Oh, how I long for the halcyon days when Nick Swartz was my greatest concern.
When the Royals were mad at me instead of the other way around.
Look, I could count all the stars in the sky and all the fish in the sea, and I still don’t think I will have calmed down. Sorry, mom. I actually finished writing this last night at
Eight years ago this July, the day the Royals traded Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez, I came on Kevin Kietzman’s show and the first words out of my mouth were, “I have never been more embarrassed to be a Royals fan than I am right now.”
I wouldn’t say I feel as embarrassed at this very moment as I did that day. But in every other way, this moment is perhaps the lowest point I have ever reached as a Royals fan. I have never been more disheartened than I am right now. I have never been more disillusioned as than I am right now. I have never been more angry than I am right now.
It's almost like the Royals are openly mocking me. I might have been the one analyst in the world who was curious to see what Jeff Francoeur would look like in a Royals uniform, but on the day that Francoeur was traded – to the Mets for Ryan Church in a my-garbage-for-your-trash deal – the Royals found a way to trade for one of the few starting players in baseball who is worse than Francoeur is. According to Fangraphs, only eight players with at least 200 plate appearances have a lower Wins Above Replacement rating than Francoeur's -0.6 (yes, negative). One of those, naturally, is Yuniesky Betancourt.
Betancourt, in fact, ranks fourth-worst, ahead of only Brian Giles (whose career is, if not dead, then cryogenically frozen), the overmatched Emmanuel Burriss…and – I have to laugh – Jose Guillen.
For the privilege of acquiring one of the worst everyday players in the major leagues – and a contract that runs at least through 2011 – the Royals surrendered one of their top prospects in Danny Cortes, and an intriguing if low-upside arm in Derrick Saito.
There are some trades that look lopsided at first glance, but then you look at it from different angles, you start talking to people inside the game, and you start to think, okay, it’s a bad deal, but I can understand the team’s rationale. This is not one of those trades. This is a trade that makes you more and more dumbfounded the more you contemplate it. It’s like a defective Magic Eye poster.
Yuniesky Betancourt is a terrible baseball player. He hits for a decent average, yes. That sums up his baseball skills. He doesn’t hit for much power – he has never reached double digits in home runs. He doesn’t have much speed – he has 24 stolen bases in 44 attempts in his career. His plate discipline is positive Olivo-esque – his career high in walks is 17. And he plays terrible defense – according to Ultimate Zone Rating, he ranks dead last among all major league shortstops, an evaluation shared by essentially every advanced fielding metric.
Oh, and he’s 27 years old – the age when most players peak – only he’s actually had the worst year of his career so far, hitting just .250/.278/.330 and putting up the worst defensive numbers of his career.
Betancourt should not be starting at shortstop for any team in the major leagues. It’s questionable whether he should be a backup player in the majors. If Betancourt had been released by the Mariners (and there’s a possibility they might have done that this off-season), it would have been a tough call as to whether the Royals should have even signed him for the major league minimum.
The Royals will not be paying Betancourt the league minimum. While the Mariners have kicked in about $3 million over the remainder of his contract, Betancourt is due about $1 million the rest of this season, $3 million in 2010, $4 million in 2011, and a $2 million buyout in 2012 (unless they’d like to pick up his $6 million option). The Royals are on the hook for $7 million guaranteed to Betancourt over the next two-and-a-half seasons.
Oh, but it gets better. Cortes, who was the surprise breakout prospect acquired in the Mike MacDougal deal, entered the season ranked by Baseball
Saito was a minor steal out of the 16th round last season; the Royals signed him to a six-figure bonus because despite standing just 5’9”, he threw in the low 90s with a funky arm angle. In 52 innings for
So, to recap: the Royals traded for one of the worst starting players in baseball; they agree to pick up most of his incredibly over-priced contract that runs for at least two more full seasons; they surrendered a very good prospect and another decent arm for the privilege.
I promised last time that I would try not to make my criticisms personal, so I’m not going to say that Dayton Moore is a moron, a pinhead, or an intellectual cripple. I have no doubt that Dayton Moore is a very smart man. So what I will say instead is that yesterday, a very smart man made one of the dumbest moves in the history of the Kansas City Royals. And that’s saying something.
The Royals will defend this move by saying that they had a huge hole to fill at shortstop. To which I would reply, yes, you had a huge hole at shortstop, and guess what? You still have a huge hole at shortstop.
