Thursday, March 31, 2011

Not A Prediction.

Just to be clear: I am not predicting any miracles for the Royals this season. I’ll save my playoff predictions for sometime down the road, maybe even next year. But you’d have to be crazy to predict that the Royals will win the AL Central in 2011. So I’m not predicting that. I’m predicting that they’ll go 69-93, and even that is overly optimistic for most people, to suggest that the Royals will have a better record than they had last season, after they traded their best position player and best pitcher in the off-season.

I’m not predicting that Luke Hochevar is going to prove his doubters wrong by giving the Royals 200 innings with an ERA in the mid-3s. I mean, sure, it could happen. Hochevar was the #1 overall pick in the draft for a reason. He has four good pitches, and has just lacked the confidence in his stuff to put batters away in the past. And last season, he quietly put up some good peripherals – he had more than twice as many strikeouts (76) as walks (37), and surrendered just 9 homers in 110 innings. After Ned Yost gave him a public vote of confidence on May 15th, Hochevar had a 4.05 ERA in his remaining 10 appearances. I wouldn’t predict that he will have a season out of the Derek Lowe Collection, but if he maintains his confidence and his health this season, he certainly could.

I also wouldn’t predict Kyle Davies to take a step forward. Davies is sort of an older version of Hochevar, with less time left to fulfill his potential – another guy whose stuff grades out as above-average, but for whatever reason has never converted his stuff into results. Davies’ wife just had their first child, and maybe that will refocus his priorities for the better – it certainly worked out for a lot of Royals last year. Davies is 27 this year, in his final year before free agency – the same age and situation another underachiever named Gil Meche was in when he started to turn his career around in 2006. It would be foolish to predict such a thing, but sure, it’s possible that Davies could lop a run off his 5.49 ERA this season, and give the Royals 32 league-average starts.

I also wouldn’t expect Bruce Chen to repeat the kind of season he had in 2010. Chen had a 4.17 ERA last season, even though he had a higher walk rate and a lower strikeout rate than he did in 2009, when his ERA was 5.78. So sure, Chen was awfully lucky last year. I don’t expect that luck to hold. I mean sure, it could, or it’s possible that he could throw a few more strikes this year or find the smoke and mirrors that crafty lefties often do in their mid-30s. I’m certainly not counting on Chen to give the Royals a steady stream of 6-inning, 3-run outings all season and give them a chance to win every time out. It could happen, though.

I also would not expect Jeff Francis to stay healthy and prove his shoulder and stuff are back to 100%, but it could happen. In 2006 and 2007, before his arm started to bark, Francis averaged 207 innings with a 4.19 ERA – pitching in Coors Field. The odds are against him coming close to those totals this season, of course. But if he does, he’ll be a more than adequate starting pitcher.

Maybe Vinny Mazzaro will figure out how to make his sinker sink in the major leagues. It didn’t sink last year, but he was only 23 years old, and he managed a 4.27 ERA anyway. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it to happen, mind you, but pitching coach Bob McClure has worked his magic before; maybe he’ll do so again.

And maybe it won’t matter if one or two of the Royals’ starting pitchers blow up, if some of the most-advanced pitchers in The Greatest Farm System In The History Of Whatever are ready to step in by June or July. Sure, it’s unlikely that they’ll make an immediate impact, but Mike Montgomery is starting the year in Triple-A, and Danny Duffy might join him shortly. John Lamb and Chris Dwyer are both just a half-dozen good starts in Double-A away from joining them. It’s possible that one or two of them could step into the rotation sometime around Flag Day and find immediate success, making 20 starts with an above-average ERA.

Just to pick a few southpaws at random, Cole Hamels did it for the Phillies in 2006, and Barry Zito did the same thing for Oakland in 2000. Hell, Zack Duke came up for the freaking Pirates in 2005 and fashioned a 1.81 ERA in 14 starts. Pitching prospects sometimes dominate the league their first time through, before word gets around on how to hit this guy. The odds are slim to none that the Royals make a rotation makeover at mid-season and storm down the stretch with five above-average starters. But the potential is certainly there.

