Tuesday, November 10, 2009

This Stove Gets Hot Quickly.

As I wrote last time, “If the Royals make some significant moves over the winter…I might show up here with some brief commentary.” Well, they made a significant move, so here’s some brief commentary. Okay, maybe not brief. If it was brief, you ought to be concerned that an imposter hacked into my blog. It may be while before I post again, so I figured I'd get all my thoughts down at one time.

Dayton Moore likes to get started early. For the second year in a row, Moore made a trade on the first day of the off-season – or at least the trade leaked the day after the World Series. You can’t talk about the particulars of the deal without discussing the rather bizarre way that the trade unfolded.

Bill Madden of the New York Daily News broke the story just hours after the World Series ended. On Thursday morning, Buster Olney reported that trade talks were “not that far along”. An hour later, the Chicago Sun-Times confirmed the deal, even though both Chris Getz and Mark Teahen had denied that they had heard anything about a deal.

Thursday afternoon, Dick Kaegel reported that neither team had confirmed anything, and Teahen tweeted that night that After a long day of rumors & questions, I haven't heard anything official. Heading 2 bed comfortable in knowing I'm a Royal 4 another day.”

Just past noon on Friday, the Royals finally issued a press release confirming the trade as initially reported; the only difference being that the Royals were including “cash considerations” (reported to be around $1 million) in the deal. (Many thanks to mlbtraderumors.com for helping with the timeline.)

Now in the grand scheme of things, the fact that a trade that wasn’t confirmed until Friday afternoon leaked Thursday morning isn’t a big deal. What is a big deal is that this continues a very troubling trend for the Royals, which is that despite – or perhaps because – they have instituted an almost-paranoid level of secrecy on all the team’s dealings, their trade talks continue to leak out before all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed. Remember, it was just over a year ago when multiple newspapers reported that the Royals and Indians were close to a deal that would send Teahen to Cleveland in exchange for an outfielder, one of Trevor Crowe, Ben Francisco, or Franklin Gutierrez*. Publicly, Dayton Moore denied the rumors vociferously; privately, he went ballistic, going so far as to threaten to obtain cell phone records from employees to discover (and fire) the person responsible for the leak.

*: I don’t like to play what-if scenarios too often…but what if the Royals had traded Teahen for Gutierrez? The Indians wound up trading Gutierrez to Seattle in a 3-team, 11-player deal with the Mets, and Gutierrez hit .283/.339/.425 with 18 homers and 16 steals for the Mariners – and also had the most impressive defensive statistics of any outfielder in baseball. It’s not clear that the Royals were ever close to getting Gutierrez specifically, but if they had, they probably never trade for Coco Crisp, meaning they would have kept Ramon Ramirez, they might not have needed to sign Kyle Farnsworth and/or Juan Cruz…the debacle of last winter might well have been avoided. On the other hand, without Teahen, the Royals would have been caught flat-footed when Alex Gordon went down with his hip injury.

This time, there was fire to go along with the smoke, which led to yet another embarrassing situation for the Royals, as once again one of their players learned he had been traded away from a reporter instead of from the front office.

A few years back I formulated Jazayerli’s Law of Fundamentals, which states that “A team's ability to execute the “fundamentals” is inversely correlated to the time spent discussing the importance of executing them.” In the same vein, here’s a new rule I’ve made – call it Jazayerli’s Law of Public Relations: “The less forthcoming an organization is regarding personnel decisions that are made, the more likely it is that those personnel decisions will come to light in a messy and embarrassing way.”

Information yearns to be free, and it’s madness to think that in today’s 24-hour-news-cycle, mobile-internet, Twitter-and-Facebook world, that you can expect trade negotations to be kept secret indefinitely. The Royals’ attempts to do so of late have been laughably pathetic, but what’s more pathetic is that the Royals actually waste time looking for scapegoats when their private dealings inevitably become public. Moore’s tantrum last winter when the Teahen trade talks leaked is well known. More recently, the Royals berated members of the local media this September for telling prospect Danny Gutierrez that he had been traded to Texas before they had the chance to do so. This was ridiculous on so many levels: 1) it’s not the media’s fault when the Royals drop the ball and let their players hear from someone else that they’ve been traded; 2) Gutierrez had already been tipped off – he had already announced on his Facebook account that he was traded; 3) IT’S THE MEDIA’S JOB TO TALK TO PEOPLE.

