Friday, June 10, 2011

Yost, Escobar, & The Ghost of J.J. Hardy.

“Not right now,” Yost said. “I’m not going to do it. I don’t care what anybody says I’m not going to do it. This is a kid that I think is going to hit one day, I want him to have as many at-bats as he can get because there’s going to be a time when we’re in line to win a championship and I want him to be able to handle himself in those situations.”

I owe you a draft recap, but when Ned Yost drops column gold into your lap, you run with it.

Last night, after the Royals spotted the Blue Jays a 9-4 lead in the sixth inning on a two-out grand slam by Adam Lind – which was set up when Ned Yost chose to intentionally walk Jose Bautista* – the Royals got back into the game when Billy Butler hit a two-out, three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning.

*: Speaking of dumb moves…look, I know that Jose Bautista is, right now, The Best Hitter In Baseball. Intentionally walking him in that situation was still a ridiculous idea. Bautista is hitting .351/.502/.723 and leads the league in all three splits, as well as homers, walks, and runs scored. But Lind is batting .317/.358/.579 himself; Yost himself said afterwards that while Bautista is “arguably the best hitter in the American League coming up”, Lind is “one of the top 15 hitters in the league.”

I’m not sure there’s any situation in which you ought to issue an intentional walk in order to face one of the top 15 hitters in the league. But if there is, this wasn’t it. With two outs, you’re not setting up the double play. By loading the bases, you allow a walk to turn into a run. And most importantly, YOST GAVE UP THE PLATOON SPLIT. With a right-hander on the mound, he walked a right-handed hitter to face a left-handed hitter.

Afterwards, Yost defended the move by saying that “Nate’s matchup numbers are good against left-handers.” At that moment, left-handed hitters were batting .255 against Adcock – 14 for 55, with two homers. Making a decision based on a sample size of 55 at-bats is exactly the type of pseudo-statistical decision-making that real analysts deride as nonsense. On the one hand, we have 135 years of evidence that left-handed hitters have more success against right-handed pitchers, and vice versa. On the other hand, we have a sample size of 55 at-bats, and not a particularly impressive sample.

Left-handed hitters are now 15 for 56 against Adcock. With three homers.

So anyway, the Royals headed into the bottom of the ninth down 9-7. Chris Getz grounded out, but Brayan Pena followed with a single up the middle to bring the tying run to the plate, in the form of Alcides Escobar.

Yost, as he has done all season long, allowed Escobar to bat for himself. Escobar struck out on four pitches. Alex Gordon followed with a double into the left-centerfield gap that drove in Pena all the way from first base. But with the tying run at second, Melky Cabrera’s looper into short left field was snared by shortstop Mike McCoy to end the game. If Escobar – or whoever batted for Escobar – had reached base, they would have scored on Gordon’s double, the game would have been tied, and the Royals could have done no worse than send the game into extra innings.

After the game, a member of the media rather sensibly asked Yost whether, in light of the fact that Escobar is hitting .209, with nine walks and seven extra-base hits (all doubles) in 62 games, Yost considered using a pinch-hitter for him. Yost did not take kindly to the question.

Yost has made the argument all season that winning games in the here and now will sometimes take a backseat to player development. This is an admirable philosophy, which will hopefully exchange current wins for future wins. Yost’s track record of development is, in fact, the primary reason why I supported him as the Royals manager, both when he was hired and today.

But there comes a point when sticking with a player through thick and thin becomes counter-productive. Escobar is not “struggling” at the plate. He is out-and-out sucking to a degree that is almost historic. Perhaps the Royals (and their fans) do not appreciate the historic nature of Escobar’s offense, because they’ve so recently lived through the equally historic suckitude of Tony Pena Jr. and Neifi Perez.

But we’re in historic territory nonetheless. After yesterday’s game, Escobar was hitting .209/.241/.241 in 238 plate appearances. No player with an OBP and a slugging average both below .250 has reached 250 plate appearances in a season since 1989, when John Shelby hit .183/.237/.229 in a remarkable 371 plate appearances. (Granted, Chone Figgins is neck-and-neck with Escobar to accomplish the feat this year.)

So yes, Escobar is killing the Royals at the plate. He has certainly resurrected them time and time again with his glove – but at some point, you have to cry uncle. The bottom of the ninth inning, when the Royals are losing, would seem to be that point. But Yost disagrees. Even in a situation where Escobar’s defense is meaningless – where the team is not going to play defense again unless they score some runs – Yost feels that the development of Escobar’s bat would be hindered by pinch-hitting for him.

I have so many questions I want to ask Yost.

The first question I’d like to ask Yost is this: it’s great that you’re so worried about Escobar’s confidence, but what about the confidence of the other 24 players on your roster? How do you think they feel when it’s the bottom of the ninth, the tying run is at the plate, the team has a history of dramatic late-inning comebacks, and you’re letting one of the weakest hitters in the league bat against the opposing closer?

