Friday, July 23, 2010

A.C. to the O.C.

“Double-A will be a good test for O’Sullivan in 2009. If his secondary stuff comes around, he could be a No. 4 starter on a big league contender.”

- Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2009

“A hamstring pull and a lower back injury limited [Smith] to 19 starts last year, but if he comes to camp in shape he should advance to high Class A. His ceiling is as a No. 4 starter.”

- Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2010

Well, it’s a trade. That’s something.

I’ll admit: my initial reaction to this trade is that I was underwhelmed. This put me in an unfamiliar position: given that the general reaction (both from Royals fans and Angels fans) is that the Royals won the trade, I find myself being more pessimistic than most about this move. We’ll get to why that is later.

First off, let’s talk about who the Royals acquired. Sean O’Sullivan, in addition to having the most Irish-sounding name in the history of the Royals, is an essentially major-league ready starting pitcher. Shades of Kyle Davies, who was probably the best pitcher in the country at his age level when he was 14 and 15, O’Sullivan was perhaps the best high school junior in America in 2004. But his velocity dropped as a senior, and he dropped to the third round. The velocity has never returned – he throws in the 90-92 range – but he has made up for it with command and the ability to throw three average pitches.

He was the Angels’ #5 prospect going into last season per Baseball America, and despite an unimpressive 5.48 ERA for Salt Lake City, he made 10 starts for the playoff-bound Angels. His 5.92 ERA aside, it says something that the Angels turned to a 21-year-old pitcher in a pennant race.

He returned to Salt Lake this year, and while his ERA dropped to 4.76, his peripherals were basically the same: a little more than a hit an inning, about 6 Ks and 3 BBs per 9 innings. Those aren’t good numbers, but there’s an important caveat here: the Angels’ top three affiliates all play in good hitters’ parks. The same park effects that have made Brandon Wood such a bust* make their pitchers look worse than they are.

*: In 2005, at the age of 20, Brandon Wood had ONE HUNDRED AND ONE extra-base hits in a minor-league season. Three years later, he hit .200/.224/.327 in the majors. Two years after that – this year – he’s hitting .168/.185/.225. Which is why the Angels wanted Callaspo in the first place.

If you wanted to compare O’Sullivan to Brian Bannister, you wouldn’t be far off. Statistically, Bannister’s minor league numbers were a tick better; in terms of scouting reports, O’Sullivan is slightly better, but that doesn’t give Banny any credit for his cerebral approach on the mound. Bannister, at his best, is a #4 starter, and he’s not always at his best. That may describe O’Sullivan as well.

The biggest difference is that O’Sullivan is still just 22, while Bannister was already 26 when he first pitched for the Royals. But the aging curve doesn’t apply to pitchers the way it does for hitters. If O’Sullivan was a 22-year-old hitter, you could almost guarantee that he’d be a better player in four years than he is now. But for pitchers, sometimes they’re as good in their early 20s as they’ll ever be. Pitchers tend to improve their command as they age, but they also tend to lose velocity on their fastball. Many pitchers – like O’Sullivan – throw harder in high school than they ever will as a professional. If O’Sullivan were a power arm that needed to be tamed, I’d say he might get better with time. But he’s already got the polish – what he needs is a few more mph on his fastball, and the odds of that happening are slim.

Still, he’s a serviceable starter, who has the cache of just beating the Yankees in Yankee Stadium in his last start. If he starts on Sunday, as I expect he will, he’ll have a chance to win consecutive starts at Yankee Stadium pitching for the opposing team, which if nothing else should lead to a paragraph or two from Jayson Stark.

When the rumor of a Callaspo trade to the Angels first surfaced a few days ago, it was reported as O’Sullivan and “a fringe prospect”, and as I said on radio on Wednesday, that wasn’t nearly enough. Fortunately, it appears that the Angels upped their offer, as I wouldn’t describe Will Smith as a fringe guy.

Smith, in addition to having the most Fresh Prince-sounding name in the history of the Royals, is a very big left-handed pitcher whose stuff doesn’t match his mound presence. He’s sort of a left-handed O’Sullivan, as his fastball is nothing special (usually 88-90, which is comparable to 90-92 from a right-hander), but he has a good curveball and changes speeds with it, and he has fantastic control. In his first pro season, he walked 6 batters in 73 innings, then walked just 24 batters in 115 innings last year.

The Angels started him in high Class A this season, at the age of 20, and after six decent starts was promoted all the way to Triple-A, where his ERA was 5.60 but he still managed a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2-to-1. He was then demoted to Double-A and got his clock cleaned in four starts before the trade. I’m not entirely sure what the Angels were doing with him, and given his age (he just turned 21 two weeks ago), it seems silly to be pushing him aggressively. The Royals agree, as they’ve announced he’ll be joining Wilmington’s rotation.

