Thursday, March 5, 2009

Royals Today: 3/5/2009.

Thirty-two days. Thirty-two days until Coco Crisp steps into the batter’s box here in Chicago. (If anyone has access to some quality tickets to Opening Day, by the way, please let me know.) It’s still too early to take spring training results seriously, but it’s not too early to start talking about how the roster is shaping up. Which means it’s time for the first Royals Today of the new season.

- Royals fans have become quite accustomed to the fringe benefits of being a bad team: an early draft pick (and the accompanying opportunity to blow that pick by passing on the best player available to save money – I’m so glad we took Jeff Austin instead of J.D. Drew ten years ago), a plum spot in the Rule 5 draft, first dibs on the waiver wire. To that, we can add the fact that bad teams don’t have to worry about having their roster disrupted by the World Baseball Classic. Three years ago, I don’t recall a single significant member of the Royals that participated.

This year things are different, which is yet another sign that the Royals are slowly pulling themselves out of the morass of the post-strike era. The Mexicutioner will close for Mexico, and would have made any team’s roster. You obviously have to worry about Soria’s health; this is one instance where the Royals’ insistence on keeping him in the bullpen is unassailable. Working one or two innings at a time, there’s little reason to think that he’s going to get hurt (although his Mexican teammate Luis Ayala blew out his elbow in the 2006 WBC, and has never been the same.) Ayala excepted, the WBC hangover primarily hit the starting pitchers, who were throwing five or six innings in game conditions at a point in the spring when they were used to throwing three or four innings in an exhibition setting.

Jose Guillen and Miguel Olivo will be playing for the Dominican Republic, which should have no impact on the Royals, both because their starting jobs are fairly secure, and because it’s not clear that an injury to either player would hurt the team at all. Mike Aviles is the starting shortstop for the Puerto Rican team – he’s come a long way, baby – but I can’t imagine that his absence will endanger his starting role on the Royals one bit. And then there’s Lenny DiNardo, working as a ringer for the Italian team but otherwise irrelevant. (I’m guessing that my brother and I could make the Syrian national team right now. We’d have a sizeable advantage on the other applicants: we’d know the rules of the game.)

Finally, there’s Dylan Lindsey, the 17-year-old South African pitcher who’s most famous for the fact that no one in the Royals organization – other than the scout who signed him – has even seen him pitch. (Strangely, this is the second straight WBC featuring a Royals pitcher on the South African team – Barry Armitage was one of the team’s most prominent members three years ago, and if he could have held onto a ninth-inning lead, South Africa would have pulled off a hellacious upset of the Canadians.)

The most impactful spring training desertion is Mark Teahen, who will be playing third base for Team Canada instead of working on second base for the Royals. (Then again, maybe that’s for the best. I didn’t expect it to take long for the second base experiment to go sour, but I thought it would take more than one inning.)

The WBC is to be played every four years, but after the first one was hurriedly put together in 2006, it was agreed that the second one would be held three years later before starting the quadrennial pattern. This may have been a lucky break for the Royals. A year from now, Alex Gordon might have spent a few weeks backing up David Wright at third base, and more importantly, Zack Greinke might have been in Team USA’s rotation. This year the WBC goes on with no impact to the Royals’ rotation, and it will be four years – and another Greinke contract – before we have to worry about this event again.

- If there’s one player on the roster that you have to root for to have a huge March, it’s Alberto Callaspo. Unless Teahen magically learns how to play second base from ninety feet away, second base is going to come down to Bert vs. the Spork. Sam Mellinger has already set his over/under on Bloomquist’s starts at second base at 100, and while I’d take the under on that, the fact that 100 starts is even theoretically possible scares the hell out of me.

Joe Posnanski has written of "The Gloaden Rule", which states: "1) Use Ross Gload correctly, he will help your team win games. 2) Use Ross Gload incorrectly, he will get you fired." That rule applies doubly so for Bloomquist. Used as a backup at seven different positions, as a defensive replacement at second base, as an early-inning pinch-hitter when you need baserunners more than you need power, he’s a near-perfect 25th man. As an everyday starter, he’s a whirling vortex of suck that threatens to bring down every offensive rally he comes into contact with. If you could commune with the future and have access to the number of starts made by a single member of the Royals in 2009, Bloomquist is the guy I’d pick. If he makes 30 starts this year, the Royals have a chance. If he makes 130 starts, they don’t.

