(So I started working on this piece yesterday, and I expected to finish it up last night after taping my weekly podcast with Joe Sheehan. And then, well, this happened. And then this happened. And then this happened. So this has gone through a bit of a re-write, and is even more meandering and off-point than most of my stuff.)
By promoting Eric Hosmer when they did, the Royals made a statement that they were taking their playoff hopes seriously. At the same time, by promoting only Hosmer when they did, even though there are perhaps half-a-dozen guys in Omaha who are ready for major league duty, the Royals also made a statement that they weren’t willing to go all-in just yet. Which they shouldn’t be. The Royals may register on the postseason radar, but their odds have only upgraded from “none” to “slim”. Until the Royals get some clarity regarding their playoff hopes, they risk paying out millions of dollars in future salary for every top prospect they call up, and getting nothing in return except a lower draft pick next season.
Hosmer wasn’t simply ready – he was wasting his time in Triple-A when he was called up. And even with that, there’s no consensus as to whether the Royals should have called him up when they did. Jeff Passan argued they should have; Sam Mellinger argued they shouldn’t have. Kevin Goldstein argued the former, and then changed his mind.
It’s not an easy question to answer, just because the stakes are so high. But the case to be made for calling Hosmer up isn’t simply to argue he makes the Royals a better team, because even the best players are rarely worth more than 6 wins a season over a replacement player, which is to say, one win a month. To argue that the Royals couldn’t wait one month to call up Hosmer because they needed that one win so badly – that might be the case if the Royals were legitimate contenders. If they were the Indians, and had built up a large lead on the division, that would be one thing. (Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds gives the Tribe a 28.5% chance of making the playoffs.) But the Royals are still fringe contenders, who are playing over their heads and still just fighting for second place. (BP puts their odds at 0.6%.)
Those odds are unrealistically low, because BP projects the rest of the season with the assumption that each player is exactly the same player they were at the beginning of the season. In other words, BP just assumes that Jeff Francoeur is the same crappy player he’s been for the past five years, and that the Royals are therefore the same crappy team they’ve been for the past seven years. The computer formula can’t account for the possibility of radical transformation. But even so, it’s hard to argue that the Royals’ playoff odds are any higher than 10%. Those odds are improved by the addition of Hosmer, but not enough to justify bringing him up a month early.
The argument for Hosmer, though, is simply that he was dominating Triple-A to such an extent that he simply had nothing left to learn against minor league pitching, and keeping him in the minors would hinder his development. Most hitting prospects – even most top hitting prospects – are not finished products as rookies. Yes, there’s a chance that Hosmer is Albert Pujols, who was one of the five best players in baseball on his first day in the major leagues – but more likely than not, he’ll be a better player as a sophomore than he is as a rookie. The more reps he gets this year against major league pitching, the more likely he is to go off on the league next year – and next year, the Royals will want their best team on the field from day one, because next year their playoff odds figure to be a lot higher than 10%.
It’s nearly impossible to quantify the true benefit of having Hosmer up early, and so it’s nearly impossible to say with any conviction whether bringing him up on May 5th was the right thing to do. I know very smart people on both sides of the aisle. But the tiebreaker goes to the player – when in doubt, I think I speak for all Royals fans when I say, we’d like to see the kid.
Particularly if he plays like he did last week. On Wednesday, in the fifth game of his career, Ned Yost batted him third. My initial reaction was to mock Yost – until I remembered that he did the same thing with Ryan Braun in the third game of Braun’s career, and Braun responded by leading the NL in slugging as a rookie, winning Rookie of the Year honors, and has batted third (or occasionally cleanup) ever since.
Yost’s confidence in his players – especially young players – is his defining trait as a manager, and the reason why I think that, despite his tactical weaknesses, he’s the right guy for the Royals right now. Of course, it helps when that young player happens to be Eric “Yankee Killer” Hosmer. Hosmer homered into the second deck against A.J. Burnett, which was even more impressive given that it was the only hit Burnett surrendered in seven innings of work. And in the 11th, Hosmer had an equally impressive at-bat; with the bases loaded and one out, he fell behind 0-2, then reached out and poked a ball at shoe-level and managed to hit it deep enough to score Chris Getz from third base for the winning run.
