Friday, June 18, 2010


The Royals have put together a Triple-A team that is sort of the standard blueprint for Triple-A teams in modern baseball: a team that is perhaps short on prospects, but long on solid replacement-level talent. There might not be any future All-Stars on this team, but there are a number of players who can be called up in a pinch and perform adequately in the majors.

Nowhere is this more true than in the rotation, where the Royals put together an all-veteran unit that included Gaby Hernandez, Anthony Lerew, Brian Bullington, Philip Humber, and (after his early-season beatdown with the Royals) Luis Mendoza. Bruce Chen has already jumped from Omaha’s rotation into Kansas City’s, and has pitched quite well in his second season following Tommy John surgery. And just yesterday, needing another rotation replacement after Luke Hochevar hit the DL, the Royals called up Lerew.

Lerew had pitched well in Omaha (2.84 ERA, 70 hits in 73 innings, 41/27 K/BB ratio, 3 homers) this season, after pitching well if not superbly for Northwest Arkansas last year. I’m generally fond of giving solid organizational soldiers like Lerew a call-up when the need arises, because in addition to the fact that they can earn more in a month in the majors than they will all season in the minors, it sends a message to the other minor leaguers in the organization that no matter whether you’re considered a legitimate prospect or not, good performances will be rewarded.

Lerew made the issue of whether his promotion was deserved or not a moot point, allowing just two runs in six innings while striking out seven. I’m not sure he showed us anything that we didn’t already know; he’s a Quadruple-A pitcher, and he got to face a Quadruple-A team in the Houston Astros, so his success wasn’t that surprising. Still, for a team that once had to send Eduardo Villacis to the mound at Yankee Stadium to make his first (and last) major league appearance, it’s nice to know that the Royals have hoarded a number of near-major-league-caliber starters just a phone call away.

Omaha’s bullpen has some legitimate prospects, although with Blake Wood now plying his craft in the majors, none of them are of potential game-changers. (And can we slow it down with the Blake-Wood-is-a-savior talk? In 17 innings in the majors, he has struck out five batters. Five. While his fastball has a lot of movement, it hasn’t translated into a lot of groundballs – his groundball percentage is just 44%, which is around league-average. His success so far is primarily the result of a very low line-drive percentage – just 13% – which is unsustainable. He’s a good sixth or seventh-inning option. Unless and until he starts missing bats, he’s not ready for the eighth.)

You all know how I feel about Chris Hayes, and he’s working his typical magic with homers and walks, but batters are hitting .337 against him, and there’s just no way to sugar-coat that. The Royals haven’t done him any favors by forcing him onto the DL with phantom injuries twice to clear up roster space, but ultimately he’s going to have to pitch better before I make his case again.

Victor Marte has also graduated to the majors, and while I’m skeptical of his long-term chances, I’ll happily admit that he’s pitched well so far. Other guys like Greg Holland and Federico Castaneda may have major-league futures as well. The big name in the bullpen is Blaine Hardy, but as he’s only been in Triple-A for a few weeks I’ll cover him with Northwest Arkansas.

On offense, the O-Royals have a similar blend of late-20s players who aren’t real prospects but have the ability to fill in as the need arises, as Wilson Betemit has shown the last two weeks. Third baseman Ed Lucas, a Dartmouth grad who’s hitting .324/.393/.486, is tempting me to adopt him Disco-style. Alas, he’s 28, and never hit remotely this well in the past.

The two legitimate prospects on the roster are both outfielders, and comparing how the Royals talk about the two lends some unfortunate insight into how the front office operates. David Lough came into the season as the #10 prospect in the organization per Baseball America, and in all fairness he’s been disappointing.

Last year, between Wilmington and Northwest Arkansas he hit .325, and when you hit .325 people will overlook your mid-range power and poor plate discipline. This year’s he’s hitting .276, which makes his weakness much more glaring. He doesn’t hit for a lot of pop (5 homers and just 7 doubles this season), and has drawn just 9 walks in 56 games. Put that in the statistical blender, and you wind up with a .307 OBP and a .414 SLG. Those numbers would disappoint in the majors even without the adjustment that he’ll experience coming up from Triple-A.

