Saturday, August 7, 2010

Zack Speaks. Everyone Freaks.

As Sam Mellinger writes, the lot of being a Royals fan is that bad news trails after good like ants after a picnic basket. One moment we’re riding high, secure in the knowledge that Jose Guillen is gone and Kila Ka’aihue has a spot in the everyday lineup. The next, we’re laid low by our franchise player, who’s telling us in his own inimitable way, it’s not him, it’s us.

“There’s no reason for me to get real excited about it,” he said, “because the chance of more than one of them making a major impact by the time my contract is up is pretty slim.”

“It depends more on the team now,” he acknowledged. “We’ll see. This is at least the third full re-start/rebuilding phase since I’ve been here. And, obviously, none of them have worked. This one hasn’t even really started yet.”

“It’s not real exciting to have to go through it again,” he said. “It’s been six years with me, and most people (who are Royals fans) have been through a lot more than I have. But for me, it’s the third complete re-start/rebuilding phase.”

That’s not the part that hurts. The part that hurts is that he’s right. There’s nothing like the reality of the present to splash cold water on the dreams of the future.

At times like this, I prefer to take counsel from my trusty copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, where it helpfully says on the front cover, in all capital letters, “DON’T PANIC”.

Seriously, everyone. Let’s all just take a chill pill – you too, Dayton – and think this through before we do something stupid.

Greinke’s words already have people arguing that the Royals should trade him as soon as possible. As I see it, here’s the thought process:

1) Greinke is fed up with all the losing.

2) As a result of being fed up with all the losing, Greinke wants out as soon as his contract is up in 2012.

3) While the Royals might be better in 2012, they’re probably not going to be ready to truly contend until 2013 or 2014.

4) Rather than keep Greinke now, only to have him leave right before the team is ready to contend, it’s better to trade him now for prospects who will accelerate the rebuild and be ready to contribute in 2013 and beyond.

Let’s address these one by one:

- Greinke is fed up with all the losing.

If I can quote Colonel James here: Oh, you think so, Doctor? You think playing for a team that’s lost at least 87 games every year of his career, that has a record of 431-650 since his debut season of 2004, might have worn him down some? The Royals have a .399 winning percentage over the last seven years. A .399 winning percentage. When the New York Yankees were the laughingstock of baseball in 1990, finishing with the worst record in the game, they had a .414 winning percentage. The Chicago White Sox, to pick a team at random that isn’t known for its history of success, have had two seasons with a winning percentage under .400 since 1951. The Royals have averaged under .400 for nearly seven seasons.

Of course he’s fed up with all the losing. I’m fed up with all the losing, and I can turn off the TV when I can’t take it any more. If Greinke wasn’t fed up, I’d have to seriously question his commitment to winning in the first place.

- As a result of being fed up with all the losing, Greinke wants out as soon as his contract is up in 2012.

This is what has everyone up in a panic, but I don’t think it’s nearly so cut-and-dried. I have no doubt that if the Royals are still losing in 2012, Greinke will want out, and won’t re-sign under any circumstances. I had no doubt that this was the case before he spoke out.

“Very rarely do guys come straight into the big leagues and make an impact, especially hitters,” he said. “Just look at the top prospects in baseball. Delmon Young was one five years ago, and he’s finally starting to play well.

“Alex Gordon was one four years ago, and he might be starting to play well now. So the problem (with the Royals’ prospects) is that it’s not like as soon as they get here that it’s going to be instant (success). Maybe by 2014.”

I don’t get the impression from Greinke’s comments that he’s upset with the way the team is playing now. I think he’s frustrated because he’s hearing all this talk about a youth movement, but the youth movement hasn’t even arrived yet. I think he’s frustrated because he – not unreasonably, I might add – figures that if Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer and Michael Montgomery aren’t even supposed to arrive in Kansas City until the middle of 2011, what are the odds that they’ll actually be ready to be in contention by 2012, with just a half-season of experience?

That’s a fascinating question, and one that deserves its own column. But for now, let’s acknowledge the fact that Greinke isn’t saying he’s made up his mind that he’s gone after 2012. He’s saying that, based on what he sees, he doesn’t think the team will be competitive in 2012, and if it’s not, he’s out of here. He might be right. But he might be wrong. The beauty of this question is that it doesn’t have to be answered right now, because Greinke can’t go anywhere of his own accord for two more seasons. So why not wait and see?

