Sunday, August 15, 2010

Royals Today: 8/15/2010.

Watching the Royals these last two weeks, you can kind of get a sense for why Zack Greinke is so frustrated. It’s not that the Royals are losing, although they’ve lost 8 of their last 11; or that they’re not scoring, although they haven’t scored more than 4 runs in any of those 11 games. It’s that the roster that takes the field every night is still, after all this time, predominantly made up of stopgaps.

Of the 25 men on the active roster, the only players who are good bets to be on the Opening Day roster in 2012 are Greinke (if he’s not traded), Billy Butler, and Joakim Soria. Alex Gordon and Kila Ka’aihue might be if the Royals don’t find a way to dump them. Mike Aviles and Mitch Maier have a shot. One of the relievers, most likely Blake Wood, will probably still be around. Maybe Sean O’Sullivan.

But that leaves at least 16 roster spots, and probably closer to 20, where the Royals are just spinning their wheels. Those roster spots will probably remain functionally empty until sometime around next May, at which point, if everything goes to plan, you might see a new player shuffle into Kauffman Stadium on each homestand. Tim Collins might show up first…then Mike Moustakas…a left-handed starter (pick one) around Flag Day…then another one around the 4th of July…

The future is getting closer. But it’s still in the future. The present, meanwhile, consists largely of counting time. It’s not simply that the Royals are bad, although they are. It’s that they’re largely pointless to watch.

- The struggles of one of the above players, Kila Ka’aihue, has some wondering whether he has a future with the ballclub after all. This is the danger that the Royals were courting by waiting until August to cut ties with Jose Guillen and giving Ka’aihue an everyday job. If Ka’aihue had come out of the gate crushing the ball, then ultimately the extra time in the minors would have been more of an inconvenience than anything else.

But because Ka’aihue started 4-for-35, suddenly there’s a very real danger that the Royals won’t get an accurate assessment of his abilities this year because they’ll simply run out of time. The Royals have another 44 games left this season, which means at most Ka’aihue is going to end up with a little over 200 plate appearances. That’s hardly enough playing time to properly evaluate a player, particularly a player getting his first opportunity in the big leagues.

Travis Hafner, to pick a very similar player, hit .242/.329/.387 in a 70-plate-appearance audition in 2002, and then started 2003 hitting .230/.302/.415 through the end of July, in 44 games. At that point, Hafner was 26 years old, had 219 career plate appearances, and had an unimpressive career line of .234/.311/.406. It’s a fair bet that Ka’aihue’s career line, at the end of this season, may approximate Hafner’s numbers both in quantity and quality.

From August 1st through the end of the season, Hafner hit .276/.349/.545. In 2004, hit .311/.410/.585 and led the league in OPS+, the start of a 3-year run in which he was arguably the best hitter in the American League.

I am not saying that Ka’aihue will hit like Hafner did; in fact I find it distinctly unlikely. But by giving him such a small window of opportunity, the Royals run the risk of making a poor evaluation of Ka’aihue’s talents at the end of the year, and even if he is the next Travis Hafner, the Royals might wind up discarding him anyway before they find out.

He’s hit into some tough luck, no question; he missed a home run by just a few feet in his first two starts after his call up, and in his first 5 games back he was 2-for-20 despite just 2 strikeouts. But he seemed to press after that, striking out 3 times in a game against the Angels and then uncharacteristically swinging at bad pitches over the past few games. On Thursday night, facing lefty specialist Boone Logan in the 8th inning, he fouled off the first two pitches, both down at his shoetops, then watched as the third pitch ran right through the heart of the plate for strike three. I’ve seen this movie before, with Alex Gordon in the starring role.

Hopefully he’ll come out of it soon. On Saturday he mustered two hits, including one off of Logan. On Sunday…he was on the bench, against a right-handed pitcher, so that Willie Bloomquist could play third base.

I still believe that Ka’aihue is going to be an above-average hitter in the majors. Check that: I believe Ka’aihue already is an above-average hitter, and just needs enough of a sample size to prove it. But the Royals have made his path needlessly difficult, and they aren’t doing him any favors by sitting him on the bench against opposite-side pitching.

- Speaking of Guillen, I have tried and failed to come up with a permutation of “cash considerations” or “player to be named later” which would cause the Royals to come out on the short end of the trade with the Giants. Perhaps if “cash considerations” meant “one billion dollars” – or worse, if the PTBNL was…Jose Guillen. Otherwise, the Royals got something for nothing. Don’t expect the PTBNL to be a real prospect, but even so, the Royals saved a quarter-million dollars. That’s enough to pay for a decent prospect out of the Dominican.

- I don’t think Bryan Bullington is ever going to live up to even a fraction of the expectations that come with a #1 overall pick. There’s no evidence to suggest that his Sunday start was anything more than the vagaries of baseball showing themselves, a reminder that it is baseball, not football, where on Any Given Sunday the worst team can beat the best team, even with a 29-year-old journeyman in search of his first career win on the mound.

But what a win it was. By Game Score, Bullington’s start was the best one of the season by a Royal. (Although tellingly, the Royals had six starts that were better than this in 2009.) It was just the third time in their history that the Royals had beaten the Yankees 1-0. (Amazingly enough, the other two times occurred in the same series – on June 9th and June 11th, 1972. Jim Rooker and Dick Drago threw shutouts; Paul Schaal and Amos Otis drove in the only runs.)

Most impressively, Sunday was the first time ever that the Royals shut out the Yankees on two hits or less.

I still don’t think that Bryan Bullington has any more upside than to be another Brian Bannister-type. But I’d say he’s earned another start. With the original Bannister not doing too well these days, the Royals could do worse than to let Bullington prove whether they’ve found a successor.

- Bullington’s performance was a testament to the veteran influence of Jason Kendall, who called a brilliant game, sagely guided his inexperienced hurler through the gauntlet of one of the game’s toughest lineup, and even threw out the speedy Brett Gardner trying to steal second base in the sixth inning.

Or at least, I’m sure Kendall would have done all those things had he actually started the game. Instead, Brayan Pena did.

In Pena’s last four starts behind the plate, the pitching staff has been so traumatized that they’ve given up a total of 9 runs. I don’t think it’s humanly possible to destroy the canard that the Royals need Kendall behind the plate for the sake of the pitching staff, but if the fact that the team is dead last in the AL in ERA wasn’t enough, the performance of their pitchers with Brayan Pena is just another data point.

Ned Yost, to his credit, seems to have noticed that Pena doesn’t call a fastball down the middle on every pitch, and that he’s even thrown out 5 of 13 potential basestealers. Yost has said that Pena will start almost every day game from now until the end of the season, and a few other assorted games, which should add up to about a third of the games on the remainder of the schedule. On any other team, allowing a 36-year-old washed-up catcher to play two-thirds of the remaining games for a last-place team would incite all kinds of protests. On the Royals, we call this progress.

- Well, it would be progress if Brayan Pena could actually hit. Instead, he’s now 1-for-his-last-23, and has grounded into 4 double plays in that span. After hitting an impressive .273/.318/.442 last season, he’s down to a line of .161/.238/.196 this year, and has struck out nearly as many times as he did last year, in barely one-third of the at-bats. If I didn’t know better, I’d say getting to play twice a month is bad for a player’s development.

- Twenty-one of the Royals’ next 24 games come against divisional rivals. Now’s the perfect time to make their move.