Saturday, April 11, 2009

Royals Today: 4/11/2009

First off, thanks to the efforts of WHB’s Blake Uhlenhake, the series premiere of Rany on the Radio is now available in podcast form: go here, and scroll down to the bottom to where you find a link to “Rany on Royals 4-9-09”. Hopefully future podcasts will be available within 24 hours of the show’s end. I thought the first show went very well; I particularly liked the part where I called Rob an ignorant slut*. Many thanks to caller Oscar for his insightful question, and I hope that more of you will call in during future episodes. Next week’s episode also airs on Thursday at 7 pm, and we should be in that time slot through May 7th. (We’ll air on Monday May 11th instead of Thursday May 14th because the Royals will be playing a night game that Thursday.)

*: May or may not have actually happened.

So we’re one trip through the rotation, which is the perfect time to form wildly premature opinions on the Royals so far. Here’s a special Small Sample Size Edition of Short Attention Span Theatre:

- By far the best development of the season’s first five games is Kyle Davies’ performance on Thursday. Seven shutout innings, eight strikeouts, a Game Score of 77 which was not only the third-best of his career, but one of the ten best Game Scores by a Royal since 2005. You don’t want to read too much off of just one start – Brett Tomko had a Game Score of 78 in one of his starts last year – but coming off of his September last year, you factor in his performance, his stuff, his age, his pedigree…this looks for all the world like a talented thrower putting it all together and becoming a pitcher. Remember, the Royals got Davies (who won’t be a free agent until after 2011) in exchange for eight innings of Octavio Dotel. Dayton Moore has done a lot of maddening things as a GM – we’ll get to some of that – but a move like Dotel-for-Davies has the potential to make up for all of those things by itself. Keep in mind, a lot of us wanted Moore to trade Dotel for the Mariners’ Wladimir Balentien (assuming that offer was in fact on the table). Balentien still has a lot of potential, but at this moment I suspect almost all of us are glad we have Davies instead.

- Davies’ performance merely capped off an insanely good performance from the three starters that we’re actually counting on for good performances this season. Meche, Greinke, and Davies combined to allow one run and strike out 21 in 20 innings in their first start. As Bradford Doolittle pointed out, the combined Game Score of the first three starts (212) was better than the best three-game span (211, May 3-5) last season. In fact, the last time the Royals had three consecutive starts that combined for a higher Game Score (218) was August 4-6, 2004, when Brian Anderson threw a two-hit shutout to start things off, Greinke went seven innings allowing three hits and a single run the next night, and Darrell May threw seven strong innings, allowing six hits and three runs in the finale. So the Royals started 2009 with the best three-game stretch by their starters in nearly five years.

- I’m not going to tell you what the worst development of the young season is, but here’s a hint: it has scored eight runs in five games. There’s not much to analyze, really. The Royals aren’t hitting for average (.198). They’re not hitting for power (two homers in five games). They’re not commanding the strike zone at all (10 walks, 48 strikeouts). Of the nine guys in the Opening Day lineup, the only one hitting over .240 is Mark Teahen; the only one slugging over .360 is Coco Crisp. Yes, it’s early. The air is a lot colder and heavier than it was in Arizona, and I’m sure they’re still getting used to it. They’ve faced some of the best starters in the American League every time out; the worst starter they’ve seen is arguably the guy they saw on Opening Day, Mark Buehrle. But all these excuses are going to wear awfully thin awfully fast if they don’t put up a three-spot somewhere.

- Put it this way: the Royals haven’t scored three runs in a game yet. Through Saturday, every other team in baseball (except for Houston) had scored at least three runs in an inning.

- If you’re looking for me to say something snarky about Sidney Ponson, I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you. The end result (four runs in six innings) wasn’t good, but in light of the opponent in front of him and the defense behind him, it wasn’t half-bad either. I was able to watch him from the second through the fourth innings, and his ability to move his fastball to both sides of the plate was impressive. If he continues to throw like that, the results will come. But I never had an issue with Ponson in the rotation – my issue was with Hochevar not being in the rotation. We can win with Ponson as our #5 starter. We can’t win if he’s our #4 starter, especially if our #5 starter is…

- Horacio Ramirez, and if you’re looking for me to say something snarky about him, I might disappoint you, but only because it’s shooting fish in a barrel. This is the side of Dayton Moore that just baffles me. How do you give this guy nearly $2 million to be in your rotation when 1) he hasn’t pitched remotely well in anyone’s rotation since 2006, and 2) no one else wanted him in their rotation at all, let alone was willing to fork over seven figures for the privilege? There are many, many aspects to being a GM that I would positively suck at, but if the Royals ever advertise for the position of Assistant GM: Common Sense, I’m definitely throwing my hat in the ring. Even Hillman’s brain fart with Kyle Farnsworth only cost us one game – Moore’s signing of Ramirez has the potential to be a hemorrhoid on the Royals all season. The good news is that in Hochevar’s first start (which came in the thin air of Albuquerque), he gave up two runs - one earned - in five innings. Ramirez won’t be needed as a starter again until the 25th; let’s hope that by then Hochevar has answered whatever questions the Royals had about him, and Ramirez goes back to the lefty reliever role that Bob McClure had him thriving in last summer.

- Speaking of Kyle Farnsworth, I was a bit surprised that he got booed as loudly as he was when he was introduced before the home opener. I guess our patience has been tried a few too many times over the years. He went on to strike out the side in his one inning of work, and afterwards credited the difference to a mechanical change. McClure way well be able to work a miracle with him; Farnsworth did have a 2.19 ERA in 70 innings in 2005. But I think I speak for all Royals fans when I say we’d like to see him prove he’s a changed man – let’s say he doesn’t give up another homer between now and mid-May – before we’d entrust him with another eighth-inning lead.