The Royals aren’t wasting as much effort try to run down the leak this time, probably because even they can figure out that Bill Madden probably got his information from sources with the White Sox. Regardless, once again they’ve allowed what should be a quick, cut-and-dried trade announcement to turn into a drawn-out, confusing, will-they-or-won’t-they drama. It’s a small thing, but it’s a revealing thing.

Enough about the presentation – let’s talk about the substance of the deal. My initial reaction to the news that the Royals were trading Teahen for Chris Getz and Josh Fields was positive. In blunt terms, the Royals were trading two years of a league-average (and highly-paid) hitter for two players who could be league-average players as soon as 2010, and who are both under contract for five more years. My seven-second reaction was very favorable.

The consensus of the sabermetric community is…well, there is no consensus, really. Keith Law, oftentimes the Royals’ harshest critic, wrote “Love the trade for Kansas City. They will have traded a 45/50, who is close to free agency for two 45's with several more years of control.” (50 being scout-speak for a league-average player.) Over at fangraphs.com, Dave Cameron called this “a fantastic deal” for the Royals. On the other hand, Christina Kahrl’s transaction analysis was not nearly as sanguine, as she wrote, It might be more appropriate to wonder what the point was, since this doesn't advance the Royals in any particular direction beyond ‘staffed’”. (If you read Kahrl’s analysis regularly, you know how inadequate any single sentence of hers is in conveying her complete thoughts.) Joe Sheehan’s analysis was even more negative, and much more terse, conveyed in a five-word text message Thursday morning: “Your GM is an idiot.”

I love it when a trade is evaluated objectively by two of the most capable analysts I know and they reach completely different opinions. If nothing else, this means that no matter what conclusion we reach about this trade, it’s important to hold that conclusion with all due humility, realizing that smart people are holding the other end of our position.

In Mark Teahen, the Royals gave up a player with a great attitude, who started at six different positions with the team without complaint – even when moving from third base to right field and back on a daily basis – and who was arguably the funniest Royal of his generation. (Teahen might have been the most consistently funny Royal since Dan Quisenberry.) What they didn’t give up was a great hitter. Teahen hit .271/.325/.408 last year, and his career numbers are an almost identical .269/.331/.419. The memory of his 2006 power surge is a distant one now. He’s a league-average hitter, one who just turned 28, and is more likely to stagnate than to take a big step forward.

While he has tremendous versatility, he’s never shown much proficiency at any specific position. According to UZR, he’s about 10 runs below average per season and third base, and while he’s been an average outfielder over his career, his numbers last year were terrible – he was 5 runs below average in right field despite playing just 32 games out there.

Teahen has value, particularly at third base, where the White Sox have wisely indicated will be his full-time position (with phenom Gordon Beckham moving over to second base). It’s quite possible, even likely, that his glove will improve with an off-season to prepare – remember, Teahen spent most of last spring training working at second base. It’s possible that a new organization and a much more favorable home park will be a tonic to Teahen’s homer numbers. But it’s very clear to me that none of that improvement was likely had the Royals kept him. Last Monday I was on radio with Soren Petro, and when Petro asked me what I thought was the most likely move of the Royals’ off-season, my answer was a Mark Teahen trade. As much as I like Mark, he had considerably less value on the Royals’ roster than he did on the trade market. Credit Moore for realizing that the obvious move is usually the right move – otherwise it wouldn’t be so obvious.

