Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Signing Deadline.

I know I owe you an article about how the additions of Johnny Giavotella and Salvador Perez have put the finishing touches on the most interesting Royals lineup in years, if not decades. But as you know, Monday was the signing deadline for the draft, and when the dust had settled, it turned out to be a far more interesting day for the Royals than I would have expected.

The interesting part of the day had little to do with Bubba Starling. There was no real danger that Starling wouldn’t sign, not when it was clear that his football skills didn’t match his baseball skills (run-first Nebraska quarterbacks are not exactly elite NFL prospects), not when it was clear how excited he was to be drafted by his hometown team, and not when – most importantly – the Royals have made it abundantly clear over the past four years that they will pay the market rate and then some to sign elite talents.

Starling did sign, as expected, and as expected, he signed so close to the deadline that the first confirmation on Twitter (from Scott Boras’ personal mouthpiece, Jon Heyman) didn’t arrive until about 4 minutes after the deadline had passed. Mildly surprising was that Starling signed for $7.5 million, which was less than what most people expected.

On Draft Day, I had predicted this exact amount, but as we got closer to the deadline, and rumors of $10 million offers swirled and the Boras Factor got magnified, I decided to inch my prediction upward, settling in at $8.25 million. They say you should never bet the under on a Boras contract. That may be true in general, and that’s almost always true for free-agent signings, but I think we may have reached our limit with amateur players, where the money being offered is so life-changing that teams feel comfortable sticking to their offer and daring the player to walk away. Even Scott Boras has his limits.

When Stephen Strasburg got a shade over $15 million guaranteed, everyone assumed Bryce Harper would get even more the following year; it’s a rare year that a Boras client doesn’t break the previous bonus record, after all. But Harper signed for just $9.9 million guaranteed. While Harper had uncommon leverage – he was just 17, after all, and could have gone back into the draft a year later – the Nationals quite reasonably didn’t want to guarantee as much for a player still years away from the majors as they did for a pitcher who could have been a #3 starter in the majors while he was still a college sophomore. And they didn’t have to, because 10 million dollars is an insane amount of money for a 17-year-old kid to walk away from. Scott Boras is many things; he’s not insane.

The rumors – and I must emphasize that everything I’m about to write is pure conjecture – were that the Royals offered $7.5 million to Starling immediately after he was drafted. Based on that rumor, and the fact that the two sides reportedly had no contact until just hours before the deadline, I will try to connect the dots here:

- The Royals drafted Bubba Starling, and immediately thereafter made a formal contract offer of $7.5 million, spread out over five years (taking advantage of the MLB provision that allows two-sport athletes to be paid over five years.)

- The Starling camp responded with a demand for $10 million.

- The two sides spoke rarely, if at all, between Draft Day and about 10:30 on Monday night.

- At 10:30, the Royals made the same offer they had in June, $7.5 million.

- The Boras camp made a counteroffer – perhaps the same $10 million, perhaps not. The Royals refused to budge.

- The minutes counted down, and the Boras camp tried to call the Royals’ bluff. They couldn’t, because it wasn’t a bluff. I’m reasonably certain that the Royals would have held their offer all the way to the deadline.

- The Starling camp realized in the final minutes that the Royals weren’t bluffing. At this point, my guess is that Boras tried to get a cosmetic concession, asking for the $7.5 million to be paid upfront. The Royals agreed to compromise on this request, which is why Starling’s bonus will be paid out over three years instead of five. (This is quite unusual – I’m not sure I’ve seen a signing bonus paid out over three years before. It’s almost always either a five-year spread or a lump sum.)

- With 51 seconds to the deadline, according to published reports, the Royals and Starling agreed to terms.

If my narrative is correct, than the Royals got Scott Boras – or his client – to blink. On the other hand, Boras got his client $7.5 million, the most guaranteed money the Royals have ever given to an amateur player here. The Royals were winners here, but there were no losers.

The part of the narrative I’m most certain about is that there was virtually no negotiating between Draft Day and August 15th, which was true for the majority of first-rounders – 23 of the 33 first-round picks had not agreed to terms going into Monday, and 22 of those 23 wound up signing. If we didn’t know it already, the two-month delay between the draft and the signing deadline is a complete waste of time. I’d rant more about this, but with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement being hammered out behind closed doors, I’m fairly confident that the signing deadline starting next year will be July 15th, if not sooner.