The bullpen, despite its inexperience – three of the seven relievers on the Opening Day roster are making their major-league debuts, and Jeremy Jeffress has thrown just 10 innings in the majors – could be one of the best bullpens in baseball. I mean, Jeffress throws in the upper 90s with a big-breaking curveball, and if he throws strikes, look out. Aaron Crow has the stuff of a first-round pick as a starter, and working in relief his stuff should be even better. Tim Collins is 5 feet 5 inches of pure awesomeness. All three of those guys could strike out better than a man an inning this season, and they’re just setting up Robinson Tejeda and Joakim Soria. Batters have hit just .194 against Tejeda since he joined the Royals. Soria is the second-best closer in baseball, and is in waiting to inherit the crown from Mariano Rivera.

Even the mop-up guys like Kanekoa Texeira and Nate Adcock have talent, and the Royals have a couple of lefties, guys like Blaine Hardy and Everett Teaford, who could bolster the bullpen by mid-season. Maybe Duffy or Dwyer gets brought up to pitch relief and air out their fastballs into the mid-to-upper 90s. It’s doubtful that everything would go right, naturally. But the talent is here for this to be the deepest Royals bullpen we’ve ever seen.

Mind you, even if the pitching staff doesn’t live up to these lofty dreams, it might not matter if the offense goes nuts. If it does, leading that charge will probably be Alex Gordon. Gordon probably won’t be an All-Star caliber hitter this year, but he has more of a chance than most guys who hit .215/.315/.355 last season. It’s not just that Gordon crushed the ball in spring training, although he did – .343/.459/.729 are pretty damn good numbers, thin air in Arizona or not. Hitting in Arizona is nothing new for Gordon; two years ago he hit .320/.400/.653 in spring training. The difference is that, after a winter of relentlessly working on his swing with Kevin Seitzer, Gordon has a new approach at the plate. Even casual fans have remarked that his swing looks different. The talent has always been there; you don’t win College Player of the Year and Minor League Player of the Year honors in back-to-back years without it. If his new swing unlocks that talent, look out. I’m not saying it will happen, naturally. But it wouldn’t be a shock to anyone if he hit .280/.370/.520 this season.

Gordon’s wingman in Omaha much of last season, Kila Ka’aihue, could also have a breakout season. No one really knows what to expect from Ka’aihue. Maybe the doubters are right; he did hit just .252/.392/.433 in Omaha in 2009, and after he was called up last season, he hit just .167/.239/.274 in August. But maybe they’re wrong, and maybe his bat speed really can go from “slider” to “fastball” with the flick of his wrists. He did hit .314/.456/.628 in 2008, after all, and .319/.463/.598 in Omaha last season, and in Kansas City in September, after the nerves had worn off, he hit .261/.367/.511. That last slash line seems like a reasonable approximation of what he could do. If he does – granted, it’s a long-shot – but if he does, he’d be the best DH the Royals have had since, I dunno, Chili Davis?

In reality, the DH role will probably fall more on Billy Butler, and if Butler builds upon what he has done the last two seasons, the Royals could have a truly formidable middle of the lineup. Granted, I don’t think Butler is going to double his home run total from last season – while I think he’s going to hit for more power over time, I think it’s going to be a gradual process as he learns to elevate the ball. But it’s possible that, after hitting 96 doubles over the last two seasons, some of those two-baggers start clearing the fence, and Butler hits 30 homers to go along with his .310 average. If Butler starts hitting more balls in the air, he would presumably also cut back on his double-play grounders, and his walk rate might climb as pitchers become even more reluctant to pitch to him.

Admittedly, it’s unlikely to happen. But would you really be that surprised if either Gordon, or Ka’aihue, or Butler hit 30 home runs? Or if any of them walked 90 times? Only once in Royals history (in 1985, ahem) have two different Royals hit 30 homers in a season, and no Royal has drawn 90 walks since 1989. The odds that either of those things happen this year is small; the odds that they both do are infinitesimal. But it could happen.