The Royals like him a lot, and have compared him to David DeJesus in the past. If only. DeJesus made it to Omaha when he was 23 and hit .298; the next year he hit .315 in Omaha and was called up for good in June. He drew a lot of walks (his OBP exceeded .400 each year) and hit for enough power to slug .470 and .518. Lough simply isn’t in DeJesus’ class as a hitter, and while he gets good marks for his ability to play the corner outfield, he isn’t in DeJesus’ class as a fielder either. He might be one day, but right now he’s the proverbial tweener.

The more intriguing prospect – to me, anyways – is Jordan Parraz, who was pilfered from the Astros two years ago for the dessicated remains of Tyler Lumsden’s left arm. Last year, in his first season with the organization, he hit .358 with a .451 OBP in the Texas League. This season, he’s hitting .260/.372/.397 in Omaha, which is better than it sounds. He’s overcome a hellacious start; after batting just .156 in April, he’s hit .323/.459/.472 since. Superficially, Parraz resembles Lough, in that they’re both corner outfielders whose power doesn’t profile at the position. But Parraz is as disciplined a hitter as Lough is free-swinging. Lough probably has better range, but Parraz has a cannon for an arm, plenty good enough for right field.

The Royals would probably get as much production from a Parraz/Lough platoon as they’ll get from Scott Podsednik this year, but that’s damning with faint praise. I don’t expect big things from either player, but I think that the team’s modest hopes for Lough might be better directed toward Parraz, who makes a fine bench option as a fourth outfielder who mashes left-handed pitching.

And finally, like most Triple-A teams the O-Royals have a couple of veteran sluggers manning the 3-4 slots in their lineups. Unfortunately, neither one is a real prospect, as both of them are 36 years old.

No, wait, that’s a typo. They’re both 26 years old. Hmmm.

Let’s look a little closer then. One of them has a .385 OBP and a .526 SLG, the other one has a .402 OBP and a .513 SLG. Very good numbers for Triple-A, but I worry that their bats might be a little short to man left field and first base in the majors.

Oh, sorry – another typo. The left fielder doesn’t have a .385 OBP – he has a…wait, what?

A .485 OBP? And a .626 SLG?

The first baseman has a .502 OBP? A .613 SLG?

As Cartman would say, “Da F@!k?”

I have tried my best to regain my usual optimism about the Royals this season, and the Royals have largely obliged with the performances of their minor leaguers. But then I look at what Alex Gordon has done to minor league pitchers since he was exiled to Omaha, and at what Kila Ka’aihue has done all season long, and I just throw up my hands and say, once again, that I have no earthly idea what the Royals are thinking.

In 1956, a 23-year-old first baseman named Dick Stuart hit 66 homers in the minor leagues, nearly breaking the all-time record for homers in a professional season. He would say later – I’m paraphrasing here – that if he had just hit 36 homers that season, he would have been taken seriously as one of the best power prospects in the minors and rushed through the farm system. But instead he hit 66, which was such a preposterous number that the Pirates simply didn’t know how to process it.

Stuart started the season in A-ball. He finished the season in A-ball. Sixty-six homers didn’t warrant a promotion. It would take two more years of homering every third game in the minors before he finally reached the majors in July of 1958 – and in 67 games for the Pirates he hit 16 homers and slugged .543.

I suspect – because I’m the charitable sort – that what’s going on with Gordon and Ka’aihue is something akin to Dick Stuart Syndrome. If they both were slugging around .500 and had OBPs close to .400, as I initially suggested they had, the Royals would intuitively understand that they were having excellent seasons. But frankly, their numbers are so off-the-charts good that I don’t think the Royals truly comprehend how ridiculous it is that they’re both stuck in Triple-A purgatory.

In Gordon and Ka’aihue, the Royals have two of the three highest slugging averages in Triple-A, and two of the three best OBPs in the entire freaking minor leagues. Yet they wait. And wait. And wait.

