Friday, September 2, 2011

Mea Culpa.

Two years ago, this blog went on hiatus for a time. The Royals were terrible, their beloved Process was opaque, they had become increasingly defensive of anyone who criticized it or them, and rooting for the organization had ceased to be enjoyable. So I took my ball and went home, at least for a while.

Today, as many of you have noticed, I am once again blogging quite infrequently. Some of that has nothing to do with the Royals – I have family, a career, we just completed the month of Ramadan, and along with my weekly podcast I also now write for Grantland. But my lack of production these last few weeks can also be blamed on the team.

Only this time, the reasons are completely different. The Royals’ record may be terrible, but their record is not reflective of the way they are playing*. The Process is no longer opaque – it’s actually pretty clear: patiently build a fantastic farm system, and then wind it up and let it go. I can’t speak to whether the organization is defensive of its critics or not, because it’s increasingly difficult to find critics – certainly there are critics of specific players and specific decisions, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who is genuinely critical of the team’s overall direction.

*: The Royals are 57-81, but they’ve been outscored by just 58 runs all season. Only the Astros have lost more games, but seven teams have been outscored by more runs.

And rooting for the Royals is as fun as it’s been since at least 2003. The 2003 season was a different kind of fun – it was the fun that comes from knowing that the law of averages were going to catch up to you, but rooting for them to hold off until the end of the season. This year’s fun comes from watching young players get acclimated to the majors, knowing that whether the Royals win or lose, the important thing is that the best is yet to come.

And precisely because it’s fun to watch the Royals play, day after day…I find I don’t have much to say.

Eleven players have made their major-league debuts for the Royals this season, roughly one every other week. Here, let’s line them up chronologically:

March 31: Aaron Crow
March 31: Nate Adcock
March 31: Tim Collins
April 21: Louis Coleman
May 6: Eric Hosmer
May 17: Everett Teaford
May 18: Danny Duffy
June 10: Mike Moustakas
August 3: Manny Pina
August 5: Johnny Giavotella
August 10: Salvador Perez

It’s not just the quantity of prospects – no other team has had as many players debut this season – but the quality. Pina is a backup catcher, and Teaford is a lefty specialist (although even Teaford has some upside). Adcock is a swingman. Collins, Coleman, and Crow are quality relievers, and Crow at least has some starter possibilities.

But that leaves the Royals with five potential impact players – a starting pitcher in Danny Duffy and four everyday hitters, including a second baseman, a third baseman, and a catcher.

The process of slowly replacing a roster of placeholders with long-term fixtures was happening at a deliberate schedule until four weeks ago, when the Royals decided to accelerate the process. Johnny Giavotella’s callup was not unexpected – he was clearly ready for the major leagues, having hit .338/.390/.481 in Omaha. (Although the common perception that the Royals left him in the minors too long is not entirely fair. Giavotella was hitting just .285 with two homers at the end of May, and then hit .398/.431/.610 in June and .383/.430/.570 in July. He probably could have been called up a month earlier, but that’s a far cry from saying he was ready back in May.)

But the callup of Salvador Perez signaled a change in the Royals’ approach. Perez was the first player the Royals called up this season who you could reasonably argue had been rushed. For one thing, he was barely 21 when he was called up – he’s six months younger than Hosmer and three years younger than Giavotella.

For another, he had played a grand total of 91 games in the high minors. Giavotella had 134 games in Double-A and another 110 in Triple-A before his recall; Moustakas had 173 games between the two levels. Hosmer, amazingly enough, had just 76 games above A-ball when he was recalled – but in those 76 games he had hit .355 with 16 homers, along with his obscene performance in the Texas League playoffs last year. Perez had hit .290/.331/.437 in the minor leagues this year, a respectable performance but certainly not one that forced the Royals’ hand. In 12 games in Triple-A, he had hit .333, but had not drawn a single walk. He wasn’t ready for the majors, but the Royals made the decision that he could continue his development with the big club.