(A surprise #3 hitter…a home run…the game-winning RBI in extra-innings…where have I seen this before?)
Hosmer homered again on Thursday night – this time a laser beam that just cleared the fence – and singled, and hit an excuse-me double down the left field line on a check swing, and the Royals won their first series at Yankee Stadium since 1999. He went hitless against the Tigers on Friday and Saturday, although he was robbed of extra bases twice by Austin Jackson on Saturday, once on one of the best catches of the season. As a Royals fan, I can’t say I’m used to this – I’m used to top prospects struggling out of the gate, and then we have to wait months, or maybe years, to see if they reach their potential. Having a top prospect come up to ridiculous expectations and meet them right away? Watching him hit two homers in his first week in the majors? At Yankee Stadium? I’m getting a little woozy just thinking about it.
I know it’s been barely a week, but if Eric Hosmer is at all representative of The Greatest Farm System In The History Of Whatever…the next six-plus seasons ought to be a blast.
And with that in mind…let’s take a look at how the Blue Wave – hey, that’s what Baseball America called them – are doing right now. These are the nine Royals that made BA’s Top 100 list, in the order they appeared:
#2: Mike Moustakas (.267/.346/.481 in Triple-A)
Moose struggled to start the season and got left in the dust by his bosom buddy Hosmer, but I’m actually very encouraged by the shape of his season so far. I said before the season that I thought he needed a few more months in Omaha, service time issues or not, because while his power was ready for the majors, the rest of his game wasn’t. He didn’t hit lefties much last year, and he swung at entirely too many pitches.
Sure enough, he came out of the gate cold, and hit just .229/.304/.410 in April. But he’s heating up, hitting .351/.444/.703 in his last ten games. He came back yesterday from missing a couple of games over the weekend after getting hit in the arm by a pitch, and doubled and homered.
More importantly, he’s making progress on the two weak spots in his game. While he’s only hit .234 against lefties, he has three doubles and three homers in 47 at-bats, and is slugging .489 vs. southpaws. He also has 14 walks in 135 at-bats, none intentional. (In this lineup? Pick your poison – if you’re not facing Moose, you’re facing Clint Robinson.) That would be the highest walk rate of Moustakas’ career.
He’s been somewhat error-prone at third base, with eight already in just 33 games. On the other hand, he’s making more plays than ever before – his range factor is 3.12 chances per game, and while range factor is a very weak defensive stat, any third baseman making more than three plays a game is doing something right. The scouting reviews of his defense are the same as ever – a little stiff, but certainly playable.
#3: Wil Myers (.284/.357/.392 in Double-A, in just 20 games)
Myers has been slowed down by some knee problems – he missed ten days at the end of April after he apparently slipped and fell on the asphalt outside his apartment and gashed his knee open good. And now he’s got an infection in the same knee that’s put him on the DL.
Aside from that, he’s been fine. He’s not dominating Double-A like he did the two levels below, but he’s 20 years old, and he’s holding his own. The only area of concern, if it is one, is that his strikeout-to-walk ratio is 20 to 9 after he had nearly as many walks as strikeouts last year. But he’s only played 20 games; I’m not worried about it. The defensive reports of him in the outfield are encouraging. The slim odds before the season that he might rip through Double-A and force the Royals to promote him to Kansas City this season have dwindled to almost nothing. But he’s still on target for a mid-2012 debut.
#4: John Lamb (34 IP, 33 H, 13 BB, 21 K, 3 HR, 3.15 ERA in Double-A)
The first thing you need to know about Lamb is that his velocity has been down since late in spring training; his fastball is in the 88-91 range after being a couple ticks faster last year. The second thing you need to know is that he’s been pitching through a strained lat muscle, which everyone assumes is the cause of his dip in velocity.
If that’s the case, and if his velocity gets back to its 2010 level, he’s going to be fine. Even with the decreased velocity, he’s been effective if not particularly dominant in Double-A. Like Myers, he’s still 20. Like Myers, I’d be concerned if his performance doesn’t improve as the season progresses and he gets healthy. And like Myers, his ETA is more likely to be 2012 than 2011. But again like Myers, his long-term outlook is minimally, if at all, changed.