The second question I’d ask is: if removing Escobar from the game in the ninth inning would hurt his confidence, then wouldn’t it hurt the confidence of, say, Aaron Crow when you pull him for your closer in the ninth inning? (Never mind, for a moment, the issues with Joakim Soria.) Crow, at least, is pitching great. Imagine a young reliever who was pitching terribly – could you imagine any manager leaving that reliever in to protect a one-run lead in the ninth? That would be madness. So how is it okay to leave a young struggling hitter in to bat with his team losing in the ninth? With pitchers, we expect them to have success in low-pressure situations before putting more things on their plate. Why wouldn’t we do this with hitters?

The third question I’d ask is: don’t you think that, at some point, forcing Escobar to bat with the game on the line might actually be hurting his confidence? As bad as Escobar is hitting overall, he’s even worse when the chips are on the line. He’s hitting .153 with runners in scoring position. With two outs and RISP, he’s batting .138 (4-for-29). In situations that Baseball Reference deems “high leverage”, he’s hitting .138 (8-for-58). If all the repetitions he’s getting in key situations will help him down the road, why do they only seem to be making things worse in the present?

The fourth question I’d ask is: if it’s so important to stick with a young, great defensive middle infielder who’s struggling to hit, why have other managers found success the other way? In 1968, Mark Belanger was a 24-year-old rookie shortstop with great defensive skills but who hit .208/.272/.248 for a team that was getting ready to contend (the Orioles won three straight AL pennants from 1969 to 1971.) Earl Weaver, his manager, removed Belanger from a game early 33 times that year. He wasn’t pinch-hit for every time – there were a few double-switches mixed in – but if the Orioles were losing in the late innings, Weaver didn’t let the need to develop Belanger’s bat keep him from trying to win the game.

How did this affect Belanger’s development? In 1969 he shocked everyone by hitting .287/.351/.345, won his first Gold Glove, and even got a few MVP votes. Belanger was never a good hitter and would have some terrible seasons with the stick in the future, but it’s hard to see how being sheltered from important situations at the age of 24 hurt his development when he had one of his best seasons at age 25.

Sticking closer to home, Frank White came up to the Royals as a defensive marvel but as someone whose offensive skills still needed to be refined. And unlike Escobar (and unlike Belanger) the raw tools were there to be an effective hitter. In 1975, when he was 24, White hit only .250/.297/.365. White was pulled out of a game early 17 times – and in the DH era, none of those were for double-switches. In 1976, when White hit .229/.263/.307, Whitey Herzog pulled him from a game early 36 times. Contrary to hurting his development, White continued to improve as a hitter into his mid-30s. (White, to his credit, has publicly stated that being pinch-hit for when he was young and inexperienced actually helped his development.)

“I went through this with J.J. Hardy,” Yost said. “He was hitting about .170 and everybody was screaming why we not pinch-hitting for him? How much longer are we going to go with a guy hitting .170? And the next year he hit 25 homers and made the All-Star team. So, I’ve got a little bit of an idea of what I’m doing here.”

Ah, so here we get to the rub of it. Yost treated J.J. Hardy the same way, and Hardy developed into a fine young hitter, and he’ll be damned if he’ll treat Escobar any differently.

If only that were the case.

Yost is a little off with Hardy’s numbers, but only a little. Hardy debuted with the Brewers in 2005 as their Opening Day shortstop, and as late as July 14th, was hitting .187/.293/.267 in 219 plate appearances. From that point until the end of the season, though, Hardy hit .308/.363/.503 with eight homers in 208 plate appearances. Hardy’s sophomore season ended in May when he tore ligaments in his ankle, but in 2007 he returned healthy and hit .277/.323/.463 with 26 homers, making his first All-Star team.

Yost stuck with Hardy through his struggles as a rookie, and Hardy responded by breaking out at the plate in the second half of the season. I am happy to give Yost the credit for sticking by his young shortstop despite his struggles. But did he?

On April 21st, the Brewers entered the top of the ninth against the Astros down 8-3. Hardy was due up fourth, and after two of the first three hitters reached base, he was pinch-hit for with Billy Hall. Hall drove in a run with a groundout, but his inability to reach base proved crucial when the next batter walked and then Brady Clark homered. The Brewers lost, 8-7.

On May 4th against the Cubs, the Brewers were tied 3-3 in the bottom of the eighth. Lyle Overbay led off with a single, which led to a sacrifice bunt and an intentional walk to bring up Hardy. Yost pinch-hit for Hardy with Junior Spivey, who struck out. The Brewers did not score that inning, but won the game on a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the ninth.

On May 16th, the Brewers were losing 5-2 going into the ninth in Washington. Hardy was due to lead off the inning, but Jeff Cirillo batted instead, and grounded out; the Brewers went down in order in the inning.

On June 13th, the Brewers trailed the Devil Rays 5-3 in the top of the ninth. After Prince Fielder led off with a flyout, Yost called on Chris Magruder to pinch-hit for Hardy. Magruder flew out. A single and a walk gave the Brewers life before Rickie Weeks popped out to end the game.

