Saturday, June 5, 2010

Draft Preview.

I meant to continue with an update on the minors today, but events of the last 24 hours forced me to push my pre-draft preview up a little.

At the end of last season, once the Royals were locked into the #4 overall pick in this year’s draft, I said to a friend, “Just you wait – there are going to be three players that stand out from the pack, and there’s going to be a huge drop to whoever the fourth-best player is.” I said this without any real knowledge of the draft pool; I’ve become something of a Royals draft fatalist over the years, after multiple drafts where this exact scenario played out.

Three years ago, you may recall, Vanderbilt lefty David Price was the consensus #1 player in the land. No one had a firm grasp on who was #2. (Well, Matt Wieters was pretty close to a consensus, but no one was certain of his signability.) The Royals, courtesy of an improbable three-game sweep of the Tigers to end the season, finished one game ahead of the Rays, and let Price slip out of their hands. (I wrote about that in more detail at Baseball Prospectus. The direct link is dead, but there’s a synopsis here.)

The following year, the Royals had the #3 pick, and even before the college baseball season began it was clear that for the second straight season, the best collegiate player in the country went to Vanderbilt. Pedro Alvarez would be picked #2 overall, right behind high school shortstop Tim Beckham. If the Royals (who would have liked to draft Alvarez) had lost one more game in 2008, they would have picked #2 – but instead they picked #3, and once again there was no consensus as to who the third-best player in the draft was.

And four years ago, when the Royals did have the #1 pick in the country, there was no clear phenom, no preternatural high school hitter like Alex Rodriguez or Ken Griffey Jr., no major-league ready starting pitcher like Mark Prior or Stephen Strasburg available. The Royals wound taking a college pitcher who 1) was taken in the supplemental first-round just the year before and 2) was a surprise #1 overall selection.

So nothing about this season’s draft dynamics surprise me. The Royals lost 97 games last season. The Orioles lost 98 games; if the Royals had lost one more game, they would have been tied with the Orioles for the third-worst record in baseball, and they would have “won” the tie-breaker (as they would in the scenarios above) by virtue of having the worse record the year before. Instead, they draft fourth.

And sure enough, there’s a industry-wide consensus that three players are on a different tier from everyone else. Well, one player is in his own tier – Bryce Harper, the Greatest Draft Prospect In History (or at least the Greatest Draft Prospect since Stephen Strasburg last year.) If you don’t know the Bryce Harper Story, here it is in a nutshell: left-handed catcher with perhaps the greatest power bat anyone has ever seen in the draft. On the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16, took his GED after his sophomore year of high school to go straight to junior college and earn his draft eligibility a year early. Played at the College of Southern Nevada, against high-caliber JuCo competition using only wood bats, and hit .442/.524/.986, with 29 homers in 62 games. (The college’s previous record for homers was 12, I believe.) He’s 17. Potential 80 arm as a catcher, but might move to the outfield as a pro. Widely considered to be a jerk.

(That last issue erupted into a point of national contention after Kevin Goldstein discussed it in an article a month ago. The inevitable pushback came from a variety of people who all have some vested interest in Harper – his agent, his coaches, etc. But within the game it’s a widely accepted fact. A month ago I was speaking with a reporter when Harper’s name came up, and he said, “yeah, the kid’s a jerk.” “Oh, you read Goldstein’s article?” I asked him. “Goldstein wrote about him? No, I’ve spoken with two different scouts who both said terrible things about his makeup.”)

I’m not here to bury the kid – he is, after all, 17, and God only knows how any of us would act if we had been anointed as “Baseball’s Lebron” before we got our driver’s license. Plenty of people who were world-class jackasses at 17 became upright outstanding citizens by their early 20s. He’s not a criminal or a thug; he just has an overdeveloped sense of entitlement.

I only bring it up to point out that even when dealing with one of the most exciting hitting prospects in draft history, there’s already a red flag. I’d love to have him, but when the Nationals call his name on Monday I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. Let them glory in his potential, and let them stress over the headache.

The other two top-tier prospects are a pair of high schoolers. Manny Machado is sort of Alex Rodriguez Lite, a do-everything shortstop from Miami. He’s nowhere in A-Rod’s class as a prospect, but he doesn’t need to be to still be a potential All-Star shortstop down the road who hits for a good average, good if not light-tower power, and play good defense. The main concern is with his defense; it’s not that he doesn’t have the skills to play shortstop in the majors, but he’s so big now (6’3”, 190) that if he grows any bigger he may have to move off the position. In general I’m skeptical about this whole “too big to play shortstop” meme; ever since Cal Ripken proved he could play shortstop not just well, but at a Gold Glove caliber, I’ve felt that “he’s too big to play shortstop” is just code for “he’s too bulky and slow to play shortstop”. Size by itself is no impediment, and in fact is an asset if it allows you to hit with more power. But it does mean that Machado needs to take care of his body as he matures as a pro.

The third player – some would argue he’s better than Machado – is Jameson Taillon, one of the hardest-throwing right-handers to come out of a state (Texas) famous for its hard-throwing right-handers. He’s a monster at 6’7”, 230, and’s scouting report puts his fastball at 94-99. A legitimate upper 90s fastball is highly unusual for a high schooler, let alone one who can also spin a nasty breaking pitch. The concern I have with him is that some reports are that his fastball is a little straight. Any time I hear about a Texas high school right-hander who throws really hard but somewhat straight, I think of Todd Van Poppel. (I would also think of Colt Griffin, but fortunately I’ve managed to repress most of those memories.) Van Poppel is just one data point – Griffin really shouldn’t count because he came out of nowhere suddenly, and disappeared almost as fast – and a lot of people compare Taillon to Josh Beckett.

Anyway, it’s a moot point, because not only are these three clearly the best players in the draft, but for the first time in ages, none of the first three teams are planning to select a lesser player for “signability” reasons. (Good for baseball. Bad for the Royals. Dammit.)

I know the Royals love Taillon, and while they’ve been coy about such things, I’m pretty certain they would take Machado if he fell to them. Harper has been linked to the Nationals since they wrapped up the worst record in baseball last season, and the Orioles lasered in on Taillon long ago. The intrigue was that the Pirates might not take Machado, instead preferring to save some money and draft Ole Miss left-hander Drew Pomeranz. That rumor has long faded away. The newest rumor was that the Pirates might pass on Machado (yay!) – to take Taillon instead (boo!) despite his higher price tag, in which case the Orioles will take Machado instead and screw the Royals either way.