#5: Mike Montgomery (42 IP, 38 H, 25 BB, 33 K, 2 HR, 4.25 ERA in Triple-A)
Montgomery – not Hosmer – was the most impressive player on the field at the Royals’ Futures Game, and his performance since the games started to count has been disappointing. The primary concern has simply been his command – he’s still throwing in the mid-90s, he just isn’t throwing the ball where he wants to.
His numbers look a lot better if you take out his last outing – he had a 2.84 ERA before Saturday, when he allowed nine hits, four walks, and 11 runs in 4.1 innings. I wouldn’t worry – he was pitching in Colorado Springs, where the ball flies. Put it this way – if he had managed to finish the fifth inning, he would have gotten the win – the Royals won the game 16-11, as Lorenzo Cain hit for the cycle with 7 RBIs. Montgomery won’t have to pitch in those kinds of conditions in the major leagues.
I’d like to see fewer walks, and more strikeouts, from Montgomery. But he’s still on target – remember, before spring training the expectation was that he was headed to Double-A, but he looked so good that he forced an accelerated timetable. He’s still only 21. He turns 22 on July 1st, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he celebrates his birthday with the big club.
#6: Christian Colon (.263/.346/.347, 8 for 12 in SB)
I’m still not entirely sure what kind of player Colon is going to be, in part because he’s been two different players in 2010 and 2011. Last year, he signed right after the draft and got into 60 games in Wilmington, where he hit .278/.326/.380. Those are good numbers for a guy straight out of college in a tough hitters’ park, but I was concerned by the fact that he walked only 13 times in 60 games, with 33 strikeouts.
This year, he’s hitting only .261 with very little power – he has just five extra-base hits in 115 at-bats. But he’s already drawn 14 walks in 32 games, with just 11 strikeouts. He’s also stolen eight bases already after he stole just two bases (in six attempts) all of last season.
The other mitigating factor here is that Northwest Arkansas has run into some absolutely brutal weather. They had an off-day on April 20; they were rained out on the 21st, and after playing a doubleheader on the 22nd (minor-league doubleheaders go only seven innings each), they were rained out again on the 23rd, 24th, and 25th. They also got rained out on back-to-back days on May 1st and 2nd. I’d like to see what Colon can do when he’s getting to play every day. For now, he’s been a little disappointing, but he’s a 9-for-15 stretch away from batting .300 and justifying the comparisons to Placido Polanco. And – like most everyone on this list – he’s still awfully young, having just turned 22 on Saturday.
I can’t say I’m not worried that the Royals used the fourth pick in the draft on a role player, but then, I was worried about that last June, and it’s not like the other players the Royals might have taken have been much better. Chris Sale is a left-handed reliever for the White Sox, and he’s struggling. Yasmani Grandal, the catcher the Royals were rumored to want, would have been a better fit for the organization after the Royals traded for Alcides Escobar. He’s hitting .292/.419/.542 for the Reds, but he’s in A-ball, and in a hitters’ league. He might prove to be the better player, but it’s way too early to say for sure.
The one thing I know is that the Royals were two losses in 2009 – or one loss, if it had been to the Orioles – away from drafting Manny Machado last year. Machado is hitting .333/.450/.611 as an 18-year-old shortstop in the Sally League, and has future star written all over him. So do the two guys taken before him, Bryce Harper and Jameson Taillon. But we knew going into the draft that the Royals had the first pick of the common pile. Nothing that’s happened since the draft has changed that perception, or the perception that the Royals made the best pick they could under the circumstances.
#7: Danny Duffy (36 IP, 30 H, 10 BB, 43 K, 4 HR, 3.00 ERA in Triple-A)
A year ago today, Duffy was retired, and the best you could have hoped for a year later was that he’d be pitching somewhere in the system. Instead, after just seven starts in Double-A last season he joined Montgomery in Triple-A to start 2011, and has been the ace of the staff. His last start, when he gave up nine baserunners and four runs in four innings, was his first poor outing of the season.