- Jose Guillen’s hip injury came at an awfully opportune time, don’t you think? For all the talk about how the Royals wanted to give him two weeks off to make sure he doesn’t aggravate his injury in the cold weather, one aspect of the decision to DL him that I haven’t seen talked about is this: by putting Guillen on the DL before 3 o’clock on Friday, the Royals were able to give Brayan Pena a reprieve for at least the next 15 days. Pena was almost certainly the guy to get demoted when Ponson was activated, and even if he had cleared waivers, Pena had the option to decline the assignment to Omaha and declare free agency. It’s hard to think that he wouldn’t, given that the Royals already have two catchers they can’t find enough playing time for. Pena is an interesting player, and it’s easy to understand why the Royals would want to keep him around.

- Of course, keeping Pena around is pointless if you’re not going to, you know, take advantage of his presence. And on that note, Hillman’s lineups the last two days leave something to be desired. The Royals have faced southpaws in their last two games, and while they certainly missed Guillen’s bat, they could have gone a long way towards replacing it by finding lineup spots for both Miguel Olivo and John Buck – something Hillman had no qualms about doing last year even with no third catcher on the roster. Instead, Hillman insisted on starting Jacobs against two of the better lefties in baseball. Jacobs went 2-for-6 against Pettitte and Sabathia, but one of the two hits was a gift double that Nick Swisher lost in the sun.

- Hillman’s decision to keep Jacobs in the lineup pales to his weird second base/right field shenanigans. On Friday he moved Teahen out to right field and played Callaspo at second base. The temptation to move Teahen back to his natural position in Guillen’s absence is understandable: it definitely helps the defense in the short term. The question is whether it hurts Teahen’s chances to get used to his new position in the long term; so long as they continue to work with him – and so long as they plan to move him back once Guillen returns – I think this is a trade-off worth making. But today, Teahen had the day off (at least until Gordon’s hip problem forced Teahen to move to yet another position), and Hillman decided to play Callaspo at second base and the Spork in right field. Setting aside the calamity that is having Bloomquist in the starting lineup, I don’t understand why Hillman wouldn’t reverse the two. Callaspo may not be the world’s greatest outfielder, but then neither is Bloomquist, so why not at least make sure that your best second baseman is playing second base, especially with a groundball pitcher on the mound?

- Let’s take a deep breath. The Royals may have only eight runs in five games, but they’re still 2-3, and the division is shaping up to be every bit as mediocre as we thought it would be. The Indians, who were the popular favorite to win the division, are 0-5; reigning Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee has been hit hard twice, and third starter (!) Carl Pavano gave up nine runs in an inning-plus. The Royals are half a game out of first. There is no reason to panic.

- Alex Gordon and Billy Butler have combined to go 3-for-32, with two walks and 11 strikeouts. It goes without saying, but bears repeating: if they – and the rest of the lineup – don’t get it together soon, then we might have reason to panic.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Zack the Redeemer.


Three years ago, Zack Greinke left the game to deal with his issues with anxiety. Today, Greinke came to rescue us from our own.


If yesterday revealed in bold detail the pitfalls that await the Royals on their way to being contenders, today was a reminder as to why so many of us believe that contention isn’t such a pipe dream this year.

I couldn’t wait to wash the bad taste from Opening Day out of my mouth, but I couldn’t help but worry that I was about to replace the salty tang of anger with the bitter taste of despair. Sparky Anderson always said that “momentum is tomorrow’s starting pitcher”, but was tomorrow’s starter the Zack Greinke we know and love, or the Greinke that was 0-6 with a 7.78 ERA at U.S. Cellular Field? (Many of you might remember the last time I saw Greinke pitch up here. I certainly do, despite months of therapy.)

Instead, we got Greinke’s first salvo in the Cy Young race. Six brilliant innings. Strikeouts of seven different hitters. Three harmless singles. A key double play to put the brakes on the White Sox’ one solid rally. A Carlos Quentin HBP that may or may not have been intentional, but either way reminded the Sox that they can’t hit two of our batters (as they did on Tuesday) and not expect retaliation.

You all know how I feel about Greinke – I’m certainly not impartial, and I’m barely rational. But I could not have asked for a better start from him than the one he gave tonight. If he can put aside five years of futility in this ballpark and deliver six shutout innings on a night with no margin for error and the Royals needing a big win…well, let’s just say I can’t wait to see what he does with his 33 remaining starts.

Trey Hillman, coming off one of his worst performances as a handler of the pitching staff, was as flawless as Greinke in that regard. Zack finished the sixth having thrown 93 pitches, and in my own mind I was conflicted as to whether he should be left out there for another inning. On the one hand, it was his first start of the year, a cool night in Chicago, and as effective as he had been, he had allowed at least one baserunner in every inning but the first – I didn’t think this was a good night to let him approach 110 pitches. On the other, the Royals had a two-run lead with nine outs to go, and as long as Greinke wasn’t tired, he was better than anyone else that the Royals might bring into the game. My feeling was, let him start the inning, but pull him at the first sign of any trouble.

His first pitch to Jermaine Dye was up in the zone. His second was drilled to center for a single, and as fast as Rob Neyer could IM me “uh-oh”, Hillman was on the mound taking the ball away. Juan Cruz came in, and watching him pitch only made Hillman’s decision to go with Farnsworth yesterday even more mystifying. I mean, Cruz doesn’t just throw hard, his pitches move. Nothing is straight, and coming from that low three-quarters motion, he ought to be just death on right-handed hitters.

