Saturday, September 4, 2010

Forty Men. One Roster. Lots of Decisions.

Last September, the Royals elected not to bring up a prospect who hit .252/.392/.433 in Triple-A, and a certain writer blew his top and took a sabbatical. This September, the Royals have chosen not to promote Mike Moustakas to the majors, even though Moustakas has hit .324/.372/.638 for the season; if you like old-school stats, he has 36 homers and 123 RBIs. (He has 123 RBIs, and it’s not Labor Day yet, and he missed the first two weeks of the season with an oblique strain. Moustakas has 123 RBIs in 115 games*, which speaks as much to the quality of his teammates as to his own production.)

*: In the last 50 years, only 7 major-leaguers have had more RBIs than games played in a season. Six of the 7 played in the heart of the steroid era, from 1994 to 2000. The seventh player was George Brett, who in 1980 drove in 118 runs in 117 games.

And yet this same sportswriter agrees wholeheartedly with the decision to leave Moustakas in the minors, not to mention every other top prospect in what is arguably the game’s deepest farm system. What’s changed?

There are the obvious reasons – Ka’aihue was 25 and had spent two full seasons in the high minors, while Moustakas is just 21 and was in A-ball last year. Also, the Royals left Ka’aihue in Triple-A so they could play Mike Jacobs, whereas Moustakas would take playing time away from the far more intriguing Wilson Betemit (and the at-least-somewhat-worth-following Josh Fields.)

But the biggest reason is simple math. There are only 40 spots on a 40-man roster, and the Royals already have more than 40 players fighting for space.

In fact, the Royals currently have (as you can see here) 42 players on their 40-man roster. They can do this because players on the 60-day DL do not count against the limit. Gil Meche and Fields, both of whom were on the 60-day DL, were just activated, but the Royals asked David DeJesus and Luke Hochevar to take their place. (Jeff Bianchi has been out for the year, but if I understand things correctly, the rules allow teams to option a player to the minors even if they’re injured, so long as they didn’t play in the majors the previous year. Otherwise, Bianchi would be earning major-league service time. But I believe the Royals would have to promote him to the majors – accruing both salary and service time – in order to put him on the 60-day DL.)

Jason Kendall’s season-ending shoulder injury saved the Royals from having to release anyone to make room for Hochevar when Luke was activated yesterday.

(No injury is reason to celebrate, and I won’t. I will simply point out that while Kendall might have been a warrior to play through it, he also hit .200/.241/.225 in August. I love players who are warriors; I love players who don’t hurt their team because they’re too selfish to admit they can’t perform even more. Kendall's injury probably saved Brayan Pena’s career in Kansas City, and makes the acquisition of Lucas May far more significant than I ever thought it would be.)

So it’s no surprise that on September 1st, aside from Meche and Fields, the only player the Royals called up was May, who’s already on the 40-man roster. Even after the minor league season ends next week, I doubt we’ll see anyone called up who’s not already on the 40-man. The Royals have hinted at calling up a third catcher now that Kendall’s out, and conveniently Manny Pina is on the roster (although he’s with Northwest Arkansas, who will probably be playing in the Texas League playoffs until the middle of the month.) I suspect that the Royals will want to scratch their Jarrod Dyson itch, to use him as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement if nothing else. But I won’t be surprised if they are the only two additions to the active roster the rest of the month.

The only other player on the roster who’s a candidate for the 60-day DL would be Kanekoa Texeira. Which means that the Royals have, at most, one roster spot to play with before they start cutting guys. I’m not averse to cutting some of the guys on the 40-man roster – Gaby Hernandez and Victor Marte, I’m looking at you – but it complicates things.

What really complicates things, though, is that the Royals have to add a whole slew of guys to the 40-man roster between now and the Rule 5 Draft. In past years, the Royals looked at the Rule 5 Draft as a potential source of new talent, because they always had a high draft pick, and because they had so little talent themselves that they were rarely at risk of having one of their own players picked.

