Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Good Day.

Sometimes, the Royals’ emphasis on keeping a tight lid on rumors can be annoying.

This was not one of those times.

As the minutes ticked off towards 3 o’clock, there was not a hint that the Royals had anything brewing. Twitter was buzzing with what turned out to be the busiest trade deadline in recent memory, but the news about the Royals was so light that I implored people in the know to make up a rumor just to make me feel better.

A little before 3, the clubhouse opened up, and we wandered in there as much to see whether we could get a sign of an impending trade – maybe someone was getting a hug – as to talk to the players themselves. Nothing doing. Three o’clock came and past. I wandered over to introduce myself to Brian Bannister, who waved me to have a seat, and was as gracious and engaging as you’d expect. We spoke about sabermetrics and Pitch F/X and the adjustments he was trying to make this season (fewer cutters, trying to change speeds more often) for about 15 minutes.

And then he stopped suddenly and looked up at the screen showing the MLB Network. I turned around and read along the bottom crawl, “KANSAS CITY ROYALS TRADE OF RICK ANKIEL AND RHP KYLE FARNSWORTH TO ATLANTA BRAVES.” We looked around. In opposite corners of the room, Ankiel and Farnsworth were both getting a hug.

Yeah, that was a little surreal.

At that point, knowing nothing of the return, I was psyched about the trade. When I wrote about the Royals’ trade options a few weeks ago, I said I would have been happy if the Royals moved three guys off their major-league roster; with this trade, they moved four. Dayton Moore had backed up his words with actions; he had made moves to clear a little payroll and a lot of roster space. The talent he got in return was almost beside the point.

And then I found out who the Royals got in return.

Jesse Chavez is just an arm, and not a particularly good arm. In 119 career innings he’s got a 4.92 ERA, and I suspect that’s going to go up pitching in the American League. He has 92 strikeouts and just 35 unintentional walks, which isn’t the problem; it’s the 19 homers he’s given up that are the problem.

The Braves acquired him this off-season after Rafael Soriano surprised them by accepting their offer of arbitration. Without the budget to pay him, they immediately pawned him off on whatever team was willing to take his contract, which turned out to be the Rays. That Chavez was the token player the Rays gave up to acquire Soriano gives you an idea of where he fits in the pecking order of relievers.

The Royals think they can tweak a few things with him, and there’s no harm in giving him two months to see if he can improve upon Victor Marte’s legendary performance. He turns 27 in a couple of weeks; I’m not expecting much here.

Gregor Blanco, like Chavez, was a rookie two years ago, and was a nifty little player. He only hit .251 with a single homer in 144 games – he slugged .309, which is positively Kendallesque. But he drew 74 walks and had a .366 OBP, and ran well and played all three outfield positions – he certainly had some value. He’s spent more time in the minors than in the majors since; he has just 101 at-bats in the majors the last two years. In the minors he’s been exactly the same sort of player – despite absolutely no power, he’s been able to coax enough walks for a lifetime .368 OBP.

Just looking at his statistical record, I thought he was very reminiscent of Mitch Maier – a really good fourth outfielder, a guy who can play all three positions and work a walk, but not hit for a lot of power. So I was pleased when Moore made the exact same comparison during his press conference. There are subtle differences; Maier at least has some power, whereas Blanco’s is almost non-existent – but Blanco is a faster runner and possibly a better outfielder. I expect we’ll see him play center field with Maier shunted off to a corner when he does play.

Blanco’s 26, so he is what he is. But what he is is a useful fourth outfielder that’s under contract through 2014. If the Royals didn’t already have Maier, Blanco would be a nice addition. Instead, he’s sort of superfluous. The danger is that the Royals will spend money on a “true” centerfielder this winter, forcing them to throw Blanco or Maier overboard. If the Royals are smart, they’ll save their pennies and give Maier the starting job, with Blanco backing up all three positions, until someone like Derrick Robinson or Paulo Orlando is ready.

Chavez and Blanco alone would have made this a tolerable trade. The addition of Tim Collins makes it an exciting one. All you need to know about Collins is that my friend Kevin Goldstein has, for a while now, referred to Collins as “my favorite prospect in baseball. Not the best, but my favorite.”

Why would a lefty reliever be his favorite prospect in baseball? Maybe because Collins is listed at 5’7” – which is only true if he’s standing on a phone book – and 15 pounds – which is only true if he’s wearing ankle weights. (I’ve been told he’s closer to 5’5”, 140.) And yet he throws a legitimate 92-93, with a hammer curveball and the natural deception that comes from launching pitches from such an unusual angle.

Collins’ story is one of the best in the minors. He went undrafted out of high school – probably because he was, you know, 5’5” and 140 – but had the good fortune to hail from the same New Hampshire town as Blue Jays’ GM J.P. Ricciardi. If I remember the story correctly, Ricciardi only heard about Collins because his own father told him about the local kid who looked like the batboy but threw bullets. Ricciardi saw Collins dominate for his American Legion team that summer when he came home for a visit, and signed Collins, then just 17, to a pro contract.

Three years later, Collins has thrown 203 innings as a pro, and has struck out 308 batters. That is not a misprint. His control isn’t quite there yet – he’s walked 88 batters – but he’s allowed just 132 hits and 11 homers.

Now, the minor leagues are filled with guys who put up pretty numbers, even ridiculous numbers, but who scouts feel have no real shot at the majors because they rely on slop and changing speeds. And most of the time the scouts are right. (No Disco jokes, please.) But Tim Collins isn’t one of those guys. The scouts love him almost as much as the numbers do. As Goldstein told us on our Trade Deadline show today, one scout told him that “if Collins were 6’3”, we’d be comparing him to Norm Charlton.”

