Thursday, September 16, 2010

Royals Today: 9/16/2010.

Sorry about the long delay between posts. Sometimes real life gets in the way. Let’s try to catch up with a potpourri.

- A little over two weeks ago, I wrote that Wilson Betemit “is going to finish with the greatest partial season in the history of the Royals.” I also suggested that the Royals consider signing him to a 3-year deal after the season, rather than risk losing him to free agency after 2011 (or paying him a lot more to re-sign than they’d have to pay him now.) The comments section was rather skeptical of this suggestion.

“I wouldn't go paying Betemit too much money or commit for too long. He had 1,275 MLB at-bats prior to 2010 in which he had an OPS of 756, and that's also in line with what you'd expect from his minor-league hitting record.”

“If he would take a one year ML deal for 1 mil, fine. Anything more than that, let him walk.”

“[T]here is no need to think about a 3 year deal. Moustakas will be up no later than midseason, and Hosmer should be up to start '11. He will make for a nice utility guy next year, but I don't think there is a spot for him after that.”

So yeah, there was some skepticism, which I’m sure only intensified after Betemit started September in a 1-for-21 slide. But over the last seven games, Betemit has gone 13-for-29, with 3 doubles and 2 homers, including his first career grand slam. His seasonal line is now .317/.399/.552, in over 250 plate appearances. And I ask again: shouldn’t we at least acknowledge the possibility that this isn’t a fluke? And if it’s not, shouldn’t the Royals be looking to sign him to a long-term deal.

My friend Joe Sheehan came back with the retort that in 2008 and 2009, in roughly the same number of at-bats, Betemit hit .252/.287/.406, and that counts too. Which it does. But if we simply add together Betemit’s numbers for all three years, then from 2008 to today, in a sample size of 511 plate appearances (almost a full season), Betemit has hit .284/.345/.478 with 36 doubles and 18 homers. Is it that unrealistic to expect Betemit to hit .284/.345/.478 in a full season next year? And if not, isn’t that a guy worth signing for 3 years?

(Those of you who subscribe to Joe Sheehan’s Newsletter can read a much more extensive back-and-forth between Joe and I. If you don’t subscribe, you’re missing out.)

Or to look at this from another angle, this timely article from Fangraphs breaks down Betemit’s numbers from this season and comes to the unsurprising conclusion that he’s been awfully lucky in the batting average department. That’s hardly a surprise – you ordinarily can’t hit .317 while on pace to strike out 140 times unless you have massive power. But according to Fangraphs, even when you take the air out of Betemit’s batting average, you’re left with a projected line of .287/.373/.522. And I say again: are you sure you wouldn’t want that hitter around for the next 3 years?

Betemit, remember, is just 28 years old. The Royals signed Jose Guillen when he was 32; if the Royals signed Betemit to a 3-year deal, he wouldn’t be 32 when the contract ended.

The terms I suggested ($12 million for 3 years) came under some fire, and in fairness, I just pulled those numbers out of thin air. It’s quite possible that he would sign for less than that. He’s arbitration-eligible for 2011, and arbitration looks at a player’s production for the last two seasons, so Betemit’s brief and ineffective stint in the majors last year would keep his salary down. (As would the fact that he’s been a part-time player.) I’d be astonished if he made more than $2 million in arbitration.

A 3-year, $12 million deal would essentially tack on a 2-year, $10 million extension to his contract. That might be generous – I could see a 3-year, $10 million deal instead, or even 3 year, $9 million, with a $1 million buyout of a generous option for 2014. These are details best worked out by guys like Jin Wong, who do this full time and have access to the terms of every other contract in the major league for comparison’s sake. The point is that regardless of what the terms are, it’s a very manageable contract.

Would Betemit accept such a deal? I’m inclined to think he would. He’s made roughly $4 million in his career, which is good money for you and me but not the kind of money that sets him up for life. Signing a three-year deal now would put him into that kind of financial security, and still allow him to chase big dollars at the age of 32. He might well be willing to give up the chance to get double that money a year from now, in exchange for guaranteed millions today.

Much of the resistance to signing him stems from a concern about where he plays. His defense at third base has been awful – to the naked eye he looks subpar, and the defensive stats have him at around 9 runs below average in just a quarter of a season. That’s tough to do. And anyway, when Mike Moustakas is ready, he yields to no man.

