Friday, September 11, 2009

I'm Done.

So the Royals have improbably swept the Tigers, as the trio of Bruce Chen, Robinson Tejeda, and Lenny DiNardo led the Royals to victory over Rick Porcello, Justin Verlander, and Jarrod Washburn. After eking out a win tonight in Cleveland, the Royals have won five games in a row for the first time since they were, yes, 18-11. Seems like a good time for some positivity.

If that’s what you’re thinking, I’m afraid I have to disappoint you.

I’ve let this column stew in my head for a few days now, in the hope that time would dull the sharp edges a little bit. As harsh as this column might read, trust me, if I had written it two days ago it would have been much, much worse.

On Tuesday the Royals announced their final September callups of the year. Two days after the Royals rushed reinforcements to Kansas City in the arms of Dusty Hughes, Victor Marte, and Carlos Rosa (and the glove – certainly not the bat – of Luis Hernandez), the team brought back Alex Gordon after he had served penance for his sins at the plate, and brought up Lenny DiNardo in order to fill out a rotation that is suddenly down Gil Meche and Brian Bannister.

But it was the player the Royals didn’t call up that has exposed this organization once again as having blinders on to any kind of objective analysis of what the issues are with this team. Much as the acquisition of Yuniesky Betancourt spoke volumes about how clueless the Royals are when it comes to a rational evaluation of a player’s worth, the decision not to promote this player from Triple-A is damning evidence of the same thing.

And no, I’m not talking about Chris Hayes. I think Disco was deserving of a September callup, and could have helped the team down the stretch, but he stumbled down the stretch, allowing a 6.39 ERA after the All-Star Break thanks mostly to ridiculously bad luck in the BABIP category, as Hayes himself documented here. In 25 innings since the Break, Hayes walked just five batters and allowed just one homer, but gave up 42 hits on a BABIP of .410. For a pitcher who is never going to be taken seriously until he starts retiring major league hitters – and maybe not even then – Hayes’ stumble gave the Royals the excuse they were looking for to keep him down on the farm.

I’m obviously disappointed that Hayes won’t get the chance to see the Show this year, but I still think he had a good year overall, and is closer to the majors now than he was in March. For the season, he had a 3.05 ERA, and despite allowing 100 hits in 86 innings, he surrendered just 13 walks and three home runs. That’s positively Quisenberry-esque, as are the 41 strikeouts. (I mean that literally. In 1986, Quiz threw 81 innings, allowed 92 hits, 12 unintentional walks, 2 homers, and had 36 Ks. He had a 2.77 ERA. Not identical, but damn close.) I think Hayes has put himself in a position where, at worst, he’ll start next season in Triple-A, and if his luck evens out he’s in position to put pressure on the Royals to call him up all season long.

(Hayes isn’t exactly hurting in the publicity department either. After he was the subject of Joe Posnanski’s last official column for the Star, he’s been the subject of tweets by Ken Tremendous and Saturday Night Live’s Seth Meyers. I dare say that he’s now the most famous minor league middle reliever with a 78-mph fastball in the country.)

I’m not concerned about Hayes’ long-term future, but I am concerned about his future with the Royals. Hayes becomes Rule 5-eligible this winter if he’s not put on the team’s 40-man roster, and let’s be honest: does anyone here think the Royals believe he’s worthy of a roster spot? So I’ll call it now: the Royals will leave Disco off their 40-man roster, and there’s about a 50/50 chance that another team will take a $50,000 flyer on the kid who throws 78 but still gets people out. The odds would be a lot higher if the A’s didn’t already have Brad Ziegler, or if the Red Sox didn’t have so many resources that they don’t need to take a gamble on the soft-tossing submarine guy.

I’m not referring to Cory Aldridge either, although Aldridge certainly has the right to be upset about not getting called up. Aldridge isn’t a prospect – he turns 30 later this year – but he was Omaha’s Player of the Year after hitting .316/.361/.582 with 22 homers in 98 games. Calling Aldridge up to the majors wouldn’t hurt the team – any outfield that’s playing both Mitch Maier and Josh Anderson regularly needs all the help it can get – and would have been a nice way to honor a career minor leaguer who had the best season of his 13-year pro career. A small-market team like the Royals needs to be aggressive about recruiting minor league free agents, and it’s going to be that much harder to entice them to sign with Kansas City when a guy like Aldridge, who did everything he possibly could to earn a promotion, gets shut out of a month in the major leagues. Not to mention the $50,000 or so he would have made this month, which likely would have doubled his income for the year.

