Thursday, June 2, 2011

Royals Today: 6/2/11

Some random thoughts for your perusal:

- Twelve of the Royals’ first 55 games went extra innings, and I think it’s easy to miss how unusual that is. Two years ago, the Royals played nine extra-inning games all season. The franchise record is 22 in a season. The Tigers have gone overtime just twice all year.

What makes this so unusual is that the Royals have, by and large, avoided the massive decrease in scoring that has afflicted most of the majors this year – on both ends. The Royals are sixth in the league in runs, but next-to-last in runs allowed, so on the whole 529 runs have been scored in their 55 games, or 9.62 runs per game.

You would expect extra-inning games to become more prevalent as run-scoring decreases – the fewer runs each team is expected to score, the more likely that both teams are going to end up with the same integer at the end of regulation. (This is why soccer games end in a tie so often.) The A’s, who also have played 12 extra-inning games, have allowed the fewest runs in the AL and have scored the third-fewest. All told, just 406 runs have been scored in their 57 games (7.12 per game) – 26% fewer runs than typically seen in a Royals game. I would expect the A’s to play a lot of extra-inning games; not so the Royals.

I think it would be dangerous to try to read any meaning into this; as this XKCD comic illustrates, sometimes random things happen. The Royals do have a very deep bullpen that can keep opponents off the scoreboard for extended stretches, as they did Friday night. And the Royals have hit particularly well in the ninth inning; they have a .288/.356/.472 line and have scored 27 runs in just 44 innings (some of which ended early on a walk-off.) But I don’t think the Royals are inherently more likely to play extra-inning games than any other team, and the franchise record of 22 extra-inning games in a season is more likely safe than not.

- That said, all those extra-inning games have certainly taken a toll on the pitching staff. In 55 games, the Royals have thrown 507 innings – an average of 9.22 innings per game. That’s very unusual – most teams average less than 9 innings of pitching per game, because whatever extra innings are played are more than made up for by the fact that teams don’t pitch the bottom of the ninth on the road when they’ve lost. Last year, the Royals averaged 8.87 innings a game. The Tigers this season have averaged just 8.82 innings.

Add in a starting rotation that’s been very erratic at times, and Royals’ relievers have combined to throw 192 innings this year. Only the Reds have thrown more, with 198, and they’ve played two additional games.

In the same number of games as the Tigers, the Royals have pitched 22 more innings, almost the equivalent of one additional full-time reliever. I hate the idea of an eight-man bullpen in the abstract, and I hope the Royals send one down in favor of a fourth bench player soon. But I can understand why they’ve felt the need to have an eighth reliever over the last two weeks.

- On Friday, the Royals played a game that was simultaneously an extra-inning affair and a blowout, thanks to the five-run 14th. Homers by Melky Cabrera, Eric Hosmer, and Brayan Pena not only iced the game, but it led to my favorite stat of the year (at the time): The Royals had hit more home runs in the 14th inning this year (3) than they have in the 1st inning (2).

That stat was rendered invalid when Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer went deep in the first inning on Monday, but it’s still true that they’ve hit more homers in the 14th than in the 3rd inning (2) or 5th inning (2). No, it doesn’t mean anything. Yes, it’s still awesome.

- Alex Gordon’s stats broken down:

3/31/11 to 5/1/11: .339/.395/.545
5/3/11 to 5/19/11: .153/.219/.254
5/20/11 to 6/1/11: .320/.404/.640

We all knew that Gordon would eventually hit a slump after his hot start; the question was whether he’d navigate himself out of it. He seems to have passed this test; after looking helpless at the plate for two weeks, he’s back on a tear. In his last 12 games, he has four doubles, four homers, and – reassuring those who thought his performance had come at the expense of plate discipline – seven walks. It’s probably a coincidence that his hot stretch started just after he was moved into the leadoff spot, but still, it clearly hasn’t hurt his offense. In 14 games as a leadoff hitter, he’s scored 10 runs. And remember: the leadoff hitter gets the most at-bats. If Gordon isn’t in the leadoff spot last Friday night, he doesn’t bat in the ninth inning, he doesn’t go upper deck on Neftali Feliz, and the Royals lose.