The jump from A-ball to Double-A is the biggest jump in the minors, and most of the pseudo-prospects who dominate in the low minors get a rude awakening in Double-A. Collins has spent all of this season in Double-A, and he hasn’t pitched as well as he did in A-ball. He’s pitched better. His strikeout rate, which was a ridiculous 13.2 Ks per 9 innings in the low minors, is 15.4 strikeouts per 9 innings this year. Seriously. He has 87 strikeouts in 51 innings. And his command has improved; he had walked 4.0 batters per 9 innings prior to this season, but just 3.4 per 9 this year.

Did I mention he’s just 20?

I don’t want to oversell Collins here; he’s not a future closer. But he’s not simply a lefty specialist either. With his excellent curveball and fringe-average changeup, he has the weapons to get right-handed hitters out as well, and he’s actually been more effective against RHB this season. The Royals have Dusty Hughes in the majors, and guys like Blaine Hardy and Brandon Sisk in the minors, but they simply didn’t have a lefty reliever with Collins’ stuff in their system. Few teams do. If I were to slot him into my Top 25 Prospects list, I’d probably slide him in right behind Noel Arguelles. He’s pretty clearly the best relief prospect – lefty or righty – in the organization.

Once I saw how substantial the Royals’ haul was, I figured that they had to be paying most of the money on Ankiel’s and Farnsworth’s contacts, because there’s no way they would have gotten the players they did otherwise. And they are; the Braves are on the hook for only $1 million between the two, which I believe is the cost of their buyouts for next season.

The Royals deserve all kinds of credit for this, because in essence, they just bought Tim Collins. Dayton Moore convinced David Glass to eat the money, and by doing so he was able to make a deal with the Braves, who are going all-in for the chance to send Bobby Cox into the sunset a winner. The Braves were under a lot of financial pressures and could not take on a lot of money, and the Royals took advantage of that by taking on a good prospect in lieu of cash. In a sense, the Royals did to the Braves what we thought they would do to the Dodgers in the Podsednik deal.

And unlike the Podsednik and Callaspo trades, which I endorsed more for the thought process behind them than for the actual return, I can endorse this deal without reservations. The Royals opened up a pair of roster spots (granted, they will be taken by Blanco and Chavez, at least for now), they saved a little money, they moved a pair of guys that had no future in the organization, and they got a player who could be a key piece of a contender in 2 or 3 years. What’s not to love?

Just one thing – still no Kila. I’m not going to be too hard on Dayton at the moment, because I’m taking at face value his words – repeated emphatically at the press conference today – that he absolutely understands that Ka’aihue needs to be called up, and that he absolutely intends to do so “very soon”. For now, I’m taking “very soon” to be “as soon as we realize we don’t need 8 relievers on the roster”, which is to say Ka’aihue ought to be on the roster when the Royals head out on a road trip on Monday. If he’s not, well, feel free to unleash the hounds then.

In the meantime, let’s enjoy the moment a little. In the last 24 hours, the Royals have won a game on a walk-off homer by Alex Gordon, won another game on an 8th-inning homer by Billy Butler, and made a great trade. Oh, and almost as an afterthought, our manager signed a 2-year contract extension. I don’t want to analyze it too much because I thought it was inevitable, but I also endorse this move, for all the reasons delineated here.

It was a good day. Maybe even a very good day.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Top 25 Prospects.

After much delay, and with the caveat that I’ve probably completely forgotten about a player somewhere along the way, here’s my snapshot list of the 25 best prospects in the organization. We begin with a surprise:


1) Wil Myers, C, A+, 19

2) Eric Hosmer, 1B, AA, 20

3) Mike Moustakas, 3B, AAA, 21

Let me start from the bottom up here. Moustakas has had a terrific season, but there are enough concerns with him that I can’t in good conscience rank him above the other two.

There are some small concerns – his plate discipline isn’t very good, and his defense is still rough. But the big concern can be distilled to these two lines:

.437/.485/.894. That’s Moustakas’ line at home for Northwest Arkansas this year.

.222/.318/.398. That’s his line on the road in Double-A.

There’s no reason why the home ballpark in Springdale should make Coors Field at its peak look like the Astrodome. But this year, at least, it has. It’s not just Moustakas. Clint Robinson is hitting .367/.475/.713 at home, .271/.324/.477 on the road. Paulo Orlando is .364/.429/.587 at home, .285/.343/.391 on the road. Johnny Giavotella is .322/.408/.452 at home, .290/.351/.391 on the road. And so on. The only Natural who’s hitting better on the road is Derrick Robinson, whose style – hit the ball on the ground and run like hell – isn’t going to be very park-dependent.

Maybe it’s just a half-season fluke from a stadium that otherwise plays as a slightly hitter-friendly ballpark. But until this mystery is solved, I can’t take Moustakas’ numbers in Double-A completely seriously. I should note that I had already decided to rank Moose behind Hosmer and Myers two weeks ago, before Moustakas reached Omaha. The fact that he’s hitting just .246/.254/.406 in Omaha, with a single walk in 17 games, only reinforces my point. He’s a great prospect, but he’s not as great as he looked in Double-A, and he’s going to need some more time to develop.

Regarding Hosmer vs. Myers…you can certainly make a case either way. Speaking of Northwest Arkansas, Hosmer has hit six home runs (four at home) in 14 games and slugged .736 since moving up to Double-A, which pretty much eliminates the one knock on his performance this season. He’s now up to 13 homers on the season, along with 33 doubles and 6 triples in just 101 games; he’s slugging .571. He has more walks than strikeouts. He’s stolen 13 bases in 14 attempts. There’s really nothing bad I can say about the guy.