Anyway, Starling’s signing was a foregone conclusion; the intrigue came elsewhere in the draft. Whatever money the Royals saved by holding firm with Bubba, they spent and more. The Royals had already given second-round pick Cameron Gallagher $750,000 to sign – a little over the “recommended bonus” for his draft slot of $562,500. But on Monday, David Glass put on red tights and a fake white beard and stuffed a pillow under his shirt.

Fifth-round pick Patrick Leonard signed for $600,000. Slot money for his draft position was $161,100.

Fourth-round pick Kyle Smith signed for $695,000 – slot was $227,700.

Third-round pick Bryan Brickhouse, who before the draft was rumored to be demanding $1 million to sign, got his million – and an extra $500,000 to boot. Slot was $358,200.

Those signings were largely expected, although Brickhouse’s bonus was awfully surprising. But that wasn’t it. The Royals dispensed several other large bonuses to late picks who dropped in the draft because they were considered difficult signs.

Jack Lopez, the Royals’ 16th-round pick, was a Florida high school shortstop with the polish you’d expect from the son of the Reds’ bullpen coach. He got $750,000 to sign.

Jake Junis, an athletic two-way player from here in Illinois, had been drafted in the 29th round. The Royals signed him as a pitcher for $675,000.

In the 30th round, the Royals selected Mark Binford, a 6’7” right-hander whose high school career had been interrupted by Tommy John surgery, but has significant projection. They inked him for $575,000.

All told, according to Baseball America, the Royals spent a shade over $14 million in the draft. This smashed the previous all-time record – the Nationals had spent close to $12 million last year – but was only the third-richest draft haul this season, as the Nationals spent $15 million and the Pirates set the new record at just over $17 million.

The Nationals spent most of their bonus money on their first four picks, notably giving third-rounder Matt Purke, who came into the year as a projected Top 5 overall pick, $4 million and a major-league contract even though his arm may be damaged goods at this point. The Pirates spent $13 million of their $17 million on just two players – #1 overall pick Gerrit Cole, and their second-round pick Josh Bell, who was considered to be unsignable given his stated desire to go to college. By comparison, the Royals spread the wealth around a little more.

Look at it this way: the Royals, with just two picks in the first two rounds, spent more money in the draft than the Tampa Bay Rays, who had twelve picks in the first two rounds. That’s largely because the Royals had the chance to draft Starling, of course, who himself accounted for more than half the money the Royals spent. But consider this: the Royals handed out bonuses of $575,000 or more to as many players – eight – as the Rays did. That’s impressive.

Tempering my enthusiasm is that while the Royals gave out a lot of big bonuses, none of the guys they gave them to were elite, first-round-caliber talents that fell in the draft. There was no Wil Myers or Chris Dwyer or even Tim Melville in this draft – with the exception of Bubba, no one the Royals signed would have been a first-round pick in a world where signability wasn’t an issue. These were all second-to-fifth round talents. The Royals were willing to spend, but whether they get a return on their investment depends on their ability to scout.

It’s notable that the late-round signings – Lopez and Junis and Binford – were scouted throughout the summer, which allowed the Royals to get a better read on their abilities. Presumably, if they hadn’t liked what they saw, the Royals wouldn’t have been willing to cough up half a million dollars to sign them. A player’s stock can rise dramatically in the course of one summer – Albert Pujols famously showed a glimpse of what was to come between the time the Cardinals drafted him and when he signed. But all three late-round signings got the equivalent of second-round money – suggesting they are fine players, but not can’t-miss prospects by any means.

All eight players, it should be noted, are high school guys. The Braves’ philosophy has always been high school-heavy, and it’s usually worked for them. It’s worked for the Royals by and large since Dayton Moore was hired. But there’s added risk involved, and an added delay in seeing a return on their investment.

