Friday, June 12, 2009

The Five Stages of Being a Royals Fan, Using Only Blog Quotes.

Stage 1: Denial

“Let’s take a deep breath, everyone. Good teams lose six games in a row. The difference is they also win six games in a row.”

“So don’t panic. This is the AL Central, where the Royals can lose six games in a row in mid-May and still hold on to a share of first place.”

Stage 2: Anger

“I realize that pride goeth before a fall, but this is ridiculous.”

“Momentum means NOTHING.”

Stage 3: Bargaining

“So if the Royals get a favorable outcome today, they would need only a three-game sweep of the Tigers at home – with Meche, Greinke, and Davies starting – to be back atop the division by Wednesday night. That’s not likely, mind you. But the mere fact that it’s possible is testament to how silly it is to be giving up on the season already.”

“Yes, the Royals have the same record after 43 games that they had last year. But to argue that this means they’ve made no progress is as silly as arguing that they’re going win more than 102 games because – as Martin Manley points out – they have a better record after 43 games than the 1977 Royals did.”

Stage 4: Depression

“I have no idea if the Royals are going to turn things around, whether they’ll get back to .500 this year, whether they’ll contend again in 2009. On paper, there’s no obvious reason why the Royals can’t reverse course. But I know that the Royals aren’t going to win a damn thing so long as they’ve got a GM who isn’t willing to cut losses on a contract that was a mistake the moment it was signed, and a manager who doesn’t understand that just because you have a pitcher on your roster doesn’t mean you have to use him in tight situations.”

Stage 5: Acceptance

“I think the Royals should trade for Jeff Francoeur.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

This Crow Doesn't Taste So Bad.

As those of you who follow me on Twitter (@jazayerli) know, my initial reaction to the Aaron Crow was, shall we say, less than enthusiastic. This wasn’t a reflection on Crow so much as it was a reflection on Grant Green, who thanks to the Pirates’ late decision to go cheap yet again and select Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez – probably the 20th-best player in the draft – at #4, the tumblers fell into place for Green to be available at #12.

The Royals selected Crow instead, and as MLB Network cut to commercial they gave us a look-in at the A’s war room, and it seemed like every person in that room had a big sh*t-eating grin on his face. Knowing exactly why those jerks looked so smug – and sure enough, the A’s took Green with the #13 pick – only made me more upset.

But then I started getting feedback from people in the industry who know a lot more about this stuff than I do, and started to warm up to the pick. Keith Law, ESPN’s draft guru, wrote me, “I don’t see how you can complain about that one!” Law uses exclamation points even more rarely than he praises the Royals, so that was something. Law had Crow as the 5th-best player in the draft, and Green at just #13. Law isn’t afraid to voice scouting opinions that differ from the consensus – last year, he was maybe the only prospect maven in the world who thought that Pedro Alvarez was overrated, and that sentiment looks pretty smart at the moment. But Law isn’t the only draft expert who ranked Crow more highly than Green; Baseball America’s last draft ranking had Crow 7th and Green 13th. And While Kevin Goldstein had Green ranked higher, it was hardly a slam-dunk - #5 vs. #7.

Green’s strengths are obvious: he’s a polished college hitter who will be in the majors soon, and he gives you a good bat at a premium defensive position – a position the Royals have a particularly strong need to fill. But he’s not perfect. He hit just four home runs this season, and nine last year – while he hit for power in the wood-bat Cape Cod League, it’s not clear how much power he’ll have in the majors. A guy who hits .280 with 20 homers is a star at shortstop; a guy who hits .280 with 12 homers is just a good player.

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, there is a legitimate difference of opinions from scouts on how well he can play shortstop. Some feel he’ll be an average defensive player with no issues; some think he’ll be below average but playable; some think he’ll have to move off the position entirely. This is not a trivial concern for the Royals. If Green can handle shortstop, he fills a huge need. If he can’t, then he’s a third baseman or a second baseman, two positions where the Royals already have more than enough options as it is. If the Royals fall into the camp of people who think that he can’t play shortstop, then it would be hard for them to justify taking Green.

Still, I think that all things equal, the Royals should take the player at a position of need. But clearly the Royals did not feel that all things were equal between Green and Crow, and took the pitcher even though they had bigger needs elsewhere.

