(Before we continue, I feel obliged to acknowledge the loss of our beloved Chris Hayes, a.k.a. Disco, who was unceremoniously released by the Royals on Wednesday.
It’s a testament to what a fantastic season it has been in the minor leagues that my primary emotion is sadness and not anger. Let’s be honest: the writing was on the wall that this was going to happen for months, really ever since Opening Day, when Hayes was mysteriously placed on Omaha’s disabled list despite not, you know, being disabled. Hayes was placed on the DL three times this year, and in fact was on the DL when he was released – but I have multiple sources that attest to the fact that he was never injured.
Granted, Hayes didn’t take advantage of the slim opportunities that were afforded to him. In 27 innings, he allowed 36 hits and struck out just 10 batters, and while his control (5 walks) and ability to keep the ball in the park (2 homers) were as good as ever, he wasn’t the dominant pitcher that he had been at every minor league level prior to Double-A. I have no trouble admitting that he was disappointing, and I’m sure he’d agree.
But aside from the extenuating circumstances – it’s hard to pitch effectively when you know that the next bad outing you have might lead to a phantom “injury” – the sad part is that the Royals were clearly just waiting for him to fail in order to be free of him. If the Royals want to argue that Hayes didn’t pitch well enough to deserve more of an opportunity, then they’ll have to explain why the hell Matt Herges is still on Omaha’s roster. Matt Herges is FORTY YEARS OLD, he has a 4.47 ERA (Disco’s ERA is 3.95), he’s allowed 86 baserunners in 52 innings (he has a higher WHIP than Disco), and he’s struck out only 26 batters. Did I mention he’s 40? And yet Herges has nearly twice as many innings pitches as Hayes this year.
So yeah, it’s pretty clear the Royals never believed in him. They might be right – there’s a reason we call him Disco instead of Grunge. And he has struggled since reaching Triple-A. But the biggest issue I have isn’t that they were waiting for him to fail, it’s that they were setting him up to fail, and that when he started to struggle, they never gave him the opportunity to prove whether he could adjust. Hayes had never struggled before he reached Triple-A – he had a career 2.29 ERA before he made it to Omaha. But after he struggled for two months last season, he was clearly an afterthought this year, and the Royals were clearly just looking for a reason to let him go.
And again, I’m less upset about losing Disco than I am about what this says about the Royals. I still think Hayes can be a serviceable middle reliever, but I’m not going to cry over losing a serviceable middle reliever. But 30 years ago, the Royals gave a guy named Dan Quisenberry a chance to pitch because they were willing to think outside the box. The Royals had just closed their Baseball Academy, perhaps the most radically outside-the-box idea in baseball history. Whitey Herzog, then the team’s manager, cared less about form than about results. Today, the Royals are almost obsessed with conventional wisdom – just look at our starting catcher. It’s not that Disco is the next Quisenberry. It’s that even if he was, I’m not sure the Royals would give him a second look.
I’m sad for the Royals, but I’m not sure I’m sad for Disco. In fact, this might be the best thing for him, because now he’s a free agent, able to sign with whichever one of the other 29 teams he thinks will take him seriously as a prospect. I’m still trying to find out the details of what happened, but I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if the Royals didn’t release Hayes so much as he requested to be released, and they honored his request. I have to think that after going on the DL for the third time for no reason, he might have had enough, and went to the powers that be and said, in essence, “it’s clear you guys don’t believe in me, so why not just let me go and find employment with a team that does?”
Regardless, I wish him the best of luck, and I still look forward to the day when he makes his major league debut. I’ve said before that Chris Hayes is the player we would all be if we could have found a way to play professional baseball. Royals uniform or not, you’d be heartless not to root for a guy like that.)
We’ll finish our tour of the minor leagues with a quick look at the short-season teams. When I spoke with J.J. Picollo six weeks ago, before the rookie-league teams had started their season, I asked him to give me the name of a player who was doing well in extended spring training that might explode on the scene once the games counted.