And let’s not forget: the Royals already gave $3 million to Elier Hernandez and $2 million to Adalberto Mondesi (Raul Mondesi’s son), both 16-year-olds out of the Dominican Republic. (Hernandez is an outfielder, Mondesi’s a shortstop.) They are the two largest bonuses ever given to an international amateur player by the Royals (Noel Arguelles aside; Cubans are always counted differently for some reason.) Both are 16 years old and have huge risk profiles. But with huge risk comes huge reward; the player who previously held the Royals’ record for the highest bonus given to a Latin American talent, Cheslor Cuthbert, is raking in the Midwest League at the age of 18 and is one of the best prospects in the system.

So counting the money spent in Latin America, the total outlay for amateur players by the Royals this summer checks in at around $20 million. (Thanks, Gil!) Amazingly enough, I’ve been told that’s not a record. What is almost certainly a record, though, is this: the Royals have spent more than half as much money ($20 million) on amateur players this year as they have on their entire major-league payroll ($36 million). I highly doubt any other team has ever done that.

Let me rephrase that: if my assumptions are correct, the Royals have devoted a larger share of their player budget to amateur talent than any other team in the history of baseball.

I fervently believe that the Royals can be competitive next year, and I fervently believe that they should be competitive in 2013. If they are not, heads deserve to roll.

But it’s worth remembering that, even if the worst-case scenario happens and Dayton Moore is shown the door in two years, he will have left the organization with a great deal of depth in the farm system. It took years to get the hamster wheel to start moving at full speed, but now that it is, it’s running of its own accord – the talent that’s making its way to the major-league roster is being replaced at the lowest rungs of the minor leagues just as fast.

Every player who has made his debut with the Royals since Opening Day is under contract through 2017. Maybe the Royals stumble next year, and maybe they stumble the year after that. But they’ve got six chances to get it right. With all the talent already on hand, and $20 million worth of ballplayers just now added, you have to figure they’re going to get it right at least once before time runs out.

Meanwhile, only two organizations spent less than $3 million in the draft: the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago White Sox. The Royals don’t have to focus on beating the Yankees and Red Sox – they simply have to beat the four other teams in the AL Central. And, at least when it comes to amateur talent, the Royals out-spent half of their divisional rivals this summer by the margin of nearly seven-to-one. If you’re looking for a reason to dream about the Royals not just winning, but dominating their division in a few years, well, stop looking.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Of Moose And Men.

Last night, Mike Moustakas played third base, as he has done in virtually every game since he was called up in early June, and batted 8th, as he has done in most every game since last Sunday – and, I’m guessing, never in his entire life before that.

He struck out in his first plate appearance against Jake Peavy. His second time up, he hit a liner right back to Peavy. His third time up, he jumped on a hanging breaking ball and lined it straight to the rightfielder. His final time at-bat, leading off the 9th against flamethrowing lefty Chris Sale with the Royals down a run, he grounded out weakly to the first baseman.

Four times up, four times made out, and it’s telling that having two hard-hit balls represents some kind of progress for Moustakas. Moustakas played in his 50th major-league game last night. After homering in his second career game, he hasn’t done so since. He endured a 2-for-49 stretch in mid-July, and after breaking out of that slump – if you can call going 7-for-27 a slumpbuster – he’s now 6-for-44 since. Since the 4th of July, Moustakas is 15-for-118, a .127 average, with just four extra-base hits (all doubles) and four walks. He’s 0-for-31 against the White Sox in his short career. He’s 4-for-47 against left-handed pitching. He’s 7-for-56 with runners in scoring position. From the 7th inning on, he’s 7-for-64. And so on.

Remember what a horrible hitter Alcides Escobar was before he suddenly caught fire in early June? After going 0-for-4 on June 6th, Escobar was hitting .203/.237/.236. In 212 at-bats, he had seven extra-base hits (all doubles) and nine walks.

In 183 at-bats, Moustakas is hitting .187/.241/.235 with seven extra-base hits (six doubles, one homer) and 13 walks. And he’s unlikely to contend for a Gold Glove at shortstop.

Prospects, even top prospects, have been known to struggle in their first exposure to major-league pitching. On some level, every rookie has endured the difficulties that Moustakas has dealt with. But very few rookies have endured this much difficulty.