Cruz breezed through the next three batters to strand Dye, and Hillman made another shrewd move in the eighth, leaving Cruz in for a second inning. This is another one of those areas where the trend towards more conservative usage of pitchers has gone too far: you rarely see relievers throw multiple innings anymore. Well, you do, but it’s almost always the mop-up relievers and swingmen trying to save the rest of the bullpen – in other words, the worst relievers are the ones throwing the most innings. Cruz appeared in 57 games last season, but just six times was he used to get more than three outs – and he pitched two full innings in a game just once. That’s how one of the Diamondbacks’ best relievers threw just 52 innings all season.

Thanks to Hillman, Cruz matched that total of two-inning appearances tonight, and was as awesome – six up, six down – as Farnsworth was awful. Cruz actually threw fewer pitches (21) in his two innings than Farnsworth did (24) in his one. I’d like to think that means he’s available if the Royals have a lead to preserve in the eighth inning tomorrow; realistically, it looks like it will be Ron Mahay’s turn on Hillman’s merry-go-round.

Joakim Soria finished things off in the ninth, ending the game on an absolutely ridiculous curveball to Dye. Quentin and Thome had both made outs on 2-1 pitches, so when Soria worked the count to 2-2 on Dye, it was clear that the Mexicutioner was about to unleash the Guillotine, as I call his vicious (and delicious) slow curveball that he dispatches his victims with. I knew it was coming, you knew it, I imagine Dye knew it, and we all knew that there was nothing Dye could do about it anyway.

Except late last year hitters started to expect that pitch with two strikes, and they learned to spit on it as Soria bounced it in the dirt, forcing him to adjust. The Sox have seen him as much as anyone, so I figured that Soria would be better off not trying to bury the pitch, but instead starting it high and keeping it in the strike zone.

He did me one better – he started it up in Dye’s eyes, but as it dropped it also made a left turn, and by the time it hit Olivo’s glove it was down and away. Dye could have stood up there with a cricket bat, a tennis racket, or a cello and there was no way he was hitting that pitch. It was beautiful.

Hillman did spotless work with his pitchers, but he still needs to be dinged for his, ahem, strange approach to late-inning defense. I was so upset about the usage of Farnsworth yesterday that I didn’t even bother to mention the fact that in the eighth inning, with a one-run lead, Mark Teahen was still playing second base in his first game ever at the position, while Willie Bloomquist sat on the bench.

Well tonight, in the eighth inning, Bloomquist finally came in for defense…in right field. Somehow, with Bloomquist and Teahen both on the field, Hillman decided that the best defensive arrangement was to have Teahen at second base and Bloomquist in right field, not the other way around. (Remember, this is the same guy who last year, in the game where the Royals blew a five-run lead in the ninth, had Teahen at first and Ross Gload in right field. And one of the key hits in the inning fell just in front of Gload.)

I can’t argue with the results. With one out in the eighth, the speedy DeWayne Wise hit a grounder just to the right of the second base bag. I would have bet anything that Teahen, ranging far to his right, would have mishandled the ball – and when he came up with it and fired to first base, I would have bet anything that his throw was way offline. Instead, it was a picture-perfect play that got Wise out by about three steps. I can’t argue with the results, but I can still argue with the execution. I’m as hopeful as anyone that Teahen can turn into a quality defensive player at second base, but let’s see him prove it first before leaving him there with a small lead to protect in the late innings.

The brilliance of the pitching allows us to overlook, for now, another meager output from the offense. The Royals are 1-1 despite scoring just two runs in each game…and could easily be 2-0. Much like last April, the Royals have done a good job of winning when they get even a little offense – but getting even a little offense is turning into a chore.

For now, momentum is Kyle Davies. If Davies laissez les bon temps roulez and the Royals win tomorrow, Hillman’s shenanigans on Opening Day will be overshadowed by the team’s winning record. If Cruz quickly replaces Farnsworth in the pecking order of Royals’ relievers, those shenanigans may even be forgotten some day.


Don’t look for me to post anything tomorrow, so consider this your open thread to discuss my first radio show tomorrow night. Feel free to critique, criticize, or just plain make fun of me here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Opening Day, And The Gloves Come Off.

And now I know why God, in His infinite wisdom, did not want me to attend Opening Day.

I am, as many of you know, a rather patient baseball fan. I am a rather forgiving baseball fan. I would not have survived as a Royals fan if I was not.

Last year, no one was the beneficiary of my patience and my forgiving nature than Trey Hillman. Whether it was his ridiculous dressing-down of his players on the field at the end of a meaningless spring-training game, or the way he talked up the importance of OBP all spring even as his players set an all-time franchise low in walks, I defended him well past the point of reason. I figured that anyone who had just taken the Nippon Ham Fighters, the Royals of Japanese baseball, to two Japan Series and one championship must have some idea what he is doing, and after years of watching managers who had no idea what they’re doing, I was prepared to give some leeway to a manager with an actual history of success on his resume.

The free pass is over.

The shame is that there are so many positives to take from this game. Gil Meche was brilliant once again, getting through seven innings in just 91 pitches, striking out six without a walk, and getting out of a bases-loaded, none-out jam in the second with just one run scoring. After Mike Jacobs turned a routine groundball into a double (excuse me…a “double”) in the fourth, Meche retired Carlos Quentin and Jim Thome to get out of the inning. David DeJesus showed off the improved outfield defense with his arm instead of his glove, killing two baserunners and taking at least one run off the board. Kevin Seitzer was in line for a game ball after both Jose Guillen and Mike Aviles walked (did those two ever walk in the same game last year?), both of them working their way back from a two-strike count against Mark Buehrle. Gordon homered. Teahen doubled and walked and didn’t kill anyone while playing second base.