Speaking of “infinitesimal”, we shouldn’t completely discount the chance that Jeff Francoeur finds his swing this season. Yes, yes, I know, to even suggest that Francoeur won’t be one of the worst everyday players in baseball is grounds to be brought in front of the Sabermetric Tribunal for an inquisition. But bear with me here. Francoeur is, still, just 27 years old (one month older than Gordon, and two months older than Ka’aihue.) From 2005 to 2007, when Francoeur was 21-23 years old, he hit .280/.319/.463 in the major leagues. Is it that unlikely that, at the age of 27 – the most common peak year for hitters – he might simply replicate his performance from his early 20s? Seitzer has spent almost as much time with Francoeur’s swing as he has with Gordon’s. Certainly, it’s a shot in the dark to hope that Francoeur gives the Royals a .280/.320/.460 line along with durability and good defense in right field. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility.

Somewhat lost in the shuffle this spring training has been the Royals’ new shortstop, Alcides Escobar, even though Escobar hit .364/.400/.636 this spring and even popped five homers in 55 at-bats. Escobar was acquired for his defense, as everyone agrees that he’s a plus shortstop with borderline Gold Glove potential. But it’s premature to dismiss him as simply a glove-only shortstop. Escobar hit .328 in Double-A in 2008, .298 in Triple-A in 2009, and finished the 2009 season by hitting .304 in 38 games for the Brewers. He also stole 80 bases combined in those two seasons. Yes, he hit just .235 last year, with just four homers and 14 doubles, and only 36 walks. There’s a reason the Brewers were willing to part with him, after all. But he’s only 24 years old, and the offensive upside is still there. I wouldn’t bet on him hitting .290 for the Royals this season to go along with his speed and defense, but if he does, he’ll be one of the better shortstops in the league.

I wouldn’t bet on Chris Getz hitting much of anything this year, but I don’t have to, because if he’s not hitting by June, he’ll get run over by the Mike Moustakas steamroller. Now, it’s not reasonable to expect a rookie – even a top prospect like Moustakas – to be an impact hitter in the majors right from the get-go. But it could certainly happen. Moustakas hit .322/.369/.630 in the minors last year, with 36 homers and 41 doubles in just 118 games. After struggling in his first month in Triple-A, he crushed the ball in August and finished with a .293/.314/.564 line in Omaha. Another two months in the minors will only help him polish his plate discipline and his approach against lefties a little. Four years ago, another hard-hitting, free-swinging third base prospect named Ryan Braun started the year in Triple-A, and after 34 games (and a .701 slugging average) debuted for Milwaukee in late May. Braun crushed the ball so much – he actually led the NL in slugging as a rookie – that he won Rookie of the Year honors despite playing in just 113 games. I’m not saying that Mike Moustakas will have that kind of impact. But he could.

When Moustakas arrives, Mike Aviles can slide over to second base, where he played most of last season. Aviles has only had two healthy seasons in the major leagues, but he hit over .300 in each season, with a little pop in his bat as well. He’s already 30 and you can’t expect him to get better; on the other hand, he came back early from Tommy John surgery last year, and his arm only reached full strength in September, a month in which he hit six of his eight homers and slugged .568. It’s a stretch to think that he’ll hit that well again, or even that he can duplicate his rookie line of .325/.354/.480. But stranger things have happened.

In center field, the Royals are starting the year with Melky Cabrera, who led the Cactus League with a .468 batting average. Cabrera was awful for the Braves last year, but he did hit .274/.336/.416 with 13 homers as the starting centerfielder for the World Champion Yankees in 2009. If he doesn’t approach that line, Lorenzo Cain is just a phone call away. That leaves only catcher, where…well…maybe Brayan Pena will be allowed to bat 400 times, or maybe Jason Kendall slugs .330 with a healthy shoulder. I admit, this might be the biggest leap of faith of them all.

Look, I’m not saying that the Royals are going to win the AL Central, not when Baseball Prospectus puts their odds of making the playoffs at around 1 in 250. I mean, sure, VCU just made it to the Final Four, even though their odds of doing so before March Madness started were somewhere between 1 in 800 (according to Nate Silver) and 1 in 3000 (according to Ken Pomeroy). But it's still a remote possibility, the kind of possibility that you can only dream about on Opening Day.