I was asked on the radio a few weeks ago as to who, at the end of the season, would wind up as the Royals’ most valuable player. My answer was Alex Gordon, and with a nod to Hosmer, I’ll stand by that. Gordon’s overall line of .285/.351/.489 may not look like much in this Year of the Pitcher, but he is clearly the best left fielder in the American League:

Highest Cumulative OPS by AL Left Fielders

1. KC, 845 (.286/.361/.485)
2. NYY, 732 (.246/.321/.412)
3. OAK, 724 (.232/.321/.403)
4. TB, 682 (.227/.293/.389)
5. BAL, .675 (.224/.291/.383)

Granted, that list says more about the state of left fielders in the AL than it does about Gordon. I mean, my God, the Rays’ left fielders have combined to hit .227/.293/.389, and that’s the fourth-best line in the American League? What the hell? This is purely an AL phenomenon, incidentally. The Royals rank fourth in the majors behind the Cardinals, Brewers, and Marlins. The Yankees, who are second in the AL, are TWELFTH in the majors. Ten of the 16 teams in the NL have had better production from their left fielders than every AL team except the Royals.

I have no idea why the left fielders of the American League are suddenly and collectively hitting like 1980s-era backup catchers. But the Royals have been unilaterally and conspicuously spared this fate. Gordon still strikes out too much, and his power tool still outstrips his home run production. But he leads the league in doubles, he gets on base, he’s a very good baserunner, and he’s taken to left field remarkably well. He’s shown excellent range, has yet to make an error in left, and has a third baseman’s arm that has racked up five baserunner kills (outfield assists) already.

They don’t have to make a decision today, but if Gordon maintains his performance through the end of the season, the Royals ought to make a long-term deal for Gordon one of their highest off-season priorities. He’s under contract for two more years after 2011, so he’s in the same contractual spot that Zack Greinke was in when he signed his four-year deal. I think an appropriate deal for Gordon would be in the same range, perhaps for three years with an option for a fourth, or a four-year deal with an option for a fifth. A four-year deal would lock up Gordon from the age of 28 to 31, with an option at age 32, insuring that the Royals get his prime years without being on the hook for his decline phase. The money wouldn’t be oppressive – maybe $20 million for 3 years or $30 million for 4 years.

As much as Soria’s mysterious decline has taken the Royals a step backwards from contention in the near term, Gordon’s breakout has taken them a leap forward. Two months of data is not enough to make a decision on, obviously. But if his final line is anywhere close to where it is now, the Royals would be well-served to lock him up. And I think they will. It’s been a gigantic struggle for Gordon to get to this point, but all’s well that ends well. Let’s just hope it ends well.

- On the other hand, here are the splits for the Royals’ other corner outfielder:

Jeff Francoeur, 3/31/11 – 5/4/11: .316/.357/.623, 8 HR in 29 games
Jeff Francoeur, 5/5/11 – 6/1/11: .232/.286/.305, 1 HR in 24 games

There’s a reason why, a few weeks ago, I speculated that while Gordon’s breakout was for real, Frenchy was – once again – just a tease. Francoeur hit like peak-era Jermaine Dye for about five weeks, and like nadir-era Jeff Francoeur since.

That’s not to say the Royals should write him off. His overall season line is still .278/.325/.478, which is a pretty awesome line in this day and age. While Francoeur, unlike Gordon, isn’t under contract beyond this season (mutual options don’t count), the Royals still shouldn’t be in any rush to make big decisions with Francoeur. Let him play every day for the next six weeks. If he bounces back and his overall line is even better in mid-July than it is now, well, then they have to at least consider a long-term deal. There would obviously be a lot of risk involved – more than there would be with Gordon, I think – and the Royals would also need to decide what to do with Wil Myers, who is still expected to warrant the right field job by the end of 2012. But having too much talent on hand is never a bad problem.

More likely, though, Francoeur’s numbers will continue to creep slowly downward, but his April performance ought to keep his overall line high enough to warrant some suitors on the trade market. Not massive interest, but enough to get a legitimate prospect or two.

