Thursday, July 30, 2009

Trade Deadline Blowout!

I’m in Boston at the moment for a dermatology conference, with family in tow – which meant a couple of days vacationing on Cape Cod beforehand. So here’s my quick summary of everything that’s happened in the past week; my work is made easier by the fact that other people have done some of the work for me.

- Not even the Red Sox are immune to my home team curse, which dooms the home team to defeat anytime I’m in attendance at the stadium (unless they are playing the Royals, of course.) The White Sox are something like 9-1 against KC in my trips to U.S. Cellular Field, but are 1-5 or so when playing other teams. I made my first trip to Fenway Park on Tuesday night, and for eight innings the Sox handled everything I threw at them – they put up a 5-spot in the third inning and countered every A’s rally with one of their own.

But the ninth inning was something out of the 1999 Royals’ playbook; with two out and a man on third, Jonathan Papelbon gave up a double to Tommy Everidge (Everidge’s first major league hit), then an infield single to Mark Ellis on an 0-2 count; Nick Green threw the ball away, allowing Ellis to take second; Ellis stole third; and Ellis scored the tying run on another infield single. The 11th inning was just denouement; the A’s put together a two-run rally with two outs and another 0-2 count to Ellis, and while the Sox pushed across a run in the bottom of the inning, Dustin Pedroia’s bid for a two-out walkoff homer came up short of the Green Monster. Needless to say, I felt at home.

(Although in my defense, the person most at fault for the team’s collapse was the guy in my section who got a wave started in the 7th inning – along with the thousands of people who succeeded in getting the wave to go around the stadium three times. The Wave. At Fenway Park. It’s almost like they want the team to spend another 86 years in the desert.)

- Back to the Royals…Luke Hochevar takes the mound this afternoon, and we’re all anxious to see how he’s going to follow up a start in which he struck out 13 batters – the most by a Royals pitcher since Kevin Appier on August 29, 1996 – while walking no one. My take on this is pretty much what Joe Posnanski wrote here. A 13-K, 0-BB start doesn’t quite meet the standard of signature significance; as I wrote once before, the exact same combination had me believing that Jason Bere was a future star once upon a time. But to have a 13-K, 0-BB start barely a month after throwing a complete game in 80 pitches? The former approaches the standard of signature significance for a power pitcher, the latter for a groundball pitcher. To accomplish both in the same season might be unprecedented – maybe Greg Maddux has done it, I dunno.

I really have no idea what’s going on with Hochevar. In his first nine starts, covering 51 innings, he had 19 walks and 21 strikeouts. In his last three starts, covering 19 innings, he has 1 walk and 27 strikeouts. But in his first nine starts he surrendered 97 groundballs and 78 flyballs; in his last three starts, he has surrendered just 18 groundballs and 32 flyballs. Hochevar’s groundball/flyball ratio has never been as high in the majors as it was in the minor leagues; prior to this season he was just a modest groundball pitcher at most. But in his last three starts he has become an entirely different animal, a power/flyball guy in the mold of a Zack Greinke. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s just…weird.

Hochevar’s career has long been a source of mystery for me. I included him on my list of “23 Reasons I’m Excited To Be A Royals Fan” under the title “The Enigma” – and that was nearly two years ago. So I don’t profess to know where his career is headed next. But I’m more optimistic about his future prospects than I have been in a long time.

And on a tangential note – can we dispense with the whole “the Royals should have drafted Tim Lincecum” meme please? NO ONE thought, on draft day, 2006, that Tim Lincecum was the #1 player in the draft. It turns out that everyone was wrong – but it’s silly to hold the Royals to a higher standard than the other 29 teams out there. Remember, Lincecum didn’t go 2nd or 3rd or 5th – he went tenth in the draft that year. The guy who was the consensus #1 player in the draft was Andrew Miller, who has a 5.50 career ERA and 143 walks in 258 innings. Virtually all baseball people would take Hochevar over Miller in a heartbeat right now. The Royals didn’t screw up by taking Hochevar. On the contrary, they made a bold move, one that appears to be the correct one.

(And while we’re quashing memes, can we also dispense with the idea that Dayton Moore deserves credit for drafting him? Sorry, Dayton, but after telling us for the last three years that you had no input in that draft, you can’t suddenly change course and take credit for Hochevar. That was Deric Ladnier’s work. Hochevar, like roughly two-thirds of the good players on your roster, was someone you inherited, not someone you acquired.)

- While Hochevar seems to be undergoing a transition from groundball pitcher to power/flyball pitcher, Brian Bannister has done the complete opposite. And in his case, we know it’s deliberate, because he’s told us.

I don’t normally urge you all to listen to the radio show after the fact, but if you haven’t listened to the clips of Bannister on last week’s show, please do so. Or just listen to the clips by themselves, which you can also access by that link. We’ve long known that Bannister is one of the smartest guys in baseball, maybe the smartest when it comes to applying sabermetric principles to making him a better player on the field. But I don’t think any of us appreciated just how important sabermetrics has been to his success.

