Wednesday, December 28, 2011


I swear, sometimes I think Dayton Moore is deliberately screwing with us.

Like the swallows to Capistrano, like the Trekkies to Comic-Con, Yuniesky Betancourt has returned home. The Kansas City Royals, the one organization in baseball with a greater disregard for the importance of plate discipline than Yuni himself, has welcomed the prodigal son back into its bosom. And I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

The decision to re-sign Betancourt is really the quintessential Dayton Moore transaction: completely unexpected, laughable, infuriating, completely tone-deaf to the hard-core fan base – and yet, if you look at it in a certain light, it actually makes a perverse kind of sense. Depending on how willing you are to swallow the party line, you can actually convince yourself that it’s a good signing.

Start with the obvious: the Royals did not bring Betancourt back to be their everyday shortstop, or their everyday anything, really. They re-signed him with the explicit understand that he will be the team’s utility infielder, backing up at three positions and starting at none. While Yuni is patently unqualified to be a starting shortstop, pretty much every utility infielder in the major leagues is unqualified to be a starting shortstop – that’s why they’re on the bench.

By way of comparison, the Royals were rumored to be interested in signing Edgar Renteria for that role, and I was kind of excited by that possibility. There are guys enshrined in the Hall of Fame that didn’t have demonstrably better careers than Renteria has had. (That’s not an endorsement of Renteria for the Hall; it’s an indictment of the people who voted for Travis Jackson or Rabbit Maranville.) Renteria made it to the major leagues when he was 19*, and hit .309/.358/.399 as a rookie for the Marlins.

*: It was thought at the time that Renteria was 20 years old. A few years later it was revealed that Renteria had lied about his age and was just 15 when he signed. has his correct age, but to this day, for some reason the Bill James Handbook still lists him as being a year older than he is.

The following year Renteria became one of the few people in major-league history with a walk-off, World Series-ending hit, as the Marlins won a world championship. In 2003, he hit .330/.394/.480 for the Cardinals, and went back to the World Series with St. Louis the following year. As recently as 2007, he hit .332/.390/.470 for the Braves. He’s won two Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers, and made five All-Star teams.

And with all that, I’m not sure he would be a better choice for the Royals’ utility infielder in 2012.

Renteria is 35 years old; Yuni turns 30 next month. This season, Renteria hit .251/.306/.348 in part-time play for the Reds, good for an OPS+ of 78. Yuni, playing every day for the Brewers, hit .252/.271/.381, for a 75 OPS+. Over the last three seasons – and remember, this includes Yuni’s atrocious 2009 campaign – Betancourt actually has a higher OPS+ (77) than Renteria (76).

You may have heard that Betancourt, despite being signed as a utility infielder, has only played nine games at second base in his career, and has never played third. Well, Renteria has all of seven innings of experience at second base, and has also never played the hot corner.

Yet somehow, I doubt that signing Renteria would have generated even a fraction of the anger that Betancourt’s signing did. Will McDonald, whose writing I greatly respect, tweeted in the aftermath of the press release: “What we learned today, once and for all: Royals will never make the playoffs under Dayton Moore.” I would have more sympathy for that position if, you know, Betancourt hadn’t just been the starting shortstop for the Milwaukee Brewers, who won the NL Central and came within two games of the World Series.

Yes, Betancourt is a crappy player – but utility players are supposed to be crappy. Look around the majors. The Red Sox just guaranteed Nick Punto two years to be their utility guy. Punto had a fluky .388 OBP in 2011, in very limited playing time, but over the last three years he has a .241/.339/.315 line – good for a 79 OPS+ – and he’s 34. Our old pal Willie Bloomquist, who also has a 79 OPS+ over the last three years and is also 34, also got two guaranteed years from the Diamondbacks.

Incredibly enough, Bloomquist isn’t even the worst utility player the Diamondbacks signed to a two-year deal this winter. They also re-upped John McDonald, the David Howard of his generation (career line of .238/.275/.326, and a 59 OPS+), for two years.

If we focus on just the other four teams in the AL Central, here are some of the guys used in a utility infielder role in 2011:

Adam Everett (166 innings between shortstop, third base, and second base)
Orlando Cabrera (743 innings)
Ramon Santiago (642 innings)
Omar Vizquel (384 innings)
Luke Hughes (405 innings)
Trevor Plouffe (524 innings)
Matt Tolbert (491 innings)

None of these guys were exactly the second coming of Tony Phillips, or even Bill Pecota. I mean, Omar Vizquel is 67 years old*, and played all around the White Sox infield last season.

*: Approximate.

So in terms of quality, it’s hard to argue that Yuniesky Betancourt is not qualified for work as a team’s utility infielder. Yeah, he’s a terrible defensive shortstop, and he won’t suddenly become a better defensive shortstop coming off the bench. On the other hand, he has significantly more power than your typical utility infielder. He has a career .391 slugging average, and has hit 29 home runs the last two years. McDonald has hit 21 homers in his entire 13-year career.

It’s true that Betancourt has no real experience at second base or third base, but I don’t see any reason why he can’t adapt to both positions in fairly short order. The reality is that most veteran utility infielders spent most, if not all, of their careers as everyday shortstops until one day they weren’t. Vizquel, for instance, never started a game anywhere but at shortstop for the first twenty years of his career. Then, in 2009, with no team willing to give him a starting job at shortstop anymore, he seamlessly made the transition (at age 42) to being a utility infielder, and has performed that role ably for the last three years.

Renteria, as noted, may be making the same transition Betancourt’s being asked to make. Miguel Tejada played only shortstop for his first 13 years before moving to third base, and last year started a few games at second. Orlando Cabrera started at no position other than shortstop from 2000 through 2010, until he transitioned to a utility role this year. And so on.

So, IF the Royals use Betancourt in a pure backup role, I think he will prove up to the role. If 2011 was any indication, Ned Yost is going to ride his starters as much as possible anyway. Alcides Escobar played in 158 games this season. Even if Yost dials him back to 150 starts, that’s just 12 games that Betancourt starts at shortstop. Let’s say that Yost starts Mike Moustakas 150 times at third base, giving Betancourt the opportunity to start 12 times against tough* left-handers. Betancourt is a career .275/.308/.421 hitter vs. LHP; it won’t be the end of the world if he’s in the lineup against a southpaw.

*: By “tough”, I don’t mean “elite”, although I worry that’s what the Royals mean. I mean “left-handers who, by nature of their delivery, are much more difficult on left-handed hitters than right-handed hitters.”

So in an ideal world, Betancourt gets a couple dozen starts, maybe bats 100 or 150 times on the season, and all the anger about his return to Kansas City turns out to be a tempest in a thimble.

Royals fans do not live in an ideal world. There are a couple of ways this best-case scenario gets screwed up:

1) An injury forces Betancourt into the lineup for an extended period of time. If Escobar goes down, Betancourt is going to be the Royals’ starting shortstop, and there’s nothing you or I can do about that.

Honestly, that’s not the scenario that scares me. The fact is that with or without Yuni, an injury to Escobar was going to lead to some really bad options at shortstop. This season Escobar played all but 64 of the Royals’ innings at shortstop, and the scraps were given to Mike Aviles (29 innings), Chris Getz (26), and Yamaico Navarro (9). Before Betancourt signed, Plan B at shortstop was probably…Irving Falu? Rushing Christian Colon to the majors? Betancourt may be a replacement-level shortstop, but the Royals’ other options are probably below replacement-level.

With Getz and Giavotella fighting for the starting job at second base, and with the loser likely banished to Omaha, we’re probably (hopefully?) spared from being one injury away from having Yuni starting at second base every day. But the nightmare scenario is what happens if Mike Moustakas goes down.

This year, four players suited up at third base for the Royals: Moustakas, Wilson Betemit, Aviles, and Navarro. Only Moustakas is still in the organization. The only other Royal on the 40-man roster who has ever played a game at third base is Getz, who has spent all of nine innings at the position (and made an error on his only fielding chance.) There’s no one in the farm system who is remotely close to being able to start in the major leagues.

(Edit: Alex Gordon has played third base, obviously. It's just hard to envision the Royals moving him away from left field. Though, if the need arose, it would be an inspired move if they did.)

So if the thought of “Yuniesky Betancourt, everyday shortstop” scares you, brace yourself for “Yuniesky Betancourt, everyday third baseman”. That’s Stephen King-level terror right there. I don’t know about the rest of you, but personally, I’m prepared to chip in to pay for a protective bubble for Moustakas, along with a company of food tasters and an entire squadron of young men to carry him around in a litter.

2) Even if everyone stays healthy, the Royals may feel obligated to give Yuni considerable playing time.

On the surface, there should be no reason for this. Moustakas, Escobar, and Giavotella are all demonstrably better players than Betancourt, and are all young enough to get better. But on the other hand…the Royals didn’t guarantee Betancourt $2 million to collect splinters. This season Mitch Maier batted 113 times, roughly one-sixth as often as the Royals’ three everyday outfielders. While you would think that, in an ideal world, Betancourt would bat roughly as often as Maier did, paying $2 million for a guy who plays one-sixth of the time is the equivalent of paying $12 million for an everyday player.

That would be insane, which is why I suspect the Royals have no plans to limit Betancourt to 113 plate appearances, or anywhere close to that. If Chris Getz beats out Giavotella for the second-base job in spring training, I fully expect Betancourt and Getz to form an All-Suck Platoon at the position. (And honestly, if forced to choose between Getz and Betancourt against a left-handed starter, I’d probably go with Betancourt myself.) But even if Giavotella wins the job, I’m terrified that the Royals will find a way to make Yuni at least a part-time starter at second base.