I’m not saying that the Royals are going to shock the world this season. I’m just saying it could happen. And, you know, it wouldn’t suck if it did.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


This is either one of the best things I’ve ever done, or one of the worst. Hopefully it’s not one of the worst. With enormous thanks to the incomparable Rich Banks, who turned my lyrics into magic, and with apologies to the Royals, Bowling For Soup, and anyone who appreciates fine music, I present to you…1985.

(Click to play. Lyrics, and links for the uninitiated, below.)

Ambres just let it fall
He never caught the ball
Just one out to go
Nineteen losses in a row

Our dreams went out the door
After 1994
Only had one good year
When our future seemed so clear

Affeldt was another Koufax
Berroa was gonna be a star
Lima Time could kick some ass
MacDougal threw really hard

Turns out 2003
Was an anomaly
Look at our crappy team
And it’s all been a bad dream

Since Hal McRae, and George Brett
Way before the sun set
There was Frank White, Balboni
No outfield throws nailed Ken Harvey

Fans of teams with big bucks
They tell us that our team sucks
But we’re still preoccupied…with 19, 19, 1985


We had a great rotation
Jackson and Leibrandt
Gubicza, Saberhagen, and even Buddy Black
We loved Dick Howser
Not a better manager
No one ever got a lead
Off Dan Quisenberry

Where’s our shortstop on David Letterman
And why’s our Opening Day starter Scott Elarton
Why is Zack Greinke in Milwaukee
Whatever happened to – Dane Iorg, Sundberg, and Don Denkinger

Hal McRae, and George Brett
Way before the sun set
There was Frank White, and Motley
And no one traded for Neifi

Fans of teams with big bucks
They tell us that our team sucks
We’ve had to swallow our pride…since 19, 19, 1985

We’re fed up
With last place
Why did Schuerholz leave for the Atlanta Braves (Atlanta Braves)
And why did Pena get a subpoena

Please make this stop, stop, stop

And bring back
McRae, and George Brett
Way before the sun set
There was Frank White, and Willie

Fans of teams with big bucks
They tell us that our team sucks
DeJesus didn’t break out in hives…in 1985

Hal McRae, and George Brett
Way before the sun set
There was Frank White, and Lonnie
And no Eduardo Villacis

Fans of teams with big bucks
They tell us that our team sucks
But we’re still preoccupied…with 19, 19, 1985

(All rights reserved, with one exception. Not only do I give the Royals permission to play this song at Kauffman Stadium, but if they do so during a game, I will pledge $100 to a charity of their choice. And if a player uses this as his walk-up music, I’ll donate $100 to a charity of his choice as well.)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Royals Roster Breakdown - The Hitters.

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.

Royals Roster Breakdown - The Pitchers.

(Mike Sweeney deserves his own tribute column at some point, but for now, in light of all the Hall of Fame discussion the last few weeks, let’s just say he’s a shoo-in.)

Opening Day is just four days away, and as much as we’d all just like to skip ahead to the five straight AL Central titles that we’ve all been promised, there’s still at least one more season of pain and suffering ahead. The final roster is coming into view, so lets it break it down.

Starting Rotation

There wasn’t supposed to be a whole lot of drama or unresolved questions regarding the rotation, and so far that storyline has played out. Luke Hochevar, as expected, has won the Opening Day job. As expected, he’ll be followed in the rotation by Jeff Francis, Kyle Davies, and Bruce Chen, as the Royals alternate right-handers and left-handers in the rotation order.

The one question going into spring training was whether Vinny Mazzaro or Sean O’Sullivan would win the fifth starter’s role. Italy defeated Ireland, as Mazzaro will be the fifth starter once the Royals need one on April 16 (he’ll be optioned to the minors and pitch in extended spring training until then), while O’Sullivan will work as a long reliever, at least until Mazzaro is added to the roster.

The Royals made the right decision, although really it shouldn’t have been much of a decision. O’Sullivan throws a few more strikes (a career average of 3.1 walks per nine innings, to Mazzaro’s 3.7 BB/9), but Mazzaro is a better pitcher in every other way. He strikes out a full man an inning more than O’Sullivan, and he gives up homers about 30% less often. Mazzaro at least brings the possibility of being a groundball pitcher – as I covered before, the results haven’t backed up his reputation yet – while O’Sullivan has a pronounced flyball lean. O’Sullivan is a year younger, but at a beefy 6’2”, 230, he’s already physically maxed out.

