Friday, March 20, 2009

Royals Today: 3/20/2009

Okay, you guys have been waiting for an update for long enough, so let’s jump right into this thing:

- Am I the only one mystified by the amount of attention given to the Sidney Ponson signing? Maybe I’m just annoyed by the fact that the MLB Network’s* hour-long special on the Royals yesterday – part of their “30 Clubs in 30 Days” series – spent over five minutes talking about Slender Sidney.

Look, if the Royals were really planning to open the season with Ponson in the rotation, this would be cause for alarm. Ponson hasn’t had an ERA under five since 2003, largely because he doesn’t strike anyone out anymore. He’s basically a poor man’s Livan Hernandez, and the wealthier version isn’t much to write home about himself.

But I’m taking this signing at face value. While the Royals have rotation depth in the sense that they have six candidates for five spots, they were not particularly well positioned in the event of multiple injuries (something which tends to happen to rotations). The team’s seventh starter is Brandon Duckworth; their eighth starter would probably involve doing something unwise, like rushing Daniel Cortes or giving Robinson Tejeda another shot at starting. Ponson is a replacement-level starter, but I’d rather have him in a pinch than a below-replacement-level starter. At the cost of a minor-league contract, he’s a good pickup. Throw in the ancillary costs to the franchise’s ego and the food budget, and he’s still worth a flyer.

*: The MLB Network has a lot of promise, and I’m happy to see any national network devote a full hour to the Royals, even if the entire show was tailored to the lowest common denominator. But would it really kill the network to hire “analysts” who have qualifications other than “I played the game”? This is an actual quote from Mitch Williams at the end of yesterday’s show on the Royals:

“I think this team will be above .500. Now where that puts them in their own division, that remains to be seen. But I have them picked fifth.”

It’s true, I never played baseball at its highest level, nor did Joe Sheehan, or Will Carroll, or Kevin Goldstein, or any of my other colleagues at Baseball Prospectus. But if the MLB Network ever deigns to put a stat guy in their studio, I can guarantee you that none of us would ever say anything even remotely as dumb as that.

- Jimmy Gobble is gone, and I guess I’m supposed to be all broken up about that. And sure, I agree with Will McDonald that saying goodbye to Gobble hurts on an emotional level. Gobble was a supplemental first-round pick 10 years ago, and when you’ve spent a decade watching a guy develop from touted draft pick to top prospect to major league starter at age 21, then to come to the realization that he, like every other Royals pitcher of his generation, was not nearly the stud we thought he was, then to watch as Gobble struggle to find a niche for himself, then to finally settle in as a LOOGY, and then to see even those lessened ambitions blow up in the span of one horrible inning against the Tigers last July – well, it hurts to see him go out like that. And I agree with Joe Posnanski that Gobble is likely to re-establish himself with another franchise and probably has another decade left in his career.

With all that said, I can’t get too worked up about this from a baseball standpoint. Gobble finally learned how to get lefties out the last two years, but prior to 2007 he wasn’t particularly effective against either side. Even at his best – in 2007, when he had a 3.02 ERA – he wasn’t that good. (That year Gobble was terrible at stranding inherited runners – according to our BP metrics, he was responsible for 4.7 runs that were charged to other pitchers – while at the same time he was very fortunate in that the baserunners he bequeathed to other relievers were stranded at a very high rate. In a fair world, his ERA would have been well into the 4s, and in fact he was a slightly below-average reliever for the season.) Gobble has surrendered more than a hit an inning in every season of his career.

The bottom line is that he would be a nice luxury to have in a land where it’s always September and you can play with 40-man rosters and never, ever have to worry about leaving Gobble in to face a right-handed hitter. But within the constraints of a 25-man roster, it’s very difficult to design a role for Gobble where his weaknesses don’t overwhelm his strengths. I don’t blame the Royals for deciding not to bother anymore, and saving themselves a million bucks in the process.

The interesting question is what this does to the construction of the bullpen. Soria, Farnsworth, Cruz, and Mahay – the multi-year contract guys – are all locks. Waechter appears to be a near-lock, and Tejeda should be. That leaves one roster spot, the spot that Gobble had been penciled in. That spot would presumably go to Bale if he’s healthy – and I wonder if the decision to cut Gobble is a reflection in the Royals’ faith that Bale should be ready soon – but if he’s not, I imagine that would give Joel Peralta and his revamped mechanics a new lease on life.

But would the Royals really open the season with just one lefty in their bullpen? It’s not necessarily a bad idea, just an unconventional one for the 21st century. It would be great if this meant that the Royals had decided to slide Horacio Ramirez back to the bullpen, but I’m not holding my breath. My guess is that Bale will be on the roster on Opening Day or close to it, with Waechter and Peralta fighting it out for the last roster spot.

