Sunday, August 23, 2009

Minor League Update, Part 3.

I probably should apologize for posting as infrequently as I have; it’s been a struggle to find the motivation to write even once a week. But I won’t. This is what happens when you cover the most disappointing team in the history of the Royals, a bold statement for a franchise that has averaged over 94 losses a season over the past 12 years.

The Royals are 47-76 after today’s debacle, which puts them on pace to lose exactly 100 games this season. Less famously but perhaps more tellingly, if the Royals lose 100 games, they will tie an American League record for the most losses by a single franchise over the span of an intact decade.

The Royals have lost 927 games and counting during the 2000s*. They have blown past the Pirates (903 losses) and the Rays (901) as the losingest franchise of the decade. In the history of baseball, only six teams have lost more than 927 games in a decade, and the Royals are almost certain to pass at least three of them by the end of the year. Here they are:

Philadelphia Phillies, 1920s: 962

St. Louis Browns, 1930s: 951

Philadelphia Phillies, 1940s: 951

Philadelphia Phillies, 1930s: 943

San Diego Padres, 1970s: 942

Boston Red Sox, 1920s: 938

Kansas City Royals, 2000s: 927 and counting

(*: Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the 2000s is this: the decade is now about 96% complete, and there is still no consensus as to what call it. A hundred years ago they called the 1900s the “aughts”, but that’s not going to fly in the 21st century. I call it the “2Ks”, personally, but that’s hardly a consensus term. I would have thought we’d have a word in place by 2002 or 2003.)

When it comes to major league futility, no team can hold a candle to the Phillies, who from 1918 to 1948 had one winning season – 1932, when they went 78-76. The Royals would need to suck for another 16 or 17 years to match that. But within the confines of the American League, the Royals have a chance to stand alone. If the Royals lose 100 games exactly, they will finish the decade with 951 losses, tying the 1930s Browns as the losingest team of a decade; if they lose 101 games, they will have the AL record all their own. Trust the Process.

(The all-time record for losses over any 10-year stretch is safe; the Phillies lost 1016 games between 1936 and 1945. But the Royals can go for the AL record (the then-Devil Rays lost 972 games from 1998 to 2007) next year.)

This season, the Royals have designed a roster that not only is hurtling towards 100 losses, but a roster with few players that can be expected to improve in the future. The Royals have employed 37 different players on their roster this season. Not only have none of them made their major league debut this season, but just one – Bam Bam Butler – is under the age of 25. Trust the Process.

And to top it off, we have a front office that’s so fearful of the stigma of another 100-loss season that they’re afraid to promote deserving minor leaguers, because God forbid that the Royals should have to endure the inevitable struggles of young players to adjust. Playing poorly for the Royals, evidently, is a prerogative reserved for veterans only. Kila Ka’aihue’s .400 OBP might not adjust well to major league pitching, so best to stick with Mike Jacobs and his .304 OBP, whose bat is so dangerous that Trey Hillman elected not to use him against a right-handed pitcher in the ninth inning on Saturday night with the tying run on base.

The Royals are not only carrying eight relievers – maybe three of whom belong on a major league roster – they’re carrying three catchers. This means that on a night when Jacobs is the DH, the Royals have exactly one – ONE! – bench player who isn’t a catcher. One. On Saturday night, Brayan Pena was the DH – apparently Hillman is going to evaluate Pena’s catching skills from the batters’ box – so the Royals were blessed to have both Jacobs and Willie Bloomquist on the bench. And despite losing in the ninth inning, and despite having Bloomquist to take over at shortstop or right field in case the game went to extra innings, Hillman still elected to keep Jacobs on the bench while Yuniesky Betancourt and Josh Anderson made outs.

So pardon me for being a little apathetic. Judging from the lack of traffic at virtually every Royals website out there, I’m not the only one. A month ago, at least, Royals fans cared enough to write about the Royals, even if everything they wrote was critical. I warned after the Yuniesky Betancourt trade that anger would turn into apathy, and that’s exactly what happened.

