Friday, September 2, 2011

Mea Culpa.


Two years ago, this blog went on hiatus for a time. The Royals were terrible, their beloved Process was opaque, they had become increasingly defensive of anyone who criticized it or them, and rooting for the organization had ceased to be enjoyable. So I took my ball and went home, at least for a while.

Today, as many of you have noticed, I am once again blogging quite infrequently. Some of that has nothing to do with the Royals – I have family, a career, we just completed the month of Ramadan, and along with my weekly podcast I also now write for Grantland. But my lack of production these last few weeks can also be blamed on the team.

Only this time, the reasons are completely different. The Royals’ record may be terrible, but their record is not reflective of the way they are playing*. The Process is no longer opaque – it’s actually pretty clear: patiently build a fantastic farm system, and then wind it up and let it go. I can’t speak to whether the organization is defensive of its critics or not, because it’s increasingly difficult to find critics – certainly there are critics of specific players and specific decisions, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who is genuinely critical of the team’s overall direction.

*: The Royals are 57-81, but they’ve been outscored by just 58 runs all season. Only the Astros have lost more games, but seven teams have been outscored by more runs.

And rooting for the Royals is as fun as it’s been since at least 2003. The 2003 season was a different kind of fun – it was the fun that comes from knowing that the law of averages were going to catch up to you, but rooting for them to hold off until the end of the season. This year’s fun comes from watching young players get acclimated to the majors, knowing that whether the Royals win or lose, the important thing is that the best is yet to come.

And precisely because it’s fun to watch the Royals play, day after day…I find I don’t have much to say.

Eleven players have made their major-league debuts for the Royals this season, roughly one every other week. Here, let’s line them up chronologically:

March 31: Aaron Crow
March 31: Nate Adcock
March 31: Tim Collins
April 21: Louis Coleman
May 6: Eric Hosmer
May 17: Everett Teaford
May 18: Danny Duffy
June 10: Mike Moustakas
August 3: Manny Pina
August 5: Johnny Giavotella
August 10: Salvador Perez

It’s not just the quantity of prospects – no other team has had as many players debut this season – but the quality. Pina is a backup catcher, and Teaford is a lefty specialist (although even Teaford has some upside). Adcock is a swingman. Collins, Coleman, and Crow are quality relievers, and Crow at least has some starter possibilities.

But that leaves the Royals with five potential impact players – a starting pitcher in Danny Duffy and four everyday hitters, including a second baseman, a third baseman, and a catcher.

The process of slowly replacing a roster of placeholders with long-term fixtures was happening at a deliberate schedule until four weeks ago, when the Royals decided to accelerate the process. Johnny Giavotella’s callup was not unexpected – he was clearly ready for the major leagues, having hit .338/.390/.481 in Omaha. (Although the common perception that the Royals left him in the minors too long is not entirely fair. Giavotella was hitting just .285 with two homers at the end of May, and then hit .398/.431/.610 in June and .383/.430/.570 in July. He probably could have been called up a month earlier, but that’s a far cry from saying he was ready back in May.)

But the callup of Salvador Perez signaled a change in the Royals’ approach. Perez was the first player the Royals called up this season who you could reasonably argue had been rushed. For one thing, he was barely 21 when he was called up – he’s six months younger than Hosmer and three years younger than Giavotella.

For another, he had played a grand total of 91 games in the high minors. Giavotella had 134 games in Double-A and another 110 in Triple-A before his recall; Moustakas had 173 games between the two levels. Hosmer, amazingly enough, had just 76 games above A-ball when he was recalled – but in those 76 games he had hit .355 with 16 homers, along with his obscene performance in the Texas League playoffs last year. Perez had hit .290/.331/.437 in the minor leagues this year, a respectable performance but certainly not one that forced the Royals’ hand. In 12 games in Triple-A, he had hit .333, but had not drawn a single walk. He wasn’t ready for the majors, but the Royals made the decision that he could continue his development with the big club.

