Friday, April 16, 2010

Another Post About The Training Staff.

Put down the pitchforks, guys – I swear I come in peace this time!

If you haven’t read Bob Dutton’s article about Jose Guillen from the other day, I suggest that you read it now. The take-home story from the article is this: it’s a minor miracle that Guillen is playing at all right now, let alone ranking second in the league with 5 homers and an .861 slugging average.

If Guillen really spent three weeks in a hospital with blood clots in both legs, that certainly explains the Royals’ outfielder buying spree this offseason. All winter I said that the Royals were acting as if the rules were going to be changed to allow a 26-man (or larger) roster. Guillen played the outfield last year as if he was in a wheelchair – but he really was in a wheelchair over the winter, and I can’t imagine that the Royals thought he’d be an active member of the roster on Opening Day.

But he was not only active, he’s been crushing the ball from day one. On Opening Day I noticed – as many of you did – that his bat speed seemed a lot quicker; he was actually turning on fastballs instead of topping grounders to the second baseman. Tonight he has a chance to tie Mike Sweeney’s team record by homering in five straight games.

There’s a lot to this story that doesn’t really add up – in particular, the fact that Guillen kept suffering leg injury after leg injury, seemingly for more and more trivial reasons (like the torn MCL suffered while putting on his shoes). If I understand the story correctly, he then had ankle surgery after the season, and then developed blood clots (a.k.a. deep venous thrombosis, a possible complication after surgery) in both legs, which is a little unusual unless he had surgery on both legs, which - although the details aren't clear - doesn’t seem to be the case.

But if there’s one thing I take from this story, it’s that Guillen – ahem – wasn’t well served by the team’s training and medical staff last year. Guillen’s legs looked awful all season, both defensively – last year he might have been the slowest outfielder I’ve ever seen – and offensively, where he admits now he didn’t have the strength in his legs to drive the ball. And remember, that’s before he ended up in the hospital for three weeks. Now, we have no idea if he shouldn't have been playing because playing made his injuries worse. But we have a very good idea that he shouldn't have been playing because he wasn't able to play.

And yet here he is, seemingly healthy, and undoubtedly crushing the ball. On Wednesday, BEFORE this article came out, I mentioned to my radio co-host Jason Anderson (Rany on the Radio returns soon!) that Guillen looks like a completely different player this year, and what looks on the surface to be a hitting success may in fact be a trainer success. As you know, the Royals have a completely new training staff with Athletic Trainer Nick Kenney and Assistant Athletic Trainer Kyle Turner. Is it a coincidence that Jose Guillen, coming off a potentially career-ending series of health woes, is on perhaps the hottest stretch of his Royals career?

Trying to evaluate a trainer based one on month of data is ridiculous; it’s like evaluating a farm system based on one day’s worth of box scores. And the health of a roster is dependent on so many factors, from the players’ work habits to the age of the roster to sheer luck, that sussing out the trainer’s role in all this is inordinately difficult. On that note, I understand the team’s reaction to my takedown of Nick Swartz last year. But my frustration with Swartz was the culmination of literally 20 years of bad results, from Benito Santiago’s broken hand in 2003 to Jose Rosado’s shoulder in 2000 to Jim Pittsley’s elbow in 1994. There’s a point where even with trainers, sample sizes become meaningful.

With the new training staff, the sample size isn’t even measurable, let alone meaningful. But let’s try anyway, and look at all the injuries that the Royals have suffered since spring training started:

- Alex Gordon broke his thumb trying to slide. A purely traumatic, unavoidable injury for which only Gordon deserves blame for sliding head-first. His thumb has healed on schedule, and if he were, say, Ryan Zimmerman he might well have been in the lineup on Opening Day. Instead, he’s Alex Gordon, who the Royals have become so frustrated with that seem to be treating him punitively – he’s rehabbing all the way down in A-ball.

- Rick Ankiel twisted his ankle somehow, and what seemed like a minor injury became somewhat worrisome when he ended up missing more than a week with it. But once Ankiel returned to the lineup, he hasn’t had any issued with his ankle, and has hit well so far this year.

- Alberto Callaspo tweaked his oblique muscle. A fully strained oblique muscle is a 4-6 week injury at the minimum, so this was taken very seriously, as he was held out of the Opening Day lineup to give it a couple of extra days to heal, even though his public pronoucements made it sound like he was ready to play. He’s been in the lineup since the second game, and has had no further issues with it.

- Gil Meche developed shoulder stiffness in mid-March, and we all feared the worst from a pitcher who hasn’t been right since he threw too many pitches in a series of starts in late June and early July. He was brought back slowly, and worked in some minor league games late in spring training, before he made his first start on April 11th. He wasn’t effective, but he did strike out 4 batters in 3.1 innings and was timed at 95 on the radar gun. I’m skeptical that he’ll hold up all season, but I’m impressed that he came back as quickly as he did in the first place.

