I’ve written this many times, but it remains one of the most telling stats about the Royals over the past 15 years, so I’m going to write it again: the Royals have had one winning April (2003) in the last 19 years. The team’s overall badness doesn’t come close to explaining this statistic: assuming there are 26 games in April, a team with a .443 winning percentage (that’s the Royals’ winning percentage from 1990-2008) would come out of the month with a winning record about 22% of the time. Over the last 19 years they’ve had a winning record in May five times, June seven times, July six times, August eight times, and September/October four times – but just once in April.
And the best explanation for that is that the Royals simply have no idea how to distill the 50 or 60 players that every team invites to spring training into the best 25-man roster. It seems like every year, the Royals make at least one fairly absurd roster decision in the last week of spring training, and it generally takes a few weeks before the wisdom (or lack thereof) of their personnel decisions manifests itself, usually in the right-hand column.
Once again, the Royals can’t leave well enough alone. The rotation looked to be in decent shape at the end of last season. Greinke and Meche gave the Royals their best 1-2 punch since Appier and Cone in 1994, and Kyle Davies had completely remade himself in September into a very intriguing #3 starter. Neither Hochevar and Brian Bannister were all that good in 2008, but both were still young and had markers for success. There was reason to think that Hochevar, in particular, could be expected to improve significantly in 2009: he was a rookie last year, his 5.51 ERA was higher than you’d expect from his peripherals, and he was a strong groundball pitcher. (Hochevar’s FIP, which is a stat that estimates what a pitcher’s ERA would be if you stripped defense and luck out of the equation, was a full run lower (4.51) than his actual ERA.) When last season ended, I advocated that the Royals go into 2009 with those five guys still in their rotation.
Instead, they threw way too much money at Horacio Ramirez because of some nebulous theory that you can’t win without at least one left-handed pitcher in the rotation. But even that, by itself, would have only hurt the Royals in the pocketbook, not on the field. While Hochevar seems to need only repetition to improve, Bannister’s regression last year, along with the way he seemed to be trying to remake himself as a pitcher (more strikeouts, but unfortunately more homers), suggest that he could benefit from a refresher in Triple-A while he figures out what kind of pitcher he needs to be to find sustained success in the majors.
Even when Ponson was signed, I saw this as merely a sensible move to add some rotation depth at minimal cost. While the Royals seemed to have four options for the last two spots in the rotation, the way I saw it, Hochevar was clearly the #4 starter, the Royals three roughly equivalent options for the #5 slot, and there was a lot of needless panic over who would fill that role when the reality is that it’s the rare major league team that doesn’t fret over their fifth starter. Over at royalsreview.com, NYRoyal – a Royals fan who presumably lives in
There didn’t appear to be a wrong decision for the Royals to make. But I have learned from years of painful experience: never underestimate the Royals’ ability to create a bad decision when no such decision seems possible. Ponson is the fourth starter – enjoy the home opener, everyone! – and Ramirez is the fifth starter. Hochevar and Bannister both go to
I’ve heard the argument that the Royals want to send Hochevar down in part because of service time issues – Hochevar’s service time is currently at one year, 17 days, so if he spends even three or four weeks in the minors, his free agency might be delayed by another year. If that’s true, the Royals are picking an awfully strange time to care about this stuff – a year the Royals actually think they can contend – and an awfully strange player to care about. They had this opportunity with Alex Gordon and didn’t use it; I find it hard to believe that they would potentially sabotage the 2009 season in order to keep Hochevar under team control in 2014.
(Quick segue: many thanks to the Detroit Tigers for proving they learned nothing from jumping 20-year-old Jeremy Bonderman from A-ball to the majors in 2003. I wrote at the time – in an ESPN.com article that has, sadly, vanished from the web – that this was a ridiculous decision, because either Bonderman’s development would be hurt by being rushed, or his development wouldn’t be hurt – in which case the Tigers were trading a few weeks of major league service time at age 20 for an entire season’s worth of service time when Bonderman declared free agency at age 26. As it turns out, Bonderman’s career has been interrupted by some circulatory problems in his arm, but not until after signing a four-year deal that bought out two years of free agency, a contract he signed after his best season in 2006. Had the Tigers given Bonderman just a month or two in the high minors in 2003, they might have avoided the need to give Bonderman that contract when his price was at its highest.
Today, the Tigers officially announced that Rick Porcello, who is 20 years old and hasn’t pitched above A-ball, made their rotation. Porcello may very well be the second coming of Roy Halladay as some scouts claim – in which case, as a Royals fan, I’m thrilled that he’ll be hitting free agency a year sooner than he really needed to.)
There is certainly a way to spin the decision to demote Hochevar in a positive way – the Royals wouldn’t have made this decision if there wasn’t. This isn’t Dye-for-Neifi Perez. Sam Mellinger makes some very good points here and here, noting that 1) Ponson, in the here and now, isn’t a significantly worse pitcher than Hochevar is; 2) the Royals only need a fifth starter once in the season’s first 19 days, so it’s better to use Ramirez as a swingman and let Hochevar pitcher every fifth day in Omaha; 3) this decision continues the philosophy of the Dayton Moore era of forcing prospects to prove they’re ready before promoting them to the majors – a philosophy no Royals fan can argue with after seeing the wild excesses of the opposing point of view under Allard Baird.
