Friday, June 18, 2010

Omaha.

The Royals have put together a Triple-A team that is sort of the standard blueprint for Triple-A teams in modern baseball: a team that is perhaps short on prospects, but long on solid replacement-level talent. There might not be any future All-Stars on this team, but there are a number of players who can be called up in a pinch and perform adequately in the majors.

Nowhere is this more true than in the rotation, where the Royals put together an all-veteran unit that included Gaby Hernandez, Anthony Lerew, Brian Bullington, Philip Humber, and (after his early-season beatdown with the Royals) Luis Mendoza. Bruce Chen has already jumped from Omaha’s rotation into Kansas City’s, and has pitched quite well in his second season following Tommy John surgery. And just yesterday, needing another rotation replacement after Luke Hochevar hit the DL, the Royals called up Lerew.

Lerew had pitched well in Omaha (2.84 ERA, 70 hits in 73 innings, 41/27 K/BB ratio, 3 homers) this season, after pitching well if not superbly for Northwest Arkansas last year. I’m generally fond of giving solid organizational soldiers like Lerew a call-up when the need arises, because in addition to the fact that they can earn more in a month in the majors than they will all season in the minors, it sends a message to the other minor leaguers in the organization that no matter whether you’re considered a legitimate prospect or not, good performances will be rewarded.

Lerew made the issue of whether his promotion was deserved or not a moot point, allowing just two runs in six innings while striking out seven. I’m not sure he showed us anything that we didn’t already know; he’s a Quadruple-A pitcher, and he got to face a Quadruple-A team in the Houston Astros, so his success wasn’t that surprising. Still, for a team that once had to send Eduardo Villacis to the mound at Yankee Stadium to make his first (and last) major league appearance, it’s nice to know that the Royals have hoarded a number of near-major-league-caliber starters just a phone call away.

Omaha’s bullpen has some legitimate prospects, although with Blake Wood now plying his craft in the majors, none of them are of potential game-changers. (And can we slow it down with the Blake-Wood-is-a-savior talk? In 17 innings in the majors, he has struck out five batters. Five. While his fastball has a lot of movement, it hasn’t translated into a lot of groundballs – his groundball percentage is just 44%, which is around league-average. His success so far is primarily the result of a very low line-drive percentage – just 13% – which is unsustainable. He’s a good sixth or seventh-inning option. Unless and until he starts missing bats, he’s not ready for the eighth.)

You all know how I feel about Chris Hayes, and he’s working his typical magic with homers and walks, but batters are hitting .337 against him, and there’s just no way to sugar-coat that. The Royals haven’t done him any favors by forcing him onto the DL with phantom injuries twice to clear up roster space, but ultimately he’s going to have to pitch better before I make his case again.

Victor Marte has also graduated to the majors, and while I’m skeptical of his long-term chances, I’ll happily admit that he’s pitched well so far. Other guys like Greg Holland and Federico Castaneda may have major-league futures as well. The big name in the bullpen is Blaine Hardy, but as he’s only been in Triple-A for a few weeks I’ll cover him with Northwest Arkansas.

On offense, the O-Royals have a similar blend of late-20s players who aren’t real prospects but have the ability to fill in as the need arises, as Wilson Betemit has shown the last two weeks. Third baseman Ed Lucas, a Dartmouth grad who’s hitting .324/.393/.486, is tempting me to adopt him Disco-style. Alas, he’s 28, and never hit remotely this well in the past.

The two legitimate prospects on the roster are both outfielders, and comparing how the Royals talk about the two lends some unfortunate insight into how the front office operates. David Lough came into the season as the #10 prospect in the organization per Baseball America, and in all fairness he’s been disappointing.

Last year, between Wilmington and Northwest Arkansas he hit .325, and when you hit .325 people will overlook your mid-range power and poor plate discipline. This year’s he’s hitting .276, which makes his weakness much more glaring. He doesn’t hit for a lot of pop (5 homers and just 7 doubles this season), and has drawn just 9 walks in 56 games. Put that in the statistical blender, and you wind up with a .307 OBP and a .414 SLG. Those numbers would disappoint in the majors even without the adjustment that he’ll experience coming up from Triple-A.