Gordon, obviously, is not a prospect. His extended trial with Omaha seems to be the product of some secret experiment the Royals are conducting on what happens when you send an established major-league hitter, in the prime of his career, to Triple-A. Look, I agree with the decision to move him to the outfield, as I think he was pressing a lot at third base, and I think it helped the team defensively at two positions. But there’s no law that states you have to learn how to play a new position in the minors. Ryan Braun, to bring up a player that’s all-too-frequently compared to Gordon, made the transition from third base to left field in the majors.

The Royals say that numbers aside, they’re still not thrilled with Gordon’s approach at the plate, and they still want to close a hole in his swing. They may have a point – despite his awesome numbers, Gordon has struck out 44 times in 163 at-bats in Omaha, a strikeout rate which is actually a tick higher than his major-league average. But here’s the thing: it strikes me as unreasonable to expect a player to make major adjustments to his swing WHEN HE’S HITTING THE BEJEEZUS OUT OF THE BALL. At some point, Gordon’s success may start to work against him. Some of the adjustments they want him to make can only be made against major-league pitching.

As for Ka’aihue, it’s not clear that the Royals have ever had faith in him. They didn’t have faith in him when he hit .314/.456/.628 two years ago, choosing to inflict Mike Jacobs on us again. They certainly didn’t have faith in him when he hit .252/.392/.433 in Omaha last year, declining even to give him a September callup. And while Ned Yost said some nice things about Ka’aihue shortly after he was hired – and right after he sent Ka’aihue down – it’s not entirely clear that the Royals are sold him on even now.

And to be perfectly fair, there are some non-Royal scouts who say the same thing, that his numbers are a product of beating up on inferior pitching. The thing is, there are also some non-Royal scouts who absolutely believe in the bat. There is no scouting consensus here. There is, however, a sabermetric consensus: the dude can mash.

The closest comp I can think of to Ka’aihue, in terms of a left-handed hitter in the minors who combined prodigious power and plate discipline but was not a favorite of the scouts, was Hee-Seop Choi. In 2002 the Korean slugger hit 25 homers and walked 95 times in Triple-A, and yet all we heard from scouts was that he had a hole in his swing.

The scouts were right, sort of. Choi hit .240/.349/.437 in the majors, nothing special for a first baseman, and was out of the majors for good after the 2005 season.

But here’s the thing. Aside from the fact that a line of .240/.349/.437 would approximate Jose Guillen’s product at DH for one-thirtieth the cost, the fact is that by letting Choi play in 2003, the Cubs were able to establish that he did have some value – enough so that they were able to trade him essentially straight up to the Marlins for Derrek Lee after the season. Yes, the Marlins were in the quadrennial fire-sale mode, but still, Choi was seen as a legitimate everyday player at the time. If the Cubs had buried him like the Royals have buried Ka’aihue, they would never have been able to establish any kind of value for him on the trade market.

And besides: in 2002, Choi hit just .287/.406/.513. Ka’aihue is hitting .335/.502/.613. Again, it’s Dick Stuart Syndrome. Maybe the Royals see Ka’aihue as another Choi – but they’re unable to process that he’s basically Choi plus FIFTY POINTS of batting average and ONE HUNDRED POINTS of OBP and SLG. His numbers are, literally, ridiculous. As in, they don’t make sense. And so the Royals simply ignore them.

I remain hopeful that the Royals really do understand that Gordon and Ka’aihue could step into the team’s lineup tomorrow and improve the team at two positions, and that they’re simply waiting to unload guys like Guillen and Podsednik onto other teams first. Whether they’re able to do that or not is a question that requires its own article. For now, it’s not unreasonable of the Royals to hope they can swing a trade. But the team’s excuses will pass with the trading deadline in six weeks. Come August 1st, both Gordon and Ka’aihue are in the Royals’ everyday lineup, or I’ll take back every nice thing I’ve said about this organization this year.

In their own way, the resurgences of Gordon and Ka’aihue this season are nearly as important as the steps forward taken by Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. But if the Royals can’t see the low-hanging fruit just waiting to be plucked in Omaha, there’s no reason for us to have faith that they’ll be able to climb the prospect tree and harvest players that have yet to ripen in the future.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Royals Today: 6/14/2010

I’ll get back to my minor league review soon, but it’s been weeks since I discussed the happenings in the majors, so I felt I owed you all some updates.