- Speaking of Gload, am I being unreasonably optimistic when I say that there’s actually a chance the Royals might cut their losses with him? He has a guaranteed contract for 2009, but I have yet to see any clear-cut evidence that he’s guaranteed a spot on the roster. The roster math for the Royals is pretty daunting, particularly since Hillman is committed to keeping 12 pitchers. DeJesus, Crisp, and Guillen man the outfield; Gordon and Aviles lock down the left side of the infield. Olivo and Buck share catcher duties. Jacobs will play at either first base or DH, and Teahen and Bloomquist are roster locks.

That leaves all of three roster spots for Butler, Callaspo, Brayan Pena, Shealy, Gload, Tony Pena Jr, or anyone else. If Butler or Callaspo fail to make the roster, something has gone terribly wrong, and for the third spot, I’d argue that Brayan Pena or Shealy – both of whom are out of options – are a better use of that roster spot than Gload. (And that doesn't account for the possibility of another acquisition this month, which wouldn't surprise me at all.)

Giving Gload a two-year contract for no reason (Gload wasn’t eligible for free agency any time soon) remains one of Moore’s most inexplicable decisions, and the cost of that mistake is coming due. Cutting Gload would force the Royals to eat $1.9 million. Nonetheless, it’s the right move to make. Gload’s salary is a sunk cost, something they’re going to have to pay either way. Better for the Royals to not also pay by keeping him on the roster.

As Bob Dutton reports, the Royals may be considering just that. It may be a small decision in the grand scheme of things, but if the Royals do release Gload, the implications are fairly significant: it means that Moore understands the concept of a sunk cost, that he’s willing to admit when he’s made a mistake, and that he’s able to convince David Glass to pay a player to not actually play. Stay tuned. If Gload gets cut before Opening Day, it will be a very welcome sign that the Royals are hellbent on contending this year, and neither sentiment nor the ghosts of decisions past will get in their way.

- Some of you may have read Christina Kahrl’s column on the Royals’ small but very real playoff hopes. She makes many of the same points I’ve made – that the AL Central is a very compressed division, that even the division favorite Indians have holes, and that if the Royals are going to pull this off, it’s going to be on the backs of their talented young players, and not on the veterans that they’ve thrown millions of dollars at over the last two seasons.

I’ve been rooting for an underdog for so long that part of me resents Kahrl for giving the Royals as much credit as she does. I don’t want anyone to believe in us – it will make the inevitable victory that much more satisfying.

Obviously, that’s juvenile. It’s very, very hard – nearly impossible – for a team to suddenly reach the playoffs without having someone believe in them first.* The Rays had their believers last year. Even the Braves had a bandwagon of supporters back in 1991 – the Braves were just 39-40 to start that season, but a lot of people (myself included) looked at the team during the first half of the season and said, man, there’s some talent on this squad.

Talent doesn’t just materialize out of thin air, and you’re not going to win without talent. The Royals tried that before in 2003 – I don’t know anyone who was talking them up before that season – and it didn’t work. You need a foundation of talent to dream. The Royals have that foundation now, and suddenly people who don’t bleed blue and white are starting to take that dream seriously.

*: I have no explanation for the 2008 Arizona Cardinals. I’m not sure anyone does.

The latest to do so is Bill Simmons, who not once but twice this week talked up the Royals on "The B.S. Report." In his March 2nd podcast – flip to the 48-minute mark – he starts by talking up the Chiefs as the biggest sleeper in the NFL next year, but around the 52-minute mark goes out of his way during a football discussion to hitch his train to the Royals this summer. “You might be looking at The Year of Kansas City.”

The next day he goes even further during a discussion with Matthew Berry - again, forward ahead to the 48-minute mark. “I love the Royals in general – I think that whole team is going to take off this year. I like Cruz, I like Soria, I love Mike Aviles. Gordon – this is his third year, he’s due to make the third-year leap. I like Billy Butler. I just like that team.” This podcast is worth listening to, if only to hear Berry – ESPN’s Senior Director of Fantasy – laughably mispronounce Mark Teahen’s name and briefly claim that Joey Gathright was in the outfield mix.