But no, I’m not that upset about those two decisions. It’s the decision to leave Kila Ka’aihue in Omaha that opens a window into the soul of the Royals’ front office. And what we’re seeing is not pretty.

I’ll be the first to admit that Ka’aihue has had a disappointing season. After hitting .314 last season, he hit just .252 this year. His home runs plummeted from 37 to 17, his slugging average dropped nearly 200 points from .628 to .433. But the one part of Ka’aihue’s game that didn’t deteriorate this season was his plate discipline. He drew 104 walks last season, and 102 more this year. Despite his low batting average, Ka’aihue had a .392 OBP.

I’ve said this before, but let me say it again: the single biggest failing of the Royals as a franchise over the last quarter-century hasn’t been their pitching, or their bullpen, or their lack of power or speed or defense. It has been a lack of ability or effort to get on base; specifically, an inability to take a walk. The Royals have ranked in the bottom half of the AL in walks drawn for TWENTY CONSECUTIVE SEASONS, and 28 of the last 29 years. After finishing dead last in walks last season, with one of the lowest walk totals by any team since World War II, they’ve improved all the way to next-to-last this season.

Dayton Moore and Trey Hillman have both paid lip service to the importance of plate discipline and OBP since the day they were hired…and then sabotaged that mission with seemingly every move. After tossing us a bone by hiring Kevin Seitzer as the team’s hitting coach last winter, Moore proceeded to crank up the degree of difficulty on Seitzer’s job, trading for Mike Jacobs (career OBP: .318), and Miguel Olivo (career high in walks: 20) over the winter, and then making Betancourt (career high in walks: 17) the cherry on top this summer.

Meanwhile, down in Triple-A, the Royals have a player who has now drawn over 100 walks in back-to-back seasons. (And remember, minor league seasons run only 140 games.) This player is a left-handed hitting 1B/DH, coincidentally the same role that Jacobs plays on the team. Jacobs has had the season that some of us expected him to, hitting just .235/.301/.417 with no speed or defensive value. As disappointing as Ka’aihue’s season was in Triple-A, it was essentially the equivalent of Jacobs’ season. According to Baseball Prospectus’ Davenport Translations, if you project what Ka’aihue’s numbers would have been had he played against major league competition this year, he would have hit .237 with a .408 slugging average – virtually identical to Jacobs’ performance this year.

Oh, except that thanks to all those walks, Ka’aihue’s OBP would be .368 – more than 60 points higher than Jacobs’.

I won’t mention that if the Royals had picked Ka’aihue over Jacobs last winter, they would still have Leo Nunez, whose 4.11 ERA this season would look awfully good compared to the scrubs that have been coughing up runs in middle relief all season. And I won’t mention that they also would have saved about 3 million dollars. That’s water under the bridge at this point. But just looking to 2010, it’s piercingly clear that Ka’aihue is a better hitter than Jacobs. He can’t possibly be worse defensively; he’s a lot cheaper; and he’s younger (and thus is more likely to improve on his 2009 season, particularly given how he hit in 2008). And did I mention he’s better?

Sure, it’s possible that Ka’aihue could be that mythical AAAA-player, the guy who lights up Triple-A pitching but can’t hit his way out of a paper bag in double-decker stadiums. That’s what September is for: to take advantage of the fact that you’re miles away from a pennant race by giving your young players some at-bats to evaluate them against major league competition.

Or, you know, you could send just send them home and continue to play veterans who have already proven they can’t hit.

Much like the acquisition of Betancourt, the direct damage of keeping Ka’aihue down on the farm pales to the indirect damage of what this decision says about the front office. The trade for Betancourt hurt the team, but it wasn’t a fatal blow – Jose Guillen makes as much in four months as the Royals will pay Betancourt over the life of his contract. But it was the thought process that led to the Betancourt trade that was so damning. Same thing here – while keeping Ka’aihue in the minors denies the team a chance to upgrade their offense and simultaneously cut payroll, what hurts more than Ka’aihue’s absence is that we have a front office that so little values his talents.

I have tried to come up with a plausible explanation for why Ka’aihue was left in the minors. The 40-man roster is full? Not only is that easily remedied – the Royals could easily open up space by putting Jose Guillen or John Bale or Julio Pimentel on the 60-day DL, or they could cut non-prospects like Devon Lowery and Mario Lisson – it’s irrelevant, since Ka’aihue is already on the 40-man roster. Financial considerations? Maybe in the Allard Baird era I would believe this, but I refuse to believe that Moore left Ka’aihue behind in order to save $50,000 – which is about what Gil Meche makes in one day. They don’t want to rush him? Ka’aihue has played 164 games in Triple-A, and 264 more in Double-A – the equivalent of over three full seasons in the high minors.