- Sam Mellinger argues that the acquisition of Luis Hernandez is the final nail in the coffin that we will gleefully bury the Tony Pena Jr. era in. That may be so, and at this point I’ll buy any rationale for removing Pena from the roster. But if Hernandez really makes Pena expendable, it only goes to show just how replaceable Pena was.

Hernandez hit .241 in limited playing time for the Orioles last year, and his career line in the majors is .264/.297/.304 in 148 at-bats. That’s par for the course for a glove-first shortstop backup. Unfortunately, that line is about as deceptive as Pena’s 2007 line was. Last year, in over 200 Triple-A at-bats, Hernandez hit .185. That’s not a productive .185 either – he had all of seven extra-base hits (all doubles) and eight walks. He hit .244 in the minors in 2007, with equally poor secondary skills. Honestly, I’d rather have Pena, if only for the mop-up relief possibilities. The problem is that Pena is out of options, but there is a very good chance that he would clear waivers, in which case I’d let him start in Omaha while subtly suggesting to him that his future, if he has one, is likely to be on the mound.

The fact that the Royals think Luis Hernandez – just one of the many gloves that fall out when you shake a tree – could replace Pena, is testament to just how silly it was to trade actual talent to get Pena in the first place. You don’t need to develop players like Pena and Hernandez, because there’s always a half-dozen of them ripe for the plucking off of some other team’s roster.

- I know it’s fun to look at spring training stats and dream a little, but please, please remember: it’s Arizona. I don’t mean that just in the sense that spring training stats are meaningless – though they are, mostly – but in the sense that the Cactus League is full of inflated numbers. As happy as I am that the Royals moved to Surprise many years ago – and left behind that dump in Baseball City – the downside to training in Arizona is that offensive numbers are so inflated that it’s even harder to evaluate your hitters (and your pitchers) in March than usual. Remember when Ruben Gotay hit .360 with 6 homers in 2005? When Angel Berroa hit .441 and slugged .691 the same year? Or when Berroa hit .451 and slugged .745 the following spring?

So when you see John Buck hitting .414/.514/.862 in 12 games, or Mike Jacobs batting .317/.417/.732 in 15 games, or Mark Teahen at .462/.517/1.154 in nine games, try to control your enthusiasm. And by the same token, don’t spend any time fretting over Zack Greinke’s 8.27 ERA, or Gil Meche’s 12.15 mark. Repeat after me: Spring Training Stats Mean Nothing. Spring Training Stats Mean Nothing.

- While you keep repeating that mantra, I’m going to point out one stat that I hope does mean something. Behold, the major league leader in walks drawn this spring with 12, one more than Albert Pujols: Covelli Loyce Crisp. It might mean nothing. But it might also mean that Coco is taking this leadoff role to heart. It might also mean that Kevin Seitzer is working some magic. The Royals drew 392 walks last year, one of the five lowest totals by a team in the last 60 years. If they raise that number over 500 this year, the Royals should just induct Seitzer into the team’s Hall of Fame on the spot.

- Buck’s stats may not mean anything, but this story does. Players are not, as much as we may want to characterize them as such, stat-generating robots. I can’t imagine that it’s easy to concentrate on hitting fastballs when your wife and two newborn sons are in the hospital. I’m making excuses for Buck in part because I thought he was going to have a breakout year last season, and now I’m just covering my ass. But I’m interested to see if a clear head and the secrets of the man Sam Mellinger calls “The Bat Whisperer” can make a difference.

(The best part of the story, by far, is when Buck says that he was able to buy into Seitzer’s hitting program after talking with Pujols during a chance encounter at a sub shop. Really? Buck and David DeJesus decided to go grab a sandwich from Quizno’s or something and Pujols just happens to be sitting there? Why does this never happen to me?)

- Finally, this has nothing to do with baseball, but since it’s my blog I figure I can use this site to shamelessly publicize myself. A few of you have already heard, but for those who did not I had a segment on NPR’s “This American Life” last weekend, which NPR junkies tell me is kind of a big deal. If you’re interested in listening, go to the show's website and click on the “Wrong Side of History” episode. Despite the name, amazingly, this has nothing to do with my life as a Royals fan. It has everything to do with politics and religion, the twin towers of radioactive topics for a sports blog, so please, don’t listen if that’s not your cup of tea. If it is, my segment starts a little over 18 minutes in.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Can't tell you how happy I was when I heard that on NPR last week. Congratulations. It was a great essay before the election and just as important now.

Graham said...

Your piece on TAL was excellent--and even more effective in oral form. In spite of the unfettered "hope" that gathers around the Obama administration (or at least around the man), I'm always heartened to hear a perspective that reveals the complexities that are papered over by the political process. Life is much, much more than the image of 'togetherness' required by the party.

keith jersey said...

I was very disappointed with the MLB network hour long show on the royals. Of course, I had to pause it and walk away when Mitch Williams made the above .500 but finish 5th comment. But I also think both analysts showed little understanding about the Royals. John Hart said that getting to Soria was a problem for them last year and now they should be much better with Cruz and Farnsworth. Does he not know who Nunez and Ramirez are and how good they were combined last year? It felt like they invested very little time in the Royals, like usual.