I can respect that. It’s easier to respect that decision when you consider that aside from Green, Crow was the best player on the board when the Royals picked. Looking at the three draft lists (BA, Law, Goldstein), the only players ranked higher than Crow who were still available were Tanner Scheppers (on two lists), Alex White (on one), and Kyle Gibson (on one). Gibson’s stress fracture manifested itself after he showed up 4th on BA’s list, and Scheppers is coming off a shoulder injury and Will Carroll is scared to death of him. BA had White 6th and Crow 7th, but Goldstein had White 14th and Law had him 10th. If you were to put together a Wisdom of Crowds-style draft list, then Crow was absolutely the right pick.

Beyond the pure talent considerations, there’s a lot to like with this pick. Crow has been off the radar this year because, having failed to sign with the Nationals last year as the #9 pick, he didn’t pitch for anyone this year until starting his season with the Fort Worth Cats a month ago. A year ago, he was the best right-handed pitcher in college, with a 43-inning scoreless streak for Mizzou (yes, yes, not Missou, I get it, thanks everyone.) He didn’t sign with the Nationals, but this is one of those rare cases where you can blame the team as much as the player – the final negotiations had Crow wanting $4 million, the Nationals offering $3.5 million, but the lack of dialogue between the two sides until the last moment sank the negotiations. Aaron Crow has maintained the Hendricks brothers as his adviser. The Nationals, you might have noticed, have declined to maintain the services of Jim Bowden. I wouldn’t hold Crow’s decision to sit out a year against him that much. (Maybe he was worried that Bowden was going to skim some of his bonus.)

The comparisons between Crow and Luke Hochevar are too easy to make; both pitchers didn’t sign as college juniors, went the indy ball route and signed with Fort Worth, and then got drafted by the Royals. That comparison seems to bother some people, but frankly, I don’t see what the problem is. The disappointment with Hochevar doesn’t stem from his performance, but from the fact that he was the #1 overall pick. If the Royals had drafted Hochevar 12th, no one would be complaining about his career path to this point. The Royals just had the misfortune of drafting #1 overall in a year when there was no clear #1 overall pick. The year before, they would have taken Justin Upton; the year after, they would have taken David Price. Instead, they had to pick from the best of many options, and given the turmoil in the front office at the time – Dayton Moore had just been hired but could not give his input in the draft – it’s not surprising that they chose a compromise pick in Hochevar.

The thing is, on pure stuff Crow might actually have a slight edge on Hochevar. Hochevar had better sink on his pitches, but Crow’s velocity is a tick better. Both rely on sliders as out pitches; it will be interesting to see whether the Royals force Crow to emphasize his curveball during his development as they did with Cool Hand.

Also, the fact that Crow went to college in Missouri and high school in Kansas gets back to the idea of knowing your backyard better than anyone else. Presumably the Royals have a better feel for Crow - his family, his work ethic, his health record - than most teams do. If they don't, they're doing something wrong.

Also keep in mind that if you’re still a believer in Project 2010 – and given the way the Royals are playing, I wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t – then Crow has the ability to be ready for a rotation spot as soon as this time next year. He’ll be the best pitching prospect in the organization the minute he signs. He’s not young – he’ll be 23 in the fall, which makes him older than, say, Dan Cortes – but then again, he’s a better pitcher than Cortes is right now.

I know it appears that the Royals have five quality starters already in their rotation, but even if they all maintain their effectiveness, the odds that all five starters will be off the DL a year from now is probably 50/50 at best. You can never have too much pitching.

What I like best about this pick is that the Royals drafted a signable player without skimping on quality at all. Crow was only available because so many teams ahead of the Royals drafted inferior talents to save money - the Pirates at #4, the Orioles at #5, the Braves at #7, and the Nationals at #10. The Rockies are getting all kinds of credit for drafting Tyler Matzek at #11, and the Cardinals for drafting Shelby Miller at #19. Both are great prospects, but both also have fairly ridiculous bonus demands. In Crow, the Royals got a pitcher who compares favorably to where guys like Matzek and Jacob Turner and Miller might be in three or four years, without worrying about some ridiculous $7 million demand. Crow would have taken $4 million last year, and probably will settle for somewhere in the $3-3.5 million this year. That’s not slot money, but it also doesn’t break the budget.

