Saturday, December 25, 2010

More On The Greinke Trade.

First off, let me clear up a few loose ends from last time.

- When making the point about the Royals’ future defense, I was remiss in not pointing out the most obvious evidence that defense was Mission 2012’s weakness: the Royals recently announced their minor league award winners, and the winner of the Frank White Defensive Player of the Year Award was…Eric Hosmer. A first baseman. A good defensive first baseman, but we’re not talking about Keith Hernandez here. That’s a pretty clear sign that if Escobar and Cain were still minor leaguers, they’d be the two best defensive players in the system (among prospects who actually project to hit).

- I adore this tweet from Baseball America’s Ben Badler: “Looking at our Royals top 30. They have 18 players I'd take over the Brewers No. 1 prospect.” I know, it’s not a fair comparison, the Brewers just decimated their system to win now…but still, that’s just cool. I’m sure my Brewer friends would like to reply with a witty comeback, but unfortunately they’re all busy waiting in line to buy playoff tickets.

- A perhaps under-appreciated aspect to the deal is the fact that Greinke had the Brewers on his no-trade list, and had to be persuaded to waive it. Not only did he do so, he didn’t receive any compensation in return.

If you’re a Brewer fan and don’t love the guy already, you’re nuts. One of the best pitchers in baseball has the right to block a trade to the smallest market in baseball, and gives it up – for nothing in return. A superstar player wants to join your team. The same thing that made Greinke so popular in Kansas City – that he was the rare superstar who was perfectly happy playing in a small market, at least until the losing became unbearable – should make him the same way in Milwaukee.

The flip side to this, though, is that Greinke didn’t receive a contract extension when the trade was made. He can be a free agent in two years, and while the Brewers certainly have a better shot at re-signing him than they did with, say, C.C. Sabathia (or, next winter, Prince Fielder,) it’s not a guarantee.

Now, if the Brewers get off to a great start next season and are fighting for first place in August, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the team announces a contract extension that keeps Greinke in Milwaukee until 2016 or so. But if I’m Greinke’s agent, I’m advising him to take a wait-and-see attitude. Greinke already has enough guaranteed money in his current contract to retire on – he’s famously tight with his money. If winning is his top priority going forward, well, the 2011 Brewers ought to be a good team, but by 2013 Fielder will have gone elsewhere, everyone else will be two years older, and there are few if any reinforcements coming up from the farm.

This may be an interesting story to watch. If Greinke doesn’t sign an extension with the Brewers, he goes into the 2012-13 off-season as perhaps the most coveted free agent of the winter. And while the usual suspects from the Northeast will be in the hunt, we already know that Greinke will give fair consideration to small-market teams in the Midwest. Particularly one that is already in contention, that has a young and talented roster that only figures to get better, and that by virtue of having a young roster has plenty of payroll space to pay Greinke top dollar. Particularly one that’s embraced Greinke once before, and might be ready to do so again.

It’s not a particularly likely scenario. But I’m keeping that jersey hanging in my closet just in case.

- A quick Chiefs’ playoff odds update, as the math gets easier to figure out with just two weeks left on the schedule:

The Jets’ win over the Steelers eliminates any chance that the Chiefs have of qualifying for the playoffs as a wild-card team, so it’s division or bust. In terms of the division, the math is simple.

The good news is that the Chiefs’ Magic Number for winning the division is 2 – any combination of 2 wins by the Chiefs, or 2 losses by the Chargers, and the Chiefs win the AFC West. The Magic Number with regard to the Raiders is 1. (And more good news is that for purposes of the magic number, a tie works in the Chiefs’ favor.)

The bad news is that the Chargers’ Magic Number over the Chiefs is 3.

If the Chiefs win out to finish 11-5, they are guaranteed to be no lower than the #3 seed. They can be the #2 seed and get a first-round bye only if the Steelers and Ravens lose their last two games.

So getting back to the point of this article…I ended my last article with a suggestion that the Greinke trade may have actually brought the Royals more talent that the Rangers got for Mark Teixeira. I’ll get back to that in a bit. But first, I want to explore in more detail whether the Royals really got a fair deal for Greinke or not.

It can’t be stressed enough that when determining the fair value of Greinke in a trade, you can’t simply look at his performance and say “he’s worth X amount of wins”, and if the Royals don’t get that in a trade they got screwed. If not trading Greinke was a viable option, then that would be the case. But it wasn’t. Greinke wanted out, and if the Royals had kept him, pretty much everyone thinks he would have been disappointing yet again – and even if he wasn’t, the Royals were so unlikely to win in 2011 that it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

So if we accept that the Royals had to trade Greinke, the only way to determine his value is to know what the market was willing to offer for him. If I put my house on the market and ask for $500,000, because I paid $500,000 for it last month, and it’s appraised at $500,000, and the best offer I get is $400,000, guess what? The value of my house is $400,000, and holding my breath until I pass out is not going to change that fact.

It is of course difficult to know what the market was willing to offer for Greinke, because we only know what one team – the Brewers – was truly willing to offer. And even if no other team was willing to make a better offer now, we don’t know whether some team might have changed their position between now and spring training.

But we do know what other teams were able to receive for their ace pitchers on the trade market, and we can use that information to develop a rough estimate of Greinke’s value. So let’s take a look at all the trades in recent memory in which a team traded a top-tier starter near the end of his contract for prospects.

Here’s a list of the nine recent trades that I found where a team traded a clear #1 starter who was coming to the end of his contract for prospects. (There are only six different pitchers involved, as Cliff Lee was traded three times, and Danny Haren twice.)

Date: 7/25/10
Pitcher: Danny Haren
Contract Status: $8.25M for 2010, $12.75M for 2011 & 2012.  $15.5M/$3.5M club option for 2013.
Trade: Haren from Arizona to Los Angeles Angels for Joe Saunders, Tyler Skaggs, Patrick Corbin, and Rafael Rodriguez

You want to know what a bad trade looks like? That’s what a bad trade looks like. Actually, that’s what an awful trade looks like. The Diamondbacks, who had traded six different players to acquire Haren less than three years earlier, traded him to L’Anaheim for an innings-eating veteran in Saunders, and three prospects, none of whom are as highly rated as any of the four guys the Royals got for Greinke.

Haren isn’t the pitcher that Greinke is, but he’s a damn good pitcher. At the time of the trade he had a 4.60 ERA, but that was a fluke – he had struck out 141 batters in 141 innings, against just 25 unintentional walks. In 2009, he had led the NL in WHIP. And while the Brewers are getting Greinke for two years, the Angels got 2.5 years of Haren, for roughly the same salary that Greinke is getting – plus they have a very reasonable option to keep him for a third full season.

Given their contract status, Haren and Greinke should have very similar trade values on the market. But whereas Greinke netted the Royals four young players who all project to be at least average major leaguers, the Diamondbacks got an established veteran pitcher who’s already into his arbitration years, and three second-tier pitching prospects. The Diamondbacks were savaged for the trade – and rightfully so. But in all honesty, some of the criticisms I’ve heard about the Royals approach the criticisms of the Haren trade. Which is ridiculous; the Royals got real talent, while the Diamondbacks got a flaming bag of dog poop on their front door.

Date: 7/9/10
Pitcher: Cliff Lee
Contract Status: $9M for 2010.
Trade: Lee and Mark Lowe from Seattle to Texas for Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke, and Matthew Lawson

The Mariners got a decent haul of talent for Lee, given that there were only three months’ left on his contract. Smoak is a potential All-Star at first base, and is probably better than any of the four guys the Royals got. (Although it’s very debatable – you could argue that you’d rather have Escobar right now than Smoak. Both were disappointing as rookies, and while scouts are still optimistic Smoak will hit, his value is almost entirely in his bat, while Escobar’s value is primarily in his glove.)

The other three guys are just filler. Beavan has outstanding command of very pedestrian stuff; he could be a #4 starter in a Nick Blackburn/Kevin Slowey kind of way. Lueke is a criminal – not a Jeremy Jeffress kind of criminal, a real criminal – and the fact that the Mariners were unaware of his history got the scouting director fired. (I refuse to believe they were unaware of his history. I knew about his history, and that was simply from reading Baseball America.) Lawson is a utility guy in the making.

For three months of Lee, it’s a good deal, although I still have no idea why the Mariners preferred Smoak to Jesus Montero.

Date: 12/16/09
Pitcher: Cliff Lee
Contract Status: $9M for 2010.
Trade: Lee from Philadelphia to Seattle for Phillippe Aumont, J.C. Ramirez, and Tyson Gillies

The Mariners got considerably more for a half-season of Lee than they gave up to get a full year of Lee in the first place. The Phillies panicked, trading Lee the same day they acquired Roy Halladay to save money, and accepting a pathetic return on a #1 starter. Aumont is a future reliever at best; Ramirez is a #4 starter if he’s lucky; Gillies is a Jarrod Dyson/Joey Gathright type, who hit .341 in 2009 because he was playing in the pinball machine that is High Desert. Every player the Royals received for Greinke is worth more than these three players combined.

Date: 12/16/09
Pitcher: Roy Halladay
Contract Status: $15.75M for 2010. As part of trade agreed to 3-year, $60M extension with vesting option of $20M for 2014.
Trade: Halladay from Toronto to Philadelphia for Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor, and Travis D’Arnaud

This is the trade that the Greinke deal gets compared to a lot, because Halladay had a full season-and-a-half left on his deal, and because the Blue Jays got three very good prospects, including a potential stud starter in Drabek.

The prospect hauls that both teams got are comparable. Drabek is better than anyone the Royals got, and it’s telling that the Blue Jays were unwilling to give up Drabek in a potential Grienke deal. Taylor was putting up outstanding numbers (.333/.408/.569) in Double-A at the time of the trade; the Jays immediately traded him to Oakland for Brett Wallace, which on the one hand was smart because Taylor has struggled since the trade, but on the other hand wasn’t smart because Wallace isn’t all that good. The Jays traded Wallace to Houston for Anthony Gose, a very athletic 19-year-old outfielder who’s still learning how to hit.  D’Arnaud was a 20-year-old catcher who projected to be an average-plus everyday catcher in the majors. He was hurt for much of 2010 but is still thought of highly.

The Jays got two five-star prospects and a three-star prospect for Halladay; the Royals got two four-star prospects (Jeffress and Odorizzi), and two guys who would probably be four-star prospects if they were still rookie-eligible (Cain and Escobar) for Greinke. You can certainly argue that the Jays got more for Halladay than the Royals got for Greinke. But remember: as part of the trade, Halladay agreed to a three-year extension at below-market value, making him a vastly more valuable commodity to the Phillies than Greinke was to the Brewers (or anyone else). That the Royals got roughly as much for two years of Greinke as the Blue Jays got for 4.5 years of Halladay is a reason to praise the Royals, not criticize them.

Date: 7/31/09
Pitcher: Jake Peavy
Contract Status: $11M for 2009, 3-year, $48M contract for 2010-2012, $22M/$4M option for 2013.
Trade: Peavy from San Diego to Chicago White Sox for Clayton Richard, Aaron Poreda, Adam Russell, and Dexter Carter

This was a weird deal; the White Sox had almost traded this exact package to the Padres for Peavy before the season, and even though Peavy was on the DL at the time, they made the same trade at the trading deadline. No one ever accused Kenny Williams of being timid.

