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.