This is important, because what elevated the first day of the draft from good to very good was the decision to take North Carolina high school catcher Wil Myers in the 3rd round. Myers was on my pre-draft list of guys the Royals were thinking of taking with their first pick – and while that would have been a reach, getting him in the third round is a steal. He’s a very athletic player who could play the outfield if he can’t handle things behind the plate. His bonus demands contributed to him falling to the third round, but given that the Royals kicked the tires on him in the first round, I’m sure they have a very good idea of what it will take to sign him, and they wouldn’t have taken him if they didn’t think they could afford him. Much like Tim Melville’s pick last year, Myers signals that the Royals are done playing chumps in the draft – they’ll take the best talent available and let other teams’ fear of spending money in the draft work to their advantage for a change.

And remember, last year the Royals spent $6 million on Eric Hosmer alone. If Crow gets $3.5 million and Myers gets, say, $1.5 million, they’ve still spent less on both of them than they did on Hosmer. Not to mention the money spent on their supplemental first-rounder and second-rounder last year; there should still be plenty of money left over for the international signing season.

The Royals started the second day of the draft by taking Chris Dwyer, a left-handed pitcher out of Clemson who turned 21 in April, making him the first draft-eligible freshman from a four-year college in draft history. That’s an interesting draft note, but what matters is that Baseball America ranked Dwyer as the #55 player available in this draft. With their first three picks, drafting #12, #91, and #122, the Royals nabbed BA’s #7, #31, and #55 best players. That’s strong work.

As Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper wrote this morning, “if Kansas City can sign both Myers and Dwyer they will have landed a pair of supplemental first/second-round talents despite lacking a second-round pick.”

The draft won’t finish up until tomorrow; as I write this they’re in the 12th round, and the Royals draft has become remarkable for its reliance on pitching, and not the high school arms you’d expect to see. Of the Royals’ first 11 picks, two were catchers, one was a high school first baseman – and the other eight were all college pitchers. That’s just bizarre, but in a draft which everyone says is very weak in hitters, you have to admire the Royals’ decision to draft the guys they like best and figure out where to put them all later.

Ultimately, I’d give this draft a B at this point, which is an awfully strong grade given the lack of a second-round pick. Maybe the Royals didn’t select the guy I wanted them to pick. But they selected the guy that they wanted to pick, not the guy they settled for in order to save money, and ultimately that’s all you can ask for.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Draft Preview From A Non-Draft Expert.

I was hoping to do my usual long-winded draft preview, but time constraints this year force me to keep this rather short (well, by my standards). Given my complete lack of expertise on this subject, that’s probably for the best. Besides, if you want to get an expert opinion on the draft, I recommend you download the podcast of tonight’s episode, where you can listen to Kevin Goldstein break down the draft from the Royals’ perspective.

For the first time since 2004, the Royals will not be drafting in the top three – let that sink in for a moment – as they are lined up in the #12 slot. It may be fortuitous, then, that this draft is so wide open after the first two picks. Stephen Strasburg will go #1 and Dustin Ackley will go #2, barring unforeseen circumstances, because those are the two best talents in the draft. Strasburg, as you know, is the Greatest Draft Prospect Of All Time. Ackley is a line-drive machine who’s played mostly first base in college but should be able to handle center field; on paper he reminds me of former #1 overall pick Darin Erstad, and if that means the 2000 version of Erstad, that’s a heck of a player.

But the #3 pick tomorrow could be one of about a dozen different players, because the difference between the 3rd-best and the 30th-best player in this draft is as small as it’s been in a very long time. This should suit the Royals, because inevitably someone who’s a Top 6 or 7 pick on paper will fall to them at #12, and if the Royals are content to scoop up whoever falls to them unexpectedly, they should be able to grab a better player than the pick would suggest, with the added bonus that they’ll be negotiating from the position that the player wasn’t selected until 12th overall, and isn’t entitled to Top 5 money.

The Royals can’t afford to screw this pick up, because thanks to Juan Cruz they don’t have a second-round pick, and thanks to the collapse of the subprime veteran market, they don’t have a supplemental pick as compensation for Mark Grudzielanek. The Royals’ second pick is 91st overall. The Royals haven’t entered the draft in a worse position since 1993, when they surrendered their second-round pick for David Cone and their third-round pick for Greg Gagne. They still had the #5 overall pick, but naturally wasted it on Jeff Granger. (In 1990, thanks to the signing of the Davis Brothers the previous winter, the Royals didn’t draft in the first two rounds at all.)