So obviously, not everyone has taken notice of the Royals. But Simmons has, and there are few, if any, sportswriters more popularly read than him. (And Simmons isn’t just blowing smoke. I have it on good authority that he stands to make some money if the Royals win the division. Or he would, if gambling were legal.)

I guess we’ll just have to accept that the bandwagon isn’t solely made up of die-hards. But hey, if the Royals go to the playoffs this year, none of us are going to complain or even remember that a few national observers thought this was a possibility. And it’s fun to go into the season talking up the Royals’ chances of a playoff run without being openly laughed at for a change.

We ought to prepare ourselves for a different kind of heartbreak this year, though. The saving grace of the Royals the last 20 years is that they’ve been so bad that they don’t have any near-misses on their resume. The Royals have been eliminated from playoff consideration with at least four days to go in every season since 1986, and they haven’t been more than mathematically alive in any season past about September 15th. This could be the year the Royals fall two or games short, and if that happens, I guarantee that we’ll be bitching about the money wasted on Kyle Farnsworth or Horacio Ramirez, or the playing time given to Gload or Bloomquist, or the one-of-a-kind event that is the Jose Guillen Experience, as the difference between missing the playoffs and making it. I might as well bookmark this column now, because if that’s the case I’ll almost certainly want to quote from this paragraph six months from now.

But you know what? I’ll take that risk, and so will every one of you. If the Royals go out there and challenge for first place all year long, and come up a game or two short, or if they collapse in September and cough up a division title that was in their grasp, we’re going to feel a hurt that, for many of us, we’ve never felt before. But at least we’ll feel something. We’ve been beaten down as Royals fans for so long that we’ve become numb to the pain. To feel pain is to feel alive, and Royals fans have endured two decades worth of dead Septembers. I don’t know if the season will end in agony or in ecstacy, but I’ve got a good feeling that this year, at least it won’t end with a sense of relief.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

You Snooze, We Sign Juan Cruz.

Jeez, a busy day for Kansas City sports today…

The usual apologies for my prolonged absence apply. We’ve spent the last week moving my main dermatology office to a larger location across the hall, while simultaneously preparing to open a new office location in Sycamore, Illinois on Tuesday. (Taking appointments now!) Fortunately, the economy is so robust and vibrant that I should have no problems making this investment pay off. I mean, there’s no way I’d try to expand my business while our country is in the grip of a huge recession. That would be insane.

Anyway, the workplace distractions really just served as a convenient excuse, because I was loathe to spend a lot of time commenting on the first week or two of spring training, when everyone shows up in the best shape of their life and every development is scrutinized to a pulp. The main goal of Spring Training is simply to keep everyone healthy, and that goes double for the parts of Spring Training that occur in February.

But this morning I finally got off my duff and wrote a couple thousand words on the state of the Royals. I was without internet access at the time, but planned to post this afternoon…only to come home and find a press release in my email box.

Wow, Juan Cruz, huh? I find it hard to argue with this acquisition from either a talent perspective or a financial perspective.

Cruz was a top prospect with the Cubs at the dawn of the decade, but struggled to find his niche in the major leagues. He bounced to the Braves and A’s before finally landing with Arizona three years ago, quickly settled into the bullpen, and has been lights out ever since. His career ERA is 4.00, but that’s unfairly weighted by two terrible seasons in 2003 (6.05 ERA) and 2005 (7.44 ERA in 33 innings). His next-highest ERA after that is in 2006, with a 4.18 ERA. In 2007 his ERA was a tidy 3.10; last year it was just 2.61.

It’s not just that Cruz is effective, it’s how he is effective. Remember when Dayton Moore was defending the Kyle Farnsworth signing by talking up the Royals’ need for a reliever who can get the big strikeout when necessary? He might have been – should have been – talking about Cruz instead. It’s not that Farnsworth is a stranger to the strikeout – he’s averaged over one per inning in his career – but Cruz is even better in that category, with 535 whiffs in 515 career innings (9.35 Ks per 9 IP). Moreover, Cruz combines a power strikeout rate with actual effectiveness. Farnsworth’s strikeouts come at the cost of homers (1.37 HR per 9), while Cruz, despite being a flyball pitcher, has surrendered just 0.97 HR per 9. Cruz is a little more prone to the walk (4.38 UIBB per 9, Farnsworth is at 3.66 per 9), but it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.