I have learned, from years of painful experience, to never assume that the Royals will allow common sense to creep into their decision-making process. This is the same organization, after all, that kept Jose Lima in their starting rotation for a full season – earning him incentives of over $1 million – while Lima was fashioning one of the worst seasons by a starting pitcher in major league history.

But I still didn’t see this coming. I still could not have fathomed that the Royals would rather continue to play out the string with a failed acquisition than so much as look at their best hitter in the high minors over the last two years. Even if you think Ka’aihue isn’t a legitimate prospect, even if (as I have heard) the Royals think Ka’aihue has slider bat-speed and won’t catch up to major league heat, what’s the harm in letting him prove it? Maybe Ka’aihue isn’t the answer to your DH hole – but since Jacobs has already proven that he’s not the answer, why not give Ka’aihue the chance to sink or swim?

Because…because…the Royals don’t think that Jacobs has proven to be a failure. And that’s the most frightening fact of all. Against all odds, against all the evidence, all the signs (the decision to leave Ka’aihue in the minors is just the latest one) point to the fact that the Royals want to bring Jacobs back. While the rest of us have watched a one-trick pony who can’t hit for average, can’t work a walk, can’t run, and can’t play defense to save his life, the Royals still see a solution. It’s as if, having acquired Jacobs last winter, the front office has decided that Jacobs is a fine player – they traded for him, after all! – and any evidence to the contrary is simply inaccurate. If the numbers say that Jacobs is actually a pretty useless player, well then, reality must have an anti-Royals bias.

Moore should run for political office one day, because he has already mastered the most important skill of any politician: when confronted with bad news, deny, deny, deny. Moore is still looking for the WMDs in Iraq. He did not have sexual relations with that woman*.

*: If it’s not a rule, it should be: if you insult both political parties back-to-back, no one can claim that you were being political. Fair?

The Royals traded for Jacobs, and while the rest of us see his .235 average and .301 OBP, the Royals see a guy who has given the team the power threat they really needed. And besides, he’s hitting .294 since August 2nd! Never mind that from May 20th to August 1st, Jacobs – who’s a DH, remember – hit .171/.247/.304. Deny, deny, deny.

(The combined totals for the Royals’ cleanup slot this year – which has been mostly manned by Jacobs and Guillen – are .211/.278/.301. More amazing than that: when Jacobs went deep on September 2nd, it was the first time the Royals’ cleanup hitter had hit a home run since JUNE 10TH.)

The rest of us see that Roman Colon never did anything in Triple-A to justify a callup in the first place, and that he’s got a 5.31 ERA this year. The Royals see an excellent middle reliever. In fact, Colon has had four scoreless appearances in a row - he’s proven he’s ready for a more important role! Deny, deny, deny.

The rest of us scratched our heads when the Royals gave $9 million to sign a pitcher whose ERAs the previous three years read 4.48, 4.80, and 4.36. The Royals denied that was a problem – Kyle Farnsworth throws 100! We need strikeout pitchers in the bullpen!

Trust us: Sidney Ponson gives the team the veteran presence in the rotation that we’re missing. You can't win without a left-handed starter in your rotation, and never mind if Horacio Ramirez hasn't been a decent starter since 2005.

What’s that? How dare you suggest that the team might have mishandled Coco Crisp’s shoulder issues! (Just this morning I was told that another ex-Royal had privately bashed the team’s training staff as one of the worst in the industry.)

And you, Keith Law: how dare you write an unflattering column about my contract extension! (Here’s what Law wrote in his chat session yesterday: “Someone I know well with KC told me after I wrote that the Royals shouldn't give Dayton an extension that we're not friends any more. The entire organization has gone mad - you are simply not allowed to criticize them.” And while Law didn’t mention it in his chat, I’ve also learned that after publishing his criticism of Dayton Moore’s extension, Law received a phone call…from Dayton Moore.

Yuniesky Betancourt has been a tremendous pickup for us, and we’re thrilled to have him under contract for the next two or three years. Never mind that he’s hitting .222/.263/.361, or that his defensive numbers say that he’s cost the team 8 runs compared to an average defensive shortstop in just 50 games since he joined the team. I really don’t know how some of those statistics are evaluated. Which means they must not mean anything.