But I ranked Myers above him anyway, because Myers offers the possibility of something Hosmer can’t: an elite bat at an up-the-middle-position. If I knew for a fact that Myers will eventually move off of catcher, I’d rank Hosmer #1. But I don’t. The Royals could have taken Yasmani Grandal in the draft and moved Myers to the outfield, but they didn’t. Myers still has a lot of work to do behind the plate, but the raw tools are there – he’s thrown out 33% of baserunners attempting to steal this year, which is very solid. In 59 games, he’s allowed 19 passed balls, which is a problem. Buster Posey, for instance, allowed just 10 passed balls in 64 games in A-ball. Of course, Posey was 22 at the time; Myers is 19.

Even if Myers has to move to the outfield, though, it’s not clear that he’s a worse hitter than Hosmer or Moustakas. For the season, he’s hitting .298/.417/.481; while he strikes out more than Hosmer, he also draws more walks – he has drawn 64 walks in just 92 games, which makes him probably the most patient hitter in the minors other than Kila Ka’aihue. Aside from home runs, he’s hitting better in Wilmington than he did in Burlington, and he’s just 19. His median projection is only slightly behind Hosmer’s – but his upside projection is something no other player in the system can match.

4) John Lamb, LHSP, A+, 20

5) Michael Montgomery, LHSP, AA/rehab, 21

In terms of pure talent, you could move Lamb a slot or two, but he’s a pitcher, and as the guy right below him has shown this year, there’s an inherent risk that doesn’t apply with hitters. Lamb is downgraded for actuarial reasons, not because of his talent. (Lamb, by the way, was just promoted to Double-A, his second promotion of the season.)

All you need to know about the Royals’ system is that Montgomery, who was the #1 prospect in the system before the season, is a slightly better prospect today than he was in March…and he’s been passed by four other guys.

As for whether Lamb or Montgomery is better…it’s really almost a tie at this point. Tie goes to the healthy pitcher.


6) Chris Dwyer, LHSP, AA, 22

While the first five guys established themselves ahead of the rest of the pack a while ago, it wasn’t entirely clear until recently who was the #6 prospect in the system. But after pitching lights-out in his last month in Wilmington, Dwyer was dominant in his first three starts in Double-A before he lost control of the strike zone in his last start and got knocked out in the first. It’s telling that after the draft, someone in the front office (Moore or J.J. Picollo, can’t remember who) was asked about Dwyer and said, in effect, that if he had been in the draft this year, the Royals would have taken him with the #4 overall pick. That tidily sums up why Dwyer ranks ahead of…

7) Christian Colon, SS, A+, 21

Give the Royals credit: not only did they make the right pick in the end by taking Colon, but by working out a pre-draft deal with him, they got him playing – Colon is the only guy among the first 12 picks to sign. After starting just 4-for-31 as he adjusted to pro ball, Colon is 24-for-78 (.308) since. His overall line of .257/.311/.349 is perfectly acceptable for a shortstop who just walked off of a college campus and into a tough high A-ball stadium. If I was sure he could stay at shortstop, he might rank higher.


7A) Kila Ka’aihue, 1B, AAA, 26

I list Ka’aihue as “7A” because, unlike every other prospect on this list, I expect him to lose his rookie eligibility by year’s end. (If Ka’aihue isn’t in the starting lineup this Sunday, something’s gone wrong.)

The Royals had an inherent advantage over most of the farm systems that were ranked ahead of them going into the season: virtually all of their best prospects were still far enough away from the majors that they would all be eligible next year. For the second straight season, the Royals have no impact rookies on the roster. Last year, you might recall, the Royals didn’t have a single player make his major league debut until September, when Victor Marte and Dusty Hughes got token call-ups. This year, Blake Wood is the only player to have debuted with the Royals. Wood, Marte, and Hughes are joined by Kanekoa Texeira (who debuted with the Mariners first) in the bullpen; the only other rookies to wear a Royals uniform have been non-entities Anthony Lerew and Brian Bullington.

By the tme you read this, 2007 10th-round pick Greg Holland may have made his debut, which would make him the surprise answer to the question, “who was the first player drafted by Dayton Moore to reach the majors?” Holland, like everyone else who’s debuted in the last two years, is a reliever.

(You know who is the last Royals’ hitter to make his major-league debut? That’s right – Kila.)

So the Royals’ farm system almost had to take a step forward. To its credit, it has. Expect the invasion of new talent to begin next year.

8) Danny Duffy, LHSP, A+/Rehab, 21

After a couple of rehab starts in rookie ball, Duffy returned to Wilmington. After a rough first start, he threw 5 shutout innings with 8 strikeouts his second time out, and last night he once again allowed just two hits in 5 innings, this time with 7 strikeouts. After the game, he was promoted to Double-A along with Lamb. As if we didn’t have enough left-handed pitchers in the minors.

When Montgomery returns to Northwest Arkansas in the next week or two, the Naturals will have the following rotation:

John Lamb

Michael Montgomery

Chris Dwyer

Danny Duffy

Aaron Crow

As Greg Schaum asks, “I challenge anyone to show me a better minor league rotation in the past several years.” I’m not taking him up on that challenge.

9) Aaron Crow, RHSP, AA, 23

In Crow’s defense, he’s been pitching much better of late. In his last 6 starts, he’s thrown 36 innings, allowed 31 hits and 13 walks, struck out 32, and surrendered 3 homers. Also, the same park effects that have made guys like Moustakas and Clint Robinson the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig of the Texas League this year have been working against Crow. While his ERA is virtually the same at home and on the road, Crow’s peripherals are much better away from Springdale: 54 strikeouts vs. 29 walks, and just 5 homers in 69 innings. I argued at the time of the draft that the Royals should have taken college shortstop Grant Green. Even though Green is hitting .327/.374/.499 in the California League, he’s also made 27 errors in 77 games; it’s far from certain that the Royals made the wrong decision.