- Thank God. Maybe Zack isn’t hurt after all.

I really had no reason to think he was, other than the fact that after pitching at an All-Star (if perhaps not Greinkesque) level for two months, only to be betrayed by his offense, defense, and bullpen, Greinke had only himself to blame in his last four starts. He gave up 19 runs in 20.1 innings, which is just as well, given that the Royals didn’t score a single run while he was in the game in any of those four starts.

But after the worst sustained streak of pitching from Greinke in two years (he gave up 21 runs in 24 innings over four starts in late May and early June, 2008), we had reason to be concerned. Maybe he was pressing, figuring he had to be perfect on every pitch given the lack of support from his teammates. Maybe it was just bad luck. Maybe it was a mechanical issue. Or maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t the same Zack Greinke anymore.

It appears that the correct answer was (c). As detailed here, Bob McClure had him raise his arms a little higher before he went into his motion before his start on Sunday. The result was 12 strikeouts and no walks, and a complete game in just 105 pitches. He did give up two homers to Joey Votto, but the first was a wall-scraper in a notoriously homer-friendly park, and the second came when he was just pounding the zone with strikes trying to close out a five-run lead in the ninth. Craig Brown has a good breakdown of his start here; I’ll just add that it was, in many ways, his best start of the season.

That isn’t to say he’s back to his 2009 form or anything. According to Fangraphs, the average velocity on his fastball this season (92.7) is a full 1.0 mph slower than last year, and the lowest since he returned from his sabbatical in 2006. Now, I don’t know if that is significant or not. Pitchers sometimes lose a little velocity for no reason, and sometimes it returns as mysteriously as it disappeared. It’s possible Greinke’s velocity is lower because he’s pacing himself more, much as he did when he first came to the majors. It’s certainly worth monitoring, but if he keeps striking out 12 batters a start, I won’t be all that preoccupied with how hard he’s throwing.

- It’s a moment that may one day occupy an exalted place in Royals’ lore, the day Luke Hochevar made his first start under new manager Ned Yost, who left him in there to work his way out of a jam in the seventh-inning, even as Hochevar coughed up 4 runs and the ballgame.

Afterwards, Yost made it clear that he left Hochevar in there, even if it meant losing a ballgame, because it was time Hochevar learned how to fight his way out of a jam:

“I told him, `Look, in those types of situations,’” Yost said, “`I’m going to let you pitch yourself out of trouble. You need to learn how. When you get yourself into those situations when you’re rolling, you need to learn how to get yourself out of those situations.’”

The message: Long-term gain is worth the short-term pain.

“That’s part of the plan coming in,” Yost said. “You manage two ways every night. You manage for the small picture. You do everything you can to win tonight, but you also manage for the big picture.

“We’re trying to change things around here. We’re trying to find ways to take ourselves to the next level…I’m pretty darn sure that Hoch is going to be a key part of that when we do get there.”

Well, since then Hochevar has made five starts, and in 35 innings has struck out 31 batters against just 6 walks. He’s given up more homers – five homers in five starts, as opposed to just one homer in his first eight starts. But the improvement in his control has made him more effective regardless. If the gist of Yost’s message was that Hochevar had to stop being a nibbler and start attacking hitters, the point got through.

And in the process, while Hochevar has been nicked up for runs here and there, he may have finally turned the corner when it comes to surrendering the big inning that has been his downfall for so long. Consider this: since giving up four runs in the seventh inning against the White Sox that night, Hochevar has not allowed 3 runs in any single inning since. He has now thrown 35 consecutive innings without allowing a three-spot. That’s the longest stretch of his career, surpassing a streak of 33.1 innings set as a rookie in early 2008.

Hochevar hasn’t gotten over the hump yet. But I suspect he’s standing at the top of it right now. The best is yet to come.

- The handling of Jason Kendall is just one more example of how, no matter how many of the little details the Royals are starting to get right, they still have a habit of making ridiculous decisions at the macro level due to an almost impossible dearth of common sense.

