Saturday, April 4, 2009

25 To Watch: Part One.

It’s on. For the first time since 2004 – let’s not dwell on what happened that year – we go into a season with legitimate playoff aspirations. It may require a little dreaming, a little luck, but for the first time in five years you can tell your friends, “I think the Royals can win the division this year,” and not have them stare at you with a mixture of disgust and fear, as if you had just sprouted a third ear before their eyes.

But if it’s going to happen, it’s going to require certain players to perform at the edges of their expectations. Here is a list, to this Royals fan, of the 25 people with the most impact on the Royals’ chances to run a flag up a pole at the new Kauffman Stadium this year. This isn’t a list of the 25 best players, but the 25 players whose performances could shape the outcome of the division. Joakim Soria isn’t on this list, for instance; it’s not that he isn’t wildly important to the Royals’ chances of winning, but simply that he is very much a known commodity – he’s about as safe a bet as a reliever can be. The guys on this list are there precisely because they’re unknown commodities.

25. John Buck

The Royals’ chances this season depend in large part on having a lineup that contributes at every spot, and that requires the Royals to get more out of their catchers than just the occasional home run. Miguel Olivo is who he is – a ridiculously free swinger who crushes lefties – but Buck still has a glimmer of hope to be something more than who he has been. That’s an odd thing to say about a guy who has been about as consistent as any player in the majors. (Buck has been within 12 points of his career marks in batting average (.234), within 18 points of his .298 career OBP, and within 33 points of his .398 slugging average, in every season of his career.) Call this a hunch, that a combination of a clearer head and the work of the Bat Whisperer can get Buck back to where he was in early 2007, when he was absolutely destroying the ball. If the Royals do go to the playoffs, I’m guessing Buck, not Olivo, will be the starter behind the plate.

24. Rick Porcello/Ryan Perry

I’m cheating a little and combining these two guys together. Porcello and Perry, the Tigers’ last two #1 picks, both made the roster out of spring training, even though Porcello’s 20 years old and never pitched above A-ball, and Perry has all of 14 professional innings to his credit. I’ve already made fun of the Tigers’ decision to rush Porcello, but a friend pointed out a very significant difference between this decision and the one to start Jeremy Bonderman in the bigs: unlike in 2003, the Tigers are very much playing for this year, and if Porcello gives them the best shot at winning, then he needs to be with the team, service-time considerations be damned. Looking at their other options for the rotation – even with Porcello, includes Zach Miner – it’s hard to argue that Porcello doesn’t help them. Likewise Perry, given that elite college relievers are frequently ready within a year of being drafted, and given that the Tigers’ closer is the not-exactly-Riveraesque Fernando Rodney. If Porcello and Perry really are ready, the Tigers are going to be in the hunt. If they’re not, their pitching staff is strictly second-division caliber.

23. Ozzie Guillen

I have rarely been more wrong about a manager than I was about Ozzie Guillen, who given his antics as a player came across as someone who would wear out his welcome in the manager’s chair quickly. Those concerns have proven to be, ahem, overstated. Guillen has managed to find a way to light a fire under his players without ever letting that fire rage out of control. He’s just crazy enough to intimidate his players without being so crazy as to freak them out completely. He’s Billy Martin without the psychosis, in other words. His act doesn’t work every year, but it worked in 2005, and it worked in 2008. On paper the White Sox look like an under-.500 squad, but if Guillen (and Don Cooper, maybe the most underrated pitching coach in baseball) work their magic again, they can once again tell PECOTA where to stick its algorithms.

22. Juan Cruz

It’s easy to overstate the impact of a reliever – that’s what led the Royals to throwing $9 million at Kyle Farnsworth – but the addition of Cruz seemed to change the perception of the Royals’ bullpen from a potential liability into an unquestioned strength. If he’s the same pitcher he’s been the last two years, ringing up hitters in bunches and keeping his ERA around 3, the Royals will never miss Ramon Ramirez. A Cruz-Soria combination can shorten a lot of games to seven innings, and Farnsworth, Mahay, and Tejeda are nice options to have in the sixth and seventh. But Cruz’s control issues and the velocity he generates on a frame listed at 155 pounds makes him far from a sure bet.