(Anyone remember how, in the midst of the firestorm of criticism that accompanied the Betancourt trade, Moore defended the move in part by pointing out how so many people in the media panned the signing of Willie Bloomquist signing? Yeah, he actually used Willie Bloomquist to defend himself. Bloomquist is hitting .257/.300/.345 this year, and the majority of his playing time has come in the outfield. That’s right: an outfielder with a .300 OBP and no power is a feather in Moore’s cap. But hey, at least Bloomquist was totally right about Betancourt! “He could be the best defensive shortstop in the game hands down. And offensively, he can swing it…It makes me smile that we got him. He’s going to help.”)

There’s no way we could have made this trade without including Daniel Cortes. Just because people in the Mariners’ own front office have said they would have done the trade for Derrick Saito alone doesn’t mean anything. Don’t believe everything you’re told by someone who works in a team’s front office. Well, unless it’s our front office.

Besides, it’s not like Cortes is a great prospect. I mean, sure, he was our #1 pitching prospect just six months ago, and he’s only 22 years old, and we sold at the absolute nadir of his trade value. But trust us – Cortes is nothing special. (Ben Badler of Baseball America wrote this in a chat session today: “late in the season [Cortes] was sitting in the low-90s with a plus curve and much better command than he had shown earlier in the year, and the numbers from his last three starts bear that out.” In his last three starts, Cortes whiffed 24 batters in 17 innings.)

Gil Meche’s back is fine. Okay, it’s not fine, but he can pitch through it. There’s nothing wrong with letting him throw 132 pitches in order to finish off a 5-0 game. It’s just a coincidence that he gave up 9 runs in his next start. And it’s another coincidence that he complained of a tired arm two starts after that. And just because he was complaining of a tired arm two days ago, there’s nothing wrong with letting him throw 121 pitches in his next start, working against the heart of the Twins’ lineup in the sixth inning. The fact that he has an 8.01 ERA since that start, and that he’s now out for the season with a tired shoulder? Pure coincidence. We’ve done nothing wrong.

(The best part of the link above is that Posnanski finishes with this line: 'Were [Hillman and Nick Swartz] thinking, “Boy, I hope this works and doctors don’t find out tomorrow that Gil has a serious injury because that would mean both our butts?”' They didn't find out tomorrow - it took two months - but now that Meche's arm has come up lame, I'm sure that Hillman and Swartz are worried about their job security. Oh, who am I kidding?)

Call up some new relievers? Why would we want to do that? Just because we blew 8th-inning leads in three straight games coming out of the All-Star Break? Just because the bullpen – even including Joakim Soria – has an ERA over six since the Break? Our bullpen is fine. Besides, there isn’t anyone down in Omaha that can help. It doesn’t prove anything that Dusty Hughes, Victor Marte, and Carlos Rosa have thrown 7.2 scoreless innings since they were called up.

And most important of all: never mind the fact that the Royals are 37-74 in their last 111 games. Everyone knows that only the first 29 games of the season matter, and we won 18 of them! Besides, what really ruined the season was injuries, and never mind that many of them were self-inflicted. All that matters is that the team was 18-11 before Alex Gordon got hurt…okay, Gordon actually got hurt a week into the season and had only two hits before he went on the DL…before Mike Aviles got hurt…okay, Aviles hit .183/.208/.250 before he went on the DL…before Coco Crisp got hurt! Yeah, that’s it! If Crisp had just stayed healthy, we would have continued to play .621 ball all season!

Deny, deny, deny.

And then, when someone has the temerity to ask why, if the front office hasn’t made any mistakes this year, the team has the worst record in the American League – by all means, blame your first baseman (who’s the best hitter on your team, and the best young hitter your organization has developed in at least 15 years) for not turning 3-6-3 double plays. No, really, say that.

The Royals under Dayton Moore have been engaging in magical thinking all year long: if they believe something strongly enough, it will come true. Mike Jacobs is a good hitter. Mike Jacobs is a good hitter. Mike Jacobs is a good hitter. If we call up Kila Ka’aihue and give him a chance to play, that would mean Mike Jacobs is not a good hitter. Mike Jacobs is a good hitter. Does not compute.

Maybe if the Royals weren’t so focused on uncovering and stamping out criticism of the organization, they might have uncovered the fact that Luke Hochevar has been tipping his pitches for the last two years. Hochevar just learned that at least half a dozen major league teams have been sitting on his every pitch – and I can tell you that the people who finally let him in on the secret last week weren’t part of the Royals’ organization.