Betancourt has been an everyday player since he reached the major leagues. I have to think he understands that his days of playing 150 games a season are probably over. But I honestly don’t think he would have signed without some sort of assurance that he would start at least 50 or 60 games in 2012. Which is about 30 or 40 games too many.

Even in a best-case scenario, where everyone stays healthy and Yuni gets one start a week rotating at all three positions, there are two other factors that I think are going to limit his value to the team:

1) While Betancourt has little value as an occasional substitute in the everyday lineup, he has almost no in-game value as a bench player.

You’d like your bench players to do something well. In an era where teams are carrying four or even three bench players, you’d prefer your bench guys to do multiple things well. This is why I’m a Brayan Pena fan – having a catcher who doesn’t bat right-handed gives you a pinch-hitting option in the late innings against the many right-handed relievers that rely on a fastball and slider and have big platoon splits. Jarrod Dyson might not have the skills to be an everyday outfielder, but his speed and defense make him an outstanding bench player. Dyson could easily play in 70 or 80 games in a season without starting even one of them.

But what, exactly, does Betancourt do? Play defense? Don’t make me laugh. He’s not a particularly good runner, certainly not for a shortstop – he’s stolen 19 bases in the last five seasons combined. He has pop, but not enough that you’d want to pinch-hit with him in a situation where you really need a home run. (The only two players in the everyday lineup who Betancourt has a pronounced edge in power are Escobar and whoever is the starting second baseman.) He’s the last player in the world you’d want at the plate when you need someone to get on base to start a rally. He bats right-handed, so he’s not going to get the platoon advantage over someone like Escobar or Salvador Perez in the late innings.

Basically, the only utility I could see him having in the late innings is to pinch-hit for a left-handed hitter in a key situation. Here’s the problem: the Royals have only three left-handed hitters in their starting lineup. And their names are Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas. Maybe you could justify pinch-hitting for Moose with Yuni against a left-hander with a sidearm delivery, a situation which might happen five or ten times all season. Given how rarely Betancourt strikes out (he’s never whiffed more than 64 times in a season), I suppose he might come in handy when you’ve got the winning run on third base with one out and just want someone to make contact. But again, that’s a situation that might come up once or twice a month.

Otherwise, Betancourt’s role off the bench will probably be limited to sub in for Escobar or Getz on defense after some other bench player has already been used to pinch-hit. Yost has intimated that he will be more aggressive about making in-game substitutions, but even so, Yuni’s primary duties in about 80% of the Royals games will be to take his place in the high-five line after a home run. In a best-case scenario.

2) Betancourt has been an everyday player for his entire major-league career; we have no idea how he’s going to handle a part-time role.

Three weeks ago, the Royals traded Yamaico Navarro for pennies on the dollar, and the only explanation anyone could come up with was that he was a real negative, disruptive force in the clubhouse, something you can’t tolerate from a part-time player. On paper, Navarro is a better hitter than Yuni, he couldn’t possibly be a worse fielder, and he’s six years younger.

While the Royals could not put up with Navarro, they had no compunction bringing back Yuni. Betancourt, remember, was run out of Seattle as much because of his poor work ethic as because of his performance. No one doubted Yuni’s inherent skills – that’s why Dayton wanted him – but he exasperated teammates and coaches alike because he wasn’t interested in putting the time in to get better. He gained weight and thickness in his lower half, and his defense went from tolerably bad to intolerably horrible.

Now, there’s a big difference between a player who isn’t working hard and a player who actively antagonizes his teammates. And having checked with some sources, I’ve been reassured that there were no issues with Betancourt as a teammate since he left Seattle – he was well liked by his teammates in both Kansas City and in Milwaukee. I think that’s an important distinction to make: his work ethic might be aggravating, but his personality isn’t. It’s hard to imagine that the Royals would have brought him back if that weren’t the case.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Betancourt, for the first time since he was brought to the majors in July, 2005, can’t show up at the ballpark with the expectation that he’ll be in the lineup. It’s cruelly ironic that Betancourt one undeniable skill throughout his career has been his durability. When the Royals first traded for him in 2009, he was on the DL, which is notable in that it’s the only DL stint of his career. Betancourt defected from Cuba in 2004, signed with the Mariners before the 2005 season, and with the exception of 2009, has played in over 150 games every year since.

So I think it’s fair to wonder what will happen when Betancourt, for the first time in his career, isn’t in the starting lineup the majority of the time. Are we certain that he’s going to be a supportive teammate? Are we certain that he’s going to be mentally and physically prepared to come off the bench at a moment’s notice? Are we really sure that, freed from the expectation of playing every day, he won’t let himself go, and gain even more weight than he already has?

I’m pretty sure the answer to the first question is “yes”. I think the answer to the second question is “yes” – even if his head isn’t entirely in the game, I can’t imagine any Neifi Perez-like tantrums. There’s no pretense here – Yuni was signed to fill a bench role, and if he didn’t want one, he should have signed elsewhere. But it’s the third question that has me worried. Yuni is stretched to play shortstop in the shape he’s in now – if he gains any additional weight, he becomes even more unplayable than he already is.

A week before the Royals signed Betancourt, the Washington Nationals quietly inked another ex-Royal, Andres Blanco, to a minor-league contract. Regardless of who would make the better everyday player, given the composition of the Royals’ roster, Blanco would make a lot more sense as a bench player. He’s an above-average defender at all three positions, he switch-hits, he can take a walk, and he’s already accepted his fate as a bench player – over the past three years he’s played in 157 games, and hit a respectable .258/.307/.345. Yet while Blanco was forced to accept a minor-league deal, Yuni got $2 million with incentives.

So as strange as this is to say, I don’t object to the Betancourt signing in terms of his talents as a player. I object to the signing because I think he’s a poor fit with the rest of the roster, I think he’s being paid too much, which will incentivize the Royals to play him more than he should, and I think that there’s a very real chance he will have trouble adjusting to his sudden loss in playing time. Bringing back Yuni was a bad idea.

But I’m not going to go so far as to say that there’s no way this can work out. I’ve had these battles with the Royals before; you may remember my reaction to the Willie Bloomquist signing. But while I may have won the battle on that one – Bloomquist’s mythical “winning” qualities didn’t keep the Royals from losing 192 games in his two seasons with the team – the Royals won the war, because in the end Bloomquist was a mostly harmless backup player who wasn’t worth the vitriol I expended on him. He had no business batting nearly 500 times in 2009, but that’s a failing of the Royals’ roster construction, not a failure to appreciate Bloomquist’s talents.

So while I disagree with the Betancourt signing, and think that Moore made another mistake, I’ve said my piece and made my peace with it. If Yuni plays as much as Bloomquist did, it will hurt the Royals significantly – but if he plays as much as Bloomquist did, something will have gone wrong above and beyond the decision to re-sign him.

Dayton Moore has made a number of mistakes on the free-agent market, and it is possible, even likely, that this is another one. But I think Sam Miller’s tweet on this subject is worth remembering. A year ago, the Royals fan base didn’t exactly embrace the Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur signings. Betancourt certainly has less upside than either of them – but, owing to his bench role, he has less downside as well.

So while I think bringing Yuni back is a bad idea, I’d love to see him make me a liar. Yuni’s glaring weaknesses only make his occasional triumphs that much more exhilarating, as when an otherwise bad season in 2010 was punctuated by three grand slams. Those of you who follow me on Twitter know I was openly rooting for him to come through with clutch hits for the Brewers in the playoffs. Baseball is a crazy game, and what better way to illustrate the capricious nature of the sport than for Yuniesky Betancourt to come through with a franchise-altering hit in 2012?

So, to sum up: do I think that bringing Yuni back is a sign that the Royals have no clue what they’re doing? No. Do I think that he has the ability to be a competent utility infielder? I do. Am I worried that the Royals will over-utilize and over-expose him? Yep. Do I have concerns as to how he will adapt to a bench role? Certainly.

Do I think the Royals should have signed him? No way.

Am I rooting for him to prove me wrong? Absolutely.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Royals Report Card 2011: Part Three.

I apologize for the long gap between posts, but – aside from the fact that it has been a surprisingly (happily so) busy time at the office, the Royals just haven’t done anything really worth talking about.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this period of quiet will soon end. Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I’ve taken to referring to my “Daydar” – my sense that Dayton Moore is up to something. Well, as I write this, it’s six days until Christmas and both Edwin Jackson and Roy Oswalt – my two favorite free-agent targets this off-season – remain unsigned. Maybe the Royals reel in one of them, or maybe they pull off a trade for a starting pitcher. While it’s hard to see the Royals giving up the amount of talent the Reds surrendered for Mat Latos, the price that the A’s sold Trevor Cahill for was shockingly low, so much so that I’m writing a column for Grantland about it.

Cahill, as you might recall from my series on pitchers to acquire, was one of my favorite targets – he’s signed for the next four years for $29 million, along with two club options at $13 million each. The Diamondbacks got him (and Craig Breslow, a useful lefty reliever) for top prospect Jarrod Parker, and a pair of throw-ins in outfielder Colin Cowgill and reliever Ryan Cook. The Royals could have put together an equivalent package by offering, say, Mike Montgomery (or Jake Odorizzi), David Lough, and Kelvin Herrera. Parker is a slightly better prospect than Montgomery or Odorizzi, but then Herrera is a much better relief prospect than Cook. That’s a trade I absolutely would have made; it wouldn’t have gutted the farm system, and would have given the Royals an established #3 starter with genuine upside. (Cahill is one of the most groundball-oriented starting pitchers in the majors, his strikeout rate has jumped each of the last two years, and he doesn’t turn 24 until March. I think he’s a breakout waiting to happen.)