And in calling him and Giavotella up in the same week, the Royals closed the links in the Royals’ lineup chain. On August 10th, the night of Perez’s debut in Tampa Bay, the Royals featured their new lineup. You know the one – it’s pretty much the same one Ned Yost has been using for the last three weeks – but for posterity’s sake, here it is:

LF: Alex Gordon, 27
CF: Melky Cabrera, 26
DH: Billy Butler, 25
1B: Eric Hosmer, 21
RF: Jeff Francoeur, 27
2B: Johnny Giavotella, 24
C: Salvador Perez, 21
3B: Mike Moustakas, 22
SS: Alcides Escobar, 24

Melky Cabrera would turn 27 the next day, but at least for this one day, the average age of the Royals’ lineup was just a tick over 24 years old. Felipe Paulino, a young veteran at just 27 himself, was the starting pitcher – four nights later, that same lineup took the field in defense of 22-year-old Danny Duffy.

A superficial examination of the farm system would lead you to conclude that it’s been a disappointing year for the team. Christian Colon already looks like a mistake selection with the #4 overall pick last year. Wil Myers has been a big disappointment. Aside from Duffy, the other three top left-handed prospects – Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, and Chris Dwyer – have all been either ineffective or hurt. That’s five of Baseball America’s top eight prospects before the season.

If you divorce the farm system from the organization as a whole, it has been a disappointing year – a year after being named the best farm system in a generation, the Royals may not rank in the top five in all of baseball. But the whole point of having prospects is to turn them into major leaguers. And when you account for the major leagues, I think it’s actually been a better year than expected for the organization.

First off, there are the prospects who have graduated from the minor leagues. Remember, six months ago the general expectation was that Hosmer would spend most of the season in the minor leagues – and possibly qualify as a prospect once again. Obviously, he does not. After hitting three homers in the Tigers series and reaching base five times on Thursday, Hosmer’s line for the season is .283/.335/.452. As a rookie, Will Clark hit .287/.343/.444. That comparison just gets spookier and spookier.

Mike Moustakas has followed his prescribed timeline – he debuted, as expected, in early June. Apparently his name is Greek for “Dan Uggla”, because after batting .182/.237/.227 in his first 53 games, and inspiring this column – he’s now working on a 15-game hitting streak, which ties the mark for the longest hitting streak in history by a Royals rookie. He’s still in the deep woods, but at least he can see the way out now.

Giavotella and Perez, on the other hand, have both elevated their prospect standing dramatically in the last five months. Giavotella was the #18 prospect in the system according to Baseball America – while he hit .322 last season, he stands 5’8” and his defensive reputation wasn’t very good, and there were some doubts he could hit that well again. Instead, he hit even better, and while his defense is erratic, he’s complemented every mistake with a web gem. Giavotella’s performance this year has completely negated the impact of Colon’s failure to develop.

Perez was Baseball America’s #17 prospect – a young catcher with elite defensive skills but whose .290/.322/.411 line in Wilmington last year made his bat a question mark. I thought he was underrated, because the difficulty of hitting in Wilmington is always understated – most Royals prospects actually improve their numbers when moving from A-ball to Double-A. Perez’s numbers in the minors this season were eerily similar – he hit exactly .290, but with a smidge more power – and he remained a beast behind the plate, throwing out 46% of basestealers.

If anything, he’s elevated his status even more since being called up to the majors – he’s hitting .279/.315/.426, with a respectable strikeout-to-walk ratio of 10-4, and hit an absolute bomb for his first home run on Monday. If he’s been rushed, he’s hiding it well.

It’s important to remember this when the off-season organizational rankings are released this winter: if the Royals had kept Giavotella and Perez in the minors for just another two or three weeks, both of them would probably have kept their rookie eligibility for next year, which means they would both be counted as part of the Royals’ farm system. Instead, they’ll probably both pass the 130 at-bat limit. This may cause the Royals’ minor league ranking to suffer a little, but it means absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things – it’s just a semantic distinction. Whether Giavotella or Perez count as “prospects” or not is a PR issue; it’s not a baseball one.

