Friday, July 22, 2011

Royals Today: 7/22/11.

Maybe it’s not The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, but trading season has to rank in the top five. The rumors, the intrigue, the possibility that some GM will lose his mind and trade Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, or agree to pick up Matt Morris’ salary…if you’re a baseball fan, you have to love it. Say what you want about the NFL, but the almost complete lack of trades in that league is a big point in favor of major league baseball.

If you’re a Royals fan, you’re used to the drill – look over the roster, find the guys who are in the last year or two of their contract, and hope the Royals can trade each of them for anything of value. Some days you wind up with Tim Collins; most days you end up with Joselo Diaz or Blake Johnson.

Dayton Moore kicked off the season Wednesday by trading Wilson Betemit, who he evidently just realized was still on the roster. (Forgive him for not noticing – since Moustakas was called up on June 9th, Betemit had all of 23 at-bats in six weeks.) The Tigers were high on the list of teams looking to upgrade at third base, so it was a natural fit.

In return, the Royals got left-handed swingman Antonio Cruz, and catcher Julio Rodriguez. From Dayton Moore’s comments, you’d think Rodriguez was the more important player in the deal. He has a strong arm (he’s thrown out 36% of attempted basestealers in his career), and is hitting .283/.325/.354 in the Florida State League. He’s a prospect in the sense that he’ll probably make the majors, but his upside seems to be that of a defense-first backup catcher. He has no power – five home runs in 276 professional games – and swings at everything; his career high in walks is 14. If he were 20 years old – as the Royals mistakenly stated in their press release – I would be higher on him, but he’s actually 21, and turns 22 in a few weeks.

And as future backup catchers go, I don’t think Rodriguez profiles even as well as Manny Pina, who the Royals acquired in their trade of hard-throwing bad boy Danny Gutierrez two years ago. At the time, Pina was just a few months older than Rodriguez is now, and he was hitting .259/.313/.393 in Double-A. Pina has more power than Rodriguez, and was not quite as impatient at the plate. Pina has spent all of this season in Omaha, and has mysteriously started drawing walks at an unprecedented rate – he has 25 walks in just 160 at-bats, with a line of .238/.354/.381. (He’s sort of the Matt Treanor of Triple-A.)

Pina is already on the 40-man roster, and would be the obvious call-up if Treanor or Brayan Pena got hurt. He just turned 24. I don’t really see what Rodriguez brings to the table that the Royals can’t get from Pina, so I don’t see his acquisition as anything more than organizational depth.

Cruz is the more interesting player, if for no other reason than 1) he’s left-handed and 2) he’s 19. His numbers are nice but not spectacular; he’s got a 3.11 ERA in the Midwest League, with 68 hits, 28 walks, and 58 Ks in 75 innings. The scouting reports I’ve seen suggest that he typically throws 89-91, but can dial it up to 93-94 on occasion, and he has a developing curveball. He’s been a reliever for most of his (brief) pro career, and unless he adds velocity it’s unlikely he’ll be more than a reliever in the end. But he’s young enough that you can dream on him.

Neither player was listed among the Tigers’ Top 30 Prospects by Baseball America before the season, but I wouldn’t make too much of that. Young players, particularly Latin American players who don’t have a draft status to trumpet, can have their prospect status change quickly. Kelvin Herrera barely made the Royals’ Top 30 this winter, and now he’s clearly a Top 15 guy – granted, he was hurt most of the last two years, but no one expected him to be this dominant this quickly. Yordano Ventura wasn’t in the Royals Top 30 before the 2010 season; a year later he was in 12th in a loaded system. Rey Navarro wasn’t in the Royals’ Top 30 this past winter, and you could make a case for him in the Royals’ Top 10 today. I don’t think either Cruz or Rodriguez have made that kind of jump, but I’d expect Cruz at least to vie for a spot in the Royals’ Top 30.

It’s not a great haul, in all honesty. But having gone out of their way to destroy Betemit’s value by not trading him before Moustakas was called up, this was probably about the best the Royals could do. (I love this quote: As one club official noted: “His value wasn’t increasing here.” Really, Sherlock? It only took you six weeks to figure that out?) Despite sitting on the bench for the last six weeks, Betemit was just slightly underneath the bar for Type B free agent compensation, at least according to MLB Trade Rumors’ calculations. (Actually, MLB Trade Rumors just came out with their most updated numbers Tuesday, and Betemit somehow moved up the chart despite being on the bench, and is now projected to be a Type B player.)

If Betemit plays every day for Detroit and/or plays well, he’s almost certainly going to earn them a supplemental first-round pick after the season. If that’s the case, than Detroit wins the trade; I’d rather have the draft pick than the two guys the Royals picked up. Frankly, even if Betemit doesn’t, the Tigers should win the trade. Brandon Inge hit .177/.242/.242 for Detroit before he was designated for assignment (just four months into a two-year contract). Betemit should be a substantial upgrade if he hits like he did for the Royals this year. If he hits like he did for the Royals last year, it’s an enormous upgrade.