21. Asdrubal Cabrera

Who? The Indians’ second baseman is nowhere near a household name, but he has the potential to change that – quickly. Stolen from the Mariners for Eduardo Perez at the trading deadline in 2006 (between Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo, the Indians better vote Bill Bavasi a playoff share if they make it this year), Cabrera came up late in 2007 and hit .283/.354/.421 as a 21-year-old. Last season, he was the worst hitter in the division this side of Tony Pena in the first half, hitting .184/.282/.247 through June 8th, before he was sent to Buffalo for a month-long refresher. He hit .326/.375/.475 there, and after returning on July 18th hit .320/.398/.464 for the Indians. His defense makes a lot of people scratch their heads and wonder why he isn’t playing shortstop instead of Jhonny Peralta. If the Indians get second-half Cabrera for both halves this year, they’ve got one of the best second basemen in the division. It’s hard for me to look at Cabrera and not see Edgardo Alfonzo, who had a massive breakout season at age 23.

20. Luke Hochevar

He may be starting the year in Omaha, but the Royals can’t win this season without having him in Kansas City most of the season. More than any other pitcher, Hochevar is the one guy with the skills to give the Royals that elusive fourth starter. He pitched much better as a rookie than his 5.51 ERA suggests, and his groundball tendencies allow him to be successful even without a terrific strikeout rate. If he gets 25 starts this year with an ERA in the mid-fours, the Royals have a shot. If Sidney Ponson winds up being not just the fourth starter, but the fourth-best starter on the Royals, it’s going to be a long year.

19. Carlos Gomez

After being the centerpiece of the Johan Santana trade last winter, Gomez’s first year with the Twins was a Tale of Two Half-Innings. At the plate, he hit just .258 with little power and terrible plate discipline; even with his speed (33 steals) he was one of the worst everyday hitters in the majors. But on defense, he might have been the best defensive centerfielder in the game. He’s just 23 this year, and his offense is a lot more likely to take a step forward than his defense is to take a step back. The Royals have to hope that his offensive failings continue to counter his defensive brilliance.

18. Jose Guillen

Guillen has been such a ceaseless source of grief for Royals fans over the past year that it’s easy to forget that, just two seasons ago, he was a very productive hitter (.290/.353/.460) in a very difficult hitter’s ballpark in Seattle. Even last year he was brilliant for stretches when he was healthy and happy, a combination which unfortunately was rarely seen. This has been a very quiet spring for Guillen, both on and off the field. Let’s hope that silence is a virtue.

17. Armando Galarraga

Few noticed when the Tigers traded for Galarraga last winter, and fewer still expected the 26-year-old to have the season he had, going 13-7 with a 3.73 ERA and finishing fourth in the Rookie of the Year vote. Galarraga had a fairly mediocre minor league track record, and owed his success last year largely to a ridiculous .237 BABIP, suggesting his season was a fluke. Hmmm…trade for a 26-year-old unheralded rookie, watch him win 12 or 13 games with an ERA in the upper 3s and garner RoY consideration thanks to a low BABIP…where have I seen this before? Royals fans can only hope that Galarraga’s encore is the same.

16. Delmon Young

While a lot of people (over here! I’ve got my hand in the air!) thought the Twins got the short end of the stick in the Santana trade, the consensus about the massive Delmon Young-plus for Matt Garza-plus deal was a lot more balanced. The Rays won that deal in spades last year, mostly because of how it impacted their defense but also because Young stagnated in his second full season in the majors. I fear that a breakout is still imminent. Young may have attitude/work-ethic issues, but he also has massive talent (the #1 overall pick in the 2003 draft, remember), and while he hit just .290/.336/.405 last season, his walks jumped from 26 to 35 while his strikeouts dropped from 127 to 105. Oh, and he’s still just 23. A slow, steady improvement we can handle; a Carlos Quentin-like breakout, sandwiched between Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, we can’t.

15. Mike Aviles

It’s not just that the Royals never have a player do what Mike Aviles did last year; it’s that no team has had a player do what Aviles did. As Sam Mellinger pointed out a few weeks ago, not counting Japanese imports, Aviles had the best rookie season for any player 27 or older since World War II. In 2006, Aviles hit .264/.307/.373 in Omaha, and made 80% of his starts at third base. Two years later, he hit .325/.354/.480 for the Royals with defensive numbers at shortstop that were as shocking as his numbers at the plate. The Royals don’t necessarily need Aviles to replicate his performance last year, but it would be awfully nice if it turned out 2008 wasn’t an Angel Berroa-sized mirage.

