets in 2005. In return, the Marlins got three league-average seasons from Jacobs (OPS+ of 106, 100, 109) at close to a league-minimum salary.

Jacobs turns 28 today. He is eligible for arbitration, and his salary is likely to jump to around $3 million for 2009. He will be a free agent in three years, which isn’t all that relevant, because in three years it’s unlikely that he’ll be worth paying millions of dollars to. He’s unlikely to get any better than he’s been the last three years, and given the difference in league quality, and the fact that Kauffman Stadium is openly hostile to his primary skill, it’s likely he’ll be a little worse in 2009 than in 2008. This is what happens to unathletic hitters who reach the majors at a fairly advanced age: they are very valuable commodities in Year One, and perilously close to becoming liabilities by Year Four. Which is, in part, why the Marlins are so willing to move him.

Jacobs wasn’t even all that good in 2008. He certainly had his uses; he hit 32 homers in just 141 games, and slugged .514 for the Marlins. But he drew just 36 walks, and his OBP was .299. Two-ninety-nine.

The mere fact that Moore is talking to the Marlins about Jacobs tells me he still doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get that what really ails his offense isn’t the lack of power, it’s the lack of walks. The Royals finished next-to-last in the AL in homers last season. The one team they out-homered? The Twins, who finished third in the league in runs scored and came within a game of the playoffs. But the Royals didn’t just finish last in the league with 392 walks, they had one of the lowest walk totals in a non-strike season in recent American League history. Since 1931, here are the only four AL teams to finish with fewer than 395 walks in a full season:

Year Team BB

1957 Kansas City 364

2002 Detroit 363

2005 Detroit 384

2008 Kansas City 392

So what’s Moore’s solution? To trade for a first baseman with a .299 OBP. There were 29 players this season who batted at least 300 times and played at least half their games at first base. Only two of them had a lower OBP than Ross Gload’s .317. One was John Bowker, rookie first baseman for the Giants, who had a .300 OBP. The other – with the lowest OBP of any first baseman in the game – was Jacobs. That’s right: Moore has managed to find a first baseman that actually reached base less often than Ross Gload. And he’s willing to give up talent to get him.

Jacobs’ .299 OBP was a career low, but it’s not that far off his career line of .318. In three seasons as a major-league first baseman, his career high in walks is 45, and unless you’re Ichiro Suzuki, you simply can’t run up a respectable OBP without drawing some walks. Out of 23 first basemen with at least 450 plate appearances this season, all but two – Jacobs and Casey Kotchman, who has had better years – drew at least 45 walks. And that’s Jacobs’ career high. It’s fair to say that Jacobs is the least patient everyday first baseman in the majors today. If the Royals aren’t going to get walks from their first baseman, where are they going to get them from?

Maybe Moore has been watching a little too much of the Royals’ 1985 highlight tapes. Look at this comparison:

Mike Jacobs, 2008: .247/.299/.514, 32 HR, 36 BB

Steve Balboni, 1984: .244/.320/.498, 28 HR, 45 BB

Steve Balboni, 1985: .243/.307/.477, 36 HR, 52 BB

Yeah, the Royals won the World Series with Balboni as their first baseman. But as I’ve written in many places, the Royals learned all the wrong things from their world championship team. They learned that offense doesn’t matter (they finished with the second-fewest runs in the league), and they learned that walks are optional (they had the third-fewest walks in the league). They learned those lessons so well that they haven’t been to the playoffs since.

Interestingly enough, Balboni was also acquired for a tenured reliever, in his case Mike Armstrong. But Balboni was actually a better player in 1984-85 than Jacobs has been, because the offensive standards of the time were so much lower. And Balboni was valuable because he helped to fill a position of real need for the Royals. Today, by comparison, the Royals have too many options to play first base. They need to whittle down those options, not make things more complicated.

Trading for Jacobs all but insures that Kila Ka’aihue spends all of next year in Triple-A. Trading for Jacobs leaves Ryan Shealy fighting for a platoon position next year. Trading for Jacobs might force Gload off the roster…oh, who am I kidding, we all know that Gload is guaranteed a spot come hell or high water. If Moore found a way to rid himself of Gload in this trade, it might actually make sense, but Gload is under contract for another year and close to $2 million, and you know the Royals will find a way to justify keeping him around.

Most importantly, though, trading for Jacobs makes it more likely than not that Billy Butler has already played his last game for the Royals.

We know that Moore is not a fan of Butler; we’ve known that since Sam Mellinger wrote this summer that Moore had offered Butler to the Mariners for Yuniesky Betancourt two winters ago. (The Mariners, bless their hearts, declined. Betancourt’s defensive reputation is massively overrated, and he hits like a late-model Angel Berroa.)