Here’s a list of all the players the Royals drafted in the last decade (not counting guys who were drafted only to be traded for cash to another team immediately afterwards.)

2009: Edgar Osuna (4th)

2006: Joakim Soria (2nd)

2005: Fabio Castro (1st) – immediately traded to Texas for Esteban German

2004: Andrew Sisco (2nd)

2003: Jason Szuminski (10th) – immediately traded to San Diego for Rich Thompson

2002: D.J. Carrasco (6th)

2001: Miguel Asencio (3rd)

2000: Endy Chavez (5th)

Some of these guys are busts, but when you consider how low the batting average on Rule 5 picks – even high picks – is, the Royals have actually done awfully well. Soria by himself justifies a decade of Rule 5 picks, but snagging Esteban German at the winter meetings in 2005 was one of Allard Baird’s last good moves for the Royals. Sisco gave the Royals one good year in relief, and was later traded for Ross Gload. Carrasco was a key part of the bullpen in the miracle 2003 season; he spent three years with the Royals, and his ERAs read 4.82, 4.84, and 4.79.

Asencio is most notable for what might have been. In 2002, as a 21-year-old rookie, he had perhaps the worst major league debut of all time – 16 pitches, 16 balls – but recovered to post a respectable 5.11 ERA. In 2003, he was a big part of that 17-4 start; he worked as the team’s #3 starter behind Runelvys Hernandez and Jeremy Affeldt, and the Royals won his first 6 starts, the last a masterful 114-pitch complete game. That start might have ruined him; he struggled in two more starts, then required Tommy John surgery. Even worse, he was one of the few pitchers who failed the surgery and required a second operation – aside from 8 innings with Colorado in 2006, he never pitched in the majors again.

The Royals kept Endy Chavez on the roster all season, then waived him over the winter – he eventually landed in Montreal and had a nice sophomore season on his way to a nine-year (and counting) major league career.

That list would look even better if the Royals had found a way to hold on to another player – in 2002, the Royals actually drafted twice, and their second pick was Ronny Paulino. Paulino would be sent back to Pittsburgh the following spring, and he clearly wasn’t ready – but 3 years later, as a rookie catcher for the Pirates, he would hit .310, and he’s still catching most days for the Marlins.

The point is that the Royals have found a fair amount of talent in the draft, while losing almost none. Here’s a – much shorter – list of the players that were drafted from the Royals over the last 10 years:

2008: Gilbert de la Vera

2006: Adam Donachie

2005: Seth Etherton

2001: Corey Thurman and Ryan Baerlocher

Neither Baerlocher nor de la Vera made their new team’s roster – de la Vera was a bizarre pick, a pitcher with neither good numbers nor a good scouting report, and it’s never been entirely clear what the Astros saw in him. Etherton had just signed with the Royals as a minor-league free agent two weeks before the Padres drafted him; he didn’t make the Padres roster, and the Royals actually bought him back the following May. Donachie was drafted after a season when he hit .212/.310/.299 as a catcher in Double-A. You will not be surprised to learn that he didn’t make the Orioles’ major-league roster either.

That leaves only one player who made an appearance with his new team – Corey Thurman, who gave the Blue Jays a respectable rookie season (68 IP, 4.37 ERA) in 2002. I can only blame myself for his loss. You see, prior to that draft, in an early iteration of “Rany on the Royals” for Baseball Prospectus, I wrote about the upcoming Rule 5 draft and the risk that the Royals might lose some players. In particular, I wrote that “The Royals' decision to leave Corey Thurman off the 40-man roster, though, is much more dangerous, and nearly inexplicable.”

What I did not know – could not have known – was that at the very same winter meetings, my colleague Keith Law was engaged in discussions with the Toronto Blue Jays, discussions that would soon lead to a job in their front office. Keith would later tell me (after he was officially hired a few weeks later) that he had shared my column with J.P. Ricciardi before the draft. By highlighting a player I thought the Royals might lose, I inadvertently helped them lose him.