A year ago, I was worried that even if Duffy returned, that his profile was a little too close to Jimmy Gobble’s or Chris George’s profile for comfort. He had good command of three pitches, but his fastball rarely broke 90, and he didn’t have any sink on it. Only a funny thing happened when he returned – he started throwing harder than ever, consistently 92-93, touching 95. And even better, he maintained that velocity all season, and he still had it when he showed up in camp this spring. Best. Retirement. Ever.
And now, he’s in the major leagues, because as I write this, the Royals have announced that Danny Duffy will be starting at Kauffman Stadium tomorrow night. (Another fringe benefit of having The Best Farm System In The History Of Whatever: you can wash away the bad taste of a 19-1 drubbing with the flick of a pen.)
Is he ready? Well, he’s certainly not as ready as Hosmer was, but it’s hard to argue that he’s being rushed either. He walked three batters and struck out just two in his last start – but in the six starts before that, his worst strikeout-to-walk ratio came on April 21st, when he struck out five and walked two. Prior to his last start, his last three lines looked like this:
6 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 8 K, 0 HR
6 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 2 BB, 9 K, 1 HR
6 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 8 K, 1 HR
Let’s put it this way: if it weren’t for the service time concerns, no one would bat an eye about Duffy’s callup. There are going to be some bumps in the road, and Duffy is an extreme flyball pitcher who’s going to give up his share of homers (although Kauffman Stadium will help with that.) But is he better than the alternatives? Absolutely. No one would be surprised if he winds up being the Royals’ best starter the rest of the season.
But the service time concerns are there – if you assume that Duffy is going to turn into an above-average starting pitcher, this might cost the team $5 million in additional payroll over the next six years. As recently as last week, I was arguing that having called up Hosmer, the Royals needed to hold the fort for another month, because no one else in Omaha had proven without a doubt that they were ready for the majors.
I’m deeply ambivalent about the Duffy call-up, because as I said at the start of this piece – which I wrote when a call-up looked remote – the odds are slim that calling up Duffy now will make the difference between the playoffs and the couch in October. On the other hand, if you listened to last week’s podcast, when Joe and I talked about the callups of Hosmer and Julio Teheran and other top prospects around the majors, Joe made the point that with starting pitchers, there’s only so many bullets in their arm, so you might as well call them up when they’re ready. Many of you are familiar with the concept of TINSTAAPP (There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect), which Joe and Gary Huckabay popularized at Baseball Prospectus years ago. People have understood that expression to mean that even the best pitching prospects are so injury-prone that you can’t rely on any of them.
That’s part of what the expression means – but the other part is that when you do have an elite pitching prospect, a Mark Prior in the minors or Stephen Strasburg last May or whatnot, he’s not really a pitching prospect – he’s a major-league pitcher just biding his time in the minors. Pitchers, unlike hitters, can hit the ground running. And whereas most hitters improve until the age of 27 or so, the age curve for pitchers is quite variable. Some pitchers don’t hit their stride until their 30s, but far more pitchers peak in their early 20s – and many pitchers are as good at the age of 22 or 23 as they’ll ever be. If you hold those guys in the minors for too long, you run the risk of missing their peak entirely.
Danny Duffy is 22. He’s not an elite prospect, but he is a very, very good one, and he’s ready for the majors. If the Royals are going to continue to play for this year – and after last night, I’d understand if they weren’t – but if they are, they need Duffy in their rotation now. With Davies on the DL, and Mazzaro having been sent back to Omaha because the Royals don’t have an affiliate in Outer Mongolia, the Royals either start Duffy or they call up Jeff Suppan. If they call up Suppan, you can go ahead and plan that vacation to Europe in October. The path to the playoffs is a treacherous one, but the only person who can navigate it right now is Duffy. I know the Royals would rather have waited a month to call him up. But I don’t blame them for doing what they had to do.