If the Royals hadn’t held a lead going into the late innings, the story of the game might have been the team’s inability to hit with runners on base. The Royals stranded 11 men on base, and were 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position. But how a team hits in those situations over the span of one game is meaningless; what matters is that the Royals were getting guys into scoring position in the first place. And thanks to Meche, the Royals were in excellent position to win the game despite their futility with RISP.

Until the eighth. Until the inning that Hillman had just yesterday designated as Kyle Farnsworth’s inning, a decision that I suppose was inevitable in spite of, or perhaps precisely because of, the fact that it completely defies common sense.

Look for veteran Kyle Farnsworth to get the ball today in the eighth inning — instead of Juan Cruz or Ron Mahay — if the Royals are looking to bridge a lead to closer Joakim Soria.

“With the effectiveness that he’s shown (in spring training),” manager Trey Hillman said, “it would probably be Kyle. But those three guys can rotate between the seventh and eighth on any given day.

“One of those guys, probably Cruz or Mahay, could default to the sixth if we needed that.”

There wasn’t a Royals fan in the country who didn’t hold their breath when they read that passage on the eve of Opening Day.

Trey Hillman named Kyle Farnsworth his primary set-up man instead of Juan Cruz.

Kyle Farnsworth, he of the 4.48 ERA last year, and the 4.80 ERA the year before that, and the 4.36 ERA the year before that, over Juan Cruz, who had a 2.61 ERA last year, a 3.10 ERA the year before that, a 4.18 ERA the year before that.

Farnsworth, who surrendered 15 home runs in 60 innings last year (pitching for the Yankees and Tigers, two teams that play in pitcher’s parks) over Cruz, who surrendered 5 home runs in 52 innings last year (pitching for the Diamondbacks, who play in one of the game’s best hitter’s parks.)

There is no fathomable reason to think that Kyle Farnsworth is a better pitcher than Juan Cruz. None. And any reason that Hillman might proffer serves only to denigrate the intellect of the man proffering it. Before today’s game, I had been told that Hillman decided on Farnsworth in part because he pitched better during the final week of spring training. That excuse – and I hesitate to sully the fine name of the term “excuse” by associating it with Hillman’s thought process here – is both inexplicable and totally absurd. Which is to say, it makes as much sense as any other excuse that Hillman could have offered for his decision.

And it actually makes more sense than the other possible reason Hillman might have had: that Hillman arranged his bullpen hierarchy not based on performance, but based on salary. It’s a fact that Farnsworth was signed for more money than Cruz. It’s also completely meaningless, unless you’re using that information to evaluate Dayton Moore’s skills as a GM. If Hillman decided that he needed to justify the fact that one reliever is making $4.5 million a year and the other one is making $3 million a year – or if Moore is forcing Hillman to make that decision – as far as I’m concerned, that’s a fireable offense.

Juan Cruz has been the better reliever for at least three years. Dayton Moore signed him, at the cost of a draft pick, precisely because he was an upgrade on what the Royals had in terms of a bridge to Joakim Soria. How Hillman could have settled on Farnsworth to be his eighth-inning guy and decided that Cruz “could default to the sixth if we needed that” defies explanation.

Does Hillman even know that Farnsworth, whatever his assets are, is incredibly vulnerable to the home run? Does he know that U.S. Cellular Field is one of the best home run parks in baseball? Does he know anything?

It’s bad enough that Hillman brought Farnsworth in to protect a one-run lead in the bottom of the eighth inning. Worse still, he left him in. He left him in after Josh Fields led off with a bunt single. He left him in after Chris Getz singled with one out to put the tying run on third.

He probably felt pretty good about leaving Farnsworth in when Carlos Quentin struck out and kept Fields ninety feet away. That’s why the Royals spent $9 million on a pitcher that few other teams wanted at half that price: they wanted the guy who could get a strikeout when a strikeout was needed. Never mind that Farnsworth badly needed a strikeout because of a mess of his own making, or that Cruz has a better strikeout rate than Farnsworth.

So that brought Jim Thome to the plate. Jim Thome, who had hit 42 home runs against the Royals in his career, more than any other player in history (Rafael Palmeiro had hit 41.) Two men on, two out, one of the most feared left-handed hitters in the league at the plate.

Does Hillman bring in Juan Cruz at this point, because he’s, you know, a better pitcher? No, but fine, that ship has sailed.

Does he bring in Ron Mahay to get a key left-handed hitter out? In his career, Thome has hit .296/.431/.620 against RHP – against southpaws, those numbers drop to .240/.342/.442. He’s basically Barry Bonds against right-handers, and Casey Blake against left-handers. Mahay only needs to get one out before it’s Mexicutioner time. How about it? No.

Well, how about Soria himself? Didn’t we just hear Hillman talk about how he was going to use Soria to get four or five outs a lot more this year? What better time to use Soria in the eighth than on Opening Day, when he hasn’t thrown a pitch since Saturday? Keep in mind that Soria, much like his doppelganger Mariano Rivera, has a reverse platoon split – he’s been more effective against left-handed hitters (.167/.242/.255) than right-handed hitters (.188/.251/.264) in his career. If ever there was a time to call upon Soria in the eighth inning, it’s this situation, right? No.

