Thursday, November 18, 2010

Royals Report Card, 2010: Part Five.

Finishing up our report card with non-player personnel:

J.J. Picollo – Expectations: Moderate to High; Grade: A

I’m using “J.J. Picollo” as a proxy for the team’s entire player development staff, so this grade isn’t Picollo’s alone; some of the glory should reflect downward on people like Lonnie Goldberg (now the official Scouting Director) and Scott Sharp and Jin Wong, and upward on Dayton Moore and even the Glass family.

I’ve probably written 100,000 words on the farm system over the past 8 months, so there’s no point in expanding on those words much further. I might have been tempted to give the Royals an A+ if they had taken my advice and drafted Grant Green instead of Aaron Crow. There’s still time for Crow to get things together; a year ago we were cursing the Royals decisions to take Moustakas and Hosmer over guys like Rick Porcello and Matt Wieters and Gordon Beckham, and now it’s not so clear.

The Royals have done an outstanding job of drafting and developing players from multiple avenues. They’ve done well with top-of-the-first-round players (Moustakas and Hosmer), with over-slot players (Wil Myers, Chris Dwyer), with projectable arms (Mike Montgomery, Danny Duffy), and with at least one mid-round pick coming off an injury (John Lamb).

The two areas where we haven’t seen outstanding results yet are in Latin American talent, and in late-round picks. The jury is still out on the team’s Latin American operation; those players are typically signed at 16 or 17, and it’s simply too soon to see tangible results. The two original bonus babies, Yowill Espinal and Geulin Beltre,  have yet to reach full-season ball, but they’re only turning 20 this off-season. Salvador Perez looks like a legitimate candidate to play every day in the majors, and Cheslor Cuthbert held his own in the Pioneer League at the age of 17.

We’re still waiting for the Royals to find a starting pitcher or everyday hitter in the late rounds of the draft. Looking at the World Series teams, the Rangers found Ian Kinsler out of Mizzou in the 17th round, while the Giants drafted Jonathan Sanchez in the 27th round. While the Royals have found some decent relievers late, like Blaine Hardy in the 22nd round and Patrick Keating in the 25th, the closest they’ve come to a late-round steal is David Lough, who was an 11th-round pick and could be a worthy successor to David DeJesus’ role as the jack-of-all-trades outfielder. I suppose Jarrod Dyson (50th-round pick in 2006) could be that guy.

But that’s nitpicking. At the beginning of the season, I said that for the Royals to have a successful season in the minors, they needed to finish the season with one of the five best farm systems in baseball, if not top three. Well, they’re in the top one. Hard to find fault with that.

Kevin Seitzer – Expectations: Low to Moderate; Grade: B+

In Seitzer’s case, the “Expectations” were not so much for him as they were for the hitters the Royals had saddled him with. It might be hard to remember, but going into the season the Royals’ offense looked almost certain to be among the worst in baseball. It wasn’t just bad, it was bad without the upside of youth. I mean, look at the Opening Day lineup:

RF: David DeJesus
LF: Scott Podsednik
1B: Billy Butler
CF: Rick Ankiel
DH: Jose Guillen
3B: Willie Bloomquist
SS: Yuniesky Betancourt
C: Jason Kendall
2B: Chris Getz

My God. I mean, My God. Granted that Bloomquist was just a one-day replacement for Alberto Callaspo, the Royals had basically two major-league hitters in their Opening Day lineup.

And yet somehow, the Royals led the majors in batting average for most of the season, and finished the year second with a  .274 team average, behind only the Rangers’ (who benefit from their home park) mark of .276.

Batting average, of course, is a lousy predictor of run scoring, and hitting for average was pretty much all the Royals did well on offense. They finished tied for ninth in the AL in walks*, so their .331 OBP ranked just 8th in the league. They finished 12th in the league in homers, ahead of only Oakland and Seattle, so their .399 SLG ranked just 9th in the AL. Not surprisingly, they finished just 10th in the league in the only team offensive stat that really matters – runs scored.

*: The fact that the Royals ranked ninth in walks is itself a miracle, considering that two years ago – before Seitzer was hired – they walked just 392 times all season, which was not only the lowest total in baseball, but one of the five lowest totals by any major-league team in the last 50 years. The Royals had not ranked as high as ninth in the league in walks since 2003.

Still, if you had told me the Royals would finish ahead of four other AL teams in runs scored at the start of the season, I would have been thrilled. Given an entire bushel of lemons in March, Seitzer fashioned a decent lemonade.