#8: Jake Odorizzi (37 IP, 28 H, 8 BB, 55 K, 1 HR, 2.45 ERA in High-A)
Jackpot. I felt from day one that Odorizzi was the most underrated part of the Greinke deal, and possibly the most valuable of the four players the Royals received in the deal. (The original trade rumor did not have Odorizzi in the deal, and I did not like the trade for the Royals at that point – Odorizzi’s inclusion rotated my thumb 180 degrees.) Odorizzi wasn’t a Top 25 prospect, but he had the stuff, projectability, and athleticism to say that, if everything went right in 2011, he’d be a Top 25 prospect by the end of the year.
So far, everything’s gone right. He’s made seven starts, and hit double digits in strikeouts three times. Prior to his last start, he had struck out over a man an inning in every start this season. He gave up a season-high three earned runs in 4.2 innings in his last start, striking out four while walking none.
The interesting thing is that this breakout has not been accompanied by an uptick in velocity – his fastball generally is in the 92-93 range, occasionally faster, which is where he was last year. The difference, though, is that he has much better command of his curveball and changeup. His fastball might preclude him from being a #1 starter in the majors – but a pitcher with a plus fastball and two plus off-speed pitches projects as a #2 starter at the very least. Oh, and he’s just 21 years old – there’s still a chance that he’ll add velocity over time. I expect him to be in Double-A soon; if everything goes according to plan he’ll start next season in Omaha, and this time next year we’ll be agitating for him to join the big-league rotation.
#9: Chris Dwyer (33 IP, 33 H, 19 BB, 26 K, 3 HR, 6.61 ERA in Double-A)
There was going to be a clunker somewhere. Dwyer was always the Ringo of the Fab Four lefties, on account of his lack of polish, and his command issues have been exposed this year. The good news is that I haven’t heard any rumblings that his stuff has gone downhill, only his ability to throw strikes have. He’s more of a two-pitch pitcher (fastball/curveball) than the other three lefties on this list, and my suspicions that he’d wind up in the bullpen are only growing. He still projects as an impact arm in some role.
If you evaluate these nine prospects in sum, you might be a little disappointed with them overall. If you re-ranked the Top 100 Prospects at the moment Hosmer was called up, Hosmer himself might have moved up as high as #3 – the only prospects in baseball clearly better than him were Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. But Moustakas and Myers wouldn’t be Top 10 guys – they’d probably be in the 20s. Montgomery would be unchanged, but Lamb would probably drop from #19 to #40 or so. Colon would move down, and Dwyer would be off the list entirely. On the other hand, Odorizzi and Duffy would both be comfortably in the Top 50, meaning the Royals would have 7 of the top 50 prospects in the game.
Farm systems are like players – great seasons are bound to regress. If a player hits .390 for a full major league season, you expect his average to drop the next season, because a .390 average is so rare that it can only occur when great ability is combined with great luck. Players don’t have breakout seasons and then get even better the next season, unless their name is Jose Bautista.
The Royals’ farm system in 2010 hit over .400. There was no way they could sustain that this year, and they haven’t. But they haven’t been exposed as a fluke or a mirage either. Notably, none of the team’s top pitching prospects have suffered an arm injury, which is generally the bane of any farm system loaded with pitching prospects.
Besides, a new season gives opportunities for other players to emerge. David Lough is batting .336/.367/.564 for Omaha and making those David DeJesus comparisons look realistic. Everett Teaford, who couldn’t even crack the Royals Top 30 Prospects according to Baseball America, has been fantastic in Omaha (27 IP, 16 H, 6 BB, 24 K, 3 HR), and got called up to replace Vinny Mazzaro last night. I’m not sure what his role will be – he could be the lefty specialist, a long man, or even be in the rotation – but he should be an asset however he’s used. (Teaford and Duffy will be the fifth and sixth pitchers to make their major league debut with the Royals this season. The Royals had just four pitchers debut in all of 2009 and 2010 combined.)
Clint Robinson continues to mash, and while no one believes in him, he’s been proving his doubters wrong for so long that he might be able to fetch some value on the trade market. Kelvin Herrera, a kid many of you have never heard of, was a starting pitcher who threw in the mid-90s and made it to full-season ball when he was 18, but assorted arm problems derailed him – he pitched in only nine games in 2009 and 2010 combined. The Royals finally decided to move him to the bullpen to keep him healthy, and he’s already rocketed through Wilmington and is pitching well in the Naturals’ bullpen. With his fastball and a great changeup, he’s sort of a better version of Leo Nunez.