So here the Royals sit, drafting fourth in a draft where there’s little difference between the fourth-best and the 20th-best player in the draft, a draft where the guy many people think is the #4 player available (Chris Sale, left-handed pitcher out of Florida Gulf Coast University) ranks #47 on Keith Law’s list.

I find myself surprisingly philosophic about this unfortunate situation the Royals find themselves in. Largely, that’s because no matter how clear a separation there is between prospects on Draft Day, inevitably players in that top tier will disappoint, and players in that second tier will rise up. The Royals can’t control who goes ahead of their pick. But no matter who they miss out on, if the player they select at #4 turns out to be the best player selected after the top three, they will have a hell of a player.

Remember my examples above? Three years ago the Royals changed their mind at the last moment; after planning to take high school third baseman Josh Vitters, the morning before the draft they decided to take Mike Moustakas instead. I’d probably still rather have Price (who does, after all, lead the AL with a 2.29 ERA at the moment), but Moustakas has played so well this year that a final judgment is still years away.

The following year, when the Royals missed out on Pedro Alvarez? They also missed out on Tim Beckham, who went #1 overall and as a high school shortstop would have filled a position of need. Instead, they took Eric Hosmer. While Hosmer is raking this year, Alvarez is hitting .267/.356/.515 in Triple-A – nothing to be ashamed of, but given that the college third baseman is likely to end up at first base in the majors, it’s not clear that he’s going to be any better than Hosmer, who’s three years younger than him. And Beckham? He’s hitting .206/.293/.375 in the Florida State League and has scouts questioning how he could have ever been the #1 pick in all the land.

And four years ago, when the Royals took a surprise player with the #1 overall pick? The reason it was a surprise was because everyone thought the best pitcher in the country was UNC lefty Andrew Miller, and the Royals took Luke Hochevar. Hochevar is still maddening, but he’s making undeniable progress. Miller, meanwhile, has a 5.50 ERA in the majors and is now trying to work his way back from arm troubles; he’s getting lit up in Double-A and may be done.

Meanwhile, the one year the top of the draft fell the Royals way was 2005, when they drafted second, and there were two players who were clearly ahead of the pack. The Diamondbacks took Justin Upton, and the Royals took…Alex Gordon, who was almost universally considered the superior of fellow college third basemen Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Braun at the time.

Sometimes the clear-cut choice fails, and sometimes the unconventional pick works out. The best pick isn’t the one that looks like a no-brainer on Draft Day. It’s the one that proves to be the right choice many years and second-guessers later. The Royals know both sides of that equation now, and I’d like to think that they look at their predicament not as a curse, but as an opportunity.

And that’s what it is. Precisely because there is no consensus #4 pick, precisely because the Royals could take any one of about 20 different players without having anyone seriously question their decision, the Royals are liberated to make their selection without giving the slightest consideration to who fans or their peers think they should pick. (That may sound silly, but remember that when the Royals selected Gordon, at least two members of the front office thought that Zimmerman might be the better player. But there was simply no way they could have selected Zimmerman. If they took Gordon and were proven wrong, everyone would understand – if they took Zimmerman and were proven wrong, they’d be hounded mercilessly.)

No, all the Royals have to do is simple: pick the best player. If they’re as good at scouting talent as they think they are – and as recent developments in the minors suggest they might be – this should be easy. Pick the best player, and given time, everything else will work itself out.


Just because I wrote all that, it doesn’t mean that I don’t have an opinion one way or the other on who the Royals should select.

On the contrary, the fact that the Royals have been linked to Sale for the last two weeks was a little concerning and more than a little mystifying. It’s mystifying because while I think it’s crazy for a team to have any draft philosophy other than “take the best available player”, if any draft situation called for a different plan, it was this one. I asked J.J. Picollo on this very point last week – if it’s your pick and there’s no clear consensus as to who you should select, do you take into account your specific context? Do you favor a player at a position of need, or a player who might get to the majors more quickly? And his answer, stripped down to one word, was “yes.” As it should be.

Yet there are few teams who need Chris Sale less than the Royals do. Sale is a left-handed pitcher, and as I documented even before the season, the Royals are deeper in left-handed pitching in the minors than they have in their history, and probably deeper than any other organization in the majors. Even with Noel Arguelles unlikely to pitch this season, Danny Duffy’s return along with Michael Montgomery, John Lamb, and Chris Dwyer gives the Royals four blue-chip left-handed starters, and the rapid rise of Blaine Hardy gives them at least one high-quality left-handed relief prospect. Maybe there really is no such thing as having too many left-handed pitchers – but if the Royals take Sale, they’ll probably find out.

On top of that, I share many of Law’s concerns about Sale. As he pointed out on the radio show this week, Sale throws from a low three-quarters delivery, which makes him project more as a reliever than as a starter; but while he has a good fastball and excellent changeup, his breaking stuff isn’t great, and it’s hard to excel in relief as a lefty without a breaking ball. So what is he, exactly? Law suggested that he might need a complete overhaul of his mechanics as a pro, and while that could work, that’s not something you really want to do with the guy you just selected with the fourth overall pick. Also, the fact that his long stringy body made compare him to Andrew Miller physically doesn’t give me confidence about his ability to stay healthy.

The other options the Royals have include Drew Pomeranz, who is a lefty with a better body (6’5”, 230) and a more traditional over-the-top delivery. I’d probably be fine with Pomeranz, who has good power stuff, and whose mid-season hiccup was likely caused by a strained pectoral muscle that is no long-term concern. The biggest issue with him is command, and again, the Royals don’t need another lefty.

Taking the big picture approach, it’s important to note that the long-time advantage of college players vs. high school players has disappeared, and in fact the research suggests that of the four types of players to select – high school vs. college, pitcher vs. hitter – college pitchers are the least likely of the four to pan out. Hitters are always safer than pitchers, and high schoolers have become safer picks than their college counterparts, in part because major league organizations have an incentive to protect their investment, while college coaches have incentives to let their Friday starter throw 160 pitches and then relieve on Sunday.

