Saturday, January 23, 2010

Rick Ankiel and the Radioactive Roster.

My children have won. For quite possibly the first time in my adult life (excepting special circumstances like jetlag or a surgery rotation that required me to be at work by 5:30 AM), I was in bed by 11 o’clock three nights in a row from Monday through Wednesday. Thursday night, I pulled back the covers right at 11 o’clock, but couldn’t resist checking Tweetdeck* on my iPhone one last time before getting some shuteye.

*: I fully agree with the person who wrote that “if blogging is cocaine, then Twitter is crack.” Naturally, I read that in a tweet.

It was at that point that I learned via friend-of-the-blog Greg Schaum that the Royals had just signed Rick Ankiel. You will not be surprised to learn that my bedtime was pushed back a little.

I like this move in the abstract, all the more because it was so unexpected. The Jason Kendall signing dribbled out over several days, like a runaway freight train that became impossible to stop no matter how dumb it was. Scott Podsednik was rumored to be coming to KC a month before he signed, and was predicted to be joining the powder blue by astute fans well before that. This Ankiel thing, by contrast, came completely out of the blue, even more so precisely because the addition of Podsednik seemed to close out the Royals’ outfield. More on that later.

Let’s square away the contract details first. This appears to be a simple one-year, $3.25 million contract. The “mutual option” for a second year is a smokescreen; a mutual option is a polite way of saying “no option”. Either side can break the option, and since a year from now, the 2011 contract will look unfavorable to one side or the other, it’s almost certain not to be exercised.

Its purpose is to guarantee the player a little extra financial cushion in the event he sucks in 2010 and can’t land a big contract in 2011. If Ankiel lives up to his contract, the Royals will exercise their portion of the option, but Ankiel will decline and walk away with the money he’s earned. On the other hand, if Ankiel disappoints, then the Royals will decline the option (as they did with Miguel Olivo), and Ankiel will get a small severance package to go away. It’s not clear how big that severance package will be - Olivo only got $100,000 - though I've heard it could be as high as half a million. It's not franchise-altering money.

For their money, the Royals are getting a player who has one of the game’s highest ratios of hype-to-production of the last decade. That’s not meant as a diss on Ankiel; on the contrary, Ankiel has garnered so much hype precisely because what he has done is so historic. Without rehashing the entire story here – it’s a long, largely sad story with a happy ending – Ankiel became the first player to reach the majors as a starting pitcher, then return to the majors as a position player, in decades. (I’m not sure who the last player to fit that criteria was, actually – but Wonderful Willie Smith was frequently used as a pitcher in 1963 and 1964 before transitioning to the outfield full-time.)

Ankiel was in a major league rotation in 2000, just weeks after he turned 20, and the following year he struck out 194 batters in 175 innings and finished 2nd in Rookie of the Year balloting. His pitching career then melted down in one sordid, can’t-look-away-from-the-car-crash playoff start against the Braves that October. Tabbed to start the playoff opener, Ankiel was staked to a 6-0 lead after one inning, but in the third inning, he walked four batters (including the leadoff hitter, Greg Maddux) and threw five wild pitches before he was mercifully relieved of his duties. His pitching career was essentially over at that point, although it took a disastrous spring training and April the following year, a demotion to rookie ball, Tommy John surgery, a seemingly triumphant return to the majors in September 2004 (he walked just one batter in 10 innings) – and then, the following season, a twinge in his elbow before Ankiel finally decided he’d had enough.

Thus began his quixotic dream to return to the majors as an outfielder, a dream which was realized in spectacular fashion in 2007, when – after hitting 32 homers in just 102 games for Triple-A Memphis – Ankiel returned to St. Louis on August 9th as the starting right fielder, hit a home run in his first game, then hit two homers in his third game. For the season Ankiel hit .285/.328/.535 with 11 homers in just 47 games. The following year, Ankiel started everyday and was hitting .282/.349/.543 through the end of July, before a hernia issue limited him to an 11-for-65 showing the rest of the way; his season was cut short by surgery in early September.

Even so, between 2007 and 2008 – in which he played 167 games, basically a full season – Ankiel hit .270/.334/.515, with 36 homers and 29 doubles. He walked 55 times, an acceptable walk rate. Defensively, he showed merely adequate range in center field, but the numbers suggest he was above-average in both corners – and, of course, he had the arm of a former phenom pitcher. If you haven’t seen this clip, please watch it: even two years later, it’s still a joy to behold.

So what’s he doing, signing a one-year deal for Jason Kendall money? Because last year, he hit just .231/.285/.387 for the Cardinals. There were mitigating circumstances, though: on May 4th, he suffered a frightening head-first collision with the left-center field wall at nearly full speed, hurting his head, shoulder, back – pretty much his whole body was in pain. He returned surprisingly quickly, going back into the lineup on May 24th, but his shoulder bothered him most of the season, and it showed. He was hitting .247/.326/.395 when he got hurt – not great, but in a sample size of just 92 plate appearances, nothing so bad that it would make you wonder what happened to the Rick Ankiel of the previous two seasons. But after returning from injury, he hit just .227/.272/.385 and struck out five times as often as he walked.