If they were hitters, their youth – O’Sullivan is 23, Mazzaro is 24 – would lead you to think that they still had a lot of development ahead. But pitchers are frequently as good as they’re going to be in their early 20s. If there is improvement ahead, it’s more likely to be in terms of improved command rather than improved stuff. Mazzaro has the better stuff, and has more to gain from improved command than O’Sullivan does. I don’t think he’s going to match his 4.27 ERA from last season, which was both fluky and unrepresentative of his performance (he gave up 12 unearned runs in just 122 innings). But I think he’s a viable fifth starter.

I still don’t see what it is in Mazzaro that convinced the Royals to part with David DeJesus. O’Sullivan, at least, came with Will Smith, a young lefty with terrific control and decent stuff – many scouts think Smith will be the better of the two in the long term. And O’Sullivan was acquired for Alberto Callaspo, who for whatever reason the Royals could not find much of a trade market for. But there were a lot of teams in on DeJesus, and Mazzaro seemed like a thin return, particularly since he came paired with Justin Marks, another left-handed pitcher who doesn’t project as well as Smith does. The fact that it took the Royals until mid-March to even decide that Mazzaro was worthy of the fifth spot in the rotation doesn’t speak well of their decision to trade for him.

I’ve said this before: someone needs to block all phone calls with a 510 area code from getting through to Kauffman Stadium.

A lot has been made of the fact that the Royals have one of the worst Opening Day rotation any team has had in years. I think the criticism is overstated, if for no other reason than it’s not the worst Opening Day rotation the Royals have fielded in recent years. Yes, Luke Hochevar has not earned an Opening Day assignment in any way, shape or form. But in 2006, the Royals started Scott Elarton on Opening Day. I knew Scott Elarton. I rooted for Scott Elarton. Luke Hochevar is no Scott Elarton.

It got worse. You know who started the second game of the season that year? Joe Mays. Mays had gone 6-10 with a 5.75 ERA with the Twins the year before, and somehow, the Royals thought he had something left in the tank. He didn’t; he had already won his last major league game. In his brief time with the Royals that year, Mays would start six times with a 10.27 ERA.  Their third starter was Jeremy Affeldt, who would make nine starts for the Royals that year before being permanently banished to the bullpen. Their fourth starter was Denny Bautista, who made eight starts that year before meeting the same fate. And when they finally needed a fifth starter in 2006, the Royals turned to Mark Redman – who made the All-Star Team. He also had a 5.71 ERA that year, and is included on any list of the worst All-Stars of all time.

At least in 2011, all five members of the starting rotation are credible major-league starters. None of them should be fronting a rotation, or starting on Opening Weekend at all. But while the Yankees are scrambling to figure out the back of their rotation, the Royals are already set with their fifth starter. The problem is that they have six of them.


Joakim Soria and Robinson Tejeda had spots locked up before Spring Training, which left five open spots. The Royals were clearly hoping that two of those spots would go to a left-handed pitcher, going so far as to give Danny Duffy a credible shot at earning a bullpen spot after just seven games in Double-A.

That hasn’t worked out. The Royals will probably start the season with just one left-handed reliever on the roster – they’re desperate enough for a second that they claimed Rule 5 pick Robert Fish off waivers from the Yankees. (Fish has plus-plus velocity according to the scouts; he also had an 8.93 ERA in Double-A last season according to the stats. As I write this, he was just returned to the Angels.)

Fortunately, that one left-hander is tiny Tim Collins, who rumor has it has already won a roster spot. Collins was the prize of the Kyle Farnsworth/Rick Ankiel trade last summer, and by himself made it a win for the Royals. Before spring training began, I said that Collins was the prospect I felt was most ready to break camp with the team. It’s not just that he’s ready, although he pretty clearly is – last season, in 71 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, he struck out 108 batters and had a 2.02 ERA. It’s also because the Royals should feel much more comfortable with starting his service time on March 31st than they would with their more-hyped prospects.