Podsednik, who had hit .270 just once in the previous four seasons, hit .310/.353/.400 with the Royals. After he was traded to the Dodgers, he hit .262/.313/.336.

Guillen, who was left for dead over the winter, hit a perfectly respectable .255/.314/.429 for the Royals. He slugged just .375 for the Giants, despite the fact that, like Podsednik, he was traded to the inferior league.

Wilson Betemit, who hadn’t hit worth a damn in three years and was hitting .265/.358/.407 in Omaha when he was called up, hit .297/.378/.511 for the Royals.

DeJesus was having the best season of his career before he broke his thumb and missed the last two months.

Billy Butler was superficially disappointing because his home run total dropped from 21 to 15, but in reality, by virtue of striking out less and walking more, his OBP jumped 26 points, and given that offense in the AL was markedly down from 2009, Butler was substantially better relative to the league in 2010 than he was the year before (his OPS+ increased from 125 to 134.)

Yuniesky Betancourt wasn’t terrible.

Jason Kendall actually had a .335 OBP through the end of July, before he tried to play with just one shoulder. His final OPS+ of 71 was identical to his performance in 2009, which has to be considered a win given that Kendall was 36 years old.

The one key hitter on the Royals who regressed, Alberto Callaspo, hit even worse after he was traded to the Angels, suggesting that whatever his problem was, it wasn’t his hitting coach.

Seitzer isn’t perfect by any means. For one thing, perhaps his most important pupil, Alex Gordon, took a major step backwards. And I’ve heard criticism from some quarters that Seitzer tries to tailor one approach to all of his players, an approach which emphasizes a line-drive swing over power even in players who would be better served swinging for the fences.

The critics have some evidence in their corner, such as Butler’s astounding 32 double plays. Mike Aviles was hitting an empty .300 for the Royals all season, when in September – by his own admission – he changed his approach to “just swing hard”, and in his last 20 games he slugged .648 with 12 extra-base hits. I don’t know if he went against Seitzer’s orders or not, but he certainly used an unSeitzerish approach. (Then again, it was amazing he was hitting as well as he was so soon after Tommy John surgery.)

It will be interesting to see how Seitzer handles guys like Moustakas and Hosmer and Myers as they arrive in the majors. Moose, in particular, is the polar opposite of Seitzer as a hitter – a left-handed hitter with immense power and excellent ability to put the bat on the ball early in the count – and Seitzer needs to be careful not to force a square peg into a round hole.

But given that Seitzer coaxed an almost-mediocre performance out of a collection of nearly washed-up hitters, I’m certainly excited to see what he can do with elite talent.

Nick Kenney – Expectations: Moderate; Grade: B+

After all the crap I gave the departed Nick Swartz last season, it’s only fair that I take a look at how his successor did. It’s hard to judge a trainer’s effectiveness from afar, even after two decades – that’s why the Royals were so mad at me in the first place. After just one season, it’s nearly impossible. But we’ll try.

Take a look at the injuries on the 2010 Royals:

- Jason Kendall tried to play through a torn rotator cuff for a month. That’s bad, but that’s on Kendall and his medieval baseball code of never admitting to an injury more than on the training staff, I think.

- Alex Gordon broke his thumb sliding into second base. Traumatic injuries are not preventable, and he returned to active duty on schedule.

- Mike Aviles returned from Tommy John surgery well ahead of schedule, and despite his early return was an effective hitter all season, although he did heat up in September. Defensively is a different story, but again – he came back in 9 months. That’s a hell of an accomplishment for everyone involved in his rehab.

- David DeJesus broke his hand banging into a wall. It happens.

- Chris Getz missed two weeks with a strained oblique, but came back as soon as he was eligible; he missed September with a concussion. No fault of the trainers there.

- Rick Ankiel missed two months with a quad injury, then spent almost another month rehabbing in Omaha. If there’s one injury you can point to on the 2010 Royals as taking a lot longer to heal than it should, it’s this one. But there have been whispers in the press that Ankiel was in no rush to re-join a losing Royals squad, and that it wasn’t a coincidence he returned just in time to get traded.

- Josh Fields had major hip surgery in spring training and was originally expected to miss the whole season. He returned in time to rehab in Double-A in August, and hit well for the Royals in September.

- Luke Hochevar strained his elbow in early June – apparently while taking batting practice – and missed nearly three months. He appeared to be at 100% when he returned.

- Brian Bannister, who was shut down in 2009 with shoulder soreness, was never right in 2010, and was all but shut down for the final two months of the season – he made just two appearances after August 2nd.