But there was no way Betemit was going to earn Type B status while picking splinters out of his butt. Better something than nothing, even if “something” isn’t all that great. As with the David DeJesus trade, though, the Royals didn’t even get the value of the compensatory draft pick in return for Betemit.

We can now close the book on the Wilson Betemit era in Kansas City: 141 games, a .290/.362/.468 line, and 16 homers and 35 doubles in just 479 at-bats. Betemit has the fifth-highest OPS+ (129) in Royals history among players with 500 or more plate appearances. Not bad for a minor-league invite who got paid less than $1 million total. But I can’t shake the feeling that he could have been a lot more valuable to the Royals if they had tried him in the outfield last season, and tried to sign him to a longer-term deal. And I can’t shake the feeling that he still has a lot of productive seasons left.

- Speaking of Betemit, his replacement hasn’t been faring so well of late. After a three-hit game on July 3rd, Mike Moustakas was hitting a very respectable .290/.372/.362. His power was a little shy, but with nine walks and 10 strikeouts in 19 games, his overall approach seemed, if anything, more advanced than expected.

Moustakas then went on an 0-for-21 slump that ended with a broken-bat single off Justin Verlander in the last game before the All-Star Break. In his first game back, Moose doubled in his second at-bat against Francisco Liriano. He is 0-for-22 since. He has two hits in his last 49 at-bats. Even Tony Pena Jr. is shaking his head.

Shocking as this might be to believe, I’ve seen worse. In fact, I’ve seen worse from another left-handed-hitting 22-year-old rookie third baseman. On April 18th, 1990, this player hit his first career home run – off Roger Clemens. It was the 23rd game of his career, and he finished it with a respectable line of .227/.349/.364. He would not get a hit again until May 11th. He went 0-for-41; someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that is still the longest hitless stretch by a non-pitcher in the last 30 or 40 years.

He finally ended his slump with a bunt single off of Bret Saberhagen in the fifth inning. (In the eighth inning, with the Royals leading 4-1, he would homer off of Steve Farr, sparking a five-run rally. The more things change…) He would hit .268/.329/.333 the rest of the season, not great, but better than his overall line of .249/.324/.318.

The next season, Robin Ventura hit .284/.367/.442, with 23 homers and 100 RBIs, won a Gold Glove, and got some MVP votes. He was one of the best – and certainly most consistent – third basemen in baseball for the next decade.

The point is: rookies struggle. Even talented rookies struggle. I’m not happy that Moustakas couldn’t buy a hit right now if it was a vowel on “Wheel of Fortune”, but if he’s as talented as we think he is, he’ll get through it. He’s not being overmatched; in those 49 at-bats he’s only struck out 7 times, which is a good ratio even for someone hitting .300. He’s simply not making hard contact, and he’s probably pressing and swinging at pitches he shouldn’t in an effort to end his slump. (He doesn’t have a single walk in that span. Ventura, by comparison, walked 10 times during his 0-for-41 stretch.)

If this goes on much longer, a return trip to Omaha might be therapeutic. But I’d give him at least a few more days to see how he responds. Moustakas has responded well to failure in the past. He’s never failed to this degree before, and never on this big a stage. No one said the major leagues were easy.

- I have barely gone a column without writing about Felipe Paulino ever since he joined the team, but I can’t help it – I still think that the Royals’ fanbase and media have yet to fully appreciate the magnitude of how well he has pitched.

On Sunday against the Twins, Paulino made the mistake of hanging a slider to Jim Thome on a full count. (Side note: Jim Thome is my favorite non-Royals player of all time. He has also hit more home runs against the Royals than any player in history. Go figure.) That was virtually the only mistake Paulino made all day. He threw seven innings, struck out eight batters, and walked only one – and that walk was an intentional pass to Joe Mauer preceding the homer. (Ned Yost, everyone!)

In his previous start on July 5th, Paulino gave up nine hits and three runs in six innings, but walked just two batters and struck out nine.

On June 28th, Paulino struck out seven in seven innings, allowed only one walk (again intentional), but somehow gave up 11 hits and took the loss.

On June 23rd, Paulino pitched eight innings, struck out eight, and walked only one. But he did give up two homers, and five runs, and again took the loss.

In his last four starts, then, Paulino is 1-3 and has a 4.82 ERA, so it’s very easy to miss how well he’s pitched. In his last four starts, Paulino has whiffed 32 batters in 28 innings, and walked 3 batters unintentionally. He’s averaged 7 innings per start, and thrown at least 113 pitches in each start (but never more than 120).