The Royals like him a lot, and have compared him to David DeJesus in the past. If only. DeJesus made it to Omaha when he was 23 and hit .298; the next year he hit .315 in Omaha and was called up for good in June. He drew a lot of walks (his OBP exceeded .400 each year) and hit for enough power to slug .470 and .518. Lough simply isn’t in DeJesus’ class as a hitter, and while he gets good marks for his ability to play the corner outfield, he isn’t in DeJesus’ class as a fielder either. He might be one day, but right now he’s the proverbial tweener.

The more intriguing prospect – to me, anyways – is Jordan Parraz, who was pilfered from the Astros two years ago for the dessicated remains of Tyler Lumsden’s left arm. Last year, in his first season with the organization, he hit .358 with a .451 OBP in the Texas League. This season, he’s hitting .260/.372/.397 in Omaha, which is better than it sounds. He’s overcome a hellacious start; after batting just .156 in April, he’s hit .323/.459/.472 since. Superficially, Parraz resembles Lough, in that they’re both corner outfielders whose power doesn’t profile at the position. But Parraz is as disciplined a hitter as Lough is free-swinging. Lough probably has better range, but Parraz has a cannon for an arm, plenty good enough for right field.

The Royals would probably get as much production from a Parraz/Lough platoon as they’ll get from Scott Podsednik this year, but that’s damning with faint praise. I don’t expect big things from either player, but I think that the team’s modest hopes for Lough might be better directed toward Parraz, who makes a fine bench option as a fourth outfielder who mashes left-handed pitching.

And finally, like most Triple-A teams the O-Royals have a couple of veteran sluggers manning the 3-4 slots in their lineups. Unfortunately, neither one is a real prospect, as both of them are 36 years old.

No, wait, that’s a typo. They’re both 26 years old. Hmmm.

Let’s look a little closer then. One of them has a .385 OBP and a .526 SLG, the other one has a .402 OBP and a .513 SLG. Very good numbers for Triple-A, but I worry that their bats might be a little short to man left field and first base in the majors.

Oh, sorry – another typo. The left fielder doesn’t have a .385 OBP – he has a…wait, what?

A .485 OBP? And a .626 SLG?

The first baseman has a .502 OBP? A .613 SLG?

As Cartman would say, “Da F@!k?”

I have tried my best to regain my usual optimism about the Royals this season, and the Royals have largely obliged with the performances of their minor leaguers. But then I look at what Alex Gordon has done to minor league pitchers since he was exiled to Omaha, and at what Kila Ka’aihue has done all season long, and I just throw up my hands and say, once again, that I have no earthly idea what the Royals are thinking.

In 1956, a 23-year-old first baseman named Dick Stuart hit 66 homers in the minor leagues, nearly breaking the all-time record for homers in a professional season. He would say later – I’m paraphrasing here – that if he had just hit 36 homers that season, he would have been taken seriously as one of the best power prospects in the minors and rushed through the farm system. But instead he hit 66, which was such a preposterous number that the Pirates simply didn’t know how to process it.

Stuart started the season in A-ball. He finished the season in A-ball. Sixty-six homers didn’t warrant a promotion. It would take two more years of homering every third game in the minors before he finally reached the majors in July of 1958 – and in 67 games for the Pirates he hit 16 homers and slugged .543.

I suspect – because I’m the charitable sort – that what’s going on with Gordon and Ka’aihue is something akin to Dick Stuart Syndrome. If they both were slugging around .500 and had OBPs close to .400, as I initially suggested they had, the Royals would intuitively understand that they were having excellent seasons. But frankly, their numbers are so off-the-charts good that I don’t think the Royals truly comprehend how ridiculous it is that they’re both stuck in Triple-A purgatory.

In Gordon and Ka’aihue, the Royals have two of the three highest slugging averages in Triple-A, and two of the three best OBPs in the entire freaking minor leagues. Yet they wait. And wait. And wait.