While not trading for Cahill was a missed opportunity, there are plenty of other starting pitchers still out there, and my Daydar is telling me that Moore won’t rest this off-season until he gets one. So stay tuned.

I need to address the one transaction the Royals made at the Winter Meetings, as they traded Yamaico Navarro to Pittsburgh for a couple of prospects in Brooks Pounders and Diego Goris. This was, to put it kindly, a strange move, as much for the timing as for the players involved. The Royals seemed obsessed with making this move prior to the Rule 5 draft, in order to open up a spot on the 40-man roster so they could draft a player. They fielded offers on Navarro from several teams, and settled on the Pirates’ offer Wednesday night. Thursday morning, with a roster spot now available, they were able to select left-handed reliever Cesar Cabral in the Rule 5 draft…and then immediately turn around and sell him to the New York Yankees.

Unless David Glass was using Bernie Madoff as his broker and didn’t tell anyone, I don’t think that the Royals were desperate to trade Navarro just to pocket 50 grand. It’s clear that they wanted to get rid of Navarro for the sake of getting rid of Navarro; while the rumors of a trade were brewing, I heard from two sources that Navarro, even in his short time in Kansas City, was a real negative influence in the clubhouse. You can put up with a jerk if he’s an integral part of the everyday lineup; there’s no point in accommodating a bench player in the same way, and that’s what Navarro projected as.

But that doesn’t explain the timing. Navarro had options; if the Royals couldn’t stomach his presence in the locker room, they could have just sent him to Omaha until the right deal presented itself. Instead they felt compelled to make a trade right this very instant, and wound up with pennies on the dollar.

Pounders has major-league possibilities; he was a second-round pick of the Pirates in 2009. He’s a huge guy (6’4”, 255) who doesn’t fit the stereotype at all, because he doesn’t throw all that hard (his fastball hovers around 90) but has excellent command (just 14 walks in 66 innings this year). He’s already been moved into a relief role – think of him as the Sean O’Sullivan of the bullpen. Which is to say, he’s nowhere near as valuable as Navarro. Goris hit .350/.387/.511 this season in the minors, which sounds great until you realize that 1) he was playing in the Dominican Summer League, and 2) it was his fourth straight season in the league. Goris turned 21 the day after the trade, and still hasn’t played a game on American soil. If Goris ever plays a game in the majors, the scout who recommended him in the deal deserves a raise.

Given Moore’s history of chicanery during the Winter Meetings – Jason Kendall, anyone? – I guess we should be happy that we got out of the meetings having only lost Navarro. The trade itself bothers me, but not nearly as much as the inexplicable urgency to make it.

Anyway, let’s move on with my report cards for the 2011 season. Today, I rate the infielders.

Mike Aviles: D+

You never knew what you were getting from Aviles from one year to the next; he hit .325 as a rookie in 2008, then .183 in 2009, then .304 in 2010. So I guess it’s appropriate that we didn’t know what we were getting in 2011 even from one month to the next. Aviles started the year 3-for-28, then hit .355/.379/.677 over the next three weeks. From May 7th until he was traded at the end of July, Aviles hit .168 (16-for-95), and frankly it was impressive that after all that the Royals were able to trade him for Navarro and Kendall Volz. (The availability of Navarro is, admittedly, much less surprising today.) Naturally, after the trade Aviles hit .317/.340/.436 for Boston.

The thing with Aviles is that while he has surprising pop for a super-utility guy, he swings at everything, so he has to hit .300 to be valuable. In 2008, and 2010, and for the Red Sox this season, he did that. But when he hits .222 and has a .261 OBP, as he did for the Royals this year, he’s an out machine, and it’s not like he makes up for it with his defense. He turns 31 in March, and while I imagine he’ll have more good years in the future, I wouldn’t want to guess which years they will be. Whatever happens, we’ll always have 2008, when an unknown rookie was brought up out of desperation, and in 102 games fashioned one of the best seasons by a shortstop the Royals have ever had.

Wilson Betemit: C+

Betemit was the surprise of the 2010 season, hitting .297/.378/.511, and you might remember that late in the year I advocated signing him to a long-term deal. He didn’t hit nearly as well for the Royals this year, hitting .281/.341/.409 with his usual lousy defense at third base; when Mike Moustakas was deemed ready, Betemit rode the pine for a month before the Royals were able to work out a deal to send him to Detroit.

With the Tigers, Betemit hit nearly as well as he did in 2010 – he hit .292/.346/.525 for the kitties – but despite that he started barely half the time after the trade, splitting time with Don Kelly and Brandon Inge. Betemit then started just twice in the Tigers’ 11 playoff games.

I know I’m stubborn, but I still think Betemit should be starting every day – at some position – in the major leagues. Over the past two years Betemit had 674 plate appearances, almost exactly a full season’s worth of playing time. In that span he’s hit .290/.359/.479 with 21 homers, 42 doubles, and 67 walks. Yes, he’s a lousy third baseman – but with those numbers, isn’t he worth trying in left field, or even at first base or DH? Instead, the Tigers didn’t even offer him arbitration – as far as I can tell, it’s been hard to get confirmation on that – and wherever he signs as a free agent, it doesn’t appear he’ll be getting an everyday job.

Which is a shame, because he deserves one. The Royals no longer have any need for his services, but he gave them good production at a bargain price, gracefully moved to the bench to make way for the youth movement, and fetched a possible future lefty reliever in Antonio Cruz at the trade deadline. I’ll remember him fondly. Most people, it seems, won’t remember him at all.

Alcides Escobar: B-

I set the grading curve so that a B- met a player “met expectations”, and really, “met expectations” describes Escobar to a T. He showed modest – very modest – improvements on offense; his batting average improved from .235 to .254, and that was about it, as his power was roughly the same and he actually walked less (although that is likely the result of not batting in front of the pitcher all season).

Defensively, though, Escobar lived up to his reputation from his days as a prospect, when he was deemed the best defensive shortstop in the minor leagues. After making a highlight-reel gem seemingly every day for the first two months of the season, the spectacular plays were lacking in the second half, though that might have simply been because he had raised our standards so much after we had watched Yuniesky Betancourt play the position while wearing ankle weights in 2010. Regardless, Escobar was undeniably one of the best defensive shortstops in the league, giving him real value despite his offensive struggles.

I’d like to believe there’s still some improvement left in his bat. He just turned 25 last week, and while I don’t think he’s a future batting title contender, I do think he can do better than hitting .254. He hit .315 in his final two seasons in the minors, he rarely strikes out (just 73 Ks all year), and his speed should allow him to beat out a ton of infield hits. But his improvement isn’t going to come overnight. This season, he was hitting .203/.237/.236 in early June, and then he went on a two-week tear where he hit .512 and everyone thought things had clicked.

But baseball doesn’t work like that. At the end of his hot stretch, Escobar had raised his numbers to .255/.289/.322; from that point on he hit .253/.290/.362. He did hit for a little more power in the second half, and you hope that forces pitchers to respect his power and pitch him more carefully going forward. But realistically, as a Royals fan you ought to be happy if he can just hit .270 with the same meager secondary skills he’s shown so far. With his defense at shortstop, that’s a heck of a player.

Chris Getz: C-

Chris Getz is not a useless ballplayer. He plays an average, maybe slightly above-average, second base. He hits left-handed, always a useful trait from a middle infielder. For his career he’s averaged 33 stolen bases per 162 games, with an 84% success rate. He can bunt, and he’ll take a walk when it’s presented to him.

But in a career of nearly 1000 at-bats, he has hit just two home runs. He doesn’t even hit doubles – he has 33 in his career, or less than four different Royals had this year alone. Since joining the Royals his power has actually declined; in 604 at-bats he has 15 doubles, three triples, and no home runs. He holds the Royals’ all-time record for most plate appearances (677) without a homer, and only Jason Kendall comes within 300 PA of his record.

His slugging average as a member of the Royals is .283. Among players with at least 400 plate appearances with the Royals, only Jackie Hernandez (.282) had a lower slugging average.

There are certain skills that are absolutely mandatory for a major-league hitter, and the ability to hit the ball 330 feet on occasion is one of them. Getz has the kind of power that even Jarrod Dyson scoffs at, and at 28 it’s hard to see him improving in that category. It’s frankly surprising that the Royals haven’t released him, given that he’s eligible for arbitration. You can’t carry a backup second baseman in the majors, so if Johnny Giavotella wins the starting job, Getz is going to spend a year as a very overpaid Triple-A second baseman. If it gets to that point, the Royals would be better off cutting ties with him completely.

Johnny Giavotella: A- (minors), C (majors)

For a guy who was drafted in the second round, Giavotella has had to prove himself at every level; that’s what happens when you’re 5’8” and not particularly fleet of foot. To this point, he’s done so. After hitting .322/.395/.460 in Double-A in 2010, Giavotella hit .338/.390/.481 in Omaha this year, and both seasons he tore the cover off the ball in the second half after initially struggling to adjust. Giavotella might have been the best player in the Pacific Coast League in June and July – from June 1st until he was called up, he hit .382, with 25 doubles and seven homers in 246 at-bats.