Then there are the lesser prospects who have established themselves in the bullpen, all of whom have at least lived up to expectations, if not exceeded them. Aaron Crow (#9 on Baseball America’s list) was an All-Star, and we’ll just ignore what he’s done since. Tim Collins (#13) needs to throw more strikes, but doesn’t need to miss a lot more bats. Louis Coleman (#19) has been terrific for most of the season. And Greg Holland, who didn’t even make the Royals’ Top 30 Prospects, has been the best rookie reliever in the American League.

And then there are the young but established hitters in the lineup. Billy Butler is Billy Butler, more or less, and Alcides Escobar is doing roughly what should have been expected of him, hitting an empty .250 but playing excellent defense.

As for Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur, well, you know the story there, and you know that there are still doubts they can keep hitting the way they can. So let’s just focus on Alex Gordon. In 2005, Gordon was the best college player in America. In 2006, he was the best player in the minor leagues. In 2011, he’s hitting .304/.377/.502. If that’s all you knew about Alex Gordon, you’d have to conclude that his career has played out as expected.

And, of course, you’d be completely wrong. Alex Gordon hit .215/.315/.355 last year. The year before, he hit .232/.324/.378. I know this, and you know this – and yet I don’t think you really know this, because I don’t think I really knew it either. Gordon has been such a consistently excellent player from the first (well, second) day of the season, and we all were so confident that he was capable of this kind of performance, that I think we may have forgotten just how close we came to never seeing this performance in a Royals uniform. A huge portion of the fanbase had written him off, and there was legitimate concern that the front office had as well.

Instead, he’s been absolutely fantastic. According to baseball-reference.com, Gordon has been worth 5.3 Wins Above Replacement this year, the best season by any Royals hitter since 2003 (and aside from Zack Greinke’s 2009, the best by any Royals player period.) And there’s still a month left in the season.

So when taking stock of, say, Wil Myers’ disappointing season in Double-A, it’s best to keep some perspective. Would the Royals be better off if Myers were raking like he did last year, but with Gordon limping to the end of another disappointing season? Of course not. While Myers has failed to meet expectations, he’s still just 20 years old. By 2013 he might be ready to join the Royals’ lineup as an above-average rightfielder – only now the Royals project to have an even better player in the other corner.

In calling up Giavotella and Perez, and signing Francoeur to a two-year extension, the Royals have accomplished something extraordinary: the lineup that took the field on August 10th, 2011 is likely to be the same lineup the Royals use for all of 2012. While I may have disagreed with the particulars of the Francoeur deal, I also believe that he is a fundamentally better player than he used to be, and is capable of being at least an average rightfielder for the life of the contract. (And he has hit .305/.328/.475 since re-upping.) I’m not a fan of Cabrera’s defense, but I’m a big fan of a .303/.337/.474 performance out of my centerfielder.

In almost every Royals game of the last 25 years, there has been at least one player in their lineup that didn’t deserve to be there – someone who was washed up, someone who was still productive but was too old to be a part of the next good Royals team, someone who had youth to dream on but not the talent to take advantage of it, or someone who was never that good in the first place. Whether it was David Howard or Jose Lind, Chuck Knoblauch or Neifi Perez, Terrence Long or Doug Mientkiewicz, Mike Jacobs or Jose Guillen – there was always someone in the lineup who it was difficult to root for. There was always someone in the lineup who deep in your subconscious you wanted to fail, because the more they failed, the quicker the Royals would give up on them and move on to someone who might be a part of a brighter future.

Today, for one of the few times in my history as a Royals fan, EVERYONE in the Royals’ lineup is a part of their future. I want to watch EVERYONE who comes to the plate. There are no bathroom breaks in the lineup anymore. I don’t care what the Royals’ record is – that alone makes this season a success of sorts.

For the season, the average age of the Royals’ hitters – weighted for playing time – is 26.1 years old. That is by far the youngest offense the Royals have had in the last 40 years. The 1969 expansion Royals averaged 25.8 years of age. The 1970 Royals were 26.4 years old. Every other Royals offense averaged at least 27.0 years old. And it’s already a good offense. The team ranks 6th in the American League in runs scored.

