Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Didn't See That Coming.

The minor league update is proceeding at an even more glacial pace than I expected – at this rate I’ll be done sometime around Thanksgiving – so rather than waiting until I’m done to tackle other topics, let’s interrupt the proceedings to talk about today’s news. Kyle Farnsworth made his triumphant return* to the Royals’ roster today, and to make room for him, Alex Gordon was optioned to Triple-A.

*: On Opening Day of this year, the Royals had seven relievers on their roster: Joakim Soria, Jamey Wright, Juan Cruz, Ron Mahay, Kyle Farnsworth, Robinson Tejeda, and Doug Waechter. Horacio Ramirez, who started the year in the rotation, replaced Waechter when Waechter went on the DL in April. John Bale started the season on the DL, but he was activated on May 24th when Tejeda went down. Roman Colon was called up the same day. Ramirez was released on June 13th and Tejeda returned a week later. Bruce Chen was called up on June 27th when Farnsworth was hurt, and would later join the bullpen.

Since June 27th, here is the combined performance of every Royals reliever except for Joakim Soria:

114.2 IP, 127 H, 88 R, 81 ER, 74 BB, 86 K, 19 HR, 6.36 ERA.

Since June 27th, the only change made to the bullpen has been the activation of Doug Waechter on August 6th when Juan Cruz went to the DL. Waechter fit right in, allowing three runs in 1.1 innings before going back on the DL. And now Farnsworth takes his place.

The Royals’ middle relief corps has, over the past seven weeks, delivered a performance rarely before witnessed in the annals of baseball history. They have sucked in every conceivable way and in a few inconceivable ones. And over the past seven weeks, Dayton Moore has not felt fit to make a single change to his personnel. The only change made was made because an injury forced his hand (or Cruz’s performance forced him to declare an injury) – and instead of trying a fresh face he just reactivated another one of the guys he brought in over the winter – and who was so recovered from his own injury that he went back on the DL a week later.

And now Kyle Farnsworth is back. Meanwhile, not once has Dayton Moore shown the conviction to give one of the Royals’ minor league products – the products of the farm system he has invested so much effort and money in over the past three years – an opportunity to see if they can improve on the middle relief corps’ six-plus ERA.

That might be the most scathing indictment I can think of regarding Dayton Moore: the Royals are 46-72, chugging towards the worst record in baseball, and we can’t even point to all the rookies on the roster as both an excuse for that performance and a hope that the performance will improve in the future. Consider this: it’s August 18th, and NOT ONE ROYAL HAS MADE HIS MAJOR LEAGUE DEBUT THIS SEASON. That’s a stat you might expect from a contending team with a huge payroll and stars at every position. That’s not something you expect from a last-place team that is supposedly building for the future.

I guess The Process – I capitalize it out of respect – involves not just losing, but losing with a bunch of veterans while keeping promising minor leaguers like Kila Ka’aihue and Chris Hayes right where they are. Unless The Process includes “purposely tanking this season to get first dibs on Bryce Harper”, color me confused.

Wow, that was one long tangent…back to Gordon. When the season started, the Royals’ hopes for contention were predicated on three young former first-round picks taking big steps forward. As disastrous as this season has been, it’s important to remember that two of those guys have, in fact, done so. Zack Greinke is the best pitcher in the American League, and Billy Butler is hitting .298/.353/.480 and is on pace for over 50 doubles. Two out of three isn’t bad at all; Greinke is under contract through 2012, Butler through 2013, which gives the Royals plenty of time to build a winning roster around them. This season hasn’t been a total loss.

But it has been a total loss for Gordon. Gordon hit .260/.351/.432 last year, which was still a disappointment by the standards we had set for him, but was actually a pretty good season: his OPS+ was 110, and by comparison Butler’s OPS+ this year – his breakout season – is 119. Even if Gordon didn’t take a big step forward to becoming the middle-of-the-lineup presence we thought he would be on draft day, he was already an above-average player – and if he took just a small step forward, turned a few strikeouts into walks and hit a few more home runs, he’d be one of the five best third basemen in the league.

Instead, he got hurt. Injuries happen, and while it was frustrating that it came at such an inopportune time, his hip problem didn’t seem likely to alter his long-term course. He raked the ball during his minor league rehab – in 13 games he hit .350/.491/.650 – and I was confident that he would return the same hitter as before, and hopefully better.

Instead, he’s hit just .227/.310/.333 since returning, and .198/.300/.313 overall. At times he’s looked like he’s rounding into form, as when he hit two doubles and two homers in a five-game span last week; and at times he’s looked totally lost at the plate, as when he’s gone 0-for-11 since. His walk totals are a refreshing change of pace on this team, but I can’t really say he’s got good plate discipline, not when he continues to swing at pitches low and away and then take pitches right down the middle. Gordon might strike out looking more often than any Royal ever.

And frankly – and this incredibly sad to write – I like this move. I would have liked this move a lot more had it come TWO YEARS AGO, when he deserved it, and when a Triple-A refresher might have kept his career from stagnating the way it has. But better late than never. Gordon has earned this, and the Royals have to stop shying away from holding their most promising young players accountable when they don’t perform as expected.

The really interesting implication here has to do with service time. If Gordon was not sent down, he’d be eligible for free agency after 2012. By getting sent down, the wheels are in place to delay free agency by a year. There’s about a 12-day gap between the number of calendar days in a full MLB season and the number of days required to qualify for a full year of service. However, that’s not the determining factor here. The determining factor is that if a player is optioned to the minors but returns in under 20 days, he gets full credit for the service time he missed during his option.

This is critical, because the last day of Omaha’s season is September 7th. If Gordon is recalled on September 8th, he will have spent 21 days in the minor leagues. The margin is so thin here that issues like “does today count as a minor league day or major league day?” and “does he have to spend MORE THAN 20 days, or AT LEAST 20 days in the minors?” matter. As I understand the CBA, he needs to be in the minors for at least 20 days, and he’s likely to be there for 21.

So don’t pay attention to Moore when he says there are no financial implications here. Not that I’m complaining. If this move works – if Gordon’s bat comes around – then delaying his free agency until 2013 will be HUGE. If it doesn’t work, then frankly his service time doesn’t matter anyway. But as I see it, this move has the potential to resurrect Gordon’s career, and delays his free agency by a year. And if it hurts the Royals on the field in the meantime – putting them in a better position in the Bryce Harper sweepstakes – so much the better. What’s not to love?