Friday, March 13, 2009


Last time, I talked about the advantage the Royals can garner by keeping their worst players out of the lineup. But this was really a smaller point in a larger overall theme for the Royals. As beneficial as it is for the Royals to keep the likes of Ross Gload and Tony Pena Jr out of the lineup, it’s even more beneficial to keep them off the roster entirely.

Making sure that your Opening Day lineup is major-league caliber from top to bottom is an important first step to a winning season, but it’s just that: a first step. The baseball season is long. Players get hurt. Bench players become everyday players. Minor leaguers become major leaguers. Depth matters, and say what you will about the moves Dayton Moore made this winter, but one thing the moves accomplished was to add depth to the roster. Indeed, the Royals are as deep as I can recall them being in a long, long time.

Let’s run a thought experiment here, while hoping it remains just that: let’s imagine that we learn this week that someone on the roster has suffered a major injury and will be out indefinitely, perhaps for the entire season. How would the Royals be affected?

If it’s Coco Crisp, then David DeJesus moves to center, Mark Teahen starts in left. Impact: significant on defense, but a wash or possibly even an improvement on offense.

If it’s DeJesus, he’s replaced with Teahen. Impact: mild.

If it’s Jose Guillen, he’s replaced with Teahen. Impact: none, maybe an improvement.

If it’s Alex Gordon, he’s replaced with Teahen. Impact: significant, but survivable.

If it’s Mike Aviles, he’s replaced with, well, I’m not sure. Willie Bloomquist probably moves over from second base, and Pena almost certainly makes the roster. Impact: enormous.

If it’s Bloomquist, then Alberto Callaspo secures his hold on the everyday job at second base, but Pena makes the roster as a utility player. Impact: an upgrade in the lineup, a downgrade on the bench – at worst, a wash overall.

If it’s Callaspo, then we’ll be treated to the Spork on an everyday basis, with occasional doses of Pena to remind us of how much worse it could be. Impact: significant.

If it’s Mike Jacobs, then Ryan Shealy likely makes the roster along with Gload, and a quasi-platoon probably plays out between the two of them – at least until Kila Ka’aihue is deemed ready. Impact: mild to moderate.

If it’s Billy Butler, same thing, same impact.

If it’s John Buck or Miguel Olivo, the other guy gets the starting job, and Brayan Pena gets the backup job he is ably suited for. Impact: none.

If it’s a member of the starting rotation, well, the Royals have six starting pitchers for five spots. (Or at least, the Royals think they have six starting pitchers – the rest of us think that Horacio Ramirez is a ticking time bomb.) Impact: as long as they have to replace just one starter, mild.

If it’s Joakim Soria, a month ago this would have been an absolutely devastating injury – can you say “now pitching the ninth inning, Kyle Farnsworth”? – but Juan Cruz is more than capable of filling in as closer, and in fact would make for a better closer than anyone the Royals had from 1999 to 2006. Impact: mild to moderate.

If it’s another right-handed reliever, the Royals are already having trouble finding space for both Robinson Tejeda (who absolutely should make the roster) and Doug Waechter, and Carlos Rosa is almost ready for his close-up. Impact: minimal.

If it’s a left-handed reliever, it might actually make the front office’s job easier trying to decide between John Bale and Jimmy Gobble as the second left-hander behind Ron Mahay. (I’m expecting the Royals to DL Bale even if he’s ready to start the year, giving him some time to “rehab” in Omaha and pushing any roster decisions a few weeks into the future.) Impact: None.

The point here isn’t that the Royals could weather the loss of any one of their players equally – obviously, losing Zack Greinke would hurt more than losing Brian Bannister. The point is that at almost every position, the Royals have a backup plan that is almost starter-quality. Some of their backup plans would have been starters for the Royals a few years ago – actually, their main backup plan (Teahen) was a starter for many years.

This might seem like a small thing, but it’s not. The Yankees just lost Alex Rodriguez for a month or two, and their backup plan appears to be Cody Ransom. For all the money they’ve spent on their starters, the reality is that the Yankees’ backup third baseman can’t hold a candle to the Royals’ backup third baseman – which is why the Teahen-to-the-Yankees rumors started in the first place.