(Update: Crow started last night, on the road, and allowed 5 runs and 6 walks in just 4 innings. It seems he still has a lot of work to do.)

I’ve compared Crow to Luke Hochevar from the moment he was drafted, and that comparison grows stronger and stronger. Both were drafted out of independent leagues after failing to sign the previous year, and both have struggled in their first full season of pro ball. I suspect that Crow, like Hochevar, will eventually turn into a useful member of the starting rotation, while continuing to frustrate fans and the team alike for not being as good as his stuff suggests he should be.

10) Tyler Sample, RHSP, A-, 21

11) Tim Melville, RHSP, A+, 20

Sample has surpassed Melville in the eyes of many, even though he’s a year older and a level lower. I think Melville has become very underrated because of his high ERA, when in fact his peripherals are excellent for a 20-year-old in high-A ball. Melville went on the DL a few weeks ago, and until he returns I’d have to favor Sample. Both guys might rank in the top 5 of a weaker system.

12) Cheslor Cuthbert, 3B, R+, 17

The Nicaraguan bonus baby just keeps opening up eyes. Last night he batted six times, walked twice, doubled twice, and tripled. He’s hitting .286/.355/.482 overall and .318/.375/.591 since moving to Idaho Falls, which is a league dominated by college draftees.

Billy Butler went to Idaho Falls the year he was drafted, and at the age of 18 hit .373/.488/.596. That’s the only performance I can think of that comes close.

There’s a chance Cuthbert could make a cameo for Burlington before season’s end, at the age of 17, which might be unprecedented. Even if he doesn’t, he’s likely to start next season on a full-season team at the age of 18 years, 5 months. The only 18-year-old I can find to play for a full-season team was Andres Blanco, who got into 5 games for Wilmington in 2002. If anyone else knows of any examples, leave them in the comments.

This is a very conservative ranking for Cuthbert, based on the fact that he’s still in short-season ball. I would have no argument with ranking him as high as #9 overall.

13) Derrick Robinson, CF, AA, 22

He’s taken a big step forward; now he has to take another one. Right now he’s hitting .294/.355/.385, which is to say he projects as a switch-hitting Juan Pierre. That’s a useful player at the league minimum, but not an above-average player. Keep in mind, he’s still 22, and he’s still loaded with tools. He needs a full-year in Triple-A next year, and he needs to rediscover the strike zone; he drew 27 walks in April and May, but just 10 since.


14) Johnny Giavotella, 2B, AA, 23

After an insane four-game stretch last week where he went 11-for-15 with 2 homers (he had hit one all season), and another 4-for-5 night with a double and a homer on Wednesday, my favorite sleeper is up to .305/.378/.419. For the second straight season, he’s hitting much better in the second half of the season than the first. There’s no margin for error here; he’s either an everyday second baseman or a Quadruple-A player.

15) Buddy Baumann, LHSP, A+, 21

Baumann’s just the latest example of a pitcher who fell in the draft because of his height; he was a second-rounder on talent, but he’s listed at 5’10”, and the Royals got him in the seventh. He has better numbers since moving into the rotation than he had in relief.

16) Noel Arguelles, LHSP, injured, 20

At this point I’m not even sure he exists. If he does, the scouting reports we had on him pre-injury mandate that he be listed this high. Healthy, he’s a Top 10 guy.

17) Salvador Perez, C, A+, 20

18) Manny Pina, C, AAA, 23

Pina is the safe bet, a guy who’s almost certain to have a major-league career as a backup. Pina’s thrown out exactly 50% of attempted base thieves this year, and has a combined line of .242/.313/.402 this year. As long as the Royals’ backup catcher gets to start about 9 games a year, Pina might as well stay in Omaha and see if his bat can develop a little more.

Perez, on the other hand, is a much riskier bet to succeed – before a 7-for-13 stretch the last three nights, he was hitting .225/.245/.268 since June 1st. On the other hand, he’s barely 20, and his defensive skills are also highly advanced (he’s thrown out 44% of basestealers himself).

19) Paulo Orlando, OF, AA, 24

The longer this goes on, the harder it is to ignore his performance. Orlando is hitting .323/.386/.486, and he still has track-star speed in the outfield. He’s still probably a fourth outfielder in the end, but given his Brazilian background and undeniable tools, he may not have established his ceiling yet.

Dayton Moore acquired him for Horacio Ramirez. Yes, Moore was foolish enough to re-sign Ramirez afterwards, but still: he was able to turn Ramirez into a useful ballplayer. That has to count for something.


19A) Will Smith, LHSP, A+, 21

This ranking is just a wild guess. He’s been moved around so much this year that it’s hard to get a handle on him. If you’re a raging optimist, you can compare him to a poor man’s Chris Dwyer – average-plus fastball, good curveball – and point to what the Royals have done with Dwyer in the last year. He allowed just one run in seven innings in his first start for Wilmington.

20) David Lough, OF, AAA, 24

The Royals have long loved Lough, perhaps more than he deserves, but something has happened this month to make me take notice. Lough has always been a free-swinger; he walked just 24 times all last season, and in the first three months of this season he drew just 10 walks in 66 games. In June, Lough walked just once, and struck out 17 times.

In July, he’s walked NINETEEN times, and struck out just 12 times. Despite hitting just .207 this month, he has a .352 OBP.

I don’t know what it means yet. But when a player combines athleticism with plate discipline, good things usually happen. Which is why I’m starting to take Lough a tiny bit seriously as a prospect again.

21) Michael Antonio, SS, R-, 18

It’s still very early, and he’s still very raw, but I’m impressed with his .508 slugging average in rookie ball. He sort of reminds me of another Mike A. the Royals drafted out of New York City a few years ago.