- Mike Aviles came back at least 6 weeks ahead of schedule, and hit over .400 in spring training.

- John Parrish, who had torn his shoulder up and missed all of last season, not only was the biggest surprise to make the roster, but has been the most (only) effective middle reliever on the team so far.

On the minor league side, Dan Duffy had a sore elbow before he went AWOL, and Mike Moustakas strained his oblique muscle enough that he probably won’t be playing in Double-A for another two weeks. But looking at the track record so far, I can’t help but be impressed by the results. Players who suffered minor injuries were allowed to heal completely, and have yet to suffer any setbacks. A player who suffered a major injury returned to the field well ahead of schedule, and showed no lingering effects. Another player came back from a potential career-ending injury and is pitching as well as he ever has. A player who hasn’t looked right in two years looks like he was run through the Juvenation Machine this spring.

It’s way too early to have any kind of hard-formed opinion on the new training staff. But the results I’ve seen so far are truly impressive. Teams that underestimate the importance of health on a roster do so at their own peril. The Royals no longer are one of those teams, and it seems to me that their change in heart is already paying dividends.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

You Can't Make A Bullpen Out Of Bull****.

Eight games into the season, we should be talking about how impressive the offense looks. The Royals have scored 38 runs in eight games, ranking fifth in the league; they’re hitting .290/.348/.438 as a team. Jose Guillen has four homers and is slugging .781. Rick Ankiel had hits in 8 straight at-bats at one point. Jason Kendall has started all eight games (no surprise) and has an 8-game hitting streak (big surprise). Scott Podsednik is hitting .452 and is on pace for 121 steals.

And yet the Royals are 3-5, because they’ve allowed the second-most runs in the league. They’ve done so even though their rotation has a perfectly respectable 4.21 ERA. The bullpen, on the other hand, has a 7.96 ERA, and has allowed more than two baserunners per inning.

Karl Marx once wrote that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Marx never delineated the third step, which is unfortunate, as we entered the farce stage sometime last summer. And speaking of Communism, when your poor beleaguered beat reporter suggests that the best way to deal with your bullpen is “lining them all up like the Romanovs” – you might have a problem. (A more recent version of that article has softened the opening line a bit. Bob Dutton has watched damn near every Royals game this century; I wouldn’t blame him one bit if he finally snapped.)

That the Royals have a massive bullpen problem should not be a surprise to anyone. They finished last season with a massive leaking hole between their starters and Joakim Soria, and then over the offseason, while they were signing hitters like they were a kid in an outfielder store, they didn’t make a single move to address their bullpen. Every single member of their bullpen today was in their bullpen at the end of last season, with two exceptions: Luis Mendoza, who was picked up right before the season after he couldn’t make the Rangers staff, because the Royals felt that one Roman Colon just wasn’t enough; and John Parrish, a left-hander who missed all of 2009 with arm surgery.

It’s telling that Parrish has been the only middle reliever who’s been even remotely effective. Parrish has retired all 10 batters he’s faced, including a host of tough left-handed hitters he was brought in specifically to face: he made four one-batter appearances before being left in to pitch two perfect innings in his last outing.

It’s also telling that Soria has also faced only 10 batters all season – along with Parrish, the fewest of any reliever on the roster. Colon has faced 14 of them. Robinson Tejeda has faced 21 batters (and walked only 6!). LUIS MENDOZA has faced 18. But the best reliever on the squad by a factor of about 100, one of the three best relievers in the history of the franchise, has faced only ten. If he doesn’t pitch again soon, the Royals may need to shut him down for the rest of the season to keep him healthy.

So the problems with the bullpen should not be a surprise. Nor should it be a surprise that finding solutions to this problem are awfully difficult in mid-April. Trading for middle relief is almost always a fool’s enterprise, and while there are a few decent free agents still looking for a home, I’m not aware of any quality relievers who are still on the open market. (If there were, Ed Wade would have signed them already.)

Nevertheless, there a few simple things that can be done:

Stop carrying eight relievers. This might be the funniest sub-plot of the Royals’ bullpen – that the Royals think that quantity can somehow substitute for quality. It brings to mind the old woman’s complaint to a restaurant that “the food is terrible, and the portions are so small.” Maybe we don’t have any good relievers – but at least we have lots of bad ones!

It’s not like the Royals have a rotation that needs coddling. With the exception of Meche’s disaster start, the team’s starter has gone at least 5.2 innings in every start. The idea that any team needs eight relievers to get the last ten outs of each ballgame is laughable. The idea that a team needs an eighth reliever more than a fourth bench player is repugnant.