Granted, it’s too easy to just dismiss his performance last season as the result of an injury – it is quite possible that his career as a hitter has gone south nearly as quickly as his pitching career did. Nonetheless, easy explanations are frequently easy precisely because they’re the right explanation. What we know about Ankiel as a hitter is this: in the minors, he showed only a modest ability to hit for average but tremendous power; in 2007 and 2008, he showed this exact same skill set to good effect in the majors; in 2009, he struggled mightly, but almost all of his struggles came after he tried to put his body through a (padded) brick wall.

Ankiel is still just 30; it’s doubtful that he suddenly got old, particularly when you consider he didn’t become a full-time hitter until he was 25. Occam’s Razor suggests that, if Ankiel is healthy in 2010, there’s no reason why he can’t go back to slugging .500. Granted, given his history - the collision last year, the hernia in 2008, Tommy John surgery, and he missed the entire 2006 season in the minors after he tore a tendon in his knee - it would be unwise to assume good health for Ankiel for any length of time. But a one-year deal (and a new training staff!) mitigates that risk.

Like pretty much every other player Dayton Moore has ever acquired, Ankiel isn’t much for getting on base. But if he slugs .500, he’ll be one of the best hitters on the team even with an OBP skirting the low 300s. But it’s probably too optimistic to assume that Ankiel will hit as well as he did in 2007-2008. So let’s add in 2009 as well, making Ankiel’s averages over the last three years .255/.315/.465. I think that’s a fair expectation for Ankiel, and if he hits those numbers and plays full-time, he’ll be worth the money spent.

You might be surprised that I’m so favorable about acquiring Ankiel, given that I was so negative about the acquisition of Mike Jacobs last year. Jacobs and Ankiel are very similar hitters – both are low-average, low-to-medium walk guys who can pound 30 homers in a full season. Over the three years before Jacobs was acquired last winter, he hit .258/.314/.483 – similar, and actually superior, numbers to Ankiel’s. So why am I much more positive about this acquisition than the last one?

For four big reasons:

1) Jacobs cost the Royals about $3 million and the services of a solid, cheap reliever in Leo Nunez. Ankiel only costs the money.

2) Jacobs blocked the path of Kila Ka’aihue, a minor league player coming off a monster season and who played the same position. It’s not yet clear whose job Ankiel is taking – more on that later – but he’s almost certainly a better hitter than whoever he ultimately replaces in the lineup.

3) Jacobs was quite possibly the worst defensive player in the major leagues – he lost the first base job to Billy Butler in barely one week. Ankiel’s defense is about average, depending on which outfield position he plays. If he does nothing more than keep Jose Guillen from ever playing the field, he’ll be worth the money.

4) Jacobs was coming off the best season of his career – when he was 27, the most common age for a player to have his career year (sorry, J.C., but I’m not buying it.) Ankiel is coming off the worst season of his career, one interrupted by injury.

And I’ll admit it: the little fanboy inside of me is excited to root for Rick Ankiel in a Royals uniform. Between Ankiel and Zack Greinke, the Royals might have the two guys in baseball with the greatest combination of hitting and pitching skills. All we need is to lobby MLB to reduce roster sizes to two players and we’ll kick ass.

So yes, I like this move, at least in a vacuum. My only problem with it is that it doesn’t make any sense.

A lot of Royals fans are equally confused. Joe Posnanski is completely baffled. Even Matt Taibbi has come down from on high to weigh in on Ankiel, calling him “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” No, wait, that’s what he called Goldman Sachs. But he did write of the Ankiel signing, “what the hell is going on in Kansas City?” and “this stuff just makes me scratch my head.”

Taibbi’s protestations aside, everyone else has the same concern about the Ankiel signing. I’ve long accused the Royals of lacking an understanding of simple mathematics, but the Ankiel move suggests they lack even the skill of counting. So let’s count for them, shall we?

Catchers: Jason Kendall, Brayan Pena. That’s two.

Infielders: Billy Butler, Alberto Callaspo, Yuniesky Betancourt, Mike Aviles, Chris Getz, Willie Bloomquist, Alex Gordon, Josh Fields. We’re up to ten now.

Outfielders: David DeJesus, Scott Podsednik, Rick Ankiel, Brian Anderson, Mitch Maier, Jose Guillen. That’s 16.

Now, there’s no way the Royals are going into the season with fewer than 11 pitchers, and if history is any guide they’re going to go the risk-averse route and go with 12 pitchers. So they’ll open the season with either 13 or 14 hitters on the roster. The Ankiel signing allegedly puts the Royals at their payroll limit, but more problematically, it puts them well over their roster limit.