And…I’m having difficulty coming up with things to say. At least when it comes to the offense, what’s there to argue about? I’ve already said my piece about Francoeur, so going into next season, what other decisions need to be made? The Royals need to decide between Cabrera and Lorenzo Cain in centerfield. They need to decide whether Brayan Pena works as their backup catcher – I think he does, but I respect that my opinion is in the minority. They need to settle on their bench. They absolutely need to get Gordon signed to a long-term deal - and both sides expect that to get done this winter. And that’s it.

That doesn’t preclude them from entertaining bold ideas like trading Billy Butler for pitching or trying to sell high on Moustakas. But those ideas are luxuries; they’re not necessities. When it comes to the offense, standing pat is a completely viable option for the Royals this winter.

And that, in turn, relieves the pressure on the hitters in the farm system. Essentially, every hitter in the minor leagues gets a mulligan for next season, because barring injury, none of them will have their services required any time soon. Last year, all the fun we had as Royals fans was vicarious, as we perused minor league box scores and read scouting reports. Now, the fun is on TV every single day.

That doesn’t absolve the organization of the ongoing problems they have with the pitching staff, which merits its own column. And there is a cautionary tale from the organization’s past that must be dealt with as well. But if you’ll permit me to navel-gaze this one time, I just wanted to explain my reason for not writing about the Royals of late: I’ve been too busy rooting them on. This isn’t a lineup I want to analyze. It’s a lineup I want to experience.

23 comments:

McGoldencrown said...

Its a shame Rany that you only deem it worthy of commentary when there is something to be critical about. Dont be a Limbaugh.....that said, I gotta blow off steam that has been building for awhile. Dan Duffy stinks. His pitches stink. His location stinks. His approach stinks. I am positive someone will counter this opinion with some crap about how he is young, and has flashes. I aint buying it anymore. He gets lit up like a Vegas Xmas tree ALL the time now. The reason his control stinks is he is afraid to chuck it anywhere close to the plate because when he does, he gets tattooed. If youre one of the many who have been just penciling him in as the #3 guy in our long term future rotation, you need to rethink that bigtime. Chris George was a solid prospect too. So was James Gobble.

kcghost said...

For the first time in ages you out at the Royals position players and at everyone you see a player you believe belongs in the majors. And all but two of them are of an age where you expect them to improve.

The bullpen is also young and should improve.

The starting pitching is terrible and , unfortunately, nothing is happening on the farm that looks like that might change soon.

The disappointing years of Monty, Dwyer, Lamb (injury), and Myers are real downers.

Too soon to panic on Duffy. He's 22 and in first go around. We suffered through Kyle Davies for an eternity. We can give Duffy another year.

Tyree Studio said...

Oh for some pitching to go with this "no bathroom break" lineup.

Collin said...

@McGoldencrown - I think you're flat out wrong. Duffy has been lit up a lot but he's also got 83 strikeouts in 99 inning pitched. That's not a dominate number but it's certainly good enough to hang some hope on. If he lower his walk rate he could be pretty decent.

Nobody will argue that he's a good pitcher right now but I think most people see some of the underlying numbers and think he could be a decent pitcher.

Collin said...

How can the Royals "sell high on Moustakas" this offseason? Wouldn't they be selling low? Also why would they want to trade him away? Who else do they have to play 3B?

I, too, am debating what to do about Cain and Melky. I want to sell high on Melky and give Cain a chance but I fear losing his offensive production next year.

I think the Royals will hang on to Melky and if he falters or goes back to Atlanta Braves Melky they'll release him and call up Cain. I feel bad for the guy b/c he's obviously talented and deserves a chance but a (possibly) flukey season by Melky kinda set up a road block.

Mayo said...

One difference this year is that true "prospects" or perceived legitimate major league talent are being blocked by guys that deserve to be on the major league roster. LoCain probably deserves a shot, but how do you take Melky's performance out of the lineup? Clint Robinson may deserve a shot, but Hosmer is a future all-star and gold glove winner. Lough probably gets a chance on most past Royals' teams, but our outfield is fairly young and all performing at a pretty high level offensively and defensively and Maier is a solid 4th outfielder. A "pooling" of talented players at the Triple A level is a great problem to have because it shows depth in your organization and that you are developing players appropriately.