Gordon, obviously, is not a prospect. His extended trial with Omaha seems to be the product of some secret experiment the Royals are conducting on what happens when you send an established major-league hitter, in the prime of his career, to Triple-A. Look, I agree with the decision to move him to the outfield, as I think he was pressing a lot at third base, and I think it helped the team defensively at two positions. But there’s no law that states you have to learn how to play a new position in the minors. Ryan Braun, to bring up a player that’s all-too-frequently compared to Gordon, made the transition from third base to left field in the majors.

The Royals say that numbers aside, they’re still not thrilled with Gordon’s approach at the plate, and they still want to close a hole in his swing. They may have a point – despite his awesome numbers, Gordon has struck out 44 times in 163 at-bats in Omaha, a strikeout rate which is actually a tick higher than his major-league average. But here’s the thing: it strikes me as unreasonable to expect a player to make major adjustments to his swing WHEN HE’S HITTING THE BEJEEZUS OUT OF THE BALL. At some point, Gordon’s success may start to work against him. Some of the adjustments they want him to make can only be made against major-league pitching.

As for Ka’aihue, it’s not clear that the Royals have ever had faith in him. They didn’t have faith in him when he hit .314/.456/.628 two years ago, choosing to inflict Mike Jacobs on us again. They certainly didn’t have faith in him when he hit .252/.392/.433 in Omaha last year, declining even to give him a September callup. And while Ned Yost said some nice things about Ka’aihue shortly after he was hired – and right after he sent Ka’aihue down – it’s not entirely clear that the Royals are sold him on even now.

And to be perfectly fair, there are some non-Royal scouts who say the same thing, that his numbers are a product of beating up on inferior pitching. The thing is, there are also some non-Royal scouts who absolutely believe in the bat. There is no scouting consensus here. There is, however, a sabermetric consensus: the dude can mash.

The closest comp I can think of to Ka’aihue, in terms of a left-handed hitter in the minors who combined prodigious power and plate discipline but was not a favorite of the scouts, was Hee-Seop Choi. In 2002 the Korean slugger hit 25 homers and walked 95 times in Triple-A, and yet all we heard from scouts was that he had a hole in his swing.

The scouts were right, sort of. Choi hit .240/.349/.437 in the majors, nothing special for a first baseman, and was out of the majors for good after the 2005 season.

But here’s the thing. Aside from the fact that a line of .240/.349/.437 would approximate Jose Guillen’s product at DH for one-thirtieth the cost, the fact is that by letting Choi play in 2003, the Cubs were able to establish that he did have some value – enough so that they were able to trade him essentially straight up to the Marlins for Derrek Lee after the season. Yes, the Marlins were in the quadrennial fire-sale mode, but still, Choi was seen as a legitimate everyday player at the time. If the Cubs had buried him like the Royals have buried Ka’aihue, they would never have been able to establish any kind of value for him on the trade market.

And besides: in 2002, Choi hit just .287/.406/.513. Ka’aihue is hitting .335/.502/.613. Again, it’s Dick Stuart Syndrome. Maybe the Royals see Ka’aihue as another Choi – but they’re unable to process that he’s basically Choi plus FIFTY POINTS of batting average and ONE HUNDRED POINTS of OBP and SLG. His numbers are, literally, ridiculous. As in, they don’t make sense. And so the Royals simply ignore them.

I remain hopeful that the Royals really do understand that Gordon and Ka’aihue could step into the team’s lineup tomorrow and improve the team at two positions, and that they’re simply waiting to unload guys like Guillen and Podsednik onto other teams first. Whether they’re able to do that or not is a question that requires its own article. For now, it’s not unreasonable of the Royals to hope they can swing a trade. But the team’s excuses will pass with the trading deadline in six weeks. Come August 1st, both Gordon and Ka’aihue are in the Royals’ everyday lineup, or I’ll take back every nice thing I’ve said about this organization this year.