Going from Rancho Cucamonga and Salt Lake City to Wilmington, Smith’s going to feel a lot like Royals’ hitters feel when they get to Double-A. He could put up some nice numbers over the next six weeks. Mind you, he’ll be just the third-best left-handed pitcher in Wilmington’s rotation, behind John Lamb and the resurgent Danny Duffy. But that says more about the Royals than about Smith.

Like O’Sullivan, he projects as just a #4 starter, but given his age and size, there’s more upside here. An AL source I trust likes him a fair amount, and likes the trade for the Royals overall. One of the knocks on Smith coming into the season was that he had no feel for his changeup, but my source says they have better reports on his changeup this year.

Still, I don’t think anyone would argue that Smith ranks among the 15 best prospects in the system, nor would O’Sullivan if he still had his rookie status. Again, that’s a reflection of the system – there are a lot of farm systems where Smith would crack the top 10. Both pitchers have value; I just feel like, given the wealth of pitching options the Royals will have in a year or two, they have less value to the Royals than to most teams.

Dayton Moore loves to talk about how pitching is the currency of baseball, and it’s a hoary cliché that you can never have too much pitching. You can never have too much of anything, but when you have needs elsewhere, too much pitching is a luxury the Royals can’t afford.

Rather than insisting on pitching in every deal, the Royals might insist on outfielders instead. Even if they believe in Alex Gordon in left field, that still leaves two positions to fill long-term. Derrick Robinson might fill one; he might not. Wil Myers might move to the outfield; he might not. Another outfielder, preferably one that can start next year, would be nice.

The Angels have a guy like that. Peter Bourjos, a 23-year-old in Triple-A, is hitting .301/.351/.455. He’s a plus-plus runner – he has 27 steals in 31 attempts, and already has 12 triples this year. He’s basically Scott Podsednik with upside and a center fielder’s glove, and with Torii Hunter entrenched in Anaheim, you’d think he’d be available. Maybe the Royals asked and were rebuffed. But I’d rather have Bourjos than both pitchers the Royals got.

Having said all of that, the general consensus is that the Royals did well here, and it’s not because other people think O’Sullivan or Smith are going to be stars. It’s because most people think that Callaspo simply isn’t worthy of a bigger haul than this. And I’m not sure I agree.

Callaspo has had a strange career, to be sure. Just in his three seasons with the Royals, he’s been three different players.

In 2008, he was a .300 hitter with absolutely no power, but made terrific contact (14 strikeouts in 234 at-bats), and played all over the infield, including – this is hard to believe now – 9 starts at shortstop.

In 2009, he still hit .300 and made excellent contact, but had a sudden power surge. After not hitting a single homer in his first three seasons in the majors, he hit 11 in 2009, along with 41 doubles and 8 triples. Frank White is the only middle-infielder in franchise history to have as many extra-base hits in a season. Callaspo also played second base every day, and his defense was a nightmare.

In 2010, he moved to third base, and his defense was almost shockingly good – by the eye test he was at least average, and most defensive metrics actually show him as slightly above-average this year. But while the power has stayed, he’s not hitting .300; he’s hitting .275, and his walk rate has dropped, leading to an unacceptable .308 OBP.

Given the Three Alberto Callaspos, what you think of him is more of a philosophical question than a baseball one. I’m an optimist by nature, so I see a guy who has finally moved to the position he was meant to play. And batting average is a notoriously schizophrenic stat – Callaspo has hit .300 the last two years, he’s a career .331 hitter in Triple-A, he’s striking out even less than last year, he’s 27 years old, so to me, the fact that he’s hitting .275 is more bad luck than anything else.

You combine Callaspo’s bat from last year with his glove from this year, and you have a heck of a player – a slightly above-average everyday third baseman. Who is making the league minimum. And who is under contract for three more seasons. That seems like a nice commodity.

Not everyone agrees. At Royals Review, Will McDonald says Callaspo “at best really, is average, and about to get more expensive.” At Fangraphs, Jeff Zimmerman writes that he’s “an average to below average major league hitter over his career.” You can make a case for that, certainly – it really depends on how strongly you weigh Callaspo’s last four months relative to his last two seasons. If I’m overrating Callaspo, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve overrated a Royals’ player.

I just feel like the Royals didn’t have to make this trade right now, and they could have waited to see how Callaspo played in the second half. If he hit over .300 the rest of the way – and I suspect that he’ll hit over .300 for the Angels this season – they could go into the off-season with a much more marketable commodity, and could probably get more than a pair of potential #4 starters for him.