Anyway, Thurman would only pitch 15 more innings in the majors after his rookie season.

One of the big concessions the MLBPA made to the owners in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement was to give teams an additional year before drafted players would be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft – it used to be that players under the age of 19 were eligible to be drafted after their fourth season, while players 19 and older were eligible after their third. This was expected to weaken the impact of the draft, and it has.

Ironically, the first draft after the CBA changed yielded two impact players – the Royals took Joakim Soria 2nd, and with the next pick the Cubs drafted Josh Hamilton (who was traded to the Reds in a pre-arranged deal.) And Jesus Flores, drafted 5th, has shown a lot of promise for the Nationals as a catcher, though he's missed all of 2010 with shoulder surgery. But since then, the draft has been kind of pointless.

It’s easy to laugh at the Royals for drafting Edgar Osuna with their pick last year, given that the Braves thought so little of his talents that they declined to take him back for the bargain price of $25,000 at the end of spring training. But of the three players taken before Osuna, two (Jamie Hoffman and Ben Snyder) didn’t make their new team’s roster out of spring training, and the other (John Raynor) got two hits with the Pirates before they tired of carrying him and offered him back to the Marlins in early May.

Of the 17 guys who were selected in last December’s draft, only 3 have survived into September without being cut: Hector Ambriz, who has generally sucked out of the Indians’ bullpen all season; David Herndon, who has quietly pitched garbage relief for the Phillies; and Carlos Monasterios, the best of the lot, who has a 4.02 ERA for the Dodgers and has even made 11 starts this year.

The only other pick of note is Kanekoa Texeira, who was waived by the Mariners in June, but who pitched reasonably well for the Royals before his elbow started barking.

So anyway, the Rule 5 Draft has been declawed, and while that may have kept the Royals from finding some premium talent the last few years, it will almost certainly be a blessing now that the Royals are burgeoning with young talent.

As it is, the following players will have to be added to the roster after the season to keep them from being exposed in this December’s draft:

- Ed Lucas. He’s already 28, but he’s hitting .308/.396/.487 and over the last two seasons has played every position but pitcher and catcher. Scouts seem to think he can be at least a utility guy in the majors, sort of a cheaper, slightly better, Ivy League-educated version of Willie Bloomquist. Need to protect: moderate.

- David Lough. Drafted as a fairly raw college athlete – he played on a football scholarship, I believe – he has been slowly converting his tools into skills. He suddenly learned the strike zone halfway through the season, and since the Triple-A All-Star Break he’s hit .314/.401/.462. Need to protect: high.

- Clint Robinson. Yeah, he’s 25. He’s also hitting .332/.409/.625. Since June 1st, he’s batting .380 and slugging .746. Need to protect: insane.

- Derrick Robinson. He’s cooled off to a .283/.344/.375 line, but he might be the fastest player in the division (50 steals), and he’s still just 22. Need to protect: off the charts.

- Paulo Orlando. Hitting .308/.370/.470, with 24 steals, and excellent defense. Still just 24. And as a bonus, when he makes the majors, millions of young Brazilian boys will throw away their soccer balls and beg their parents to buy them a Royals hat. Need to protect: high.

- Everett Teaford. I don’t know what to make of this guy. The scouting report says he’s your standard-issue soft-tossing lefty. But his character is off the charts – in 2009 he won the inaugural Mike Sweeney Award, “which recognizes a player who best represents the organization on and off the field.” More importantly, after striking out 91 batters in 145 innings in 2009, he’s whiffed 117 batters in 104 innings in 2010. Need to protect: low to moderate.