Seventeen years ago the Royals protected David Howard in the expansion draft over Jeff Conine because, in their words, without him they wouldn’t have a shortstop. Well, Howard would go on to prove that even with him they didn’t have a shortstop.
Eight years ago, when the Royals traded for Neifi Perez, they argued that with Rey Sanchez about to leave for free agency – Sanchez had already refused the Royals’ offer of a long-term deal, which turned out to be a really dumb idea on his part – they risked being left without a shortstop. Well, the Royals spent the next season-and-a-half playing Neifi Perez, but they still didn’t have a shortstop.
And today, the Royals traded prospects in order to acquire a major-league shortstop. Well, yes, technically Betancourt is a major-league shortstop – he is stationed on that part of the field where the shortstop usually stands, and he does play in the major leagues. But in terms of whether he ought to be a major-league shortstop, he’s no more a major-league shortstop than any of a dozen guys subsisting on clubhouse cold cuts and Taco Bell in Triple-A.
You would think that the Royals, of all teams, would know enough to stay away from Betancourt, because it wasn’t that long ago that they gave a long-term contract to his doppelganger and suffered the consequences. That’s right: Yuniesky Betancourt is the Cuban Angel Berroa.
Betancourt is 27 years old, the same age that Berroa was in 2005, when it was already clear that his long-term contract was a huge mistake. Compare Betancourt’s career numbers to Berroa’s career numbers through 2005. Betancourt had a slightly higher career average (.279 to .272). But Berroa had more power – he had reached double digits in homers twice, while Betancourt’s career high is nine, and Berroa had the higher career slugging average (.399 to .393). Berroa also had the higher OBP (.317 to .302), because – as hard as it is to believe – he was by far the more patient of the two. Berroa drew 29 walks his rookie season, and even in 2005 he drew 18 walks – Betancourt, playing in over 150 games each year from 2006 to 2008, never drew more than 17 walks. Berroa had speed early in his career, stealing 21 bases as a rooke, while Betancourt has never had more than 11 steals in a season.
(You don’t think that it’s fair to compare Betancourt to Berroa? Fine, let’s try another comparison. Betancourt’s career numbers: .279/.302/.393. Neifi Perez’s career numbers through age 27: .279/.311/.405. We can do this all day, people.)
Betancourt and Berroa share another similarity, in that they both came into the league with very strong defensive reputations, but after their rookie seasons they started to put on weight and lost lateral mobility, and their defensive numbers went south along with the scouting reports.
I’m not prepared to argue definitively as to whether Betancourt today is a better player than Angel Berroa was in 2005. I don’t have to – all that matters is that I’m actually debating whether Betancourt is a better player than Angel Berroa was. If the Royals could have found a team willing to take Berroa’s contract – which, like Betancourt’s, ran for two more seasons – they would have jumped at it, prospects be damned. But four years later, Dayton Moore is so eager to reprise the Angel Berroa era that he gave up real talent to do so.
The biggest difference between Betancourt and Berroa, frankly, is that while Berroa (to his credit) maintained a positive disposition to the end, Betancourt was benched just a month ago for lack of hustle. Look at these quotes:
Betancourt, who has had meetings with his manager and coaches all season, insists he's doing nothing different now than ever.
“I’ve been doing the same routine for years,” Betancourt said. “I can’t control the lineup. I’m doing whatever I’ve done in the past.”
That, of course, may well be the issue. Betancourt has never been a hard worker, and the past four days have not served him well.
and my favorite:
Monday, when 12 position players showed up for early batting practice, Betancourt was not among them.
“I was asleep on the plane when they announced that,” Betancourt said.
The guy can’t hit, he can’t field, his performance has been going backwards for the past two years – and it turns out that he can’t be bothered to get better. Just remember that in case anyone brings up the fact that Dan Cortes was arrested for drunken disorderliness in
(Maybe part of the rationale for this trade is that the Royals are trying to send a message to their minor league players: don’t embarrass the organization. That’s the front office’s job.)
I suppose this day was inevitable, ever since we learned that early in his tenure,
“Two years ago,”
Unfortunately for the Royals, last year Bavasi was fired – and remember, this was the same genius who, before the axe fell, cited the departure of Jose Guillen as one of his biggest regrets – and the Mariners hired the talented Jack Zduriencik as their new GM. Zduriencik had been the scouting director for the Milwaukee Brewers, but unlike certain scout-oriented GMs he quickly proved that he was not intimidated by statistical analysis. He created a Department of Statistical Research and hired his former assistant Tony Blengino to run it. The Mariners also hired the brilliant Tom Tango as a consultant.