We have to hope that he got his adjustments to the major leagues over with in 2011, because his performance was disappointing: he hit .247/.273/.376, and when you factor in his subpar defense he was actually below replacement-level. The good news is that, with 15 extra-base hits in just 46 games, he’s pretty convincingly shown that he can punch above his weight. (Getz has 18 extra-base hits in 190 games with the Royals.) But the lack of plate discipline has to be concerning; he only drew six walks in nearly two months with Kansas City.

He’s always been a one-walk-per-ten-at-bats hitter through the minors, so my guess is that he was simply pressing, trying to prove he belonged in the majors on every pitch. The bigger concern is his defense, which was at times average, and at times decidedly less than that. The Royals were concerned that he let his struggles at the plate affect him on the field; on September 9th Giavotella failed to cover second base on a stolen base attempt, which convinced the Royals to bench him for a couple of days to clear his head and teach him a lesson.

The toughest path to the majors might be at second base, because there’s no backup option. Being a second-base prospect is like being a salesman in “Glengarry Glen Ross”, except the prize for third place and second place is getting fired. The window for Giavotella to establish himself as an everyday player in the majors is narrow; it might be this year or never. Fortunately for him, he’s in the perfect situation to do so in 2012. Getz is a more of a speedbump than a roadblock, Christian Colon is still a year away, and Rey Navarro is even further behind. I expect a .280 average and a ton of doubles overcoming some occasionally shaky defense next season. And I expect the Royals to have some difficult decisions to make next winter.

Eric Hosmer: A+ (minors), B+ (majors)

Given that I’ve been comparing Hosmer to Will Clark pretty much from the day he was drafted, it’s time for a comparison of their rookie seasons.

Eric Hosmer, 2011: 128 G, .293/.334/.465, 118 OPS+
Will Clark, 1986: 111 G, .287/.343/.444, 121 OPS+

Hosmer marginally beat Clark in OPS, but owing to the lower offensive levels of the NL in the mid-80s, The Thrill had the slightly higher OPS+. They’re still two peas in a pod. Both hit exactly 27 doubles and walked exactly 34 times as rookies.

The biggest difference between their seasons is this: Clark turned 22 in March, while Hosmer didn’t turn 22 in October. Seven months isn’t an enormous difference, but in players this young it’s not meaningless, and it favors our guy.

There were two flaws in Hosmer’s campaign that keep me from awarding him an A. The first is that his plate discipline was surprisingly lacking. In his breakout 2010 season, Hosmer walked 59 times against just 66 strikeouts, and it was expected that he’d be a patient hitter in the major leagues. But he drew just 34 walks this year, seven of those intentional. A batter with 27 unintentional walks in 523 at-bats – that’s practically Berroaesque.

I wouldn’t worry about it at all. Clark drew 34 walks as a rookie, and ten of his were intentional. Two years later, Clark led the NL with 100 walks. The difference? After hitting just 11 homers as a rookie, Clark pounded 35 home runs as a sophomore. While he would never hit for as much power again, Clark established himself as a power threat in the minds of pitchers. Power and plate discipline are allies. Sometimes a player will start to hit for more power because he’s learned to lay off the bad pitches, and sometimes a player will see more pitches out of the strike zone because pitchers fear his power.

While Hosmer didn’t walk much as a rookie, he was hardly a free-swinger; he struck out just 82 times. (Clark, as a rookie, whiffed 76 times.) In at-bats where Hosmer fell behind 0-and-2, he still hit .264 and slugged .409; you don’t do that if you’re swinging at bad pitches. Hosmer has shown more power at this stage than Clark did, and scouts project him to have even more power than Clark. If that’s the case, the walks will come, possibly as soon as 2012.

The second weakness in Hosmer’s game is a controversial one: despite a great defensive reputation, and despite qualifying as a good defender by the eye test, Hosmer’s defensive statistics were, well, abysmal. Most defensive metrics graded out Hosmer’s rookie season as about ten runs worse than the average first baseman, making him one of the worst fielders at the position in the game.

Defensive stats are not nearly as reliable as batting stats, and one season’s worth of data is simply not conclusive. But before you dismiss those numbers entirely, read this two-part evaluation of his defense at Royals Review. The conclusion they arrive at is both plausible and grounded in evidence: Hosmer was positioned to close to the first-base line, which allowed far too many balls to slip past his right side.

Defensive positioning is a crucial and very underrated aspect of fielding. Chase Utley had insanely good defensive numbers at his peak, and analyses done at the time suggested that the reason he was so good is that he positioned himself farther to his left than any other second baseman – basically, he closed up the same 3-4 hole that Hosmer appears to have opened up. The Tampa Bay Rays had the best Defensive Efficiency in the majors this season – really, it wasn’t close – in large part because Joe Maddon is so aggressive about shifting his fielders around based on who is at the plate.

Poor defensive positioning is certainly the easiest way to reconcile Hosmer’s poor defensive numbers with his potential-Gold-Glove reputation. It’s also an easy problem to fix, assuming the Royals are aware that there’s a problem in the first place. Fortunately, as Jin Wong reveals in this two-part interview with Jeff Zimmerman at Royals Review, the Royals are in fact aware of the positioning issue. If Hosmer is positioned further from the line next year, and if his defensive numbers improve, this will be a fantastic exhibit of how a public-private partnership can lead to a better product on the field.

Hosmer’s defensive numbers almost have to improve in 2012, and I expect his bat to take a step forward as well. He hit .313 and slugged .493 after the All-Star Break; both numbers seem like reasonable approximations for what he can do next season. Any better than that, and he’s a candidate to make the All-Star team in front of his hometown fans. And he’s only 22.

Kila Ka’aihue: D- (majors), D (minors)

If Kila had gone to Omaha and hit the crap out of the ball, the way he did in 2008 (.314/.456/.628), or in 2010 (.319/.463/.598), the narrative would be pretty simple: big guy, slow bat, AAAA hitter. He can beat up on minor league pitchers, but put him in a double-decker stadium against guys who can throw in the mid-90s and can control their secondary stuff, and he doesn’t have the bat speed to catch up to the fastball unless he cheats and starts his swing early, in which case the off-speed pitches will eat him alive.

But that’s not really what happened. Ka’aihue struggled for the Royals – granted, it was all of 23 games – hitting .195/.295/.317 before he was demoted to Triple-A. And he continued to struggle, hitting .272/.379/.433 for the Storm Chasers. He had an identical number of at-bats in Omaha in 2010 and 2011, but last year he hit 24 homers and walked 88 times, and this year he hit 11 homers and walked 57 times.

So then you take a step back, and you look at 2009, when Ka’aihue hit .252/.392/.433 in Omaha, and you wonder if he’s just a wildly inconsistent hitter, prone to really good years and really mediocre ones. He just had the poor timing of synchronizing one of his mediocre seasons with his one big shot at everyday playing time in the majors.

Billy Beane is gambling that it’s the latter. Granted, he didn’t wager much, trading a fringy pitcher named……Ethan Hollingsworth for Ka’aihue. The A’s will get a look at him in camp, where Ka’aihue will have to fight for playing time with Daric Barton and Brandon Allen and Chris Carter. If they don’t like what they see, Ka’aihue could be looking at a long and financially rewarding career in Japan.

But the A’s aren’t yet convinced that Ka’aihue is a AAAA player, and neither am I. For the first time in his career, Ka’aihue is playing for an organization that not only respects his approach at the plate, they encourage it. I’d hold off on writing his career obituary for one more season.

Mike Moustakas: B (minors), C (majors)

Honestly, I’d like to give Moustakas three grades: a B for his performance in the minors, an F for his first two months in the majors, and an A for the final six weeks of the season. Take a look:

Minors: .287/.347/.498
Majors, June 10 – August 16: .182/.237/.227
Majors, August 17 – end of season: .379/.412/.564

Moustakas, to me, is a fascinating test case in the importance of intangibles. By “intangibles”, I’m not referring to things like his ability to bunt and hit-and-run – I’m referring to the things that we can’t see from the stands that affect a player’s ability to reach his full potential. I’m referring to a player’s work ethic, in other words.

Statistical analysis is an incredibly useful tool to determine the value of a player’s present performance. It is a much less useful tool to predict a player’s future performance – not because of any inherent weakness in statistical analysis, but simply because we can’t predict the future. The error bars in projecting a player’s career are massive, in the same way that the error bars in projecting the weather forecast for a weak from Friday are massive. Since so much of an organization’s success is based on their ability to project how players will perform in the future, it makes sense that they take into account as much information as possible to do so. How a player has performed in the past is obviously an excellent starting point for predicting how he’ll fare in the future, but you’ll want to layer on all sorts of information on top of that: scouting reports, his health record, and yes, his willingness to better himself.

Moustakas, even when he was a top-10 prospect in all of baseball a year ago, had weaknesses in his game. His defense at third base was still shaky at times, he had difficulty hitting left-handed pitching, and he was too aggressive at the plate. But he also had a reputation for a sterling work ethic. He loved to play baseball, and he was willing to put in the time to get better at it.

His numbers in 2011 were superficially disappointing after his mammoth 2010 season in the minors. But take a look. After always struggling to hit left-handers in the minors, he went back to Omaha and hit lefties nearly as well (.260/.325/.507) as he hit right-handers (.300/.357/.493). His plate discipline held steady even after he reached the major leagues; he drew 22 walks in 338 at-bats with the Royals, not a great ratio but no worse than he had done in the minor leagues, despite facing superior pitching.

Most importantly, his defense was solid, even surprisingly good. The Royals already have a backlog of players at first base and DH; the last thing they need is to have to find a new position for Moustakas. But Moose played well enough at third base to put off any talk of a position change until well into the future. Notably, unlike Giavotella, Moustakas didn’t carry his at-bats into the field; he played solid defense at third base even when he was doing his Ray Oyler impression at the plate.