While Peavy was under contract for 3.5 seasons, his contract also called for a significantly higher salary than Greinke’s or Lee’s – and the injury concerns were very real, to the point where some argued that the Padres were fortunate just to be rid of his contract. In that light, it’s not a surprise that they didn’t get much for him on a pure talent basis. Richard was a #3/#4 starter who, like a lot of pitchers, has taken advantage of Petco Park to reach his full potential. Poreda is a lefty with a massive fastball and massive control issues. Russell and Carter are middle relievers at best.

Date: 7/29/09
Pitcher: Cliff Lee
Contract Status: $5.75M for 2009, $9M option for 2010.
Trade: Lee and Ben Francisco from Cleveland to Philadelphia for Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Lou Marson, and Jason Knapp

The first Lee trade came at a comparable point in his contract to Greinke – Lee had 1.5 years remaining on his deal, and at an insanely low price tag. Keep in mind that the Indians threw in Ben Francisco, an excellent fourth outfielder type who has hit .272/.323/.471 in 301 plate appearances since the trade. (He might be better than any outfielder currently on the Royals.)

In exchange the Indians got Carlos Carrasco, a potential #2/#3 starter in the majors who pitched well in a late audition this year after a terrible debut in 2009. Donald, who’s most famous for being the player that Jim Joyce called safe to ruin Armando Galarraga’s perfect game, will probably have a long career as a utility man but doesn’t quite hit enough to be a starting middle infielder. Marson is a catcher with no power but excellent on-base skills in the minors – Baseball America ranked him the #66 prospect before the 2009 season – but has been terrible since the trade; he hit .195/.274/.286 as a rooke this year. Knapp was just 18 at the time of the trade, a kid down in the South Atlantic League with a terrific arm but some serious injury issues. A lot of people expect him to be a reliever in the end, although a potential impact one.

It’s close, but I’d rather have the Greinke package. Odorizzi and Carrasco are comparable, though Carrasco is a safer bet; Jeffress and Knapp are comparable, though Jeffress is a safer bet. But Escobar/Cain is a much better package than Donald/Marson. And the Indians threw in a valuable extra player; the Royals threw in Yuniesky Betancourt. Win.

Date: 7/7/08
Pitcher: C.C. Sabathia
Contract Status: $9M for 2008 (reached $11M with bonuses)
Trade: Sabathia from Cleveland to Milwaukee for Matt LaPorta, Zach Jackson, Michael Brantley, and Rob Bryson

The last time the Brewers traded for an ace, they gave up four players for just three months’ worth of Sabathia. LaPorta was the big prize, a former #7 overall pick who has a career .296/.390/.563 line in the minors. He was already 23 and still in Double-A at the time of the trade, though, and he has to mash to have value, as he has next to no defensive value. He hasn’t mashed yet; in 162 games in the majors he’s hit .232/.307/.388. There’s still time.

Jackson was a finesse lefty, a former supplemental first-round pick who hadn’t panned out in the pros, and had a 7.85 ERA in Triple-A at the time of the trade; he hasn’t pitched much better since. Michael Brantley was a prototypical leadoff type who hit .319/.395/.398 in Double-A before the trade, at the age of 21. Even then there were concerns that his lack of power would expose him at higher levels, and in 100 games in the majors, he’s hit .264/.313/.333. Bryson was just a live arm pitching down in the South Atlantic League at the time of the trade; he pitched his way to Double-A this season, and might top out as a set-up man if all goes well.

The Indians didn’t get nearly the same amount of talent for Sabathia as the Royals did for Greinke; while LaPorta compares favorably with any of the four guys the Royals got, the other three guys were mostly filler. Still, given that Sabathia only had a half-season left under contract, the Indians did as well as could be expected.

Date: 2/2/08
Pitcher: Johan Santana
Contract Status: $13.25M for 2008 – agreed to replace contract with 6-year, $137.5M contract as part of trade.
Trade: Santana from Minnesota to New York Mets for Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber, Kevin Mulver, and Deolis Guerra.

Bill Smith was hired as the Twins’ new GM in September of 2007, and the Santana trade was his first major move since taking office. I can say that, as a Royals fan, I was absolutely delighted when I heard about the trade. I was stunned that the Twins would accept such a ridiculously pedestrian package for Santana, who was probably even more highly-regarded at the time than Greinke is today. (Santana had just led the AL in WHIP four years in a row, finishing 1st, 3rd, 1st, and 5th in Cy Young balloting from 2004-07.)

Santana had only one more season on his contract, but agreed to a six-year deal with the Mets as part of the deal. While he was getting paid market-value, the opportunity to lock in arguably the best pitcher in baseball to a long-term deal was worth a tremendous amount to the Mets.

And what did they give up for him? Carlos Gomez, the big name in the deal, had made his debut with the Mets in 2007 as a 21-year-old. On the other hand, Gomez hadn’t really hit all that well in the high minors – the Mets are notorious for rushing their players to the majors at an early age. Baseball America ranked him the #52 prospect in baseball at the time of the trade; he was a good prospect, but not a great one. Since the trade he’s been a glorified defensive replacement; he’s a Gold Glove-caliber centerfielder, but his career line is .246/.293/.349.

Philip Humber was the #3 overall pick in the 2004 draft, but like a lot of Rice pitchers he never showed the same stuff in the pros that he had in college. By the time of the trade he was 25 years old and projected as a #5 starter at best. He’s spent the last three years mostly toiling in Triple-A; you might have seen him in the Royals bullpen this summer. Mulvey was Humber’s doppleganger, another college pitcher who was long on polish but short on stuff. Over the last three years, Mulvey has made 78 starts in Triple-A (Humber has 75), but has thrown just 27 innings in the majors (Humber has 51).

Guerra was the potential prize of the trade; he was ranked the #35 prospect in baseball by Baseball America. He had pitched well in the Florida State League in 2007, at the age of just 18, and was thought to have some ace potential. He’s been an unmitigated disaster since the trade, though; he had a 6.36 ERA last season between Double-A and Triple-A. I think he was overrated at the time, on account of his age – again, the Mets are very aggressive about promoting their Latin American prospects up the chain, which can make them look better than they are. (Last year, for instance, the Mets brought 20-year-old Ruben Tejada to the majors, even though Tejada was hitting just .280/.329/.344 in Triple-A.)

I thought it was a bad trade at the time, and it looks much worse today, owing to the fact that Guerra fell apart. Really, the only value the Twins got for Santana was J.J. Hardy’s 2010 season, after they traded Gomez to the Brewers straight up for him.

The trade looks even worse when you consider that, unlike the Royals, the Twins were actually a competitive team at the time. They had just gone 79-83 in 2007, but that was their first losing season since 2000 – they had won 96 games and the division in 2006.

In 2008, the Twins finished 88-74, tied for the AL Central crown with the White Sox, and lost a one-game playoff. Meanwhile, Santana led the NL in ERA. The decision to trade Santana cost the Twins a playoff spot, and the players they got in return weren’t even worth the draft picks they would have gotten once Santana left as a free agent.

Date: 12/14/07
Pitcher: Danny Haren
Contract Status: $4M for 2008, $5.5 for 2009, $6.75M/$250K option for 2010.
Trade: Haren and Connor Robertson from Oakland to Arizona for Brett Anderson, Chris Carter, Aaron Cunningham, Dana Eveland, Carlos Gonzalez, and Greg Smith.

Now this is how you net prospects for Danny Haren. The A’s, who just three years earlier had acquired Haren and Daric Barton and Kiko Calero from the Cardinals for Mark Mulder (who had one good season before his career was destroyed by injuries), flipped Haren for six players. This sequence of events – flipping one pitcher at the precipice for three prospects, one of whom is an immediate improvement on the pitcher traded away, and who three years later is traded for six more prospects – might be the signature move of Billy Beane’s career.

In exchange for Haren, the A’s got Brett Anderson, who had a 2.80 ERA this season, as a 22-year-old southpaw. He’s on the short list for the best young pitchers in the game. They got Carlos Gonzalez, who led the NL in batting average and was an MVP candidate this season. They got Chris Carter (who the Diamondbacks had just traded Carlos Quentin for straight up), who was a Top-50 prospect last year, and despite a bit of an off-season is still a Top-100 prospect this winter. They got Greg Smith, who as a rookie in 2008 gave the A’s 32 starts with a league-average ERA. They got Aaron Cunningham, a tweener outfielder who helped them acquire starting third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff from the Padres last winter. And they got Dana Eveland, who like Smith was a league-average starter for them in 2008 before tailing off.

Now that’s a f**king-A trade.

For the A’s, the impact of the deal is muted by the fact that Gonzalez (and Smith and Huston Street) were traded to Colorado the following winter for Matt Holliday. While the A’s sold high on Smith, who immediately got hurt, they sold very low on Gonzalez, who is now one of the most valuable commodities in baseball. Holliday didn’t work out in Oakland, and was sold off the next summer to St. Louis for Brett Wallace, who turned into Michael Taylor, who was a big disappointment in Triple-A this year. But the trade itself might go down as one of the greatest stars-for-prospects trades of all time. If this is the standard by which you want to compare the Greinke trade, then the Greinke trade was a failure. It shouldn’t be.

(The other side of this trade is a cautionary tale for the Royals. By some measurements, the Royals’ farm system today is matched by only a few farm systems in the past decade – one of them, notably, being the 2006 Diamondbacks. Arizona lost 86 games in 2006, but won the NL West title in 2007. But after trading so much talent to Oakland for Haren that winter, the organization has gone backwards three straight seasons, finishing 82-80, 70-92, and 65-97. The moral is clear: having an abundance of talent does not give you license to throw players around like twenties at a strip club.)

Alright, take a look at those nine trades. The A’s got more for Danny Haren than the Royals got for Greinke, but aside from the fact that Haren still had three years left on his contract – that was a ridiculous trade. The Blue Jays’ haul for Roy Halladay was comparable to what the Royals got for Greinke – but the Phillies were trading for four years of Halladay, with an option for a fifth.

But in the other seven trades above, the team netting the prospects got less talent – in most cases, considerably less talent – than the Royals got for Greinke. Two of those trades (the last Lee trade and the Sabathia deal) involved a pitcher who was just months away from free agency, so those two deals are not directly comparable (and both teams did well, getting at least one Top-50 prospect in each trade.) But the other five deals all involved an ace starter with at least one season left on his contract. None of those deals come close to what the Royals got for Greinke. In particular, the Lee trade to Seattle brought back no impact players, the Santana deal was an enormous missed opportunity for the Twins, and the Haren deal this summer looks like a catastrophic waste of a #1 starter.

I have no way of knowing whether Dayton Moore could have gotten more for Zack Greinke than he did. But I can say with complete confidence that, based on the established market for #1 starters set over the past four years, Moore got market value for Greinke, and then some. If you want to argue that the Greinke trade was bad for Kansas City, go right ahead. Just be prepared to acknowledge the notion that virtually every team that has traded an ace starter in the last four years made an even worse deal.

And this leads me to the claim I made at the end of my last column, that the Royals very well might have done better than the Rangers did in their fabled Mark Teixeira trade.

A key point to my claim is this: the Teixeira trade wasn’t nearly as good as everyone thinks.