22) Yowill Espinal, SS/2B, R+, 19

He’s 19, got a quarter-million to sign, and is hitting .302/.367/.365 in a college player’s league. He also has an .888 fielding percentage at second base.

23) Jeff Bianchi, SS, injured, 23

He hit .308/.358/.435 between A-ball and Double-A last year, and he’ll still be just 24 when he returns from Tommy John surgery next year. Probably a utility player in the end.

23A) Elisaul Pimental, A-, 22

Just a guess at this point.

24) Clint Robinson, 1B, AA, 25

He really is a poor man’s Kila Ka’aihue at this point. Robinson’s hitting .312/.393/.579, which is great and all, but Ka’aihue hit .314/.463/.624 for the same team when he was 24, and look what good that’s done him.

25) Louis Coleman, RHRP, AAA, 24

You could make a case for a lot of relievers here, from Coleman to Blaine Hardy to Patrick Keating to the newly-promoted Greg Holland, who has control issues but in his last 10 outings for Omaha, struck out a fairly ridiculous 30 men in 16 innings. I think Coleman’s the best of the lot; in 69 innings he’s allowed just 44 walks and 17 hits, while striking out 74. But the Royals have to remember – he throws low three-quarters, and he has shown an enormous platoon split throughout his minor league tenure. If the Royals use him as a tactical right-hander, he could be a nice weapon. If they just him to pitch the seventh inning without regard to the fact that the next three batters bat left-handed, bad things may result.

HM: Kevin Chapman, Jarrod Dyson, Blaine Hardy, Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland, Patrick Keating, Ed Lucas, Rey Navarro, Bryan Paukovits, Jamie Romak, Edgar Osuna, Jordan Parraz, Crawford Simmons, Brandon Sisk, Tim Smith

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Scott P. to Chavez Ravine.

Greetings from Kansas City, where I’ll be all weekend on my annual pilgrimage to Kauffman Stadium. I planned this trip weeks ago with the trade deadline firmly on my mind – I figured the Royals would be active, and having the time off would mean that I’d be able to respond instanteously to any moves they’d make.

This plan backfired a little, as the Royals traded Scott Podsednik just minutes after my radio show ended last night. With an early flight to catch there was no way for me to write this up last night, and it’s only now that I’m safely in my hotel room that I can put thoughts to keyboard.

In all honesty, my immediate reaction to the haul that Dayton Moore got for Podsednik was a bit of a letdown. For about 10 minutes, we knew that Pods had been traded to the Dodgers for two minor leaguers, and given Ned Colletti’s history of trading premium prospect for distinctly non-premium players (Carlos Santana for Casey Blake, Josh Bell for George Sherrill), I admit that I was dreaming big for those 10 minutes. Dee Gordon, come on down!

Instead, it turned out to be a fair trade for both sides. How very disappointing.

You’ve heard the reports that the Royals got Lucas May and Elisaul Pimentel, but don’t be confused – the Royals actually got Elisaul Pimentel and Lucas May. May gets the headlines because he’s in Triple-A and is almost major-league ready, but he’s clearly the lesser player in the deal. In fact, I’m not entirely convinced that he was worth acquiring at all.

May was in his eighth season with the Dodgers, during which time he had moved from shortstop to the outfield and finally to catcher, which he has been playing since 2007. He still plays like a converted catcher; this season is the first time that has allowed fewer than one passed ball every four games, and he’s thrown out just 19% of basestealers this year. (He did throw out 35% last year.)

Offensively, some people are looking at his .296/.352/.496 line in Triple-A this year and projecting him as a good-hitting catcher; I’ve even read some comments implying that if he can’t catch, he can serve as a DH. This is patently ridiculous. The Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate is in the thin air of Albuquerque, which inflates the numbers of even the most marginal hitters. This year, May is hitting .347/.392/.603 at home; at parks closer to sea level, he’s hitting .252/.318/.403.

Baseball Prospectus does a great job (through their Davenport Translations) of converting the numbers of a minor-league player into his equivalent numbers in the major leagues, in a neutral ballpark. Based on May’s performance this year, if he had spent the year in the majors he could be expected to hit about .227/.278/.386. That’s backup-catcher material at best.

So what do you have, exactly? You have a catcher who can’t really catch, and can’t really hit, and is already 25. It’s always nice to have catching depth, I suppose, but in terms of the long-term future of the franchise May ranks no higher than fifth or sixth on the depth chart. If you want a catcher who can’t hit but can play defense, the Royals already have Manny Pina in Omaha. If you want a catcher who can’t play defense but can hit, Brayan Pena is already in the majors and is a better hitter than May. If you want a catcher who might develop into a two-way threat, the Royals have Salvador Perez in Wilmington. And if you want a catcher who might develop into a superstar, there’s always Wil Myers.

So what, exactly, does Lucas May do? I mean, other than take away at-bats from a younger, better player in Pina? He’s supposed to be a gamer and a leader on the field (he starred for Team USA last summer) and coachable and all that. Those are all great and wonderful things, but it doesn’t change the fact that he isn’t a better player than the guys the Royals already have, and likely never will be.

No, the Royals made this trade to get Pimentel. (At least I hope - what worries me most about this trade is that the Royals will fall in love with May for no good reason and play him over better alternatives.) The Royals have a history of acquiring Pimentels from the Dodgers – four years ago, Moore acquired Julio Pimentel (who had a promising arm before Tommy John surgery) in the Elmer Dessens/Odalis Perez salary dump. This Pimentel, presumably, has a better future.