- Kanekoa Texeira, after allowing ten runs in five appearances, admitted to pain in his elbow, and was shut down for the rest of the year.

Even more impressive might be how Kenney and Assistant Trainer Kyle Turner managed to keep players with nagging injuries in the lineup. Jose Guillen missed only two games all year before he was let go, which is a miracle. Frankly, he should have missed more games, and playing every day was probably detrimental to his production, as he sucked after a hot April. But that’s on Guillen and his manager more than on the trainer.

Billy Butler played with a bruised hand for most of the second half of the season. He missed only three games in the second half, and his production was almost unaffected; after hitting .322/.389/.483 before the Break, Butler hit .312/.386/.451 afterwards.

And Gil Meche, who was damaged goods before they ever showed up on the scene, was predictably awful in the rotation, then was scheduled to undergo surgery that would have kept him out for 18 months – and then had a change of heart, tried to pitch out of the bullpen instead, and against all expectations was actually reasonably effective as a reliever in September.

I haven’t catalogued every injury, but the ones I missed were either minor or were pre-existing conditions (e.g. John Parrish). In their first season with the Royals, Kenney and Turner had a pretty strong track record. Really, the only player on the entire team who suffered a “setback” or took longer to recover from an injury than expected was Rick Ankiel. Most of the guys who went on the DL, even those with significant injuries, came back with no loss of effectiveness.

It’s just one year. But I certainly feel a lot more comfortable entrusting the health of the Royals players to their new training staff than I did the old. Which was sort of the point of my tirade in the first place.

Dayton Moore – Expectations: Low to Moderate; Grade: B-

One of the hardest grades to give out, both because of the nature of his job and because of the schizophrenic manner in which he does it. And really, the grade depends heavily on the timeframe in which you’re looking at.

If you look back over the past year (since the end of the 2009 season), which is what I have done, then there’s an enormous penalty you have to apply for the atrocity that Moore committed to his catching position, when he got rid of Miguel Olivo and John Buck, then signed Jason Kendall for more years and more money than either Olivo or Buck would have received had they been retained (and more than they wound up signing for).

A year later, the outcome of this bizarre swap has been exactly as I (and everyone outside the organization) had predicted. Kendall sucked rocks; Buck had his best season ever, while Olivo had a solid if altitude-enhanced season; both Buck and Olivo are Type B free agents that will earn the Blue Jays (who smartly traded for Olivo’s option just for this purpose) a supplemental first-round draft pick. You know, the same type of draft pick that the Royals would love to get their hands on and have used rather successfully in the past.

(Buck has apparently signed an astonishing 3-year, $18 million contract with the Marlins, to which I can only say: good for him. Better that Buck gets overpaid than for that cretin Jeffrey Loria to pad his bank account. And as ridiculous as that contract is, at least for 2011 I’d rather have Buck at $6 million than Kendall at $3.75 million.)

Then there were the signings of guys like Scott Podsednik and Rick Ankiel, which weren’t necessarily bad signings as much as they were sort of pointless. Brian Anderson was a complete waste, but I find it hard to get worked up over a $700,000 contract.

But over the last eight months…let’s say, hypothetically speaking, that the Royals had fired Dayton Moore in February, and hired someone from outside the organization, let’s say Pat Gillick. And let’s say that Gillick, rather than Moore, was responsible for every transaction that’s been made since February.

Here’s a list of every significant move the new GM would have made:

- Axed Juan Cruz just three weeks and five innings into the season. Bullpen immediately turned around.
- Picked up Jai Miller off waivers.
- Traded Carlos Rosa for Rey Navarro.
- Released Roman Colon.
- Fired Trey Hillman after just six weeks.
- Promoted Bruce Chen to the majors.
- Picked Kanekoa Texeira off waivers.
- Promoted Wilson Betemit to the majors.
- Traded Alberto Callaspo for Sean O’Sullivan and Will Smith. Replaced Callaspo with Betemit.
- Traded Scott Podsednik for Elisaul Pimental and Lucas May. Replaced Podsednik with Alex Gordon.
- Traded Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth for Tim Collins, Gregor Blanco, and Jesse Chavez.
- DFA’ed Jose Guillen, then traded him for Kevin Pucetas. Gave Guillen’s playing time to Kila Ka’aihue.
- Traded Willie Bloomquist for nothing but the pleasure of trading Willie Bloomquist.