In their own way, the resurgences of Gordon and Ka’aihue this season are nearly as important as the steps forward taken by Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. But if the Royals can’t see the low-hanging fruit just waiting to be plucked in Omaha, there’s no reason for us to have faith that they’ll be able to climb the prospect tree and harvest players that have yet to ripen in the future.

20 comments:

kw said...

I know you've tried to be kind to Dayton Moore lately and suggest perhaps he isn't a total lost cause.

But he has locked the Royals into so many bad contracts that there is no flexibility in what they can do.

The man has no long-range vision, and it's hurting the team. All the talk about Gordon's approach at the plate or Kila's slow bat are just excuses to cover up the fact the Royals are painted into a corner by a weak front office.

Quality said...

I've read that other teams have inquired after Gordon and been turned away. Nothing about Kila though, if that means anything.

rey rey said...

kw, Rany has been 'kind to Dayton Moore lately' for a simple reason...he is on somewhat of a roll. His drafts picks are doing very well in the minors and he has made a few moves at the big league level that needed to be made. Time wil ltell but hope is not lost on DM. Like Neyer, Rany see's the next test for our young, first time GM being Kila and Alex. Lets see what happens

KCDC said...

I'm split on whether it is unreasonable for the Royals to hope to be able to trade Podsednik and Guillen. Hope we'll get your thoughts on their trade-ability in a future column.

Nathan said...

KCDC,

That's where it all hinges, isn't it? If Podsednick and Guillen can be turned into either substantial saved cash or a couple of prospects, then leaving Kila and Gordon in AAA for a few extra weeks is sensible. But it is far from obvious that any market for these players exists. This might just be a waste of time.

Anonymous said...

Should be an exciting trade deadline to say the least.....

Anonymous said...

You know the Rockies would likely be in the market for a Lefty hitting 1B to replace Giambi and eventually Helton. They have good young catching prospects like Rosario maybe the Royals can make something positive happen

keith jersey said...

I'm keeping the faith on this one. I absolutely believe that Gordon and Kila will be called up once Guillen and an outfielder are traded. I think there must be at least some interest in Guillen, he leads the team in HR and RBI. As long as the Royals don't try to get too much for him. Still, I would rather see them pull the trigger as soon as possible and let Gordon play already. He was really good for half a season in the majors in 2008 and then got hurt last year. Sure he strikes out alot, but he homers and takes walks and these are 2 things the Royals need as much of as they can get.

Anonymous said...

Dayton Moore hasn't traded a Position player yet and now you think he will trade two?

Please

Olentangy said...

You KNOW both Kila and Gordon will not be called up until at least September, and will get some token starts as no one pays attention late in September

Paul said...

I would rather have those guys ripping it up on Omaha than sitting on the bench in KC.
The Royals aren't going to release Guillen with @7m still due to him. They want to pick up as little as possible on that contract. I'm not sure what value PODS would give to a team. Maybe some team that wants a pinch runner but he can't even play corner outfield very well.
The problem is that DM is signing these players. I think he is giving himself job security by keeping them (Guillen and PODS) on the team.
He tells David Glass: "Guillen is leading the team in homers and rbi.
And PODS is 2nd in the AL in steals.
See, those weren't such bad signings now were they?"
Glass nods in approval.
I vomit in my mouth.

Kansas City said...

I would be astonished if Pods and Guillen are still playing in September.

From the outside, I wonder why the Royals would not just release Pods and Guillen as soon as they determine they cannot get anything for them. It is something that baseball teams seldom do, in this case probably exacerbated by Moore not wanting to highlight his mistakes.

Nathan said...

Off topic:

I miss Trey Hillman today. Yost pulled Greinke from a tie game after 7IP and 101 pitches, with the pitcher's spot due up in the 8th. Then, he failed to use Soria in either the 8th or 9th inning of a tie game on the road, reserving him for a save situation, instead of using him to help make a save situation possible.

Now, one game is one game. But today Yost was faced with an important question: whose pitching should decide the outcome of close games for the Royals? Zack Greinke and Joakim Soria? Or Blake Wood and Robinson Tejada?