But if Betemit hits like this, he has a better bat than any outfielder in the system except maybe for David DeJesus, who is a free agent after next season. And the corner outfield is perhaps the only position on the field where the Royals don't have a top prospect knocking on the door of the majors. I see Betemit playing third base for most of 2011, then right field for 2012 and 2013. Basically, Betemit can be the player that the Royals thought Mark Teahen would be – a guy who can move from third base to the corner outfield, dabble at first base, and hit well enough for all four positions.

Teahen is a worrisome comp for another reason, which is that Teahen’s 2006 is the closest comparison to Betemit’s 2010 in Royals history. Teahen hit .290/.357/.517 that year in 109 games, but Teahen only started hitting after he was demoted to Omaha early in the season. He returned on June 3rd, and the numbers are eerily similar:

Betemit: .317/.399/.552 in 263 PA

Teahen: .313/.384/.557 in 356 PA

Teahen, of course, never hit like that again, and it’s possible Betemit won’t either.

But I would argue that it’s a risk you have to take. Even if Betemit regresses like Teahen did, he’d still have some value as a super-utility player. Maybe not $4 million-a-season value, but he wouldn’t be Jason Kendall either. Fangraphs estimates that from 2007 to 2009 – the three seasons after his breakout mirage – Teahen was worth a total of $8.9 million. So even if Betemit’s 2010 is a mirage, a three-year deal is unlikely to pay him substantially more than he’s worth. And if it’s not a mirage, then he’ll be an absolute bargain.

If Betemit is going to stay in Kansas City long-term, though, it’s clear that it will be as a corner outfielder and not as a third baseman. Which is why I think that the Royals need to move Betemit to the outfield immediately, and play him out there every day until the end of the season. They simply have to find out if Betemit can play an acceptable outfield before making a long-term commitment. (This would also open up some playing time at third base for Josh Fields, assuming we can all stomach it.) Alex Gordon, who had never played the outfield before, has been surprisingly decent in left field – the defensive numbers put him at roughly league-average – and I’d like to think that Betemit can be as well, but there’s only one way to find out.

The fact that it hasn’t happened yet suggests that the Royals don’t consider Betemit a long-term solution, and will be content to either trade him at next year’s deadline, or let him walk after the season and (possibly) get draft picks for him.

We’ll see what happens. Dayton Moore almost never makes big contract decisions until the off-season, and there’s certainly no urgency to get a deal done in September. There are some valid reasons to be concerned about giving a three-year deal to a guy who was in Omaha barely three months ago. But it needs to be considered this winter, which is why it needs to be discussed – and why Betemit needs to be moved to the outfield – now.

- If the story of the summer months was Betemit’s breakout, the story of September has to be Brayan Pena. After spending five months locked away in a cupboard under the stairs, allowed out only when absolutely necessary and under strict orders not to do anything that would embarrass the family, Pena was finally and grudgingly given the starting job. And he’s run with it.

In the Royals’ first 126 games, through August 24th, Pena started just 12 times and had just 69 plate appearances. The rust showed; he hit .148/.221/.180, numbers that were so awful that they seemed unredeemable.

But Pena has started 15 of the Royals’ last 19 games, and has hit .397/.446/.552, including the first home run by a Royals catcher this season, and with more walks (6) than strikeouts (4). Remarkably, he became the first Royal all season to win Player of the Week honors. Pena’s seasonal numbers are all the way up to .269/.331/.361, which is close to his .273/.318/.442 line from last season.

When Kendall went out for the season, Ned Yost flatly stated that Pena would probably start 4-5 times a week, with Lucas May starting the other 2-3 times. But so far, May has started just twice all month. Which is as it should be. May seems like a decent backup at best, whereas Pena has borderline starter ability.

Even when he wasn’t hitting from April to August, Pena’s defense was very solid – his throws to second base had more zip, and he seemed to be moving better behind the plate. The Royals have spent a lot of time coaching him, and he has worked his ass off to get better. He’s thrown out 34% of attempted basestealers this year, and allowed just one passed ball. Frankly, the defensive concerns about Pena have always seemed overblown – he threw out 35% of basestealers last year. The defensive metrics at list him as a dead-average defensive player for both 2009 and 2010.