Cruz, remember, has pitched in the cozy confines of Bank One Ballpark/Chase Field/whichever soon-to-be-bankrupt financial services company their stadium is named for at the moment. I don’t want to make too much of this, because Cruz actually pitched better at home than on the road the last three years – he gave up just six homers in Arizona, thirteen elsewhere. But on the whole, his flyball tendencies should play even better in Kansas City than they did in the desert.

But here’s what I really like about Cruz: he’s a strikeout machine unlike any reliever the Royals have ever had. I was recently thinking about how unique it is that the Royals have had three truly signature closers in their history (Dan Quisenberry, Jeff Montgomery and Joakim Soria), and yet have never had a prototypical flamethrowing reliever in any role. Quisenberry famously has one of the lowest strikeout rates of the modern era – certainly for a pitcher as effective as him. Montgomery and Soria have/had good strikeout rates, but not stellar ones, and in any case owe their strikeouts to deception more than to overpowering stuff.

No pitcher with even 200 innings in a Royals uniform has managed to whiff a batter an inning, something both Farnsworth and Cruz have done over the course of their career. But more than that, in the history of the Royals, the highest strikeout rate in a single season for anyone with 40+ innings is 10.58. (A hundred guesses and you’ll still be wrong: it was Brian Bevil, in 1998. All those strikeouts were good for a 6.30 ERA.) Cruz has exceeded that rate in both 2007 and 2008: in 2007, he struck out 87 batters in 61 innings (12.84 per nine), and last year he whiffed 71 in 51.2 (12.37 per nine).

So I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that this signing completely changes the complexion of the Royals’ bullpen. Salaries notwithstanding, Cruz is clearly a better pitcher than Farnsworth, and should be treated as such. If he moves into the 8th inning set-up role that was tentatively (and terrifyingly) handed to the Professor, who then moves into the middle innings role that he’s more suited for, this strengthens the entire chain of relief in front of Soria.

Twenty-four hours ago, the bullpen looked like a potential weakness for the Royals, simply because the potential for Farnsworth to suffer repeated eighth-inning meltdowns was so great. Now? Suddenly you’re looking at breaking camp with the following four right-handed relievers: Soria, Cruz, Farnsworth, and Robinson Tejada. This means that Soria would have the lowest strikeout rate in 2008 of any right-handed reliever on the team, with a mere 66 Ks in 67.1 innings (8.82 per nine). (In Soria’s defense, if you look at strikeouts as a percentage of batters faced – the more accurate method – he ranks behind only Cruz.)

Throw in a complement of crafty left-handers in Ron Mahay, Jimmy Gobble, and John Bale if he recovers from thyroid surgery in time (get well soon, John!) That’s a deep and formidable bullpen, maybe one of the best in baseball. That’s a hell of an upgrade for one pitcher to make.

And then we get to cost: Cruz will get paid $6 million over the next two seasons (counting his 2011 buyout), with a third-year option for $3.5 million. Wow. I mean, wow. It’s easy to make a crack about how Cruz should have Farnsworth’s contract and vice versa, but look at it this way: the Royals are paying Cruz the same amount of money over the next two seasons as the Milwaukee Brewers are paying Trevor Hoffman – who’s 41 years old and threw 45 innings last season – just in 2009. That’s a steal, folks. Grand Theft Reliever.

It’s not that simple, because the non-financial cost of signing Cruz was significant: the Royals gave up their second-round pick in the draft as compensation. This goes against Dayton Moore’s general principles of focusing on building from within, and also goes against over 15 years of Royals history. The last time the Royals gave up a draft pick – in other words, the last time the Royals signed a Type A free agent – was in 1993, when they signed David Cone.* Before that, you have to go back to 1990 and the Davis Brothers, who in addition to all the other damage they wreaked on the franchise, cost the Royals their first and second-round picks that June.

*: I just learned that with the compensation pick they got from the Royals, the Blue Jays drafted Anthony Medrano. I’m stunned by this, because two years later the Royals traded Cone to the Jays for three players…and one of them was Medrano. Has any other player signed as a free agent with a new team, then been traded for the same guy who was drafted with his own compensation pick?