If Gillick – or anyone else – had put together this track record over the last eight months, we’d be speaking of him in the same reverential tones that Mariners fans were using to speak of Jack Zduriencik a year ago. Not every move worked out perfectly, but the new GM would have methodically removed most of the short-term highly-paid veteran talent on the squad for young prospects, without surrendering anyone who figured to be a part of the team’s future beyond 2011, and making at least one F**king-A! trade (Tim Collins) in the process.

That’s not the perception, of course, because the GM who removed so much dead weight from the Royals roster in 2010 is the same GM who added the dead weight in the first place. But it’s only fair to acknowledge that, at least since March or so, Dayton Moore has had a heck of a run. And last winter wasn’t a complete waste, as he did re-sign Chen to a minor league contract, and brought in Betemit on a minor league contract as well. (He also signed Noel Arguelles to a five-year deal, which looked savvy at the time, and may look savvy once again in the future.)

You can’t judge a GM based on eight months, of course. Ask Mariners fans what they think of Zduriencik now, and you’re likely to get some very disparate answers. If the Royals had one of those “Accident-Free For XXX Days” signs in the front office, right now that number would be up around 300, which would be a record under this administration. (Then again, some people would argue that the dial ought to have been reset after the DeJesus trade.)

The point isn’t that Dayton has suddenly become a good GM. The point is to simply acknowledge that he’s had a pretty good 2010, and we can only hope that he keeps his streak going. Depending on who the Royals fail to protect from the Rule 5 draft – rosters have to be set by tomorrow – that streak may end sooner rather than later.

Ned Yost – Expectations: Moderate; Grade: C+

I really don’t have much to say about Yost, which in itself is a victory, given the work that his predecessor did. Yost made some tactical moves which were indefensible – Jason Kendall batting second? – but looking at the strategic, big-picture moves, he was perfectly benign. He got Gordon back in the everyday lineup, he gave Ka’aihue a chance to play everyday (and stuck with him through a miserable August), he got the bullpen settled after they were on a historically bad pace in April.

The settling of the bullpen coincided with the return to form by Robinson Tejeda. On the day Yost was hired, Tejeda had a 5.57 ERA and had allowed 15 walks in 21 innings. Tejeda would give up just two runs over the next two months, and in 40 innings with Yost as his manager, Tejeda walked just 11 batters.

I doubt that the improvement can be credited entirely to Yost, but it was real improvement. And Tejeda’s improvement allowed Yost to pigeonhole Joakim Soria in ninth-inning save situations with little repercussion. You know how I feel about limiting closers to three outs in the ninth, but there’s another school of thought, subscribed to by none other than Bill James, which wonders whether the increase in utterly dominant seasons by closers over the last 15 years might have happened precisely because they’re limited to such a well-defined role.

Soria’s performance in 2010 is certainly a point in their favor. Under Hillman, Soria was brought in for a save situation in the eighth inning four times, and blew two of those saves. Under Yost, Soria pitched before the ninth inning only once all season, and that was to get some work in a blowout. He was used strictly as a three-out closer. He also was nearly perfect in that role, not blowing a save until the final game of the season.

I’m not arguing that Soria should be used as a ninth-inning guy only; if anything, Ron Washington’s bizarre usage of Neftali Feliz in the playoffs should only reinforce the need to use closers more liberally. But at least Yost had an eighth-inning guy who was worthy of the role, allowing him to use Soria in a more restrictive manner.

Yost was brought in to bring some calm and sanity to the manager’s chair, and he did. But that was the easy part of his job. The hard part starts next season, when he the greatest collection of minor-league talent in baseball starts rolling into his clubhouse, and he’ll be expected to turn that talent into a playoff team. Anything less will be a failure.

Bob McClure – Expectations: Moderate; Grade: D+

I’ve defended Bob McClure as a pitching coach for a long time – go back to this article here – and he’s certainly had his successes. But lately, his track record is more notable for the lack of successes. I think that, after five seasons as the Royals’ pitching coach – the longest tenure by a Royals pitching coach as far back as I can track, which is to the 1980s –it may be time for some fresh blood in that position. The Royals disagree with me, obviously, as they are bringing McClure back for another year.

Early in his tenure, McClure did some great work. Most notably, he claimed he could fix Gil Meche overnight, and he did – turning a career underachiever into a solid #2 starter for two-and-a-half seasons. Unfortunately, Meche’s run as a solid #2 starter was ended because he was allowed to pitch when he shouldn’t have been anywhere near a mound. Trey Hillman deservedly gets most of the blame for that, but McClure is far from innocent. As the pitching coach, either he missed the signs that Meche was pitching hurt, or he didn’t but was unable to convince his manager to take Meche out. Either way, that’s a black stain on McClure’s career.