No. We’d much rather break out the deer rifle to measure just how far Jim Thome can hit a fastball that’s thrown incredibly hard and incredibly straight.

Farnsworth threw the pitch, but he’s no higher than third on the list of people who should be blamed for this. It’s not his fault that Dayton Moore offered him $9 million to sign. It’s not his fault that Hillman brought him in to pitch the eighth inning when better options abounded, then left him out there even as his margin for error grew smaller and smaller.

The Rany of a year ago would have cut Hillman some slack for this. “He made a mistake,” he would have said, “but he’ll learn from this. Let’s see who he calls upon the next time the Royals have a one-run lead in the eighth. If Cruz gets the call, then chalk this up as an expensive but useful lesson for Hillman, that the guy with the ERA in the 2s is generally better than the guy with the ERA in the 4s.”

That Rany is gone. He’s fed up. He’s watched Trey Hillman make enough dumb decisions with his bullpen (like this one). He watched as Trey Hillman lost the clubhouse, the cardinal sin for any manager, last August before he was rescued by the team’s improbable 18-8 run in September. And he’s decided that whatever Hillman accomplished in Japan, it means absolutely nothing if he can’t perform third-grade math in his head, the kind of math that says the guy with the 2.61 ERA last year is better than the guy with the 4.48 ERA.

The worst part of all this is that we all saw it coming. Every last one of us knew from the moment they read Hillman’s words about keeping Farnsworth in the eighth-inning role that it would cost the Royals dearly at some point. We didn’t know it would be Opening Day, against one of our chief rivals, with the justice meted out by one of our greatest nemeses. But we knew it was coming. With the Royals, no bad decision ever goes unpunished.

Here’s a memo for you, Trey: Kyle Farnsworth is NOT NOT NOT a quality set-up man. Juan Cruz is.

Oh, and here’s another one: never underestimate the power of common sense.

If the reasons why Juan Cruz is better than Kyle Farnsworth can be understood by a six-year-old, then no amount of extenuating circumstances, like who looked better in a meaningless ballgame in March, ought to change that fact.

Maybe Hillman will learn from this immediately and anoint Cruz as his top set-up man, or maybe he’ll need to cough up a few more games first. What happened on Opening Day was the ultimate example of what behavioral psychologists call “negative feedback”, and you’d think that would be enough to learn. (Even lab rats know that if you shock them every time they press a lever, they should stop pressing the lever.) But Hillman shouldn’t have needed the negative feedback of a game-winning three-run homer to learn. If he’s not smart to figure out on his own that Juan Cruz is a better reliever than Kyle Farnsworth, he’s probably not smart enough to realize that if Decision A leads to Outcome B, the best way to avoid Outcome B again is to stop making Decision A.

Regardless of whether he learns or not, Hillman is getting no slack with me this year. He cost us this game, plain and simple. He cost us a two-game swing in the standings with a divisional rival. The odds that the outcome of this game – the outcome of Hillman’s decision – keeps the Royals out of the postseason are something like 1%. Think about that: it’s still Opening Day, and there’s a one-in-a-hundred shot that the Royals just blew the division.

What else is there to say? I’m tired of getting sarcastic emails on the Baseball Prospectus email list with subject lines that go “Trey Hillman, Supergenius” – emails from people who are not Royals fans, but are just so offended by dumb managerial decisions that they felt compelled to discuss what Hillman did with other non-Royals fans. I’m tired of getting trash-talking text messages from friends who root for the White Sox. I’m tired of losing games that should have been won, wasting performances that should have been celebrated, and starting the season with that pit in my stomach that says, “here we go again,” and it’s still Opening Day.

Most of all, I’m tired of watching the Royals shoot themselves in the foot. God knows we have enough of an uphill climb if we want to contend. We can’t control the size of our payroll or the size of our market, but dammit, we can control the quality of our decisions. We can’t outspend our opponents, but is it too much to ask that we outsmart them? Or at least that we don’t outdumb them?

Instead, Trey Hillman made arguably the worst decision made by any of the 30 major league managers in their first game, and it cost his team the game. Worse, that decision was pre-meditated.

Thank God there’s another game tomorrow, and a fresh chance for the Royals to prove that this year really is different. It’s also another chance for Trey Hillman to prove whether he really has the chops to be a manager in the major leagues. I’ll be watching, with jaded eyes.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Big News.

When I started this blog a little over a year ago, I really had no long-term vision of what this was going to become. All I knew was that my life was becoming progressively busier and more complicated, to the point where I could not in good faith continue to pretend to be a regular contributor to Baseball Prospectus anymore, but that I certainly did not want to give up writing about baseball entirely. So I made the only decision that I could make, which was to focus on the one subject that I was most passionate about: the Royals. The two hours a day I was spending just to keep up with everything going on in major league baseball was feeling more and more like work, but the time I spent keeping up with the Royals wasn’t work; that was life. I was about as likely to stop caring about the Royals as I was to stop caring about personal hygiene. So Rany on the Royals was born.

I’m still not sure where Rany on the Royals is going, but today I am pleased to announce that RotR is expanding its reach to a new platform. This Thursday at 7 pm CDT marks the debut of my new weekly radio show on 810 WHB Radio in Kansas City.

I imagine you’re all having the same response I had when they first contacted me: are the guys at WHB insane?! (No? Just me?) The brass at WHB have offered a radio show about Kansas City sports to someone who 1) doesn’t live in Kansas City and 2) doesn’t know the first thing about doing radio. This is an incredibly ballsy and unconventional move, one that could work out brilliantly, or one that could leave egg on a lot of people’s faces. (Don’t tell anyone this, but I think moving Mark Teahen to second base was Chad Boeger’s idea.)