The key player the Royals received in return is supposed to be Chris Getz, who as a rookie second baseman last season hit .261/.324/.347. Those numbers are pretty lousy, but they’re mitigated somewhat by his 25 steals in 27 attempts. Most defensive metrics rated his defense as below-average, but he has a good reputation and no metric is ultra-reliable over a sample size of just one season – let’s call his defense average. In 2008, he hit .302/.366/.448 with 11 homers in Triple-A (he’s hit just eight homers in his other four pro seasons combined), and in 2007 he had a .382 in an injury-marred Double-A campaign. So there is some upside here, but by “upside” I mean he could into, I don’t know, Mickey Morandini or someone like that. A second baseman who makes up for a lack of power by being a tough out, stealing the occasional base, and playing a workman-like second base. The kind of guy who makes the opposing starter work hard out of the #8 spot in the lineup.

Even after giving Getz bonus points for coming out of the University of Michigan (I believe he’s the first Wolverine to suit up for the Royals since Hal Morris in 1998), it’s hard to credit him with being more than a utility player at this point. That has value, but not typically enough value to actually trade for. Which is why I think that Josh Fields is the key to the deal, or at least that the Royals hope he’s the key to the deal.

Fields has a lot of the traits of the perfect buy-low trade candidate. He has an excellent pedigree – he was a first-round pick in 2004 out of Oklahoma State, where he was also the starting quarterback (and still holds the university record for touchdowns thrown). By 2006 he was in Triple-A and hit .305/.379/.515; the following year he hit 23 homers as a rookie for the White Sox in just 100 games, slugging .480. No one would have thought that he’d be reduced to being a throw-in in a relatively minor trade two years later.

Even as a rookie Fields had a .308 OBP, and his career mark is just .302, which makes it easy to label this as just another low-OBP grab by clueless Royals management. I think the reality is a little more complicated. Fields’ problem isn’t that he doesn’t draw walks – he actually has 68 career walks in 664 at-bats, and a ratio of more than one walk per 10 at-bats is pretty good. The reason his OBP is so low is pretty obvious – it’s because his lifetime batting average is .229. And the reason his batting average is just .229 is also pretty obvious – it’s because he’s struck out 226 times in those 664 at-bats.

Fields, basically, is a poor man’s Mark Reynolds. Only one guy in the majors can succeed while striking out 200 times a season, and Fields isn’t him. But if Fields can cut his strikeout rate by 20-25% - which still works out to 150 strikeouts a season – he’s a breakout candidate. That’s a tall order for Kevin Seitzer, but after sticking Seitzer with the likes of Mike Jacobs, Miguel Olivo, and Yuniesky Betancourt over the past year, a project like Fields must feel like a remedial assignment. It’s a lot easier to teach a major league hitter to cut his strikeouts than it is to get him to raise his walks. Fields is a project, but one worth taking on. He’s already shown he can hit lefties – he has a career .285/.356/.580 line against southpaws – so the Royals have a base of success with which to build. I’ll predict right now that Fields, not Getz, proves to be the more successful of the pair with Kansas City. (Even though Getz was a rookie last year, he’s already 26 – he’s just eight months younger than Fields.)

You can’t talk about this deal without touching on the finances of it, and certainly that played a big part in the trade. Even with the $1 million the Royals sent to Chicago, they saved millions, given that Teahen will likely command close to $5 million in arbitration this winter, and that both Getz and Fields are pre-arbitration players who will make just over the league minimum of $400,000. Counting the extra roster spot, the Royals save roughly $3.5 million on the deal.

But I think the financial implications of the deal are less important than the service time implications. Teahen will be a free agent after the 2011 season. Both Getz and Fields have between one and two years of service time – neither would be a free agent until after the 2014 season. Getz won’t even be arbitration-eligible next year. The Royals acquired two players who are ready to contribute right away, but whose free agent horizons are well into the future. As Moore said, Our motivation behind this deal – and any deal that we make this winter – is to acquire as many zero-to-three service-time players as we can. That was certainly what we did here.”

If for no other reason than that quote, this trade makes sense, because in making this trade Moore finally acknowledged something he should have last season: that while the Royals might be ready to contend in the near future, “the near future” does not mean “next year”. The Royals, barring divine intervention, are not going to win anything in 2010. Teams just don’t go from 97 losses one season to the playoffs the next. (Although I’m sure Moore knows all about the 1991 Braves.)