14. Kevin Seitzer

Last season, the Royals drew 392 walks. Three hundred and ninety-two. It was the lowest walk total in the history of the most impatient franchise in baseball. By comparison, every playoff team last season drew at least 481 walks, and every team except the Angels drew at least 540. A massive change in hitting philosophy was required, and to his credit Dayton Moore undertook one. Now, hitting coaches can only do so much, and the Bat Whisperer might prove to break more swings than he fixes. But the Royals are trying to modernize their 1970s-approach to offense in the 21st century, and revolutions call for revolutionaries. Seitzer may be hailed as a hero, or he may get the guillotine as quickly as he did for the Diamondbacks in 2007. Good or bad, though, at least he’ll do something. And God knows the Royals’ approach to the strike zone needs something. Anything.

13. Cliff Lee

Yeah, I’m still not used to seeing Cliff Lee’s name on the list of Cy Young winners either. It’s not that he wasn’t deserving – he was the American League’s best pitcher pretty much from his first pitch – but it’s just not all that typical for a guy to 5-8, 6.29 one year and 22-3, 2.54 the next. There’s nothing about his performance that screams “fluke!”, or even whispers it: he set a career high in strikeouts with 170, a career low in walks with 34, and a career low in homers with 12. But taken in the context of his career, you have to expect some fallback, particularly since scouts weren’t talking about the same kind of leap forward that his numbers proclaimed. He ought to be good, but if good is all he is, the Indians are going to take a hit.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Rob & Rany Returns! (One Night Only.)

With Opening Day rapidly approaching, I thought it would be an opportune time for a special guest to join me. Please welcome the return of Rob & Rany, as we argue over the Royals’ chances to win this season.

Rany: So, it’s another year, and I’m pretty sure that, for the 12th consecutive season, I’m more bullish on the Royals than you are. I don’t think the Royals are divisional favorites are anything, but I think that they have maybe a 15% chance of winning the division – just slightly less than you’d expect by arranging the teams at random. I think they’ve got the best 1-2 starters in the division, the best closer/set-up man combination in the division, and a deep if not particularly star-laden lineup. Is that enough? More specifically, what do you think has to happen for the Royals to win the division?

Rob: What do I think has to happen...well, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler both have to hit like we used to think they would and one of the Royals’ many No. 5 starters has to actually pitch like a No. 3 starter (care to predict which of them will actually do that?). If those three things happen, I can see this team getting to .500. And in this division, it’s just a hop and a skip from there to seriously contending.

Rany: Wow, if I didn’t know you better, I’d say it sounds like you also think the Royals have a chance. I take it you agree that the AL Central is a remarkably even division at this moment in time – you can make a case for every team in the division to finish first based on its strengths, and to finish last based on its flaws. The Royals’ biggest flaw, as it stands, is an infield defense that looks just absolutely awful. I can almost justify the decision to send Hochevar to Omaha simply to keep him away from this infield, given his groundball tendencies. Can a team win with an infield this bad?

What do you think about Teahen at second base, anyway? I think it can work, if Teahen can find a way to be even adequate defensively and if Kevin Seitzer really has unleashed his bat. I think it’s a really cool gamble, but I can’t deny the potential for this to backfire. I think the risk is worth the reward, because on paper the Royals are still five or ten games behind the Indians. If the Teahen experiment costs them a few games, well, they’re just farther back in the standings. If it wins them a few games, you’ve cut that gap in half right there.

Rob: More than five. Close to 10. Which isn’t an impossible gap to close. That’s two standard deviations. Indians drop one SD, Royals bump one SD...except the Tigers and probably the Twins are better than the Royals, too. On paper.

I like the Teahen Gambit. Why not? But I suspect that if Kevin Seitzer wasn’t named Kevin Seitzer, we might not take Teahen’s March numbers quite as seriously. My guess is that we get the worst defensive second baseman in the league, with (roughly) Teahen’s career hitting stats. At best, because if he struggles with the glove – as he almost certainly has to, particularly on the DP – itmight well affect his hitting.