Fast Eddie said...

They might move Maier and use Cain as the 4th OF in 2012. Could have a six man rotation among 5 positions (all OF, DH, 1B) but Dyson might also be in the mix. The question is do you think you can win in 2012? If so, you might trade someone for a starting pitcher, and Cabrera probably has the most trade value (compared to Cain. Francoeur, or Butler).

Joel said...

As a long, long suffering Royals fan, I agree with Rany's enthusiastic outlook for this offense. This is a very legit MLB offense. Yesterday, watching the game on the MLB Network with Tigers' announcers was awesome. The were saying, basically, that they couldn't wait for the Royals to get out of town. Our hitters were killing them.

If only we can finde a couple of starting pitchers. This may be GMDM's most important off-season yet.

Sabby said...

I'm a Jays fan, and I was very surprised at the quality of the Royals' offence when the teams played recently. Perhaps it was just the Jays' often-crappy pitching, but I found myself thinking how good the lineup looked and how few holes there were. Given the current state of the AL Central, and assuming that the young guys continue to develop (a large assumption), the Royals really could contend next year. Next I started thinking about the Jays' own young bats (Lawrie, Rasmus, Escobar, etc.), remembered that we are stuck in the AL East, and had a glass of whiskey.

Michael said...

I too am very excited by this young Royals lineup. They are a good offense now, and being young, you should expect them to improve overall next season.

But, the elephant in the room is the starting rotation. AT LEAST 2, maybe 3, of the current starters need to be upgraded.

Luke Hochevar can stay, if he's only asked to be a 4th or 5th starter. Paulino will hopefully be at least the 2nd (preferably 3rd) best pitcher in our rotation next season. Duffy should be given another shot. I love Bruce Chen, and he's done nothing but pitch decently, but he's not part of the future of this team. He needs to go.

So, what we need to do this offseason is either trade for (most likely) or sign as a free agent (yeah right) a quality starting pitcher. Someone who is better than Felipe Paulino. No knock on Paulino, but if he's your ace, you are in trouble. I think putting Aaron Crow in the rotation would be a great move as well. So, in my fantasy world, our rotation would be....

(New Guy)
Felipe Paulino
Aaron Crow
Luke Hochevar
Danny Duffy

But, if we decided to upgrade over Hochevar, I wouldn't be opposed to that either. I still think he's got something in him and will be at least a serviceable #3 starter sometime soon. I admit I could be wrong.

So, who might we trade for that would be young and under team control for a few years? (As Dayton has said he'd like to do) Here's my list...

Clay Buckholz, Red Sox (long shot)
Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays
Rick Porcello, Max Scherzer, Tigers (don't see them trading within division)
Vance Worley, Phillies
Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy, Jair Jurrgens, Braves
Johnathan Niese, Mets
Jordan Zimmerman, Nationals
Pick a Reds Pitcher (except Arroyo)
Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Diamondbacks
Madison Bumgarner, Giants
Chad Billingsley, Dodgers (expensive)
Mat Latos, Padres


Obviously, some would be easier to get than others, and a lot of those teams won't match up well with us trade-wise. But that's my personal list of pitchers to at least kick the tires on.

Jayboid said...

I would love to know the figures on fans hitting the box score button on MLB. I check it every day, just to see the stats. Been a long long long time since I did this.

Danny said...

Remember that guy who kept calling you a "turncoat?" After he read this, his head exploded. Possibly twice.

Antonio. said...

"Turncoat" was the nicest of things he had to contribute.

RickMcKC said...

Rany, Couldn't agree more. Other than some of the pitching issues, it's a thing of beauty to watch it come together. I've been telling my wife for years, "next year we're going to be really good." Now, I actually believe it.

Go Royals!

Jacob said...

Fixing the SP is a huge task. The Royals probably cannot afford an elite FA, and there are not any available this offseason anyway. And trading for a good SP will cost a lot in prospects. I think most of the SP solutions will have to come from within. And who knows if that will happen. TINSTAAPP.