- While the Royals might be better in 2012, they’re probably not going to be ready to truly contend until 2013 or 2014.

By happy coincidence, the day after Greinke made his comments, Kevin Goldstein published an article at Baseball Prospectus entitled “Ladies and Gents: Your 2013 Kansas City Royals.”

When I revealed my Top 25 Prospects list last week, I thought about including a hypothetical roster for the Royals in their first game after hosting the 2012 All-Star Game. I decided against it because it seemed a little too optimistic, even for me – it was a roster in which ALL 25 PLAYERS had spent their entire major-league career with the Royals, and something like 20 of the 25 players are still in the minors today. It just seemed unrealistic that a team could put together a roster that was THAT young and THAT home-grown.

And then Goldstein, who’s never been accused of being a Royals fan, publishes a roster that’s almost the exact same one.

Everyday Starters
C: Lucas May
1B: Eric Hosmer
2B: Christian Colon
3B: Mike Moustakas
LF: Alex Gordon
CF: Derrick Robinson
RF: Wil Myers
DH: Billy Butler

C: Manny Pina
CI: Kila Ka'aihue
MI: Mike Aviles
OF: Mitch Maier
UT: Ed Lucas

The only 2 significant differences I had was that I had Myers behind the plate, Hosmer in right field, and Ka’aihue at first base; and I had Colon at shortstop and Johnny Giavotella at second base. The first one is a case of wishful thinking, I know; the odds that Myers can develop behind the plate in time are slim. But I really do think that the Royals are committed to Colon at shortstop, even with less-than-perfect range. (If they can put up with Yuni at shortstop, Colon should be a piece of cake.)

ST1: Zack Greinke
ST2: John Lamb
ST3: Mike Montgomery
ST4: Chris Dwyer
ST5: Sean O'Sullivan

CL: Joakim Soria
SU: Tim Collins
RH: Louis Coleman
LH: Danny Duffy
MR: Luke Hochevar
MR: Aaron Crow

The only difference here is that I put Hochevar in the rotation instead of O’Sullivan. Really, the problem is that the Royals simply have too many good starters right now; Hochevar or Duffy could both slot into the rotation, as could Tim Melville or Tyler Sample if they break out next year. There’s no reason to worry about this right now; injuries have a way of thinning the herd.

Take a look at that roster, and for completeness’ sake add Giavotella and slide Colon to shortstop. O’Sullivan pitched for the Angels; the other 24 guys have never played a game for another major-league team. Aside from Greinke, the only players who will definitely be arbitration-eligible are Soria, Butler, Gordon, Aviles, and Maier. That’s a team that’s young, that’s cheap, and that ought to be competitive at the very least.

An e-mail from a scout last night led to a deeper thought, however, as he sketched a quick outline of a Royals roster of the future, leading me to put some real detailed thought into the process. What I came up with surprised even me. "This team could be really good," said the scout. "I realize that's weird, and like saying the Los Angeles Clippers are going to be good, where it just doesn't sound right, but that's a lot of talent."

This is Goldstein’s vision of the 2013 Royals. The only difference between the 2012 and 2013 Royals is that Greinke is a free agent. Butler and Gordon would be free agents after 2013; Soria, Aviles, and Maier after 2014. Everyone else is under contract through 2016.

I have no doubt that the Royals ought to be a better team in 2013 and 2014 than they will be in 2012, even if Greinke doesn’t re-sign. But it’s simply too early to write off 2012 yet. You don’t see waves of young talent crest on a single team at the same time very often. When it happens, the results can be immediate and spectacular.

The 1991 Braves weren’t as young as people think – their entire infield was made up of veterans – but the pitching staff was young and talented, as the only pitchers over the age of 25 to start for the Braves were Rick Mahler, who made 2 starts, and Charlie Leibrandt. The Braves lost 97 games in both 1989 and 1990. In 1991, they were just 39-40 at the All-Star Break, then went 55-28 in the second half to take the division.