He gave me two. The first was Yowill Espinal, who (along with Geulin Beltre) was the most expensive Latin American signing ever by the Royals in 2007, as both players got $250,000 to sign. (That record has since been broken; see below.) The second was Lane Adams, an outfielder drafted in the 13th round out of an Oklahoma high school last year. Adams is very athletic – his main sport in high school was basketball – and got $225,000 to sign, which is fourth or fifth-round money.
A month into the season, both players show a lot of promise, and not a lot of polish. Espinal debuted in 2008 as a 17-year-old and was overmatched in rookie ball – he drew 2 walks and struck out 42 times in 50 games. Last year he improved dramatically, as you would expect from someone so young – he walked 22 times in 63 games. Between the two seasons, he showed good pop for a 17-18 year old, with 11 homers and 7 triples in 113 games, and he also stole 33 bases.
This year, Espinal has moved up to Idaho Falls – the Royals have three short-season teams (most organizations have only two), and they generally send the youngest players to Arizona, the most polished to Idaho Falls, and the guys in between to Burlington. His power has disappeared – he hasn’t hit a triple or homer yet – but he’s hitting .288 with a .357 OBP. Unfortunately, he has also committed 14 errors in just 20 games at second base.
If you squint, you can sort of see Espinal as a player in the Ruben Gotay/Carlos Febles mold. He needs to polish up his glove or fall in that trap of having the bat of an up-the-middle player and the glove of a corner guy. But he’s young.
Adams is hitting .284/.329/.392 on the same team, which is perfectly fine for a player just a year out of high school. Or it would be, except that Adams was very old for a high school draft pick – he was 19-and-a-half when he was picked, and turns 21 this November. You can cut him some slack for his athleticism and lack of experience, but the clock is ticking.
Other intriguing guys in the short-season leagues:
- Jacob Kuebler, Alex Gordon’s cousin, and a 17th-round pick out of high school two years ago. He struggled with the bat in 2008 and 2009, but broke out this year at the age of 20, hitting .330/.366/.521 with Idaho Falls. He was just promoted to the Midwest League this week and homered in his second game.
- Crawford Simmons, who was taken in the 14th round last year, one round after Adams, but was a top-5 round pick on merit – he fell because he was a difficult sign, and the Royals gave him $450,000. As the only teenager on Burlington’s staff, he’s struck out 31 and walked 8 in 31 innings so far. Also – I know you won’t believe this – he’s left-handed.
- Cheslor Cuthbert, who was signed out of Nicaragua for $1.35 million last year, easily breaking the team record for highest bonus given to a foreign player, is probably the team’s best prospect in short-season ball. He’s just 17 years old, and after hitting .265/.342/.412 in rookie ball, was promoted to Idaho Falls this week and homered in his first at-bat. He’s playing against guys 4 and 5 years older than him now, and scouting reports on his bat are excellent. Once again, it looks like a case of the Royals being rewarded for being willing to open their checkbook for amateur talent.
- Geulin Beltre, who along with Espinal received a quarter-million-dollar signing bonus in 2007, has moved from third base to the outfield, and is hitting .248/.328/.410 this season. Like Espinal, he’s just 19. The odds are good that at least one of the two has a major-league future of some kind.
- Willian Avinazar and Robinson Yambati, about whom I know little other than their stat lines, which are good. Avinazar is a 21-year-old Venezuelan who struggled in his stateside debut last year, but for Burlington this year he has been a revelation, with a 1.07 ERA, and in 34 innings has allowed just 22 hits, 6 walks, and struck out 31. Yambati is from the Dominican, is only 19, and has struck out 36 batters in 27 innings in Arizona this year.
- Jin-Ho Shin, who was the Royals’ first big foray into Pacific Rim scouting, as the Korean catcher signed for $600,000 last year. In his debut he’s hitting .246/.342/.323 as an 18-year-old, but has thrown out just 5 of 30 basestealers.