Partly, that’s because until this season, he really hadn’t been all that successful, at least not in what would be considered a sustainable way. In 2007, he rode a fluky performance on balls in play to a 3.87 ERA, but his peripherals were unimpressive – he struck out just 4.2 batters per nine innings, and unless you’re an extreme groundball pitcher you can’t survive at that level. To his credit, Bannister recognized the unsustainability of his performance, and endeavored to get more strikeouts last year. It worked – his K rate jumped to 5.6 per nine innings – but his home run rate nearly doubled, and along with regression in his BABIP performance, his ERA jumped nearly two runs.

Which brings us to 2009, and after a terrible performance in spring training and in his first minor league start, he decided to junk the fastball that got him to the majors, switch to his “no-seam” cut fastball, and begin the transformation to a groundball pitcher. And what amazes me most about the clip above is that everything he talks about his borne out in the numbers. His fastball this year really has lost a tick of velocity, but gained a ton of sink. His groundball ratio really has jumped, from just 37.5% last year to 49.6% this year. And in the process, he has figured out a way to meld the two approaches, keeping his strikeout rate (5.6 per 9) from last year, while keeping his home run rate (0.9 per 9) from 2007.

He is every bit as successful a pitcher this year as he was two years ago, only this time there’s nothing in his numbers to suggest it’s a fluke. Bannister has gone from #7 on the Royals’ depth chart in March to their #2 starter today, and there’s every indication he will continue to be a slightly above-average major league starter for the foreseeable future. (For a more in-depth analysis of Bannister’s comments and how they correspond to his performance this year, I recommend these two articles.)

After Bannister’s rookie season, I wrote of him, “while I’m a little leery of Bannister in the short term, I’m confident that he can make the adjustments to continue being an above-average starting pitcher in the long term.” You have to understand, I make predictions like this all the time, and future events almost always prove me to have been overly optimistic. The fact that I nailed it this one time is testament to Bannister more than me. There’s no Royal that I love more than Zack Greinke, but there’s no Royal that I’m prouder of than Bannister, and there hasn’t been since Dan Quisenberry left.

Naturally, this makes me terrified that he’ll be in another uniform 24 hours from now.

In Bill James, the Royals had a fan living in their own backyard who unlocked the secrets of baseball analysis a generation before they went mainstream. In Joe Posnanski, the Royals had the first nationally-acclaimed sports columnist who had a thorough grounding in sabermetrics working for the local paper. In Brian Bannister, the Royals have on their own roster the first major league player who has used sabermetrics to comprehend, and advance, his own career. The Royals have been blessed, through sheer serendipity, with three trailblazers on the path towards baseball enlightenment. They ignored the first one until he got fed up and decided to help the Red Sox win a title or two, and they’re doing their best to ignore the second one. I have no optimism that they’ll listen to Bannister any more than they listened to the first two, but maybe the fact that he wears cleats and stirrups to work means that they’ll keep an open mind. Or, you know, maybe they’ll just trade him.

- Speaking of the trade deadline: it is tomorrow at 3 PM, and tonight’s radio show is a special two-hour affair devoted to all the possible moves, so be sure to tune in. The Royals are not cooperating, as they appear to be content with holding pat. Maybe this is a good thing, given that the last time the Royals made a trade, they were the ones giving up the prospects. And in fairness, the meltdown of the bullpen has limited their options, as most of the players they have who are not part of the future are also not part of anyone’s present. Still, let’s take a look at what they could – or should – do:

Juan Cruz: You could list the other five middle relievers on the roster here as well, but unless some team wants to improve their draft position for next year, I suspect the demand will be light. Cruz, by virtue of his performance in the NL before signing with the Royals, might – might – draw some interest. Going into the All-Star Break, I thought that with a strong finish to July, that Cruz might be a useful chip for a team that felt he could return to his old form in the inferior league. That, ahem, has not happened. Cruz has appeared in five games since the Break, has given up at least two runs in all of them, and in three innings of work has allowed 11 hits and 14 runs. You almost have to hope that he’s hurt, because that’s one of the worst stretches of relief work I’ve ever seen. At this point, if the Royals can get out from under his contract, they should trade him for a token non-prospect. He’s owed more than $4 million between now and the end of next year, and as noble as it appeared before the season, the Juan Cruz Experiment has not worked out in Kansas City.

(By the way, I love this line from an anonymous Royals official: “It’s like other teams think we’re going to give guys away for nothing.” You think? For the money most of your guys are earning, you ought to be thankful if you can give them away.)

Willie Bloomquist: The Spork has been impressive this year, no question; his .278/.324/.383 line, his speed, his defensive versatility are all assets, and his price tag ($1.5 million per) is not prohibitive. I think it’s interesting that Bloomquist, who was the only hitter Moore has acquired in the last year or two with some idea of the strike zone, is also the only one of them who seems to have worked well with Kevin Seitzer. Bloomquist has value, and the Royals shouldn’t trade him for just a marginal prospect. But if some team is willing to give up a blue-chipper or a guy with intriguing upside, you have to do that deal. The idea of contending in 2010 is looking more and more delusional, so anyone who’s not under contract past 2010 has to be put in the display case.