And, of course, after going into a horrific slump for two months, Moustakas emerged from the ordeal a better hitter.

Maybe I’m reading too much into things, and Moustakas will prove all the gains he made in the final part of this season to be illusory. But look: we know that not every top prospect fulfills his potential. We know that for every Evan Longoria, who has a smooth and easy progression from top prospect to major-league superstar, there’s a Brandon Wood (rated a top-10 prospect by Baseball America in 2006 and 2007) or a Chad Hermansen (a top-40 prospect four straight years from 1997 to 2000), who seems to have everything in his favor and still falls flat on his face.

We’ll never be able to predict the future perfectly, or even well. But it seems to me that if you’re trying to predict which top prospects will make it and which ones won’t, you probably ought to favor the guy who seems to be giving it his all.

To paraphrase Tolstoy*, successful prospects are all alike; every failed prospect fails in his own way. There are many pitfalls that can trip up a top prospect. Some are physical, like a hole in his swing that he isn’t able to close. Some are mental or emotional – a player is going through a bad breakup with his wife or girlfriend, or he starts drinking too much.

*: Yes, Tolstoy. To quote Hans Gruber**: “The benefits of a classical education.”

**: Yes, Hans Gruber. Hey, I wasn’t studying ALL the time.

But probably the pitfall that brings down the most prospects is simply an inability to make adjustments. Pitchers learn that you struggle to hit the inside fastball; you need to learn how to hit the inside fastball. Word gets around that you’re now susceptible to soft stuff away – you need to learn how to lay off those pitches. And so on. It took Alex Gordon, who has all the talent in the world, four years before he finally made all the adjustments that he needed to make.

I’m not saying that Moustakas has made all those adjustments. I am saying that a prerequisite to making adjustments is the willingness to put in the time to do so, something Moustakas seems to have in spades. And his performance over the season’s final six weeks suggests pretty clearly that he’s made at least some of the adjustments he needs to make.

Work ethic is no substitute for talent – but it’s a hell of a complement to talent. Moustakas, by all reports, has both. And that’s why I’m optimistic that going forward, he’s going to resemble the player we saw in September more than the player we saw in July.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

For Want Of A Pitcher: Jonathan Broxton?

First off, I need to revise my analysis of the Bruce Chen signing to include a very important point that I somehow overlooked last time. It’s not entirely correct to say that Chen will cost the Royals $9 million (with incentives) over the next two seasons. Chen will, in fact, cost the Royals $9 million PLUS a supplemental first-round pick, the pick that they would have received had he signed with any other team.

This is not a trivial difference. Studies on the value of draft picks have estimated that a supplemental first-round pick is worth approximately $3 million, above and beyond the cost of actually signing that player. For a franchise that has made player scouting and development its central focus since Dayton Moore was hired, and a franchise which has done so well with the draft picks it has had, it’s astonishing how few high draft picks the Royals have had to work with.

By re-signing Chen, the Royals guarantee that they will not receive any extra draft picks next June, which means that in the seven drafts since Moore was hired, the Royals have had exactly ONE extra draft pick, the supplemental first-rounder they received when David Riske, of all people, departed. (Who did the Royals draft with that pick? Mike Montgomery.) Meanwhile, the Royals also forfeited their second-round pick in 2009 for signing Juan Cruz.

Obviously, the Royals value those extra picks, and they have tried to game the system to acquire some extra picks, as when they offered Mark Grudzielanek arbitration after the 2008 season with no intention of signing him. (The gambit failed when no other team signed Grudzielanek to a major-league contract.) But the Royals have had opportunities for extra draft picks in the past. Last winter, they could have declined David DeJesus’ option and offered him arbitration he almost certainly would not have accepted. Instead, they traded him for Vinny Mazzaro and Justin Marks, a pair of pitchers who combined weren’t worth the value of a draft pick.

This winter, they could have let Chen walk, replaced him with a comparable pitcher on the market, and be compensated with a high draft pick for their troubles. They chose not to, and that has to be added to Chen’s price tag. A transaction which might have earned a C grade otherwise is now more like a C- or a D+. Re-signing Chen might turn out to be a missed opportunity in more ways than one.

The Chen signing was predictable, at least, something that can not be said for the Royals’ decision to bring in Jonathan Broxton. At first glance, this seems like a transaction ripped out of the pages of the Dayton Moore 2009 catalog. Sure, let’s guarantee $4 million to a pitcher coming off an elbow injury, to fill a need that the team doesn’t even have.

The Royals’ bullpen ranked 8th in the AL this season with a 3.75 ERA, but to give you an idea of just how bad Mazzaro’s seven-out, 14-earned-run performance was, if you take out that one appearance, the bullpen’s ERA drops to 3.52 – which would have ranked third in the AL, just thousandths of a point behind the Angels for second. They did that with a bullpen that was, almost to a man, remarkably inexperienced and inexpensive. Aside from closer Joakim Soria, and Robinson Tejeda’s seven ineffective innings, every other reliever the Royals used last season was pre-arbitration-eligible. With the exception of Aaron Crow, who got a major-league contract when he signed as a first-round pick, every other reliever made six figures.

By the end of the season, the bullpen looked something like this:

CL Joakim Soria
SU Greg Holland
SU Aaron Crow
RH Louis Coleman
LH Tim Collins
LR Blake Wood
LR Nate Adcock

With occasional guest appearances from the likes of Everett Teaford. And on top of that, they have Kelvin Herrera, who projects as an impact reliever in the late innings and who is essentially ready for a spot in the bullpen now.

After Soria, the Royals reliever with the most service time coming into the 2011 season was Blake Wood, with 145 days. With the exception of Soria, not only was every Royals reliever pre-arbitration eligibility in 2011, they will all be pre-arbitration players in 2012, and only Wood will qualify for arbitration in 2013.

The Royals could comfortably go into 2012 with the six relievers above in front of Soria, and pay them less than $4 million combined. Instead they guaranteed Broxton $4 million by himself. The same Broxton who pitched all of 13 innings last season, and who, since June 27, 2010 – when Joe Torre let Broxton throw 48 pitches while blowing a four-run lead to the Yankees – has this line:

42.1 IP, 53 H, 32 BB, 35 K, 6 HR, 7.02 ERA.

Well, when you put it like that, it looks like a pretty ridiculous move.

There’s a method to the madness, though. From 2006 to 2009, Broxton led the major leagues in strikeouts (398) by a reliever, along with a 2.79 ERA over that span. In 2009 he struck out 114 batters in 76 innings. And before his fortunes took a turn for the worse in 2010, through June 26th that season he was probably the best reliever in baseball. In 33 innings, he had allowed just three earned runs, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 48-to-5. As poorly as Broxton has pitched over the last 18 months, until 18 months ago he was one of the game’s most dominant relievers.

If his struggles could be traced to a shoulder injury, then his previous dominance would have as much relevance today as his SAT scores. But it appears his problems were entirely elbow related, culminating in surgery this September to remove bone spurs and “loose bodies” from his elbow. If that’s all it was, there’s a good chance he’ll be at 100%, or close to it, by March.

For the commitment the Royals have made – one year, $4 million – Broxton’s upside is worth it. The Royals have basically committed about half as much to Broxton, in terms of both time and money, as they did to Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz. A week before the Royals signed Broxton, the Rangers gave Joe Nathan a two-year, $14 million contract. Nathan missed all of 2010 with Tommy John surgery, and his return in 2011 included a 4.84 ERA. Granted, a healthy Nathan was even better than a healthy Broxton (from 2004 to 2009, Nathan had a 1.87 ERA), and from June 28th on he was almost back to his pre-injury form: 28 innings, 20 hits, 5 walks, 28 Ks. But Nathan is also 37 years old, nearly a full decade older than Broxton. The Rangers – who last I checked had a pretty capable front office – gave Nathan a contract that guarantees him more than three times what the Royals guaranteed to Broxton.

And then there’s Heath Bell, who just got three years and $27 million from the Florida Marlins. Yes, Bell is healthy – as far as we know – and was effective in 2011. But you can practically hear him ticking. His strikeout rate in 2011 dropped to 7.3 Ks per 9, the lowest mark of his career. And Bell has benefitted massively from calling Petco Park his home. For his career, his road ERA is more than a run higher (3.61 to 2.56) than his ERA at home. The Marlins have guaranteed Bell nearly seven times as much money as the Royals have guaranteed Broxton.

If you’re looking for a sign that the reliever market is out of control, it’s not Broxton’s contract that you’re going to point at. Broxton might not be the best fit for the Royals’ needs, but at least in the abstract, his contract seems favorable.

With regards to the Royals’ needs, the Broxton signing has some ancillary benefits. Primarily, it means that Aaron Crow will be getting a sustained shot at returning to the rotation.

This isn’t the slam-dunk move it appears to be. Crow was a starter in the minors in 2010, and was awful; he was a reliever in the majors in 2011, and he was an (undeserving, but still) All-Star. He was successful in relief because he could focus on just his fastball and his slider; he still doesn’t have an out-pitch against left-handed hitters. This season, right-handed batters hit just .175/.283/.254 against Crow. Lefties? .311/.381/.538.

Having said that, I think the Royals have to give it a try. Crow was drafted as a starter, he succeeded in college as a starter, he has a starter’s build, and while he was mostly a two-pitch pitcher as a rookie, he did throw the occasional curveball, and he’s thrown a changeup in the past. More to the point, the value you get from a 200-inning starter is so much more than from a 70-inning reliever that you have to take a shot even if the odds are against you.