Rey Navarro, who the Royals quietly acquired from the Diamondbacks for Carlos Rosa last year, is hitting .324/.376/.485 in Wilmington as a 21-year-old second baseman and is starting to get second looks from scouts. And potentially the biggest news is that Noel Arguelles, the $6.9 million Cuban bonus baby who missed all of last season with shoulder problems, is not only pitching but pitching well, with a 2.43 ERA in 7 starts for Wilmington.
I wouldn’t get too excited about Arguelles – whereas he was supposedly throwing 94 when the Royals signed him, after surgery his fastball is in the 88-90 range now. On the other hand, that velocity will play for a lefty, and he has shown shockingly good command for someone coming off surgery, particularly of his slow curve and his changeup. While he only has 23 strikeouts in 33 innings, he’s also walked just three batters all year. I hesitate to project what he’ll be because it’s so dependent on whether his velocity returns, but he ought to be something.
And finally, we’re just now starting to see the second wave of prospects make it to full season ball; as the weather finally warms up here in Chicagoland, the Royals are starting to send their elite teenage arms to Kane County. Yordano Ventura, who’s 19 years old, stands 5’11”, and throws 99, made his full-season debut on Sunday (he didn’t pitch well). Jason Adam, the Kansas City kid who has been getting rave reviews since he signed last summer, makes his pro debut tonight.
A season like 2010 for the Royals’ farm system could not be repeated, and it’s not. But the talent that projected to make the Royals a perennial contender by 2013 is still there, and if anything, the timetable is moved up. The Royals almost certainly won’t be the #1 farm system in the game, let alone in history, at the end of this season. For one thing, the Rays were already #2, and in one month they get to cash in on the greatest haul of draft picks in the history of the draft, in one of the strongest drafts anyone has ever seen.
But more importantly, the farm system is a victim of its own success, as it ought to be. Hosmer is not a minor leaguer anymore, neither is Duffy, and by the end of the year, Moustakas and Montgomery will probably have exhausted their rookie eligibility as well. That leaves Myers, Lamb, Colon, Odorizzi as the only elite prospects left from the start of the season. Throw in the #5 pick in the draft, and maybe Jason Adam and another elite arm or two, and it will still be a good farm system, a Top 10 farm system – but not one of the best in the game.
But that’s not the point, and it was never the point. The point is to do what the Royals are doing now, which is to get these guys to the majors. I said at the start of the year that we might see a prospect debut in the majors every few weeks this season. That timetable has accelerated slightly – the Royals had three debut on Opening Day, Louis Coleman a few weeks later, Hosmas was May 6th, and now Teaford and Duffy are here together. I suspect that this is the last of the debuts until we’re past the Super Two deadline, but if the Royals are all-in for this season, they’re all-in, and if Montgomery turns the corner in his next two starts, I wouldn’t rule out an early promotion for him. If the Royals finally accept that Chris Getz is never going to hit, you might even see Johnny Giavotella (.298/.355/.397 in Omaha) soon.
In all honesty, all this activity doesn’t change the fact that the Royals are facing long odds to make the postseason this year. They’re a .500 team, the Indians seem unbeatable, and the Tigers are getting hot. And yeah, one day the Royals might regret committing millions of dollars in future payroll in their quixotic attempt to make the postseason a year ahead of schedule.
But don’t let the Royals’ long odds this year distract from the more important point – which is that the Royals are much better set up to win the Central in 2012 than people thought even a few months ago. Their top eight prospects to start the season are all on course to be in the major leagues by mid-June of next year, and they’ll find a bullpen waiting for them. The Royals need to find a battery – they’re about one starting pitcher and one catcher short of having a complete team for the second half of next season. But right now, gun to my head, if I had to predict what team would win the AL Central next season – I’d pick the Royals. And I suspect I’m not the only one.
In the meantime, sit back and enjoy the show. Everett Teaford might debut tonight. Danny Duffy will debut tomorrow. And the iceberg extends deep.