I don’t know what it is about Texas that makes people ignore the facts in favor of a neat storyline. Everyone talks about how the Rangers turned their pitching staff around because Nolan Ryan told the organization to stop babying their starters and make them throw 250 pitches every time out, just like he did. Never mind that the Rangers averaged just 98 pitches per start (sixth in the AL), and averaged just 5.87 innings per start (11th in the AL). Nolan Ryan made some strong statements about how men are men and pitchers should complete what they start, so the Rangers must be doing something differently, even if all the data tells us they’re not.

And everyone talks about how the trade of Mark Teixeira catapulted the Rangers onto an upward trajectory that led them to the World Series this year. Well, let’s look at that trade:

Date: 7/31/07
Pitcher: Mark Teixeira
Contract Status: $9M for 2007, arb-eligible for 2008 (signed 1-year, $12.5M deal).
Trade: Teixeira and Ron Mahay from Texas to Atlanta for Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Matt Harrison, and Beau Jones.

It’s a good trade. The Rangers got Elvis Andrus, then an 18-year-old who was struggling to hit in the Carolina League, but with undeniable tools. The next year Andrus took a step forward, hitting .295 and stealing 54 bases in Double-A. He started last season as the Rangers’ everyday shortstop, and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. He’s a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop who gets on base, and he just turned 22.

He also slugged .301 this season.

I’m not dissing Andrus; I think he’s one of the better shortstops in the league, and I think he’s young enough to develop into a star. But first he has to show some ability to drive the ball. It’s possible he could be the new Ozzie Smith, who became an on-base machine in his early 30s despite never hitting for power. But I’d like to see him slug better than .301 before I consider him a star.

The Rangers also got Neftali Feliz, who at the time of the trade was a 19-year-old still toiling in rookie ball, although the scouting buzz on him was just taking off. In 2008 he tore through the system, reaching Double-A while striking out 153 batters in just 127 innings. In 2009 he pitched well in Triple-A, then was moved to the bullpen in preparation for his major league debut, which was electrifying – he allowed just 13 hits in 31 innings, which was the lowest hits per 9 innings ratio in major league history for someone with 30+ innings. (Or it would have been, had Mike Adams not allowed just 14 hits in 37 innings the same year.) In 2010, he took over as the Rangers’ closer, saved 40 games, and won the Rookie of the Year.

He’s also a reliever.

I’m not dissing on Feliz; he’s an outstanding pitcher with some of the best stuff in the game. And if the Rangers elected to move him back into the rotation, he certainly has a chance to become a #1 starting pitcher. But as long as he’s used as a closer – and there’s no indication they’re going to move him out of that role , there’s a limit to how valuable he can be no matter how effective he is.

The Rangers did a tremendous job of scouting both Andrus and Feliz, because neither player projected to be this good at the time of the trade. But it’s worth mentioning that, according to Baseball Reference, Andrus was worth 1.0 Wins Above Replacement this season. Felix was worth 2.4 WAR. The Rangers won the division by nine games. I know this is heresy to say, but I think they would have won the AL West even if they had never traded Teixeira.

The other thing to keep in mind is that, while the Rangers hit big on Andrus and Feliz, they whiffed even bigger on Saltalamacchia. Saltalamacchia was supposed to be the key to the trade – a 22-year-old rookie switch-hitting catcher who was already hitting .284/.333/.411 in Atlanta. Instead of turning into an All-Star catcher, though, Saltalamacchia stopped hitting, he developed a mental block about throwing the ball back to the pitcher, and he’s now in Boston, having checked into the Red Sox Convalescent Home For Washed-Up Phenoms. (I believe they gave him Jeremy Hermida’s old room.)

Harrison was a potential #4/#5 left-handed starter who has yet to reach even that modest ceiling, and Jones was a pure throw-in who might wind up a LOOGY when all is said and done. Which means the Rangers turned Teixeira into an excellent defensive shortstop who can get on base, and an elite closer. It was a great trade for them, to be sure. But it was hardly a franchise changer. The Teixeira trade doesn’t compare with the Bartolo Colon trade, for instance, or even the A’s trade of Danny Haren.

And I think there’s a chance that the Royals’ haul for Greinke can match, if not exceed, what the Rangers got for Teixeira. A year ago, Alcides Escobar and Elvis Andrus were considered the two best young shortstops in baseball, and it wasn’t entirely clear who you’d rather have going forward. Both are considered elite defensive shortstops – Andrus maybe a little better, but it’s close.  Both run very well. Andrus walks a lot more, but Escobar should hit for a higher average, and has a little more juice in his bat. (Even with his wreck of a rookie season, Escobar’s career slugging average of .335 is higher than Andrus’ .333.)

I don’t think Escobar is as good as Andrus. But if bounces back, he won’t be far behind.

Jeffress is unlikely to be as good as Feliz is, but they have a similar skill set – an electric fastball and an outstanding breaking ball, the slider for Feliz, the curveball for Jeffress. Feliz is special because his fastball has so much late movement, while Jeffress’ fastball is pretty straight. But while Jeffress is unlikely to be the pitcher that Feliz is, if Jeffress reaches his potential, again, he won’t be far behind.

And that leaves Cain and Odorizzi. If Cain becomes an average-plus everyday centerfielder, or if Odorizzi becomes a #3 starter in the majors, that’s considerably more value than the Rangers got from the other three guys in their trade. Really, if either Escobar or Cain becomes a quality everyday player, and either Jeffress becomes an elite reliever or Odorizzi becomes an above-average starting pitcher, then the Greinke trade will have yielded as much talent as the Teixeira trade. And if the Royals hit on three out of four, I’d argue that they did better than the Rangers.

It will be years before we know how this plays out. But the mere fact that I can argue with a straight face that the Royals may have received more for Greinke than the Rangers did for Teixeira should make it clear that the Royals didn’t get taken. I liked the trade when it was announced last weekend, and I like it even more today. Considering the price that other teams sold their ace starters for, Dayton Moore did as well as we could have expected. He might have done even better.

Happy Holidays, everyone. See you back here next year.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Greinke. Gone.

I’ve got to hand it to Dayton Moore – I didn’t think he could do it. I didn’t think he could find anyone to take Yuniesky Betancourt off his hands, and I didn’t think he had it in him to admit he made a mistake in acquiring Yuni in the first place. And he did. Not only did Moore find a taker for Betancourt, he got four genuine prospects in return, and all he had to do was pick up the buyout on Betancourt’s 2012 contract, and throw in…oh.

A Zack Greinke trade was inconceivable in January and unthinkable in July, and became indigestible in August after Greinke first spoke out publicly about his lack of faith in The Process. As recently as a month ago, a trade was improbable, at least during this off-season, at least unless the Royals were utterly overwhelmed.

But by last Friday, it had become inevitable. In retrospect, I suspect that it was inevitable from the moment the curtain dropped on the Royals season. And I suspect that the front office knew it was an inevitability.

The fact is that Zack Greinke wanted out of Kansas City. He didn’t want out because he wanted more money or more fame or more culture. He wanted out because he wanted more wins. After seven years with the Royals, seven seasons in which the Royals never won more than 75 games and only once won even 70 games, who can blame him?

That doesn’t mean we don’t have a right to be upset about this trade, because we do. Regardless of what the Royals got in the deal, the fact that this deal had to be made at all is an Epic Fail on the part of Dayton Moore and the front office. After nearly five seasons in charge of the Royals, Moore has not succeeding in advancing the franchise even one step forward at the major-league level. In 2007, Moore’s first full season with the Royals, the team lost 93 games. This season, they lost 95 games. There are no excuses for that – not even having the best farm system in the game. The Royals had a once-in-a-decade, if not once-in-a-generation opportunity: they had a superstar player who was not seduced by the bright lights of the big cities, a player who would have been willing to wear a Royals uniform for his entire career if they would just stop sucking, and they blew it.

I love Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, but do you think they’re going to be buried in Royal Blue? Their agent is Scott Boras – do I need to say more?

So yeah, we have the right to be upset. I’m upset. I’ve got a Greinke jersey in my closet that I have no idea what to do with now. (What’s the statute of limitations on wearing that, by the way? I figure I have at least a season before I have to turn it in.) There’s no way to evaluate this trade as anything but a disaster, simply because it was made in the first place.

But, as always, the past is prologue. If we can get past our anger in the moment, and dispassionately evaluate this trade in terms of whether it serves the Royals’ best interests going forward, I can only come to one conclusion:

I think the Royals did well. Maybe even very well.

The first rumors about this trade broke late Saturday evening, with this original report from Jim Breen, a blogger (take that, mainstream media!) at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The original trade rumor had Greinke and Betancourt headed to the land of bratwurst and beer for Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, and Jeremy Jeffress. My immediate reaction, based purely on what I knew about these players – I was at a wedding – was one of disappointment. My impression was that while Moore got the shortstop and centerfielder he was looking for, the overall sum of talent was just not enough.

And then Andrew Wagner at reported that Jake Odorizzi was included in the deal, and that got my ears perked up. But while Twitter was erupting, the mainstream media was conspicuously silent on the trade. By the time I got home, did some more research, and went to bed around 2 AM, I found myself hoping that the trade was for real. I didn’t sleep well, and I woke up with a start at 7, by which time the Buster Olneys of the world were reporting it as fact. (This is me making an excuse for why I was zombie-tired yesterday and couldn’t write this up until today: I was so buzzed about the trade that I couldn’t sleep. Which is why I’m chiming in after everyone in the civilized world has already issued their opinions.)

Those opinions run all over the map. I have colleagues who love this trade for the Royals (Kevin Goldstein). I have colleagues who think the Royals did poorly (Keith Law and Joe Posnanski). I have colleagues who think the Royals could have done better (Christina Kahrl). I have colleagues who think the Royals did alright, considering (Joe Sheehan and Rob Neyer).

The Royals have made deals in the past that attracted such a varied response. But the reaction to the Greinke deal seems particularly schizophrenic, in that you wouldn’t pick certain people to have the responses they had. Put it this way: Rob Neyer seems to have a more positive view of the trade than Joe Posnanski. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that before.

Let’s go to the tape:

Alcides Escobar, nine months ago, was the best shortstop prospect in baseball. Escobar emerged as an elite prospect in 2008, when he hit .328 in Double-A, stole 34 bases, and showed off occasionally spectacular defense, at the age of 21. In 2009, he spent the year in Triple-A and hit .298, stole 42 bases, and was, in Kevin Goldstein’s words in Baseball Prospectus 2010, “the best defensive shortstop in the minors”. He also hit .304 in a late-season audition with the Brewers.

He doesn’t hit for much power, and he doesn’t walk a lot, so he has to hit for average to be valuable. As a rookie this season, he didn’t. He hit .235, with a .288 OBP and a .326 slugging average. He didn’t even steal many bases – just 10 in 14 attempts. He was an offensive nightmare.

But he still could pick it in the field. His defensive metrics showed him to be only average – some slightly above, some slightly below – but there’s a growing sense among even professional analysts that our defensive metrics are not nearly as accurate as we’d like them to be. In particular, there’s a sense that you need multiple seasons of data to get a real feel for a player’s defense. We have more than enough data to say that Betancourt is an awful shortstop, for instance, or that Derek Jeter is terribly overrated. We don’t have enough data to say one way or the other on Escobar. Let’s just say that he’s an above-average shortstop, with the tools to be a well-above-average, borderline Gold Glove candidate in the field.