I am, obviously, very flattered and grateful to the guys at WHB for giving me this opportunity. I’m excited as hell to do this, and also scared to death. Those of you who know me personally know that I have no trouble talking about baseball for an hour – it’s getting me to shut up that’s the trick. But talking among friends is one thing, talking coherently in front of a live audience of thousands – with a producer’s voice in my ear, with commercial breaks to plan for, where the inevitable mistake is going to be on permanent record – is entirely different.

The many phone-in segments I’ve done on radio over the years, many with WHB, give me confidence that I can do this. Just be aware it’s probably going to be rocky at first. Fortunately, I will be ably assisted by my co-host, Jason Anderson, who provides the experience and professionalism in this medium that I currently lack. We may be stepping on each other’s toes at first, but we should be doing our best Olbermann-Patrick impression soon enough.

Just be aware that I am going to make mistakes. I am going to say things that are simply factually incorrect. I am going to cut in when Jason is talking and vice versa. I am going to occasionally take a really long time to come up with a response. I am going to say “uh” and “er” a lot. If you can put up with my foibles at the beginning, I am confident that we’ll have a steep learning curve, and the show should improve as we go along.

The way I envision the show’s format is that after Jason and I talk about the Royals for a good half hour or so, we’ll have a different guest on each week to provide another perspective. Rob Neyer will probably be this week’s guest; it seems only fitting that we should get back together again to mark this special occasion. Kevin Goldstein, our minor league expert at Baseball Prospectus, should be on later this month, particularly after he’s had a chance to see Eric Hosmer up close when Burlington’s season gets going next week. I’ve got some other guests I’d love to bring on; really, one of the great perks of this gig will be the opportunity to talk to some really interesting and intelligent people covering the game.

And another perk will be the opportunity to talk with some of you. We’ll hopefully finish off each show with a call-in segment, and that’s where all of you come in. The goal of Rany on the Royals on the Radio – we’re still figuring out a name for the show – is to create a show that appeals to the most hard-core Royals fans out there. My goal is to have the most knowledgeable callers of any sports radio show in the city, if not the country. So when the phone lines open up on Thursday, I want you guys to light them up like a Christmas tree. Bring your questions, bring your opinions, and together let’s make this the best show it can be.

You’re probably wondering how the radio show is going to affect the blog. (I certainly am.) It would be disingenuous of me to suggest that it won’t affect the blog at all – including preparation time, each show is likely to take up at least three hours a week of my time. Of course, each column I write takes about that long, so whereas I generally wrote two or three columns a week during the season last year, this year it will probably be more like one or two. On the other hand, you’re also getting an entire hour of Royals discussion on the radio, and that’s worth a couple columns in its own right.

There may be a few changes to the format of the website as well. Given the incredible lack of effort I’ve put into the design of – really, a trained monkey could have designed something more appealing – I don’t think any of you will mind. Hopefully each show will be available in podcast form after it airs, and I hope to have a link to the podcasts from my website once they’re available.

I’m scheduled to be on The Border Patrol tomorrow morning around 8 am to talk more about this, if any of you are interested in tuning in.

So I hope you’re as excited about this as I am. The show is going to be a work in progress; there are likely to be a lot of missteps along the way. But it should also be a ton of fun, for me and for you.

Thanks to all of you for being loyal readers, and I hope you’ll all be loyal listeners as well.

25 To Watch: Part Two.

I guess it’s only appropriate that, with the Royals in town to open their season in Chicago for the first time in 1976*…that the White Sox’ opener would be postponed by weather for the first time since 1982. So now I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go.

*: It’s been listed a few times that the Royals last opened their season in Chicago in 1983, but according to that doesn’t appear to be the case. In 1976, they opened in Chicago on April 9th…then didn’t play again until April 13th, at home. Given that they later played a five-game series in Chicago over three days, I’m guessing that this isn’t the first time an opening series between these two teams has been hampered by weather.

Anyway, onto the final twelve…

12. Alexei Ramirez

The failure of so many well-hyped Cuban defectors in the major leagues over the years proved to be a blessing to the White Sox, who were able to sign Ramirez on the open market to a four-year, $4.75 million contract in December of 2007. The Cuban Missile went straight to the majors last spring, hitting .290 with 21 homers and 13 steals and setting an all-time rookie record with four grand slams (the last of which came in the final game of the regular season, setting up a tiebreaker against Minnesota that the Sox would also win) on his way to finishing second in the Rookie of the Year vote. Now he needs to prove his rookie season wasn’t a fluke – which may be a tall task given his free-swinging ways, as he walked just 18 times all year – and the Sox aren’t making his life any easier by asking him to move from second base, where his defense was occasionally brilliant but often raw, to shortstop. Let’s hope that when Aviles brilliantly deflects the Curse of Angel Berroa, he sends it hurtling toward U.S. Cellular Field.

11. Jeremy Bonderman

Six years ago, Bonderman was the Tigers’ Zack Greinke, a 20-year-old phenom in the majors, who showed enough promise in the Tigers’ 119-loss season to mark him as a potential star. After his rookie season I drafted him in my perennial Strat-o-matic league. The following year, I furiously tried to obtain one of the top few picks in the draft to grab Greinke, and another owner made me an offer: he would trade me his draft pick on the clock – with Greinke still on the board – for Bonderman.