But if not Sale or Pomeranz – who rank #4 and #5 on Baseball America’s list of top draft prospects – who? The Royals are focusing on college talent, and if you accept the theory of trying to time your talent to reach the majors at the same time, then getting a college player who might be in the majors by 2012 to go along with all the high school picks from years past makes a lot of sense.

There are a number of college hitters worth considering, including Zack Cox and Christian Colon. Cox doesn’t really work – he’s a third baseman at best, and a first baseman in the end, and the Royals are overloaded at both spots. Colon would be an excellent option; he’s a shortstop who can hit and can probably stay at the position. Colon went to high school with Grant Green, who was the college shortstop I wanted the Royals to take last year; Colon would give them the chance to make amends.

But the name that really stuck out for me was Yasmani Grandal, the catcher at the University of Miami. Rumors briefly had the Royals connected to him about six weeks ago, but then faded away in a flurry of denials by both sides. But he seemed to make a ton of sense. Grandal was well-regarded out of high school but was committed to college, and after struggling to hit his first two years*, has flourished as a junior, hitting .418/.546/.746 at the moment. (The U is battling in the regionals, and is a good bet to go on to the College World Series.) His defense has been considered an asset going back to high school. He’s a switch-hitter with power from both sides, though he’s considered a better hitter from the left side.

*: I read reports saying that he “failed to hit .300 as a freshman and sophomore”, implying that he only started to hit last year. Well, as a sophomore he didn’t hit .300 – he hit .299, with a .410 OBP and a .599 SLG. So it’s not fair to say he only started to shine with the bat this year.

You put his assets together – a switch-hitting catcher whose power is average to a tick above, who has taken a ton of walks throughout his college career, whose arm is slightly above-average and very accurate, who has been calling games behind the plate his entire career – and he sounds to me like a player who, at worst, projects as a major-league average catcher, a guy who can hit .270 with 15-18 homers, 50-70 walks, and good defense.

And there are the little things. He’s a little young for a college junior – he’s still just 20 – and I feel that draft age is a very underrated part of a draft pick’s profile. (He emigrated from Cuba, so it’s always possible he’s older than stated. He was just 11 at the time, though.) His Cuban background means he’s perfectly bilingual, which is a nice asset in a catcher. A guy like that should go in the top half of the first-round in a good draft – in a draft like this, he’s Top 10 material for sure.

Two years ago the Giants took Buster Posey #6 overall, and last year the Pirates used the #4 pick on Tony Sanchez, a deal they worked out to save money that could be used on players later in the draft. Posey has a career .333/.427/.542 line in the minors, and since getting called up last week by the Giants is 11-for-23. Sanchez, whose bat isn’t anything like Posey but whose defense was considered excellent, is nonetheless hitting .318/.423/.460 in high-A ball at the moment.

Grandal has a better glove than Posey and 90% of his bat, and a better bat than Sanchez and 90% of his glove. Given the early success each of those two have had, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the team that drafts Grandal now might be starting him behind the plate in the majors by April 2012.

Yet strangely, he was considered a late first-round talent as recently as six weeks ago. But as he’s continued to hit, and as the talent level in this draft continued to look sub-par, he’s moved up the rankings considerably. Baseball America has him at #13 in their final pre-draft rankings; Law has him at #9.

But for the Royals, I think he could be #4. The Royals have a premium prospect at pretty much every position with the exception of shortstop and catcher. Or more accurately, if Wil Myers can’t make it as a catcher – and he’s hitting so well that frankly the Royals might be tempted to move him to the outfield just to get that bat to the majors more quickly – then the Royals have a need there. Grandal may not project as an All-Star, but he projects as a quality major league regular. For a team that has at least one prospect that by 2012 projects to be starting in the majors almost everywhere else on the diamond, Grandal fits perfectly.

So the news late last night from both Law and Frankie Piliere of MLB Fanhouse that the Royals had a deal with Grandal almost in place came as the surprise news I was hoping for. I think the Royals’ obsession with secrecy is a little bit ridiculous at times, but when it comes to the draft it may actually have a place. If that’s the case, and if the Royals’ rumored interest in Sale and Pomeranz was just a smokescreen to get things done with Grandal, then I salute them. Getting Grandal to agree to terms early (unofficially, mind you – he’s still playing college ball) just means he’ll start his pro career that much earlier, and might arrive a little faster. 2012 is Greinke’s last year under contract, and a year where it’s reasonable to expect all of the Royals’ top prospects other than Myers to already be in the majors. Grandal, at catcher, would be the piece de resistance.

In an uninspiring draft, I think this is an inspired move. Grandal might not be the best player available when the Royals pick (although he just might.) But he might be the best player available for them. Really, that’s all you can ask for. Good for them for making the right call.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Minor Miracle.

I have to confess: no matter how many times it happens, it never gets old. I write a column arguing that maybe Dayton Moore isn’t the worst GM in baseball, and I get labeled a sellout by many of my commenters. You guys are the best. Never let go of that passion, fellas.

Maybe I am getting soft. Or maybe my eyes have been opened a little by the events of the last two months. Let me ask a very simple question: have the Royals had a good 2010 so far?

A casual fan, I suspect, would say no, 2010 hasn’t been a good year. The Royals started 11-23, they fired their manager, Zack Greinke is mortal, Gil Meche is toast, Alex Gordon is in Triple-A, and on June 1st the Royals are 10.5 games out of first place.

I would agree. 2010 hasn’t been a good year so far. It’s been a very good year. Maybe even a great year.

It all depends on your perspective. And my perspective all season has been focused on one thing: the minor leagues. The results at the major-league level have been aggravating, but they’ve also been a sideshow to the main event. The business of the Royals this season was the development of what we were told before the season was the best collection of minor-league talent the Royals have had in 15 years.

As you may know if you’ve followed the farm system this season, business has been very good.

It didn’t start that way. In spring training, left-hander Danny Duffy, ranked by both Baseball Prospectus as the team’s #6 prospect and by Baseball America at #8, retired. The Royals’ system is deep, but no system is so deep that they can simply cross off a guy in the middle of their Top 10 list and not feel it. (The Royals are understandably reluctant to talk about Duffy’s situation. However, my gestalt from exploring the situation is that Duffy’s retirement is almost certainly temporary. I am reasonably confident he’ll be back before the end of the season, and would not be surprised if he reports to camp by the All-Star break, if not sooner.)