On June 17th in Toronto, the Brewers trailed 9-5 in the ninth. After Geoff Jenkins walked with one out, Yost again called on Cirillo to pinch-hit for Hardy. Cirillo hit into a double play to end the game.

On June 21st at home, the Brewers trailed the Cubs 4-2 in the ninth. With two out, Damian Miller walked to bring Hardy up representing the tying run. Yost went to Lyle Overbay instead. Overbay walked; Cirillo then pinch-hit for the pitcher and grounded out to end the game.

On June 24th, for the first time Yost pinch-hit for Hardy even though the Brewers were leading, 2-1 against the Twins, in the bottom of the eighth. Hardy came up with men on first and second and one out. Wes Helms pinch-hit for him, and singled up the middle to load the bases. Cirillo then got hit by a pitch to drive in an insurance run. Helms stayed in the game to play third, Bill Hall moved from third to shortstop, and despite the defensive hit, Hall turned a 6-3 double play in the ninth and the Brewers held on to win, 3-1.

On July 16th, Hardy came up with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and the Brewers trailing the Nationals 5-3. Chris Magruder pinch-hit for him and flew out to end the game.

Eight times in the first half of the season, Ned Yost pinch-hit for J.J. Hardy. Six of those eight times occurred in the ninth inning; seven of them occurred with the Brewers losing. Only three times did Yost pinch-hit for Hardy with a left-handed hitter; the other five times he pinch-hit for him with another right-handed hitter, suggesting that even without obtaining the platoon advantage, Yost felt like a pinch-hitter gave the Brewers a better chance to win. (This is germane to the Royals, as they have the perfect pinch-hitter in Mitch Maier, who also has the advantage of batting left-handed.)

It so happens that on July 16th, Hardy had gone 1-for-3 with a double, starting a six-game hitting streak that would turn his season around. Yost only pinch-hit for him one more time the rest of the season. Once Hardy started to hit, Yost saw no reason to take him out.

But when Hardy was struggling at the start of the year, Yost pinch-hit for him repeatedly. Yost evidently wasn’t worried about ruining his young shortstop’s confidence by letting a more accomplished hitter bat with the outcome of the game in the balance. And judging by the results, he shouldn’t have been.

That was in 2005. Now it’s 2011, and Yost has pinch-hit for Escobar once all season – in the bottom of the fifth inning of a 17-1 game after Vinny got Mazzaro’ed, just to give Escobar a few innings of rest. Alcides Escobar is hitting .209, he has yet to hit a home run, and Ned Yost has not pinch-hit for him once in a meaningful situation all season.

The Ned Yost of 2005 would have.

“I went through this with J.J. Hardy,” Yost said. “He was hitting about .170 and everybody was screaming why we not pinch-hitting for him? How much longer are we going to go with a guy hitting .170? And the next year he hit 25 homers and made the All-Star team. So, I’ve got a little bit of an idea of what I’m doing here.”

Well at least in 2005, with J.J. Hardy, you did.

If Yost wants to hold up J.J. Hardy as a model for how you should handle a young shortstop who’s struggling to hit, well, I agree. The problem isn’t the way Yost handled J.J. Hardy. The problem is that he can’t even remember how he handled Hardy in the first place.

(Postscript: I was working on this piece throughout the day on Thursday, planning to post it as soon as my radio show was over. Naturally, the Royals announced immediately after the game that Mike Moustakas was called up, and suddenly this entire article is a news cycle behind. I’ll try to get you some analysis of the Moustakas call-up soon, followed by a draft recap and other things.)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Draft Preview 2011.

(See updates at bottom.)

The first thing you have to understand about my draft preview is that I’m not a draft expert. Of course, I’m not and never was a minor league expert, but that didn’t stop me from writing Baseball Prospectus’ Top Prospect List, debuting the list in 1999 (and continuing until BP hired a real minor league expert in Kevin Goldstein to take over the task in 2006.) And while there were some real howlers on those prospect lists, there were also some real gems – I think you’d find that in retrospect, our lists hold up well with anyone else in the industry at that time.

The point is that while I am not a scout, I know some scouts, or more precisely, I know (and read) people who know a lot of scouts. I will never be able to even approach the work that people like Goldstein and the guys at Baseball America do, the first-hand sourcing and reporting that they do. What I can do is take their work, analyze the historical trends of the draft, and arrive at my own conclusions. It’s cheating a little, I admit.

(This is a good time to point out that Prospectus has opened their vault, making access to articles more than a year old available to the public. What this means is that, if you haven’t read my series of draft articles from 2005-2006, this would be a good time to do so.)

The second thing you have to understand is that, given that statistical analysis is almost useless for evaluating amateur players, and given the Royals’ admirable track record in this regard under the Dayton Moore administration, this might be the only time all year where, no matter what the Royals decide, I will probably defer to their judgment. In my 2008 draft preview, the conclusion I came to was that Eric Hosmer was the riskiest selection of the guys the Royals were considering, both because there was a college first baseman who was much closer to the majors (Justin Smoak), and because my draft analysis had shown that high school first baseman taken in the early rounds had a terrible track record.

