Jason Whitlock wrote at the Kansas City Star for nearly 15 years, and while other columns had more impact, few if any columns were as anticipated as his end-of-season report cards that graded every member of the Kansas City Chiefs, from the GM to the backup offensive tackle who was on the field for three plays all season. His methods were inscrutable, but even so – or maybe precisely because they were – Whitlock’s grades were dissected by fans all over Chiefs nation.
Whitlock has departed the Kansas City sports scene, leaving a void that I am happy to fill. Not evaluating the Chiefs – I love my football, but I couldn’t tell you if the defense was in a Cover Two or a Cover Zero – but in using the end-of-season report card gimmick. It’s the perfect way to generate column inches and inspire reader arguments all at once. I should have thought of this years ago.
So prepare to disagree as Dr. Jazayerli Grades the Royals. It’s important to note: each player’s grade is relative to expectations (my expectations) before the season. Yuniesky Betancourt will get a better grade than Zack Greinke; this does not mean that Yuni is better than The Baseball Jonah. It simply means that Yuni was a somewhat pleasant surprise, while Zack was somewhat of a disappointment.
Also note that I’m grading on a C+ curve; a grade of a C+ means the player exactly met expectations for the season.
We’ll begin with the infielders:
Wilson Betemit: A
Let’s see: a player gets signed to a minor-league contract, starts the season in Omaha, gets called up at the end of May – and goes on to post the highest OPS (889) of any Royal with at least 250 plate appearances since Carlos Beltran in 2004. Yeah, I’d say he was a pleasant surprise.
Betemit cooled off quite a bit in September – after I wrote such glowing things about him, of course – and his OPS dropped over 100 points, but he still narrowly edged out Tony Solaita’s 1975 (884) and Esteban German’s 2006 (880) as the highest OPS by a part-time player in Royals history.
That said, I’m not nearly as confident about my argument that the Royals should offer him a long-term deal today as I was a month ago. My loss in confidence has little to do with his hitting slump, though. I have two main concerns:
- His defense, which was never good, was downright awful in September. It’s appropriate that the game-winning run in the final game of the season scored on a ground ball that went right through Betemit’s legs.
My argument for a long-term deal was predicated on the idea of moving Betemit to the outfield. Granted, we still don’t know if that’s a viable idea since the Royals chose not to do so, but Betemit was so bad at third base that I would imagine if the Royals thought there was any chance he could play the outfield, they would have tried him by now. If he can’t play the outfield, there’s no viable place to put him once Moustakas is ready.
- The other reason not to give him an extension is that Betemit’s season was so strong that there’s a good chance, if he plays fairly regularly next season, that he’ll be a Type B free agent next winter and earn the Royals a draft pick if he signs elsewhere. (If he has a monstrous season, he could be a Type A free agent and bring back two picks.) The ranking of free agents depends on their performance from the past two seasons only, so his lack of performance prior to 2010 would not count against him.
At this point, I can see the Royals starting 2011 with Betemit in a sort of super-utility role, playing third base some, maybe a little outfield, the occasional start at first base or DH – but in the lineup most every day, at least until he proves that this season was a fluke. If it isn’t, then they can either ride him all year if they’re in contention, or dangle him to a contender early in the season, knowing that the likelihood he’ll earn draft pick compensation should raise his price.
If the Royals aren’t in contention, then they’re better off trading Betemit than playing out the season to get the pick, because by mid-season they’re going to need his lineup spot for some of their young talent. But if Betemit hits in 2011 like he did in 2010, the Royals figure to get some benefit from him whether they sign him to a long-term deal or not.
Mike Aviles: A-
Aviles certainly had an eventful season. He was on the Opening Day roster barely nine months after Tommy John surgery. He returned to Omaha for a couple of weeks to get his swing back and hit an unimpressive .271/.320/.386. He was called up on May 4th, had three hits including a homer in his first game, and was a fixture in the lineup going forward; through July 2nd he was hitting .326, albeit with minimal secondary skills. From July 2nd until September 12th he provided a steady single a day and nothing else, hitting .243/.280/.276, and his defense was at times almost Conrad-esque – it got to the point where I was genuinely nervous on even the most routine groundball hit right at him.