But my disappointment is muted by the fact that the Royals already tried to move Callaspo last winter, and the best offer we heard about was a joke – A.J. Ellis, a backup catcher in Triple-A. It’s clear that I hold Callaspo in higher regard than 29 – well, 30 – major league teams. I don’t think that the Royals got fair value for Callaspo, but I think that the Royals got fair market value. This was about the best the Royals were going to get for Callaspo. Tactically, it’s a mistake, but strategically, it’s a winner.

Obviously, this move was made in preparation for opening the door for Mike Moustakas to take over, if not next April, then by next June. Wilson Betemit is a more-than-capable stopgap with a little bit of upside, and if I understand his service time correctly, the Royals have him under contract for next season. Once Moustakas is ready, Betemit can go back to his utility role with no harm done.

I just hope that this is the first of many trades to come. It’s great that the Royals traded a player to make room for a prospect who might be ready next June. But it won’t mean much if the Royals don’t trade guys like Jose Guillen and Scott Podsednik to make room for prospects who were ready this June. (Or in Kila Ka’aihue’s case, two Junes ago.)

Addendum: So David DeJesus is out, at least for 2 weeks, all but killing his trade prospects. (If his exam today goes well and he’s expected back in the minimum, the possibility is still there that a team would trade for him knowing he won’t be able to play until August 10th or so.) This is bad news, obviously, but as someone who was ambivalent about the decision to trade DeJesus in the first place, I don’t feel it’s the nightmare some are making it out to be. I’m assuming the Royals are smart enough to pick up his option for next season, and it’s not like DeJesus is blocking anyone who’s ready in the minors. If the Royals have a magical season in 2011, they’ll be happy they kept DeJesus around. If not, well, we can have this same discussion again next July.

In the meantime, Alex Gordon is back. Of course, so is Rick Ankiel. Which of the two gets more playing time in the coming weeks will be telling.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Short-Season Leagues.

(Before we continue, I feel obliged to acknowledge the loss of our beloved Chris Hayes, a.k.a. Disco, who was unceremoniously released by the Royals on Wednesday.

It’s a testament to what a fantastic season it has been in the minor leagues that my primary emotion is sadness and not anger. Let’s be honest: the writing was on the wall that this was going to happen for months, really ever since Opening Day, when Hayes was mysteriously placed on Omaha’s disabled list despite not, you know, being disabled. Hayes was placed on the DL three times this year, and in fact was on the DL when he was released – but I have multiple sources that attest to the fact that he was never injured.

Granted, Hayes didn’t take advantage of the slim opportunities that were afforded to him. In 27 innings, he allowed 36 hits and struck out just 10 batters, and while his control (5 walks) and ability to keep the ball in the park (2 homers) were as good as ever, he wasn’t the dominant pitcher that he had been at every minor league level prior to Double-A. I have no trouble admitting that he was disappointing, and I’m sure he’d agree.

But aside from the extenuating circumstances – it’s hard to pitch effectively when you know that the next bad outing you have might lead to a phantom “injury” – the sad part is that the Royals were clearly just waiting for him to fail in order to be free of him. If the Royals want to argue that Hayes didn’t pitch well enough to deserve more of an opportunity, then they’ll have to explain why the hell Matt Herges is still on Omaha’s roster. Matt Herges is FORTY YEARS OLD, he has a 4.47 ERA (Disco’s ERA is 3.95), he’s allowed 86 baserunners in 52 innings (he has a higher WHIP than Disco), and he’s struck out only 26 batters. Did I mention he’s 40? And yet Herges has nearly twice as many innings pitches as Hayes this year.

So yeah, it’s pretty clear the Royals never believed in him. They might be right – there’s a reason we call him Disco instead of Grunge. And he has struggled since reaching Triple-A. But the biggest issue I have isn’t that they were waiting for him to fail, it’s that they were setting him up to fail, and that when he started to struggle, they never gave him the opportunity to prove whether he could adjust. Hayes had never struggled before he reached Triple-A – he had a career 2.29 ERA before he made it to Omaha. But after he struggled for two months last season, he was clearly an afterthought this year, and the Royals were clearly just looking for a reason to let him go.

And again, I’m less upset about losing Disco than I am about what this says about the Royals. I still think Hayes can be a serviceable middle reliever, but I’m not going to cry over losing a serviceable middle reliever. But 30 years ago, the Royals gave a guy named Dan Quisenberry a chance to pitch because they were willing to think outside the box. The Royals had just closed their Baseball Academy, perhaps the most radically outside-the-box idea in baseball history. Whitey Herzog, then the team’s manager, cared less about form than about results. Today, the Royals are almost obsessed with conventional wisdom – just look at our starting catcher. It’s not that Disco is the next Quisenberry. It’s that even if he was, I’m not sure the Royals would give him a second look.