Pimentel has developed rather slowly, working his way from the Dominican Summer League through two domestic rookie leagues over the past three years. He finally reached full-season ball this year, and has had a breakout season, most notably striking out 97 batters in 90 innings. He had a brilliant line (71 IP, 44 H, 27 BB, 75 K, 1 HR) before getting hammered a bit in last four appearances, although the strikeouts are still there. The fact that his strikeout rate has jumped (his career strikeout rate prior to 2010 was just over 7 per 9 innings before) despite making the jump to full-season ball suggests that his stuff has taken a step forward.

Scouting reports are not as impressive as his numbers – Baseball America reports that he throws 89-93 with an average changeup, but his breaking ball doesn't actually break much. He just turned 22, so he’s not all that young for a guy still in low A-ball. As a prospect, I would tentatively slot him behind Will Smith, who’s left-handed, a year younger, and has far more experience in the higher minor league levels.

Still, there’s something here. Pimentel has worked almost exclusively as a starter, and there’s always the chance his velocity picks up if he ever moves to the bullpen. The fact that the Royals wanted him would at least suggest that they think his stuff will play in the majors. Keep in mind the Royals have a decent track record at acquiring young arms who then pick up velocity; Daniel Cortes gained a few mph on his fastball right after the Royals got him for Mike MacDougal.

If nothing else, Pimentel is another live arm for an organization with a surplus of them already. Even if he turns out to be just a trading chip for the Royals to cash in when they are making a push into contention in a few years, that’s something. If he develops into a guy that can help the Royals directly, that’s just gravy.

Similar to the Alberto Callaspo trade, while I’m a little disappointed in the specifics of the trade, the fact that the trade was made at all means that Dayton Moore is – finally – doing his job. Podsednik has had as good a year as could be expected, hitting .310, stealing 30 bases, playing almost every day. (Meaningless trivia: Podsednik now holds all-time record for career batting average by a Royal with 200 or more plate appearances. Hal Morris held the record at .309.) He still had no future with this organization, and the option to bring him back for another year was more of a threat than a promise.

We all knew that the Royals simply had to trade him, and we were all worried that they wouldn’t. They did, and if the haul was something less than we expected, it’s still better than the alternative.

It’s only fair to ask, was it all worth it? Scott Podsednik gave the Royals nearly 400 at-bats of slightly below-league-average performance in left field, which had the unpleasant side effect of taking away playing time that could have gone to younger players – either Alex Gordon, who in fairness wasn’t an outfielder when Podsednik was signed, or Kila Ka’aihue, who presumably would have DH’ed if Jose Guillen were roaming the outfield instead of Pods. And in the end, the Royals traded Podsednik away for a live arm and a marginal backup catcher. Was it worth the players they got to inhibit the development of Ka’aihue?

I don’t have the answer to that question. But I will grant the Royals this: the Podsednik signing worked out exactly the way they drew it up. The Royals wound up paying Podsednik barely a million dollars, and in exchange they got a player who in 95 games hit .310/.353/.400 with plenty of speed and all the veteran goodness you could want – and then, when his value was at its highest, they cashed Podsednik in for a pair of prospects. For what they paid, Podsednik was an absolute bargain. If Moore always spent his money this wisely, the Royals would be in much better shape than they are now.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Minor League Verdict.

“[Eric Hosmer] is just a small part of why the Royals have the best minor-league system in the game.”

- Kevin Goldstein, July 5th.

As closely as I have followed the minor league system this year, and as magical as this season has been for Royals prospects, I never really thought that the Royals had the best farm system in the game. Top five, certainly, maybe top three. But the Rays have Jeremy Hellickson and Desmond Jennings just waiting for a chance, and a bunch of high-profile arms behind them. The Rangers always seem to be loaded with prospects. The Braves are a player-development machine. The Red Sox are probably the most aggressive team in baseball in the draft, and it shows. Surely some team out there has a better, deeper system.

“You'd never know it by the big league club, but no organization is having a better year in the minor leagues than the Kansas City Royals.”

- J.J. Cooper, Baseball America Prospects Blog, July 19th.

I mean sure, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer would both be candidates for Minor League Comeback Player of the Year if there was such a thing. And Mike Montgomery might have been the best left-handed pitcher in the minors before he went on the DL – and that crown might now be worn by John Lamb. But really – the #1 farm system in baseball?

“Ben (Leland Grove): Better overall farm system - Braves or Royals?

Jim Callis: Royals. I haven't sat down and tried to compare all the systems to each other, but the Royals might be No. 1.”

- Baseball America Chat, July 21st.

I mean, going into the season the Royals looked like they had a nice collection of talent, but there wasn’t even a consensus that they had an above-average farm system. Keith Law ranked the Royals’ farm system #9 overall, and Kevin Goldstein ranked them #10, but Baseball America ranked the Royals #16 out of 30 teams.

“Ben (Leland Grove): If you had to pick one team's farm system as the most impressive overall at present, who would it be and why?

Matthew Eddy: I'm really coming around on the Royals. I liked Moustakas, Hosmer, Myers and Lamb perhaps more than most coming into the year, and they certainly have done nothing to extinguish that flame this year. The Braves and Phillies would also have to be in the discussion, but what separates the Royals is the two elite hitters at the upper levels.”

- Baseball America Chat, July 23rd.

Certainly, I appreciated the success of the guys mentioned above, and breakout seasons for Chris Dwyer and Derrick Robinson, and a bounceback season from Kila Ka’aihue, and the addition of Christian Colon, and the solid progression of a dozen other guys. I thought that it all added up to one of the best farm systems in baseball. But to say that the Royals, who going into the 2008 season had one of the 10 worst farm systems in baseball, have the best collection of minor league talent in baseball? I may be a fan, but I’m not a fanboy. Only a Royals’ fan with blinders on would say such a thing. Only Ben from Leland Grove would even dare to ask the question.