My conclusion was, shall we say, incorrect. I was correct that Smoak was a comparable player who would need less development time, but the argument I heard in favor of Hosmer at the time was that while Smoak was a potentially great power hitter, Hosmer was a potentially great pure hitter with power. So far, they’re both playing out that way. And I was correct that from 1984 to 1999, the timeframe that my draft study looked at, high school first basemen almost literally never panned out. Derrek Lee was, I believe, the only high school first baseman taken in the first round in that era that developed into an above-average player.

Since 1999, only three teams have drafted a high school first baseman in the first ten picks of the draft. In 2000, one of the worst drafts of all time, the Marlins nonetheless managed to use the first pick on Adrian Gonzalez. Two years later, the Brewers took Prince Fielder with the seventh pick overall. And in 2008, the Royals took Hosmer third. The lesson, as always: past performance is no guarantee of future results. Also, the lesson is that teams do a much better job of scouting amateur talent than they used to. (Particularly high school talent, owing in large part to the national showcases which allow high school players to show their abilities against elite competition.)

Two years ago, the Royals used the 12th pick of the draft on Aaron Crow, ignoring my advice to take college shortstop Grant Green (who the A’s gleefully snagged with the next pick.) Three months ago, with Crow coming off a terrible season in the minors, and Green hitting .318/.363/.520 last year in the California League, the Royals appeared to have erred. Today the answer is unclear; Green is hitting .289/.346/.381 in Double-A, and is probably a future second baseman. On the other hand, the Royals used the 12th pick in the draft on a reliever. If Crow makes a triumphant return to the rotation, it’s a big win; but even an elite closer doesn’t make for great value in the top half of the first round.

Also, if the Royals had selected Green, they probably would not have turned to his high school double-play partner Christian Colon with the fourth pick last year. I liked the pick of Colon, but he was my second choice behind college catcher Yasmani Grandal. Colon is hitting .239/.308/.318 for Northwest Arkansas; he’s basically Alcides Escobar without the glove. Grandal is still in high-A ball, in a hitter’s league, but his .288/.404/.488 line looks a lot more appealing, particularly for a catcher who can switch-hit.

So the bottom line is: I am not a draft expert, and no matter who the Royals select, I will be reluctant to criticize them too much until we see how things play out. Even 18 months from now it will probably be too soon to have a definitive opinion. Fifteen months ago, nine out of ten Royals fans would have happily traded Hosmer for the eighth pick in that draft, Gordon Beckham, and the tenth Royals fan would have been flogged by his peers for his insubordination.

Fifteen months ago, Mike Moustakas looked like another bust, and the decision to take him over Matt Wieters and Rick Porcello looked like another case of the Royals being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Today, while Moustakas wouldn’t go #2 overall if the draft was re-held, the only first-round picks clearly superior are David Price (who went #1 overall) and Jason Heyward. Wieters would probably go ahead of Moustakas, and Porcello might, but given that the first two seasons for each player in the majors would have already been wasted on the Royals, at this point I’d rather have Moustakas through 2017 than Wieters or Porcello through 2015.

So now that I’ve established that I have no credibility when it comes to the draft, here’s my draft analysis.

Last season, the Royals had the unfortunate position of drafting fourth in a draft with three marquis talents, which made it very difficult to figure out who the Royals should or would be taking. The Royals were linked to Grandal a week before the draft, then to Chris Sale until literally 20 minutes before the draft began, when word came out that they had agreed to a deal with Colon.

This year, once again there’s a good chance we won’t have a firm idea who the Royals will be taking when the draft starts. The reason for that, thankfully, is much different.

Let me back up here and start with this: with less than 48 hours until the draft, six players have separated themselves from the pack. Furthermore, it appears that four of those six players are just slightly ahead of the other two, although that is far from a consensus opinion. Let’s start with those four:

Gerrit Cole, RHP, UCLA. Cole was a first-round pick of the New York Yankees out of high school. That right there is a point in his favor: he turned down the Yankees. And thank God he did, too, because from his freshman year it was clear there was no way he should have lasted to the #28 pick overall. He’s been talked about as a potential #1 pick in this draft for over two years, and he may yet live up to that assessment.

Cole has three well above-average pitches: a fastball in 94-97 range, touching 99 and even 100; a hard-breaking slider, and a changeup that he doesn’t throw enough but gets excellent reviews when he does. His stock has dropped a little this season, because for whatever reason his numbers weren’t matching the results. In 114 innings he has a 3.31 ERA, and has allowed 103 hits and 24 walks, while walking 119 strikeouts – excellent numbers, but a little underwhelming for a potential #1 overall pick in college, particularly in what is the Year of the Pitcher for the NCAA as well (in college, it’s for an obvious reason – the types of bats that hitters are allowed to use has been limited significantly.)

Friday’s start in UCLA’s Regional is illustrative – Cole struck out 11 batters in seven innings, while walking just one. He also gave up 11 hits – ten of them singles – and three runs, and took the loss.