That happened right after Jeff Bianchi, a Top 10 Prospect and the only prospect in the high minors with the potential to move Yuniesky Betancourt off of shortstop, tore his UCL and was lost for the season with Tommy John surgery. And to top things off, Mike Moustakas, who was facing a pivotal first season in Double-A, pulled an oblique muscle and was expected to miss the first month of the season. I can’t say I was feeling particularly optimistic as the season began.

A lot has changed in the last two months, and I hope to recount the highlights here. I was fortunate to speak with Royals’ Assistant GM J.J. Picollo last Friday, and it’s testament to how many Royals prospects are worth following that despite talking for close to an hour, we weren’t able to cover all of them. I can’t give you verbatim quotes, because my hand simply can’t write fast enough to keep up with everything he told me, but I’ll do my best to give you the main points that I learned from talking with Picollo.

Light broke through the clouds early, thanks to the consensus pre-season #1 prospect in the system, Michael Montgomery. Montgomery entered the season with an exciting combination of future projection and present performance; last year he had a 2.21 ERA split between low-A and high-A ball, and he was didn’t turn 20 until the middle of the season.

Six years ago, some of you remember, some idiot was so excited about a young pitching phenom that he wrote in the pages of Baseball Prospectus 2004, “With apologies to Jon Landau, I have seen the future of pitching, and his name is Zack Greinke.” Okay, I was that idiot. Needless to say, no one has been so stupid as to co-opt that classic quote about Bruce Springsteen to describe a baseball prospect since.

Until this.

“I’ve seen rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”

After watching a Springsteen live show in 1974, Rolling Stone rock critic Jon Landau set off a massive amount of hype with that one sentence. At the time, Springsteen had two poorly selling records. Not long after Landau's comments, Springsteen released “Born To Run”, was on the cover of Time and Newsweek magazines at the same time and made the leap from unknown singer to rock and roll superstar.

I'm not nearly as talented as Landau, and I'm not a scout with a trained eye, but after watching Royals lefthander Mike Montgomery throw against the Kinston Indians, it was hard not to want to yell something equally audacious. You could watch minor league games every day year after year and never see a better outing. Some of the scouts at Tuesday's game were debating if they had ever seen a minor leaguer pitch any better.

Cooper was referring to this start, when Montgomery faced 23 batters, allowing just two to reach base (a scratch single and an RBI double), and struck out 13 of them. Despite striking out 13 batters in 7 innings, he only threw 84 pitches. Those of you who listened to my first radio show of the year heard Cooper himself describe what he saw that night. The big take-away point was that Montgomery used three different pitches – his fastball, his curveball, and his change-up – to record strikeouts at least three times each. Most guys are happy with a single out-pitch; that night, Montgomery had three of them.

Montgomery hasn’t pitched quite that well since, but still plenty good. After four starts for Wilmington – he struck out 33 batters in 25 innings, allowing just 14 hits and 4 walks – he was promoted to Double-A. He’s slowed down a little, but just a little; in 25 innings he’s allowed 22 hits and 9 walks, whiffed 22, and even allowed his first homer of the season. For the year he’s got a 1.98 ERA, allowed 36 hits and 13 walks in 50 innings, and struck out 55. Those are studly numbers, and he’s still just 20.

Picollo on Montgomery’s improvement: was throwing 90-93 last year, touching 95…now working 92-95 and touching 97…more efficient with his pitches, saving his fastball for when he needs it…his curveball continues to make strides, as he used to throw a palm curveball his dad taught him, but now throws a traditional curve most of the time.

Picollo on Montgomery’s last start, when he was pulled after 3 innings after his velocity dropped: his fastball ranged from 86-96, was throwing a lot of changeups, admitted to some mild soreness in back of his elbow and taken out. Had similar elbow soreness at end of spring training ’09, recovered fine…probably will miss one start…not particularly concerned.

The first 2-3 weeks of the season were Montgomery’s time to shine. Then the spotlight moved east, to Wilmington, where Eric Hosmer looked nothing like the hitter he was last season, and everything like the hitter he was expected to be when he was drafted with the #3 overall pick.

Hosmer was one of the biggest enigmas in all the minor leagues last season, a can’t-miss hitter who, was doing a lot more missing than hitting – he hit .241/.334/.361 between Burlington and Wilmington. There was the vision issue, and the broken pinky finger issue, but even so most observers were concerned. BP ranked Hosmer as just the #8 prospect in the system (behind Bianchi), while BA had him at #5. Keith Law, alone among the mainstream prospect analysts, maintained that Hosmer’s struggles were entirely health-related, ranking him as the #34 prospect in baseball.

Law won this round, as by the end of April even his ranking looked a little conservative. That’s what happens when you hit an almost unfathomable .421, as Hosmer did in April, in one of the toughest hitters’ parks in the minors. As recently as May 19th he was still hitting .388, but a recent slump (he’s 9-for-42 in his last 10 games) has his overall numbers at .349/.416/.508.

It’s interesting how the narrative of a player is shaped by the sequence of his performance. If Hosmer had started 9-for-42, but then heated and up and then hit .421 in May, he’d be the talk of baseball. But because he hit .421/.500/.618 in April and then “only” .301/.355/.434 in May, some people are starting to get concerned. He’s 20 years old, people! And he’s putting up numbers that compete with the best I’ve ever seen from someone who played half their games at Frawley Stadium. (Hosmer is hitting .325 at home, and .368 on the road.)

The Royals have been affiliated with the Blue Rocks since 1993, I believe – there was a two-year exile to High Desert that thankfully was reversed quickly. I took a few minutes to look up the best seasons by any Blue Rock (including their time as a Red Sox affiliate) hitter with 50+ games and age 22 or younger. Here’s that list:

Michael Tucker, 1993: .305/.391/.456 (age 22)

Johnny Damon, 1994: .316/.399/.462 (age 20)

Mike Sweeney, 1995: .310/.424/.548 (age 21)

Dee Brown, 1999: .308/.431/.568 (age 21)

David DeJesus, 2002: .296/.400/.434 (age 22)

Eric Hosmer, 2009: .349/.416/.508 (age 20)

Dee Brown is a massive cautionary tale for any prospect. He has the highest OPS of anyone on that list, and while he only played 61 games for Wilmington that year, that’s because he was promoted to Double-A and hit even better (.353/.440/.591) there. BA ranked him the #11 prospect in all of baseball the following spring. He never hit remotely that well again, and finished his major league career with 814 at-bats and a .233/.280/.333 line.