Or…maybe some of the most respected minor league experts in the country would all independently agree that the Royals’ farm system is in a class of its own.

As I write this, the Royals have just lost three consecutive games by the score of 12-6, 19-1, and 11-2. The 19-1 loss ties the record for the biggest blowout in franchise history. The 42 runs and 53 hits allowed are both the most the Royals have ever surrendered in a three-game span. And I hardly care.

I’m more interested to see what happened in Wilmington last night, where Danny Duffy continued to pitch like he never left, striking out 7 in 5 innings. Eric Hosmer’s clutch go-ahead three-run homer in the 8th last night is as exciting as any home run the Royals might hit. I’m more concerned about when Moustakas will start hitting in Omaha than whether Yuniesky Betancourt ever will in Kansas City. Ka’aihue’s 22nd and 23rd homers of the season the last two nights mean more to me than whether Jason Kendall will ever hit his first.

Being a Royals fan, for as long as I can remember, has always been more about substituting the dreams of the future for the reality of the present. And for nearly 20 years we’ve been fed the same line, that the Royals are 2 or 3 years away from contention, but that Johnny Damon and Michael Tucker/Carlos Beltran and Carlos Febles/Runelvys Hernandez and Jeremy Affeldt/Billy Butler and Alex Gordon are going to lead the Royals back to the playoffs. And I’ll admit, after 20 years it’s easy to think that they’re just crying wolf again. We’ve been lied to before.

After the 1994 season, the Royals were named Baseball America’s Organization of the Year. After the season, in the Bill James Player Ratings Book 1995, Bill James himself wrote, “As a Royals fan, I am more excited about this organization now than I have been in a decade.” What James did not know – what none of us knew – was that the Royals, who had been bobbing in a pool of mediocrity since they won the World Series a decade before, were about to drown.

So it’s easy to be cynical regarding all the growing hype about the system. It’s easy to be distrustful about whether Dayton Moore and the front office is really capable of molding a contending team after all these years. But I’ve decided to jump on board the bandwagon anyway. I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, guys. And this time, it really does feel different.

The Royals have had potential stars in their farm system in the past. Baseball America has all their Top 100 Prospects lists going back to 1990 archived online, and using that data, here are the years when the Royals had more than one prospect among the Top 40.

1993: Johnny Damon (#22), Jim Pittsley (#32), Michael Tucker (#40).

1994: Jeff Granger (#19), Michael Tucker (#25), Johnny Damon (#31).

1995: Johnny Damon (#9), Michael Tucker (#32), Jim Pittsley (#39).

1999: Carlos Beltran (#14), Carlos Febles (#30).

2000: Dee Brown (#11), Chris George (#40).

2006: Alex Gordon (#13), Billy Butler (#29).

2007: Alex Gordon (#2), Billy Butler (#25), Luke Hochevar (#32).

2009: Mike Moustakas (#13), Eric Hosmer (#24).

2010: Mike Montgomery (#39), Aaron Crow (#40).

From that list, you can see how the farm system crested a little following the Royals’ fantastic 1992 draft, from which they got Damon, Pittsley, and Tucker with their first three picks. You can see how they got a little bump again at the turn of the millennium, and then went into another drought until recent years. And you can also see how, with the exceptions of Damon, Beltran, and Butler, not one other player on the list really lived up to expectations.

But at this moment, the Royals don’t have 2 or 3 of the top 40 prospects in baseball. They have, by general consensus, 5 of them.

Baseball America recently did their mid-season Top 25 prospect rankings, and Moustakas, Hosmer, and Montgomery (sore arm and all) made the list. In a chat session later, John Manuel acknowledged that Wil Myers was #26, and John Lamb was listed as an honorable mention. In his own list of the top 10 prospects left in the minors, Kevin Goldstein listed only Moustakas, but had Hosmer, Montgomery, Myers, and Lamb all listed from #11 to #20.

And it’s important to note that none of those guys are listed simply because they were drafted very high last season, as someone like Jeff Granger was above. All five guys have earned their place based on their performance as a pro, not on their pedigree.

It’s not just that the Royals have roughly twice as many Grade A prospects as they’ve had in the last 20 years. It’s that behind those guys are something like a dozen Grade B prospects. Those prospects run the gamut from the disappointing (Aaron Crow) to the brand-new (Christian Colon) to the guy who’s been ready for the major leagues for two years (Kila Ka’aihue) to the breakout toolsy guy (Derrick Robinson) to the live arm that’s starting to figure things out (Tyler Sample). The Royals’ farm system isn’t just loaded at the top. It’s loaded, period.

So one last time, I feel it’s necessary to once again make the case that Dayton Moore, for all his mistakes, has not received nearly enough credit for what he has done with the farm system. He was hired with a mandate to focus on one thing – build a player development machine in Kansas City – and he has done so in the span of about three drafts.

Moore took over as GM right after the 2006 draft. Going into the 2007 season, the Royals had three premium prospects – Butler, Gordon, and Hochevar. Butler was a very nice mid-first-round find in a weak draft, but the other two had just been taken #2 and #1 overall in the previous two drafts, which is to say it didn’t take a whole lot of scouting acumen to identify their talents.

You know who was the #4 prospect in the system according to Baseball America? Chris Lubanski. Tyler Lumsden – who Moore acquired for Mike MacDougal, then later traded for Jordan Parraz – was #5. Mitch Maier was #6, and Brian Bannister – who Moore acquired for Ambiorix Burgos – was #7. Joakim Soria, just plucked in the Rule 5 draft, was #13. The only other players in the Top 30 worth mentioning are Billy Buckner (#9) – and only because he would be traded straight-up for Alberto Callaspo – Jeff Bianchi (#11), Blake Wood (#14), Carlos Rosa (#19), and Derrick Robinson (#21). After the top three, the farm system was incredibly weak, and would have been even weaker had Moore not already made a series of savvy trades.