The 2007 Devil Rays lost 96 games, after losing 101 games the year before, but they had a very young rotation as well – just 20 starts came from pitchers over the age of 25. In 2008, a 26-or-younger pitcher started every game of the season, the lineup added a 22-year-old rookie named Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton moved to centerfield, they traded for Matt Garza, the defense went from sucktastic to stellar, and they won the AL pennant.

The odds that the 2012 Royals do that are slim – with the exception of Longoria and Steve Avery, the key players on both teams had spent a full season in the majors. But then again, the 2012 Royals don’t have to be as good as the Braves and Rays – who won 94 and 96 games – to be competitive. A winning season would be enough to be “competitive” in the AL Central, and more to the point, would be enough to convince Greinke that the Royals are worth re-signing with.

Maybe it’s a pipe dream. But it’s a dream holding on to anyway. Look at that team again – Soria is under a team-friendly contract, Aviles and Maier are backups, and the only other guys on the roster that can expect to earn seven figures are Gordon and Butler. (Actually Crow, by virtue of his major-league contract, would as well.) The entire roster, sans Greinke, would likely cost no more than $25 million, $30 million tops. Even if they re-sign Greinke, you’re looking at $45-50 million in payroll. Even David Glass would understand that he can afford to pay for one or two choice free agents to take the team over the hump.

And that’s the danger of trading Greinke now – not only do you trade his contract in 2011 and 2012, you trade the option to re-sign him for 2013 and beyond. Greinke is that rare superstar player for whom the bright lights hold little appeal. Rather than worrying that Greinke wants to leave, we should be thankful that there’s any chance that he’d want to stay in the first place. Think about how hard it is for the Royals to land top free-agents, how they offered millions to Torii Hunter and were rebuffed, how Andruw Jones told them their money was no good here, and how they were forced to settle for Jose Guillen.

The Royals have 90% of a contending roster in place for 2013 – the 90% that gives you tremendous value for your money. What they need is the 10% of the roster that takes 30-40% of the payroll, but provides the star power that’s backed up by the other 90%. The Royals have the luxury that they can seriously contemplate going after the best free agents on the market in a year or two. Losing Greinke would take them a step away from that goal.

Hell, if you really want to speed up the rebuilding process, and prove to Greinke that you’re serious about winning, you can go the other way and trade prospects for an established young player. The Royals have so much talent that they could afford to part with some excess. Imagine if the Royals packaged, I don’t know, Chris Dwyer, Johnny Giavotella, and Tyler Sample. Could they go to, say, the Orioles, and offer that package for Nick Markakis? Markakis is 26 years old and under contract through at least 2014. He’s making $11 million on his current contract, but the Royals could easily afford that given this roster, and afford the prospects too.

Maybe that’s not enough to get Markakis, although I think it’s a good starting point. But the point is that by virtue of having a stellar farm system, the Royals have a LOT of options at their disposal. They can trade prospects, and they can take on payroll – the two hardest things for any organization to do in today’s game. The ability to do those things should help the Royals land a player like Greinke, not trade him away.

- Rather than keep Greinke now, only to have him leave right before the team is ready to contend, it’s better to trade him now for prospects who will accelerate the rebuild and be ready to contribute in 2013 and beyond.

If the choice is between trading Greinke now for prospects, or losing him as a free agent and getting the draft picks – yeah, I’d say trade him now. But that’s not the choice. The choice is between trading him now, or trading him in 2011, or trading him in 2012, or letting him go to free agency.

If you hold him now, you get the option to see what happens in 2011. Maybe next year’s team has a little 2003 in them, and gets off to a .500 start into June, when Moustakas comes up and bangs 7 homers in his first month, and Montgomery wins his first three starts, and the team is a game out of first place in July, and the Royals announce that Greinke has signed an extension.

Or maybe the Royals play under .500 and are out of the race in July, but Moustakas comes up and plays well, and Montgomery and Lamb are in the rotation and show a lot of promise, and the Free Eric Hosmer! movement begins in earnest. Maybe Greinke isn’t ready to commit, but the Royals decide they’re close enough that they can make a run in 2012, and they keep him.

Or maybe – perish the thought – the Royals have a season not unlike what’s happened to the Orioles this year, when seemingly every top young player has regressed. In that case, Greinke goes on the market next year…and judging from the haul the Blue Jays got for Roy Halladay with a year-and-a-half left on his deal, the Royals could get two or three additional top prospects. Halladay’s price was inflated by his willingness to sign an extension with the Phillies, but still, there’s no question Greinke would be worth a ton.