I’m not that concerned with his performance. Cole’s not some fly-by-night pitcher; he’s not Colt Griffin. He’s been one of, if not the best, pitcher in his age class for close to four years. His stuff is as good as ever; the main complaint I’ve heard is that his fastball sometimes gets elevated and straightens out. If a little bump in the road allows him to drop to #5 overall, well, the Royals just got a gift.

The latest word from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is that the Pirates have decided to take Cole #1 overall. If that’s true, good for them. He’s not Stephen Strasburg, but he’s one level below him, and could be in the majors by the end of next season.

Anthony Rendon, 3B, Rice. I’m not sure whether I should spend much time on Rendon, because it would seem almost inconceivable that he would fall to #5. It seems inconceivable that he would fall to #3; last summer, he was the clear #1 pick in this draft.

Then Rendon broke one of his ankles while playing for Team USA last season. He healed from that, but has been playing with an injured shoulder all season, one that might require surgery, and he’s not a big guy at 6’0” and 190 pounds, and suddenly there are concerns that he might just be injury-prone.

He’s still raked all season, but his power has taken a hit. As a sophomore, he hit .394/.530/.801 with 26 homers in just 63 games. This year, he’s hitting .332/.522/.531, with only six homers. He’s compensated for his lack of power by improving his plate discipline from excellent to ridiculous – he’s walked 79 times in 62 games. He’s also considered an above-average defender at third base.

The Mariners, with the #2 pick overall, have been on him all season. But late word is that the Mariners are at least considering a couple of high school bats (Bubba Starling and Francisco Lindor). If the Mariners go in another direction, the Diamondbacks and Orioles seem locked in on pitching, which means that Rendon could somehow fall to the Royals at #5.

The problem is, there are few things the Royals need less than a third baseman. (Well, a first baseman.) Rendon profiles as a better defensive player than Moustakas, so the Royals could move Moose to right field, I suppose – but then what about Wil Myers? Actually, there’s some word that the Mariners might actually consider him at second base, because apparently the Mariners have an obligation to try every college hitter they select #2 overall at second base. Moving Rendon to second base would be sub-optimal defensively, but man, that would make for a nice offense.

While I think that it’s fair for teams to consider positional weakness as a tiebreaker, you should never draft for need in the first round. If Rendon is there at #5, the Royals will need a damn good reason to turn him down. He’s the safest pick in the draft, and profiles as Evan Longoria with less power. But I have to hope that he’s not there when the Royals pick, because it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Royals take him even if he is.

Danny Hultzen, LHP, Virginia: Hultzen doesn’t have the overpowering raw stuff of a Gerrit Cole or the unconventional dominance of a Trevor Bauer. He is a safe, polished, almost boring left-handed starter. His polish and command was a given before the season, but now his velocity has ticked up into the low 90s, pushing him into Top 5 consideration. He might be the closest pitcher to the majors in the draft, and he compares favorably to Drew Pomeranz and Mike Minor and Brian Matusz, the first college southpaws taken in the last three drafts.

Yesterday he threw seven innings in a Regional game, allowing three hits and a walk, striking out 12, and getting the win. That’s par for the course for Hultzen; in 15 starts this year he’s 11-3 with a 1.57 ERA. In 103 innings he’s allowed just 69 hits and 17 walks, while striking out 148. Whichever team drafts him can reasonably project him to be ready for a rotation spot in the majors a year from now. He’s more of a #2 starter than an ace, but the lack of risk more than compensates for his lack of extreme upside.

That team is almost certainly not going to be the Royals. The Diamondbacks love him at #3; if they go in another direction the Orioles are inclined to take him at #4. The wild card here, again, is if the Mariners take a high-school hitter at #2, in which case I don’t know whether Arizona or Baltimore would be inclined to take Rendon instead of Hultzen. If he’s available for the Royals at #5, then something very strange has happened in the draft. Left-handed starters are always in demand; even though the Royals have less need for a left-handed pitching prospect than any other team in baseball, it would be hard for them to turn down a guy who could fill a rotation spot by next summer.

Dylan Bundy, RHP, Owasso (OK) HS: No right-handed high school pitcher has ever gone #1 overall in the draft, and Bundy is unlikely to break that streak. But the mere fact that he’s even being considered for the #1 pick is testament to his combination of elite stuff and uncanny polish for an 18-year-old. Not only does he throw in the 94-97 mph with his fastball, but he’s also mastered a cutter in the upper 80s which is an equally good pitch. Throw in an above-average curveball and an average changeup, and you have an 18-year-old with the maturity of a 21-year-old.

Nine years ago, much like today, the Royals wanted to draft a college pitcher that would make it to the majors quickly. Fortunately, their Florida scout (Cliff Pastornicky) succeeded in convincing Allard Baird that the quick-to-the-majors college pitcher he wanted was actually still in high school. Zack Greinke made his major league debut less than two years later.