As Will McDonald has chronicled repeatedly throughout the season, Kendall has now caught 92.4% of the team’s innings this season, with Brayan Pena getting the other 7.6%. No other catcher in baseball has caught even 85% of his team’s innings this season. Kendall has started 61 of the team’s 64 games behind the plate – he’s on pace for 154 starts. No catcher has caught in 154 games – let alone started that many – since Carlton Fisk in 1978. Fisk started 150 games and relieved 4 times.

In the entire retrosheet era – from 1954 until today – only one player has ever started 154 games at catcher in one season: Randy Hundley, who in 1968 started 156 times. And given that the regular season was only 154 games long prior to 1954, Hundley is probably the only one.

Hundley, incidentally, hit .168/.228/.211 in his last 34 games, and finished with a line of .226/.280/.311. Even in the Year of the Pitcher, that was awful. The year before, he hit .267/.322/.403; the year after, he hit .255/.334/.391. I’m sure it was just a coincidence.

I see no reason to think that the Royals might change their approach. I’ve become quite the fan of Ned Yost, but let’s remember that two years ago, when Kendall started 149 games for the Brewers (most starts by any catcher since 1982) – Yost was his manager. Kendall hit .202/.295/.298 in September that year. (Granted, he hit rather lousy the whole season.)

This year, it doesn’t look like Kendall is waiting until September to let the effects of catching every. single. day. wear him down. Eight days ago he was hitting an impressive .299/.360/.361, and for all the complaints I had about signing him this winter, if he ends the season with a .360 OBP, I’ll happily eat my words about him. But in his last six games, Kendall has gone 1-for-25, dropping his seasonal numbers to .269/.328/.324, which is about what we could expect from him prior to the season.

If any other player, at any other position, were in a 1-for-25 slump, we’d expect them to have gotten a day off at some point, to clear their head if nothing else. Kendall has started every game since May 31st.

But at least his veteran influence is helping the pitching staff. After all, without him the Royals might not have the…uh…second-worst ERA in the American League? The Royals publicly stated that Kendall was brought in largely to help nurture the enigmatic arms of Luke Hochevar and Kyle Davies. Hochevar, as discussed, has been better, but 1) he hasn’t been that much better, not yet; 2) he could have been expected to improve regardless of who was catching him; 3) the improvement we have seen from Hochevar seems to be temporally associated with the arrival of Yost, not Kendall. As for Davies, he has a 5.48 ERA and seems to be the same slightly-above-replacement-level starter he’s always been.

So, to recap: Jason Kendall is on pace to start more games behind the plate than any catcher in 40 years. His surprising bat is starting to go dead. His veteran influence and leadership have not translated into better pitching performances. He’s thrown out only 24% of opposing basestealers; the league average is 28%. He turns 36 in two weeks. He’s under contract for another season.

I stand by my original position: signing Kendall was a mistake. The sad thing is, it didn’t have to be. If the Royals would just show a modicum of restraint in the way they’re using Kendall, he might actually be an asset.

That’s the funny thing about common sense. It’s distinctly less common than you’d think.

- Speaking of stopgaps under contract for another season, Yuniesky Betancourt is…Yuniesky Betancourt is…it’s hard for me to write these words…playing better than I expected.

Admittedly, he could hardly have played worse. But as I write this, Yuni is batting .281/.310/.424. Those numbers are a dead ringer for his performances several years ago; in 2006, he hit .289/.310/.403, and in 2007, he hit .289/.308/.418. This is who he is at his best: a shortstop who can hit .280, and has more power than the Rey Sanchezes of the world, but whose abhorrence of the walk prevents him from being even a league-average hitter.

Having said that, I must concede that while his numbers this year are virtually identical to his numbers from 3 and 4 years ago, the value of those numbers is not, because the overall offensive numbers for the AL have dropped significantly this year. In 2006, the AL batting line as a whole was .275/.339/.437. This year, the average AL hitter has a line of .261/.332/.410. Those numbers figure to go up a little now that we’re into the warm part of the season, but that’s a very real drop, and it means that Betancourt’s numbers are better than they look.