Even if the Royals keep him until 2012, and then find themselves still languishing in last place that summer, they can still turn him into a top prospect then. The Mariners turned Cliff Lee into Justin Smoak and three other prospects last month. It was a disappointing return, large because it’s an established fact that the Yankees had offered Jesus Montero – one of the five best hitting prospects in baseball – and change.

If the worst-case scenario to keeping Greinke is that they simply flip him in two years for one of the game’s best prospects…I say keep him. What’s the rush?

The greatest concern I have with Greinke right now isn’t his words, it’s his actions. A day after making his comments, he went out and allowed six runs to the worst offense in baseball. In his previous start, he allowed three runs in eight innings to the Orioles, the worst team in the league; the Orioles ran themselves out of some rallies and Greinke was lucky to escape with the win. The start before that, he allowed eight runs in four innings to the Twins, and the Royals suffered a historic beatdown, 19-1.

If you want to make a case for trading Greinke, the case starts with the argument that he’s not mentally giving his best right now. Unlike last year, when the Royals were in first place early on, and Greinke had personal glory to shoot for late, he really has nothing to pitch for, and we know from experience that Greinke has trouble motivating himself for meaningless games. This is the guy that once said he’d rather pitch for Wichita in a pennant race than for Kansas City when they’re in last place.

Greinke started this year pitching almost as well as last year. But after his start on May 18, when he had a 2.72 ERA and just one win to show for it, he’s been – there is no nice way to put this – pretty awful since. In his last 14 starts, he has a 5.07 ERA. He’s pitched better than his ERA would indicate, and his stuff seems as good as ever – but for whatever reason, the results aren’t there. As tempting as it is to blame Jason Kendall, you have to wonder if his heart isn’t in it.

As Dick Kaegel writes:

This was the first time that Greinke had ever faced the left-handed-hitting Langerhans and he decided to fly by the seat of his pants. He didn't scrutinize Langerhans' tendencies prior to the game.

"I was going to just make good pitches and learn from them as the game went on, but he likes it away, he likes it down a little and it was kind of down, middle away," Greinke said.

Yeah, you might want to do your homework next time, Zack.

But even so, it’s no reason to give up on him. Not giving your all isn’t an admirable trait, but I’d rather have a pitcher that doesn’t get up for meaningless games than one who shies away from the big stage. Greinke’s performance isn’t close to the worst case I’ve ever seen of a pitcher who just mailed it in – Randy Johnson in 1998, who had already decided he was leaving Seattle after the season, and pitched for four months like he had a plane to catch. The Mariners dealt him at the deadline to Houston, and the light bulb immediately went on – Johnson won 10 of his 11 starts with a 1.28 ERA, one of the most impactful trade deadline acquisitions of all time.

Greinke’s struggles bother me. But I don’t think they’re permanent.

DON’T PANIC. If the Royals turn things around in the next two years, I still think Greinke will not only pitch like the pitcher we saw last year, but that he might stay beyond 2012. It’s not like he made these statements in a press conference designed to put pressure on the Royals to trade him immediately. He made these statements on a road trip to Bob Dutton, who by virtue of the fact that he’s there for every single game, is the one member of the media Greinke trusts the most.

“I like Kansas City,” Greinke said. “It’s a town that fits me pretty well. But I don’t know … at least put a team together that has a fighting chance (to win).”

That doesn’t sound like a player who’s got one foot out the door. It sounds like a player who’s fed up with losing, and isn’t going to stick around just based on the promise of a better tomorrow. It sounds like a player who wants to see results.

The Royals have two years to deliver them. I suggest they use all the time they have allotted.

I’m not sure if “DON’T PANIC” is written on the cover of The General Manager’s Guide To The Process. It should be.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Better Day.

(As usual with the Royals, when it rains, it pours. So let’s just pretend, for the sake of the column title, that Zack Greinke didn’t make any statements to the press today – I’ll address what he said soon enough.)

I’ll be honest: I didn’t think Dayton Moore had the balls to do it.