I haven’t heard anyone compare Bundy to Greinke in terms of their stuff or delivery. But simply in terms of a high school pitcher who has the ability to reach the majors quickly and has the potential to develop into a front-line starter, Bundy is giving me the same vibe. He’s “only” 6’1” and 205 pounds, and doesn’t have much projection left. But frankly, he doesn’t need much projection; the stuff he has right now is already ace-caliber. If he’s there at #5, there isn’t another pitcher in the draft I’d rather take with the possible exception of Cole.

Again, though, he probably won’t be there. The Orioles love Bundy, and his brother is actually a pitcher in their system. They also love Hultzen, and could be tempted to take him if presented with the option. But the odds that both Hultzen and Bundy are there for the Orioles at #4 are slim.

If I had to guess the first four picks right now, I’d say it’s going to go Cole, Rendon, Hultzen, Bundy. But I’d also say there’s a 30-40% chance that the draft will not proceed in that order. Maybe the Pirates are sufficiently worried about Cole’s final start that they select Rendon, and the Mariners take Starling or Lindor, and Cole falls all the way to #5. Or maybe Trevor Bauer’s last start makes the Diamondbacks or Orioles change their mind and they select him instead, and Bundy falls to #5. There are a lot of scenarios in play which allows one of the four elite players in the draft to fall.

But if none of them do – or even if one of them does – the Royals have a pleasant decision of their own to make. Specifically, that decision looks like it will come down to the following two players, both of whom have as much upside as anyone in the draft, but both of whom (for very different reasons) have more risk than the four guys above:

Trevor Bauer, RHP, UCLA: Cole’s teammate at UCLA doesn’t match Cole in terms of his repertoire. But Bauer far exceeds him in terms of results.

Even last year, Bauer was the slightly better pitcher. He threw more innings (131 to 123), had a better ERA (3.02 to 3.37), had fewer walks (41 to 52) and more strikeouts (165 to 153). But this year, Cole hasn’t come close to matching Bauer’s performance. No one in college baseball has.

In 16 starts, Bauer is 13-2 with a 1.25 ERA. In 137 innings, he has allowed 73 hits and 36 walks, and has struck out 203. After Cole lost UCLA’s regional opener on Friday, Bauer took the mound yesterday and threw a complete-game six hitter, walking two and striking out 14. With his last strikeout, he broke the Pac-10’s single-season strikeout record of 202…set by Mark Prior.

Bauer’s season ranks up there with Prior’s junior year and Stephen Strasburg’s junior year and Jered Weaver’s junior year as one of the most dominant statistical seasons by a college starter in a generation.

His raw stuff, while not Cole’s caliber, is awfully good. His fastball is more 91-93, but he maintains his velocity deep into ball games. His breaking ball is a dynamite curveball, and he throws an above-average changeup and dabbles with a slider and even a split-finger. He has tremendous raw intelligence which serves him well on the mound – he graduated from school a year early to join the Bruins, and he doesn’t turn 21 until next January. Combine Brian Bannister’s smarts with elite stuff…that’s quite a pitcher.

So what’s the problem? Well, that complete game yesterday was hardly an anomaly – he’s thrown TEN complete games in 16 starts, and is averaging 8.56 innings per start. Yesterday he threw 133 pitches, and he’s routinely gone over 130 this season. The shame of it is in that many of his starts, the Bruins were up by 5 or more runs in the eighth and ninth inning. I understand that college coaches only care about winning in the here and now and don’t care what happens to their pitchers in the future – but you’d think that, for recruiting reasons alone, the Bruins wouldn’t waste Bauer’s arm on needless innings.

I know that if I had a son that was a highly-recruited pitcher out of high school, there’s no way I’d let him go to Rice, given what that university has done to guys like Wade Townsend and Philip Humber and Jeff Niemann and Kenny Baugh. UCLA has a great reputation for developing pitchers, but if Bauer breaks down, I don’t see how that wouldn’t affect their ability to recruit pitchers.

In any case, Bauer hasn’t made the situation any better with his unique training regimen, which includes throwing up to 60 pitchers at full strength before the game even starts, and throwing between innings, and throwing in his sleep, and…the stories all seem to run together, but it’s clear that Bauer throws a lot. Again, he’s a very intelligent guy, has studied biomechanics intensely, and his idol is Tim Lincecum, whose pitch counts in college put Bauer’s to shame and has, ahem, worked out. But it has to be a concern. The fact that Bauer is younger than your average college junior may actually work against him – as bad as it is to throw this many pitches when you’re 21, it’s even worse when you’re 20.

And then there’s the whole long-toss thing, as Bauer (and Dylan Bundy) are intense devotees to the style of training which involves pitchers throwing up to 300 feet to build arm strength and command while preventing injury. Many baseball teams, the Royals among them, are skeptical of this training regimen. The Royals have already had their issues with Michael Montgomery, who adheres to the same long-toss guru (Alan Jaeger) as Bauer. The Royals and Montgomery compromised; he doesn’t throw as far as he’d like, but farther than the Royals would like him to.