But if the Royals are serious about making Crow a starter again, they have to expect him to take a step backwards before he starts walking forward. While it would be great if he’s so impressive in spring training that he wins a rotation spot, realistically the Royals have to expect Crow to start the season in Omaha. If everything goes well he might be ready to return by June or July, but the temptation will be there for the Royals to scrap the experiment and recall Crow to shore up the bullpen if they ever blow leads in back-to-back games. If the addition of Broxton gives the Royals’ front office enough confidence in a Crow-less bullpen that they will give him a full audition as a starting pitcher, that alone might justify the millions they’re spending on Broxton.

And then there is the flexibility that Broxton’s addition affords the Royals on the trade market. In a market where teams are willing to guarantee eight figures to second-tier closers, the Royals have a veritable army of quality relievers who won’t be making even seven figures in a season until 2014. If the Royals don’t think the prices for free-agent starting pitchers reasonable, and they think their best way to upgrade in the rotation is via trade, dipping into their pool of relievers may facilitate a deal without having to give up a Wil Myers or a Cheslor Cuthbert.

I was annoyed by the reports that claimed that Broxton was signed to be Soria’s set-up man, because in his entire career Broxton has never had a season as good as the one Greg Holland had this year. (When you factor in the inherited runners – Holland allowed just two of the 33 runners he inherited to score – Holland quietly had one of the greatest relief seasons in Royals history.) But signing Broxton to be the eighth-inning guy makes a lot more sense if Holland is on the move.

The Toronto Blue Jays, at least, appear to be interested in him, giving the Colby Rasmus rumors some legs. But between Holland, Coleman, and even Wood, the Royals are in excellent position to trade a reliever for a more durable asset. Adding Broxton makes it easier for the Royals to give up a reliever, and still give Crow (and possibly Nate Adcock) time in Omaha’s rotation. The winter meetings are getting underway as I write this, so if there’s to be another domino to fall, it might be in the next few days.

Like a lot of Dayton Moore’s moves, the wisdom of signing Broxton depends in large part on whether this is the precursor to other moves. But even if it isn’t, it’s a modest commitment to a pitcher who, when healthy, has always been an excellent reliever. It’s a contract that has a chance to be a bargain for the Royals given the current relief market. If it allows the Royals to leverage their surplus in relievers for other needs, so much the better, but even as a standalone move, it’s a decent little transaction.

The one caveat I have is that if Moore thinks the acquisition of Broxton abdicates his responsibility to sign another starting pitcher, he’s wrong. I would question the decision to give $4 million to a reliever when that’s money that could have gone to a starting pitcher, but even with Broxton, as it stands the Royals’ 2012 payroll projects to around $55 million. I know that’s close to where Moore claimed the payroll was limited to in a notorious exchange he had at Blogger Night at the K. Call me an ostrich, but I just refuse to believe the Royals payroll has such a tight limit.

The Royals’ payroll exceeded $70 million in both 2009 and 2010; there’s no reason they can’t afford a similar payroll in 2012, a year when Kauffman Stadium will certainly host the All-Star Game, and just might host a playoff game. The Royals are at an inflection point, where they’re close enough to contention that adding a star pitcher might be the difference in a pennant race, and a playoff appearance would increase the Royals’ revenue by far more than the cost of a free-agent contract.

Basically, what I’m saying is this: just because the Royals have added Broxton, and Chen, and Sanchez, does not mean they shouldn’t still be major players for Roy Oswalt or Edwin Jackson. If the Royals make an honest effort to sign a top-tier starter and fall short, then Broxton’s addition will at least give the Royals something to show for their efforts, and they can hope that a killer bullpen might cover for their rotation inadequacies enough to keep them in the hunt. But if the money used to sign Broxton knocks the Royals out of the sweepstakes for another starting pitcher, then his signing, once again, was a wasted opportunity.

Broxton and Chen, combined, are guaranteed $8.5 million in 2012, and will probably make close to $10 million. It would be a shame if it turns out that money could have been used as the starting point to land them a true difference-maker in their rotation instead.


I guess I should say something about the Frank White situation. I don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been said. Sam Mellinger nailed it pretty good here; a trusted source of mine vouches for Mellinger’s accuracy in portraying both sides. Will McDonald does a great job of informed speculation and connecting the dots here. Rob Neyer covers the situation with his usual aplomb here.

I know that White made it clear that he felt that he was fired for being too critical of the Royals on-air. But as facile an explanation as that is, I find it hard to square that with the fact that Paul Splittorff, who was as blunt about the Royals’ inadequacies as anyone in the media for the quarter-century before he passed away, was never let go. If “criticisms” really were the impetus for this, they were probably hurled off-camera.

But I do think that the Royals once again revealed themselves as unreasonably thin-skinned. The fact that producer Kevin Shank was also let go suggests a lot of things, none of them favorable to the Royals, about their perception of the telecasts.

In the long run, if the Royals start winning, none of this will matter, and Frank White may well return to throw out the first pitch before a playoff game. But until the Royals start winning, they need to avoid public-relations disasters like this one. Their continuing inability to do so is telling.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

For Want Of A Pitcher: Bruce Chen.

Last week I took my first real vacation in a long while, unplugging from the grid on a 7-day cruise with my family aboard Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, which along with its sister ship the Allure of the Seas is, I believe, the largest cruise ship in the world. So it says something about me that the most memorable part of the cruise for me was noticing Mitch Maier walking through one of the restaurants during breakfast one morning. Despite undoubtedly being mortified at seeing the only person on the boat wearing a Royals cap coming straight at him, he was very gracious when I said hello.

The world didn’t stop while I was on the boat, and the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that was finalized while I was gone contains some major implications for the Royals. I’ll discuss those when I get the chance, but meanwhile Dayton Moore couldn’t sit still, maintaining his reputation as a GM who, once the off-season starts, shoots first and asks questions later.

First, he re-signed Bruce Chen to a two-year, $9 million contract (with incentives of about $1 million a year.) If bad news is buried on a Friday evening, you have to wonder why the Royals slipped this signing in on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving.

The return of Chen is hardly bad news. He has been the Royals’ best starter over the past two seasons combined, whether you use the oldest of stats (Chen leads the team with 24 wins over the past two years; only Luke Hochevar has more than ten) or the newest (Chen had 4.6 bWins Above Replacement in 2010-11; Zack Greinke is second among starters at 2.3 bWAR.) Neither the time nor dollars committed in this deal are overwhelming. It’s been reported that Chen turned out slightly higher offers from other teams, and I don’t doubt that.

But I’m not convinced that this is particularly good news either. Chen had a 3.96 ERA over the past two years, and a starting pitcher who can give you a 3.96 ERA is worth a hell of a lot more than $4.5 million a year. But there’s little about Chen’s underlying performance to suggest he can maintain an ERA under four.

Over the last two seasons, Chen has walked 3.08 batters per 9 (as always, intentional walks have been stripped out) and struck out 5.94 per 9. His career marks in those categories are 3.21 and 6.82. Granted that Chen benefitted from facing pitchers during his time in the NL, Chen’s success the last two seasons has not been accompanied by any improvement in his command or ability to miss bats. The only thing he’s been able to do is limit the long ball – he’s allowed 1.07 homers per 9 innings, down from a career mark of 1.55 per 9.

That’s a huge difference. Any pitcher who is able to cut his home run rate by a third is going to have a lot more success. But the most durable way to limit your home runs is to limit the flyballs you give up, and Chen hasn’t done that – if anything, he’s been slightly more of a flyball pitcher these last two years than he was before. Somehow, just 8.1% of the flyballs he allowed the last two seasons wound up over the fence. In each of his previous seven seasons, at least 11.1% of the flyballs he allowed were home runs. Pitchers have little ability to influence their HR/FB ratio, so this suggests that Chen hasn’t been a better pitcher the last two years; he’s just been luckier.

It’s not quite that simple. Kauffman Stadium, while a neutral park overall, is one of the toughest parks in baseball to hit homers in (it’s a very good park for batting average and triples). Over the last two seasons Chen allowed just 15 homers in 148 innings at home, but 20 homers in 147 innings on the road. There’s no question that Kauffman is a good fit for him. Except that his ERA at home has actually been higher the last two years (4.28) than on the road (3.73).

Also, while Chen’s home run rate has been uncharacteristically low the last two years, that’s the only part of his game that seems to have been infused with luck. Notably, he has not been particularly lucky on balls in play. This may surprise you to know, given that his batting averages on balls in play the last two years were .279 and .280, much better than the MLB average of around .300. However, Chen’s career mark is .282. Extreme flyball pitchers like Chen tend to have lower BABIP’s than average – flyballs (at least the ones that don’t clear the fence) are less likely to fall in for hits than groundballs. If Chen can continue to keep the ball in play, he can continue to be successful.

However, there’s the durability factor to consider. Chen made only 25 starts and threw only 155 innings last year. In 2010 he only threw 140 innings in the majors, although he did throw 21 innings in the minors and spent a few weeks in the bullpen before he earned a spot in the rotation. But you can’t ignore that in 13 seasons in the major leagues, Chen has never thrown 200 innings in a season, and last season was actually the second-most innings he’s ever thrown in the majors.

And then there’s the fact that he turns 35 in June. And that his fastball averages about 86 mph.