Three years later, the Royals have the best farm system in baseball. When Moore was hired, I compared him (with my usual optimism) to Dave Dombrowski, who had engineered one of the most impressive turnarounds in baseball history in Detroit, taking a team from 43-119 to the AL pennant in three years. Moore hasn’t done anything of the sort at the major-league level, but in the minors, the Royals’ turnaround is nearly as impressive.

And I want to ask a question, and I hope it’s a rhetorical question: Can you really call Dayton Moore the worst GM in baseball, or even one of the worst GMs in baseball, when he’s built the #1 farm system in the game in three years?

One of the core principles of baseball analysis is that talent beats preparation. A team that gets on base and hits for power is going to beat a team that moves the runner over and executes the suicide squeeze well. In a sense, baseball analysis exists to remind teams not to sweat the details too much. Yes, it’s important to run the bases well and make productive outs and all that. But when teams get too focused on the details, they run the risk of thinking that effort and fundamentals can somehow substitute for having good players. They can’t.

By the same token, though, I think that when you evaluate Dayton Moore’s tenure with the Royals, there’s a risk of sweating the details too much and missing the big picture. There’s a lot of small stuff that looks terrible, to be certain. Trading for Yuniesky Betancourt; signing Jason Kendall and letting John Buck go; spending millions on Juan Cruz and Horacio Ramirez and Willie Bloomquist; falling in love with Roman Colon.

And there are certainly some not-so-small stuff to be upset about. Trading Leo Nunez for Mike Jacobs was a dumb move from the moment it was made. Giving Jose Guillen 3 years and $36 million was a pure panic move from a GM that should have known better.

The worst move of the Dayton Moore era, as I’ve written before, is that the Royals callously and inexplicably allowed Gil Meche’s shoulder to blow out, a decision that we were reminded of once again yesterday when we learned that Meche would have to undergo exploratory surgery. Actually, we all learned that months ago – it just took until now for the Royals to learn it.

But let me turn this around a little and ask: in the four years that Moore has been the GM of the Royals, who is the best player that he’s given away? As best as I can tell, your choices are between Leo Nunez and J.P. Howell – a pair of fine relievers, but they’re just that, relievers. (You could also argue for John Buck, even though he had just one season left before free agency.) In Texas, Jon Daniels once gave up Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka, which is a trade 10 times worse than any that Moore has made. In San Francisco, Brian Sabean made perhaps the worst trade of the last decade when he gave up Joe Nathan, Boof Bonser, and Francisco Liriano for A.J. Pierzynski – who was so odious in San Francisco that he was released after one season.

Both Daniels and Sabean have pretty good job security at the moment, and they should – because the Rangers are in first place, and the Giants hold the lead on the wild card. Even good GMs (and I’m not saying Sabean is a good GM) make bad decisions, but one or two bad decisions will not cripple a franchise.

What will cripple a franchise is having a farm system that doesn’t produce good ballplayers for the better part of two decades. That is why the Royals are where they are, not because Moore made a dumb trade for Mike Jacobs.

Here’s the big picture: Dayton Moore was hired because of his track record in player development. He was hired with a mandate to use that track record to build a perennial contender in Kansas City in the only way possible: by building a farm system that would produce cheap major league talent year after year. From his first draft, Moore made it clear he was taking the long-term approach, favoring high school players over college guys. In his first two drafts, the Royals had 15 picks in the first 7 rounds, and used 13 of those picks on high school players.

The long-term road has a few speed bumps along the way, and this time last year it looked like the Royals erred greatly in selecting Moustakas and Hosmer. Today, it’s hard to fault the Royals for either pick. In fact, if you look at every pick the Royals have made in the first five rounds since 2007, there are only three picks that the Royals might want back: their second and fourth-rounders in 2007 (Sam Runion and Mitch Hodge), and possibly their first-round pick of Aaron Crow last year. (And the jury is still out on that one.)

I’m not arguing that Moore is one of the top five, or even the top ten, GMs in the game today. But I think that the coverage of his moves has become a caricature of itself. When David DeJesus ran into a wall and tore up his thumb last week, the blogosphere and Twitter was alight with people mocking Moore for not trading DeJesus when he had the chance – as if Moore should have known that DeJesus was about to suffer a traumatic injury. Meanwhile, when Ben Sheets went on the DL with a sore elbow a few days later (and an elbow injury to Sheets is a hell of a lot more predictable than what happened to David), there wasn’t a peep about how Billy Beane screwed up.

This weekend, Ken Rosenthal reported that the Royals and Mets were having trade discussions, and the names that were thrown out included Gil Meche, Kyle Farnsworth, and Jose Guillen from the Royals – and Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo, and Jeff Francoeur from the Mets. It was the perfect trade vortex of suck, and it gave a lot of people an opportunity to once again have fun ripping on Moore as one of the worst GMs in the game.

Never mind that the rumors almost certainly came from the Mets, who had incentive to make it sound like the Royals had more interest than they did. Never mind that the Royals need Luis Castillo like a fish needs a bicycle. And never mind that the Royals privately laughed at the rumors. It’s so easy to connect Moore with Francoeur – hey, I’ve done it – that no one stopped to think that Francoeur was the best player the Royals would acquire.

I’m not trying to be a Moore apologist, although I will certainly be accused of such. I’m trying to be a Moore realist. Warts and all, but not all warts. Moore might find a way to screw this up, in which case I’ll be at the front of the line demanding that he be fired. But right now, I think he’s earned the opportunity to see this rebuild through. The house hasn’t been built yet, but the foundation is something to behold.

Look for my list of the Top 25 prospects in the system tonight or tomorrow.