For someone like Mike Moustakas, even if he’s ready, it would be madness for a team with no realistic playoff hopes in 2011 to start with him on the roster. While everyone talks about the “Super-Two” deadline that usually comes in early June, the more important date is the one in mid-April, after which point a player can not be credited with a full year of service time. If Moustakas were to start in the majors on Opening Day, he would be a free agent after 2016. If the Royals wait even two weeks before bringing him up, they could keep his rights until 2017. Keeping him now would not only waste a season on a team going nowhere, but it would sacrifice a season of Moustakas in 2017, when he would be 28 – presumably at his peak – in exchange for a season when he’s 22 and still developing.

That’s not nearly the issue with Collins, simply because it’s rare for any reliever to be effective for more than three or four years. If Collins is still a prized free agent after the 2016 season, the Royals ought to be thankful for what they got. And again, whereas hitters generally improve until age 27 or so, a reliever like Collins is probably as good now as he’s ever going to be, so the Royals might as well see what they have now.

The added bonus of starting the season with Collins is that he gives the Royals a chance to give their fans a teaser of The Greatest Farm System In The History Of Whatever. “See that kid out there? He throws in the low 90s, has a power curveball a devastating changeup, and a deceptive motion. He struck out 13 batters per nine innings in the minors. Oh, and he’s 5-foot-7. You think he’s good, just wait until you see our 6-foot-5 guys.”

That leaves four open spots, all of whom are likely to go to right-handed pitchers. The options include:

- Jeremy Jeffress, who is sort of the right-handed equivalent of Collins – a trade acquisition with tremendous strikeout rates but iffy command. Jeffress has touched 100 all spring, but he’s still walking too many guys and has been prone to the big inning. Jeffress is not quite the finished product that Collins is – he averaged 5.5 walks per nine innings in the minors, while Collins averaged only 3.9. He’s also fairly new to relieving. I have a feeling he’ll be sent back to Omaha, and I have a feeling that it’s in his long-term best interests.

- Kanekoa Texeira, who is sort of the forgotten man of the Royals bullpen. He was a Rule 5 pick of the Mariners last year who actually pitched very well for Kansas City after he was claimed on waivers – until August, when he tried to pitch through some arm soreness with predictable results. He’s pitched very well this spring, and more importantly his velocity has ticked up into the low 90s with a healthy arm. He’s the least sexy option for the pen, so his odds of making the team depend more on the success or failure of the other relievers than his own.

- Nate Adcock, who was a surprise pick in the Rule 5 draft last December, and is even more surprisingly in excellent position to make the team. Like Texeira, there’s nothing sexy here – Adcock throws in the low 90s on a good day, but he has decent off-speed stuff and throws strikes. He’s acquitted himself well in spring training, but has only four strikeouts in 13 innings. I think he’ll make the team; I’m not nearly so certain that he’ll last the season.

- Louis Coleman, who after a long and distinguished career as a starter at LSU – he came back for his senior year – closed out the College World Series for the Tigers in 2009, and has been an outstanding reliever for the Royals’ minor league affiliates ever since. Last season, split between Double-A and Triple-A, Coleman threw 92 innings, allowed 62 hits and 25 walks, and struck out 103. In 7.2 spring training innings, he’s whiffed 12 batters. He throws from a low three-quarters angle and will always be vulnerable to left-handed hitters, but he should make for an excellent situational reliever. However, he’s not on the 40-man roster, and the need to potentially waive a player – even a relative non-prospect like Kevin Pucetas – to add him to the roster might be the tiebreaker that keeps him in Omaha to start the season.

- Luis Mendoza, who apparently looks like a new man this spring. I’m sorry, but I’ve heard this song before. Last season, you might recall – I won’t blame you if you don’t – the Royals acquired Mendoza on the eve of the season from the Rangers, for a player to be named later known as “cash”. Thought they had something on their hands, I suppose. What they had was a guy who gave up 10 runs in four innings, doing his part for a bullpen that was on a historically bad pace in April. Mendoza went to Omaha and pitched okay as a starter, but struck out just 59 batters in 132 innings.

