Saturday, May 28, 2011

Royals Today: 5/28/11

Never a boring moment with this franchise, and yes, I know I say that a lot. Let’s catch up.

- I don’t know if he just gets bored while he’s on the job, but Dayton Moore can’t go more than a month or two without making a WTF? transaction. I’m not necessarily saying the moves are terrible, just that they seem to come out of left field, and a member of the roster who appeared to have rock-solid job security gets cashiered with no warning.

On Thursday night, the Royals made the decision to claim Felipe Paulino on waivers – more on him in a moment – and designate Robinson Tejeda for assignment. This was clearly a mistake on the Royals’ part – it’s just not clear whether the mistake was made now or over the off-season.

The Royals claimed Tejeda off of waivers in June of 2008, and he immediately settled in as a solid middle-innings option for the Royals, adding to the sentiment that the team had built their best bullpen in ages – behind the transcendent Joakim Soria, the Royals had Ramon Ramirez and Leo Nunez, and Ron Mahay was arguably the best left-handed set-up man in baseball at the end of July before his arm started to hurt.

But in 2009, Ramirez and Nunez were gone and Mahay was ineffective, and Tejeda quickly established himself as the second-best reliever on the roster. He had a 4.07 ERA in the bullpen, and moved to the rotation for a September trial, he had a 2.84 ERA in six starts and allowed just 15 hits in 32 innings.

The Royals were so impressed by this that they moved him back to the bullpen last year. He again served as the bridge to Soria, although he was technically only the third-best reliever on the roster, thanks to Kyle Farnsworth’s unlikely resurgence. In three seasons with the Royals, Tejeda’s highest ERA was 3.54.

And now, after 7.1 innings pitched this season, he’s been waived.

If the Royals had so little faith in Tejeda that they were willing to cut him after just seven innings, why didn’t they trade him this off-season? Or just release him over the winter? They had enough faith in him to tender him a $1.55 million contract – and now they’re willing to eat that contract – the ninth-highest salary on the roster – after just seven innings?

Absolutely, Tejeda didn’t look like himself when the season started; his velocity was down about 5 mph from previous years, and he couldn’t strike anyone out. That’s not the mark of a pitcher who needs to be cut; that’s the mark of a pitcher who needs to be disabled. Tejeda was, and he got a cortisone shot in his arm, and he rehabbed back, and his velocity upon his return was better – not all the way back, but better. He had pitched all of two innings up on his return.

So on the basis of two innings’ worth of data from a healthy pitcher, the Royals decided to cut their second-best reliever from 2008 to 2010. I find this disturbing.

It’s not as if the Royals lacked for other options if they wanted Paulino that bad. They could have sent Blake Wood or Greg Holland back to Omaha; while both have their uses, it’s not clear that either one is going to be more effective going forward than even a diminished Tejeda. And while the 40-man roster is becoming increasingly crowded (more on this next week), they could have cut Jesse Chavez or Kevin Pucetas without raising an eyebrow.

Instead, they cut Tejeda, who even with his struggles this season leaves the Royals with a 3.57 ERA in 181 career innings. In Royals history, 84 pitches have thrown 180+ innings; only Soria has struck out more batters per nine innings (9.64) than Tejeda (9.23). And only Soria has allowed a lower opponents’ batting average (.202) than Tejeda (.203).

I’m sorry, but I don’t get it. The decision to cut Tejeda is so inexplicable that I wondered whether, like the decision to cut Juan Cruz last April, there were off-field issues that precipitated the move. But I’ve checked with sources, and this appears to be a purely baseball move. That doesn’t make it an astute one.

The Royals may well be thinking that if another team claims Tejeda, they’ll be able to save somewhere around $800,000, and if they don’t, than Tejeda would rather report to Omaha than forfeit the money himself. (I believe – but am not certain – that because Tejeda was DFA’ed instead of released, that he is not entitled to the rest of his salary if he opts out of his deal. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.) If that’s the case, then there may be some modest upside to the move.

But regardless, if the Royals aren’t making a mistake now – if Tejeda has simply lost it and his stuff isn’t coming back – then they definitely made a mistake in the off-season by not trading Tejeda for whatever they could get. Relievers are such unpredictable commodities – just look at Soria right now – that you’ll almost never go wrong by trading them when they’re at their peak.