Yuni, in fact, is challenging my statement that he’s “even a league-average hitter”. His OPS+ at the moment is 98, which is to say he’s a rounding error away from average. And that’s average for all hitters – it’s considerably above-average for a shortstop. (The line for all AL shortstops is .260/.316/.366.) Betancourt’s OPS+ is essentially the same as Alberto Callaspo and Mike Aviles, who both sport 99s at the moment.

Betancourt’s defense still rates as bad, and while I Am Not A Scout™, I’d be hard-pressed to argue with the statistics based on what I’ve seen. Betancourt has never had much of a problem ranging to the hole, but he has an almost comical lack of range to his left side. Basically, if there’s a ball hit up the middle, the only way it’s turning into an out is if 1) the Royals have the shift on, or 2) the second baseman can get to it. Yuni won’t.

Last year, Betancourt’s defense rated as 20 runs below average for the season, which is abysmal. This season, he’s on pace to be about 10 runs below average. Those numbers correspond, I think, to the general perception of his defense: better than last year, but still bad.

If he can maintain this pace, Betancourt’s going to make the Royals look awfully smart, and make a lot of analysts – myself included – look awfully dumb. A shortstop who hits around the overall league average, even with subpar defense, has value. To a team that was trotting Tony Pena Jr. out there this time last season, it has a lot more value. Given that Daniel Cortes, the main prospect the Royals surrendered to get him, has a 6.54 ERA in Double-A at the moment…you get the idea.

I remain unconvinced that Betancourt can continue to play this well. After the trade last season, in a larger sample size than we’ve seen this year, he hit .240/.269/.370. In 131 career games with the Royals, his line is .259/.288/.395. If that’s the real Yuni, then he remains a true liability for a team that can play Aviles at shortstop and wants to give Chris Getz the opportunity to prove himself every day.

But the possibility that Dayton Moore and the Royals will eventually be proven right about a trade that was savaged by everyone outside the organization – scouts, analysts, sportswriters, fans – has to be acknowledged. I’ve always tried to let the evidence guide my opinions, no matter where the evidence leads. If that means using my face to crack an egg, and washing that egg down with a black gamy bird, so be it.

At this point, the jury is still out. And I still hold out every hope that Christian Colon makes Betancourt expendable at the end of next season. I suspect the Royals feel the same way.

- Finally, to end on an inarguably happy note: David DeJesus is on pace for his finest season. In 17 games since the birth of his son, he’s hitting .429/.493/.619, bringing his seasonal line to .314/.392/.479. His numbers are eerily similar to Billy Butler’s, except of course he’s a fine-fielding corner outfielder as opposed to a below-average first baseman.

Bob Dutton has an article today which explores the Royals’ options when it comes to DeJesus, who can be kept for another season if they so choose. I plan to write about this more later, but of all the players the Royals might conceivably trade in the next 2 months – and there are a ton of them – DeJesus might be the only one whose absence would significantly hurt the team in 2011. If he is to be traded, it needs to be for quite a haul, particularly since whatever team trades for him would almost certainly get one draft pick (and possibly two) when he leaves for free agency.

I just wanted to bring DeJesus’ numbers to your attention because I think he’s one of the most underrated players in the history of the franchise. He’s spent the equivalent of about 6 full seasons on the team’s roster, and he’s beginning to enter the all-time Royals leaderboard in several categories.

He’s played in 847 games, 13th all-time, but just 50 games behind John Mayberry in 9th place.

He has 933 hits (9th).

He has 182 doubles (8th).

He has 45 triples (7th).

He has 489 runs (10th).

He has 383 RBIs (12th).

Heck, even his 61 career homers ranks 17th on the Royals’ list. And with 70 HBPs, he’s just 8 behind Mike Macfarlane’s team record.

So I’ll just throw this out there, and feel free to discuss in the comments. If DeJesus were traded tomorrow, I’d vote him to be included in the Royals’ Hall of Fame when he’s eligible. And I’m optimistic that one day he will find himself enshrined there.