But the Royals can realistically think about contention in 2011, so long as they use 2010 wisely. That means jettisoning league-average guys like Teahen for lottery tickets like Fields, and using 2010 to see which of the new guys can play and which can’t. It might mean a few more losses next year while the Royals sort through their options – but I’d gladly sacrifice a few wins in 2010, when the Royals won’t need them, for a few wins in 2011, when they just might.

Or to put it another way, as Moore said, “The bottom line is it hasn’t worked here. It hasn’t worked. We have to do what we have to do to shake up our team and generate as much competition as we can. We have to put the pressure on (players) to go out and perform.”

It. Hasn’t. Worked. Here.

It. Hasn’t. Worked.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say that Moore almost sounds contrite. That he’s almost admitting that he’s made mistakes.

So if that’s what this trade is about – admitting that The ProcessTM is in need of refinement, and that the Royals need to rethink how they put together a team – then I’m all in favor of it.

I’m just not sure it’s that simple. Taken in isolation, trading Teahen for Getz and Fields makes sense. But this trade can’t be fully evaluated until we see the other moves it triggers, because as it stands Getz and Fields are both without positions to play. Getz’s primary position is second base, where the Royals have Alberto Callaspo. Fields’s primary position is third base, where they have Alex Gordon. Taking playing time away from Callaspo and/or Gordon for the sake of Getz and/or Fields is so dumb that not even the Royals would consider it. Which means more moves are afoot.

The dilemma with Fields is, to my mind, an easy one to fix. Fields’s defensive reputation at third base is pretty lousy, and he has a fair amount of experience in the corner outfield. I could see him moving directly into the Teahen role, rotating between third base and the corner outfield, but my hope is that the Royals see him, in a best-case scenario, as their future right fielder.

Getz is a trickier problem to solve, because like most second basemen, he doesn’t have the skills to be a utility player – he played a little third base and left field in the minors, but he really should only be moved off the keystone in an emergency situation.

Now, I’ve been advocating for months now that the Royals should seriously explore the possibilities of an Alberto Callaspo trade. His bat ought to make him a highly-prized commodity on the trade market, while his glove is likely to be better-tolerated on a team that doesn’t have defensive liabilities at multiple other positions like the Royals have.

But it’s one thing to trade Callaspo if the right offer comes along, and it’s quite another to trade him simply because you can’t stomach his defense and you’ve finally found a decent replacement in Getz. Getz allows the Royals to trade Callaspo. He does not force the Royals to trade Callaspo, particularly since Getz (unlike Fields) actually has an option left, so he can be sent to Omaha to start the year if a suitor for Callaspo has not materialized.

Ultimately, this trade is going to be judged by the moves that it emboldens the Royals to make. I honestly think that Moore didn’t have any grand plan in mind for how to resolve the logjam of talent at third base and second base when he made this move. I think he made this move precisely because he doesn’t know where this off-season will lead, and so by bringing Fields and Getz into the fold, he puts the Royals in a position where they can pull the trigger if the right deal for someone like Callaspo comes along, but they don’t feel obligated to make a deal just for the sake of making one. At least I hope that’s true. When the Royals have made a deal just for the sake of making one, the casualties have been hard to bear.

If Moore decides to give away Gordon for whatever he can get and install Fields at third base, and then makes room for Getz by moving Callaspo to DH (which would be a waste of his talents), we’ll rue the day that Kenny Williams picked up the phone. But if Fields winds up taking playing time away from Jose Guillen in right field, and if the Royals get a bushel of prospects for Callaspo, this trade may be looked back at as the day the Royals started to rebuild the right way. The trade looks good in isolation. But I want to see the next few dominoes before I pronounce judgment.


We may have gotten a glimpse of the next domino the other day, when Bob Dutton reported ahead of the GM Meetings that “One rumor to watch: A deal sending second baseman Alberto Callaspo to the Los Angeles Dodgers for catcher A.J. Ellis, a 28-year-old rookie who currently projects as a backup to Russell Martin following the anticipated free-agent departure of veteran Brad Ausmus.”