Still not impressed? Paulino has struck out at least 7 batters, and walked no more than 2, in each of his last four starts. In the history of the Kansas City Royals, only two other pitchers have had four consecutive starts with 2 or fewer walks and 7 or more strikeouts. In 1996, Kevin Appier had four straight starts, and in 2009, after starting his season with six shutout innings (with three walks) in his first start, Zack Greinke rolled off five straight starts with 8+ Ks and no more than 2 walks, winning them all.

Since joining the Royals, Paulino has 53 strikeouts and 11 unintentional walks in 55 innings. Missing bats is nothing new for him; throwing strikes is. He has cut his walk rate nearly in half since joining the Royals.

His 3.60 ERA is not as impressive as his K/BB numbers, because he continues to give up hits at a higher rate than you’d expect – he’s allowed more than a hit an inning with Kansas City. His BABIP since joining the Royals is .340, and that’s actually an improvement on his career mark of .353. That’s both ridiculous and unsustainable. In the last 50 years, the highest career BABIP by a pitcher with 500 innings or more is .331, by Glendon Rusch. Paulino has spent almost his entire career with bad teams, pitching in front of bad defenses, and prior to joining the Royals pitched in two very good hitters’ parks. His performance on balls in play is a matter of luck. His ability to miss bats is very real, and his ability to throw strikes, while new, does not appear to be a fluke.

If Mike Montgomery had debuted on May 27th and had fashioned the stat line that you see from Paulino, Royals nation would be giddy with excitement over what’s to come. Montgomery has been a disappointment, but in his place the Royals have conjured Paulino out of thin air. He’s under contract through 2014, so we’ll have the chance to enjoy him for a while.

At the BP event, while talking about how the team uses statistical and scouting information together, Jin Wong mentioned Paulino as a guy who – going back to last winter – both sides agreed was someone worth gambling on. The scouts liked his fastball velocity and swing-and-miss slider; the stats guys liked his peripheral numbers. (They may also have liked the fact that in 2009, even while his ERA was over 6, Paulino induced batters to miss 27% of the pitches they swung at, compared to the major-league average of 20%.)

I thought this nugget of information was interesting, because the last time the Royals gambled on a player who the scouts and stats guys agreed on was a potential diamond in the rough, his name was Joakim Soria. Paulino may be Dayton Moore’s best free talent find since Soria. If he continues to pitch as well as he has, and stays in the rotation, he may wind up being even more valuable than Soria.

(Late update: Rustin Dodd has an excellent review of Paulino’s emergence in this morning’s edition of the Star.)

- This list, I think, explains a lot:


Chris Getz: 592
Jason Kendall: 490
Carl Taylor: 363
Bobby Floyd: 356
Dick Drago: 327

The bottom three guys on this list all finished their Royals career by 1974 (and Drago, of course, was a pitcher.) After 35 years, apparently the Royals felt that extreme punch-and-judy hitters had come back into fashion.

Look, saying that I don’t think Chris Getz is a good ballplayer doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate his talents. He’s a good basestealer, the best defensive second baseman on the roster (which isn’t the same as saying he’s a good defender), he’s got good bat control and is heady and gritty and all that.

And contrary to what Lee Judge might think, saying that I don’t think Getz is as good a player as Billy Butler doesn’t mean I have asthma* and eat pop-tarts and live with my mom. (Lee, let me present a friendly challenge: name me one well-known statistical analyst, or prominent Royals blogger, that remotely fits the stereotype you’ve presented. Just one. I’ll happily donate $100 to a charity of your choosing if you can.)

*: I don’t have asthma, but what if I did? Is it okay to make fun of people with asthma now?

If you want to know why I think Chris Getz isn’t a particularly good major-league player, look at that list above. Yes, the little things matter. But big things matter more; if they didn’t, they’d be the little things. And the biggest thing a position player can do on the field is hit a home run. Getz may do the little things well. But more than any other player in Royals history, he has shown a complete inability to do the big things.

Meanwhile, Johnny Giavotella is hitting .340/.394/.485 in Omaha. Moreover, as he did last year (when he hit over .370 after the All-Star Break in Double-A), Giavotella is getting better as the season goes along. Since June 1st, Giavotella is hitting .401 and slugging .615. Just in the month of June, Giavotella hit 14 doubles and four homers. In his entire Royals career, going back to the beginning of last season, Getz has 14 doubles and two triples.

I don’t know what the Royals are waiting for. They don’t need keep playing Getz just to justify the Mark Teahen trade – they’ve already won the trade, if for no other reason than that they weren’t the ones who then signed Teahen to a 3-year, $15 million deal. Getz isn’t the worst player in baseball – we’re not talking about Yuniesky Betancourt here. But the Royals have a better, younger player just waiting by the phone. It’s time to make it ring.