- Nicholas Francis. I really don’t know what to make of this guy. Francis was suspended by the team and missed the entire 2007 season; the reasons were never divulged, but his co-conspirator Jason Taylor was later suspended by MLB for marijuana usage. He’s behind the development curve, but Francis is hitting .282/.328/.509 for Wilmington, and – you know this is coming – he’s hitting .300/.362/.582 on the road. (If his suspension year doesn’t count for purposes of Rule 5 eligibility, which I find unlikely, then he would not need to be protected.) Need to protect: low to moderate.

- Bryan Paukovits. Pitched great for Burlington, not so well for Wilmington, and he’s 23. Need to protect: low.

- Chris Hayes. Oh, wait…

And I’m not even entertaining the possibility of protecting guys like Tim Smith or Jamie Romak or a million mid-level relievers who might get picked but aren’t worth losing sleep over.

Conservatively, that’s at least five and maybe six guys who need to be added to the roster. I count only two pending free agents on the roster in Bruce Chen and Willie Bloomquist. That means that the Royals will have to DFA at least 3 or 4 guys after the season. That’s not necessarily a difficult point of order – in addition to the minor league guys like Hernandez and Marte, I can think of at least a few guys in the majors (Jesse Chavez, come on down!) who deserve the boot.

But every additional player the Royals add to the 40-man roster will require them to cut deeper, and eventually they’re going to run out of fat and start cutting into muscle. And keep in mind the Royals will probably want to keep at least a spot or two on the roster open for potential free agents to sign. The Royals might wind up promoting one of the guys I listed above this month, figuring that if they're going to be added to the roster anyway, there's no harm in getting a look at them now. But I will be stunned if they add anyone else. If Moustakas hasn't earned a look, no one has.

Be thankful it’s not worse. Under the old rules, where prospects gained their Rule 5 eligibility a year earlier, the Royals would have to protect their 2007 high school picks (Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy), their 2008 college picks (Johnny Giavotella), and their young Latin American catcher (Salvador Perez) for starters. That would have been a potential bloodbath on the level of the 2003 Pittsburgh Pirates, who – in what has to be one of the most humiliating moments in major league history – had five of their players selected in the first six picks. Other teams were openly laughing in the draft room. (The last of those five players? Jose Bautista.)

So it’s okay to be upset that we won’t get a look at Moustakas this month, and that we probably won’t see Seabiscuit (Tim Collins) launch low-90s fastballs from his batboy frame, and that Louis Coleman won’t get the look-see that he certainly deserves.

Just understand that there’s a very good reason why. It’s the best of reasons, actually.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Royals Today: 8/30/2010.

The Royals might be making progress, but it’s not evident from watching them on the field. With a win on Sunday the Royals are now 55-75, putting them on pace to win 68 or 69 games, after winning 65 last season. It’s actually worse than that, though. The Royals have been outscored by 154 runs this season. Six major league teams have a worse record than the Royals, but only two – the Orioles and Pirates – have a worse run differential. The Royals were outscored by 156 runs all of last season. At the major league level, at least, whatever steps the Royals have taken forward have been small ones – and they all pale to the giant regression to the mean taken by Zack Greinke.

- That the Royals have a better record (55-75) than their run differential would suggest (50-80) is one part luck, and one part Joakim Soria. Despite – or perhaps because – the Royals are playing so poorly, Soria is quietly having one of the best seasons by a Royals’ closer ever. In terms of saves – which, to be fair, is a pretty weak stat to evaluate closers by – his season might wind up as being the best ever.

The Royals’ record for saves was set by Dan Quisenberry in 1983, with 45, which at the time was the all-time major-league record. Ten years later Jeff Montgomery tied Quiz’s mark. With 30 games to go, Soria is at 36 saves, which puts him on pace for 44 for the season. (The Royals, by selfishly scoring two runs in the ninth inning yesterday afternoon, deprived him of a save that might turn out to be vital in his pursuit of the record.)