He has some off-the-field issues, whispers of family troubles and things like that, and frankly I don’t know enough about them to feel like I can speak about them with any authority. So I won’t. Particularly with Hispanic players, the language and cultural differences make it difficult for someone like me to fully appreciate what the issues are, let alone to know whether it will impact his development on the field.

There’s definite risk with Escobar. He’s a free-swinging singles hitter, and we’ve seen a lot of players who fit that description in Kansas City – and they usually don’t turn out well. But with his speed and defense, if he hits .300, he’s one of the best shortstops in the league. If he hits .235, like he did last year, then he simply replaces Betancourt as our favorite punching bag on the team (well, after Francoeur leaves).

I think he’ll hit around .270 or so. If he hits .270/.320/.360, with good speed and above-average defense, he has a chance to be the best shortstop the Royals have had in a generation. That’s not damning with faint praise – that’s damning with no praise, given what a scar that position has been for pretty much the history of the franchise. But I think he can be the starting shortstop for a playoff-caliber team.

Lorenzo Cain has a similar skill set to Escobar: he is very fast, he plays above-average defense in center field, and he’s a line-drive hitter without a lot of power. Unlike Escobar, Cain has shown a propensity for drawing walks, most notably last year, when in 84 games between Double-A and Triple-A, he walked 45 times; along with a .317 average, he managed to squeeze his OBP over .400. But after getting called up to the majors, he walked just nine times in 43 games.

Cain is different to Escobar in other ways, though. Whereas Escobar was one of the best prospects in baseball at 21, Cain is a late bloomer, largely because he didn’t start playing baseball until late in his high school career. His lack of experience caused him to fall until the 17th round of the draft, and while he hit right away, he has worked his way up the minors very slowly. He also has had some injury concerns, most notably missing much of the 2009 season (and not hitting when he did play) with a knee injury.

But he has plenty of tools, and some scouts think he can develop power – he did hit 11 homers in 2008. And also unlike Escobar, Cain is considered to have very strong makeup, is a leader in the clubhouse, and has worked very hard to develop his innate tools into the skills necessary to be a major league centerfielder.

He turns 25 in April, and that would limit his upside – he just doesn’t have the time to get much better, although his lack of experience would suggest that he’s still not a finished product. I tweeted this yesterday, but he reminds me an awful lot of a right-handed Denard Span. Span was a first-round pick, but like Cain he was a very toolsy outfielder who had a promising but inconsistent hitting record in the minors, mixing good years with bad ones, and didn’t reach the majors until everything seemed to click at the age of 24. Like Cain, Span showed hints of plate discipline in the minors, and he’s been a much more patient hitter in the majors.

Span isn’t a star, but he’s a very valuable part of the Twins’ lineup. If Cain can stay healthy, I think he can be the same thing for the Royals. He’s probably the best leadoff candidate on the team right now, although if everything goes right with Mission 2012, he’s probably a #6 or #7 hitter in the future.

Also, Lorenzo Cain is an awesome name – to this dermatologist’s ears, it sounds like a breakthrough anesthetic. “For Maximum-Strength Pain Relief: Try New Lorenzocaine!” I think I’m going to call him the Painkiller from now on.

I’ll move on to the two pitchers in a second, but I want to take a break here to address one of the main criticisms of the trade: that Dayton Moore insisted on getting a shortstop and a centerfielder in the deal. Much like Allard Baird insisted on getting a third baseman and a catcher for Carlos Beltran, and wound up with Mark Teahen and John Buck instead of actual star talent, the notion is that Moore just got the best package he could get at these two specific positions, and in so doing locked himself out of a better deal.

There’s some validity to the comparison, but only some. For one thing, the idea that the Royals only needed a third baseman and a catcher in 2004 is (and was) laughable. That was Zack Greinke’s rookie season; the other four guys who made more than 12 starts for the Royals were Jimmy Gobble (5.35 ERA), Brian Anderson (5.64), and Darrell May (5.61). The Royals got Mike Wood as the third man in the trade, and he chipped in with a 5.94 ERA. When you lose 104 games, you need help everywhere, and unlike now, the farm system was barren. The following spring Baseball America ranked the farm system as the 28th in baseball (i.e. third-worst). After Billy Butler, the #2 prospect was Denny Bautista.

The 2011 Royals may well lose 104 games, but the organization has impact prospects at quite possibly every position on the diamond – except, possibly, shortstop and catcher.

I wrote about this recently, but there comes a point where a team has to stop the process of simply collecting talent, and start shaping that talent into a workable roster. I think the Royals have reached that point. It doesn’t mean they should accept less talent in a trade just to fill those positions – but it does mean that all things equal, or roughly equal, getting a player at a position of need is better than acquiring yet another 1B/DH type who can mash.

The second point I want to make is this: by acquiring Escobar and Cain, the Royals didn’t simply fill two positions of need. They addressed the single most glaring weakness in the organization, and the potential Achilles’ heel of Mission 2012: defense.

Even before this trade was made, you could conjure up a 25-man roster for 2012 or 2013 that ought to be competitive even if the Royals don’t add a single player to the organization between now and then. (Kevin Goldstein did exactly that right here.) The roster has great hitters up and down the lineup (Hosmer, Moustakas, Myers, Butler). It has a great rotation (Montgomery, Lamb, Dwyer, and you can swap in Duffy for Greinke). It has a great bullpen (Soria, Collins, Crow, Coleman, even Hochevar).

But the one thing it doesn’t have is defense. The Royals didn’t have a elite defensive player anywhere on the field, and the up-the-middle defensive alignment was particularly weak. In fact, Goldstein left the shortstop position vacant entirely, moving Christian Colon over to second base instead. You could put Colon at shortstop, and slot Mike Aviles or Johnny Giavotella or someone else at second base.

But here’s the problem with that. Even his biggest supporters think Colon is stretched to play shortstop. He might be an average defender, maybe a touch below-average, and that’s if everything breaks right. Now, you can win with a below-average defensive shortstop, as the New York Yankees have proven. But it helps if you have a premium defender next to him to compensate. Instead, the Royals would have Moustakas at third base, who has a cannon arm but also has substandard range; and Aviles or Giavotella at second base, both of whom are bat-first players.

That’s a team where three-quarters of the infield is made up of below-average defenders. I’m not saying that a team can’t win like that. But it bears mentioning that the two Extreme Team Makeovers of the past quarter-century – the 1990-91 Braves and 2007-08 Rays – both owed their turnaround to an utterly dramatic defensive improvement. The Braves went out and signed an entirely new infield – Sid Bream, Terry Pendleton, and Rafael Belliard were all free agents signed that winter. The Rays moved B.J. Upton from second base (where he was terrible) to center field (where he was stellar), signed Akinori Iwamura to play second, traded Delmon Young for Jason Bartlett to replace Brendan Harris at shortstop, and promoted Evan Longoria to third base. The 2008 Rays actually scored eight fewer runs than the 2007 team, but they allowed a mind-boggling 273 fewer runs to score.

I have no doubt that Moore knows this – and I have no doubt that he’s aware that defense was the one missing ingredient to The Process. I’m sure it concerned him, and it should have – it has concerned me for a long time.

Not that it’s reason alone to trade your best player, but given that Greinke was being traded anyway, Moore did well to use this crisis as an opportunity to fix this problem. And in one stroke, he did. Not only is Escobar a plus defender, but this allows the Royals to move Colon from shortstop (where, despite being fundamentally strong, he simply doesn’t have enough speed) to second base (where, in the words one of one evaluator, “he could be exceptional.”) The double-play combination of Colon/Giavotella, which was weak on both sides of the bag, is now Escobar/Colon, which could be one of the best in baseball in a few years.

On top of that, the Royals got Cain, who gives them a plus defender in center field as well. Before the trade, the long-term solution in center field was Derrick Robinson, who might pan out, but might not either: he’s far from a sure thing. If he didn’t pan out, the Royals were looking at making a choice between someone who can hit but isn’t a legitimate centerfielder (David Lough, or maybe Brett Eibner long-term), and someone who can field but can’t hit (Jarrod Dyson).

Before this trade, the Royals lacked for only two things: an above-average defensive shortstop who could hit enough to play everyday, and an above-average defensive centerfielder who could do the same. They filled both those needs exactly, and now, the 2012-2013 Royals – at least on paper – don’t have an obvious weakness.

If all the Royals got were Escobar and Cain, that would be one thing, and the Teahen/Buck comparisons would ring more true. But those two represent just half of the haul the Royals got for Greinke – and while they’re the two players who figure to contribute most quickly, it’s quite possible that the other two will have a bigger long-term impact.

If you’re looking for a single reason to be interested in Jeremy Jeffress, here it is: the moment he takes the mound at Kauffman Stadium, he might well be the hardest thrower in the history of the franchise. He legitimately throws in the upper 90s, and has been clocked as high as 102. I think Mike MacDougal hit 100 on the gun a couple of times; I’m not sure anyone else in a Royals’ uniform has.

Jeffress compares favorable to MacDougal; both are fastball-curveball pitchers who are wild as sin, and who terrify hitters as much for their lack of command as their velocity. But Jeffress, I think, has slightly more electric stuff, although his curveball may not yet be as good as MacDougal’s was in his prime. He’s also considerably younger than MacDougal was at a comparable point in his development. Jeffress just turned 23; MacDougal wasn’t drafted until he was 22, and was still in the Carolina League at 23. (He didn’t convert to being a full-time reliever until he was anointed the Royals’ Opening Day closer in 2003, when he was 26.)

Jeffress is certainly the highest-risk player in the trade, because he’s a threat to lose the strike zone with every pitch. In his minor-league career, he’s walked 188 batters in 307 innings, or 5.5 per nine innings. You can’t do that in the majors and be successful unless your name is Carlos Marmol. But last year was Jeffress’ first year in relief, and his control was much better – he walked 12 batters in 32 innings in the minors, and six batters in 10 innings in his major league debut.

The risk that everyone talks about with Jeffress isn’t his control, though. It’s that he’s a pothead, or at least he was a pothead. He’s been suspended twice for having marijuana in his system, the first time for 50 games, the second time for 100 games. Rather than risk a third suspension – which would have been a “lifetime” one – the Brewers added him to the 40-man roster last season, and presto! No more suspension problem. Players on the 40-man roster can not be suspended for marijuana usage. I’m not saying that Jeffress is still lighting up; I am saying that if he wants to, he can do so without fear of repercussion.

I’m not exactly thrilled that Jeffress smokes weed, but I’m not all that worried about it either. I find it hard to get worked up over marijuana use, and this is coming from someone whose personal beliefs about intoxicants would fit better in another era – specifically, 1920-1933. I don’t want to turn this blog into a podium for NORML or anything, but I have yet to see the medical evidence that marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol, and I’m increasingly baffled that one product is a beloved part of our national culture, while the other is illegal.

More to the point, Tim Lincecum was arrested for marijuana possession a year ago – just after he had won his second consecutive Cy Young Award. Jeffress is hardly alone. I don’t think marijuana use among major leaguers is rampant, but it’s certainly prevalent. There’s a veteran major leaguer, a guy who’s been in the majors for over a decade, about whom the joke around baseball goes that he always packs two bags for road trips – one for his stuff, and the other for his stash. The only difference with Jeffress is that he couldn’t wait until he hit a 40-man roster to light up.