I’m sad for the Royals, but I’m not sure I’m sad for Disco. In fact, this might be the best thing for him, because now he’s a free agent, able to sign with whichever one of the other 29 teams he thinks will take him seriously as a prospect. I’m still trying to find out the details of what happened, but I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if the Royals didn’t release Hayes so much as he requested to be released, and they honored his request. I have to think that after going on the DL for the third time for no reason, he might have had enough, and went to the powers that be and said, in essence, “it’s clear you guys don’t believe in me, so why not just let me go and find employment with a team that does?”

Regardless, I wish him the best of luck, and I still look forward to the day when he makes his major league debut. I’ve said before that Chris Hayes is the player we would all be if we could have found a way to play professional baseball. Royals uniform or not, you’d be heartless not to root for a guy like that.)

We’ll finish our tour of the minor leagues with a quick look at the short-season teams. When I spoke with J.J. Picollo six weeks ago, before the rookie-league teams had started their season, I asked him to give me the name of a player who was doing well in extended spring training that might explode on the scene once the games counted.

He gave me two. The first was Yowill Espinal, who (along with Geulin Beltre) was the most expensive Latin American signing ever by the Royals in 2007, as both players got $250,000 to sign. (That record has since been broken; see below.) The second was Lane Adams, an outfielder drafted in the 13th round out of an Oklahoma high school last year. Adams is very athletic – his main sport in high school was basketball – and got $225,000 to sign, which is fourth or fifth-round money.

A month into the season, both players show a lot of promise, and not a lot of polish. Espinal debuted in 2008 as a 17-year-old and was overmatched in rookie ball – he drew 2 walks and struck out 42 times in 50 games. Last year he improved dramatically, as you would expect from someone so young – he walked 22 times in 63 games. Between the two seasons, he showed good pop for a 17-18 year old, with 11 homers and 7 triples in 113 games, and he also stole 33 bases.

This year, Espinal has moved up to Idaho Falls – the Royals have three short-season teams (most organizations have only two), and they generally send the youngest players to Arizona, the most polished to Idaho Falls, and the guys in between to Burlington. His power has disappeared – he hasn’t hit a triple or homer yet – but he’s hitting .288 with a .357 OBP. Unfortunately, he has also committed 14 errors in just 20 games at second base.

If you squint, you can sort of see Espinal as a player in the Ruben Gotay/Carlos Febles mold. He needs to polish up his glove or fall in that trap of having the bat of an up-the-middle player and the glove of a corner guy. But he’s young.

Adams is hitting .284/.329/.392 on the same team, which is perfectly fine for a player just a year out of high school. Or it would be, except that Adams was very old for a high school draft pick – he was 19-and-a-half when he was picked, and turns 21 this November. You can cut him some slack for his athleticism and lack of experience, but the clock is ticking.

Other intriguing guys in the short-season leagues:

- Jacob Kuebler, Alex Gordon’s cousin, and a 17th-round pick out of high school two years ago. He struggled with the bat in 2008 and 2009, but broke out this year at the age of 20, hitting .330/.366/.521 with Idaho Falls. He was just promoted to the Midwest League this week and homered in his second game.

- Crawford Simmons, who was taken in the 14th round last year, one round after Adams, but was a top-5 round pick on merit – he fell because he was a difficult sign, and the Royals gave him $450,000. As the only teenager on Burlington’s staff, he’s struck out 31 and walked 8 in 31 innings so far. Also – I know you won’t believe this – he’s left-handed.

- Cheslor Cuthbert, who was signed out of Nicaragua for $1.35 million last year, easily breaking the team record for highest bonus given to a foreign player, is probably the team’s best prospect in short-season ball. He’s just 17 years old, and after hitting .265/.342/.412 in rookie ball, was promoted to Idaho Falls this week and homered in his first at-bat. He’s playing against guys 4 and 5 years older than him now, and scouting reports on his bat are excellent. Once again, it looks like a case of the Royals being rewarded for being willing to open their checkbook for amateur talent.

- Geulin Beltre, who along with Espinal received a quarter-million-dollar signing bonus in 2007, has moved from third base to the outfield, and is hitting .248/.328/.410 this season. Like Espinal, he’s just 19. The odds are good that at least one of the two has a major-league future of some kind.