- Dylan Lindsay, a South African who was signed by the Royals practically sight unseen before the World Baseball Classic last year. (The only person in the organization who had seen him pitch was Mike Randall, a native South African who works as an associate scout for the team.) The Royals had to wait a year until he finished high school to see him pitch. So far, he’s thrown 11 innings in Arizona, and has allowed eight hits and a walk, with 5 Ks. An enormous project, but he’s 18; he has an enormous amount of time.
- Michael Antonio, a shortstop who was the best prep player in New York City this season, was the Royals’ third-round pick this year. Of the team’s first five selections, he was the only one who seemed to be a reach – most scouts projected him as a fifth or sixth-round talent. So far, though, he’s looked good, hitting .267/.313/.489, with six extra-base hits in 11 games. The park helps, and there are those who think he’ll have to move off of shortstop soon, but he’s off to a good start.
And finally, a few other random folk who missed being mentioned for one reason or another:
- Brian Anderson, who after five seasons in the major leagues as an outfielder, decided this spring that he wanted to become a pitcher – and the Royals, inexplicably, agreed. I say “inexplicably” because the Royals had just signed him to a $700,000 contract, and I don’t think they anticipated paying him to learn a new craft in rookie ball, which is what he is doing. He’s pitched well so far – four innings, two hits, no walks, five strikeouts. If the Royals wanted to convert a hitter into a pitcher, they should have kept Tony Pena Jr.
- Noel Arguelles, whose five-year, $6.9 million contract last winter makes him the most expensive amateur signing – foreign or domestic – in Royals history. He’s missed the entire season so far with a sore shoulder, and while he hasn’t undergone the knife, the fact that the Royals can’t seem to diagnose exactly what’s wrong with his shoulder is almost more worrisome than surgery. He’s not a bust – yet – but it would be nice to see him on the mound one of these years.
- Jeff Bianchi, who is out for the year with Tommy John surgery. Bianchi ranked 11th on Baseball America’s list of Royals prospects before the season, so while his injury is a setback, he certainly should not be forgotten entirely.
- Speaking of outfielders in their late 20s, Shane Costa recently returned to Wilmington after a two-week rehab stint in Arizona. I mention him only because I was actually kind of surprised that Costa was still in the organization. Thanks to injury, he played in exactly one minor league game between the end of 2008 and last month. At his best he was a borderline fourth outfielder; there’s nothing to see here.
- Kevin Chapman, the Royals’ fourth-round pick this year, was a left-handed reliever drafted as a senior out the University of Florida, and is expected to move quickly through the system. He debuted with Wilmington last week, and in his second outing he struck out the side. He could be this year’s version of Louis Coleman, and be banging on the door of the majors by this time next year.
- Danny Duffy, who is slowly working his way back into shape, having made two starts apiece in Arizona and in Idaho Falls, and made his first start in Wilmington the other day. I expect him to make it to Northwest Arkansas at some point in August. While the missed time didn’t help, remember that before he left the team he was dealing with some elbow pain anyway, so he probably would have missed some time regardless. He’s almost certainly headed to the Arizona Fall League, where he’ll get the chance to replace those innings against high-level competition.
- Jarrod Dyson, who you might recall was, bizarrely, the only player Trey Hillman mentioned at the winter meetings when I asked him what players in the minor leagues he was looking forward to seeing in 2010. This might go a small way towards explaining why our manager is now Ned Yost.
Dyson missed the first-half of the season with a pulled muscle, but has been a hitting machine since returning from injury: .520 in a six-game stint in Arizona, .327 in 12 games for Wilmington, and he’s 6-for-20 since returning to Double-A. He also has 11 steals and his usual Gold Glove-caliber defense.
There are two issues with Dyson: 1) he turns 26 next month, and 2) he still has yet to hit a home run as a pro. The Royals still love him, and I still don’t understand why. Derrick Robinson is a younger, cheaper version of him, but I suspect the Royals will somehow find a way to prefer Dyson anyway.
I’ll be back soon to wrap up the minors, and give you my woefully ill-informed list of the team’s Top 20 (and maybe more) prospects.