The concern I’d have about his marijuana use is whether it points to other issues, like maturity and work ethic. I’ve asked around about that, and from what I gather he’s a likeable kid, and he’s applied himself more diligently to the game over the past year. He’s not another Danny Gutierrez, who the Royals wiped their hands clean of a year ago.

Jeffress is still a massive risk, because that’s the nature of being a firethrowing reliever – they have trouble throwing strikes, and they throw so hard that they have trouble staying healthy. I’ve seen Jeffress compared to Joel Zumaya, and that says it all – good and bad. He’s certainly not a guy I’d want as the centerpiece of the deal. But as the fourth guy in the deal (and that’s how I see him) he’s a hell of a nice complementary piece.

Finally, there’s Jake Odorizzi, who is the one guy in the deal who hasn’t reached the majors yet, and therefore is the one guy in the deal that you can really dream on. Like Jeffress, Odorizzi was a high school pitcher drafted in the first round (Odorizzi in 2008, Jeffress in 2006), but whereas Jeffress relied on pure gas from the moment he was picked, Odorizzi has a more traditional starter’s repertoire: a fastball in the low 90s, a very good curveball, and a developing changeup. The Brewers brought him along slowly, not advancing him to a full-season league until this season. He was excellent in the Midwest League all season, ranking as the #8 prospect in the circuit by Baseball America after the season. He struck out 135 batters in 121 innings, allowing on 40 walks and 99 hits.

Odorizzi is from Illinois, and a lot of Illinois pitchers wind up developing better than expected owing to the fact that they don’t get a lot of reps in high school given the winter climate here (and possibly because the lack of reps keeps their arms fresh). He’s also very athletic, having played a credible shortstop in high school as well. I’ve even seen a few reports that have compared him to, well, Greinke. That’s obviously ridiculous on the surface – Odorizzi is already 20, and Greinke was in the majors at 20 – but I think that, if everything goes right, he could be a sort of Zack Greinke Lite. He doesn’t project as an ace, but he has the stuff to be a good #3 starter, maybe a #2 in a perfect world. In other words, he could be a pitcher who gives you 200 innings with an ERA somewhere in the 3.5-3.7 range.

In other words, if everything breaks right, he could be the best player in the deal. Of course, he could also miss the majors entirely, whereas the other three guys have already reached the majors. But Odorizzi is a big-time prospect; he’s not another Mike Wood or Brad Rigby, just some throw-in pitching prospect who’s included to make the deal look better. Before the trade, Baseball America ranked him as the #1 prospect in the Brewers system; Kevin Goldstein ranked him #2, behind Jeffress.

In the Royals’ system, Odorizzi is no better than the 5th-best pitcher in the system, behind the Fab Four lefties. Goldstein has indicated that Jeffress and Odorizzi would rank 8th and 9th in the Royals’ system, behind the Fab Four and the Big Three hitters (Moustakas, Hosmer, and Myers). He’s also indicated that both Jeffress and Odorizzi are Top 100 Prospects overall – meaning that the Royals now have nine of the 100 best prospects in baseball, maybe 10 if Goldstein is feeling particularly generous to Christian Colon.

The prospects are nice, but of course the point of having prospects is not to have them now – it’s to convert them into wins later. Escobar and Cain aren’t technically “prospects”, but this trade wouldn’t look any better if Cain had been called up a week later and kept his rookie eligibility.

Still, looking over the Royals’ prospect list is a nice reminder that, as painful as it is to lose Greinke, this trades sets up the organization to win as soon as 2012, and to be a potentially dominant team in the AL Central from 2013 to 2017.

The other main criticism I’ve heard about the deal, most eloquently expressed by Posnanski here, is that the Royals traded Greinke without getting a single potential star player in the deal. It is true that none of the four players they acquired have star potential. It is also true that none of the four players are throw-ins. The Royals got four players who all have a high probability of being 2-3 win players – an average everyday player, an average starting pitcher, or an above-average reliever. The Royals have Escobar under contract for five more years, Cain for six, and Jeffress (assuming he starts the season in the minors) and Odorizzi for six-plus. That’s 23 seasons of club control, for four average-plus players. Is that worth more than six seasons of a superstar? No, but unless the Angels were offering Mike Trout – they weren’t – I don’t think any of those were available.

Put it this way: if given the choice of getting one 4-win player or a pair of 2-win players for Greinke, you’d take the 4-win player, because all things equal you’d rather have value tied up in fewer players – it’s always easier to find a complementary player than a star. But would you rather have a 4-win player or three 2-win players? That’s a trickier decision to make.

The Royals didn’t get any 4-5 win players in this deal, unless Escobar can consistently hit .300, or Cain starts hitting for power, or Odorizzi’s stuff ticks up a little, or Jeffress goes back to being a starter and thrives. But they got four 2-3 win players – four guys who can be valuable members of a championship team. As Joe Sheehan wrote in his email newsletter (which you should really subscribe to, by the way), “It's easy to see all four of these guys as contributors to the 2016 World Champions; it's just hard to see any of them as MVPs or Cy Young Award winners. Then again, that's the job of Eric Hosmer and Montgomery.”

Sure, I’d rather have a package of two or three higher-end prospects. But you know what? The Royals asked for Travis Snider and Kyle Drabek, and the Blue Jays weren’t willing to budge. And it turns out Greinke didn’t want to go to Toronto in the first place.

The more details that leak out about the Greinke negotiations, the more I appreciate what Moore was able to get. Remember how Greinke fired his agents just two days before the deal was made? At the time it seemed like he made the switch because his new agent (Casey Close) had negotiated the Roy Halladay trade-and-extension with the Phillies. But Jeff Passan reported on Twitter that “Interesting Greinke note: He fired longtime agent SFX after Winter Meetings because he felt they were responsible for his not being traded.” He fired his agents because he was still a Royal – in December! Does that sound like a guy who the Royals could have gone into spring training with? Read Billy Butler’s interview with after the trade – as Matthew Leach tweeted, “Safe to say he’s not exactly heartbroken.”

Ken Rosenthal reported that the Royals were willing to trade Greinke to the Yankees for a true potential star – Jesus Montero – along with Eduardo Nunez (the poor man’s Alcides Escobar) and another player. The Yankees declined. It’s been widely reported that the Royals were ready to trade Greinke to the Nationals, for a package of Jordan Zimmermann, Danny Espinosa, and Drew Storen (a package which I found terrifyingly light, although I strongly suspect that Derek Norris was part of the deal as well). Greinke, who had the Nationals on his no-trade list, refused to go.

The Rangers have long been rumored to be a likely landing place for Greinke, and had the prospects to make a deal. But there’s no evidence that they were willing to give up Derek Holland and/or Martin Perez – most of the rumored offerings included some version of Tanner Scheppers, Engel Beltre, and Jurickson Profar. Scheppers is very similar to Jeffress; Beltre and Profar are the centerfielder and shortstop that Moore wanted, with higher upside than Cain and Escobar – and both are still years from the majors. The Brewers offered Odorizzi; I’m not convinced that the Rangers offered a comparable fourth player.

So while it’s possible that the Royals could have done better, I don’t think it’s particularly likely. Maybe Moore could have been better served by waiting, but I don’t blame him for moving quickly – not when the situation with Greinke was quickly becoming toxic, and not when potential trade partners were being blocked by either their own reluctance to bet the farm on Greinke, or by Greinke himself.

Oh, and did I mention he got the Brewers to take Betancourt in the trade? According to Baseball Reference, Greinke was worth 24 runs above a replacement-level pitcher last season. According to Baseball Info Solutions’ +/- system, the defensive difference between Betancourt and Escobar defensively last season was…20 runs. Think about that for a moment.

While there’s tremendous difference of opinion regarding whether this trade was good for the Royals, there’s almost no argument that the trade was terrific for the Brewers. And it was. Two weeks ago the Brewers had a very talented offense, but were watching the clock tick on Prince Fielder’s impending free agency, and had two proven starting pitchers on their roster. They appeared doomed to another season of .500 baseball, with too much talent to rebuild and not enough to contend.

Doug Melvin, their GM, decided to go for it, and he deserves a ton of credit for that. He traded their best prospect, Brett Lawrie, for two seasons of Shaun Marcum. That trade was widely considered to take the Brewers out of the Greinke market, and in fact many people credited Alex Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays’ GM, with outfoxing Melvin by getting a player (Lawrie) that the Royals supposedly were interested in, making it easier for Toronto to get Greinke. Instead, Melvin found a way to get Greinke too – he simply had to part with his next two top prospects in Jeffress and Odorizzi, and two young up-the-middle players.

Now, the Brewers have the worst farm system in baseball – but they have a rotation that goes Greinke-Gallardo-Marcum-Wolf, they have a lineup that still includes Fielder and Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart and Casey McGehee, and they play in the NL Central. They’re going for it, and it’s good for baseball that they do. The Brewers have won one playoff game in the last 25 years; the only teams in baseball with fewer are the Expos-cum-Nationals and, of course, the Royals.

If we had to trade Greinke, I couldn’t ask for a better scenario than this one – Greinke being traded to the one baseball market with a smaller population than Kansas City. But for that very reason – that this trade makes the Brewers instant contenders – I strongly believe that no other team was likely to exceed this deal. I say that because no other team was as motivated to trade for Greinke as the Brewers were.

Take the Yankees and Rangers, for instance. Both teams expect to win in 2011, and wanted Greinke for that reason – but both teams also expect to win in 2013, and 2015, and 2017. Any trade they made to increase their odds of winning in 2011 has to be balanced with how that trade would affect their chances of winning down the road. Neither team has a huge incentive to mortgage their future for the present.

The Brewers, on the other hand, have a window. They have talent, but not enough talent to win. They don’t have a terrific farm system. And they have a modest payroll. If I’m Doug Melvin two weeks ago, I realize that I can either try to win now, or I can try to win in 3 or 4 years (if I’m not fired by then). But I can’t expect to do both.

Given that realization, if I’m Doug Melvin, I don’t care how much I hurt my team in 2013 or 2014 if it means I can win in 2011 and 2012. The Rangers or Yankees might be reluctant to throw someone like Odorizzi in the deal, someone who might be part of their playoff rotation in a few years. But for the Brewers, if they’ve got a chance to win now, who cares if they have to throw in Odorizzi to seal the deal? If they go for it now, they’re not going to win in 2014 anyway. If they trade Odorizzi, maybe they only win 65 games instead of 70 in 2014 – so if saying yes to Odorizzi gets Dayton Moore to say yes to Greinke, well then, damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!

Call me crazy. But when it comes to the biggest transaction of Moore’s career, I think he did a pretty good job. Maybe 2011 is going to suck, or at least the first half of the season will suck. But over the next 24 months, we’re likely to see an absolutely historic transformation of this roster. And I think this trade, this awful, painful trade, has added the finishing touches to that transformation. As a Royals fan, as always, I’m hoping for the best and expecting the worst. As a baseball fan, I’m going to be fascinated either way.