Dayton Moore knows this – we know he knows this because he traded Ramirez and Nunez when he had the chance. The problem is that he traded Ramirez for Coco Crisp – a sensible trade which didn’t work out – and Nunez for Mike Jacobs – a trade that was a mistake from the moment he signed off on it. I don’t know if Moore got gun-shy after that, but regardless, he elected not to move Tejeda when his value was high and his salary was only starting to escalate, and now he’s going to get nothing for him.

I’ve heard from some people that, in Moore’s defense, before the season the Royals had no way of knowing that their bullpen would be so good that Tejeda would be expendable. To which I can only say, don’t they read their own press clippings? The Royals have built perhaps the deepest bullpen in their history*, and with the exception of Aaron Crow and maybe Blake Wood, are any of these guys pitching better than we expected over the winter?

*: In fairness, it’s easy to have the “deepest” bullpen in history when you’re carrying eight relievers. The last time the Royals were good, they typically carried five or six.

I mean, if anyone ought to know how good the Royals’ farm system was, it’s the Royals. If we all knew that with guys like Tim Collins and Louis Coleman and Jeremy Jeffress, that the bullpen was where the first wave of the farm system would wash ashore, shouldn’t the front office have known? And above all, we knew that with Soria already on hand, that the Royals already had the most important job in the bullpen locked up. One of the great fringe advantages of having an elite closer is simply that you’re not tempted to overpay for a proven commodity in that role. (Otherwise you end up doing dumb stuff like trading Johnny Damon to get Roberto Hernandez.) This winter, the Royals knew that they had a terrific stable of rookie relievers just about ready to go, and they knew that even if some of those guys struggled, that they’d be protected by one of the best closers in baseball.

But they kept Tejeda anyway. That’s a defensible decision if you actually believe in Tejeda – but given the way the Royals dropped him like a hot potato at the first opportunity, and given that the Royals refused to consider him for the rotation last year after he was lights out the previous September, you have to wonder how much faith they ever had in the guy. If they didn’t have faith in him, they should have traded him to someone who did.

We all assume that the Royals wouldn’t be dumb enough to turn down a fair offer for Wilson Betemit because they’re not sure if Mike Moustakas is ready, or to turn down an offer for Melky Cabrera because they’re afraid of entrusting center field to Lorenzo Cain. But essentially, that’s what the Royals did here. One of the added advantages of having an elite farm system is that it gives you the flexibility to trade your existing players when their value is at its apex. Or, you know, you can just cut them when their value is at its nadir.

- Then again, Dayton Moore traded David DeJesus when his value was presumably at its peak, and look how well that worked out.

Vinny Mazzaro threw six good innings for Omaha last night, allowing just one run, which is a good thing, because he’ll probably be pitching for Omaha for the foreseeable future. When you fashion the worst relief appearance in major-league history and get demoted to the minors before the beat reporters even have a chance to finish their stories, you’re probably not coming back any time soon.

When the Royals made the trade, I was critical of it, but in all honesty, I wasn’t critical enough. Maybe I was blinded by all the successes of the farm system last season, but I assumed that the Royals had to know something about Mazzaro that we didn’t – that they had reason to believe the best was yet to come. I mean, they wouldn’t have traded DeJesus for a pitcher with a 4.72 ERA and a terrible strikeout-to-walk ratio unless they thought he was going to get better, would they?

Apparently they would. Forget the numbers; I have yet to talk to a scout who thought that Mazzaro would ever be more than a #4 starter in the majors, and the consensus opinion was that he was a #5/fringe starter/Four-A pitcher. You don’t trade your best position player, even one with only a year left on his contract, for that. (Yes, the Royals also got Justin Marks in the deal. No, he doesn’t make a difference.)

I’ve heard the trade described as a salary dump, that the Royals just wanted to get rid of DeJesus’ $6 million salary for 2011. If that’s the case, they could have dumped his salary the direct way – they could have declined his option. Better still, since DeJesus was a Type B player last year, they would have picked up a supplemental first-round pick in the draft this year – a draft which, even over the winter, was shaping up to be one of the deepest drafts of the century.

What would you rather have – Vinny Mazzaro and Justin Marks, or a sandwich pick next week? Particularly since the Moore administration’s signature skill is scouting amateur talent, I think the answer is clear.