Not be a wet blanket or anything. I like the creativity it shows. I just wonder if the same creativity is what led to Sidney Ponson entering the season with a rotation slot.

Rany: Yeah, it seems like an inordinate amount of hope in the Royals has been placed on Seitzer’s shoulders. Unfortunately for him, I’m not helping - I truly think that if the Royals make the playoffs this year, at year’s end we’ll be calling Seitzer the team’s MVP. That’s a lot to ask of a hitting coach, given that most hitting coaches don’t seem to have much effect one way or another.

Which brings up the Royals’ other big flaw, which is that once again, for all the lip service the Royals have given to OBP, they went out and got a bunch of players that think walks are for sissies. Mike Jacobs’ career high in walks is 45. Miguel Olivo walked 7 times (7!) in over 300 at-bats last year, and he’s going from second-string to first-string. Coco Crisp has a below-average walk rate for a leadoff hitter.

I don’t think the Royals will come anywhere close to last year’s total of 392 walks – mainly because that’s one of the lowest walk totals of the last 50 years – but for them to be competitive you’d really like to see them up near 500 walks, and it’s hard to see where that kind of improvement is going to come from. I think Gordon might walk more, and maybe even Teahen. But the lineup is what it is – a lineup with little ability to walk, and not enough power to make up for that. If the Royals do find a way to walk 500 times, I think the Royals ought to induct Seitzer into the team’s Hall of Fame on the spot.

Rob: Sure. And for my next trick...

We may project improvements for Gordon and Butler, but the “walks problem” isn’t going away, which means it’s mostly up to the pitchers. Who a) aren’t going to get any help from their infield defense, and b) aren’t going to get much help from anyone except Meche, Greinke, and Soria.

I guess I’ve circled back around to old material. Sorry...I think it’s going to be an interesting team when the good starters are starting. But otherwise I think it’s going to be pretty dreary.

Rany: I think you’re selling Juan Cruz a little short – he could be a huge addition to the bullpen, if only because he ought to keep Kyle Farnsworth out of game situations in the 8th inning. But to me, the key to the entire pitching staff is probably Kyle Davies. If his September was a mirage – if his ERA is closer to his 5.63 career mark than his 4.06 ERA last season - then I think we can safely call this season toast.

The thing about Davies is not only was he such a good pitcher on a statistical basis late last year, but the impression I’m getting is that the scouting evaluation has also changed – you’re hearing a lot of guys saying that he could be an above-average starter this year based on his stuff. He’s done nothing in Arizona to change that impression. If he can give the Royals 180 innings with an ERA around 4, then “when the good starters are starting” is suddenly 60% of the time, and the Royals just need to find one more league-average starter to make this a very formidable rotation. The problem is, I still think Luke Hochevar is the guy most like to fit that profile, and they can’t seem to find him. Ponson must be blocking their view. Literally.

Rob: Sure, if Davies is good everything looks a little better, particularly because the Ponson Gambit surely can’t last long. If Hochevar deserves that spot, he’ll pitch well in Omaha and he’ll have that spot before Memorial Day.

My worry – which I mentioned somewhere else recently – is that NONE of these guys...not Davies or Hochevar or Bannister, and certainly not Ponson or Horacio Ramirez...is going to post even a league-average ERA.

Obviously, one or more of them might surprise us. But counting on surprises is a good way to go broke (if you’re betting) or look foolish (if you’re writing).

Rany: Hey, I’ve never let the fear of looking foolish stop me from counting on surprises from the Royals before. And I’ve had many opportunities.

Rob: Yeah. You and Posnanski both. Can’t wait to see his prediction.

Rany: The difference is, with Poz I always think his optimism is at least a little tongue-in-cheek. With me, it’s totally earnest and totally pathetic.

Honestly, it sounds to me like we really don’t disagree all that much about the Royals’ fortunes this year: better (but still mediocre) offense, strong top of the rotation but major issues at the back end, good bullpen, horrifying defense. Sounds like a pretty average team overall, but for an average team it seems like the Royals have an unusual number of strengths and weaknesses. This might be a good thing, in the sense that if they can patch up those weaknesses – in particular, if they can find or trade for another starter – they could go from average to above-average rather quickly. How badly could this team use Orlando Hudson right now? And how intriguing would the back end of the rotation look if Moore had saved some money for, I don’t know, Pedro Martinez?