I’ve mentioned before that Wilson Betemit is likely to earn Type B free agent status at the end of the year. Thanks to the Elias Sports Bureau’s outdated formula (seriously – it was devised in the 1980s and hasn’t been updated since), Francoeur probably will too. The rating system values playing time, and Francoeur was pretty much a full-time player in 2010, and is certainly one this year. The system values counting numbers like homers and RBIs, and acts like OBP doesn’t exist. So if nothing else, Francoeur has value as a draft pick generator.

(Update: I heard from Tim Dierkes, the proprietor of the indispensable MLB Trade Rumors website, who informs me that the Elias rating formula does, in fact, include OBP as one of the categories. My apologies for the error. However, not only are average, HR, and RBI categories, but the fifth category is...plate appearances. I still think Francoeur is likely to merit Type B status at the end of the year.)

All this presumes that Dayton Moore isn’t so infatuated with Francoeur that he’s going to offer Frenchy a long-term deal no matter how he plays the rest of the season. That’s certainly possible, but if nothing else, Myers’ presence should reduce the temptation to sign Francoeur just for the sake of having a right fielder. I don’t know what the Royals are going to do with Francoeur, and frankly, I don’t know what they should do yet. We’ll have some clarity in six weeks; right now, there’s nothing wrong with staying the course.

- You want to know what parity looks like? The Royals are 25-30, and they’ve now fallen a half-game behind the surging White Sox to sit fourth in the AL Central, but a comfortable 7.5 games ahead of the Twins. What you might not realize, though, is that while the Royals have a better record than the Twins, the Twins are the only team in the AL with a worse record than the Royals. The Royals are 13th of 14 teams despite being just 5 games under .500.

Just three teams in the AL (the Indians, Yankees, and Twins) are more than 5 games away from .500 in either direction. The Twins, who are 20 games under .500, are farther away from .500 than the other four teams with a losing record combined.

Which is to say – nothing has been decided yet. The Royals’ playoff hopes, slim as they are, are as dependent on the Indians going forward as on their own performance. If the Indians continue to win 60% of their games, we can close up shop now. But if their hot start was a mirage, well, the Tigers are 29-26, the Sox are 27-31, and the Twins are done.

I’ve been reluctant to buy into the Indians’ hot start all year, and they lost five of six games – by the combined score of 44-12 – before winning their last two. They’re still the favorite in the division; if they play just .500 the rest of the season they’ll win 87 or 88 games, and that seems to be about the Royals’ upside even if everything goes just right. But if they’ve got a little 2003 Royals in them…well, the Royals are still a long shot to make the playoffs. But a long shot is still a shot.

- I’ve given Dayton Moore a lot of crap for how he’s wasted the team’s discretionary free agent dollars over the years, so I feel compelled to point out the following list:

Jeff Francoeur: $2.5 million, .278/.325/.478, 1.4 WAR
Melky Cabrera: $1.25 million, .269/.306/.441, 0.5 WAR
Bruce Chen: $2 million, 3.59 ERA in 43 innings, 0.7 WAR
Jeff Francis: $2 million, 4.46 ERA in 75 innings, 1.0 WAR
Matt Treanor: $850,000, .212/.350/.303, 0.7 WAR

Treanor wasn’t signed as a free agent, but his contract was basically purchased from the Rangers in the dying days of spring training, so close enough.

Those are the only five guys the Royals signed as free agents this winter. All five have performed well for the Royals. (Cabrera’s WAR is that low only because Baseball-Reference hates his defense, rating him 10 runs below average already. He’s bad, but probably not that bad.) The five players are making $8.6 million combined, and none of them have a guaranteed contract for next year.

That’s a pretty good collection of free agent talent, particularly since the Royals were shopping in the bargain bin this off-season. One of the greatest criticisms of Dayton Moore has been his inability to use the free agent market wisely. It’s a deserved criticism, and one off-season doesn’t change that. But at least, for the first time we have a data point that says he can make intelligent free-agent decisions. Five free agents, and not a Horacio Ramirez or Willie Bloomquist – let alone a Jose Guillen or Jason Kendall – among them.