Sure, it was the right thing to do. Jose Guillen was a mistake from the moment he signed his 3-year, $36 million contract. This isn’t revisionist history. When Guillen signed, Rob Neyer wrote, “It’s Kevin McReynolds all over again.” Joe Posnanski ran with that comparison as well. It was a good comparison: like McReynolds, Guillen was a right-handed-hitting outfielder who the Royals acquired at the age of 32, an age where non-star hitters tend to decline rapidly.

With the book now closed on Guillen, here’s the final tally:

Kevin McReynolds as a Royal: .246/.338/.421, 105 OPS+

Jose Guillen as a Royal: .256/.308/.420, 94 OPS+

Score one for the statheads.

Really, it’s not fair to McReynolds to compare him to Guillen. For one, he wasn’t given the highest annual salary in Royals’ history, like Guillen was. In McReynolds’ case, the Royals were able to find a trading partner before the final year of his contract, shipping him to the Mets for Vince Coleman (admittedly not a prize pickup himself). And most importantly, while McReynolds got all the headlines as the big acquisition for Bret Saberhagen, the reality was that Gregg Jefferies was the key to that deal. Saberhagen-for-Jefferies was a ballsy trade that the Royals won – or they might have, had Herk Robinson not inexplicably traded Gregg Jefferies for Felix Jose the following year, perhaps the most unrecognized bad trade in Royals history.

I digress. Jose Guillen’s tenure in Kansas City got off on the wrong foot, and never found the right one. He said inflammatory things about his teammates and management. He intimidated Trey Hillman into letting him do whatever he wanted. He cursed out the fans to the media. He loafed on the bases and in the field. He played some of the worst outfield defense anyone had ever seen. He pulled out his own freaking toenail.

The only thing he didn’t do, with a few brief exceptions, was hit. From May 7 to June 23, 2008, Guillen had a remarkable 44-game stretch when he hit .380, slugged .659, hit 20 doubles and 10 homers, and drove in 45 runs. (He walked just twice.) And this season, after being written off as through after an injury-filled 2009 season, he shocked everyone with 6 doubles and 7 homers in the season’s first 18 games, batting .351 and slugging .716. (He walked just twice.) Aside from those two stretches, Guillen hit and fielded like a replacement-level catcher who was playing the outfield for the first time. Except with a worse attitude.

Since April 26th, Guillen has hit .233/.301/.363 for the Royals – and has started all but three games.

I know a lot of Royals fans were angry at the way the front office kept running him out there, day after day, in the desperate hope that their patience would one day be rewarded and they might actually get something for him. Honestly, my reaction was just a dash of anger in a large bowl of pity. It was less maddening than it was pathetic to watch Guillen play, day after day, knowing that even the Royals didn’t really want him in the lineup.

Let’s remember that, based on the way Guillen ended last season, I don’t think the Royals expected him to be physically able to play regularly this season. While I think Guillen might have been exaggerating slightly when he said that he almost died from blood clots in his legs over the off-season, there’s no question that as late as February, the Royals weren’t sure he’d be able to play at all. I have to think that all their stockpiling of outfielders, from Scott Podsednik to Rick Ankiel to Brian Anderson (remember him?) was based in part on the expectation that they’d have to replace Guillen.

And I have to think they were more surprised than anyone when Guillen looked fine in spring training, and then when he was the team’s best hitter in April. In retrospect, of course – and some Royals fans were wise enough to point this out at the time – Guillen’s hot April was the worst thing that could have happened to the Royals. Because once he proved in April that he was healthy and able, there was simply no way they could justify taking him out of the lineup.

So instead we were treated to a long, sad, joyless farewell tour, the result of an unholy alliance between a team desperate to get something for their player and a player desperate to get the hell out of town. Guillen’s April performance was just enough to get him back on the trade radar of a few teams, and if he had managed to hit at all over the ensuing three months he probably would have found a new home. But he didn’t. The Royals, proving they learned nothing from the Gil Meche debacle, were either too scared or too disinterested to give Guillen the occasional day off.

By early June, it was clear that no American League team was interested in acquiring him to DH. You’d think that was a cue to give up – but the Royals simply couldn’t give up the ghost, and in a desperate attempt to revive his value to a National League team, they gave him his glove back. Starting on June 9th, Guillen started 17 of his next 23 games in the field. Maybe they figured that Guillen would inevitably injure himself and solve their dilemma. If they did, it almost worked – Guillen pulled up lame “running” out a ground ball in early July, and looked like he’d be out for a while. He missed two games.