McClure gently nurtured Zack Greinke back from the abyss, got Greinke to expand his repertoire, to max out his fastball more, and turned him into a Cy Young winner. Joakim Soria went from obscure Rule 5 pick to one of the best relievers in baseball overnight, and while most of the credit goes to the Mexicutioner, who arrived in the majors fully-formed*, McClure certainly did nothing to screw him up.

*: There’s really only one other major-leaguer I can think of who, like Soria, was an obscure minor-leaguer right up until the moment he made the Show out of spring training, and though we didn’t know it at the time, was already one of the best players in the majors. Is it fair to call Soria the Albert Pujols of closers?

The pitching staff McClure inherited in 2006 has to rank among the worst pitching staffs in major league history. The Royals’ Opening Day starter was SCOTT ELARTON. Thirteen pitchers started 3 or more games for the Royals that year, and none of them had an ERA lower than 5.12. The Royals allowed 971 runs that year – 72 more than any other team in the majors.

In 2007, the Royals allowed just 778 runs, ranking a respectable 8th in the AL. That’s a remarkable achievement, thanks to scouting (Soria), coaching (Meche), counseling (Greinke), and thinking (Bannister).

But since then, it’s been all downhill:

2007: 778 runs, 8th in AL.
2008: 781 runs, 10th in AL.
2009: 842 runs, 12th in AL.
2010: 845 runs, 14th (last) in AL.

Offense has steadily decreased around baseball over the last few years, but you’d never know that if all the baseball you watched consisted of the opponents’ half of Royals games. Perhaps the best argument you can make against Dayton Moore isn’t simply that, four years after he was hired, the Royals are just as bad as ever. It’s that since 2007, the Royals have actually gone backwards on the mound, even though pitching is the element of the game that Moore stresses the most.

Moore deserves the blame for not giving McClure better pitchers to work with, perhaps. But in 2010, at least:

- McClure failed once again to unlock the enigma that is Kyle Davies. Davies had a 5.34 ERA, the second-worst of any AL qualifer. Davies doesn’t have overwhelming stuff, but it’s far from the second-worst of any AL qualifier.

- Brian Bannister had the worst ERA of any major-league pitcher with 110 innings.

- Luke Hochevar made progress, but it was slow progress, as his 4.81 ERA attests.

- Zack Greinke regressed beyond our wildest fears.

- Sean O’Sullivan came in with modest expectations and failed to even reach those, with a 6.11 ERA.

The only starter who was a pleasant surprise in any way was Bruce Chen. One success and four failures is a poor batting average for anyone.

In the bullpen, Soria continued to pitch transcendently well, and McClure got Tejeda back on the right track after a terrible start. He probably did his best work with Kyle Farnsworth, getting the Goggled One to start throwing more off-speed stuff, and in turn getting him to resemble a major-league reliever long enough to foist him on another team.

But of the many relievers that revolved through the back door of the bullpen, none of them stepped up. Roman Colon was, once again, a joke. Victor Marte. Luis Mendoza. Josh Rupe. Brad Thompson. Jesse Chavez. Most ominously, the two hard-throwing rookies the Royals developed themselves, Blake Wood and Greg Holland, both had ERAs over five.

In isolation, the struggles of every pitcher above has a good explanation. In summary, the collective failures of the pitching staff are an indictment of McClure, and strongly suggest that a change is for the best.

The Royals chose to retain him for another year, and I can’t state with certainty that it’s a mistake. If McClure has another year like 2007 left in him, I’ll be singing his praises this time next year. And you can only assume that working with Tim Collins and Mike Montgomery and John Lamb and who-knows-who-else next season will make McClure look a lot smarter.

Given how much pitching talent the Royals have developed, and how crucial that talent is to their future playoff hopes, McClure better look like a freakin’ genius.

Trey Hillman – Expectations: Low; Grade: F

I only bring Hillman up because it really is rather remarkable how quickly the manager of Kansas City’s major league baseball team turned into a ghost. Hillman wasn’t persona non grata after he was fired; he was persona non exista. You can almost imagine the Royals taking down his portrait from the atrium of the front office and scrubbing the stadium of any evidence that he was ever employed there.

After he was fired I heard derisive comments referring to him as “The Genius”, and the first thing people would say when I asked about Yost was that, if nothing else, he acted like he was in charge – something they couldn’t say about his predecessor. In retrospect, it’s clear that Hillman was on far thinner ice with his GM at the start of the season than we had all anticipated. But in retrospect, it’s also a wonder that the Royals allowed him to hang on as long as he did.