Rob: Ah, money ... I have this vague memory of protesting at some point that some money might have been better saved than spent on Jose Guillen ... Probably just a dream I once had.

Rany: There’s one more thing I want to cover, and that’s the issue of depth. I was talking to a reporter from the Omaha World-Herald today, and he was pointing out how strong the O-Royals’ rotation was - I think it’s going to go something like Hochevar, Bannister, Duckworth, Lenny DiNardo, and Matt Wright - and it occurred to me that honestly, that rotation might be better than the Royals’ major league rotation just three years ago. Six guys made 10 or more starts for the 2006 Royals: Mark Redman, Runelvys Hernandez, Scott Elarton, Luke Hudson, Odalis Perez, and Jorge de la Rosa. And let’s not forget the eight starts from Ducky, or six each from Bobby Keppel and Joe Mays...my God, what a horrible rotation.

Rob: That was only three years ago? I had already forgotten most of that ugliness (though for some reason Bobby Keppel’s never left me).

Rany: As much as teams struggle to put together their 25-man roster for Opening Day, no team gets through a season without getting significant contributions from guys who start the year in the minors. I don’t think the Royals have a Mike Aviles ready to break through (although no one thought they had a Mike Aviles to break through last year), but inevitably they’re going to need contributions from their bench or from Triple-A. I think the Royals may be taking the issue of depth a little too far, in that their replacement starters are likely better than the guys they’d replace, but at least when they inevitably need to use a sixth or seventh starting pitcher, they have someone capable of filling in.

While the Royals look strong in terms of their established veteran depth, it’s unlikely we’re going to see an impact prospect come up during the year. Carlos Rosa might pop up in the bullpen before long, and it’s possible that Daniel Cortes could be ready for the rotation by September. But unless some combination of ineffectiveness or injury opens up a spot for Kila Ka’aihue, or unless Mike Moustakas makes some sort of Travis Snider-like leap and gets promoted just before the playoff roster deadline, I think most of the Royals’ best talent on the farm won’t be seen until 2010.

Rob: Of course, that 2006 team did lose 100 games ... and that was an improvement over the previous two seasons. Which reminds me/us that I/we shouldn’t be too greedy. Last season was the Royals’ best in quite some time, and if they win 78 this season, it’ll be another (small) step forward. All things considered, they would seem to be on track for another (small) step next year, and then who knows?

Rany: Let’s wrap it up on that note, then. Gun to your head, how many games do you think the Royals will win this year? And just for fun, what do you think the front office’s best and worst decisions will be this year?

Rob: I actually have them at 74 wins, a game behind the White Sox. Can’t remember if that’s how the numbers came out, or if I bumped them down a game or two for spite.

Best Decision: Releasing Ponson on the 21st of April.

Worst Decision: Waiting too long to trade Juan Cruz.

Rany: I think I’ll put them at 80 wins, which gives me cover if they tank (hey, I said they’d finish below .500!) but also hedges the upside (hey, I said their win total will be in the 80s!) Somewhere between 78-81 wins sounds about right – they’re pretty much the definition of average overall, but the infield defense knocks them down a peg. And that still puts them just two breakout seasons away from contention.

Best decision: I’ll go crazy here and say the decision to make Teahen a second baseman.

Worst decision: They give Ponson and Ramirez more than 20 starts combined before realizing they should have danced with who brung ya.

(Look for another edition of Rob & Rany soon – just in a different format. Hopefully you’ll all understand soon enough.)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Ponson vs. Hochevar.

So after my last post I decided to give the Royals 24 hours to think about the consequences of their decision, in the hopes that maybe they would come to their senses. Instead, they made it official, demoting Luke Hochevar to Omaha in order to clear a path for Sidney Ponson to open the season as the team’s fourth starter.

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 Los Angeles – wrote a column making that exact point: whoever the Royals’ fifth starter was, he wouldn’t be any worse than the fifth starters that the White Sox, Indians, Tigers, and Twins are sifting through.