So from a player development standpoint, this is going to hurt a little. But just a little. For one thing, it will hurt the Royals less than it would have hurt almost any other team that would have signed Cruz. Any team that finished with one of the 15 best records in 2008 would have had to surrender their first-round pick. The Royals, by virtue of finishing with the 11th-worst record in baseball, only surrender their second-round pick – a pick which comes after the second-round pick of ten other teams. In other words, had the Royals finished with a worse record, the pick they surrendered would have come earlier in the second round, while if they had finished with a better record, they likely would have had to surrender their first-round pick. Only the four teams drafting immediately after them would have given up a lower draft pick as compensation. The difference in draft pick compensation may be a big factor in why the Twins, who were the last team rumored to be in on Cruz (and who would have had to surrender a first-rounder), ultimately dropped out of the bidding.

It’s possible that in the long run that second-round pick would have been more valuable to the Royals than Cruz, although recent history is not favorable in that regard. The Royals did draft Carlos Beltran in the second round in 1995, but since then, the most successful second-round draft pick is probably Shane Costa. (Wow, that’s sad.) And not only do the Royals have Cruz, but they have the opportunity to cash Cruz in for prospects at the trading deadline this year or next, or possibly obtain draft-pick compensation of their own if Cruz walks away as a free agent after 2010 or 2011. This may not be a draft pick denied so much as a draft pick deferred.

Beyond that, there’s reason to think that the Royals will simply take the resources they would have spent on that pick and use them on amateur talent elsewhere. Moore was on Soren Petro’s radio show a few days ago, and while I can not vouch for this 100% as it comes to me secondhand, Moore insinuated that the Royals were not as active in Latin America in 2008 compared to 2007 partly because they blew the budget for Eric Hosmer’s $6 million bonus. This is corroborated by a statement Moore made to Bob Dutton: “So when times like this occur, we feel like we can compensate through our international scouting.”

(Oddly, that last statement was originally in this column, then I checked back an hour later and it was gone. The quote above appears in a Google search, but then disappears when I click on the link. Someone at the Star is messing with me.)

The Royals were rather quiet on the international market last summer, but I predict that will change this year. If Grudzielanek doesn’t get off the couch and sign with someone soon – remember, the compensation for Grudz would be a supplemental first-rounder, a better pick than the one we just lost – I’d expect the Royals to be very active in Latin America this year.

Anyway, while I’d love to have that second-round pick back, let’s be honest: if it wasn’t for the issue of draft pick compensation, the Royals never would have signed Cruz. And they sure as hell wouldn’t have signed him for such a ridiculously low price. Signing Cruz may not have fit the Royals’ overarching philosophy of player development, but so what? The real philosophy of a winning team is to, you know, win – by any means necessary. This move helps the Royals do just that, in a year when even a few more wins might be the difference between October baseball and October golf. On a day when most in Kansas City were focusing on the other players acquired for a second-round pick, don’t be fooled: this move was every bit as important when it comes to getting a KC team into the playoffs in 2009.

I’m happy to see that Moore has the flexibility to suspend his principles for a moment when a bargain of this magnitude presents itself. Ultimately, what matters is that Juan Cruz helps this team, and does so without appreciably raising payroll. He only makes $2.25 million this year, and half that money was saved by cutting Esteban German. (Let’s take a brief moment to acknowledge German, who was a terrific utility player for two years, but whose bat regressed mightily last season while his glove became an even more serious liability.)

I’m just as happy to see that Moore is willing, in essence, to admit he made a mistake when he signed Farnsworth. He misjudged the market badly by moving to sign Farnsworth early, to what proved to be one of the most lucrative contracts signed by a non-closing reliever this winter. By signing Cruz, a better pitcher by any metric you choose, for $6 million over two years (a less expensive contract by any metric you choose), Moore is tacitly admitting that he goofed the first time around. Moore didn’t let the money wasted on Farnsworth intimidate him away from spending money much more wisely on a superior pitcher. Farnsworth is a sunk cost, and the investment in Farnsworth shouldn’t have factored into whether Cruz would be a good investment or not. Kudos to Moore for not letting it do so.

Most of all, I’m happy because Moore is taking the Royals’ chances in 2009 as seriously as some of us fans are. The division is there for the taking, and a little improvement could go a long way this year. Moore saw the opportunity to improve the team by more than a little, and he took it. Let’s see if the Royals follow suit with their own opportunity.