Moving to the offense…
While we hold our breath for Jason Kendall’s return, it looks like, as expected, Brayan Pena will be getting the lion’s share of the duties, with Lucas May as his caddy.
Once thought to be out until June, Kendall rehabbed so vigorously that for a time it was thought he might be back by Opening Day, although that quickly proved overly optimistic. He’s had a “minor” setback which will probably keep him out until May 1st at the earliest. Reading about Kendall’s incessant injury updates in the Kansas City Star reminds me of a typical Mike Sweeney injury, where he was always about two weeks away from coming back. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kendall is out for longer than he’s letting on.
This might sound crazy, given that the decision to sign Jason Kendall and release John Buck is the most inexplicable decision of Dayton Moore’s career, but I’m just not that concerned about Kendall’s eventual return date. That’s partly a reflection on the fact that I’m far from sold on Lucas May’s bat. He’s 26 years old, and took advantage of a great hitters’ park in Albuquerque to put up most of his numbers last year. I assume that Kendall would take May’s roster spot instead of Pena’s, owing to the fact that Pena is a switch-hitter. Moreover, even when Kendall returns I doubt we’ll see a return to his Iron Man ways of old. He’ll probably split the job 50/50 with Pena. Basically, I think we’re going to get 300-400 plate appearances out of Pena this year, and with any luck we’ll find out, once and for all, whether the kid can play or not.
Mostly, though, my lack of concern stems from the fact that 2011 is just a holding pattern anyway. Ned Yost values catcher defense like the former backup catcher that he is, and it just so happens that the Royals have a potential Gold Glove catcher who might also hit a little. By mid-2012, this is Salvador Perez’s job, and everyone else is just fighting for the job of carrying his jock.
Update: I wrote the above words last night, and woke up this morning to find out that the Royals had just bought the rights to Matt Treanor from the Rangers. I shouldn’t be surprised; every year the Royals make a pointless and probably counterproductive acquisition in the waning days of spring training. Last year, it was Luis Mendoza; in 2007, it was Tony Pena Jr. At least Treanor only cost money.
That the Royals thought they needed Treanor is disconcerting. Treanor was actually signed by the Royals out of college back in 1994, then was sent to Florida in 1998 for the unforgettable Matt Whisenant. He wouldn’t make the majors for six more years, in 2004, and credit to him for sticking it out long enough to gain admission into The International Brotherhood of Backup Catchers at the age of 28. He spent four years as the backup in Florida, then resurfaced with the Rangers last year. Along the way, he got married to beach volleyball star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Misty May, and good for him. He’s also 35 years old, and his career line is .227/.311/.310. Which is to say, he’s basically Jason Kendall’s doppelganger at this point.
This almost certainly means that Lucas May won’t make the team. As I said above, I was hardly sold on him to begin with, so that doesn’t trouble me greatly. What troubles me is that, unless Kendall is more hurt than the Royals are letting on, Brayan Pena’s roster spot will be very much in jeopardy in a few weeks. I can hardly think of a more ineffectual catching duo than Kendall and Treanor. If there is one, though, I’m sure the Royals will dredge it up soon. Salvador Perez can’t get here soon enough.
Four-fifths of the starting infield/DH have been set in stone since the Greinke trade. Billy Butler and Kila Ka’aihue will alternate between 1B and DH, though it sounds like Ka’aihue will probably get more of the reps there. (This is probably a prelude to Butler becoming a full-time DH once Eric Hosmer arrives.) Alcides Escobar will play shortstop everyday. And Mike Aviles will play one of the other two positions.
Which position Aviles plays depends on whether the Royals want to go with their all-hands unit or not. If it’s defense they want, then Chris Getz will man second base and Aviles play will third. If the offense is in a slump, then Wilson Betemit will play third and Aviles will slide over to the keystone. This being the Royals, we are almost certain to see a lot more of the former than of the latter.