I doubt the Royals have gotten the message yet, not when 33,811 came out to see the team play on Saturday night. Never mind that half of them were Twins fans, and that most of the other half were there to see the new ballpark. If the front office thinks that their fan base is willing to start over again next year like 2009 never happened, well, they’re going to be in for a rude shock when season ticket renewals go out this winter. We don’t Trust the Process, Dayton. And we don’t appreciate being talked down to by a GM and a manager who are the architects of the biggest clusterf**k this franchise has ever assembled.

And on that cheerful note…let’s go back to the minor leagues. You know, the place where the Royals can spend $6 million sign Eric Hosmer, but then can’t spend money to have a new pair of prescription glasses delivered overnight. Allard Baird had two really good excuses for the Mickey Mouse operation he was the nominal head of: he had no money to spend, and he had to contend with ownership that liked to meddle in baseball operations. Dayton Moore has neither excuse. Not that it will stop him from coming up with one.

A quick note on Wil Myers and Chris Dwyer first. The one saving grace of this administration has been the willingness to spend big-market dollars on amateur talent (and, equally impressive, getting ownership to share in that willingness.) After a very promising draft in 2008, the Royals have a chance at the same this year, grabbing three potential Top-40 picks despite not having a second-round pick.

I’m a little skeptical of Dwyer; while he was a good grab in the fourth round, he was considered more of a supplemental first round or even second round talent than a true first-rounder, and the money he got ($1.45 million) is a Top 25 bonus. I’m also a little concerned that he’s already 21, partly because there’s not much projection left, and partly because you have to be a little concerned about the teachability of a 21-year-old college freshman.

Myers, though, looks like the real deal. The rumor is that if Aaron Crow had not been available with their first pick, the Royals would have taken Myers then. He’s a legitimate first-round talent, and if he can stay behind the plate, he fills a desperate need for up-the-middle talent in the organization. A lot is riding on Myers; he was the only position player the Royals drafted in the first eight rounds. He may not prove to be worth the gamble, but he’s exactly the kind of gamble the Royals need to be making.

Oh, and regarding Aaron Crow…I expect him to sign by the end of September. We’ve heard word at the radio station that Crow and his agents (the Hendricks brothers) are not on the best of terms. Frankly, Crow should be pissed off at his agents. They turned down $3.5 million last year, and after a year in purgatory, he’ll be lucky to get the same bonus he turned down from the Nationals. The rumor is that the Royals are offering him $3 million, and sticking to it. They absolutely should, and more than that: they should publicly issue a deadline after which the offer gets taken off the table.

Crow and his agents need to realize that the draft game is a game of leverage, and he doesn’t have any. If a high school player doesn’t sign, he can go to college in three years and continue to develop his baseball skills. Even the best high school players will benefit from college competition. But the best college players are almost major league-ready, so for them, the alternative to signing – playing independent ball – does nothing to develop their skills. Crow turns 23 in a few months, and aside from a few starts with the Fort Worth Cats, he hasn’t thrown a pitch in anger in fourteen months. At some point he’s going to realize that the $3.5 million he turned down is gone for good, and he’ll sign. If his agents don’t realize it, well, they might not be his agents for much longer.

13) Henry Barrera, RHP, 23. Barrera is a hard-throwing reliever who was a last-minute addition the Royals’ 40-man roster last winter; after Barrera struck out 78 batters in 58 innings for Wilmington last year, the Royals were worried he might get picked in the Rule 5 draft. This year, Barrera didn’t debut until June 2nd because of arm problems, made four appearances for Burlington over the span of 10 days…and hasn’t pitched since. You do the math. Grade: D-.