This issue came to the forefront a few weeks ago when Jeff Passan penned this column, claiming that Bauer and Bundy had basically told a few teams – the Royals among them – not to draft them. As recently as two weeks ago, it appeared certain that the Royals would not take Bauer, as much because of their own concerns as his. But Dayton Moore was in attendance scouting him a few weeks ago (of course, since he pitches the day after Cole, it would have been silly for Moore not to stick around.) And I’ve been told that these concerns are vastly overstated, and that Bauer is absolutely in the mix for the Royals’ pick.

The upside here is crazy high, if you think that Bauer and Lincecum are at all comparable. Their pitching style isn’t quite the same, but in the sense that Lincecum’s workload in college has not hurt him one bit in pro ball, and may have helped him – if you knew for a fact that Bauer wouldn’t get hurt, and would be able to hold up to 33-start, 220-inning workload in the majors, how could you not draft him?

On the other hand, he might break down tomorrow. Anyway, he’s one option.

The other option, of course, is Bubba Starling, Gardner-Edgerton (KS) HS. The Royals have had a top pick for so many years that I guess it was inevitable that, eventually, they’d have the option of choosing from a kid in their backyard. Starling is not your ordinary kid, though – he might be the greatest multi-sport athlete in Kansas history. He’s almost certainly the greatest Kansas high school baseball player of the draft era.

In the history of the June draft, the highest a high school position player has been drafted out of the state of Kansas was…drum roll…Lee Stevens, a Lawrence High School grad who went #22 overall to the Angels in 1986 draft. Stevens was horrible for the Angels and disappeared from the majors for four years, but came back at age 28 and was a league-average hitter for about five years. Brian Holman, a right-hander out of Wichita North, is the highest Kansas high school pick at #16 in 1983, to the Expos, and Holman pitched four quality seasons in the majors before his arm blew up at the age of 26, and he never pitched in the majors again.

(Seven players have been drafted out of Kansas in the top 11 picks overall. All seven went to Wichita State.)

So Starling’s emergence as the premier high school hitter in the country is really without precedent in Kansas. He’s a five-tool centerfielder who had first-round talent as a pitcher, in addition to being the quarterback recruit for the University of Nebraska.

If you’re inclined to be suspicious of a team using their top pick on the local high school legend, remember that this is exactly the situation the Twins found themselves in ten years ago, when they had the #1 overall pick and passed on Prior, and Georgia Tech first baseman Mark Teixeira, for a local high school catcher, one of the premier multi-sport athletes in Minnsota history, who was also the #1 QB recruit in the country and had a scholarship waiting for him at Florida State. Time proved that the Twins were right to take Joe Mauer. And time might prove that the Royals ought to take Bubba Starling.

I certainly don’t think that Starling is a reach with the #5 pick, but I do think that some Royals fans are so spooked by the Royals missing on Albert Pujols – and more recently, Logan Morrison – that they want Starling come hell or high water. Taking the local player is fine as a tiebreaker, but you shouldn’t be basing decisions on a player’s proximity to your ballpark. The second-highest drafted Kansas high school hitter, taken #23 overall in 1996, was a kid named Damian Rolls. The Royals passed on him with the #14 pick, and a lot of local fans were upset that the Royals didn’t take the local legend.

Rolls was taken by the Dodgers, and was a bust in the minors. The Royals actually acquired Rolls in the 1999 Rule 5 Draft…and immediately traded him to Tampa Bay in a pre-arranged deal. Rolls played 266 games for the Rays, back before the Rays decided to try to impersonate a major league organization, and was terrible. Then again, with that #14 pick the Royals took Dee Brown, who while a beast in the minors wound up with eerily similar overall numbers to Rolls in the majors.

If the Royals pass on Starling, it’s not because they “missed” on him, like they did with Pujols or Morrison. Every team in the country is well aware of Starling’s abilities. They’re also aware of his flaws – he’s faced very weak high school competition, and while he has speed and raw power in abundance, there are at least some concerns about whether he’ll hit enough to make the whole package worthwhile. Two years ago the Padres used the #3 overall pick on Donovan Tate, a similar all-world athletic talent who need to refine his hit tool, and Tate has been a big disappointment so far. Starling projects as a better hit at this point than Tate did, and it’s worth noting that Keith Law, who doesn’t impress easily and made his first-ever trip to the state of Kansas to see Starling play, ranks Starling as the #3 player in this draft. But the risk is there.

Starling has the highest upside in this draft – a true five-tool centerfielder, a guy who hits .300 with 30 homers and 30 steals and Gold Glover-caliber defense. He also has the lowest floor of anyone likely to go in the first ten picks. There’s a legitimate possibility he won’t get out of Double-A. As with Bauer, the Royals have to decide whether the potential for a perennial All-Star talent is worth the risk that they once again bust on a Top-10 pick.