If I were to draw up a list of teams that Moore should be talking to regarding Callaspo, the Dodgers would be very, very high up. The Dodgers are the perfect storm for a potentially lopsided trade:

- Thanks to their scouting director, Logan White, the Dodgers perennially have one of the most bountiful farm systems in baseball. It’s not as strong as it used to be, but there’s still plenty of talent there.

- Thanks to their highly overrated GM, Ned Colletti, the Dodgers have no problem with overpaying in prospects for a player who can help them today.

- As you may have heard, the owners of the Dodgers (Frank and Jamie McCourt) are in the opening stages of a messy, nasty, tabloid-filling divorce. The financial pressures on the team are likely to be as strong as the financial pressures were on the Padres when their owner was getting divorced a few years ago. Given those pressures, an everyday player like Callaspo who makes close to the league minimum (Callaspo figures to miss arbitration by just a few days of service time) ought to be particularly enticing.

Add it all up, and Moore should be putting the full-court press on the Dodgers. Look at some of the talent that LA has given up recently:

- Traded Tony Abreu for one month of Jon Garland

- Traded Josh Bell and Steve Johnson for 2+ years of George Sherrill

- Traded Carlos Santana and Jonathan Meloan for 2 months of Casey Blake (!)

- Traded Willy Aybar and Danys Baez for Wilson Betemit

- Traded Dioner Navarro and other prospects for Toby Hall and Mark Hendrickson

The Santana trade kills me. The Indians turned a mediocre free agent-to-be into Santana, who’s now one of the best catching prospects in baseball. (Say what you want about the Indians, but no team does a better job of trading for prospects. They also turned Eduardo Perez into Asdrubal Cabrera, and Ben Broussard into Shin-Soo Choo. And let’s not even recount the Bartolo Colon trade, or how they turned Einar Diaz into Travis Hafner.)

So absolutely, the Dodgers are a perfect destination for Callaspo. But…A.J. Ellis?

The same A.J. Ellis who slugged .375 last season – in Albuquerque, one of the best hitters’ parks in the game?

The same Ellis who is 28 years old – more than two years older than Callaspo?

I’m sorry, but I can’t take this trade rumor seriously. Maybe Ellis is a throw-in to a larger package of prospects that the Dodgers and Royals are talking about. But there’s no way that even Dayton Moore would consider trading a 26-year-old second baseman who hit .300 with 60 extra-base hits last season, who’s under contract for four more seasons, for a 28-year-old slow, singles-hitting backup catcher wannabe.

There’s no way.

No way.


If the Royals are interested in Ellis at all, it’s because they’ve decided to overhaul their catching corps. The Royals spent 100 grand on a buyout to Miguel Olivo, despite his 23 homers and .490 slugging average, just to keep him from activating the $3.3 million option on his contract. You could make a persuasive case that the Royals should have kept him at that price – and it will be interesting to see if they can work out a deal to offer him arbitration (and for him to decline)* in order to grab a compensation pick, as Olivo qualified as a Type B free agent – but ultimately it was the right move for two reasons. One, he had a .292 OBP in his career season, and two, he’s probably the worst everyday defensive catcher in baseball.

*: It just occurred to me: is it possible the Royals and Olivo have already worked out a handshake agreement for him to decline arbitration? Olivo was widely expected to forgo his player option, because he’s likely to earn more than $3.3 million on the open market. So why would the Royals pay him $100,000 to go away when they didn’t have to? Is it possible that they gave him a free 100 grand with the understanding that when they offer him arbitration, he’ll decline, netting the Royals a compensation pick? Stay tuned. It’s just a conspiracy theory, but everyone loves a good conspiracy theory.

But I don’t think Ellis is the answer, even if he’s just a throw-in in a Callaspo deal. Ellis is the exact opposite of Olivo offensively, in that he has no power but is an on-base machine, with a .438 OBP this season and a .436 OBP last season. On the surface, that sounds great. But I worry that Ellis’ on-base skills won’t translate to the majors for a couple of reasons.