Brian Bannister: The Brewers supposedly have interest, but Bannister is under contract through 2012, and you don’t give away three-plus years of a quality major league starter without getting some serious coin in exchange. There’s a trade here that could work – Bannister for Alcides Escobar, who’s very young, developing as a hitter, and one of the finest defensive shortstops in the minors. But that would require Moore to acknowledge that the Yuniesky Betancourt trade was a clusterf**k in every way imaginable, and something tells me he isn’t ready to do that.

(On the subject of Betancourt: it’s way too early to evaluate his performance – if he were 15-for-42 instead of 5-for-42, I’d be shouting “SMALL SAMPLE SIZE!” from the rooftops, and it’s not fair to ignore that issue just because he’s sucking at a Penaesque level. But man, even I thought that he would show some short-term improvement just from having a change of scenery. I never thought that the Betancourt acquisition would end well, but if he keeps hitting like this, at least it might end soon.)

Mark Teahen/David DeJesus: Both guys have value, and both guys might be more valuable as a secondary cog on a contender than as middle-of-the-order types for the Royals. Teahen, in particular, has more value at third base than anywhere else, and now that he’s been relegated to right field, he’s almost certainly worth less to the Royals than he would be to some other team. But neither seems to be attracting a ton of interest, and the Royals have no reason to sell them for less than their true worth. It’s not like either player is blocking a prospect from getting into the lineup, and both players are still under contract for two more seasons. If the Royals don’t get what they want for them this year, they can always do this dance again next July. I don’t expect them to get traded, and that’s probably for the best.

Miguel Olivo: Now that Brayan Pena has been working his way up to first-string status, a move I heartily endorse by the way, the Olivo/Buck combination looks even more ridiculous than it did the last two winters. Olivo has had his hot stretches this year, which disguises that his OPS+ is actually lower than Buck’s (89 to 90). Eight walks in half a season will do that to you. Olivo isn’t going to fetch much, but a grade C prospect would be worth it, if only to keep the Royals from the temptation of bringing him back again next year. I’d rather have Buck, if only because the Royals can probably release him this winter and re-sign him at a much better salary (say, $1 million with incentives). A Buck/Pena quasi-platoon would give you slightly below-average production at a fair price. All Olivo does is make the Royals think they have a solution at a position when they really don’t.

Alberto Callaspo: Finally, here’s the bold move I’d love to see the Royals make: trading Callaspo for a comparable young player, preferably a centerfielder. Callaspo has a blend of obvious strengths and weaknesses; he’s a hell of a hitter for a second baseman (.305/.354/.463), but beyond awful defensively. There’s no reason to think his offense is a fluke; if anything, given his 28 doubles in just 348 at-bats, there’s reason to think he’s starting to develop power (a notion bolstered by the fact that after going homerless in the first 400-plus at-bats in his career, he has seven homers this year.) You don’t think the Twins, who are just two games out of first despite the fact that their second basemen have hit a combined .187/.278/.236 (!) this year, would want Callaspo? (Fun fact: the Twins are the only team the Royals have never made a trade with.)

The problem with Callaspo is that his defense, while bad enough on its own, is just one of many sub-par gloves on the Royals. A stronger defensive team could weather one iron glove in their infield; with the Royals, their entire infield is one big sieve, and they need to find a way to repair that if they want to entertain any hope of contending in the near future.

The decision to move Callaspo is made easier by the fact that Jeff Bianchi has been the breakout star of the farm system, and might be ready for an audition as soon as September. I still think Bianchi should be given a shot at shortstop, but until the Royals give up on Betancourt that option appears to be out. (And if Bianchi slides across the keystone, Johnny Giavotella may soon be ready to take over at second.)

And looking long-term, Callaspo’s defense isn’t going to suddenly improve over time. A shortstop that loses range can move to second base or third base; a second baseman who loses range can only move to first base. That’s enough to end the career of many a second baseman – Ruben Gotay, anyone? Callaspo’s bat will keep him in the majors even if he has to move to first, but as what? The new Ross Gload?

So if the Royals want to be bold, if they want to sacrifice some offense in the short-term in exchange for a defensive upgrade at two positions, they really ought to explore the market for Callaspo. I really do think the Twins would make the perfect trade partner. Maybe you take a chance on Carlos Gomez, who hasn’t hit at all, but is just 23 and does play excellent defense in center. Maybe you take a flyer on Delmon Young and move DeJesus back to center. Maybe you settle for a prospect – especially if you can pry someone like Ben Revere away from them.

But in the midst of one of the most dreadful seasons I’ve ever witnessed, the Royals need to do something bold. (And unlike their last “bold” move, something smart.) Trading Callaspo when his trade value will never be higher, when you’ve got replacements in the minors who are almost ready, when he might fetch you a long-term solution at another position, certainly qualifies. The Royals have 24 hours to get cracking.