The solution here is obvious. Luis Mendoza has a career 8.32 ERA in the majors. He has a career 4.67 ERA IN TRIPLE-A. He has a career 5.06 ERA IN DOUBLE-A. I could pull out a host of more advanced statistics, but really, does anything more need to be said? He sucks. The Royals have nothing invested in him. Designate him for assignment, and if by some miracle another team claims him – count your blessings.

In his place, bring up a hitter. I know that Kendall’s hitting .310 at the moment, but between him and Betancourt, there are going to be a lot of opportunities for opposing teams to use a tough right-handed pitcher on two of the weakest hitters in baseball. In six games in Omaha, Kila Ka’aihue already has three homers and eight walks. He would give opposing pitchers fits as a lefty Three True Outcomes hitter off the bench, occasional fill-in at first base at DH, and give the Royals an opportunity to evaluate him as a potential everyday player next year.

Replacing Mendoza with Ka’aihue is an astonishingly common-sense move to make. Which is why I don’t expect it will happen.

Release Roman Colon. I’ve already called Roman Colon “the Yuniesky Betancourt of the bullpen”, and frankly that might not be fair to Yuni. Betancourt, at least, was at one time a reasonably useful player whose skills have simply regressed over the past 3 years. Colon, on the other hand, has never been a usable major-league pitcher. In 2004, he had a 3.38 ERA in all of 19 innings for the Braves, and that was his high-water mark. The following year he had a 5.58 ERA; in 2006, he had a 4.89 ERA; and he spent all of 2007 and 2008 in the minors. (Where he was basically kicked out of the Tigers’ organization after breaking a teammate’s jaw in a fight, remember. Classy.)

While in the minors he was no better – he had a 4.43 ERA in 2007, and a 4.74 ERA in 2008. He was better in 2009, with a 2.84 ERA for Omaha, but only pitched 25 innings before the Royals hustled him to the majors.

Colon has not remotely approached a major-league caliber pitcher in at least six years – but the Royals have treated him like God’s Gift to Pitching since the moment they acquired him, overlooking both his off-field incident and the fact that he doesn’t get anyone out. This spring, the Royals raved about his new slider and boasted that it would take him to a new level.

Well, that slider has been so intimidating that of those 14 batters he’s faced, he’s struck out exactly one of them. He’s walked two, hit a batter, and allowed 5 hits. The Royals are right: he’s not the same pitcher he was last year. He’s worse.

The same scouting eye that tells the Royals that Yuniesky Betancourt’s lateral range is just fine must be the same eye that tells the Royals that Roman Colon’s stuff is good enough to get hitters out. The difference is that the Royals haven’t guaranteed millions of dollars to Colon. Ship him out, and bring in someone who has actually proven he can retire major-league – or at least minor-league – hitters.

Bring up Carlos Rosa. The Royals have many intriguing minor-league relievers, but Rosa is probably the only one who is ready for the majors.

Blake Wood has seen his stuff improve significantly since moving to the pen this spring, but he has all of eight relief appearances in his career.

Chris Hayes would be the third- or fourth-best reliever on the roster immediately, but he has not pitched at all this season. One source has told me that he’s on the minor-league DL. Another source, though, swears that Disco isn’t hurt at all, and that the Royals are playing shenanigans with the DL because they don’t have enough Triple-A roster spots and they deemed Hayes to be expendable. The Royals have gone out of their way to avoid giving Hayes an opportunity, so this wouldn’t surprise me at all.

The idea of giving Aaron Crow and Mike Montgomery an apprenticeship in the bullpen before graduating to the rotation is an inspired one. But both are still a few months away from being ready for that sort of promotion, and I’d worry that success in that role would only tempt the Royals into keeping them in a relief role for the long term.

I don’t trust Victor Marte one bit, and Greg Holland needs more seasoning. Louis Coleman and Brandon Sisk are very intriguing but not quite ready. That leaves only Rosa.

Rosa made the move from the rotation to the bullpen last season, and was terrible at first; through the end of June he gave up 21 walks and 5 homers in 38 innings. But from July onward he was much better, allowing just 11 walks and one homer in 34 innings, while striking out 39. This year he has thrown four scoreless innings, though he blew the save in his last outing by allowing inherited runners to score. He has a very live fastball in the mid-90s, but his secondary stuff needs work. He’s not going to be a savior, or even a primary set-up man at first, but at least he can come in with a 5-1 run lead in the seventh inning and get some outs, unlikely the guy he would be replacing.

Pray. Maybe Juan Cruz will start to pitch like he did prior to becoming a Royal. Maybe Kyle Farnsworth will pitch as well with the game on the line as he does in garbage time. Maybe Robinson Tejeda will throw strike one. Maybe Joakim Soria can throw 150 innings this year. At this point, all we can do is put our faith in God that things will get better. Because we can no longer put faith in our front office.