His answer does not bode well.

(Caveat: I didn't get to actually see the game, so if Greinke was clearly laboring, or Soria was unavailable for some reason, then I take all of this back.)

Anonymous said...

There is no greater lock than Guillen, Pods, Kendall playing every game in September. Anything else is pure fantasy.

Dayton Moore doesn't trade away position players. Dayton Moore is extremely reluctant to admit mistakes and shows no ability to understand what a sunk cost is.

He is a bad, bad GM. This trade deadline will enforce this again as it seems some here- Rany- have forgotten just how bad DM is at the major league level.

Prospects flame out. It's not like DM is going to have to stop acquiring major league players. His track record speaks for itself:

Kendall
Pods
bloomquist
Mendoza
TPJ
Gload
Bale
Ankiel
Ponson
Tomko
Betancourt
Guillen
Anderson- all of em
Freel
Davies
Hillman
Owen

And on and on.....and we are supposed to belief all the sudden he will get better? Pure fantasy. Dayton Moore is awful. Regardless of the fairy tale the puppet Rany tells....

kcghost said...

I wouldn't hold out a lot of hope for Guillen and/or Pods getting traded. In the world the Royals live in it actually looks like these guys are having a good year. Heck, I'll be thrilled if they just have the good sense to cut bait on Ankiel.

Personally, I don't have much faith in Gordon translating his AAA success to the majors. He's had 1400 PA's in the majors and he still can't a RHers down and in breaking ball and has never seen a LHers down and away breaking ball that he wasn't willing to swing over the top of.

I am not sure the Royals are wrong when they say Kila's bat is a little slow, but what the heck?? Why not give him a chance to show us what he can do rather than contribute $3M to the Mike Jacobs Family Endowment??

setupunchtag said...

Royal Rules:

Rule 1: In order for an Allard Baird player to get into or stay the Royals line-up he must be historically GOOD (Greinke, Soria, Butler, Aviles, and now, Gordon and Kaaihue in AAA).

Rule 2: In order for a Dayton Moore player to lose his job he must be historically/hysterically BAD (Davies, Mendoza, TPJ, Jacobs, Cruz, Getz).

Rule 3: Rule 1 may be enacted ONLY in the likely occurance of Rule 2.

...lather, rinse, repeat...

Mark said...

I'm loath to go statistical on you Rany but regarding Gordon I just might have to. Historically, he is no where near the hitter is Braun is. As near as I can tell, Braun's worst year(ops+130) in the majors is decidely better then Gordon's best(ops+109). At this point the only thing Gordon has established is that he is a slightly below average major league hitter though this Omaha stint may be his breakout. I just don't have a problem with Gordon spending several more weeks in Omaha to increase his confidence and build up any good habits he may have acquired. The O-Royals have actually been playing some good baseball lately and it will be interesting to see how they do on their College World Series road trip.

Anonymous said...

The problem, Rany, is that you assume the Royals FO is even aware of how well Gordon and Ka'aihue are hitting. They simply do not care about results.

It's the METHOD that is important to DM and his coterie. The scouts say that Alex has holes in his swing and that Kila's bat is slow. That's all they care about. The LOOK is wrong. Results are nearly meaningless next to that argument.

Until that changes, the Royals will be mired in .400s-ville.

KHAZAD said...

It is ludicrous that these two guys are not up with the team. Get rid of two guys and bring them up!

You find out whether their production is sustainable over a 3 month period and whether you should count on them next year- at 27 years old.

At worst it is not sustainable, but you have 3 months of data to show it. At best you have two positions filled for the next 4 years with really good offense.

If you leave them in the minors, you have no production, no knowledge of what their level in the MLB would be, no value for trading them, and no answers for 2011- when maybe we do it all again.

26 year old production is the goal! They have it and have locked it in a closet.

Anonymous said...

Great post except you forgot to mention that NW Arkansas is the birthplace of the Mejia shuffle.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FAc0_cX0FY&feature=player_embedded