But in the span of three weeks he saved his season. On September 13th he had three hits, including a homer. He repeated that feat on the 14th, and on the 17th, and again on the 18th – going 13-for 21 with four homers in five games. Over the season’s last three weeks he hit .364/.398/.648. When asked to explain his homer binge, his simple explanation was that he just decided to start swinging hard again.
That might have been a subtle dig at Kevin Seitzer. But it also might have been a reflection of the simple reality that as fast as Aviles may have returned from surgery, he wasn’t fully healed when he stepped on the field on Opening Day, nor even months later. I think it’s easy to forget how pleasantly surprising Aviles’ season was, not just because he wasn’t expected to return from surgery until mid-season, but simply because even if healthy, there was plenty of reason to think his rookie season was a stone-cold fluke.
As it turns out, it wasn’t. Aviles isn’t any kind of a star, and he swings at too many pitches, and while he had some tremendous defensive numbers as a rookie, his glove isn’t all that. (Although I think it’s fair to wonder if his defensive struggles were also influenced by an elbow that wasn’t 100% there yet.) But Aviles has had two healthy seasons in the majors and hit .300 both years. Batting average is overrated, but if you can play the middle infield and hit .300, you almost can’t help but have value.
The Royals are talking about moving Aviles over to third to start next year. Assuming his arm strength continues to improve, that’s not a bad place to put him in the short-term. That is, unless the Royals muster up the courage to start him at shortstop again.
Billy Butler: B
If all you look for in your first baseman is the ability to hit for power and drive in runners, you were probably disappointed in Butler’s season. After all, his homers dropped from 21 to 15; his doubles from 51 to 45; and his RBIs from 93 to 78. But if you take a more comprehensive perspective, you have to come to the conclusion that Bam Bam (eventually I’m going to get that name to stick, dammit) took a step forward in 2010.
The biggest change in Butler’s stat line from 2009 to 2010 was that he simultaneously cut his strikeouts by a quarter (from 103 to 78) while increasing his walk rate (from 55 to 61, once you take IBBs out). That’s no small feat, and in a player who will still be just 24 years old when next season begins, there’s an excellent chance that his improved strike zone discipline is a leading indicator for more power to come next year.
On top of that, I felt that his defense noticeably improved, an impression that is backed up by the defensive stats. Butler is an awkward defensive first baseman, but he’s not an incompetent one – the consensus of the stats is that he’s just slightly below-average at first base. Butler may have had the most awesomely bad defensive reputation of any Royals’ prospect ever, so the fact that he’s made himself into a serviceable first baseman is notable. He may still be immature at times, but if you look at his performance on both offense and defense, you can’t help but come to the conclusion that this is a player who’s worked his ass off to get better over the last 2 years.
The miniature elephant in the room is that Butler smashed the all-time Royals record by grounding into 32 double plays, which is remarkable since he batted only 135 times with a man on first and less than two out. Maybe you have to take the good with the bad – Butler also batted .382/.407/.545 in those situations – but you can’t deny that he has to find a way to elevate the ball more. Yes, his batting average may drop, but the cost in singles will be more than made up by an increase in homers and a decrease in 6-4-3s. I’m a big fan of Seitzer’s work overall, but he needs to accept that one size doesn’t fit all.
Yuniesky Betancourt: B
Naturally, the minute I concede I might have been a wee bit too critical of Betancourt, he goes about trying to prove me right in the first place. When I wrote this, on the morning of August 22nd, Betancourt had an OPS of 723. His OPS would never be that high again the rest of the season. Yuni hit .225/.279/.324 from that point on, albeit with uncharacteristic patience; he walked 11 times in his last 38 games, setting a career high with 23.