As recently as a week ago, the odds the Royals would take Starling appeared slim – they were focused on pitching, particularly college pitching, and Starling was not on their radar. Now, if Cole and Hultzen and Bundy are all gone, word is that they’re at least re-considering Bubba. The Royals need another pitcher, and a quick-to-the-majors college pitcher fits the team’s contention window a lot better than a centerfielder who might not reach the majors until 2015 or 2016. But you can’t force these things. If the pitcher isn’t there, take the best player available, and if it so happens that he lives forty miles down the road, even better.

Here’s how I would rank the six guys if I were drafting:

1. Cole
2. Bundy
3. Rendon
4. Hultzen
5. Bauer
6. Starling

But ultimately, as long as the Royals pick any of these six players, I can’t fault the pick. The nightmare scenario here is one in which the first four guys above are off the board, and the Royals decide against both Bauer and Starling – Bauer because they’re worried he’ll get hurt or don’t want to deal with the headache of his long-toss program, Starling because they don’t think he’ll hit or because they want a college pitcher above all.

If that’s the case, they’ll wind up selecting from a host of second-tier pitchers – Matt Barnes of Connecticut, Texas’s Taylor Jungmann, Vanderbilt’s Sonny Gray, or Kentucky’s Alex Meyer. I think that would be a horrible mistake.

While the risk/reward equation for the draft has changed over the years, one thing I believe is as true today as it was when I did my draft study is that of the four quadrants of draft picks (high school vs. college, pitcher vs. hitter), college pitchers return the least value. High school pitchers are a better value because major league organizations do a better job of protecting arms than college coaches, and hitters are a better value than pitchers because of the risk of injury. Just take a look at every college pitcher the Royals have taken in the first or supplemental round in the last 25 years. (WARNING: This list contains graphic displays of fail, and may not be suitable for pregnant women or small children.)

2009: Aaron Crow (#12)
2006: Luke Hochevar (#1)
2004: Matt Campbell (#29)
2004: J.P. Howell (#31)
1999: Kyle Snyder (#7)
1999: Mike MacDougal (#25)
1999: Jay Gehrke (#32)
1998: Jeff Austin (#4)
1998: Matt Burch (#30)
1997: Dan Reichert (#7)
1993: Jeff Granger (#3)
1992: Sherard Clinkscales (#31)

Crow, along with Howell and MacDougal, has found success in the bullpen, but all three of those guys were drafted to be in the rotation, and they failed at that task. Hochevar, as much as he drives us crazy, is clearly the best starter the Royals have found from the college ranks in the first round. (Kevin Appier was a JuCo pick in 1987. You have to go back to Scott Bankhead in 1984 to find a college pitcher worthy of a first-round pick.)

That’s not to say the Royals should shy away from all college pitchers, but it does make me very worried about the fate of the second-tier guys I mentioned above. Some will pan out; others will end up in the bullpen, some will get hurt, and some will make people scratch their head three years from now and ask, “how was that guy ever a first-round pick?”

If the Royals go off the board, I hope they do so for someone like Francisco Lindor, a high school shortstop with elite defensive skills who ought to be able to hit well in the majors. Or maybe even Archie Bradley, who’s just the second-best right-handed high school pitcher in Oklahoma, but also the second-best high school pitcher in the country. But if they take a “safe” pick like Barnes and then wonder why he’s topped out as a Quadruple-A pitcher two years from now…well, they get what they deserve.

At the very least, we can be reasonably confident that the Royals will take the player they think is the best available, not the player they think is the best available from among the players that fit their budget. The days of taking Jeff Austin because the Royals didn’t want to pay J.D. Drew’s price tag are, thankfully, over.

Check back here between now and the draft; if there are any updates as to who the Royals will select, I’ll try to update this post with some quick thoughts. And then my usual draft recap a few days later.

(Update 1, 11:52 AM CDT: So the final draft predictions are being filed. Keith Law at ESPN and Jonathan Mayo at agree on the order of the Top 3: Cole, Rendon, and Bauer. This is a good thing, I think - I'm worried that the Royals would pass on Rendon and Bauer if they were there, which might lead to a nightmare scenario. If they're both already taken, that means plenty of good options remain on the table.

Mayo has Hultzen going to the Orioles, and the Royals taking Bubba Starling; Law has the Orioles with a surprise pick of Archie Bradley, with the Royals taking Bundy. Bundy would be a coup - the #2 talent in the draft in my opinion. Starling obviously would be a fine pick as well. Jon Heyman tweeted his top 6, with the same top 3 as the others, but with Bundy going to Baltimore and the Royals taking Danny Hultzen. That would be a surprise, but a good kind of surprise, because no one expected Hultzen to fall to #5.

As I write this, Baseball America has just posted their final draft order, and their top five is the same as Law's. I know fans want the local kid, but Oklahoma is local enough, isn't it?)

(Update 2, 1:39 PM CDT: Kevin Goldstein has chimed in, and he's with the consensus - Cole, Rendon, Bauer, then Hultzen to Baltimore, and Bundy to the Royals. Let's hope there are no surprises in the next five hours - I am quite happy with the consensus here.)