The ink has dried, the scrolls have been rolled up. The Royals already had the best farm system in baseball, and now they have the best farm system in memory. Now it’s time to simply wind up the batteries and see what happens. If Moore is right, we’re in for a hell of a ride. If he’s wrong, this will be an prospect development failure of epic proportions. Either way, it’s going to be spectacular.

Let’s light this candle. I’ve waited 25 years to experience a pennant race. I can wait one more. This trade might delay the payoff a little bit. But I think it will make the payoff just a little bit sweeter as well.

(I’ll stop here, but I still have more to say, so check back here in a day or two for some more thoughts. I’ll tease you with this: you know how everyone talks about the need for the Royals to make a “Teixeira Trade”, to get the kind of prospect haul the Rangers got for Mark Teixeira? Well, I agree with the consensus that this wasn’t a Teixeira Trade. The difference is that I think it’s entirely possible that this was even better.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Kansas City Chiefs' Playoff Odds, Week 14.

The odds that we’ve already seen Zack Greinke’s last start in a Royals uniform, which were already better than 50/50, have gone up significantly in the wake of Cliff Lee’s decision to sign with the Mystery Team™, a possibility that was all but mocked until just hours before it was announced.

Lee signing with the Phillies has to be considered a positive for the Royals on the whole; the Phillies were never considered serious candidates for Greinke, while the Rangers and Yankees both were. Everyone expected the bridesmaid to turn their interest on Greinke; no one expected there to be two bridesmaids instead of one.

I am about 95% certain that the Royals will get a credible offer for Greinke in the coming days. I am much less than 95% certain that the Royals will actually pull the trigger on one. Moore has made it very clear that he isn’t simply looking for the most talent in a trade, but for the most talent that fits the needs of the organization going forward.

“There’s only a few organizations in baseball that match up with what we want if we were to trade a player like Zack Greinke,” Moore said. “It depends on what the club has in their system, and what matches up with what we need.”

“We now have a very realistic view of the timeline for many of our (young) players,” Moore said. “So, if we are to make a deal with any of our major-league talent, we know exactly what we need to try to get in return.”

My first reaction to reading this – and the first reaction for many of you, I’m sure – was, “Oh, no, here we go again.” Six years ago, Allard Baird made it clear that he prioritized getting a third baseman and a catcher for Carlos Beltran. He managed to fill the positions he wanted, landing Mark Teahen and John Buck, but he did so in the place of getting the most talent that was offered him. (There is strong circumstantial evidence that the Yankees offered Robinson Cano, for instance.)

At first glance, this smacks of the same thing: Moore feels like he needs specific positions filled (this time around, it’s up-the-middle talent), and will trade Greinke for the best package of talent that fits his presumed needs, rather than the best package of talent overall.

But it’s not quite that simple. For one thing, there actually is something to the notion that a team in the Royals’ position is better off focusing on specific needs rather than simply getting the best overall player. As Bill James wrote a quarter-century ago, there are two stages to any rebuilding project. Stage 1 is to get the most talent into the organization possible. Stage 2 is to arrange that talent into the framework of a major-league roster.

In 2004, the Royals were clearly still in Stage 1, which made Baird’s insistence on getting players to fill specific positions that much more maddening. The best thing you can say about the Moore administration is that, unlike their predecessors, they have completed Stage 1. They have the best farm system in baseball. As such, they have to start thinking about Stage 2 – if they want to compete in 2012, they have to actually put together a complete roster that can win. Acquiring another first baseman who can mash just isn’t going to help the team right now, not with Billy Butler and Kila Ka’aihue and Eric Hosmer. To a lesser extent, I don’t think the Royals need to target a top-tier left-handed starter. All things equal, I’d much rather the Royals acquire a shortstop or centerfielder than a first baseman.

But things are rarely equal, and in general, the Royals should always be looking for the most talent available. For one thing, there is a mechanism that teams can use to shape their roster when they have an excess of talent at one position and a dearth of talent at another. It’s called a trade. I’ve been writing for at least the past year that at some point, Moore is going to need to package some of expendable players to fill in the holes elsewhere. The most likely target would be Kila Ka’aihue, if he hits well next season and Eric Hosmer is ready, but the Royals also have a few extra second baseman they can afford to part with. If the Royals are blown away by an offer, they need to take it no matter what positions they fill, and work out the details later.

But the main reason I’m not that concerned about Moore’s comments – yet – is that unlike with Beltran, the Royals’ options aren’t simply to accept Trade Offer A or Trade Offer B. They have the option of simply keeping Greinke, which is an infinitely preferable choice than accepting a lowball offer.

So I read Moore’s comments to say, in order for the Royals to trade Greinke, they have to get a ton of talent AND that talent has to fit the mold of the team. If either requirement is not met, then they’ll simply hold onto him for now. They have a default option, and it’s a good one. Which is why, while I’m sure the Royals are willing to trade him, and would even prefer to trade him, I’m far from sure that they actually will.

- Moving to the other side of the Truman Sports Complex…for as badly as the Chiefs played on Sunday, they’re fortunate that their playoff situation looks as strong as it does. The Raiders’ loss to the Jaguars keeps Oakland on the fringes of the playoff picture, and the Jets loss at home to Miami makes some unlikely second-chance scenarios a little more likely.

The Chiefs’ playoff odds would have looked a lot better if the Ravens had not outlasted the Texans in overtime. A loss by the Ravens would have put them at 8-5, meaning that if they lost just two of their last three games (and their next two games are at home against the Saints, and on the road against Cleveland), they’d finish 9-7 and that would open up a wild-card spot for the Chiefs at 10-6.

But even so, the Chiefs’ wild-card aspirations are still alive should they not win the division. But it’s not a path I’d advise them to take.

The simple rules:

1) If the Chiefs win their last three games, they win the AFC West.

Pretty cut-and-dried. They’re still 8-5, thanks to the rule that says you’re only awarded one loss no matter how badly you get beaten. Win their last three, and the Chiefs are 11-5; the best the Chargers can finish is 10-6.

2) If the Chiefs win their next two games, then Oakland is eliminated from the division title.

The Raiders can not finish better than 9-7, so the moment the Chiefs get their tenth win, they eliminate the Raiders from winning the division. This may be important in that the Raiders may have nothing to play for in the season finale – other than the satisfaction of knocking their bitter rivals out of the playoffs, which ought to be motivation enough.

3) If the Chiefs win their next two games, their Magic Number for San Diego is 1.

By that, I mean that if the Chiefs beat St. Louis and Tennessee in the next two weeks, then if San Diego loses either of their next two games, then the Chiefs will have clinched the division before they play in Week 17. It’s important to remember that while everyone thinks the Chargers are in the driver’s seat because of their schedule – and they are, given that they host the 49ers next week, then finish on the road in Cincinnati and Denver – the Chargers can’t afford to slip up even once.

4) If the Chiefs win two of their last three games, the Chargers win the division if they win out.

In this case, both teams finish 10-6, and there is no scenario in which the Chiefs could win the tiebreaker between the teams. They each won one game head-to-head, and both teams will have a 3-3 in-division record (unless KC’s loss comes against Oakland, in which case they’ll be just 2-4 in the division).

The third tie-breaker is record in common games. The Chargers and Chiefs play very similar schedules; they have 14 of 16 games in common. The difference is that the Chiefs play Cleveland and Buffalo, while San Diego plays New England and Cincinnati. Owing to the fact that the Chiefs beat both the Browns and Bills, while the Chargers lost to the Patriots, then if both teams finish 10-6, the Chiefs will be 8-6 in common games, the Chargers 9-5, and the Chargers will be awarded the division.

5) If the Chiefs finish 10-6 and do not win the division, they may still qualify for the wild card IF EITHER the Jets or Ravens lose their last three games.

This might sound unlikely, but it’s considerably likelier than it was this time last week, owing to the Jets loss at home to the Dolphins. If the Jets or Ravens lose their last three games, they’ll finish 9-7, opening up a wild-card spot to a 10-6 team. (Remember, the Chiefs would also lose tiebreakers to both teams if they each finish 10-6.)

The odds that the Ravens lose their last three games – vs. New Orleans, at Cleveland, vs. Cincinnati – are pretty remote. But the Jets?

For one thing, the Jets aren’t that good to begin with. They’re 9-4 but have only outscored their opponents by 31 points; they had a three-game stretch where they beat the Lions and Browns in overtime, then scored the game-winning touchdown against a porous Texans defense with 10 seconds left. They just lost to Miami at home, and the week before that they were waxed 45-3 in New England.

Then there’s their schedule: at Pittsburgh, at Chicago, vs. Buffalo. Ignore the last game for a moment; the odds that they lose each of their next two games are very high. That would put the Jets, after starting 9-2, on a four-game losing streak and in danger of missing the playoffs. This is a team that just suspended a coach for the rest of the season for deliberately sticking his knee out to trip an opposing player. The danger is here for a complete team meltdown headed into their last game, against a Buffalo team that is a hell of a lot better than their 3-10 record suggests – particularly since Ryan Fitzpatrick took over at quarterback.

It’s still a pretty unlikely scenario. But after what happened in 2006, I’m committed to accounting for all possibilities.

However, even if the Jets or Ravens lose their last three games, the Chiefs are not guaranteed to make the playoffs with a 10-6 record. To clinch a playoff spot, they would also need:

a) EITHER the Jaguars or Colts to lose one of their last two games.

The Jags and Colts play this weekend. If Jacksonville wins, then the Chiefs have nothing to fear from this division; the Colts can finish no better than 9-7. However, IF Indianapolis wins, and IF both teams then win out, both the Jaguars and Colts will finish 10-6.

In that case, if the Colts win the division, then the Chiefs would win a tiebreaker with Jacksonville owing to their head-to-head record. If the Jaguars win the division, the Chiefs lose a tiebreaker for the same reason.

If I’m looking at my spreadsheet correctly, then it appears that the Colts would win the division based on a better record in common games. If that’s the case, then I’m 99% sure that the Chiefs have nothing to fear from the AFC South no matter what happens. I’m just putting this out there in case someone else is doing the math and thinks I’m wrong.

b) The Dolphins lose one of their last three games.

If the Dolphins win out, they will finish 10-6. If the Dolphins and Chiefs both finish 10-6, then the Dolphins will win the tiebreaker based on in-conference record unless the Chiefs’ one remaining loss occurs this weekend in St. Louis. In that case, we’d have to move to the fourth tiebreaker, Strength of Victory, and right now I’m sure you’re even less interested in learning who wins that tiebreaker than I am in figuring it out.

The Dolphins host Buffalo and Detroit the next two weeks, meaning they could easily go into their final game 9-6 – on the road against the Patriots, who will probably have wrapped up the #1 seed and have nothing to play for. The Dolphins, then, may be the team most poised to gain if the Jets collapse down the stretch.

So there you have it. If the Chiefs win their next three games, or if the Chargers slip up somewhere, the math is easy. But just in case, root like heck against the Jets, and maybe against the Dolphins too.

Francoeur's Folly.

Before I get to the Chiefs, I have to say a few words about the Greinke situation in light of Cliff Lee’s shocking decision to head to Philly.

But before I get to Greinke, I can’t let what happened yesterday pass unnoticed.

Jeff Francoeur was officially introduced as a member of the Kansas City Royals yesterday. Nothing unexpected happened at the press conference – everything was warm and fuzzy, Francoeur talked about how excited he was to be a part of the organization and how he wanted to stay long-term, and everything was rainbows and sunshine. Which is how it’s supposed to be.