The Royals have obliged him by playing an awful lot of close games of late. Under Trey Hillman, it seemed like it was a lot of feast-or-famine for Soria; the Royals would have four save situations in a row, and then Soria would go a week without pitching before Hillman threw him into a 10-3 game just to get some work. But the Royals have provided him with a steady diet of save situations over the last six weeks. Prior to yesterday, every game Soria had entered since July 16th was either a save situation, a tie game, or a game the Royals were losing by just one run. In that span, Soria never had to pitch three days in a row, and never went more than four days without pitching.

The Royals have the most one-run decisions in all of baseball, and thanks to Soria they’ve done well in that regard. They’re 24-25 in one-run games, and 31-50 otherwise. They still have a perfect record (41-0) in game that they lead going into the ninth inning. In 2006, the last season before Soria arrived on the scene, the Royals lost seven games that they led with three outs to go.

Baseball Prospectus has a stat known as WXRL, for “Win Expectation Above Replacement, Lineup-Adjusted”. Ridiculous name aside, what the stat does is evaluate the odds that a given team will win the game when a reliever comes in, and the odds that the team will win when the reliever comes out, and then gives the pitcher the credit for the difference. For a closer, in other words, it rewards a pitcher for closing out “difficult” saves – with men on base or a one-run lead – a lot more than “easy” saves like starting the ninth with a three-run lead.

The Royals have asked Soria to close out a lot of tight wins this year – 19 times he has entered a game protecting a one-run lead. In addition, he has entered a tie game nearly as often (6) as he’s been asked to close out a three-run lead (8). He has of course been phenomenally successful at whatever job he’s been asked to do; he’s currently working on a franchise-record streak of 29 successful save opportunities in a row.

Add it all up, and Soria’s WXRL is 5.78, which is to say he’s been worth nearly 6 wins over a replacement-level pitcher in his role. That not only leads all of baseball – Heath Bell is about half-a-win behind – it’s already the fifth-best season in Royals history, behind Monty’s 1993 (6.86) and Quisenberry in 1980 (8.16), 1983 (7.04), and 1984 (6.65).

Quisenberry’s 1980 is probably out of reach, but if he finishes strong, Soria has a good shot at the second-best season by a Royals reliever ever. When you consider that he’ll only throw in the range of 70 innings, while Quisenberry threw over 128 innings in all three of those seasons, that’s a remarkable accomplishment.

(By the way, this is Soria’s fourth season in the majors, and every season ranks among the 12 best relief seasons in Royals history. That includes his rookie season, when he only served as the closer for about half the year. Montgomery has three seasons in the top 12, and Quisenberry has the other five. The demarcation between the top three relievers in Royals history and everyone else is as clear as anything I’ve ever seen in baseball.)

The Royals have 99 problems, but a closer ain’t one.

- On the other hand, the guy he usually throws to might be. You have to give it up for Jason Kendall – his ability to command playing time despite the inability to hit the ball more than 300 feet is not just impressive, it’s historic.

You probably noticed that Kendall has not hit a home run this season. You might have noticed that he has also not hit a triple this season. And you’ve certainly noticed that despite those two shortcomings, he continues to catch nearly 90% of the games. (Two weeks ago Ned Yost committed to playing Brayan Pena about a third of the time the rest of the season. Only on the Royals is limiting Jason Kendall to playing two-thirds of the time considered progress.)

But you might not have put all that information together, and realized that in 487 plate appearances, Jason Kendall has yet to hit a triple or a home run. And you probably didn’t realize that since World War II, only two players have batted 450 times in a season without a triple or home run.

One of those players is the remarkable Frank Taveras, who in 1980 batted 598 times and topped out with a double. Taveras was your classic jitterbug who hit the ball on the ground and ran like hell. He led the NL in steals in 1977 with 70, but his career high in OBP was .321, and he of course had no power. The Pirates, for whom he toiled for many years, traded him to the Mets early in the 1979 season, and perhaps not coincidentally the Pirates won the World Series that year.