This winter, the Mariners and Royals were both looking for first basemen. The Mariners decided to gamble on a player who, despite a .485 career slugging average and being a perennial stathead favorite, had never batted even 450 times in a season and had gone over 300 plate appearances just twice. They signed Russ Branyan to a $1.4 million contract, and Branyan currently is hitting .284/.383/.575 and ranks second in the league with 21 homers despite playing in one of the
And now, even though Betancourt’s stock has dropped so steeply over the last two years that he’s now eligible for TARP funds, the Mariners were able to get out from most of that contract and grab some nice arms to boot – because the Royals were willing to serve as their victim.
But hey, at least the players are happy. Because if there’s one set of people who really know how to build a winning team, it’s the players. “For two minor-league pitchers?” said outfielder José Guillen, who spent 2007 with the Mariners. “Are you serious? How weird is that? I’m totally surprised. That’s all I can tell you. I’m shocked. That kid is pretty darn good.” Of course Guillen’s going to love this trade. Dan Cortes could turn into the second coming of Roger Clemens in 2012, and Guillen’s not going to care – he won’t be a Royal in 2012, so why should he care if the team mortgages their future for a few meaningless wins today?
(You want to know who's probably not happy? Kevin Seitzer. Once again the Royals have given him an impossible reclamation project. It's like that old Life commercial. "Give it to Kevin. He'll fix anything!" I set the over/under on when Seitzer gets scapegoated at about four months.)
This is the difference between an organization that understands that there is value in listening to both sides of the stats-vs-scouts debate, and one that doesn’t. No one would ever accuse Zduriencik of not knowing the value of good scouting – he drafted Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy, Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo, Matt LaPorta, and Mat Gamel while with the Brewers – but he has complemented his ability to evaluate what a player may be worth in the future with input from people who can properly evaluate was a player is worth today.
Dayton Moore, on the other hand, doesn’t give a damn about all that. He and his manager talk about the importance of plate discipline – remember Hillman’s quote that “OBP is a no-brainer”? – even while every significant player acquired since Moore was hired, from Jose Guillen to Jacobs to Alberto Callaspo to Miguel Olivo to Coco Crisp to Betancourt, has had plate discipline that ranged from below-average to poor to dear-God-I-can’t-believe-he-swung-at-that.
In the abstract, this trade doesn’t cripple the franchise. Betancourt will be no better, but no worse, than the dreck the Royals have been putting at shortstop for the last 10 years. (Remember, as good as Mike Aviles was last year, Tony Pena was so bad that the overall numbers at SS were still below average.) Losing Cortes hurts, and Saito may turn into a useful reliever, but the Royals can recover from this.
But in practice, I think that years from now we will look at the Betancourt trade the way we look at the Neifi Perez trade. Just as the trade for Perez signaled the death knell for the Allard Baird era – even though it would take years for the Royals to finally put the era out of its misery and make a change at the top – I think that the trade for Betancourt signals the point at which Dayton Moore’s tenure as GM becomes untenable. It will probably be at least a few years before the Glass family sends
If you’ve been a long-time reader of this blog, you’ve probably heard me talk about “signature significance” a lot, the notion that sometimes things can happen in a small sample size that are so extraordinary that you learn a lot about the quality of a player from that small sample. The example I use a lot is the pitcher with the 15-strikeout game; it’s just one game, and the pitcher might not even win the game, but the performance is so extraordinary that it’s almost impossible that a mediocre pitcher could duplicate it.
The Betancourt trade reaches the level of signature significance in my eyes, but in reverse. It’s just one trade, and if Cortes doesn’t pan out it’s possible that the only thing this trade will cost the Royals is some money and some opportunity. But this trade is so utterly indefensible, and the thought process that led to this trade is so utterly diseased, that I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this one trade is prima facie evidence that Dayton Moore can not be a successful GM.
In today’s game, you simply can’t be successful as a general manager if you ignore half the information that’s available to you. A GM that fired all of his scouts and relied on an army of MIT grads to evaluate his players would be mocked – and rightfully so – as someone leading his team down the fast track to hell. I see no reason why a GM that ignores every shred of statistical evidence when making baseball decisions shouldn’t be treated in a similar fashion.