14) Tyler Sample, RHP, 20. Sample was a third-round pick out of a Colorado high school last summer; he had some of the best pure stuff of any prep pitcher, including an excellent knuckle-curve, but was also very raw, which showed when he walked 29 batters in 27 innings in rookie ball. This year, he’s moved up to short-season Burlington (not the same as low-A Burlington), and has held his own; for the season he has 20 walks and 42 Ks in 42 innings, with a 4.10 ERA and just two homers allowed. He’s not that young – he turned 19 just three weeks after he was drafted – so while his performance is nothing to be ashamed of, neither is it something to be all that excited about yet. Grade: C+.

15) David Lough, OF, 23. Finally, an unqualified success story. Lough was an 11th-round pick out of a tiny college in Pennsylvania in 2007, where he was a multi-sport athlete. He showed a wide array of talents for Burlington last season – 16 homers, 11 triples, 12 steals – but his overall numbers (.268/.329/.455) weren’t that impressive for a 22-year-old in low-A ball. This year, his athleticism has helped him to a breakout season; he hit .320/.370/.473 in 65 games for Wilmington, then after a promotion to Double-A has hit even better (which isn’t unusual, remember): .337/.380/.541.

For the season he’s hitting .327 with 13 homers, 24 doubles, and is 17-for-25 on the basepaths. A lack of walks – just 21 – is a big black mark against him, but it’s worth noting that he’s been a lot more patient since he was moved to the leadoff spot a month ago; he’s drawn 7 walks in 67 at-bats in August. He’s not going to be a star, but he strikes me as someone who can be a decent everyday outfielder, particularly if he can handle centerfield. Comparisons to David DeJesus are in order; like DeJesus, Lough stands just 6’0”, and can handle centerfield but is a plus defender in a corner. The Royals are going to go into the winter looking for a centerfielder again, but rather than overpaying for a short-term solution they really ought to consider giving Lough a shot. Grade: A.

16) Derrick Robinson, CF, 21. Dubbed the team’s centerfielder of the future ever since the Royals gave him $1 million as a fourth-round draft pick in 2006, Robinson is one of the fastest players in organized baseball, which doesn’t change the fact that he’s never learned how to hit. Last season, Robinson hit .245/.316/.322 for Wilmington, which wasn’t good but was something to build on for a 20-year-old in high-A ball, particularly given that he didn’t start switch-hitting until after he signed. The thinking of scouts was that if things started to click for Robinson, they could click fast.

Unfortunately, we haven’t seen any clicking this year, as Robinson is hitting .237/.288/.313 in a repeat engagement at Wilmington. He’s still fast as the wind – after stealing 62 bases last year, he already has 65 this year – but you can’t steal first base. Well, you sort of can if you’re willing to take four pitches outside the strike zone, but after doing so 51 times last season, Robinson only has 35 walks this year.

Robinson’s grade gets boosted a half point because while it’s woefully premature to say so, it’s possible something clicked for him this month. Robinson didn’t hit a single home run in 2008, and had none in 2009 either – until August, as he’s gone deep four times and is slugging .488 this month. It’s probably just random variation, but if you’re the Royals you have to hold onto optimism wherever you can find it. Grade: D+.

17) Jason Taylor, 3B/1B, 21. Taylor was the Royals’ second pick after Luke Hochevar in the 2006 draft, and was suspended for the entire 2007 season by the Royals for undisclosed reasons. He returned last year and while hit just .242 for Burlington, he showed a rare combination of power (17 homers), plate discipline (81 walks) and speed (40 steals). Expected to take a big step forward this season, he instead confirmed the rumors regarding his suspension in 2007 when MLB issued a 50-game suspension to Taylor for violating the substance abuse policy (read: marijuana). Since coming back Taylor has shown only flashes of last year’s promise; he’s hitting .253/.339/.380 in a repeat engagement at Burlington. Even if avoids pot in the future, he’s got a lot of catching up to do to regain even a glimmer of prospect status. Grade: D.

18) Julio Pimentel, RHP, 23. Tore his ulnar collateral ligament during spring training; out until 2010 following Tommy John surgery. This one’s easy. Grade: F.