I hate to be insensitive, but Kendall’s injury has benefitted the Royals, both in 2010 and for the future. A year ago they had three catchers under contract for 2010, all three of whom were better than Kendall, and they went out and spent $6 million anyway. But Kendall is almost certainly out until May, and probably until July or August. In his place, the Royals have a 28-year-old switch-hitting catcher who projects as roughly a league-average hitter and fielder, a great work ethic, a wonderful and infectious attitude, and even after arbitration this winter is unlikely to make more than about $1 million. And they have a perfectly serviceable rookie backup catcher making the league minimum.

Hopefully Pena’s performance this month has convinced the Royals that their catching situation for next season is in good hands, and they avoid the temptation of bringing in yet another overpaid veteran catcher to tide things over until Kendall is ready to resume sucking. The Royals caught a break when Kendall went down, and they caught a bigger one when Pena started hitting. We can only hope that they appreciate the break that Pena has afforded them, and leave him in the starter’s role that he has earned.

- Speaking of minor-league free agents made good, what do the Royals do with Bruce Chen this winter? In his second go-round with the Royals, Chen has been a serviceable starting pitcher, a #5 starter in the scouting parlance. In the vernacular of the Royals, that makes him a #2. (Of the nine pitchers who have started at least five games for the Royals this year, Chen’s 4.70 ERA ranks behind only Zack Greinke.)

Chen’s not quite as good as his ERA suggests; he continues to walk too many batters for a guy who’s an incurable fly-ball pitcher. Chen’s xFIP, which is one of the best measures of what a pitcher’s ERA “should” be if he has a normal amount of luck, is 4.92. Last year, Chen’s ERA was more than a run higher (5.78), but his xFIP was barely a third of a run higher at 5.30. Some bad luck last year and some good luck year disguises the fact that he’s basically been the same pitcher both years.

I wouldn’t suggest that the Royals give Chen any kind of long-term deal or anything, but I would be perfectly happy if the Royals offered him a one-year contract in the $1.5 million range. (If they could offer Horacio Ramirez $2 million…) Chen’s in that sweet spot where he’s good enough to pitch in the back of a rotation, but not good enough to command a lot of money.

I’d almost prefer that the Royals re-up with Chen for one year rather than spend a lot of money on a superior starter in the free-agent market, because while the Royals have a lot of openings for next year’s rotation, I’m not sure there are any openings for 2012. Between the Fab Four lefties (Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, Danny Duffy, and Chris Dwyer) and Aaron Crow, the Royals have five pitching prospects, none of whom are likely to earn a rotation spot next April. But all five pitchers might be ready for a major-league audition between April and September.

Put it this way: if at least three of those five pitchers aren’t ready for the Opening Day rotation in 2012, then something’s gone wrong. And with Greinke and Luke Hochevar under contract for 2012, you could argue that the rotation is already set.

For 2011, then, the Royals need some stopgaps, guys who are better than replacement-level, but who won’t cost a ton of money and don’t require long-term commitments. Conveniently, they already have one in Kyle Davies, who has pitched well enough the last month to justify bringing him back for his final year before free agency.

If the Royals re-sign Chen, they go into the season with Greinke, Hochevar, Davies, and Chen, and can leave the fifth spot open for grabs – if someone like Montgomery or Duffy pitches lights out, they might force the Royals’ hand, and if not, then you settle for Sean O’Sullivan again, or one of the many Triple-A veteran options (Bryan Bullington, Philip Humber) or maybe some non-roster invitee. (I'm working under the assumption that Brian Bannister will be released.)

That’s not a particularly appealing rotation, but it’s a very flexible one – flexible in the sense that the minute one of your young studs is ready, you can accommodate him with a minimal amount of pain and effort. For that reason, I think it makes sense to bring back Bruce Chen. The price – both in terms of money and opportunity – is right.

- Finally, you might have noticed a common thread between the three players above. Betemit, Pena, and Chen were all 1) former Braves, and 2) acquired for free.

Dayton Moore’s ex-Brave fetish gets mocked a lot, at least somewhat deservedly. But it can’t be argued that, at least in 2010, his taste in ex-Braves has paid off in spades. If you’re going to have a weakness for players from another organization, at least have the good sense to pick a winning organization.