I’m not saying that Chen is a tech bubble ready to pop. But we have to temper our expectations here. The Royals didn’t sign a slightly above-average starting pitcher; they signed a slightly below-average one. That still has value, and so does Chen’s affability and popularity, both in the clubhouse and with the fan base. Re-signing Chen is a darn sight better than trading for Jair Jurrjens. But the Royals need to improve their rotation, and bringing back the one starter most likely to regress from his 2010 performance isn’t improvement. At best, the Royals spent $9 million to stand still.

The Royals didn’t just commit money to Chen; they also committed a roster slot, and if they’re going to genuinely upgrade their rotation, they’re running out of places to do so. Chen will be in the rotation, along with Hochevar, Jonathan Sanchez, Felipe Paulino, and Danny Duffy. As it stands, the Royals’ rotation is complete; if the Royals do manage to acquire a truly above-average starter, one of those guys is going to lose their job. If it means that Danny Duffy goes back to Triple-A to work on some things, delay his arbitration eligibility by a year (he’d need about a month in Omaha to do the trick), and waits in the wings for the inevitable injury that opens up a rotation spot, perfect. Unfortunately, I worry that even if the Royals do something bold like sign Roy Oswalt, it will lead to Felipe Paulino somehow getting the shaft. You guys know what I think of Paulino. You guys also know that I seem to be in the minority here.

I still think that there’s room for the Royals to sign another starter, because no matter how good their training staff is, it’s almost impossible to get through a season with only five starters. In the last 16 seasons, just four teams – the 2003 Mariners, the 2005 Cardinals and Indians, and the 2006 White Sox – had five starters each make at least 30 starts. The tentative 2012 Royals rotation above is acceptable if all five guys stay healthy; they almost certainly won’t. But add an Oswalt or an Edwin Jackson, and then Danny Duffy is your #6 starter, and Luis Mendoza is your #7, and by mid-season Mike Montgomery or Jake Odorizzi ought to be ready, and suddenly the specter of losing your #3 starter to an oblique pull for two months isn’t so scary.

This season, the Royals gave 14 starts to Sean O’Sullivan and Vinny Mazzaro. Handing those 14 starts to pitchers who actually deserve the responsibility might be worth an extra three or four wins right there.

This ignores the fact that the Royals might already have that extra starting pitcher on hand in the form of Aaron Crow. They certainly seem to think so; how else to explain the Jonathan Broxton signing? But more on that next time.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Royals Report Card 2011: Part Two.

I normally save the off-field personnel to the end, but there are special circumstances here:

Nick Kenney, Kyle Turner, and the Rest of the Training Staff: A+

Two years ago, the Royals’ Head Athletic Trainer was Nick Swartz. He had been the team’s trainer for nearly 20 years.

That April, Joakim Soria was allowed to pitch through some shoulder pain. His pain worsened, and he went on the DL in early May for nearly a month. Around the same time, Mike Aviles, who had tried to play through some tenderness in his forearm, was finally diagnosed with an injury to his elbow that required Tommy John surgery.

In late May, Coco Crisp missed some time with a sore shoulder, which it turns out he had been suffering since spring training. He tried to play through the pain, the injury got worse, he rested some more, he played some more, the injury got worse, and finally on June 19th he was seen by Dr. James Andrews, who diagnosed a torn labrum that required season-ending surgery.

Two days later, Gil Meche took the mound despite some soreness in his shoulder, which he had noticed after throwing 132 pitches in a complete-game shutout his previous time out. Meche gave up nine runs that day, but was allowed to stay in the rotation, even after giving up four runs in five innings on June 26th, even after he complained of a dead arm. On July 1st, with that dead arm, Meche threw 121 pitches against the Twins, and was allowed to face the heart of the Twins’ lineup with the game tied in the sixth inning. He would make just 15 more starts in his career, just two of which were Quality Starts.

While acknowledging that the above decisions cannot all be blamed on the trainer – in particular, Trey Hillman and Bob McClure still haven’t answered for their complicity in the murder of Meche’s career – it was a breathtakingly terrible performance by Swartz. You may remember this.

Swartz was let go after the season, and the Royals hired Nick Kenney, who was previously the Assistant Head Trainer for the Indians, as his replacement. The Royals also brought in a new Assistant Head Trainer (Kyle Turner), a new strength and conditioning coach (Ryan Stoneberg), and this year even brought in a new team physician (Dr. Vincent Key).

In 2010, the Royals’ health performance was improved. Some injuries were unavoidable; Meche was already damaged goods, and Jason Kendall’s shoulder finally told the tale of his 15 years as a consummate warrior behind the plate. But you could already sense a change afoot.

In 2011, the Royals had one of the most injury-free seasons you’ll ever see.

Five different Royals – Billy Butler (159), Alcides Escobar (158), Melky Cabrera (155), Jeff Francoeur (153), and Alex Gordon (151) – all played in over 150 games. In the history of the franchise, only two other Royals teams had five players play in that many games in a season – the 1976 and 1977 Royals. Good company to be in.

The Royals’ starting outfield was so healthy and productive that Mitch Maier’s lack of playing time became a running joke among the fan base – Royals Review likened Maier to the kid at summer camp who never got to play. Finally, Francoeur and Gordon were shut down for the season’s last four games just so that Maier, along with Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson, could get some reps in. Otherwise, the Royals would have had five different players appear in 155 games each.

That’s not unprecedented; the 2009 Phillies had six players appear in 155 games or more. But then consider that after he was called up on May 6th, Eric Hosmer appeared in 128 of the Royals’ remaining 131 games. (Counting his minor league time, Hosmer actually played in 154 games this season.) Mike Moustakas was promoted on June 10th, and played in 89 of the Royals’ remaining 99 games – and the games he missed were more about his early struggles than any injury concerns. From August 5th until the end of the season, Moustakas missed only three games.

Once Hosmer and Moustakas were in place, then, seven of the nine lineup spots were spoken for almost every night. The only exceptions were at second base, where the Royals struggled to find a player worthy of playing every day, and catcher, which by nature of the position requires the occasional day off. (Although don’t be surprised if Ned Yost tests those limits. Yost got 149 starts out of Jason Kendall in 2008, and you know he’ll want to do the same next year with Salvador Perez.)

As best as I can tell, the entire Royals offense only used the DL twice during the 2011 season: Kendall, who spent the entire season on the DL in a failed attempt to return from a severe shoulder injury, and Treanor, who spent a month on the DL (half of it on a rehab assignment in the minors) after suffering a concussion on a collision at the plate.

The Royals had perhaps the youngest offense in baseball, and young players are less likely to get injured. But there’s no way to spin this as anything other than a fantastic job by the Royals’ training staff.

There were more injuries on the pitching staff, but only a few more. Bruce Chen went on the DL in early May with a strained lat muscle, and missed six weeks; he returned in late June and had no problems thereafter. Kyle Davies was mercifully put on the DL with shoulder pain in mid-May; he returned in early July, but last only four more starts before he went back on the DL, and eventually was transferred to oblivion.

No other starting pitcher so much as missed a start as a result of injury. Luke Hochevar made 31 starts before he was shut down in late September when he reached his innings limit. More impressively, Jeff Francis, who missed all of 2009 with a torn labrum and a full month in 2010 with more inflammation in his shoulder, took the ball for all 31 of his scheduled starts this year.

Felipe Paulino was plucked off waivers in late May, went into the rotation after one relief appearance, and made every start thereafter. Danny Duffy made every one of his starts after his call-up in May. No other pitcher that started for the Royals this season missed any time with an injury. Vinny Mazzaro and Sean O’Sullivan missed time because they sucked, but that’s not the same thing.

The bullpen was equally healthy. Robinson Tejeda didn’t look right from day one, and after nine ineffective outings went on the DL for a month with shoulder inflammation; after giving up runs in his first two outings upon his return, he was outrighted to Omaha.

Joakim Soria got hit hard early in the year, which made us suspect a recurrence of his arm problems from 2009, but he managed to work through his struggles, which in the end were probably the result of an over-reliance on his cut fastball. Soria did miss the last three weeks of the season with a strained hamstring. Aaron Crow battled through a strained shoulder in the second half, and while he never went on the DL, he pitched ineffectively and infrequently after the All-Star Break. (He only threw 11 innings in the season’s final two months, and allowed 28 baserunners and nine runs.) In retrospect, the Royals should have just shut him down completely for a few weeks.

And that’s it. For the season, the entire Royals roster spent a total of 271 days on the Disabled List. That is astounding. And today, not surprisingly, the Royals’ health record earned their training staff the Dick Martin Award.

The Dick Martin Award was started by Will Carroll back in 2005, as a way of honoring the best trainers in the game. While Nick Swartz was the head trainer, the Royals never won this award. The Royals never came particularly close to winning the award. With Nick Kenney – who was the Assistant Head Trainer in Cleveland when the Indians won the award in 2007 – at the helm, the Royals won in their second season. Keeping players healthy is a skill, and Kenney seems to have that skill in spades.

I don’t want to rehash the events of the summer of 2009. I wrote some deeply critical things about Swartz, the Royals responded in kind. Both sides probably crossed the line. And in fairness to Swartz, the failure of the organization to keep its players healthy was a systemic issue that ran a lot deeper than any one person.

So it’s telling that when the Royals made changes after the 2009 season, they didn’t stop with Swartz; they turned over the whole operation. And this year, they reaped the rewards.

I have some regrets about the way I handled the situation. But I have no regrets about bringing the issues with the Royals’ training staff to the forefront. The team’s amazing health record this season is all the justification I needed.

In the aftermath of L’Affaire Swartz, I hoped I wouldn’t have to write about the Royals’ training staff ever again. I couldn’t be happier to be wrong. A major weakness has turned into an undeniable strength. Let’s hope that what has happened with the training staff presages what happens with the organization as a whole.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Royals Report Card 2011: Part One.