And make no mistake: this trade closes the argument that the Royals have even a superficial understanding of statistics. The Royals don’t understand the first rule of offensive statistics: that the most important offensive skill is the ability to reach base. They don’t pay any attention to defensive statistics, even though the sabermetric community has made huge strides in the evaluation of defense over the last 5-10 years: the Royals still persist in the delusion that Betancourt is a fine defensive player, even though the numbers (and a growing segment of scouts) agree that he is a liability in the field.
The Royals don’t understand statistics as they apply to the economics of baseball – if they did, they would have understood that Betancourt’s contract was so onerous that he actually had negative value to the Mariners – Seattle should have been the one kicking in prospects in order for the Royals to take the contract, much as Dayton Moore once got the Dodgers to do when he took on Odalis Perez’s contract. They don’t understand the concept of replacement level: they made this trade in part out of desperation for a shortstop, not understanding that Betancourt’s performance is so bad that they could call up a team at random, offer to send them a PTBNL for that team’s starting shortstop in Triple-A, and do nearly as well. They don’t understand how a player’s age impacts his performance, because they think that Betancourt still has room to improve, even though he’s 27 years old and at the age where most players have peaked.
And finally, the Royals have no appreciation for their place in the success cycle. What bothers me the most about the trade is this: why now? The Mariners were sick to death of Betancourt, and his value was only going to go down as he crawled deeper into their doghouse. Why did a team that’s 11 games under .500 and 9.5 games out of first place feel compelled to sacrifice future talent for a stopgap?
I wasn’t a Willie Bloomquist fan by any stretch of the imagination before the season began, but he’s won me over. He’s not a terrific defensive shortstop, but he’s not terrible, and he’s hitting .285/.335/.393. I don’t understand why you couldn’t finish out the season with him at shortstop, all the while exploring low-level trade options for a underappreciated gloveman in Triple-A. I guess it’s okay to be a terrible hitter and a decent fielder, like Tony Pena was in 2007, but if you’re a decent hitter and a below-average but acceptable fielder, like Bloomquist is, that necessitates a panic move.
In short, the Royals don’t seem to understand all the different ways that statistics can be used to enhance the information that they are getting from a scout’s perspective. And worse than that, they don’t seem to care. They seem to be more concerned about quashing leaks and keeping a tight rein on information flowing out of the organization than they are concerned about the flow of information into the organization. They seem to be perfectly satisfied that their 20th-century model for building a franchise doesn’t need a 21st-century upgrade.
I wrote last time that so long as this administration kept pumping money and resources into player development, they’d eventually turn things around no matter what decisions they make at the major league level. I stand corrected. Dan Cortes was a tremendous scouting find, a seventh-round pick the year before that the Royals got the White Sox to throw into the MacDougal trade, and almost immediately after the trade he added
Dayton Moore is a fine judge of prospects. But – this is critical – someone needs to tell him that Yuniesky Betancourt IS NOT A PROSPECT ANYMORE. He’s not a 21-year-old kid that can be judged solely on his tools. He’s a 27-year-old with a long track record in the major leagues. At his age, that track record is at least as important as his skill set when it comes to projecting his future. You can’t judge established major leaguers the way you do prospects, and every time
And frankly, I’m not sure if I can take it any more. I’ve been a die-hard fan for 20 years now, and I’m not closer to seeing my allegiance rewarded today than I was 20 years ago. I’ll continue to blog and host my radio show through the end of the season, and – because I bought my plane tickets and non-refundable hotel reservations on Thursday – I’m still planning to be at the ballpark next weekend. (Exact details to follow, but if you’re interested in watching a ballgame with me, plan to be at Kauffman Stadium at
But next weekend may well be a farewell tour of the stadium for me, because at this point I can’t commit to anything after October. I’ve spent my entire adolescent and adult life rooting for and writing about this team, and it’s been two decades of unrequited love. I’ve got too much to be thankful for in my life to let it be spoiled by the imperious decisions of a front office that looks down upon the very idea of the statistical analysis that I’ve advocated for so many years, and that has contributed to the success of so many other teams.
To the Royals: sorry if I came off as unfairly critical yet again. Look at the bright side – pretty soon you may have one less critical fan to worry about. You may have one less fan to worry about, period.