Meanwhile, Kila Ka’aihue was forced to turn the Pacific Coast League into his personal playground for four months.

Until the very end, the Royals held out hope. They offered to pick up almost his entire salary; they offered to trade him for a token player. When no team would bite at the trading deadline, they sent him through waivers. Forty-eight hours later, he went unclaimed. The game was over. The jig was up.

And Dayton Moore waved the white flag.

If he deserves criticism for sticking with Guillen as long as he did, Moore at least deserves credit for finally acknowledging reality. I mean, it’s easy to say that Jose Guillen was a sunk cost, and the Royals should do what other teams do – cut their losses and release the player. But it’s not that simple. Teams eat contracts all the time when the players they’re attached to have ceased to play at a major-league level. But Guillen, for all his warts, is worthy of his roster spot, at least in the abstract.

For the season, he’s hitting .255/.314/.429, and if that doesn’t sound great, keep in mind that his numbers are good for a 101 OPS+. Which is to say, he’s been a tiny bit better than a league-average player this season. Yes, most of that damage was done in April, and yes, you’d like better-than-average performances from your DH. But at the moment, the Royals rank a respectable 7th among the 14 AL teams in OPS from their DH spot. Their DHs rank above the Yankees (!), White Sox, Rays, and Angels, all of whom are in contention.

And yet they released him anyway. I’ve seen teams release expensive players who suck before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a team release an expensive player who was still a league-average player.

It was absolutely the right move to make, of course. There’s a reason why the Royals couldn’t trade Guillen for even a few magic beans despite his performance – teams are understandably reluctant to take on his personality, particularly since nothing seems to irk Guillen more than being out of the lineup. There are a number of contenders who would love to have a man of Guillen’s talents on their bench. But there isn’t a single contender who thinks that Guillen himself would be happy with such an arrangement.

In the end, this move shouldn’t be too surprising. In the clubhouse after last Friday’s game, when Guillen hit the 300th double of his career (his final hit as a Royal, as it turned out), my friend Nate Bukaty asked him what he planned to do with the baseball. Guillen was almost disgusted by the notion that the ball had any value. Three times he told Nate to take the ball. Nate politely declined, and when it was gently suggested to Guillen that he give the ball to the Royals’ Hall of Fame, he sneered, “Now why would I want to do that?”

The following day, as the trading deadline passed and every other member of the team was in uniform in preparation for the game, Guillen alone sat at his locker with his jeans still on, and only after it was clear that he hadn’t been traded did he grudgingly decide to get dressed.

You don’t have to be Einstein to understand the implication.

In retrospect, sure, the Royals should have let him go months ago and gotten an early start on the Kila Ka’aihue era. I imagine they’d say the same thing themselves. But I understand why they let things play out the way that they did. I’m not a big believer in the unwritten rules of baseball, but one of the unwritten rules of sports is so obvious that it doesn’t need to be written: you don’t release a player who’s playing well. If the Royals had released Guillen in May, when he was still slugging over .500, the hit they would have taken to their reputation would have been far greater than the damage they did by letting Guillen overstay his welcome.

If you want to blame Dayton Moore for signing Jose Guillen in the first place, go right ahead; I know I do. But once Guillen came out of the chute on fire this season, Moore’s hands were tied. Only now, after Guillen proved both untradeable and unwaivable, could Moore simply release him in good faith. To his credit, Moore did so at the earliest opportunity, on a day (an off-day on the road) where Guillen’s departure was likely to cause the least amount of clubhouse discord.

It’s sad that it had to come to this. But it would have been sadder still if it hadn’t come to this, and Guillen continued to hog playing time until his contract ran out. The Ka’aihue Era can begin in earnest now. It’s starting late, but better late than in 2011. We fans have been on board with this youth movement for a long time now. With this one move, Dayton Moore proves that he’s starting to come on board too.

Moore has told us to Trust the Process. In releasing a still-viable veteran player, and eating $4 million to let an unproven but promising youngster play every day, Moore is showing us that he might – just might – finally be ready to Trust the Process himself.