Unlike the last several off-seasons, the Royals are unlikely to have a lot of transactions this winter. The transactions they do make might be particularly significant, like the Cabrera-Sanchez trade, but they’re also likely to be rare. This is a testament to the job Dayton Moore & Co. have done over the last few years; they’ve built a roster that, with the exception of the rotation, doesn’t have a lot of holes to fill.

With the trade of Cabrera, the Royals’ starting lineup is completely set, and if there is any intrigue at all – who starts at second base, who are the backup outfielder(s) – the intrigue is going to come from internal battles. I suppose the Royals could sign a utility infielder, but they might be better off just going with Yamaico Navarro. And alas, Willie Bloomquist has already signed elsewhere.

The bullpen is stacked; if there’s a transaction involving a reliever, it’s more likely to involve one departing than arriving. Really, the only need the Royals have this winter is for another starting pitcher, which is why I spent the better part of a month writing about it. (Come on, Dayton. Give Roy Oswalt what he wants.)

So there may not be much of a need to write about Royals personnel moves over the next three months. Which gives me the chance to clear up a backlog of other columns, starting with the annual report cards for each player that I should have started six weeks ago. I apologize if these seem dated. Just think of it as my way of keeping Royals talk alive during these cold, sunless months we refer to as the off-season.

As usual, I’ll be grading every player who played a substantial amount for the Royals in 2011, a number of top prospects, and a bunch of off-field personnel. Grades are given out on a B- curve; a player who met his pre-season expectations exactly, but did not exceed them, gets a B-.

I’ll start today with the catchers:

Brayan Pena: C-

As you probably know, I’m particularly fond of Pena, perhaps more than is warranted. I love the strategic advantage of having a switch-hitting catcher, and I’m partial to having an offense-first backup, and I enjoy his Cuban refugee backstory and his infectious attitude.

That said, it wasn’t a particularly good year for him. He’s an extreme-contact player, putting the ball in play in over 80% of his plate appearances, which makes him particularly susceptible to the vagaries of batting average. When he hits .273, as he did in his first year with the Royals, he’s valuable; when he hits .248, like he did this year, he’s not. While he has good raw power, he hit just three homers all season.

His defense was marked by two astonishingly bad plays at the plate, which obscures the fact that he actually had a pretty good year with the glove. On May 29th, with the score tied and two outs in the ninth, Elvis Andrus singled to right field with Mike Napoli on first base. Napoli was sent around third base as Pena set up to catch the throw a few feet up the first base line, and should have been out by about 20 feet. Out of surprise or just lack of preparation, Pena sauntered back to the plate in geologic time, and seemed equally surprised when the umpire called Napoli safe with the walkoff run.

Pena got deservedly reamed for that play, and for the next three months he blocked the plate like it was his newborn child – he was tagging out baserunners, umpires, members of the grounds crew, and in one unfortunate incident he decked Ned Yost when his manager got too close to the plate on his way to a mound meeting. And then all his good work was forgotten when in early August, Pena – perhaps spooked after Matt Treanor had just gone on the DL with a concussion following a plate collision – once again exhibited poor technique on a play at the plate, tagging the runner high and allowing the runner’s foot to touch the plate first.

These two egregious mistakes aside, Pena wasn’t bad. He threw out an impressive 36% of attempted basestealers – the AL average was 28%. He’s worked his ass off to get better, and those two plays notwithstanding, he has.

In three seasons with the Royals, Pena has 597 plate appearances – basically a full season worth of playing time. In that span he’s hit .257/.302/.369. He’ll be 30 next year. He’s unlikely to make seven figures in arbitration, and anyway the Royals have made it clear that they would probably release a bench player before they’d pay one over a million dollars.

If he’s willing to come back for a modest raise from his $660,000 salary in 2011, I’d keep him. Particularly after the Cabrera trade, the Royals now have six right-handed hitters in their everyday lineup, and they need as many bench guys as possible who swing from the left side. Pena can give Salvador Perez a rare day off against the Jered Weavers of the world, the right-handed starters who throw from three-quarters or below. He can pinch-hit for Alcides Escobar against right-handed closers in key situations, assuming Ned Yost doesn’t continue to value “development” over winning games in the here and now. As backup catchers go, Pena is still better than most.

Salvador Perez: B+ (minors), A (majors)

I’ve written this before, but now that the season is done I can give you the definitive list:

Highest Batting Average By Catcher, min: 100 PA, Age 21 or Less

1. Salvador Perez, 2011, .331
2. Jiggs Donahue, 1901, .318
3. Al Lopez, 1930, .309
4. Joe Mauer, 2004, .308
5. Ted Simmons, 1971, .304

Think batting average is kind of gimmicky?

Highest OPS By Catcher, min: 100 PA, Age 21 or Less

1. Joe Mauer, 2004, .939
2. Johnny Bench, 1969, .840
3. Salvador Perez, 2011, .834
4. Jiggs Donahue, 1901, .826
5. Darrell Porter, 1973, .820

Yes, yes, these lists are based on just a sample size of just 39 games, and Perez’s .331 average is unsustainable (although his line drive rate with the Royals was 29%, which is fantastic) and all that. But still. A 21-year-old catcher with a fearsome defensive reputation hit .331 and slugged .473. You have to be at least a little excited by that.

At the beginning of the season, Perez was something like the 18th-best prospect in the Royals system. Today, the only player on that prospect list I’d rather have is Eric Hosmer. I think Perez has vaulted past even Mike Moustakas and Wil Myers. His batting average could drop 80 points and he’d still have value because of his defense.

A year ago, when I was hyping Perez as one of the biggest sleepers in the system, I threw out names like Sandy Alomar Jr. and Yadier Molina as possible best-case-scenario comps. If anything, he may have left those comps behind. Alomar wasn’t an everyday player in the majors until he was almost 24. Molina was a late-season call-up when he was 21, but hit just .267/.329/.356.

Perez isn’t a .331 hitter. But he hit .290 in the minors in 2010, and .290 in the minors in 2011. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call him a true .270 hitter, with a decent amount of pop, very good defense, and with all the future development you’d expect of a 21-year-old player. He’s not a star, but he’s almost certainly a championship-level starting catcher. Molina, after all, has two rings.

Manny Pina: B (minors)

Two years ago, as a 22-year-old catcher in Double-A, Manny Pina walked 19 times and struck out 58 times. This season, as a 24-year-old catcher in Triple-A, Pina drew 36 walks and struck out 40 times. His strikeout-to-walk ratio, which was greater than three in 2009, was almost 1-to-1 in 2011.

Pina is Brayan Pena’s primary competition for the backup catcher’s job next season. I’d still say the job is Pena’s to lose; Pina has options, and despite the improvement in his plate discipline he only hit .239 this season (but slugged .372). Pina was a catch-and-throw guy when the Royals acquired him for million-dollar-arm/ten-cent-head Danny Gutierrez, and he still has good defensive skills. He threw out 27% of basestealers this season, down from 42% the year before.

Pina would be well-served by another year in Triple-A, to see if he can consolidate his offensive skills. He’s probably never going to be an everyday catcher in the major leagues, but there’s no reason he can’t carve out a ten-year career as a backup, in the mold of…

Matt Treanor: B+

…who didn’t even reach the majors until he was 28, but will be starting his ninth year in the majors next season after agreeing to a 1-year, $1 million contract with the Dodgers. (Treanor was originally drafted by the Royals in 1994, traded to the Marlins for Matt Whisenant in 1997…and spent the next seven years in the Marlins’ farm system before finally getting his shot.)

Treanor was acquired at the end of spring training for the price of his contract, which paid him $850,000 this season. For their money, the Royals got the player they thought they were getting when they signed Jason Kendall for twice the time and seven times the money the year before. Like Kendall, Treanor couldn’t actually hit, but he drew 33 walks in 186 at-bats (his previous career high was 22), leading to a strange and strangely effective .226/.351/.306 line for the Royals. He gave the Royals on-base ability, leadership in the clubhouse, mentorship for the Royals’ other catchers, and a toughness that manifested itself when he suffered a concussion at the plate that ended his Royals career – but he held onto the ball.

For his troubles, Treanor was sold back to the Rangers before the roster deadline at the end of August, although he didn’t appear in any postseason games this year. He was a perfectly, and surprisingly, tolerable stopgap for the Royals until Salvador Perez was ready. He’s not going to be immortalized in the pantheon of Royals’ greats, but he gave the Royals everything that they brought him in for.

Jason Kendall: Incomplete

I’m not going to kick a man when he’s down; I hope Kendall’s second shoulder surgery is successful and that it doesn’t give him any issues in his post-baseball life. It’s not his fault that the Royals wildly, laughably overpaid him two winters ago.

I only bring up Kendall because in retrospect his signing, coming less than five months after the trade for Yuniesky Betancourt, looks like the absolute nadir of Dayton Moore’s tenure. I’m not going to rehash the whole thing, but declining Miguel Olivo’s option and flat-out releasing John Buck in order to sign Kendall to twice the guaranteed money is one of the most baffling things Moore has ever done.

Kendall was signed on December 11th; a few days later the Royals signed Noel Arguelles to a five-year contract (which, granted, had been rumored before the Kendall signing). While Arguelles has been a disappointment so far, the signing of a premium amateur talent started the ball rolling on one of the most fantastic years of player development that any organization has ever had. If Dayton Moore was a stock, the moment after he signed Jason Kendall was the time to buy.