The other player is Ron Hunt, who hit nary a triple or homer in 1972…or 1973…or 1974. He was a full-time player all three years and amassed over 1500 plate appearances in that time.

Hunt is, for my money, one of the most fascinating baseball players of all time. For one thing, over that three-year stretch he was actually a pretty decent player despite his comical lack of power. Take 1973, for instance: he hit .309, walked 52 times against just 19 strikeouts, led the league with 24 hit-by-pitches and had a .418 OBP. He played second base, which added to his value, even if he didn’t play it all that well. He had a 112 OPS+ and even got some MVP votes. He was sort of like Luis Castillo, in that he was a below-average defensive second baseman whose entire game revolved around OBP, except with less speed.

The really remarkable thing about Hunt is that he seemed to have made a conscious decision halfway through his career to get on base in any way possible – specifically, by going out of his way to get hit by pitches. He averaged 10 HBPs a year for the first five years of his career – and then, from 1968 until 1974, he led the NL in HBPs seven straight years. In 1971, he was nailed FIFTY times – the all-time major-league record. He came close to making a mockery of the rules – I’m fairly surprised that MLB didn’t alter the rules somehow to discourage this kind of overt gamesmanship. Awarding first base to a batter that’s hit by the ball is meant to discourage pitchers from hitting batters; it’s not meant to encourage a pesky middle infielder who can’t hit the ball over an outfielder’s head to lean into a pitch twice a week.

I get the impression Hunt wasn’t a particularly popular player with his peers, and it shows in the stat record – in early September, 1974, he was abruptly waived by the Expos. The Cardinals claimed him, but he never played for St. Louis, and he was released the following March, still 34 years old.

Anyway, the reason for the digression is this: Hunt finished his career with 243 HBPs, ranking sixth all-time. The player directly above him on that list? Jason Kendall, with 254. It all comes back around.

(Kendall isn’t even contributing in this regard – he only has 6 HBPs all season, which would be the lowest number in his career, and the odds that he breaks Hughie Jennings all-time record of 287 are looking increasingly remote.)

- I’m just going to throw this list out there:

Highest Single-Season OPS by a Royal (min: 200 PA)

1) George Brett, 1980, 1.118

2) George Brett, 1985, 1.022

3) Wilson Betemit, 2010, 1.001

4) Danny Tartabull, 1991, .990

5) Bob Hamelin, 1994, .987

Yes, I’m cheating a little bit. I set the minimum at 200 plate appearances, and Betemit just had his 200th plate appearance of the season yesterday.

But still.

If you look at the list of the top 30 OPS’s in Royals history, you’ll find that the list is basically the same whether the minimum is 200 plate appearances or 400 plate appearances. Aside from Betemit, the only players on the list who had fewer than 400 plate appearances were Hamelin (374 PA, but in a strike-shortened season) and Carlos Beltran in 2004, when he was traded in mid-season. There’s a good reason for this – it’s hard to sustain an OPS north of 900 for even 200 plate appearances, unless you’re actually a pretty damn good hitter.

If we look at the best seasons by a Royal hitter with between, say, 150 and 400 plate appearances, here’s what we get:

1) Wilson Betemit, 2010, 1.001

2) Bob Hamelin, 1994, .987

3) Carlos Beltran, 2004, .901

4) Tony Solaita, 1975, .884

5) Esteban German, 2006, .880

When you factor in the special circumstances that put Hamelin and Beltran on this list, then barring a collapse over the last month of the season, Betemit is going to finish with the greatest partial season in the history of the Royals.

(Tony Solaita had an awfully interesting tenure with the Royals. As a rookie in 1974, he hit .268/.361/.406, then hit .260/.369/.515 in 1975. In 1976 he started slow, batting .235/.286/.294 in just 68 plate appearances…and was promptly waived. Solaita, who was from American Samoa, serves as a reminder that the Royals’ reluctance to put faith in take-and-rake hitters from the Pacific islands is not new.)