If he can avoid what happened to Brown – and I still haven’t heard a good explanation for what happened to Brown – Hosmer should have a very good career ahead of him. DeJesus has had a fine career, and Tucker had a long if not particularly distinguished one. Neither had numbers that matched Hosmer’s, and both were two years older. If he maintains these numbers, I feel comfortable ranking Hosmer with Mike Sweeney and Johnny Damon as the best three prospect-seasons by a Wilmington Blue Rock. Sweeney is arguably the second-best hitter the Royals have ever developed, and Damon is at least a 50/50 shot to make the Hall of Fame.

The other concern I’ve heard boils down to something like this: “sure he’s hitting for average, but where are all the homers we were promised?” I understand this complaint – Hosmer has just two homers this year and eight in his career. I just happen to think it’s ridiculous.

For one, Hosmer is hitting for power. He’s got 16 doubles and 4 triples in just 189 at-bats. Very few 20-year-olds – even 20-year-olds who project to be power hitters in the majors – hit a lot of homers in the minors. But they do tend to hit doubles. Miguel Cabrera hit just 9 homers in a full season of high-A ball in 2002. But he hit 43 doubles, and he was just 19 years old. The following year, after slugging over .600 in Double-A he was called up to the majors and hit 12 homers in 87 games, then 4 more homers in the postseason. The year after that he hit 33 homers.

We know Hosmer has power – he regularly puts on a show in batting practice, and did so even when he was struggling last year. When he was drafted, the book on him was that he had as much power as anyone in the draft, but what separated him from the pack – and why the Royals drafted him over someone like Justin Smoak – was that he was a great pure hitter who happened to have power.

And that, frankly, is what we’re seeing. Hosmer isn’t a power hitter – he’s a pure hitter with power, and I love guys like that. It’s a lot easier for a pure hitter to learn to elevate the ball and drive it out then for a slugger to learn to hit for average. Alberto Callaspo didn’t hit a single homer in his first three seasons and 399 at-bats in the majors. Last year, he hit 11, and he already has 7 in 51 games this year. Callaspo didn’t learn to hit for power until he was 26 years old – we’re supposed to be worried because Hosmer isn’t hitting for home run power (but doing everything else) when he’s 20?

I haven’t seen this comparison, but I think it’s instructive to compare Hosmer to Adrian Gonzalez, another top pick who was considered a terrific pure hitter with power as opposed to the other way around. Gonzalez showed more power at age 20, but when he was 21 he hit just five homers in 120 games. His lack of power led two different organizations to trade him. He finally landed in San Diego in 2006, when he was 24, put in the lineup everyday, and his homer totals since read 24, 30, 36, and 40.

Hosmer’s success this year, along with Kila Ka’aihue’s resurgence, presents a happy dilemma for the Royals: with Billy Butler entrenched at first base (or DH), the Royals may have to find a place for all three of them by 2012. There is an intriguing albeit messy solution: move Hosmer to right field. Hosmer is a good athlete for a first baseman (which, yes, is like saying someone is fast for a catcher.) He’s already swiped 7 bases this season – and hasn’t been caught – and has an arm that is frankly wasted at first base. Could he play right field?

If he could, you could imagine this in the middle of the Royals’ lineup in two years:

2) Gordon, LF

3) Butler, 1B

4) Ka’aihue, DH

5) Moustakas, 3B

6) Hosmer, RF

It’s not the greatest defensive alignment in the world, but…damn. That looks like all kinds of fun.

So I asked. Picollo on the idea of moving Hosmer to the outfield: it has been talked about…he’s the most athletic of the three [Butler, Ka’aihue] and the only one who could handle the move…he will sometimes take fly balls during batting practice…it’s too early to think about now, but after Hosmer’s Double-A season, if everything aligns it’s something we will consider.

One guy who did hit for power at 20 – and even at 19 – was Mike Moustakas. The problem was that he wasn’t doing a whole lot else – Moose hit .272/.337/.468 in the Midwest League in 2008, and just .250/.297/.421 at Wilmington last year. Just as Hosmer had extenuating factors, so did Moustakas – namely the ballpark – but it was hard not to be concerned about the performance from the former #2 overall pick. BP ranked him the #3 prospect in the organization and #79 overall, BA #4 and #80. He wasn’t written off by any means, but he wasn’t living up to expectations either.

But just as Hosmer started to cool down, Moustakas started to heat up, and I mean “heat up” the way you might say “the space shuttle heats up upon its return to the atmosphere.” He recovered from his oblique muscle strain in time to make his season debut on April 22nd. In his first at-bat, he homered. In his second at-bat, he homered. He walked his third time up, and his fourth time up he crushed a double off the wall. Two games later he homered again.

And then he got really hot. In 8 April games Moustakas hit .324/.378/.735 with three homers and 9 RBIs. In May, he hit .393/.486/.775 with 9 homers and 32 RBIs in just 25 games. His month came to a premature end last week when he banged up his knee chasing after a foul ball. The injury wasn’t deemed serious – I don’t think he even needed X-rays – but he’s missed a few games waiting for the swelling to dissipate. For the season, he’s at .374/.459/.764. He leads the Texas League in all three rate categories, and despite missing nearly 40% of the games on the schedule, he’s second in the league in homers, fifth in doubles, and first in RBIs.

And keep in mind, even with all his struggles last year, scouts still marveled at his bat speed. His performance this season might be a surprise, but I don’t know anyone who thinks it’s a fluke.

As impressive as the power has been, the improvement in his strikeout-to-walk ratio may be more significant. Last year Moustakas struck out 90 times against just 32 walks; this year his ratio is a much more balanced 20-to-17. The improvement is mostly in his walk rate, and some of that is illusory. Six of his 17 walks this season are intentional, and I’m sure some of the other 11 are of the unintentional intentional variety.

That’s not entirely a bad thing – there’s a clear connection between walks and power, as pitchers are more likely to work around a hitter if they’re afraid he might hit the ball 400 feet. Moustakas’ walk rate is still not where you’d like it to be – but it’s no longer so low that I think it might inhibit his ability to develop as a hitter.