It’s obviously not a good thing that the Royals draft just once in the first 90 picks, but there are certainly ways to alleviate the problem. Namely, the Royals can take the money they would have spent on the draft picks they don’t have and use it on the international market. The Royals already anticipated this situation a few months ago when they spent $600,000 – the equivalent of late second-round money – on a 17-year-old Korean catcher named Shin Jin-Ho. This is, I believe, the first time the Royals have ever spent significant money to sign an amateur player from the Pacific Rim area, and a very good sign for the future.

Also, in what appears to be a very good year for amateur talent in Latin America, the Royals are quite active. They aren’t frontrunners for any of the premier $2 million-and-up guys, but they are linked to a lot of the six-figure talents. As Goldstein points out, the Royals taking the approach that given the uncertainty of developing talent from Latin America, it’s better to sign a lot of good players than one great player. (This article from ESPN’s Jorge Arangure suggests that the Royals are “clearly in the lead” for a player named Cheslor Cuthbert, who is either one of Draco Malfoy’s henchmen or the best amateur player to come out of Nicaragua in recent years.)

So the lack of a second-rounder notwithstanding, the Royals are still in a position to add some talent to the farm. But their first-round pick is still the motherlode. So with that in mind, I’ll go down the list of Goldstein’s Top 50 draft talents and add some quick thoughts.

1) Stephen Strasburg, RHP, San Diego State. HAH!

2) Dustin Ackley, OF, North Carolina. Hah.

3) Donavan Tate, OF, Georgia HS. Incredibly toolsy outfielder, but not entirely sure he can hit, and it’s testament to how few sure things there are in this draft that he rates this high anyway. Also wants an enormous bonus. It’s actually possible he’ll be available at #12; actually, it’s possible that anyone except the two guys above will be there. A classic high risk/high reward talent. I don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other.

4) Jacob Turner, RHP, Missouri HS. I’ve been told that one of the things Dayton Moore is trying to do with the scouting staff is make sure that the Royals outscout every other team when it comes to players in their backyard, just like the Braves do in theirs. The talent level isn’t the same, but if there’s an obscure talent in Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa…the Royals need to know about them first – no more Albert Pujols debacles. On that note, it’s an incredibly positive sign that the Royals stole Tim Melville in the fourth round last year. That’s what the Royals need to do – take advantage of their location to evaluate these players better than anyone else, and in Melville’s case the Royals knew that he’d be signable at a reasonable price, and got a first-round talent three rounds later.

The Royals’ lack of success in finding major leaguers in their own backyard is just inexcusable. Everyone knows about Pujols, of course, but how about Shaun Marcum (3rd round pick in 2003 out of Missouri State)? Or Ryan Howard (5th round pick out of Missouri State in 2001)? Or Ian Kinsler, a Missou product who didn’t get drafted until the 17th round in 2003?

Turner is probably not going to be available when the Royals pick. If he is, though, you can only hope the Royals have done their due diligence on him. He might have the best stuff of any high school pitcher in the draft, but he (like a lot of the high school pitchers out there) wants Porcello money. He’d be a steal at #12, but he won’t be a steal if the Royals have to fork over $7 million to sign him.

5) Grant Green, SS, USC. The Great White Whale of this draft; let the corks pop and the bubbly flow if he’s there at 12. Came into the season as a potential Top-3 pick, but had a disappointing year. He wasn’t bad, per se, he just didn’t hit quite as well as people were hoping. There’s a little concern that he won’t be able to stay at shortstop. Given what the Royals have been willing to put up with at shortstop of late, a guy who can hit like this can be forgiven some defensive foibles. I don’t know who to compare to him to offensively…Troy Tulowitzki, maybe?

Anyway, the guys at Baseball America have had me excited by projecting that Green will be available at 12 and that the Royals will clock him, but Goldstein dashed those dreams by reporting that there’s no way he’ll be available, as his recent slide down draft lists has been reversed. At the risk of turning colors on my team, I hope the BP guy is wrong and the BA guy is right. But I’m not counting on it.

6) Tanner Scheppers, RHP, St. Paul Saints (formerly Fresno State). Scheppers hurt his shoulder just before the draft last year; the Pirates kicked the tires on him in the second round but elected to pass. He’s healthy now and his velocity is back in the upper 90s. You have to worry about the arm, but he could be electric if healthy. Another unsigned collegiate guy turned indy ball pitcher, Max Scherzer, springs to mind.

7) Aaron Crow, RHP, Fort Worth Cats (formerly University of Missouri). Or maybe I should use the Scherzer comparison here, given that Scherzer is also a Missou guy. Crow doesn’t have the injury concerns; his velocity is a little lower but his command might be a little better. I have no idea who is better.