Teahen’s not just the backup third baseman, though, he’s also the backup for all three outfield spots. For that reason alone, I think the Royals would be foolish to trade him, and I doubt they are seriously considering that option anyway. A DeJesus-Crisp-Guillen outfield is many things, but durable is not one of them. None of the three missed significant time with an injury in 2008 or 2007, but in 2006 all three outfielders missed at least 43 games. I’d be surprised if Teahen doesn’t start at least a few dozen games in the outfield this year.

But with Teahen covering the four corners, and Bloomquist covering the middle of the field, the Royals have covered seven positions with two players about as well as it can reasonably be covered. Even with just a four-man bench – and don’t get me started again on the silliness of a 12-man pitching staff – the Royals can carry a backup catcher and still have a bench spot to carry the best available hitter. They might carry Gload instead, but at least the option is there.

Viewed from this perspective, the signing of Cruz is one of the final pieces of the puzzle, because an injury to Soria that would have previously been crippling is now something that only requires crutches and a good chiropractor. Really, the only position that the Royals don’t have an adequate firewall for is shortstop. That’s right: Mike Aviles is the most irreplaceable player on the Royals’ roster. (I’ll take “sentences I’d never thought I’d write a year ago” for $1000, Alex.)

If anything, the Royals may have focused on depth a little too much, in the sense that there are a few positions in which an injury might actually help the team. The Royals would exchange power for OBP in the event of an injury to Guillen, an exchange that might benefit the team overall. An injury to Bloomquist would mean more playing time for Callaspo, and an injury to Ramirez would mean the Royals would not have to use precious time in April finding out whether he has any business starting in the major leagues any more.

I’m rooting for Ramirez, both because I have no choice and because it’s important for a major league team to go into a season with at least six quality options for the rotation. The Royals had a remarkably healthy rotation last season, and they still suffered two significant injuries, one to John Bale (which, in all honesty, was predictable) early in the season, and one to his replacement, Luke Hochevar in August. (Kyle Davies replaced Brett Tomko at the end of May, but the only injury involved was the one to the ego of the scout that told Joe Posnanski last spring that Tomko could win 15 games.)

Three-fifths of the Opening Day rotation (Greinke, Meche, Bannister) stayed healthy all season, and the Royals still needed eight starters to get through the year. Starting the year with Bannister stashed away in Omaha, waiting for a spot to open up, is hardly the worst idea in the world – particularly since the Royals don’t have any imminent help ready on the farm. (No, Brandon Duckworth does not qualify as “help”. Carlos Rosa is a reliever now. And Daniel Cortes is not anywhere close to being ready, and is one pitcher I really hope the Royals do not rush.) But this is all predicated on Ramirez actually getting people out.

I’m rooting for perfect health, but that’s like rooting for 162 wins: it will never happen, and even dreaming about such an outcome just distracts from preparing for the alternative. This year, for the first time in many years, the Royals appear prepared for the inevitable. Hope is not a strategy, but roster depth is. And it’s one reason why I think the Royals could make this a very interesting season.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Addition. By Subtraction.

I’m not going to argue the point that some of my pre-season optimism in the Royals is not entirely grounded in reality. It’s March. Hope Spring Eternal, and all that jazz. My playoff hopes notwithstanding, on paper this team looks like about a 78-81 win team to me, which is actually quite an improvement from last season.

(The Royals won 75 games last year, but based on their run differential – they were outscored by 90 runs for the season – they should have finished around 72-90. Give the Mexicutioner credit for those extra three wins. The Royals lost just one game all season that they led after eight innings – you might remember it – after losing at least three such games in every season since 1995. More to the point, they were 20-18 in one-run games, continuing the turnaround in that category since Joakim Soria was acquired. They were 21-22 in one-run games in 2007, which doesn’t sound great, but remember: from 1996 to 2006, the Royals were the worst one-run team over an 11-year span in the history of major league baseball.)

I see the Royals improving because I think that we’ll see an across-the-board improvement from the trio of Zack Greinke, Alex Gordon, and Billy Butler, more than enough to make up for the inevitable regression from Mike Aviles, and that the rest of the roster should perform at roughly last year’s level.