It’s hard to overstate how much Moustakas has improved his future projection in just 32 games. Six weeks ago he looked like a fine player but destined to be known as the guy the Royals drafted instead of Matt Wieters or Rick Porcello or a half-dozen other better players the Royals could have taken in the first round. Now? Hold the phone.

Between Montgomery, Hosmer, and Moustakas, the Royals have a trio of prospects that are rivaled by only a few organizations in the game. Both Hosmer and Moustakas made Law’s revised Top 25 Prospect list from two weeks ago. Montgomery didn’t make the list only because, as we all know, Law hates the Royals. (If you want to know the real reason why, listen to this week’s radio show, as I plan to ask him.)

If those three were the only prospects worth following, the Royals would still be in decent shape. But what makes this season so exciting is that there’s more where that came from. I’ll review the rest of the system next time.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

In Defense Of Dayton.

The genesis of this story began nearly three months ago, when I read this fine column by Tim Marchman at Marchman is a fantastic writer, one of the best of the new breed of baseball writers (I loosely define “new breed” as “anyone younger than me”) who combine traditional command of the English language with an understanding of statistical analysis that comes with growing up in a post-Jamesian era.

(Speaking of Bill James, for those of you who missed it, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing him on my radio show last Thursday for nearly half an hour. You can check out the podcast here, under “Additional Programming” at the bottom.)

I will admit to a visceral thrill when I came to Marchman’s conclusion, that Dayton Moore ranked dead last among the game’s 30 general managers. It felt good to see Moore bring up the rear of an objective analysis of GMs published in a national news source.

But after the thrill wore off, I had to admit that something didn’t sit right with me. I looked at that list again, and there at #29, one slot above Dayton Moore, was Astros’ GM Ed Wade.

This is the same Ed Wade who never met a middle reliever he didn’t like or wouldn’t overpay for, a fetish most eloquently expressed by the time he once traded Placido Polanco straight up for Ugueth Urbina. (Polanco, mind you, was the only player of any worth that Wade got for trading Scott Rolen (who was just 27 at the time) to the Cardinals.) The same Ed Wade who, despite being handed players like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard by his farm system, couldn’t make the playoffs once in his eight years with the Phillies before he was fired after the 2005 season.

And the same Ed Wade who was hired by the Astros at the end of the 2007 season, and for the last two-and-a-half seasons has been either unwilling or unable to convince ownership that a once-proud Astros franchise needs to be completely torn apart and rebuilt, with the result that the Astros right now have the worst record in the National League and one of the shallowest farm systems in baseball.

Moore probably cinched his place at the bottom of the list this off-season when he signed Jason Kendall to a two-year contract for more guaranteed money than his two incumbent catchers, Miguel Olivo and John Buck, combined to receive. The Kendall signing was widely regarded as the second-worst free-agent contract handed out this off-season. The worst? Wade’s inexplicable decision to guarantee Brandon Lyon a 3-year, $15 million contract.

Yet somehow, Moore was ranked behind Wade. I don’t think Marchman’s opinion was in the minority, either – most baseball analysts I know would likely have ranked them in that order prior to the season.

It was at that point that I began to wonder if maybe the perception of Dayton Moore had crossed a tipping point, and that precisely because so many baseball analysts cover the Royals, and because the mistakes he has made have been so well-publicized, Moore was getting a raw deal. I mean, it’s not just Ed Wade who in my estimation is a worse GM than Moore.

Looking at the other names at the bottom of the list, Brian Sabean (#28) drives me completely nuts as a baseball writer, and the fact that Tim Lincecum fell into his lap with the 10th pick in the draft a few days ago does not make up for the horrible decisions he’s made. Moore signed Jose Guillen? Sabean will cover, and raise with Barry Zito. Don’t like the way the Royals have handled Kila Ka’aihue? The Giants brought Buster Posey up in September last season and gave him all of 17 at-bats, then re-signed Bengie Molina so they could send Posey back to Triple-A another year. Posey was finally, grudgingly called up yesterday, and so far is 6-for-9.

Ned Colletti (#27)? The smartest thing Colletti seems to have done as GM of the Dodgers is to take credit for all the great players scouting director Logan White has given him – that is, when he’s not trading them for marginal veterans. Dayton Moore in his entire career has never done anything as stupid as trading Carlos Santana for two months of Casey Blake’s career.

Omar Minaya (#26)? Do I even have to make a case? One thing you can’t deny about Moore – he has made the Royals a much more professional organization. The Mets are a circus. I’d say more, but I’m afraid Tony Bernazard might take off his shirt and challenge me to a fight.

Granted, if you go up the list from there, the case for Moore becomes harder and harder to make. I’m comfortable ranking Moore no lower than #26, then, but that’s hardly cause for celebration. Still, I try to be as fair as possible when critiquing the Royals, and I think that the argument that Moore is the worst GM in the game is completely unsupported by the evidence.

If that were the end of my argument – Moore’s not the worst GM in baseball, he’s only the fifth-worst GM! – this would be a rather pointless article. But it’s not. Moore may rank only #26 at the moment, but I strongly feel that it is simply too soon to properly rank him. And I feel that his upside on this list is considerably more than his downside.

What finally spurred me to write this article is the recent attention given to Moore’s statement about how long it takes to rebuild a franchise. Here’s the story:

On the day after changing managers, Moore ignited a minor cloud burst in a comment on the Royals’ flagship radio station in Kansas City that was “an 8-to-10 process to get an organization turned around and on the winning track.”

Apparently, listeners grumbled that it seemed like a long time to wait. Moore's rejoinder to them and the media: Do your research.

“Look what Colorado did, look what Minnesota did, look what the New York Yankees did,” Moore said. “It took the Yankees seven years. They committed to it in ‘89, and finally in ‘96 they won with homegrown guys. I’m not talking about getting to .500, I'm talking about winning the World Series when I say eight to 10 years.

“To get your team in the playoffs, that’s how long it takes. Terry Ryan and the Minnesota Twins had a well-built farm system, and they started in ‘94 when Terry took over, and for seven straight years they had 87 to 97 losses. In year eight, they were above .500, and in year nine they were in the playoffs. That’s all I said. It just amazes me that guys don't do their own research.”