But buried at the bottom of this article at was an utterly mind-blowing quote from Francoeur:

“When you get there, it’s so much fun that you want to get back. I remember during the World Series hearing guys like Cal Ripken saying, ‘I never got to play in a World Series,’ and he played for 18 or 19 years…I was very humbled by the opportunity.”

I read this last night before going to bed, and my mind was officially blown. It took until this morning to recover. And now that I’m writing about it…the quote has disappeared from the article.

I was worried I dreamt it, and took to Twitter to see if anyone else had seen the same thing. Steven St. John at 810 WHB immediately responded to say that he had read the same quote, and then intrepid follower @ashleylat found an echo of the quote online, at of all places. You can find it here, assuming it hasn’t been scrubbed by the time you read this.

So I have no choice but to believe that Jeff Francoeur claims Cal Ripken told him that he (Ripken) never played in the World Series. Even though millions of people, Baseball Reference, and presumably Ripken himself remember that the Baltimore Orioles, with Ripken at shortstop, won the 1983 World Series.

I think we may have figured out what’s wrong with Francoeur. We have to at least entertain the possibility that he’s deaf. And based on his infamous “If on-base percentage is so important, then why don't they put it up on the scoreboard?” quote, we have to at least entertain the possibility that he’s blind as well.

Poor Kevin Seitzer. In order to fix Francoeur, he can’t simply be a miracle worker. Apparently, he has to be The Miracle Worker.

(Addendum: Just in case it's not clear, I'm just having a bit of fun at Francoeur's expense. If Francoeur misheard Ripken, that's hardly the worst sin in the world - the World Series is a zoo and I'm sure he talked to a lot of people. And as Craig Brown pointed out to me, it's not like Francoeur would have first-hand knowledge of this - he wasn't born until a few months after the World Series ended.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Francoeur Comes Home.

I’m sorry, guys. This is all my fault.

I mean, who am I to criticize Dayton Moore for finally doing something that I agitated for 18 months ago? I thought Jeff Francoeur was a risk worth taking then; how can I fault Moore for taking that risk now?

In my defense, that was more than 800 plate appearances (and more than 550 outs) ago. When Francoeur was wearing out his welcome in Atlanta, he was a 25-year-old outfielder just two years removed from a .293/.338/.444, Gold Glove-winning season. When he takes the field next April, he’ll be 27, and his last non-awful season will be four years in the past.

You know what? I’m not taking the blame for this. Dayton Moore and Jeff Francoeur was an inevitability from Day One. A charismatic ex-Brave? Someone Moore had a good personal relationship with in Atlanta? Great tools? No plate discipline? Lots of RBIs? A low OBP? Pleeze. The wonder isn’t that Moore and Francoeur are reunited. The wonder is that it took this long. The only thing this union is missing to make it the quintessential Dayton Moore transaction is a mutual option. Wait, what’s that?

But while I’m certainly less optimistic about Francoeur’s potential upside today than I was in June, 2009, at the same time I think this signing is so easy to mock – Bad Major League GM Signs Bad Major League Outfielder (That He Once Signed Out Of High School) – that it’s getting a bad rap. Or at least, a worse rap than it deserves.

For one thing, it’s a one-year deal. One year, everyone, along with that ridiculous and generally meaningless mutual option that Moore loves. (As an aside: have the Royals actually kept a single player on one of those mutual options? Miguel Olivo, maybe?) Judging from the Royals’ blogosphere, fans were fully expecting Moore to give Francoeur two or even three guaranteed years, at five or seven million dollars per. Instead, Frenchy is guaranteed just $2.5 million.

Nonetheless, the blogosphere is in open revolt. Over at Royals Review, they had to start an overflow thread after the original post generated over 800 comments. People are not happy about this.

Nor should they be. But neither should they be going completely apesh*t over it either. For some people, this is the straw that broke the camel’s back. But it’s still a straw – it’s not an anvil.

The Cliff’s Notes on Francoeur, again: promoted to the majors in the middle of the 2005 season, at the age of 21, and was the phenom of phenoms – he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated inside of two months. He swung at everything, but no one cared, because he could hit for average, hit for power, catch everything, and had an arm like you wouldn’t believe.

In 2006 and 2007 he still suffered from a low OBP, but contributed in enough other ways – decent power, very good defense, didn’t miss a single game either year – that he was still a valuable player overall. In 2007 he drew 42 walks. He was still just 23. The following spring, Joe Sheehan and I wrote some fantasy baseball columns for Sports Illustrated, and working independently, we both listed Francoeur as one of our breakout candidates. (Trust me, Joe and I don’t agree on players all that often.)

And since then – complete meltdown. Beyond awful in 2008, to the point where he was sent to Double-A for a few games. Even worse in 2009 until the Braves dumped him on the Mets for Ryan Church. Francoeur had a nice, batting-average-assisted half-season with New York, then in 2010 went back to hitting .250 with no walks and mediocre power.

As Matt Klaassen cannily noted, over the past three seasons, Francoeur has been the fourth-worst everyday hitter in the major leagues. He will be just the third-worst hitter on the Royals, though, as two of the three players below him in the standings are Yuniesky Betancourt and Jason Kendall.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it – over the past three years, Francoeur has sucked. And as a rule of thumb, the simplest way to predict the future is to assume it will resemble the past.

But baseball is not simple. Players are not stat-generating robots; they improve and regress, break out and fall apart. The fact that Francoeur has hit .256/.301/.389 over the last three seasons does not mean that he’s going to hit .256/.301/.389 going forward, just as the fact that he hit .280/.319/.463 in his first three seasons (at the age of 21-23, mind you) didn’t guarantee that he would maintain that performance.

Maybe I’m giving Dayton Moore too much credit, but I feel quite confident in saying that if Moore knew for a fact that Francoeur would hit .256/.301/.389 with the Royals, he wouldn’t have signed him. This signing, then, is based on the expectation that Francoeur will improve. Which he might. He’s not Jose Guillen, signed to a long-term contract at 32, which anecdotally seems to be the most common age for good-not-great hitters to fall off a cliff. Francoeur will be just 27, which is the most common age for players to have the best season of their career.

And, again: it’s a one-year deal. The costs of any player acquisition can be divided into three parts: players, money, and opportunity. In terms of players, the Royals didn’t trade for Francoeur, and they don’t lose any draft picks by signing him. In terms of money, committing $2.5 million to Francoeur simply isn’t enough to inhibit the Royals from making any other move. Maybe I’m giving Moore too much credit, but I can’t foresee a situation in which the Royals find themselves unable to sign Player X, or offer Player Y a long-term contract, or trade for Player Z, because they spent $2.5 million on Jeff Francoeur. If that money wasn’t spent on Francoeur, it would have sat in a brokerage firm earning an annual Wal-Mart dividend.

In terms of opportunity: it’s a one-year deal. Francoeur is guaranteed a roster spot for 2011 – and as deep as the farm system is, the Royals don’t have any premier outfield prospects who might have a claim on that spot. This is nothing like the Mike Jacobs trade, when the Royals buried Kila Ka’aihue in Triple-A.

One of the complaints I’ve read about this deal is that it blocks David Lough from starting in the majors next season. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing. I like Lough a lot, and think he has a chance to be an everyday outfielder in the majors. But Lough hit .280/.346/.437 in Omaha last year, hardly the numbers of someone who’s ready for a full-time job in the majors. (In 2008, Ka’aihue hit .314/.456/.628. Now that’s a player who was ready.)

The reason I’m so intrigued by Lough is that, after being an overly aggressive hitter throughout his minor league career, the light bulb suddenly went on in the middle of 2010. His career high in walks was 35, and in the first three months of 2010, he drew just 10 walks in 66 games. But from July 1st on, Lough drew 30 walks in just 54 games; after the All-Star Break he hit .316/.403/.462. If the improvement is real, he’s legit.

But the danger of letting him spend another half-season in Omaha to prove it was real is nothing compared to the danger of assuming it was real and starting him in right field on Opening Day. In general, I’m in full agreement with Moore’s philosophy that “it’s better to leave a player in the minor leagues for too long than to bring him up too early.” This philosophy was taken to an unhealthy extreme with Ka’aihue, but by and large it’s the right idea. You know who wasn’t left in the minor league for too long? Jeff Francoeur. Francoeur never played a day in Triple-A, and played just 102 games in Double-A when he was brought to Atlanta. He wasn’t exactly tearing the cover off the ball either – he was hitting .275/.322/.487 in Birmingham at the time.

If signing Francoeur accomplishes nothing else, it makes it easier for the Royals to avoid the temptation of bringing some of their players to the major leagues before they’re ready. There’s value in that. Maybe not $2.5 million worth of value, but it’s not negligible.

Then there’s the fact that, purely in terms of roster construction, Francoeur’s skill set fits the team pretty well. The Royals didn’t have a right-handed-hitting outfielder on their 40-man roster. (There’s also the fact that the outfield, as currently constructed, kinda sucks. In a rare moment of self-reflection, someone in the front office admitted as much. “Right now,” one club official said, “based on what our guys have accomplished, we might have the worst outfield in baseball. Now, I’m hoping those guys come through. They have potential, especially Gordon, but we don’t have much you can count on.”)

The only switch-hitter on the roster is Derrick Robinson, who’s not ready. So unless the Royals wanted to go with an all left-handed outfield, or bring up Robinson, or rush Paulo Orlando to the majors, or cross their fingers and hope Jordan Parraz doesn’t suck – they had to find a right-handed outfielder.

They could have traded for one – giving up some of their precious young talent for a stop-gap solution. Or they could sign one in free agency. The Royals wisely chose the latter.

As this article explains, the Royals were looking at no fewer than six options. One of them was Matt Diaz. I love Diaz, always have, and think that the decision to waive him after the 2005 season (the Braves swooped in and offered a nothing prospect to get him) might be the most underappreciated dumb move of Allard Baird’s career. But Diaz hit .250/.302/.438 last season. He turns 33 in March.

Diaz signed with the Pirates, for two years and $4.25 million. Given the opportunity cost – both years and dollars – I’d rather have Francoeur’s contract.

I’m not saying that Francoeur was their best option. (In particular, I’m curious to see what Austin Kearns signs for.) But the notion that signing Francoeur was some sort of calamity – sorry, guys, I’m not seeing it. Francoeur does, in fact, bring some skills to the table. He can hit lefties – he’s a lifetime .299/.343/.481 hitter against southpaws – and play defense. With the exception of 2008, he has graded out as an above-average right fielder; he has roughly average range, but still has one of the best throwing arms in the game. (He has thrown out at least 11 baserunners in every season of his career.)

The Royals, bless their heart, didn’t sign Francoeur to be a platoon player and defensive replacement. They signed Francoeur with the promise that he’ll get every opportunity to be an everyday player. Even for an outfield that their own front office admitted might be the worst in baseball, Francoeur might not be an improvement.

But he might be. He’s 27 years old. From the age of 21 to 23, he was an above-average outfielder. Is it really so ridiculous to suggest he might be able to bounce back? Is it really so ridiculous to give him a one-year contract to see if he can?