Betemit, who was signed to a minor-league contract over the winter, is pretty clearly the greatest free talent acquisition by Dayton Moore since Joakim Soria. Moore has actually quietly had a terrific season in terms of picking up contributors out of the pool of unwanted free agents. Along with Betemit, he re-signed Bruce Chen to another minor-league deal. Chen leads the team in wins with nine; more meaningfully, with a 4.76 ERA in 102 innings, he’s been the second-best starter on the team this year.

Kanekoa Texeira, who was claimed off waivers from Seattle, had a 4.64 ERA out of the bullpen before he went on the DL; despite his lack of a strikeout pitch, his extreme groundball tendencies make him a nice guy to bring in with men on base in the middle innings. And hey, Bryan Bullington did pitch the game of his life against the Yankees.

While the pickups of Betemit and Chen have made a big impact this year, it’s not like they are rookies who are under contract for the next six years. Chen is a free agent after the season; while he’s re-established himself as a major leaguer, I don’t expect teams to be beating down the door to sign him. I could see the Royals offering him a one-year, $1-1.5 million contract to return as a stopgap next season, and I could see Chen accepting the offer.

Betemit, if I understand his service time correctly, would be a free agent after next season. This makes for a very difficult decision for the Royals. If you think Betemit’s season is a fluke, then you’ll either him trade him this winter or bring him back next year to babysit third base until Mike Moustakas is ready, but with the plan to trade Betemit to a contender if he’s still hitting well.

But what if it’s not a fluke? What’s so striking about Betemit’s numbers is that they don’t look like a fluke. Yes, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .405, which is unsustainably high. Betemit is hitting .331 overall, and there’s no way that can last. If his BABIP drops into the .330 range, which is realistic, then his “true” batting average is closer to .280.

But even if he hits .280, he can be a heck of a hitter. While batting average is subject to a lot of fluctuation, power and plate discipline are not. Betemit has 27 walks in just 172 at-bats – that’s not a fluke. He has 13 doubles and 10 homers – that’s not a fluke.

(By the way, with 10 homers, Betemit is just three behind Yuniesky Betancourt for the active team lead. Last week I was on with Soren Petro, and he asked me who I thought would finish with the team lead in homers. Billy Butler was the obvious choice, but I thought Betemit was a heck of a sleeper pick. Well, I’m changing my tune – Betemit isn’t a sleeper anymore. I honestly think he’s the favorite to hold the team’s homer title at season’s end.)

So even if you knock 50 points off his batting average, his numbers this season would be .281/.370/.531. Now, I doubt he’s even that good. He spent a month in Omaha and hit just .265/.358/.407 earlier this year; last year, he hit .241/.294/.441 in Triple-A Charlotte. But at the same time, Betemit was once one of the best prospects in all of baseball, and from 2005 to 2007, when he was 23-25 years old, he hit .265/.337/.455 in nearly a thousand plate appearances in the major leagues. He’s only 28; maybe he’s just figuring things out. It bears mentioning that, according to Fangraphs, Betemit is hitting fly balls at the highest rate of his career.

If he is, then he has to factor into the team’s future. Even if Moustakas takes over at third base sometime next year, Betemit has the bat to play somewhere else. We’re talking about a guy who played shortstop in the majors as recently as two years ago, so he should have the athletic ability to play any corner position. First base and DH are filled, but the Royals are still weak in outfield prospects. Betemit could play third base the first half of next season, then move to right field if and when David DeJesus gets traded.

So the Royals have a decision to make. If they think his numbers are for real, then they may have a chance to sign him to a long-term deal this winter at a huge discount relative to what he would get the following year on the free market if he continues to hit. Is it crazy to suggest that the Royals should offer Wilson Betemit a 3-year, $12 million contract this winter? Maybe. But it’s not any more crazy than suggesting in April that Wilson Betemit would be the best hitter on the Royals this season.