Last year, Moore finally figured out that the only value veteran players had to the Royals were as trade chips, even if they only brought back marginal talent. Scott Podsednik, Jose Guillen, Rick Ankiel, and Kyle Farnsworth were moved for six players, five of whom were organizational talent, and one of whom was Tim Collins. Collins, alone, justified the trades. (Collins is also more valuable than the four players the Royals got for Alberto Callaspo and David DeJesus combined, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

Moore had the right strategy, but his implementation was hamstrung by the fact that none of his veteran players were all that useful. This year, with Betemit, Francoeur, Cabrera (who isn’t a free agent until after next season), Francis, and Chen, the Royals have the opportunity to get some real talent this July. And if Moore does as fine a job signing veterans to fill in holes for next year’s team as he did for this year’s team, we might not be talking about cashing them in at the deadline – we might be talking about how they fit on a playoff roster.

- If you’re a Royals fan, you don’t need statistics to evaluate Alcides Escobar’s defense. Frankly, if you’re a Royals fan, you won’t trust any statistic that doesn’t evaluate Escobar’s defense as Gold Glove-worthy. He has been that good, and that consistent.

Still, it’s good to know that Baseball Info Solutions, who have (in my opinion) the most accurate defensive metric, rate Escobar’s defense as 9 runs above average – in just a third of a season. Fangraphs has Escobar at “only” 5.4 runs above average. Extrapolate those numbers to a full season, and Escobar would save somewhere between 16-27 runs over an average shortstop. Those numbers are absolutely Gold Glove caliber. It’s always nice when the scouts and stats agree.

Unfortunately, he’s still a below-average shortstop overall, simply because his offense has been so execrable. He’s hitting .212/.249/.249. Read that again: .212/.249/.249. He has the lowest OPS of any qualifying shortstop in baseball. He has the lowest OPS and OPS+ of any qualifying shortstop in Royals history – and remember, shortstop has been a gaping hole for this franchise for most of its history.

None of that is to say that he shouldn’t be starting for the Royals today. Even if he is the worst-hitting shortstop in Royals history, he might be the best-fielding shortstop in Royals history – he’s certainly the best fielder I’ve ever seen. And at the age of 24, with his minor-league track record, it’s more likely that he’ll learn how to hit than that he’ll unlearn how to field.

I don’t understand why Ned Yost thinks his development will be hurt by pinch-hitting for him when the Royals are losing in the late innings. (You don’t let a pitcher who’s struggling to succeed in the major leagues pitch in crucial situations, so why wouldn’t you do the same for a hitter?) But I understand why Yost is so reluctant to lose his glove at shortstop. He’s a joy to watch.

- Finally, I’ll end with the sad but expected news that John Lamb is scheduled for Tommy John surgery tomorrow. Obviously, this is a big blow for a guy who some scouts considered to be the best pitching prospect in the system before the season.

But in all honesty, not only am I not that disturbed by this development, I’m almost relieved by it.

I’m not disturbed, because arm injuries are an unavoidable cost of doing business with pitching prospects. The Royals had five starting pitchers on Baseball America’s Top 100 list: Montgomery, Lamb, Duffy, Dwyer, and Odorizzi. Before the season, I fully expected that one of those five would suffer a significant arm injury in 2011. It’s simple math; pitchers get hurt, and expecting five out of five pitchers in their early 20s to stay healthy was unrealistic.

That said, there are arm injuries, and there are arm injuries. This is the former. This isn’t a shoulder problem, which could be a career-ender. Tommy John surgery is significant, it will keep Lamb out for a year, and it certainly affects the Royals’ rotation plans for 2012. But I can’t stress this enough: when it comes to Tommy John surgery, a prospect delayed is (usually) NOT a prospect denied. Roughly 90% of pitchers come back from TJ surgery with the same stuff they had before, and some throw even harder, although those are usually the pitchers that were pitching hurt before their surgery.