So you figure two-game improvements from each of the young’uns (we need a nickname for those three), and you can tack on six more wins to last season. That’s 78 wins if you think that the Royals were really a 72-win team last year, or 81 wins if you think the bullpen will help them play a little above their talent level again.

But here’s the thing: the greatest improvement the Royals can make this season won’t come from their good players playing better, it will come from their bad players playing less. Last season, the Royals gave 892 at-bats to the trio of Ross Gload, Tony Pena, and Joey Gathright. In return they got a .241 average with four homers, three triples, 25 doubles, and 49 walks. The Royals gave over 15% of their playing time to three guys who combined for a .289 slugging average and a .284 OBP.

If they can find a way to avoid writing off nearly two full lineup slots the way they did last year, the Royals are going to benefit from a mighty case of addition-by-subtraction. It’s not a coincidence that in September, when those three guys combined for just 62 plate appearances, the Royals went 18-8.

Here’s how big an impact a Pena-free season can make:

Last season, Mike Aviles hit .325/.354/.480 in 102 games. Of the 27 men who played at least 80 games at shortstop last season, Aviles ranked first in batting average and third in OPS, behind only Hanley Ramirez and (by one point) Stephen Drew. As terrific a season as it was by major league standards, by the standards of Royals history it was unprecedented. Of the 39 times a Royal has played 80 games or more at shortstop for the Royals, Aviles’ .834 OPS ranks #1 overall. The only player within 40 points of his total is Jay Bell, who hit .291/.368/.461 in his one season in KC.

In 2008, Aviles had one of the finest seasons by a Royals shortstop in the team’s history. But in 2009, PECOTA projects a rather massive decline in Aviles’ performance, projecting that he hits just .268/.309/.409 this year, a decline in OPS of 115 points. Aviles’ 90th percentile projection is still lower than last year’s numbers at .301/.344/.478, which means that Aviles has less than a 10% chance of matching last year’s performance. This isn’t all that surprising, really; Aviles’ performance was as unexpected as it was terrific, and furthermore it was largely batting-average driven. Aviles is a better player than any of us thought, but there’s no question that last season he was propelled by a tailwind of good fortune.

It’s not all that surprising, and it may not be all that relevant either. Why? Because if the Royals get a line of .268/.309/.409 from their shortstops in 2009, it will still be an improvement over last year. That’s how bad Tony Pena was last season. The Royals had the benefit of the best-hitting shortstop in their history 58% of the time – but the other 42% was so bad that for the season, Royals shortstops hit just .249/.281/.351.

That’s how bad Tony Pena was – he was last on both those lists by an embarrassing margin – and that’s how much better the Royals can be if they can find a way to keep him off the roster.

First base wasn’t nearly that bad, but thanks to Gload the Royals had a combined line of .277/.324/.396 with just 14 homers – and seven of those came from Ryan Shealy in September alone. Mike Jacobs is overrated, but he’s just as clearly an upgrade – particularly if the Royals bench him against the tough left-handers.

As important as it is for the Royals to get some true breakthrough seasons from the likes of Gordon and Butler, and a rebound season from Jose Guillen, it’s just as important that they find a way to keep the roster free of guys who have no offensive ability whatsoever. Gload is still around, but even if he makes the roster he’s unlikely to get a lot of playing time. Pena is a longshot to make the roster, and Gathright’s a Cub. From where I’m sitting, while the Royals don’t have a lot of above-average hitters on their roster, everyone on their projected roster (yes, even Willie Bloomquist) has some offensive talent.

The Royals have exactly one winning April in the last 19 seasons, in large part because they go into every season with at least a few regular players who have no business being regulars, and it takes a few weeks of getting their butts kicked before the Royals wake up. Last year Ross Gload was at first base and Tony Pena was at shortstop on Opening Day. This year, the Royals may actually have nine major league hitters in their lineup to start the season. (I said they may – the Spork may put an end to that dream.) If the Royals are serious about contending this year, they can’t afford to spend April learning what the rest of us already know: it’s hard to win with only seven hitters in your lineup.