How few? I decided to make a list of every third baseman who, in the year he debuted in the major leagues, batted 175 or more times with an OBP of under .250 and a slugging average of under .250.

Mike Moustakas is the first name on that list. He is also the last name on that list. No third baseman has ever debuted as poorly as Moustakas has in so many at-bats.

So I decided to expand the list to look at players at any position, with the same criteria as above – 175+ plate appearances, sub-.250 OBP and sub-.250 SLG. Seven other players met those criteria – but just one since 1972, and just three since World War II.

The only player of my lifetime with such a horrible debut was Brandon Inge, whose career is intertwined with Moustakas in an interesting way. Inge came up as a highly-touted catcher in 2001; he had been #67 on Baseball America’s Prospect List that spring. He hit .180/.215/.238 in 79 games. This being the early-21st-century Tigers, they had no better options other than to let him continue to play. In 2002 Inge inched forward to a line of .202/.266/.333; in 2003 he moved another millimeter to .203/.265/.339, and was still allowed to play in 104 games, doing his part as the Tigers lost 119 games that year.

Rather than giving up on Inge, the Tigers decided to move him to third base, where the offensive expectations were higher – and it worked beautifully, as from 2004 to 2006 Inge hit .265/.327/.443 and was a shockingly smooth defender. His stunning improvement mirrored that of the Tigers, as they rose to the AL pennant in 2006.

They won the pennant that year, but lost the division, blowing a big lead to the Twins and settling for the wild-card spot. They lost the division because they were swept in a season-ending series by the Royals. This was arguably more painful for the Royals than for the Tigers – by sweeping Detroit, the Royals wound up one game “ahead” of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for the worst record in baseball – the Rays wound up with the first pick, the Royals with the second.

As I detailed here, on the season’s final day, had Brandon Inge simply managed to put the ball in play in the bottom of the 11th inning, the Tigers would have won the AL Central, and the Royals would have had the #1 overall pick instead. But he struck out. The Rays drafted #1, and took the clear #1 player in the draft, David Price. The Royals drafted #2, and they took…Mike Moustakas.

That eerie connection aside, most of the other players with horrible debuts never amounted to anything. The only other player to wind up with a career of note was Billy Rogell, who as an overmatched 20-year-old with the 1925 Red Sox hit .195/.244/.237. Rogell would eventually resurface five years later with Detroit, and from 1932 to 1938 was one of the better shortstops in the league, hitting .278/.366/.386 with above-average defense.

I don’t know what this means for Moustakas. His struggles notwithstanding, he’s not the second coming of Brandon Wood. Wood was done in by a historic amount of swing-and-miss – when the Angels released him earlier this year, he had a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 153-to-13. Moustakas could stand to be more patient, but he has just 32 strikeouts in 187 at-bats, a pace of around 90-100 strikeouts over a full season. If anything, his problem is that he’s too afraid of not making contact – he’s putting the first decent pitch into play, leading to a lot of easy outs. His batting average on balls in play is just .219. That’s suggestive of a lot of weak contact, but also suggestive of some bad luck.

I’m not sure what ails Moustakas, but I do know that the standard prescription for his ailment is some remedial time in Omaha. The Royals have all but ruled that out, however. As Ned Yost said in today’s edition of the Kansas City Star:

“You don’t send him down for the same reason they didn’t send George Brett, Mike Schmidt or Robin Yount down after 250 at-bats and hitting .215.”

Except when Mike Schmidt was a rookie and hit .196, he also walked 52 times and hit 18 homers, for a respectable .324 OBP and .373 slugging average. When Brett had as many career plate appearances (205) as Moustakas has now, on June 27, 1973, his career line was .232/.272/.295 – poor numbers, but still substantially better than Moose’s. And Brett was just 20 years old at the time. Yount hit .250/.276/.346 as a rookie, and he was 18 years old.

“This is the same thing. This is nothing new. He’s not breaking any ground here.”

Unfortunately, he is. I’m not saying I know what the solution is. I’m just saying that Moustakas’ struggles so far are not the typical ones endured by a rookie. And so long as the Royals hand-wave his performance away as “not breaking any ground,” they’re unlikely to figure out the solution either.