If Jacobs plays first base, he will likely require Gload to serve as his defensive caddy, which gives the Royals the option to use Shealy at DH, or possibly even Ka’aihue, or simply rotate an extra outfielder through the position. If Jacobs is moved to DH, then Shealy and Gload will likely share first base. Either way, it will be easy for the Royals to deem Butler expendable, and trade him for the best package of talent they can get.

I don’t get the overt hostility towards Butler, I really don’t. I understand that he’s immature, and that he’s had it so easy through the minor leagues that he’s hot-dogged it in the majors and acted like he has nothing to prove. I realize that he’s a defensive liability and a baserunning nightmare and all that. But good God, he’s 22 years old. He’ll still be 22 on Opening Day next year. And he’s got a world of talent. In an ostensibly disappointing season, he hit .275 with 11 homers, and after the All-Star Break he hit .305/.341/.476. You want someone who was a real hot dog this year? The Rays benched B.J. Upton repeatedly this year when he failed to run out groundballs, costing his team an out on more than one occasion. Upton, who hit just nine homers during the regular season, hit seven in the playoffs and is as responsible as anyone for their World Series appearance.

The Rays took it easy on Upton, deciding that he wasn’t a bad kid so much as young and entitled. And he is just a kid: he’s just 24. Butler’s 22. We won’t have Butler’s PECOTA comparables for a few more weeks, but according to, the most similar player to Billy Butler at the same age in baseball history is…Keith Hernandez. John Olerud is third. George “Not the Comedian” Burns, who played in the majors for 16 years, is eighth. Kent Hrbek is tenth. (Among his other top comps are 19th-century hurlers Pink Hawley and Bob Caruthers, which I suppose means that if Butler doesn’t turn himself into a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman, he has a future as a pitcher.) And remember: those comps are calculated using Butler’s major league stats only, and Butler’s major league performance has been a disappointment given his minor league numbers.

There are a lot of teams that would love to have Butler, and a lot of teams that would be willing to pay for him. But until he has a year commensurate with his ability, those teams will expect a discount on his potential.

I’m sure that, if the Royals trade for Jacobs, they’ll find a way to spin this as a positive. They got a guy with real power (which may evaporate in Kauffman Stadium.) They are sending a message that they’re not going to keep playing kids that aren’t ready for the majors yet (even if that means burying a guy like Ka’aihue, who probably is ready for the majors).

They’ll also tell you that Jacobs adds some much-needed balance to the lineup, which is true. Jacobs has a pretty massive platoon split – his career line vs. LHP is just .235/.275/.414, but against RHP he’s hit .269/.329/.521 – and the Royals were much weaker against right-handed pitchers than left-handers last year. The only left-handed hitters in the lineup are Gordon, DeJesus, and Teahen, and while Callaspo also adds balance as a switch-hitter, Teahen may not even be a starter next year. I think it’s reasonable to say that Jacobs will help the team win more games in 2009.

But the Royals aren’t playing for 2009. If they are, they shouldn’t be. This team should be focusing on 2010, and by 2010, Ka’aihue is likely to be a better hitter than Jacobs. Ka’aihue will unquestionably be cheaper, and he unquestionably won’t force the Royals to give up talent to acquire him. Ka’aihue, like Jacobs, will provide left-handed pop to the lineup, and unlike Jacobs he doesn’t need a Kevin Seitzer Miracle to learn the strike zone.

There’s nothing wrong with the Royals exploring trade options with the Marlins, who have a ton of arbitration-eligible players they want to move; they’re just focusing on the wrong guy. Jeremy Hermida hasn’t been quite as successful as Jacobs has been in the majors (career line of .267/.342/.436), but he’s three years younger, he plays the outfield (where the Royals have far more need for an everyday player), his minor-league track record suggests there’s still untapped potential in his bat, and he has a much better command of the strike zone. (Actually, Hermida hasn’t been all that patient in the major leagues – about one walk per 10 at-bats – but in the minors he was a walking fool, including a remarkable 111 walks in just 118 games as a 21-year-old in Double-A in 2005. Now there’s a guy that Seitzer should be able to fix.)

If Moore makes this move, he’ll be helping the Royals win in 2009. But he’ll deny the Royals the opportunity to evaluate some very legitimate options at first base, and he very well might be inclined to sell one of the most promising hitters the Royals have ever developed for pennies on the dollar. He’ll add to the payroll, and he’ll trade away a reliever who might have fetched more useful talent in another trade. If he does make the move, I’m sure it will just be the first of many moves he makes this winter. But this winter will be off to a very inauspicious start.