The makeup of the Royals’ infield isn’t a surprise – this is pretty much how the Royals drew it up before spring training began – but if you take a step back, it’s really remarkable that the team is starting Chris Getz over Wilson Betemit. Getz hit slugged .277 last year. In 670 career plate appearances – the equivalent of a full season – Getz has hit .252/.315/.320, with 2 homers and 49 walks. He’s undeniably fast (he has 41 steals in 46 attempts) and he’s at least an average defender at second base. But he simply can’t hit. Or at least he hasn’t so far.
Betemit, meanwhile, hit .297/.378/.511 last season, with 20 doubles and 13 homers in just 276 at-bats. As I’ve written before, Betemit had the highest OPS in Royals history for a part-time player. And yet he rides the bench while Getz plays everyday.
I’d blame the Royals for not taking Betemit seriously, but they’re not the only ones. No other team has expressed any interest in Betemit – we know this because the Royals would almost certainly trade him for any return of value. (The Royals gave him a take-it-or-leave-it $1 million offer, and would have released him had he not agreed to the deal.) I realize that Betemit hadn’t hit very well in Omaha before he was called up, and didn’t hit well in the majors in 2008 and 2009, but from 2005 to 2007 he was an above-average hitter for the Braves. And Betemit was just 28 last season – he’s not even two years older than Getz – so there’s plenty of reasons to think that he will continue to hit. Maybe not as well as he did last year, but well enough to deserve playing time.
I understand why the Royals favor Getz. Not only does he upgrade the defense at second base, but he allows Aviles to play a position more suited to his talents at third base. Much as Alberto Callaspo went from god-awful at second base to surprisingly agile at third, I think Aviles might give the Royals average to plus defense at third base. Throw in Escobar, and the Royals might actually have an above-average infield defense for the first time since Angel Berroa was a rookie. And whereas Betemit is a free agent at the end of the year, Getz is under contract for four more seasons.
I just don’t think that all those advantages outweigh the massive offensive difference between the two. The Royals might consider a quasi-platoon, where Aviles move to second base against left-handed starters and Getz moves to the bench, except that Betemit – last year aside – is a much better hitter against right-handed pitching. (He has a career line of .271/.344/.462 against RHP, but just .249/.304/.401 vs. southpaws.)
One way or the other, the Royals need to get Betemit at-bats. He can hit, and if nothing else, they can set him up to be a valuable trade commodity in July. If he gets as many at-bats as he did last season and hits remotely as well, he might even qualify as a Type B free agent. Playing time for Betemit = more draft picks. Hopefully speaking Dayton Moore’s language will get his attention.
The saving grace here is that the Royals do seem committed to Ka’aihue, at least for a few months, depending on whether Eric Hosmer obliterates Triple-A or just lightly carpet-bombs it. He’s crushed the ball in spring training (.415/.483/.849!), he has an everyday job, he has a PECOTA projection (.262/.387/.473) which is the talk of the sabermetric community, and he has something to prove. I drank the Kool-Aid a while ago. Hawaiian Punch, anyone?
Finally, I think it’s fascinating that the Royals appear to be forgoing a backup middle infielder; I thought when spring training began that either Joaquin Arias or Lance Zawadzki would make the team, but they’re both ticketed for Triple-A. This isn’t a bad thing – on the contrary, by going with only one backup infielder, this allows the Royals to carry two backup outfielders, and since Mitch Maier is guaranteed a spot, this means the Royals can carry Gregor Blanco rather than sending him through waivers.
It’s just that you don’t see teams that are willing to go without a backup shortstop very often. I mean, Earl Weaver was fond of saying that “my backup shortstop is in Rochester,” but then, Earl Weaver’s starting shortstop was Cal Ripken. Presumably, Mike Aviles serves as the team’s backup shortstop in addition to his other duties. It’s a little unconventional, but it could work. I just worry that Ned Yost is going to use Alcides Escobar the way Weaver used Ripken: for every inning of every game.
The starters here are no surprise: Alex Gordon in left field, Melky Cabrera in center, Jeff Francoeur in right. Make fun of that arrangement all you want; I know I have. I will say that I’m incredibly excited to see Gordon in live action this week, both because of his ridiculous numbers this month – he’s hitting .365/.487/.746 this spring even after an 0-for-12 start – and because more and more people who have seen him bat swear that his swing looks…different. Shorter to the ball, not selling out for power, willing to go the opposite way. Maybe it’s a mirage, but hell, March is a time for dreaming. Leave my dreams alone – as a Royals fan, they’re all I have.