In a city where Carl Peterson’s five-year plan became famous, I can understand why Dayton Moore’s comments about an eight-to-ten-year process might became infamous, something they are well on their way to doing.

Having said that, I’m going to do something I don’t do very often: I’m going to cut Moore some slack.

For one thing, what Moore said is technically accurate, if perhaps phrased awkwardly. I’m not prepared to comment on whether the Yankees or Twins needed seven years to truly rebuild their organizations without doing a ton of research. (Don’t put it past me at some point.) But think of it this way: if a new GM focuses on drafting high school talent – which Moore generally does – then he’s generally drafting guys who are 18 years old. Players typically peak between the ages of 26 and 28. That’s eight-to-ten years after they were drafted.

So yes, in a strictly technical sense what Moore is trying to accomplish will take eight to ten years to reach full maturity. That doesn’t mean it will take eight to ten years to be able to adequately judge his performance as a GM, mind you. But it’s true that if Moore was hired with the express purpose of rebuilding the Royals’ organization – not just the major league team, but the pipeline of talent which extends from the draft and the Dominican to the majors – that’s a process that simply can’t be done in three or four or even six years.

Moore was hired four years ago today, and in terms of major league performance, the Royals’ improvement can only be measured with calipers and a micrometer. The Royals went 118-156 (.431) from the day Moore was hired through the end of the 2007 season. From Opening Day 2008 until today, they are 161-214 (.429). This is not progress. This is why Royals’ fans have a legitimate beef with Moore: THE TEAM IS NOT GETTING BETTER.

Meanwhile, in Seattle Jack Zduriencik is hired as the GM after the 2008 season, and in the span of one winter improves his team so dramatically that the Mariners, losers of 101 games in 2008, improved by 24 wins to an 85-77 record in 2009.

What Jack Z did with the Mariners last year, immediately upgrading his team by pruning the dead weight and making shrewd trades for players like Franklin Gutierrez, we’ll call the “Seattle Way”. Moore has shown no ability to build a team the Seattle Way. But just because he has been a complete failure at the Seattle Way, it does not necessarily follow that he will be a failure at building a team the Minnesota Way, or what I prefer to call the Tampa Bay Way.

Tampa Bay has the best record in baseball at 34-17, and virtually their entire roster consists of players who were either drafted by the team, or who were traded for before they had established themselves in the majors. Their only contributors who were signed as free agents were Carlos Pena (who was nearly 29 and had passed through four other organizations before the Rays signed him); the recently-released Pat Burrell; and bullpen reclamation sensation Joaquin Benoit. Four of their five starters and six of their nine hitters most days have never played for another major-league team.

But here’s the thing about the Rays – they had to suck for a long time to get to where they are now. They had to suck for a long time because their previous GM, Chuck LaMar, was only adequate at drafting talent and was a disaster at every other component of his job, which is why he was fired by new ownership after the 2005 season – after eight seasons on the job. The Rays drafted a fair amount of talent under his tenure, though nothing impressive given their perennially-high draft positions: Aubrey Huff in the 5th round in 1998, Carl Crawford in the 2nd round in 1999, James Shields in the 16th round in 2000, B.J. Upton with the #2 pick in 2002. In 2004 the Rays’ first three picks were Jeff Niemann, Reid Brignac, and Wade Davis. And he made arguably the most lopsided trade of the decade when he turned Victor Zambrano into Scott Kazmir.

But it took a new GM in Andrew Friedman to shape that talent into a winning team. He did that in part by trading some of the talent that Lamar left him in a stunning series of shrewd moves: Huff for a minor-leaguer named Ben Zobrist; Seth McClung for Grant Balfour; and the celebrated trade of former #1 overall pick Delmon Young, along with Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie, to Minnesota in exchange for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett. (And yes, Royals fans, he also traded Joey Gathright for J.P. Howell.)

And then Friedman also struck gold in his first few drafts. His very first draft pick was Evan Longoria, taken with the #3 overall pick in 2006; in 2007, with the first pick in the draft, the Rays selected David Price.

My point – which I think I’m doing a poor job of conveying here – is that the Rays didn’t go from being the laughingstock of baseball to a World Series appearance overnight, even though a glance at their win-loss records would have you think exactly that. The Rays were building towards their 2008 AL pennant for a decade, in fits and starts. There were more fits than starts under LaMar, which is why he was fired, but he left at least the framework for the player development machine that Friedman and friends perfected. Today, the Rays don’t just have the best record in baseball. More importantly, in my estimation they have wrested from the Minnesota Twins the title once proudly claimed by the Royals 30 years ago: the title of Baseball’s Model Franchise.

The Tampa Bay Way, by its very nature, takes much, much longer to see to fruition than the Seattle Way. It is a much more ambitious goal. But if a GM of a small-market team has to commit to only one path, the choice is clear. The Tampa Bay Way is the road less-travelled. That is the path Dayton Moore is on, and while I have no idea if he’ll get there, I can’t overstate how happy I am with his choice. The Seattle Way got us the 2003 season. I’m looking for something a little more substantial and long-lasting than that.

After all, while the Mariners went 85-77 last season, as I write this they have a worse record (19-30) in 2010 than the Royals (21-30) do. They have a worse record despite a payroll that is $26 million higher than the Royals’. And most importantly of all, they have a farm system in much worse shape than the Royals do.

None of this is to disparage the job done by Zduriencik, who has been on the job barely 18 months. But that’s just the point: rebuilding an organization for the long haul takes time. And at this moment in time, if the Royals and Mariners had the opportunity to swap all the talent in their organization – every player, in the majors and in the minors, with their existing contract situation – only one GM would jump at that chance. And it wouldn’t be Dayton Moore.

The rebuttal to this is that while it’s great that Moore is going the Tampa Bay route and trying to build a team through his farm system, there’s no law that precludes him from doing both – there’s no reason why he can’t do what Zduriencik has done while waiting for his draft picks to finish cooking. And this is absolutely true. Moore’s attempt at stopgap measures has led to a whole lot of Jose Guillens and Jason Kendalls and even Horacio Ramirezes.