But again: the Royals are far more concerned with keeping information from leaking out of the organization then with bringing new information into the organization. They have all the answers. If only I had known they had all the answers two years ago, I wouldn’t have started this blog in the first place.

But now I know. So now’s the time for me to put this blog on hiatus.

I think it’s pretty clear that I need a break from the Royals. The fact that they’re on a modest little winning streak right now (though, predictably, they’ve done everything they could to screw Greinke out of wins in his last two starts) and all I can think about are all the things they’re doing wrong, suggests that I need to get away for a while. Anger has turned into bitterness, and it’s not healthy for me to write while I’m bitter. I’m sure many of you will be very critical of this column, and that’s your prerogative. The Royals have just won five in a row, and I spend over 4000 words ripping the team for not bringing up a minor leaguer for a few weeks? But that’s just it: I’ve reached the point where seemingly minor decisions are sending me off the deep end. So it’s probably best for everyone – you, me, and the Royals – if I stop writing for a while.

Over the last few days I talked to some close contacts who follow the team, hoping that they might reassure me that things aren’t as bad as they seem, and that they might talk me out of writing this column. The opposite occurred; they agreed that the organization is even more dysfunctional than it appears on the surface.

I started this blog two seasons ago with two main goals in mind: to influence the discourse about the Royals in the hopes that I might influence the team’s decisions in some small fashion, and to have fun. With regards to the first goal, I’ve obviously been a complete failure: judging from their moves, you’d think the Royals were doing the exact opposite of what I’ve preached purely out of spite. (I mean, seriously, I was the only stats guy in the universe that advocated the Royals should trade for Jeff Francoeur, who might be Dayton Moore’s favorite player in the world. They didn’t, and Francoeur was dumped on the Mets. Oh, and since being traded he’s hitting .296/.327/.481. That would look nice in our outfield.)

But up until recently I was having fun. I’ve had a blast establishing a rapport with all of you, building the kind of community that brought things like “The Mexicutioner” to a national audience. That sense of camaraderie has made all the losses tolerable, because at least we were all losing together.

The last three months have been, well, not fun. It’s not the losing; it’s the sense that the Royals’ front office operates in a different reality than the rest of us. Joe Posnanski wrote back in July that “one of the more frustrating things about being a fan is when you root for a team that so clearly has a different philosophy about sports than you have about sports.” As a Royals fan, I don’t know anything else. For 20 years – since the first time I cracked open a Bill James’ Baseball Abstract – my philosophy about baseball has been to use the power of sabermetrics to your advantage. And for 20 years, the Royals have been farther behind the curve when it comes to objective analysis than any team in baseball.

It’s one thing to have a philosophical disagreement with your team. It’s quite another when your team digs in its heels and refuses to change its philosophy…for 20 years...despite one of the losingest stretches in the history of the game. The Pittsburgh Pirates just got a lot of attention for setting a major league record with their 17th consecutive losing season. Over the last 17 years, the Royals have more losses than the Pirates.

And still, the Royals live in this alternate reality, where night is day, up is down, Yuniesky Betancourt is a good ballplayer and Kila Ka’aihue can’t hold Mike Jacobs’ jock. Where losing is part of The Process. Where there is no such thing as legitimate criticism.

It’s not fun anymore. You know things are bad when the Royals win five in a row, and the two things running through my head are, "great, there goes our draft position" and "yeah, because that 18-8 record last September was such a strong omen." So I’m going to take a few months to recharge and see if the fun returns. I’ll still watch the Royals whenever Greinke starts, I’ll still root for Bam Bam to hit more doubles and for Alex Gordon to revive his career. I’ll still try to fit essay-length commentary into 140 characters on Twitter (@jazayerli). But between now and spring training, don’t expect any posts to show up here. If the Royals make some significant moves over the winter – they sign a free agent, they make a trade, they fire Trey Hillman (a man can dream) – I might show up here with some brief commentary. Other than that, I’m done for 2009.

If, over the winter, Dayton Moore decides to rejoin this plane of existence and acknowledge that The Process – the process that put together the 2009 Royals – is fatally flawed, then I look forward to being back next spring. If the upcoming off-season is a rehash of last off-season, well, I can find other things to occupy my evenings in the spring and summer.

Thanks to everyone for reading, and if the Royals cooperate this winter I hope to meet you all back here next February. Letting Mike Jacobs go over the off-season would be a nice start.