While Betancourt tied for the team lead with 16 homers, and tied for the team lead with 78 RBIs, he provided little offensively other than his homers. He was a better hitter in 2007, when he hit only 9 homers but also banged 38 doubles and batted .289. More to the point, of the 10 Royal hitters who batted 300 times this year, only Jason Kendall had a lower OPS than Yuni’s .259/.288/.405 line. His defense was better, but only in the sense that “really bad” is better than “indescribably awful”.
That’s not to say he had no value. American League shortstops combined to hit just .258/.312/.357 this year, a line straight out of the 1970s; Royals shortstops actually ranked fifth in the league in OPS. According to baseball-reference.com, Betancourt was worth 1.3 Wins Above Replacement. (Last year, in just 71 games with the Royals, Betancourt was worth 1.2 Wins Below Replacement.)
Does that make Betancourt a good player, or even an average one? No. Does that make him worth the $2 million the Royals paid him, with the Mariners picking up the tab for the other $1.3 million? Actually, yes.
In all likelihood, the Royals will get the short end of the stick in this trade, if the rave reviews of Daniel Cortes’ fastball in Seattle are any indication. But in all likelihood this trade will be remembered as a nuisance or as a minor roadblock in the Royals’ rebuilding project as opposed to some Ed Hearn- or Neifi Perez-grade disaster. Teams have won world championships with a shortstop hardly better than Yuni was this season.
(A good comp for Yuni’s 2010, only with better defense, would be Alex Gonzalez in 2003 – either Alex Gonzalez. One of them (.256/.313/.443) won the World Series with the Marlins; the other (.228/.295/.409) made the key non-Bartman error in Game 6 of the NLCS that cost the Cubs a World Series berth.)
The Royals are on the hook for about $3 million to Yuni next season, and barring some miracle breakout season that makes his $6 million option for 2012 a steal, he’s due a $2 million buyout. This time next year, Christian Colon might be ready, and the Royals will be able to move away from the Betancourt era far more painlessly than I ever thought possible.
Kila Ka’aihue: B-
Ka’aihue really deserves two grades, one for his minor-league performance, and one for his performance in the majors.
Remember, coming off a season when he hit just .252/.392/.433 in Omaha, it was far from a foregone conclusion that Ka’aihue’s 2008 was anything more than a fluke season. Ka’aihue quickly laid those concerns to waste, earning an A for his .319/.463/.598 line in Omaha. But he deserves a C- in the majors for flubbing his audition so badly, at least at first. At the end of August, he was hitting .170/.240/.273, despite striking out just 13 times in 88 at-bats.
He rebounded in Septemer, hitting .261/.367/.511 the rest of the way – a reasonable expectation for what he can hit in the majors. Interestingly, his strikeouts increased significantly – he whiffed 26 times in 92 at-bats. But he also drew more walks (8 before September 1st, 16 after) and hit more homers (2 before, 6 after). His batting average on balls in play, which was an abysmal .178 through the end of August, was still just .295 afterwards – meaning that while he was miserably unlucky early on, he wasn’t benefitting from unusually good fortune in September. That’s a really good sign that what we saw from Ka’aihue is sustainable.
Still, I’d feel a lot better about Ka’aihue if he had hit like a prototypical Three True Outcomes slugger for two months instead of just one. I think he’s earned a full shot as a starter next spring, and I think the Royals will give it to him – in large part because they know that if he flops, Eric Hosmer will be ready to step in soon enough. But if he doesn’t flop…well, the Royals ought to have an awfully interesting commodity to trade. It’s particularly interesting in that we don’t even know which commodity – the established young star, the Johnny-Come-Lately slugger, or the hot-shot prospect – it will be.
Willie Bloomquist: C+
Willie Bloomquist, as expected, was an essentially pointless signing who did nothing to push the Royals towards contention.
That said, he has his uses. The fact that he was ultimately so irrelevant in Kansas City says more about the Royals than about him.
For one thing, in 2009 Bloomquist came to the plate 468 times. I feel fairly confident in saying that if Bloomquist ever bats 468 times in a season again, that team will have lost 95+ games as well. He batted .265/.308/.355.
