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.