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 Omaha. And the Royals appear hell-bent on continuing their April streak.

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 Arizona air (though he gave up more in some minor league starts.) Hochevar had a much better spring than Ramirez (9.00 ERA), or Bannister (8.53 ERA), or – ahem – Ponson (six runs in 5.1 innings in his first start; seven runs in five innings in his second start after Hochevar was sent down.)

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 Omaha, it will likely have cost them at a least a win or two. A win or two in April might seem like a small sacrifice to make in April. It might prove to be an enormous mistake come October.

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 Omaha, slices their margin that much thinner. The sooner they come to their senses, the less likely we’ll be to retrace the path of last year’s Twins, muttering “what if” all winter long.

--

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.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Surprises, Surprises.

A warning to anyone out there considering starting their own blog: this is a 365-day-a-year habit. You may not be able to write every day, but the need, the compulsion, to stay on top of things is not something that you can turn off just because you happen to take a vacation.

Case in point: I’m currently writing you from Vail, Colorado, where my family and I am enjoying our annual ski trip. Except that I spent most of today off the slopes and at my computer, catching up with everything I missed over the weekend. That’s how dedicated I am to you, Dear Reader.

Dedication may be the best I can offer you, given my recent track record of prognostication. For as much as I have confidence in my ability to analyze the Royals’ actions, my ability to predict their actions could use a little work. Two recent examples stand out:

1) On February 5th, after the Royals announced they would try Mark Teahen at second base, I wrote this: “I think it’s worth a try, and I credit the Royals for entertaining the idea. I also think that come Opening Day, we’ll have already long forgotten the idea that the Royals ever thought Mark Teahen could play second base.”

On March 30th, Bob Dutton wrote of the battle for second base: “Club officials suggest Mark Teahen is an increasingly attractive option as the starter.”

2) On March 20th – like, ten days ago – I wrote “Look, if the Royals were really planning to open the season with Ponson in the rotation, this would be cause for alarm.” I was not alarmed.

On March 29th, Dutton wrote, “Maybe it means nothing and maybe it's mere coincidence, but the Royals have Kyle Davies and Sidney Ponson tentatively scheduled as their starting pitchers for Monday and Tuesday. That positions Davies and Ponson each to get one additional spring start and be on track to work the third and fourth games of the regular season on normal rest behind Gil Meche and Zack Greinke.”

Rany on the Royals! All Predictions True or Your Money Back!

Clearly, I have no idea what’s going on inside the front office. If I did, I’d lose my “outsider” cred, and we can’t have that.

While the Royals have me flummoxed twice, they only have me upset once. I cheerfully admit to the fact that I was skeptical that Mark Teahen, having last played second base sometime around the turn of the millennium, could learn to play the position at a major-league caliber in the span of six weeks – nearly half of which were spent playing third base for Team Canada.

But this is one of those predictions that I’m happy to be wrong about. Teahen appears to have won the job, if not on an everyday basis than at least in the sense of laying claim to the lion’s share of playing time. What’s interesting is that he didn’t win the confidence of the Royals by mastering the nuances of second base faster than anyone expected. He won the position by basically hitting the snot out of the ball ever since returning from the World Baseball Classic, to the point where it doesn’t really matter if he fields the position like, well, like you’d expect Mark Teahen to play it.

I mean, he’s hitting .468/.519/.979 with five homers in 47 at-bats. Make that six – he hit one tonight off of Rich Harden. It’s almost to the point where Matt Wieters notices him.

I didn’t see this coming, but I’m as excited as anyone else to see how this is going to work out. Worst-case scenario, the Royals go back to some combination of Willie Bloomquist and Alberto Callaspo by May. Best-case scenario? I dunno, how about a left-handed Jeff Kent? I know this much: at $6 in a fantasy auction, where defense doesn't matter and he's about two weeks from qualifying at second base, Teahen is a ridiculous steal.

How this affects the lineup is still in question*. I suggested the Royals bat Teahen seventh, but Dutton quotes a front office type as saying “If he’s hitting well enough to win the job, that probably means he’s hitting well enough to bat second or third in the lineup.” That’s one way to look at it. The other way to look at it is that if Teahen really deserved to bat second or third in the lineup, he would have already been guaranteed a starting job at some position.