And that’s the reason I’m relieved by it – because Lamb’s velocity had been down all season. The Royals were blaming it on a strained lat muscle, and maybe that was the cause, but maybe the cause was that a tendon in his elbow that was hanging by a thread. Lamb, remember, was in a car accident his senior year of high school that resulted in a broken elbow and kept him off the mound – which is how the Royals stole him in the fifth round to begin with. I don’t know that the accident predisposed him to this injury, but if I had had to guess which top Royals’ pitching prospect would have his elbow operated on this season, I would have guessed Lamb.

And if I had to answer which Royals’ pitching prospect I preferred to have required Tommy John surgery, I would have answered Lamb. I don’t mean to be mean or callous – I wouldn’t wish injury on anyone. But of the five pitchers, Lamb is the youngest – he doesn’t turn 21 until July. I subscribe to the strain of thought that says that pitchers are particularly susceptible to arm injuries – the fabled “injury nexus” from the age of 18 until 22 or so. Lamb’s surgery and rehab will keep him off the mound until roughly his 22nd birthday, which will allow the other components of his arm to rest and hopefully minimize his risk of more serious arm problems when he returns. Lamb also doesn’t need to go on the 40-man roster until after the 2012 season, so the Royals don’t need to waste a precious roster spot on a bum arm.

Lamb is also lauded for his makeup and is the son of a scout, so I imagine he will devote himself fully to his rehab, making the likelihood of a full recovery that much greater.

It’s unfortunate that we’ll have to wait to see one of our finest prospects. But I’m confident that he’ll still be worth the wait. And in the meantime, we have a lot of other toys to play with.

Monday, May 30, 2011


This was supposed to be the optimistic flip side of my last post. That plan was put in place before Joakim Soria blew the save, and took the loss, in back-to-back games.

Somewhere, at some point, Joakim Soria has somehow morphed into a nightmarish combination of Ambiorix Burgos, Andrew Sisco, Mike MacDougal, Ricky Bottalico and every other failed Royals closer of the last generation.”

Bob Dutton wrote that sentence before today’s game. Yesterday, the Royals lost a game despite having a two-run lead with six outs to go. Today, the Royals lost a game despite a three-run lead with six outs to go – and the opponents didn’t even have to take advantage of extra innings in either game.

So if you’re wondering whether this brings back awful memories of The Worst Bullpen In Major League History, the 1996-2006 Kansas City Royals*…yes. Yes it does.

*: I’ve mentioned this before, but for those of you who are new around here: from 1996 to 2006, the Royals were 172-275 in one-run games, a .385 winning percentage. That is, by far, the worst record in one-run games over an 11-year span for any franchise in major league history. That stretch ended in 2007 – Joakim Soria’s rookie year.

For the better part of a decade, I was terrified any time the Royals went into the ninth with a slim lead. But as unreliable as the Royals’ closer – whoever their closer happened to be at the time – was, it was exceedingly rare for them to blow a save and take the loss in consecutive games. (For one thing, that required the Royals to actually have a late lead in consecutive games, a task the early-21st century Royals were ill-equipped to complete.)

On July 30, 1977, Doug Bird blew the save and took the loss for the Royals, then repeated the feat in the first game of a doubleheader the next day. (This only succeeded in making the Royals mad, as they went 44-12 in their next 56 games.) Amazingly enough, this was the only time in the 20th century that the same Royals pitcher blew a save and took the loss in consecutive games.

It happened again in 2002, when Roberto Hernandez blew back-to-back saves on July 4th and 5th. In 2006, Ambiorix Burgos turned the trick on May 14 and May 16. And in 2009, Juan Cruz blew the save and took the loss on July 17 and July 18 – a particularly neat trick given that he wasn’t even the closer. I was at Kauffman Stadium for those games, and they inspired this post.

Joakim Soria is the fifth pitcher in Royals history to accomplish such an epic fail in consecutive games. He is by far the most unlikely of the five.

It’s worse than that, though, because in Soria’s last three save opportunities – today, yesterday, and last Tuesday against the Orioles – he blew the save and took the loss. It came over a six-game stretch, and Soria actually pitched in a non-save situation during that stretch, but that doesn’t mitigate his accomplishment.

You might think that it’s not unusual for a closer to have a stretch that bad – Brandon League did the same thing just three weeks ago, and in his appearance before that stretch, he came into a tie game and took the loss. But it’s actually incredibly rare.