I said no. I thought Greinke might be the new Greg Maddux, but I thought Bonderman could be the new Roger Clemens, and I couldn’t pull the trigger. (The story has a happy ending, though. The following March – after Zack went home to Florida and everyone thought his career might be over – I nabbed him for a considerably cheaper price. I’ve made an enormous number of stupid trades for Royals over the years – I once traded Jim Thome for Dan Reichert* – but every now and then my blind optimism pays off.)

*: Seriously. Jim Thome (and draft picks!) for Dan Reichert (and Gabe White, who had one of the best reliever cards in the set that year.) Yes, I am an idiot.

Bonderman looked ready for takeoff after the 2006 season, when he went 14-8 with a 4.08 ERA and 202 strikeouts, but he suffered through a disappointing 2007 and in 2008 his stuff mysteriously dropped off, a mystery which was solved when Bonderman was diagnosed with a thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition which – Doctor’s cap on – occurs when one of the large arteries carrying blood from the heart to the right arm gets pinched by one of the ribs in the area, decreasing blood flow and potentially causing a life-threatening blood clot to form.

Bonderman had surgery to correct the problem, but as the season gets underway he has yet to fully recover. He’s hoping to be ready to go within a few weeks; a healthy and effective Bonderman could be the difference between contention and a sub-.500 record in Detroit this year.

10. Fausto Carmona

As a rookie in 2006, Carmona went 1-10 with a 5.42 ERA, and when briefly handed the closer’s job in late July, he promptly handed the job back by blowing three consecutive save opportunities. In 2007, Carmona was one of the breakout stars in the game, winning 19 games with a 3.06 ERA and placing 4th in the Cy Young vote. Last year, Carmona struggled to find the strike zone all season, walking 70 batters against just 58 strikeouts in 121 innings, and matched his 2006 effort with a 5.44 ERA. He’s an extreme groundball pitcher who doesn’t need a sterling strikeout-to-walk ratio to be effective, but it’s been decades since a starting pitcher could survive in the majors with more walks than strikeouts. Carmona could be the best starter in the division this year, or he could be back in Buffalo in June, and I’d be equally unsurprised by either outcome. I’d be a lot happier with the latter than the former, though.

9. Mark Teahen

All the controversy over whether he can handle second base with any kind of adequacy obscures the fact that his spring training aside, Teahen hasn’t really proven that his bat is worth the gamble. He hit .255/.313/.402 last year, which is below the average mark by an AL second baseman last year: .282/.339/.410. Kevin Seitzer thinks he’s found something, and Teahen will always have 2006 on his resume to make you think he’s capable of better. He’s 27 this year, the most common age for players to have their career years, but he faces a double challenge of having to prove himself both at bat and in the field this season.

8. Francisco Liriano

Little Johan was, inning for inning, one of the best pitchers in the world in 2006, when he was just 22 years old – until he tore up his elbow and required Tommy John surgery. He finally returned in 2008, but was terrible in April; forced to return to Triple-A, he was dominant for three months and then equally so with the Twins (6-1, 2.74 ERA) upon his return in August. Aside from Liriano, the Twins’ rotation is filled with a bunch of control specialists (Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins) – the only other power pitcher in the rotation is Scott Baker, who starts the year on the DL. With Liriano fronting the rotation, this might be the best in the division – if he falters again, this is a much less intimidating team.

7. Billy Butler

There are a lot of small things the Royals did this spring that were exasperating, but don’t forget the one big thing they didn’t do: they didn’t block Billy Butler from an everyday job. There was a time when it appeared the Royals were ready to give up on Butler, who has 216 major league games to his credit but who doesn’t turn 23 for another two weeks, a kid with a career line of .336/.416/.561 in the minors. PECOTA projects Butler to be the best hitter on the entire roster this year, with an expected line of .291/.352/.458. Butler might be capable of even better if he can avoid the twin pitfalls of an unhappy organization (so far so good) and an unhealthy body (he’s in the mythical Best Shape of His Life). A season close to his 90th-percentile projection (an impressive .326/.388/.534) would solve the Royals’ problem of a lack of a true #3 hitter quite nicely.

6. Gavin Floyd

Kenny Williams might be the best GM in baseball when it comes to trading for young players at the perfect time – just after they’ve exhausted the patience of their current teams, and just before they break out (John Danks, Carlos Quentin, Gavin Floyd.) Quentin was his best by far – one of the game’s best hitters for a disposable prospect – but acquiring Floyd (and Gio Gonzalez) for the ticking sound in Freddy Garcia’s shoulder was rather inspired as well.

Floyd has an impressive pedigree – he was the #4 overall pick in the 2001 draft, two picks after Mark Prior, three picks after Joe Mauer, and one pick before boyhood friend Mark Teixeira. But he was a constant source of aggravation to the Phillies, flashing an unhittable curveball at times but bombing in several major league trials and then posting a 6+ ERA in Triple-A in 2006. The White Sox got him, Don Cooper cleaned him up, and boom! he went 17-8 with a 3.84 ERA last year. He was remarkably lucky at the start of the season – his BABIP in his first nine starts was an absurd .176 – and those first nine starts colored the perception of him for the rest of the season. Ask most baseball analysts what they think of Floyd, and their immediate response is likely to be “it was a fluke.” But in his final 24 starts, Floyd had a perfectly normal .295 BABIP, and still had a very respectable 4.20 ERA in that span. Floyd may fit into the category of player who has been called overrated for so long that he’s actually now underrated. We can only hope he goes back to the frustrating form he showed prior to 2008.