Frankly, I’m sort of fascinated to see what will happen. You all know what I think about Kevin Seitzer, and while it’s sort of a cliché to sign a bad hitter and say, “here, Kevin, you fix him,” I think it’s worth a gamble. Seitzer is criticized for emphasizing contact and line drives over power, but that misses the point, which is that what Seitzer also emphasizes is plate discipline. Two years ago, before Seitzer was hired, the Royals had one of the lowest walk totals by a major league team since World War II. Last season, with a bunch of retreads in the lineup for most of the year, the Royals finished a respectable 9th in the league in walks.

More than anything else, a lack of plate discipline has undermined Francoeur’s career. He’s being paired with a hitting coach that stresses plate discipline above almost all else. And he’s being paired with a hitting coach who isn’t afraid to make radical changes in a hitter’s approach. Many hitting coaches use a Hippocratic philosophy of “first, do no harm,” and only tinker with their hitters. One of the main criticisms of Seitzer is precisely because he’s not like that – he’s willing to take the chance of doing harm.

But in Francoeur’s case, there’s no risk of doing harm – he already sucks. Seitzer can hardly make Francoeur worse, but he might – just might – be able to make him better. Seitzer hasn’t had a real success story since Raul Ibanez, but then few players have been willing to surrender themselves to Seitzer’s approach the way Ibanez did.

Ibanez had nothing to lose – he was 29 years old, and his career numbers in the majors were .241/.295/.383. One off-season with Seitzer, and he hit .280/.353/.495 for the Royals in 2001 – his best numbers since he was playing in the California League. He’s been an above-average hitter ever since.

There’s a good chance that even after all his failures, Francoeur won’t surrender to the idea that his approach is broken and needs to be fixed. And even if he does, there’s a good chance that Seitzer won’t be able to fix him. But if he does and he does, well, the raw tools are there for Francoeur to return to being an above-average everyday player.

Which brings me to my main criticism of this contract, which is that while the downside for the Royals is limited, so is the upside. The mutual contract is silly; if Francoeur isn’t worth $4 million, the Royals will decline, and if he’s worth more than $4 million, Francoeur will. In the unlikely but very possible event that Francoeur can be fixed, and he hits .280/.340/.460 or something along those lines, with good defense, the Royals would have a very valuable commodity for 2012 – except that he won’t be under contract. This is a shame, and sort of defeats the purpose.

If Francoeur does rebound, then, the Royals will either have to pony up bigger bucks for an extension – and take the risk that he regresses once again – or let him go. One factor to consider is that if Francoeur rebounds even a little, he’s got a good chance at being a Type B free agent next winter. It’s important to know that the formula the Elias Bureau uses to rank free agents was 1) designed in the 1980s and 2) bears only a passing resemblance to reality. Some of the categories that go into ranking hitters include at-bats (or plate appearances), homers, and RBIs. So according to Elias, Francoeur didn’t have an awful season in 2010; he batted nearly 500 times, hit 13 homers, and drove in 65 runs. This quirk in the system may net the Royals a draft pick, or at least raise Frenchy’s trade value in July.

It’s pretty clear that the Royals have given up on 2011. They traded DeJesus, they’re shopping for stopgap options, and they’re increasingly certain to trade Greinke. As a fan, this hurts – mostly the trading Greinke part. But as an analyst, it absolutely makes sense. The wave of talent coming up through the minors has a chance to be historic, in Royals history if not in major-league history.

If the Royals get a major talent haul for Greinke, then the amount of young talent they bring to the majors in 2012 and 2013 figures to compare with the great youth movements of our generation, like the 2008 Rays, like the 1992-94 Indians, like the 1991-95 Braves. Even if it winds up being a lesser youth movement, like the 2001-02 Twins, that should be enough to set the Royals up for years of contention. If Greinke winds up being the final, spectacular offering to the angry baseball idol that cursed the franchise so many years ago, his sacrifice will not have been in vain.

The problem is that people are getting tired of hearing about 2012, and it’s tempting for the Royals to try to find a way to have their cake and eat it to. They tried that in 2009, signing a bunch of stopgap veterans, and for 29 games it worked. It hasn’t worked since, nor should we expect it to.

The Mission 2012 mantra reminds me of the lightning scene in “Poltergeist”, where the kids count the time between seeing the lightning in a rain storm and hearing the thunder. At first they can count to five, indicating the lightning is still off in the distance – and then they can count to four, then three, and pretty soon their house is under attack. At first Mission 2012 was so far off in the distance that we didn’t even know when it would arrive – and then Moustakas and Hosmer started hitting, and then the Sinister Six all made it to Double-A, and suddenly you could see Mission 2012 in the distance. It’s still in the distance, and I know it feels like it’s never going to get here, but it’s getting closer. I promise.

And the Royals are acting accordingly. Two off-seasons ago, not seeing any young talent on the immediate horizon, Dayton Moore threw his money around like they were beads at Mardi Gras. Two years to Kyle Farnsworth here; two years for Willie Bloomquist there. Trade a reliever for Coco Crisp here; trade a reliever for Mike Jacobs there.

Last year, Moore let Miguel Olivo and John Buck out of their contracts, then signed Jason Kendall for two years – simultaneously hurting the team in 2010 and committing way too much money and playing time to a washed-up catcher in 2011.

This winter, Moore has again committed way too much money and playing time for a player in 2011 – but only 2011. He didn’t give out a two-year deal to Francoeur, and I strongly suspect he won’t be giving out a two-year deal to anyone else. It’s almost like he understands that he’s got all these prospects that are going to deserve a spot on the roster in 2012.

That’s the strangest criticism I’ve heard about Moore in all this – that signing Francoeur just proves that he’s so addicted to veteran players that he’s going to block the progress of all of the Royals’ top prospects when they’re ready. Maybe I’m giving Moore too much credit, but…come…on. Dayton Moore made his bones in drafting and developing players. He’s spent the last four-plus years drafting and developing players – his players. It’s one thing for him to not show faith in the prospects he inherited, like Ka’aihue and Mike Aviles. But does anyone really think that he’s going to make excuses not to bring up Moustakas when he’s ready? That he’s going to bury Eric Hosmer? That he’ll trade away Mike Montgomery for a shiny object?

In the same week where the Rockies signed Ty Wigginton to a two-year deal for $8 million, and the Pirates gave Kevin Correia a two-year deal for $8 million, and the White Sox gave A.J. Pierzynski a two-year for $8 million, getting angry over a 1-year, $2.5 million contract for anybody is sort of silly. The Mariners just signed Miguel Olivo for two years and $7 million, which is especially ridiculous given that they could have bought his option from the Rockies (as the Blue Jays did), exercised the option, and only had to commit $3 million for one year.

But the Royals’ signing of Francoeur gets more derision than any of those moves, because it’s Jeff Freaking Francoeur, and because it’s Dayton Freaking Moore.

Maybe I’m giving Moore too much credit. Maybe, as Sheehan tweeted, I have Stockholm Syndrome. But from where I sit, this move isn’t remotely as bad as most Royals fans think. Even if, thanks to the lack of a true option, it’s not nearly as good as Dayton Moore thinks.


Copy and paste everything above, and you can skip what I’m about to write regarding Melky Cabrera. The Royals have signed Cabrera to a one-year, $1.25 million contract with incentives. Cabrera, like Francoeur, was never able to build on his early promise. As a 21-year-old rookie for the Yankees in 2006, Cabrera hit .280/.360/.391. At the end of that season, given his age, defensive versatility, and on-base ability, he was quietly one of the more valuable young commodities around.

It never came together for him; he regressed over the next two seasons, although in 2009 he rebounded to hit a respectable .274/.336/.416. He was the starting centerfielder on a world championship team, and was just 24 years old. But the Yankees being the Yankees, they could do better, and they did – they traded for Curtis Granderson, and sent Cabrera packing as part of the Javier Vazquez trade with Atlanta.

The only part of the last paragraph that matters, apparently, is the last word. Cabrera, like Francoeur, and like so many others before him, is an EX-BRAVE! So naturally this is just Moore being Moore, and so it must be an awful move. Never mind that Moore tried to trade for Cabrera four years ago, and succeeded – the Yankees were willing to trade him for Reggie Sanders before Sanders received his Injury-of-the-Month Club selection in the mail.

I guess it doesn’t matter that Cabrera is still just 26 years old. He might take playing time away from Mitch Maier! Never mind that Cabrera is MORE THAN TWO YEARS YOUNGER than Maier. And never mind that his career line (.267/.328/.379) – IS BETTER THAN MAIER’S (.256/.330/.347). And never mind that Cabrera is a switch-hitter who can play all three outfield positions, and seems to be a roughly average fielder wherever he plays. And never mind that he’s making just $1.25 million.

Cabrera is an ex-Brave. And he was awful in 2010. So signing him is just proof that Dayton Moore has taken a step down from incompetence and has now entered the realm of parody. If you don’t believe me, click this.

I understand the temptation to rip Moore for everything he does. I may have even succumbed to this temptation a time or two myself. But come on, guys. The Royals just signed an incredibly versatile outfielder – hits both ways, plays all three outfield spots – who’s in his mid-20s, who’s been a slightly below-average hitter for most of his career – for $1.25 million. I don’t just like this move – I really like this move. It’s a small transaction, but the Royals just signed a good fourth outfielder for peanuts. And as with Francoeur, there is the small but real possibility that Cabrera re-discovers some of his early promise again.

It would be one thing if the Royals signed Cabrera with the intent of having him eat into Alex Gordon’s playing time. But it appears the Royals want to give Cabrera the chance to complete for the starting job in centerfield. This would cut into the chances that Jarrod Dyson starts in the majors – a very good thing, because even if you think that Dyson can be an everyday player in the majors, you can’t deny that he needs to show he can actually hit in Triple-A first. This might mean that Maier and Gregor Blanco will have to fight for a roster spot – and as I’ve argued since the Royals traded for Blanco, the two players have remarkably similar skill sets, so keeping both is kind of redundant anyway.

I like this signing a lot more than the Francoeur signing, both because Cabrera is only guaranteed half as much money, but also because Cabrera, by virtue of only having 4+ years of service time, is not a free agent at the end of 2011. If he does have a bounce-back year, the Royals can keep him for 2012 at a reasonable cost; if he doesn’t, they can cut him.

Combined, the Royals have guaranteed Francoeur and Cabrera $3.75 million in 2011. By coincidence, they’re paying Jason Kendall $3.75 million in 2011 by himself. They paid Jose Guillen more money than that after he was waived at the end of July. Barry Zito makes more money than that every seven starts or so. Kyle Farnsworth made more than that in each season of his two-year deal.

This isn’t the apocalypse, everyone. This is just the Royals taking a couple of one-year flyers on a couple of hitters who showed promise in their early 20s, and are still in their mid-20s. This is a chance to see what Seitzer, after years of being asked to reinvent a bunch of thirty-something hitters who weren’t that good in the first place, can get through to a couple of players who are old enough to have been humbled, but young enough to make adjustments.

Maybe I’m giving Moore too much credit. But if these are the two worst moves he makes this off-season, he’s had a hell of an off-season. I said before the Winter Meetings began that the best move the Royals could make was to do nothing at all. They didn’t do nothing, but they also didn’t do anything to disrupt the team beyond 2011. Mission 2012 is still on course.