Ricky Bottalico never took the loss in three straight save opportunities with the Royals.

Roberto Hernandez never took the loss in three straight save opportunities with the Royals.

Neither did Mike MacDougal, or Ambiorix Burgos, or Jeremy Affeldt, or the granddaddy of all closer flops, Mark Davis.

In the history of the Royals, only one other pitcher had ever taken the loss in three straight save opportunities – Curtis Leskanic, on April 14th, 23rd, and 29th, 2004.

And now Soria has done so. But hey, I’m sure his arm is fine.

The tale of Soria’s season is actually divided into two parts. In April, you might remember, stat guys were freaking out about the fact that he wasn’t missing bats – in 11.2 innings, Soria struck out just five batters, while walking six. But with the exception of the meltdown against the White Sox, when the Sox mounted a four-run comeback with two outs and no one in the ninth, the end result was fine – Soria didn’t blow any other leads that month, and the Royals insisted everything was fine.

In May, Soria’s strikeout rate has returned to his career norms and then some. He actually struck out the side today, and in 10.1 innings this month, he has 14 strikeouts. He’s also allowed 17 hits, and 3 homers – one in each of his three blown saves – and 10 runs. And, of course, the Royals have lost four games that they shouldn’t have – his three blown losses, and also the game against the Rangers on May 18, when he came into a tie game in the ninth and allowed a run. Neftali Feliz gave it back in the bottom of the inning – Feliz and Soria seem to be in a competition as to which elite closer can terrify their fan base more, a competition Soria is winning – but the Royals lost the game in extra innings. And no one has any idea what’s going on.

According to Fangraphs, Soria’s average fastball velocity is down about 1.5 mph, but the speed of his secondary pitches is unchanged, and it’s not clear from the data whether the decrease in his velocity is because he can’t throw as hard or because he’s simply throwing more “slow cutters” which are designed to have less velocity. But while his velocity isn’t off much, the results are. Hitters are swinging at fewer pitches (40.3% of his offerings, compared to a career average around 47%.) When they do swing, they’re not missing often – they fail to make contact on only about 15% of their swings, compared to a career average of about 25%.

The data is clear that hitters are no longer being fooled. What isn’t clear is why. The Royals can go on and on about how he’s just having trouble locating his pitches, or finishing his pitches, or scuffing his pitches, or whatever excuse they’ll come up with today. But when a pitcher who has been an elite closer for four years suddenly can’t get anyone out, there’s only one conclusion. This isn’t a court of law: he’s injured until proven healthy. I have no reason to think that Soria’s hurting other than the results on the field. Frankly, those results are enough.

For now, Ned Yost has announced that Soria will take a breather from closing, and Aaron Crow will take over the glamour role. That’s all fine and dandy if the point is winning tomorrow’s game. If the point is to figure out what the hell is wrong with Joakim Soria, this is a massive fail. It takes a massive amount of stubbornness to not acknowledge that such a precipitous decline probably has a structural reason, and shifting Soria into a different role is not going to isolate, let alone fix, the problem. But then, it takes a massive amount of stubbornness for the Royals to have denied there was anything wrong with Soria to this point in the first place.

My last post, about the missed opportunity the Royals had by not trading Robinson Tejeda when they had the chance, is almost comical when you put Tejeda’s situation side-by-side with Soria’s. Soria had a massive amount of trade value this winter. He was widely considered to be one of the five best closers in baseball; only Mariano Rivera was clearly superior. He was 26 years old. He was signed to an insanely club-friendly contract, that paid him just $4 million this year, and $22.75 million from 2012 to 2014. Given his age and contract status, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he had the highest trade value of any reliever in baseball. And the Royals, in trading Zack Greinke, made it clear that they were clearing the decks of established players one last time before the Blue Wave arrived.

We may never know if the Yankees really did offer Jesus Montero for Soria, or if that story was apocryphal. What we do know is that the Yankees panicked and – against their GM’s advice – signed Rafael Soriano to a ridiculous 3-year, $35 million contract that actually gave Soriano the option to walk away after a year. (I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that he won’t exercise that option.) Based on all the circumstantial evidence, I think the Yankees either offered Montero, or would have parted with him had the Royals made the offer.