In 2010, Bloomquist batted 187 times – 170 times for the Royals, and 17 times for the Reds as an emergency replacement in September. He batted .267/.299/.380.
He was essentially the same player each year, a roughly replacement-level hitter who contributed with his speed and his defensive versatility. You can’t win with a guy like that in your everyday lineup. But it’s rare that a team wins without a player with a similar skill set somewhere on their roster.
As an intrepid commenter on Craig Calcaterra’s blog noted earlier today, if the Braves had insisted on Bloomquist as part of the Ankiel/Farnsworth trade, they might have won Game 3 of the NLDS. Bloomquist is never a Plan A, and he’s not even really a Plan B, but he’s the perfect Plan C at just about every position – the guy who keeps you from having to play Brooks Conrad at second base in the ninth inning of a one-run game.
On top of that, I have to concede that for a guy with limited batting skill, Bloomquist had an uncanny sense of timing. Consider these games:
May 5, 2009. Tie game, bottom of the 11th. Mitch Maier on first base with one out. Trey Hillman orders the hit-and-run…and Bloomquist hits a textbook grounder through the vacated hole. Maier scampers to third and scores the winning run three batters later.
May 19, 2009. The Royals, down 5-2 to start the bottom of the 9th against Kerry Wood, tie the game on a pair of homers, a walk, and a triple that puts the winning run at third base with one out. Needing only a deep flyball to win the game…Bloomquist, not known for hitting deep flyballs, skies one to right field sufficiently distant from the plate to score David DeJesus fairly easily.
May 24, 2009. After losing the first two games in St. Louis without so much as scoring a run, the Royals are tied at 2 in the seventh inning. With two outs and no one on, Bloomquist hits a groundball single up the middle…and when Colby Rasmus takes his sweet time fielding the grounder, Bloomquist lights for second and gets in just under the tag for the hustle double. Mike Jacobs follows with a deep single to score Bloomquist, and the Royals hold on to win, 3-2.
August 31, 2010. Game tied at 9, bottom of the 9th, Wilson Betemit leads off with a double. Bloomquist pinch-runs. Brayan Pena walks with one out – then, on a 2-2 count to Alex Gordon, Bloomquist goes for the steal of third on his own (Pena wasn’t trailing, which would have taken away the double play). He is safely – barely – but the gambit appears to have failed when Gordon strikes out. Only with two out and Betancourt at the plate, Alexi Ogando can’t find the strike zone. The 3-0 pitch is not only ball four, but it gets away from catcher Matt Treanor – not very far, but just far enough for an attentive Bloomquist to come flying across the plate just ahead of the throw.
That’s five games where Bloomquist, without doing anything that is going to pop out of a box score (well, except for the homer), played an integral part in scoring the winning run in a one-run game. Yeah, I expect all players will have occasional moments like these – but it seems to me that Bloomquist had a lot more moments than you’d expect from someone of his talents. Maybe it was just serendipity, but they counted as wins just the same.
The Bloomquist era is over in Kansas City, and I’m not sad about that. But neither am I about to blame Bloomquist for the failures of the past two seasons. I think Bloomquist is going to sign with a National League team this winter, and I expect him to have more moments like the ones I listed above. And I can only hope that the worst player on the Royals’ bench next season is as valuable a player as Bloomquist was.
Alberto Callaspo: C-
I’d like to know what happened to Callaspo this year, but perhaps the better question is what happened to Callaspo in 2009. He entered the season as one of the game’s great contact hitters, but at the expense of power – he had never hit a major-league home run. In 2009, he not only batted .300, he hit 11 homers, 41 doubles, and eight triples – he was the first Royal since Mike Sweeney in 2004 to have more extra-base hits (60) than strikeouts (51).
Heading into 2010, just 27 years old, there was every reason to think that Callaspo’s new-found power was real. It was, sort of – he hit 10 homers, albeit with just 27 doubles and two triples – but his batting average plunged to .265.