I agree with Mellinger that this decision probably has more emotional impact than it will have actual baseball impact – if Ponson or Ramirez doesn’t perform, they’ll be replaced soon enough. In particular, I'm wondering whether Moore is already having second thoughts about Ramirez in the rotation, and plans to bring Hochevar up as soon as the schedule requires five starters on a regular basis. (This would explain the decision to cut Jimmy Gobble, if the Royals see Ramirez as a lefty reliever in the long run.)
But I strongly disagree with the third point above. For one, Hochevar isn’t being rushed to the majors – he’s already spent nearly a full year in the Royals’ rotation. I would argue that he wasn’t rushed to the majors last year – despite his unimpressive ERAs in the minors, his peripherals were actually pretty good, and frankly, the #1 overall pick out of college should reach the majors in little more than a year.
But beyond that, I don’t see how you can have Hochevar penciled in as your #4 starter at the start of spring training, and then reach for your eraser based on the spring he had. Mellinger argues that Hochevar didn’t force the Royals hand by having a brilliant spring training. I didn’t think – and I bet Hochevar didn’t think – he needed to have a brilliant spring training. He wasn’t pitching to win a job; he was pitching not to lose his job, and I think he did just that. He had a 3.86 ERA in 16.1 innings in major league camp, notably surrendering just one homer in the warm
I understand the merits of forcing your prospects to prove that they’re ready before handing them a job. I understand the message that can be sent to someone like Billy Butler, a message that says, “just because you’re young and talented doesn’t mean you can take this game for granted.” But this isn’t that. This is telling one of your most prized young pitchers – a guy who you selected #1 in all the land less than three years ago – that he’s going back to Omaha, not because he isn’t ready, not because he didn’t pitch well, but simply because a fat pitcher with a history of major disciplinary issues just caught your eye. What kind of message does this send to your young players? The message I’m taking away from this is that even if you’re drafted highly, even if you've been nurtured by the organization from day one, even if you do everything we ask you to do, we can still take your job away at any time if we develop a sudden hankering for someone else’s sloppy seconds. (Or in Ponson’s case, given that he’s played for six other teams before, sloppy sevenths.)
The other argument I’ve heard a lot in defense of this move boils down to, “Hochevar will be in the rotation soon enough.” If the best argument for this decision is that it’s going to be reversed eventually, isn’t that really an argument against this decision? The insinuation is that Hochevar will be the first man called up when either Ponson or Ramirez needs to be replaced. In other words, this decision is being made with an expectation of failure.
In the meantime, the Royals are looking at roughly eight starts from Ponson and Ramirez in April. By the time the Royals pull their heads out of the sand long enough to realize that their fourth-best starter is in
My lifelong loathing for the Chicago White Sox has been well-documented, but last year, when the White Sox and Twins finished the season tied for first and needed to play a tiebreaker to determine which team advanced to the playoffs, I found myself inexplicably rooting for the Sox. For as much as I dislike the White Sox as a concept, I must admit my admiration for their front office. And I simply could not get over the hubris the Twins showed by continuing to run Livan Hernandez (the upscale, more likeable version of Ponson) out there every fifth day for four months.
Hernandez inexplicably won his first three starts – including one on Opening Day! – and on May 12th was 6-1 with a 3.90 ERA – despite surrendering 72 hits in 57 innings, and striking out just 21. Where you and I saw a mirage, the Twins saw an oasis, and kept sending Hernandez out there, even as he posted a 6.59 ERA over his next 14 starts, allowing a remarkable 127 hits in just 82 innings.
Hernandez was finally released on July 30th. Taking his spot in the rotation was Francisco Liriano, who was so brilliant as a rookie in 2006 before blowing out his elbow, and who had clearly recovered from Tommy John surgery, as he spent most of the first four months of the season toying with hitters in the International League while waiting for a spot in the rotation to open up. (He had briefly and ineffectually returned to the rotation in April, but he clearly wasn’t 100% yet.) He finally returned to the Twins rotation on August 3rd, and went 6-1 with a 2.57 ERA the rest of the season.
The Twins, no doubt, justified the decision to leave Hernandez in the rotation for most of the summer by saying that he was a proven major leaguer, or that some extra time in the minors would only make Liriano a better pitcher when he returned, or some other such nonsense. In the end, that decision cost them the division, plain and simple.
The Royals have a puncher’s chance to win the division this year. What they don’t have is much margin for error. Starting the season with Ponson and Ramirez in the rotation, and Hochevar in
I wrote most of that on the plane ride home from Vail this morning. After I made it home I learned that Ross Gload had been traded to the Marlins for a PTBNL. I first heard about this trade possibility a few days ago, but wasn’t about to count any chickens until they had both hatched and been safely transported across the country. The Royals are picking up almost his entire salary – the Marlins’ favorite player is always the one making the major-league minimum – so this move won’t save the Royals a dime. It will save them the roster spot, and if the PTBNL is one of the guys I heard attached to this rumor, the Royals may get a decent prospect to boot.
This certainly washes out some of the bitter taste that the Hochevar demotion left in my mouth. Hochevar should be back; Gload should not. I’ve yet to hear a coherent explanation from Moore about why Gload got a two-year deal to begin with, but give him some credit for cutting his losses, and give David Glass even more credit for being willing to pay one of his players to go away. This is yet another data point in the case for the reincarnation of David Glass as an asset in the owner’s box.