I’m not going to rip the Royals too harshly for not moving Soria when they had the chance, because on some level I bought into the notion that Soria was different as well. He’s not a max-effort, here’s-my-best-fastball-and-good-luck kind of reliever. (Unlike Neftali Feliz, who pointedly refused to throw anything but his fastball against the Royals. Thanks, Neffi!) While closers, like all relievers, have a shelf-life only slightly longer than mayonnaise, I thought that Soria might be the exception to the rule. Rivera obviously is; Trevor Hoffman was. I still would have traded Soria for Montero if I had the chance, simply because even if he remained dominant, there’s only so much value that you can have when you pitch 65 innings a year. But I wasn’t adamant about it.

(And it must be said that it’s not clear what the Royals would do with Montero. He’s still a long shot to stay behind the plate even briefly in the majors. He’s also having a bit of an off-year offensively in Triple-A. He’s still just 21 and a long-term beast, but if he winds up at first base, he’s been passed by Eric Hosmer. If nothing else, he would make one hell of a trading chip.)

So consider myself, along with the Royals, chastened by what’s happened to Soria. It’s not even the end of May, and he’s already set a career high in blown saves. It’s not even the end of May, and he’s already given up more runs than he did in any of the last three seasons. And as a result, his trade value has dropped from massive to absolute zero in the span of two months.

At this point, it’s not even clear whether the Royals would deign to pick up his option for next year. If they had to decide today, I think they would, and I think they should – aside from the fact that they would be well-served to pay Soria back for signing such a club-friendly contract in the first place, if they turn down the $6 million option for 2012, they also would lose the option on Soria in 2013 and 2014 if he regains his form.

And he might. Just as we don’t have an explanation for why Soria’s pitching has gone south, we don’t have any reason to think he can’t suddenly right the ship. The inestimable Joel Goldberg tweeted earlier that Jeff Montgomery had a similar stretch in his career, and he’s right. On July 10, 1997, Montgomery had a 7.09 ERA, and in 27 innings he had allowed 38 hits, 10 walks, and eight homers.

The rest of the season, Montgomery allowed two earned runs in 33 innings, with just 15 hits and eight walks, and didn’t blow another save all year. That was Montgomery’s last hurrah – his ERA was nearly 5 the following year and nearly 7 in 1999, after which he retired – but Montgomery was 35 years old. Soria is 27.

So yes, if Soria isn’t hurt, I think he’ll pull out of this. Maybe he won’t be the ridiculously effective pitcher he was the last four years – his career ERA coming into the season was 2.01 – but he’ll be effective enough. If he isn’t hurt.

But if he is, then every time he takes the mound just increases the risk that the Soria we knew and loved is gone for good. The downside to an arm injury is such that if there’s even the slightest risk he’s hurt, he ought to be shut down. Call it a mental break if you have to. What’s the downside to giving him a few weeks on the DL, putting him through some imaging tests, then letting him embarrass Triple-A hitters for a week or two before coming back? It might hurt our playoff chances? Please.

If the Royals had an impeccable record of not sending players out onto the field when they were already playing through an injury, I might give them the benefit of the doubt. They don’t. The new training staff seems to be an improvement on the old one, but I’m sorry, as a fan, I need to see more before I sign off on the decision to keep sending Soria out there to take his lumps.

Dayton Moore has been in charge of the organization for almost exactly five years, and every time the organization has made a mistake under his watch – from signing Jose Guillen to destroying Gil Meche’s arm – I hoped that, if nothing else, the Royals would learn from that mistake, so that when the organization was finally in a position to contend, they would avoid the missteps of the past.

The way they’re handling Joakim Soria is evidence that they still need to touch the stove a few more times before they realize that it’s burning their hand. Only this time, with the Royals supposedly as little as a year away from contention, the stakes are a lot higher. If Soria gets his groove back and we’re all looking back at this stretch in wonderment come August, all will be forgiven. If the Royals are simply trading a short DL stint now for a long one later, well, forgiveness will be in awfully short supply.