Callaspo might bounce back, but at the moment it appears that Dayton Moore had an impeccable sense of timing with Callaspo, both coming and going. He was hitting just .275/.308/.410 at the time of the trade; Callaspo was basically missing about 30 points of batting average from the year before. But whereas the 2009 Callaspo was a terrible defensive second baseman, the 2010 Callaspo was a surprisingly agile third baseman – game for game, Callaspo was slightly more valuable to the Royals in 2010 (1.3 WAR in 88 games) than in 2009 (1.8 WAR in 155 games).
Moore traded him at the end of August for Sean O’Sullivan and Will Smith, which I thought was a slightly disappointing haul, but was certainly more than the Royals were offered last winter. And while I expected Callaspo’s batting average to rebound after the trade, he was instead pretty useless, hitting an empty .249/.291/.315 for the Angels.
I think it’s way premature to write off Callaspo’s chances of bouncing back – it’s hard to believe he’ll hit just .265 while striking out just 42 times in a full season again. But look at what Moore did:
- He traded the utterly useless Billy Buckner for Callaspo;
- Got two-plus seasons out of Callaspo at essentially the major-league minimum, during which time Callaspo hit .293/.343/.426 in 317 games;
- He traded Callaspo just before his trade value cratered – and just months before Callaspo’s salary would skyrocket – for two pitchers who both have higher upside than Buckner had three years ago.
That is one hell of a series of transactions. Those people who argue we should ignore Moore’s work in developing minor league talent because he’s done absolutely nothing right at the major-league level – Alberto Callaspo says otherwise.
Chris Getz: D
If anyone needs a mulligan on 2010, it’s Getz. After being hailed as the key to the Mark Teahen trade, and expected to be the everyday second baseman, Getz 1) hit just .193/.276/.205 through the middle of June; 2) lost his job to Mike Aviles; and 3) suffered a season-ending concussion in mid-September just when he was poised to play every day. The injury enabled Aviles to go nuts over the last three weeks, but it left the Royals as unsure of what they had in Getz as they were before the season.
Getz was an excellent percentage basestealer for the second straight season, and plays a decent second base, but you can’t slug .277 on the season and expect to keep the starting job. If memory serves, Getz still has an option, and frankly I think he and the Royals might be better off if he’s sent to Omaha to start the season and see if he can get his swing back. The problem is that I’m not sure there’s any place for him to play in Omaha – Johnny Giavotella should have the starting job at second base, and Moustakas will be at third.
My guess is that the Royals, in moving Aviles to third, will give Getz first crack at the second base job, with Betemit relegated to backup duty. In my world, hitting .297/.378/.511 earns you an everyday job, but the Royals operate in their own world. We’ll see what happens.
Josh Fields – The other half of the Teahen trade had an equally unfulfilling season, albeit with a happier ending than Getz’s. About all we learned in Fields’ 13 games in the majors was that he crushes lefties (8-for-22 with 3 homers) and can’t play third base (5 errors in 12 games) – which is to say, we learned nothing about Fields that we didn’t already know. I still think he’s the perfect platoon partner for Alex Gordon in left field, but we just don’t know.
Back soon with grades for outfielders and catchers.
A couple of housekeeping notes:
- I was going into withdrawal after my radio show came to an end, which made me an easy mark when Jonah Keri seduced me into appearing on the first-ever Jonah Keri Podcast. You can hear Jonah and I talk about baseball and other subjects here.
- Speaking of the radio show, apparently it’s the fashion inside the hallowed halls of the Kansas City Pitch to listen to my show while under the influence of hallucinogens. At least that’s the only explanation I can think of for why the Pitch named “Rany on the Radio” the Best Sports Radio Show in Kansas City. Seriously, it’s a wonderful honor, one I’m quite certain I didn’t earn. All due credit must go to my co-host, Jason Anderson, who spent years learning the nuances of broadcasting with the sole intention of being ready to make me look good when the time came.