The big news here – although again, no surprise – is that The Painkiller, Lorenzo Cain, is slated for Omaha. I’m not as broken up about this as most people, and not just because Melky Cabrera has led the Cactus League with a .474 average this spring. I like Cain, and I think he will and should be the Royals starting centerfielder in 2012. But that doesn’t mean he won’t benefit from some finishing time in the minors. While Cain hit well in 43 games for the Brewers last year, he was still an unfinished product – he had just 9 walks against 28 strikeouts. Moreover, Cain has just 28 games in Triple-A in his career. Particularly for a guy who didn’t start playing baseball full-time until late in high school, a guy who is considered by many to have untapped upside because of his lack of experience, I think another half-season in Triple-A won’t hurt him, and might help.
This isn’t even a service-time thing – in order for the Royals to squeeze another year out of Cain’s indentured servitude, he’d have to stay in the minors for three full months. If Cabrera hits well in the first half, that may in fact be the plan, with Cabrera getting auctioned off in July and Cain sliding into his spot. If Cabrera isn’t hitting well, I don’t think the Royals are going to wait until July to make a move. I know it’s frustrating that we keep having to wait just a little longer to see the real fruits of the youth movement, but in this case I think a little patience is warranted.
Mitch Maier is the fourth outfielder, and deservedly so; he can play all three outfield positions with aplomb, hit .263/.333/.375 last season, and even showed a hint of power from time to time. He’ll probably be the first pinch-hitter off the bench, assuming Ned Yost remembers that the rules allow him to remove Escobar or Treanor from the game against a tough right-handed pitcher.
But as I write this, the fifth outfielder’s role, which until now seemed to be in Gregor Blanco’s hands, has apparently been given to Jarrod Dyson instead – and Blanco (who is out of options) has been placed on waivers. If this is true, the Royals just shot themselves in the foot – and then, while hopping around in pain, sent another slug into their good leg.
This is a terrible waste of two players’ talents. Gregor Blanco isn’t a star, and isn’t going to be a star. But he is an outfielder who can run, play defense at all three positions, and has a career .358 OBP in the majors. He’s just 27 years old. He’s an ideal fourth outfielder if nothing else. I’ve been saying since the day he was acquired that it made no sense to have both Blanco and Maier, because they bring such similar skills to bear. But the solution to that problem is to trade one of them, even for a modest return – not to put one of them on waivers three days before Opening Day.
But even if the Royals didn’t have Blanco in the first place, they’re still screwing things up by keeping Jarrod Dyson. Dyson is a really interesting player – as I wrote last year, he’s the rare guy whose defense and athleticism might actually make up for his inability to hit. And in fact, despite the fact that he’s already 26, there is still the chance Dyson might learn to hit if he could just stay healthy enough to get some reps. In five pro seasons, Dyson has played just 305 games. He’s played a total of 70 games in Double-A in his career, and 46 in Triple-A.
He desperately, desperately needs to be playing on an everyday basis. He has the speed to leg out infield singles and beat out bunt hits almost at will, but only if he develops enough line-drive ability and gap power to make defenses respect him. The only way to develop those skills is through repetition. Instead, he’s going to sit on the bench in Kansas City and get four at-bats a week. He’ll make a hell of a defensive replacement for Cabrera in the late innings, and might even get to play Dave Roberts in the ninth inning every once in a while, but unfortunately, that’s probably all he’s ever going to be.
As it stands, the Royals have thrown away Lucas May and Gregor Blanco in exchange for players who aren’t appreciably better, and rushed Jarrod Dyson and Aaron Crow to the majors, all in the last 48 hours. I still believe that Dayton Moore has earned the right to see this farm system through. But those of you who believe that the Royals will never amount to anything under Moore because of his inability to construct a major league roster…well, you just got some more ammunition for your arguments.