Also, I agree with Rany that there is no reason to be concerned with about the prospects. Most prospects fail, especially pitching prospects. It is only reasonable to assume that most of these guys are going to wash out. Keep drafting a ton of talented guys and it will work itself out.

Jayboid said...

BTW Rany, perhaps I missed it, but are you gloating over actually changing a part of the Royals organization?

Changing it a positive way as well. In fact changing it so well, I was hoping for a little Cain visit perhaps in place of an hammie pull, or quad dealie outfielder on the 15 day I.R.

Not happening this season it looks like. Very unscientific but doesn’t it seem we have a very healthy ball club? If we could keep Pena away from the buffet table, I would grade our training staff A+.

Of course I’m pecking away at how you ripped the organization for having a sub par training staff. Ripped with careful research I may add. Then without even a free beer or peanuts for the Rany took your complaints and went “Trump” on the old staff.

Seems like they went first class in the replacement training staff.

On the other hand, maybe not having players on the down side of their careers having in season knee and shoulder surgical cleanups for retirement golf helps too.

ESchultz70 said...

Great column, Rany, and couldn't agree more.

I'm a transplant, and so a "short timer" as far as a Royals fan goes. Having said that, I follow them now, the family watches almost every night this season, and just bought my first Royals jersey. That is a testament to how much fun they have been to watch this season, despite the W/L record.

While the job is never simple, I am sure, the focus of the job for GMDM in this off season is crystal clear. Focus on the rotation, there should be no division of attention. The offense is, at worst, adequate and has a chance to be very good. The bullpen shows promise and, despite their erratic performance of late (probably due to the rookies running low on fuel), has earned another year to show their wares. If we can find a way to improve the ERA of the rotation by as little as half a run (baby steps, folks), we might stand a chance of playing some meaningful games into September next year.

Kyle said...

Great article! I wouldn't count the farm system out just yet. Moore did a Great job reloading the system this summer between the draft and international FA. When you lose 8 of your top 15 you think you drop, but not these guys. They added bubba starling, elier Hernandez, aldeberto mondesi, 3-4 pitchers for the top 20. And even though some top prospects had down years, several other prospects stepped up. Cheslor cuthbert, will smith, just marks, Noel arguelles, to name a few. This is still a top 3-4 system.

Kyle said...

Great article! I wouldn't count the farm system out just yet. Moore did a Great job reloading the system this summer between the draft and international FA. When you lose 8 of your top 15 you think you drop, but not these guys. They added bubba starling, elier Hernandez, aldeberto mondesi, 3-4 pitchers for the top 20. And even though some top prospects had down years, several other prospects stepped up. Cheslor cuthbert, will smith, just marks, Noel arguelles, to name a few. This is still a top 3-4 system.

Kyle said...

I wouldn't say Duffy is a bust. He, along with all the rookies have had very bad strikezones from the umpires. Whether it's Duffy or Collins getting squeezed or hosmer getting an expanded zone. I think it's about time to take the human "error" element out of it and use pitch fx. When Duffy doesn't get the call on the black he has to get more plate and he gets hit. These are major leaguers and they don't need much to pound a ball.

Bring back Duffy, let Monty train his way with long toss, let marks and smith use their slider, and you will begin to see some great pitching. Lamb and Dwyer will have their stuff in AA and plenty of options will be available. Pauling and Hoch have been fairly solid, but still need an ACE.

Nathan said...

I wonder if there's objective evidence that the strike zone is biased against rookies? If that's true, it can't be accidental, and MLB should let the umps know their job is on the line. This isn't some college frat where you haze the freshmen.

Kyle said...

I was under the impression the league was using Pitch F/x to review umpires zones. If you watch a game closely, you will see several instances where the Royals pitchers get no love on pitches over the black. And where Royals hitters zones are larger than the plate. Normally the outside pitch is what screws the Royals.

The umpires have been entirely too inconsistent as a whole. But I think the Royals are getting the worst of it.

Tampa Mike said...

Well put. This has been a fun team to watch this year. I figure that Melky/Cain and Robinson at the very least will be traded in the off season for pitching.