My point is simply that we can not define Moore’s tenure solely by his free agent mistakes. His trading record is actually better than you might think; while he has given up Howell, Leo Nunez, and Ramon Ramirez for almost nothing, those three trades combined are neutralized by swapping Billy Buckner for Alberto Callaspo. Kyle Davies is maddening, but he sure beats having Octavio Dotel for another eight innings. Toss in the Ambiorix Burgos-for-Brian Bannister trade, and I’d argue that Moore’s trading ledger, on the whole, is in the black. The Yuniesky Betancourt trade drives me nuts as much for what it represents as for what it did to the team, but while the trade cost the Royals plenty in money and opportunity, with Dan Cortes struggling to a 4.82 ERA in Double-A this year, it may not have cost them much in the way of prospects.

So I’m going to take the somewhat unpopular stance of defending Dayton Moore, and arguing that he deserves to keep his job at least through the end of next season. Four years after he was hired, the major league team may not have improved one bit – but the minor league system has improved dramatically. The last two months, in particular, have been the most exciting two months I’ve ever had covering the Royals’ farm system.

Moore strikes me as the general managerial equivalent of one of the tools-laden prospects he is so enamored with drafting: he has one top-of-the-line tool in his ability to evaluate amateur talent and build a farm system, but a couple of gaping weaknesses in the guise of an outdated understanding of the mechanics of building an offense, and a fetish for veteran dependability over actual talent.

So here are the unanswerable questions: will he be able to convert those tools into skills, and will he be able to minimize the holes in his game over time? In other words, is he the GM equivalent of Derrick Robinson, or of Yuniesky Betancourt? With prospects, the biggest determinant of their ability to improve is their age, but there’s no substitute for an aptitude to learn. The same with general managers. Moore is still young enough in GM years to improve, but first he has to show a willingness to do so. He's done a much better job at developing prospects than LaMar did at the same stage in his tenure. But if he doesn't show an ability to learn from his mistakes, then he'll meet the same fate.

So here’s the deal I’ll cut with Moore: I’ll continue to defend him as a GM despite the millions he’s spent on useless free agents, and despite his panic trade for Betancourt, and despite – the worst move of his career, even if he was not directly responsible – letting his manager ruin the arm of his second-best (and most-expensive) pitcher in Gil Meche. I’ll continue to make the point that all the free agent signings and trades are just window dressing for his real job, which is to draft and develop players better than his peers, get those players to the majors, and start to kick ass.

But in return Moore has to promise me this: if you want to tell us fans to “trust the process”, then dammit, you need to TRUST THE PROCESS. David Glass didn’t hire you to slap a $3 million-a-year band-aid named Jason Kendall behind the plate and call it progress. He hired you to develop more home-grown talent than anyone else, and then put that talent on the field.

The talent you’ve drafted since you were hired has not arrived yet, and that’s completely understandable. We knew when Mike Moustakas was drafted in 2007 that it would take at least three years before he would be ready. It’s been almost three years, and he’s almost ready.

But where Moore has deviated the most from The Process of building from within is that he doesn’t seem willing to win with talent drafted by the Royals – only with talent acquired by him. Players he inherited from Allard Baird might as well have been wearing Indians uniforms. I’m not talking about the blue-chip first-rounders like Zack Greinke and Billy Butler, although Alex Gordon certainly has been handled poorly. But if you’re a second-tier holdover from the Baird years – good luck.

Leo Nunez was one of Baird’s shrewdest acquistions – pilfered from the Pirates for the last six games of Benito Santiago’s career. He was traded to the Marlins to get Mike Jacobs. Kila Ka’aihue is now enjoying his third year in Omaha. Mike Aviles needed a historic performance by Tony Pena Jr. to get a chance to play – and after hitting .325 as a rookie, underwent Tommy John surgery and came back only to find his job taken by Betancourt. John Buck hit a quietly impressive .247/.299/.487 last season, but was let go because the Royals wanted to give the job to Kendall. Buck signed with the Blue Jays for less money than Kendall got, and is hitting .267/.315/.533 so far.

Maybe it’s just coincidence that almost every young player that wasn’t acquired by Moore has had to play twice as well to get an opportunity. It’s rapidly becoming a moot point, because if and when Ka’aihue gets a chance to play, with Carlos Rosa exiled to Arizona the only legitimate prospect I can think of that predates Moore in the organization is Jeff Bianchi.

What Moore needs to realize is that Royals fans aren’t stupid, and we’re not nearly as impatient as he thinks. We understand that young players are going to take their lumps, and some of them might even be busts, but it’s worth playing them anyway because it’s the only chance we've got to win. Moore thinks Royals fans want to watch Rick Ankiel because he’s a big name, when the reality is that we’d much rather watch Mitch Maier – incidentally, a Baird signing – who if nothing else is cheap, has a very patient approach at the plate, and gives 100% effort all the time. We’d like Maier even if he wasn’t hitting .272/.357/.376, but since he is, we love him, and we’re all dreading the day that he has to go back to riding the pine because it’s time to show off your one-trick pony again.

The Royals may be 21-30 right now, but the saddest part of their record is who’ve they achieved it with. Just nine of the 25 players on the roster are home-grown: four hitters (Butler, DeJesus, Maier, Aviles) and five pitchers (Greinke, Hochevar, Soria, Dusty Hughes, Blake Wood). (I’m not counting Victor Marte, whose stay with the Royals is likely to be brief and unhelpful.) If you include players who were acquired very early in their major-league careers, you can add Callaspo and Bannister to make 11. That’s still too few.

In the same article I linked to above, Moore says, “Our goal by 2013, 2014 is to have the majority of our 25-man roster be homegrown players.” I’ll go further than that: there’s no reason why a majority of our 25-man roster can’t be homegrown players by next year. Dayton, you’re sitting on as much minor league talent as I’ve ever seen in the organization, and you deserve a tremendous amount of credit for it. (And I can’t wait to write about it in my next column.) But if you go out next winter and sign this year’s version of Scott Podsednik because you’re afraid Derrick Robinson isn’t ready or you don’t think a David Lough/Jordan Parraz platoon will work or you just think the Royals need another infusion of buzzwords like experience and veteran presence, I’m going to have an aneurysm.

You might be right, and it might take eight to ten years to build a perennial World Series contender. But we’re not asking you to build a contender. We’re just asking you to play the kids. Stop putting up roadblocks for your young players, Dayton, and Trust The Process. And then maybe we’ll trust you.