So sorry, but I ain’t buying it. If Mendoza wants to prove he’s a new pitcher, he can go back to Omaha and wait his turn. Fortunately the tea leaves suggest the Royals will do just that, in part because Mendoza, like Coleman, is not on the roster.

- And finally, there is Aaron Crow, who was not expected to be in this discussion for a number of reasons. For one, he’s not supposed to be a reliever. For two, he got his ass handed to him in Double-A and even A-ball last year. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to see my pitchers get their ERAs under 5.50 in the minors before I bring them up to the majors.

What’s weird to me is that a lot of people – people whose opinion I respect – seem to like this move. The dichotomy in opinions stems from the fact that a lot of people think Crow’s future was in the bullpen anyway. There’s no doubt that, while the results weren’t there last season, his stuff was – Crow still threw in the mid-90s with a knockout slider, he simply didn’t throw enough strikes to set up his breaking ball. And in relief, presumably his fastball would be a little faster, his slider a little sharper, and he might well find immediate success in that role, even in the major leagues.

If Crow does make the roster – and rumors are swirling that he has made the team – it still won’t sit right with me. The guy was the Royals’ #1 pick in the 2009 draft, #14 overall, and he was supposed to be the quick-to-the-majors right-handed starter the Royals were lacking. Maybe his future is in the pen, but I think it’s premature to consign a former #1 pick to relief after just one season in pro ball. If he struggles again this season, you can move him – even after just a few months if it’s clear he isn’t making any progress as a starting pitcher. I just think it’s foolish to give up on a potential above-average starting pitcher this soon.

And even if his future is in relief, and I know some scouts think he has upside as a major-league closer, why on earth wouldn’t you let him find some success in that role in the minors first? Everything I wrote about Moustakas above applies here – the Royals are going nowhere, so what’s the rush?

Maybe I’m reading too much into things. Maybe the Royals plan on starting Crow out in the bullpen, and after he finds success in that role they might stretch him out as a starter again. (You know, like the Rangers are doing with Neftali Feliz. No, wait…) But the Royals are hurting Crow’s future value in two ways – they’re moving him to the bullpen, perhaps permanently, and they’re rushing him to the majors Allard Baird-style. Maybe Crow has pitched so well this spring that they’re certain he’s ready for the majors – but the better he’s pitched, the more that’s at stake with his future.

As a side note, why on earth are the Royals going with eight relievers in the first place? I realize that the major-league standard now is that teams carry 12 pitchers, because they think they need a seventh reliever more than a fifth bench player. But if the Royals don’t need a fifth starter for the first two weeks of the season, why the hell would you give that roster spot to another pitcher instead of to a hitter on your bench? The reason you don’t need a fifth starter is because there are three off-days in the first two weeks of the season. Guess what? Relievers get to rest on off-days too. If you can construct a scenario in which the Royals would need eight relievers, that doesn’t involve a 20-inning game, I’d love to hear it. Send O'Sullivan down to the minors - you're probably going to do that anyway in two weeks - and keep an extra bat off the bench, someone that can pinch-hit for Chris Getz or Alcides Escobar in a tight spot.

As I write this, it looks like the Royals will break camp with Soria closing, Tejada and Collins setting up, Crow, Texeira, and Adcock in the middle innings, O’Sullivan in long relief, and either Jeffress or Coleman as the eighth pitcher on the roster. (I have a feeling Coleman will beat out Jeffress, but it’s only a feeling.) Texeira and Adcock are strike-throwers who don’t do anything special, but the other five pitchers all have the ability to be dominant relievers out of the pen. I fully expect the bullpen to be one of the strengths of the team.

Moreover, if Aaron Crow takes to relieving as well as some people expect him to, and if Jeffress irons out his control problems in relief, come 2012 the Royals could have one of the best bullpens in their history, and one of the best in baseball. Soria is Soria. Tejada, when his mechanics aren’t out of whack, is dominant. Collins has video-game numbers to go with an utterly unique set of skills. Coleman has been successful at every stop. The Royals are one more left-handed reliever away from shortening games to six innings. And God knows they have a lot of left-handed options to sort through this season.

Tomorrow, look for my breakdown of the offense. And Tuesday, well, I may have something special planned that day.