8) Mike Leake, RHP, Arizona State. Performance-wise he’s actually been better than Strasburg this year, pitching in a tough conference and in a hitter’s park. His velocity is average, but everything else – command, athleticism, and the ethereal pitchability that everyone wants – is off-the-charts. Could be in the majors this time next year. I like the idea of calling him Brian Bannister with better stuff…much better stuff. The only downside to this pick is that if you’re looking for a guy to make the majors quickly, the rotation is the only part of the team that the Royals don’t need instant relief for, so the value to the Royals might be less than for some other teams.

9) Tyler Matzek, LHP, California HS. Love this guy, he’s shooting up the charts based on his late-season performances, but don’t see him lasting to 12. If he does, I’d rather have him than every pitcher ahead of him on this list except for Strasburg. But I’m not a scout.

10) Matt Purke, LHP, Texas HS. Don’t like him nearly as much, and he seems to have the most inflated…dare I say delusional…perception of his market worth of anyone in this draft. Pass.

11) Zach Wheeler, RHP, Georgia HS. The Braves reportedly love him, and since they are required by state statute to draft only guys from Georgia in the first round, I don’t think he’ll make it to 12. No opinion on him either way.

12) Kyle Gibson, RHP, University of Missouri. Goldstein thinks this is the guy the Royals are most likely to take. A potential Top 5 guy before his velocity tanked in his last start, after which he was found to have a stress fracture in his arm and is out at least two months. It’s not the kind of injury that is career-threatening, but he definitely would be a gamble. I also wonder how likely the Royals would be to use another first-rounder on a college pitcher who relies heavily on his slider (like Hochevar) given the organizational focus on using the curveball.

Others of note:

20) Tony Sanchez, C, Boston College. A lot of rumors that the Royals (and a few other teams) might overdraft this guy a bit, because while he doesn’t have star potential, he’s a safe pick who gives you terrific defense and a fair amount of pop. (The best comparison I’ve heard is to Kelly Shoppach with a much better glove.) I can confirm that the Royals are considering him, but that they realize it would be an overdraft. My feeling here is that if the Royals want a right-handed hitting catcher who has decent power but a long swing, they could just stick with John Buck. Or Miguel Olivo. And then there's John Buck. Also, Miguel Olivo.

29) Garrett Gould, RHP, Kansas HS. Mentioned only because he’s a local product, but he would be an overdraft at this point, and doesn’t throw nearly as hard as the other high school arms that are likely to still be available at 12.

34) Wil Myers, C, North Carolina HS. I’ve seen at least one mock draft that had the Royals reaching for Myers. Myers’ draft stock would be a lot higher if teams were sure he could stay at catcher; he has the bat and athleticism to play the outfield. The upside comparison I’ve heard has been to Dale Murphy; keep in mind that Murphy had to move off the plate before his career took off. (Not to suggest that the second coming of Dale Murphy would be a bad thing.)

Goldstein’s list of the three most likely players the Royals will select was Gibson, followed by Crow, followed by Leake. You’ll notice a trend – they’re all college pitchers, which isn’t a huge need for the team at this point. Unfortunately, if you look at the list above, every player from 6 to 12 is a pitcher. You can’t force the draft – you have to let the draft come to you. If the best player available is a pitcher, you take the pitcher and figure out the ramifications later.

But based on need, if either of the two hitters listed – Green or Tate – are available, that’s a home-run pick, assuming they can sign them (both are Boras clients.) If they’re not there, then if the Royals want a hitter then by definition they’re going to have to reach. The next hitter on Goldstein’s list would be #15 Bobby Borchering, a switch-hitting third baseman out of a Florida high school who probably has the most power in the draft. Do the Royals need another corner infielder, though?

Ultimately I rate the odds of each player, and the preliminary grade, thusly:

Grant Green, Grade A, 15%

Tyler Matzek, Grade A-, 10%

Donavan Tate, Grade B+, 5%

Jacob Turner, Grade B+, 10%

Mike Leake, Grade B, 10%

Aaron Crow, Grade B-, 10%

Tanner Scheppers, Grade C+, 5%

Kyle Gibson, Grade C, 20%

Zach Wheeler, Grade C, 1%

The Field, Grade D+, 13%

Matt Purke, Grade D, 1%

But again: I am not a draft expert. Doesn’t stop me from pretending to be one every year, though.