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.