Over two months ago, when writing about the Mark Teahen trade, I wrote that “[t]aken in isolation, trading Teahen for Getz and Fields makes sense. But this trade can’t be fully evaluated until we see the other moves it triggers, because as it stands Getz and Fields are both without positions to play.” I figured that, by now, Moore would have made some roster moves designed to clear the logjam of players.

Instead, he’s done the opposite – adding Brian Anderson, adding Scott Podsednik, and now adding Rick Ankiel. The Royals have shed one catcher from last year’s roster, but they turned Teahen into two players, and they’ve added three outfielders without getting rid of anyone else. It’s as if the Royals signed Podsednik thinking that he was better than Anderson, then signed Ankiel thinking he would be an improvement on Podsednik, not realizing that they actually have to keep all three of them.

The math doesn’t work here. I suppose it can work, if Aviles starts the year on the DL, and if the Royals exercise options on Brian Anderson and Chris Getz. (It would be galling to send Anderson down to Triple-A after signing him to a major-league contract for $700,000, but these are the Royals, who last year optioned two of their players – Brian Bannister and Luke Hochevar – to Triple-A to start the season, even though both were making seven figures.)

In that case, you would have a roster that looks like this:

C: Kendall

1B: Butler

2B: Callaspo

3B: Gordon

SS: Betancourt

LF: Podsednik

CF: DeJesus

RF: Ankiel

DH: Guillen


C: Pena

IF: Fields, Bloomquist

OF: Maier

This roster presents multiple problems. For one, the Royals are already making hints that they won’t go with the outfield alignment I’ve listed, preferring instead to play Ankiel in center field and DeJesus in right. Hmm…we’ve got an outfielder whose arm is a little short, but has played centerfield well in the past, and another outfielder who doesn’t have great speed but has a cannon for an arm. I know! Let’s play the guy who doesn’t run well in center, and the guy who can’t throw in right!

Second, you have an all-left-handed-hitting outfield, and your primary backup outfielder also bats left-handed. Fields would make a fine platoon partner in one of the corners, and Bloomquist can play the outfield as inadequately as he can play the infield, but you’re setting yourself up for some matchup problems against left-handed starters.

But primarily, you’ve locked yourself into a roster of players who, aside from Butler and Gordon, can’t be sent down to the minors. What do you do when Mike Aviles comes back healthy? Why trade for Getz and sign Anderson if they're going to spend all year in Triple-A? What do you do if Jeff Bianchi or David Lough or Jordan Parraz crush the ball in Triple-A and deserve a look? What do you do – again – with Kila Ka’aihue?

Moore’s moves this winter are great news for fans of the Royals. Unfortunately, they’re great news for fans of the Omaha Royals, because without any space on the major league roster, it looks like a lot of major league-ready hitters are going to be stuck in Nebraska most of the season.

Meanwhile, the (Kansas City) Royals are not – or should not be – playing for 2010. They might be playing for 2011. The #1 priority this year should be sorting through their young talent to find a combination that might win a year from now. How can you sort through your young talent if, once again, you’re blocking all that talent from playing in the first place?

The main thrust of Posnanski’s disillusionment with this signing is that, in signing yet another veteran player, the Royals are either blocking the path of a young prospect, or they’re admitting they don’t have the prospects in the first place. I’m not nearly as down on this signing, because it’s not Rick Ankiel’s fault that the Royals don’t have anyone as good as him ready in the minor leagues. But between Lough and Parraz, the Royals might have a major-league ready outfielder by mid-season, and at this point there’s no place to play him. To say nothing of their continuing efforts to lock Ka’aihue away in a dungeon.

You have to think Dayton Moore knows this. You have to think that he’s working on ways to open the spigot and drain some of his excess roster space. Maybe the Royals will eat a sunk cost and release Jose Guillen. That would be good. Or maybe they’ll DFA Mitch Maier, who is basically Scott Podsednik without the hype and at a quarter the salary. That would be bad.

Maybe they’ll trade David DeJesus, the type of slightly above-average player that has always fit better as a supporting cog on a good team than as a key player on a bad team. That could be a good move for the right package of talent – I advocated trading DeJesus nearly two years ago. Maybe they’ll trade Alberto Callaspo, although given how bad the market appears to be for all-hit, no-glove guys, I’d much rather the Royals keep him if the alternative is to give him away for cents on the dollar.

But the bottom line is that the Royals have to do something. A roster stuffed with too many players is like an atom stuffed with too many neutrons: it becomes radioactive, and destined to break down sooner or later. I’d like to think that Moore signed Ankiel with that in mind, and that very soon now he’s going to put the final domino in place and his off-season plans will come into focus. But then, I thought that when he traded for Fields and Getz back in November, and things just keep getting blurrier and blurrier.