Brett said...

Completely random thought, and I have no reason to believe it might be true, but...

We've been hearing all spring that the Royals are going to open with 12 pitchers, because Trey doesn't want to overwork anybody. Many of us have assumed that Gobble would be one of those 12. Trey admitted that he used Gobble incorrectly last year, basically conceding he should be a LOOGY. However, Trey doesn't seem like the type to really want to use LOOGYs. So, was the talk about the 7-man bullpen due to the fact that one of those seven could only be counted on to get one out every couple of days, rather than pitch a full inning? And if so, does cutting Gobble mean that the bullpen will now only need six guys who can pitch at least an inning each? And if that's the case, does the extra bench spot mean that Shealy is more likely to make the team, or that Bryan Pena is going to be carried as the third catcher (who also has played some other positions in Spring Training) until Buck or Olivo can be traded? My guess is there are still 12 pitchers in a Royals uniform on Opening Day; just wondering out loud here.

Anonymous said...

First, I doubt that Dayton Moore is really all that worried about losing Brayan Pena. They invested almost nothing in him, so if they lose him they don't lose much. They did have to give up something to get Shealy, so I think that they will carry him on the roster before carrying Pena as the third catcher.

But, if they were to cut John Buck and save themselves his salary, or if they are lucky enough to trade him, then both Pena and Shealy could concievably make the roster, if they go with only 11 pitchers.

I personally like the second option. Why pay Buck over 2 million to be the backup catcher????

Dan Cook said...

Dear Anonymous,
I think it's more than just what the Royals paid for B. Pena and Shealy, but what those two might be worth from this point forward. If Shealy ends up having a breakout year on the first baseman starved Marlins, I'm going to be pissed.

UnknownRoyalsFan said...

Sorry, Rany, Mellinger's article on Buck just means that Buck is taking an early lead in the all-important Royals stat of AWEPP - Articles Written Excusing Poor Performance. The truth is that last year was really pretty close to Slow John's career numbers. Sad story, yes. Harbinger of Bucky finally "getting it" - nope.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dan Cook,

If what you give up to get someone has no bearing on things like roster spots or starting jobs, then why is Jose Guillen still slated to be our Opening Day right fielder?

Because we gave him $12 million a year. If we'd given him $2 million, I would put a guess that Mark Teahen would be the starting right fielder Opening Day.

Glen - Chicago said...

I'm glad you pointed out Crisp's BB numbers. We should also make note of the TEAM's 86 walks this spring training (2nd in the AL), which includes 6 by Mike Jacobs and 5 by John Buck. That seems to be a real improvement with patientce and something we can better translate into actual in-season performance. Maybe not to No.2 in the league, but it seems like we're not headed for "worse-than-the-Cleveland-Spiders" OBP that was speculated a few months ago.

Anonymous said...

Did we just trade Gobble to Texas for Sir Sidney? That was quick.

pjbronco said...

Any chance the Horacio Ramirez experiment is over?

Anonymous said...

Haven't seen this mentioned, but according to Stark we have made Buck available. So it seems that Moore/Hillman would prefer an Olivo/Pena backstop.

http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/blog/index?entryID=3996672&name=stark_jayson

Ryan from DSM said...

Glen- The team walk numbers are deceiving. Remember they are in spring training they are facing some pitchers who will not be on a MLB staff. I'd be concerned if they were #2 is K's taken.

Anonymous said...

Denials notwithstanding, KC seems to be shopping Buck and Teahen, among others. Budget is a factor.

Different reports indicate that both the Yanks and Red Sox need a catcher and a third baseman.

Why not offer a package to both teams for the best package of pitching? Obviously, it's not going to be Buchholz or Hughes, but I'd love to see those two teams bid against each other.

Keith said...

It was great to hear you on This American Life this week. You don't know me, of course, but hearing you on the show was like listening to an old friend. And the essay is great...

drewfuss said...

Any chance (assuming HoRam gets a shot in the rotation in April) they keep Bannister in the 'pen as a swingman? I think that could be a good role for him - spot starts and 3 or 4 inning relief when needed? Like a slightly more talented Mike Wood?

Glen said...

Ryan - Point taken, but everybody else is facing AAAA pitching or worse as well (or the current spoiled-milk version of Gil Meche), so the Royals' walks aren't some Surprise-driven outlier. The home runs, on the other hand...purely a Satanic pact.

pjbronco said...

Not sure keeping Bannister in the pen makes sense. I love his attitude, but the results are not there. The problem with the bullpen suggestion is that there is no pattern to when he blows up. Sometimes it is the first inning, other times, the fourth or fifth. He would only be useful when the time is way behind in a game to eat innings and take a beating. Wonder if he would take a minor-league pitching coach position?

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