- Willian Avinazar and Robinson Yambati, about whom I know little other than their stat lines, which are good. Avinazar is a 21-year-old Venezuelan who struggled in his stateside debut last year, but for Burlington this year he has been a revelation, with a 1.07 ERA, and in 34 innings has allowed just 22 hits, 6 walks, and struck out 31. Yambati is from the Dominican, is only 19, and has struck out 36 batters in 27 innings in Arizona this year.

- Jin-Ho Shin, who was the Royals’ first big foray into Pacific Rim scouting, as the Korean catcher signed for $600,000 last year. In his debut he’s hitting .246/.342/.323 as an 18-year-old, but has thrown out just 5 of 30 basestealers.

- Dylan Lindsay, a South African who was signed by the Royals practically sight unseen before the World Baseball Classic last year. (The only person in the organization who had seen him pitch was Mike Randall, a native South African who works as an associate scout for the team.) The Royals had to wait a year until he finished high school to see him pitch. So far, he’s thrown 11 innings in Arizona, and has allowed eight hits and a walk, with 5 Ks. An enormous project, but he’s 18; he has an enormous amount of time.

- Michael Antonio, a shortstop who was the best prep player in New York City this season, was the Royals’ third-round pick this year. Of the team’s first five selections, he was the only one who seemed to be a reach – most scouts projected him as a fifth or sixth-round talent. So far, though, he’s looked good, hitting .267/.313/.489, with six extra-base hits in 11 games. The park helps, and there are those who think he’ll have to move off of shortstop soon, but he’s off to a good start.

And finally, a few other random folk who missed being mentioned for one reason or another:

- Brian Anderson, who after five seasons in the major leagues as an outfielder, decided this spring that he wanted to become a pitcher – and the Royals, inexplicably, agreed. I say “inexplicably” because the Royals had just signed him to a $700,000 contract, and I don’t think they anticipated paying him to learn a new craft in rookie ball, which is what he is doing. He’s pitched well so far – four innings, two hits, no walks, five strikeouts. If the Royals wanted to convert a hitter into a pitcher, they should have kept Tony Pena Jr.

- Noel Arguelles, whose five-year, $6.9 million contract last winter makes him the most expensive amateur signing – foreign or domestic – in Royals history. He’s missed the entire season so far with a sore shoulder, and while he hasn’t undergone the knife, the fact that the Royals can’t seem to diagnose exactly what’s wrong with his shoulder is almost more worrisome than surgery. He’s not a bust – yet – but it would be nice to see him on the mound one of these years.

- Jeff Bianchi, who is out for the year with Tommy John surgery. Bianchi ranked 11th on Baseball America’s list of Royals prospects before the season, so while his injury is a setback, he certainly should not be forgotten entirely.

- Speaking of outfielders in their late 20s, Shane Costa recently returned to Wilmington after a two-week rehab stint in Arizona. I mention him only because I was actually kind of surprised that Costa was still in the organization. Thanks to injury, he played in exactly one minor league game between the end of 2008 and last month. At his best he was a borderline fourth outfielder; there’s nothing to see here.

- Kevin Chapman, the Royals’ fourth-round pick this year, was a left-handed reliever drafted as a senior out the University of Florida, and is expected to move quickly through the system. He debuted with Wilmington last week, and in his second outing he struck out the side. He could be this year’s version of Louis Coleman, and be banging on the door of the majors by this time next year.

- Danny Duffy, who is slowly working his way back into shape, having made two starts apiece in Arizona and in Idaho Falls, and made his first start in Wilmington the other day. I expect him to make it to Northwest Arkansas at some point in August. While the missed time didn’t help, remember that before he left the team he was dealing with some elbow pain anyway, so he probably would have missed some time regardless. He’s almost certainly headed to the Arizona Fall League, where he’ll get the chance to replace those innings against high-level competition.

- Jarrod Dyson, who you might recall was, bizarrely, the only player Trey Hillman mentioned at the winter meetings when I asked him what players in the minor leagues he was looking forward to seeing in 2010. This might go a small way towards explaining why our manager is now Ned Yost.

Dyson missed the first-half of the season with a pulled muscle, but has been a hitting machine since returning from injury: .520 in a six-game stint in Arizona, .327 in 12 games for Wilmington, and he’s 6-for-20 since returning to Double-A. He also has 11 steals and his usual Gold Glove-caliber defense.

There are two issues with Dyson: 1) he turns 26 next month, and 2) he still has yet to hit a home run as a pro. The Royals still love him, and I still don’t understand why. Derrick Robinson is a younger, cheaper version of him, but I suspect the Royals will somehow find a way to prefer Dyson anyway.

I’ll be back soon to wrap up the minors, and give you my woefully ill-informed list of the team’s Top 20 (and maybe more) prospects.