The permutation that comes up the most is to start the lineup with Crisp-DeJesus-Teahen, with Aviles slotting behind Olivo in the nine hole. This works fine in terms of lineup construction, but I worry about having a lineup that goes R-R-S-L-L from the 8-9-1-2-3 slots. A simple solution to this would be to flip-flop Crisp and DeJesus – DeJesus is a very similar hitter to Crisp, but with less speed (an overrated trait for a leadoff hitter) and more on-base ability. That breaks up the lefties. I’m not as worried about batting two same-side hitters in a row at the bottom of the lineup, because those are the guys you can pinch-hit for against a tough right-hander in a key situation – and Callaspo, if nothing else, makes for a nice pinch-hitter in exactly those situations.

Starting Teahen at second base makes for a fascinating lineup. On the one hand, the Royals have an incredibly productive bottom of the order. The mere fact that Mike Aviles, he of the .325 average last season, is being talked about as the potential #9 hitter is testament to that. The worst hitter is likely to be whoever is catching that day, but man, if Miguel Olivo or John Buck is our worst hitter, I’d call that progress. Jose Guillen might be the seventh-best hitter in the lineup.

On the other hand, the Royals have an awfully weak heart of the order, at least unless and until Alex Gordon and Bam Bam have their breakthrough years. Teahen-Guillen-Jacobs won’t have opposing pitchers quaking in their boots. Basically, the Royals’ projected lineup has nine hitters with very disparate talents but with remarkably similar overall value. You’d be hard-pressed to find a team in recent history with less variance among its starting nine. PECOTA projects no one in this lineup to have an OPS above 800, and no one to have an OPS under 700 except for the catchers (Olivo at 675, Buck at 696).

A lineup of league-average hitters ought to give you a league-average offense, and that sounds fine to me. Combine a league-average offense with a slightly above-average rotation and a very good bullpen, and you ought to get meaningful September baseball at the very least.

Make no mistake, though: this moves comes at a very real defensive cost, one that I’m not sure the Royals can overcome. I mean, this might be the worst defensive infield that any major league team has fielded in a long, long time. Alex Gordon’s defense at third base last season had many observers wondering when the move to first base would come; Mike Aviles’ defense at shortstop was as shocking as his offense, but a year ago he was a guy who was playing most second base and third base in Omaha. First base is a joke, and I mean literally:

Q: What’s the difference between Mike Jacobs and Billy Butler?

A: One of them was the worst defensive first baseman in the major leagues last year. The other one is Billy Butler.

Hey, I didn't say it was a funny joke.

And now we’ve got a converted third baseman/outfielder who will be making his professional debut at second base. Wow. I mean, wow. I know Dayton Moore gets a lot of crap for his devotion to the Braves’ Way, but you can’t accuse him of being a blind follower. Pendleton-Belliard-Lemke-Bream this ain’t.

*: Will McDonald makes fun of my last column here, and I can’t say I blame him: deconstructing lineups is the crutch of any baseball blog, right up there with the “a Google search for ‘A’ and ‘B’ yields X number of results” meme in the pantheon of sportswriters’ clich├ęs. I somehow spent nearly 3500 words on a piece that’s already practically irrelevant. Lesson learned, at least the lesson about picking better subjects to write about – the lesson about using an economy of words may never sink in, I’m afraid.

But since Will compares my piece to pictures of Jenn Sterger – and since Will has a well-documented crush on her – it’s only fair for me to point out that thanks to my friend Will Carroll (a Gladwellian “Connector” if ever there was one), I had the opportunity to dine with her and Carroll at Harry Caray’s Steakhouse a couple summers back. She was perfectly delightful company, friendly and funny and surprisingly unpretentious, and even capped the evening off with an unexpected hug. I’d say more, but I’d feel guilty if I did anything to promote blogger-on-blogger crime. Especially if the second blogger happened to be me.

And on that note, it’s almost midnight, and if I don’t hit the slopes again tomorrow I might as well crawl back into my parents’ basement, so I bid you all adieu. I’m sorry I didn’t get around to commenting on the trailer for Sidney Ponson, Fourth Starter. Let’s save that article for another day, and hope that in the interim the Royals make that post unnecessary.