Meanwhile, the A’s have DeJesus – whose .259/.337/.404 line is a lot better than it looks in The Year of the Pitcher, good for a 106 OPS+. And when DeJesus’ contract ends this winter, the A’s have a good shot at a supplemental pick of their own. Billy Beane wins again.

The reason I bring this up is that Wilson Betemit is likely to be traded in the coming months, if not weeks; the Royals will want Moustakas in the majors as soon as he’s safely passed the Super Two point, and Betemit is hitting .315/.384/.448. There are a ton of contending teams that could use a third baseman. (The Rockies’ third basemen have combined to hit .179/.228/.272. The Cardinals are in first place, but with David Freese out they’re so desperate for a third baseman that they moved Albert Pujols over there for a start.)

Betemit is worth a fair amount of talent on his own, but what’s important is that if he continues to be an everyday player all season, he will almost certainly qualify as a Type B free agent this winter, earning his team a top draft pick. If the Royals do trade him, they absolutely need to factor in that whatever team trades for him is also trading for that draft pick, and his price needs to be elevated accordingly. Given the meager returns the Royals got for DeJesus, you have to be worried that whatever teams acquires Betemit will give up less for the privilege than they’ll receive in return when he signs elsewhere this winter.

- One last thing about Mazzaro. The combined ERA of the Royals’ bullpen this season is 3.66, 19th in the majors and exactly the MLB average. Subtract Mazzaro’s one relief outing, and their ERA drops to 2.99 – fifth in the majors. That’s one spectacular outing – Mazzaro surrendered nearly one-fifth of all the runs the Royals’ bullpen has given up this year.

- Getting back to Felipe Paulino…I don’t want my criticism of the way the Royals handled Tejeda to overshadow the decision to claim Paulino, which I think was a very shrewd move.

Three years ago, the Royals claimed Tejeda on waivers from Texas. Tejeda had pitched well as a swingman for the Phillies as a rookie in 2005, and after a trade to Texas had given the Rangers a 4.28 ERA in 14 starts in 2006. But in 2007 he was awful (6.61 ERA), walking 60 batters and allowing 17 homers in just 95 innings. The Rangers moved him to the bullpen in 2008, but after just four appearances they gave up on him. The Royals got him, and he was terrific from his very first appearance. He always had the power arm, and simply needed some time to cultivate his command in short stints – time the Rangers didn’t have to give him.

Thursday morning, if you had asked me to draw up a list of the pitchers in baseball most likely to pull a Tejeda – a pitcher with little history of recent success, likely available for a song, who had the stuff to dominate if he could simply start throwing strikes – Paulino might well have been at the top of it.

Paulino made 31 starts for the Astros in 2009 and 2010, and was pretty terrible; his career ERA with the Astros was 5.82. On the other hand, it was the Astros. His stuff was tremendous; Fangraphs lists his average fastball at 95.4 mph for his career. His slider averages 86.9 mph. His stuff hadn’t translated to results, but he had never been tried in the bullpen consistently. When the Rockies acquired Paulino for the execrable Clint Barmes this winter, Joe Sheehan was so appalled by the Astros’ decision to let Paulino go that cheaply that he devoted a good chunk of one of his newsletters to this seemingly trivial move. (As Joe pointed out, only two starting pitchers had a faster fastball than Paulino last year – Ubaldo Jimenez and Stephen Strasburg.)

Paulino made 18 relief appearances for the Rockies and didn’t fare much better, with a 7.36 ERA. But he was pitching in Coors Field, and had never had a home ballpark that wasn’t terrible for pitchers. He’s 27 years old; Tejeda was 26 when the Royals claimed him.

So yes, I liked the claim a lot, and that was before Paulino shut the Rangers down last night, retiring 13 of the 14 batters he faced and allowing the Royals to come back and win the game. (If Dallas isn’t an airport hub, the Royals probably lose. Paulino encountered travel delays and didn’t get to the ballpark until gametime, and was on the mound by the third inning.)

One appearance means nothing, and Paulino might be sent packing again soon. But he has undeniable talent, the Royals are pretty good at scouting this sort of talent, and they have a track record of rehabilitating exactly this sort of pitcher. He may yet have a future in the rotation, and he isn’t a free agent until after the 2014 season. Let’s just hope that if he does work out, the Royals manage his departure better than that of the man he replaces.

Whew. 2500 words and I haven’t gotten to the good stuff yet. Be back with more positive comments soon.