5. Travis Hafner

In 2006, Travis Hafner led the American League in OPS. In 2007, he remained an above-average hitter despite dropping his OPS by 260 points. In 2008, his OPS dropped another 209 points, as he hit .197/.305/.323 in an injury-plagued season of just 57 games. In 2009, his four-year, $57 million contract starts. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with another player that, while still in his 20s or early 30s, went from one of the game’s best hitters to replacement-level in the span of two years. (Bob Hamelin did it in one year, but The Hammer only had one good season – Hafner was an absolute stud for three.) For that reason alone, you have to think Hafner’s got some bounce-back in him. If 2008 proves to be a fluke and he returns to .300/.400/.500 level, the Indians are going to run away with the division. But it’s surprising how few people think that’s going to happen. Hafner is the quintessential Old Player’s Skills player, and one of the original inspirations for James to come up with the concept of Old Player’s Skills, Alvin Davis, was one of the best hitters in baseball at age 28 – and out of baseball at age 31. Hafner is 31.

4. Zack Greinke

In some ways Greinke shouldn’t rank this high, because he seems to be through the worst of his social anxiety issues, and what he gave the Royals last year seems to be what he’s capable of: 200 innings, pretty strikeout-to-walk ratios, an ERA in the mid-3s. But in some ways you could argue that he ought to rank #1 on this list, because in terms of absolute upside, Greinke has the potential to be the most valuable player – not just pitcher, player – in the division. Would anyone be truly surprised if he goes out there and puts up numbers reminiscent of Bret Saberhagen in 1989? I’m talking 20 wins, an ERA around 2.50, seven innings and a quality start every time out? He has the stuff to do it. He may finally have the head for it. That doesn’t mean he will, but he can. And nothing would change the complexion of this division – and scare the living daylights out of the other four teams in the AL Central – than a focused, dominant, positively mean Zack Greinke absolutely carving up hitters in the early part of the season.

3. Joe Mauer

The guys who run the numbers will tell you that the Indians are the favorite to win the division, which I agree with. But the numbers – or at least PECOTA – puts Cleveland seven games ahead of every other team in the division, with the Tigers in second, and the Twins third with just a 77-85 record. Regarding the Twins, I respectfully disagree. I don’t share Joe Posnanski’s belief that Ron Gardenhire is the best manager in baseball, but I’ll say this: I don’t think any team in baseball is better at any specific task than the Twins are at teaching their pitchers to throw strikes. Last year the Twins walked just 406 batters, the fewest in baseball; in 2007 they walked 420 batters, second-fewest in the majors; and in 2006 they walked 356 batters, which was 73 fewer than any other team.

Looking at their pitching staff this year, I see no reason why that streak will end. And while the offense can’t be expected to hit as well with runners in scoring position as the .305 mark they had last season, they can expect to compensate for some regression by getting improvement out of Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez and a full season of Denard Span. I fully expect the Piranhas to be out in full force this season.

Unless…unless Joe Mauer, their most valuable player by far no matter what the BBWAA thinks of Justin Morneau, is out for an extended period. Mauer has two batting titles in the last three years; every other catcher in American League history has combined for zero. Mauer doesn’t hit a ton of homers, but he’s good for 30 doubles and 70-80 walks a year – oh, and he’s one of the best defensive catchers in the game. But he’s none of that if he’s not on the field, and right now he’s on the DL with an inflamed sacroiliac joint – also known as a bad back. He might be back in a few weeks, but if he’s not, or if he’s hobbled the rest of the year, the rest of the division just caught a huge break.

2. Kyle Davies

The naysayers – of whom there are many – regarding the Royals’ chances this season usually point to the same thing first: the lack of a reliable starting pitcher after Meche and Greinke. The reluctance to separate Kyle Davies from the Ponsons and Ramirezes of the world is understandable; this is the same guy who had a 6.09 ERA just two years ago. But Davies always had the talent to be better – Baseball America named him the best player in the country in his age group when he was 14 – and last year some of that potential was distilled into performance. Most of that performance came in only one month, but what a month: in September Davies had a 2.27 ERA, allowing just 22 hits and one homer in 32 innings, with 24 strikeouts against seven walks. Davies had a 4.06 ERA for the entire season – if he can post a 4.06 ERA or better over the course of 33 starts this year, he’ll be one of the game’s best #3 starters, and the concerns about the Royals’ rotation will look more shrill than serious.

1. Alex Gordon

The most important player on the Royals’ roster was one of the most-hyped prospects in the franchise’s history. The most important player on the roster also bats seventh in their Opening Day lineup. That juxtaposition explains why Alex Gordon’s season is so critical to the organization, not just for 2009 but for years to come. Two years ago Gordon was coming off a minor league campaign in which he showed literally every skill in the scout’s notebook: power, speed, average, defense, work ethic, intangibles, whatever. He was College Player of the Year in 2005, Minor League Player of the Year in 2006; Rookie of the Year and MVP awards didn’t seem far away.

Two years later, much of that promise seems to have evaporated. Scouts talk about the holes in his swing; stats guys project him to show steady but very slow improvement over the next few years. But that pessimism ignores the subtle but very real step forward Gordon took last year. He drew more walks while cutting his strikeouts. He hit more balls in the air, hitting more homers despite playing in 17 fewer games. And he’s still just 25, entering his third season in the major leagues. As I documented last year, a number of similarly-hyped players struggled a little in their first two years, and just as their chances at stardom were written off, they exploded on the league in their third year. Gordon is capable of the same thing. And there’s simply no way the Royals can expect to compete this year without Gordon meeting the expectations people had for him two years ago.