First, he has no power to speak of – he didn’t hit a home run in all of 2009, and just four in 2008. The ability to draw walks at the major league level depends at least in part on the threat of power – one difference between major and minor league pitchers is that major leaguers can throw strikes when they have to, and without the threat of power, Ellis won’t be able to keep pitchers from just pounding him in the zone. Secondly, his high batting averages the past two years (.321 and .314) are almost certainly a ballpark illusion. Right-handed hitters without power are not going to hit .300 in the majors unless they have speed. Ellis doesn’t. It’s almost impossible to maintain a high OBP in the majors as a right-handed hitter with neither speed nor power.

Ellis’ OBP numbers in the minors look like those of a young Jason Kendall. But the young Kendall had a lot of speed and a fair amount of power, and he had a .402 OBP his first five years in the majors. The old Jason Kendall has neither speed nor power, and also has a .336 OBP the last five years. I fear that Ellis’ numbers in the majors will look a lot like Old Jason Kendall, and that’s not worth playing, let alone trading for.

I worry that the Royals, having finally seen up-close what ignoring OBP can do to your offense, have swung the pendulum clear the other way, and are suddenly interested in players whose OBP represents their only true skill. Ellis’ .438 OBP looks beautiful on paper. I just think he won’t come close to replicating that in the majors.

I particularly don’t see the appeal of Ellis since the Royals still have a better option in-house. I speak of John Buck, whose fan club has dwindled down to...(looks around)...just me, I guess. Take a look at these two lines from 2009:

Player A: .249/.292/.490, 103 OPS+

Player B: .247/.299/.484, 103 OPS+

Player A is the aforementioned Olivo. Player B is Buck. At-bat for at-bat, you could not construct two more similar hitters than these two. But because Olivo got more than twice as many at-bats last season, he has the counting numbers (23 homers, 65 RBIs) that impress people, while Buck doesn’t. But frankly, I’d rather have Buck. He’s two years younger, has a better idea of the strike zone, and while he has a much weaker arm, he’s much more sure-handed at blocking pitches in the dirt than Olivo. He makes a perfect complement to Brayan Pena, given that Pena is a switch-hitter and a contact guy, and he’s already on the roster. There may be better catchers than Buck on the market, but why the Royals would want to replace him with Ellis – who, again, is already 28 years old and has all of 10 at-bats in the majors – is beyond me.


Finally, I can’t write about the Royals for the first time in two months without mentioning the fact that they completely turned over their training staff.

I take no particular joy in the fact that three men are out of a job. But as you know, I think this was absolutely the right move to make. I confess to being quite surprised at the news; if anything, I was concerned that the snit I had with the Royals this summer would have discouraged the Royals from making a move even if they wanted to, if only to avoid accusations that they were letting the inmates (i.e. the media) run the asylum. I felt like Professor Zarkov in Flash Gordon, in that by speaking out I had insured that the very thing I warned against would come to pass from Dayton Moore/Emperor Ming. (And you guys thought my “V” references were geeky.)

But the Royals made the right move anyway, and they deserve credit for that. Yes, officially Swartz retired, and for his sake I hope the move was voluntary. At the same time, you know the old adage about issuing bad news on a Friday afternoon? The press release announcing Swartz’ retirement entered my mailbox on a Friday at 5:59 PM.

To replace Swartz, the Royals hired Nick Kenney, who was the assistant head trainer for the Indians. (The Royals then cleaned house by letting assistant trainers Frank Kyte and Jeff Stevenson go, and replacing them with Kyle Turner, who was previously the Royals’ Minor League Medical Coordinator.) The Indians’ training staff has an excellent reputation, and in fact two years ago they won Baseball Prospectus’ Dick Martin Award that is given out to the best training staff in the majors. I have nothing but praise for this decision.


At over 4900 words, this might be my longest column ever. So now that the Royals have a training staff that might be able to keep injury-prone players healthy, I’ll leave you with two final words as the free-agent season gets underway.

Rich Harden.