And in calling him and Giavotella up in the same week, the Royals closed the links in the Royals’ lineup chain. On August 10th, the night of Perez’s debut in Tampa Bay, the Royals featured their new lineup. You know the one – it’s pretty much the same one Ned Yost has been using for the last three weeks – but for posterity’s sake, here it is:

LF: Alex Gordon, 27
CF: Melky Cabrera, 26
DH: Billy Butler, 25
1B: Eric Hosmer, 21
RF: Jeff Francoeur, 27
2B: Johnny Giavotella, 24
C: Salvador Perez, 21
3B: Mike Moustakas, 22
SS: Alcides Escobar, 24

Melky Cabrera would turn 27 the next day, but at least for this one day, the average age of the Royals’ lineup was just a tick over 24 years old. Felipe Paulino, a young veteran at just 27 himself, was the starting pitcher – four nights later, that same lineup took the field in defense of 22-year-old Danny Duffy.

A superficial examination of the farm system would lead you to conclude that it’s been a disappointing year for the team. Christian Colon already looks like a mistake selection with the #4 overall pick last year. Wil Myers has been a big disappointment. Aside from Duffy, the other three top left-handed prospects – Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, and Chris Dwyer – have all been either ineffective or hurt. That’s five of Baseball America’s top eight prospects before the season.

If you divorce the farm system from the organization as a whole, it has been a disappointing year – a year after being named the best farm system in a generation, the Royals may not rank in the top five in all of baseball. But the whole point of having prospects is to turn them into major leaguers. And when you account for the major leagues, I think it’s actually been a better year than expected for the organization.

First off, there are the prospects who have graduated from the minor leagues. Remember, six months ago the general expectation was that Hosmer would spend most of the season in the minor leagues – and possibly qualify as a prospect once again. Obviously, he does not. After hitting three homers in the Tigers series and reaching base five times on Thursday, Hosmer’s line for the season is .283/.335/.452. As a rookie, Will Clark hit .287/.343/.444. That comparison just gets spookier and spookier.

Mike Moustakas has followed his prescribed timeline – he debuted, as expected, in early June. Apparently his name is Greek for “Dan Uggla”, because after batting .182/.237/.227 in his first 53 games, and inspiring this column – he’s now working on a 15-game hitting streak, which ties the mark for the longest hitting streak in history by a Royals rookie. He’s still in the deep woods, but at least he can see the way out now.

Giavotella and Perez, on the other hand, have both elevated their prospect standing dramatically in the last five months. Giavotella was the #18 prospect in the system according to Baseball America – while he hit .322 last season, he stands 5’8” and his defensive reputation wasn’t very good, and there were some doubts he could hit that well again. Instead, he hit even better, and while his defense is erratic, he’s complemented every mistake with a web gem. Giavotella’s performance this year has completely negated the impact of Colon’s failure to develop.

Perez was Baseball America’s #17 prospect – a young catcher with elite defensive skills but whose .290/.322/.411 line in Wilmington last year made his bat a question mark. I thought he was underrated, because the difficulty of hitting in Wilmington is always understated – most Royals prospects actually improve their numbers when moving from A-ball to Double-A. Perez’s numbers in the minors this season were eerily similar – he hit exactly .290, but with a smidge more power – and he remained a beast behind the plate, throwing out 46% of basestealers.

If anything, he’s elevated his status even more since being called up to the majors – he’s hitting .279/.315/.426, with a respectable strikeout-to-walk ratio of 10-4, and hit an absolute bomb for his first home run on Monday. If he’s been rushed, he’s hiding it well.

It’s important to remember this when the off-season organizational rankings are released this winter: if the Royals had kept Giavotella and Perez in the minors for just another two or three weeks, both of them would probably have kept their rookie eligibility for next year, which means they would both be counted as part of the Royals’ farm system. Instead, they’ll probably both pass the 130 at-bat limit. This may cause the Royals’ minor league ranking to suffer a little, but it means absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things – it’s just a semantic distinction. Whether Giavotella or Perez count as “prospects” or not is a PR issue; it’s not a baseball one.

Then there are the lesser prospects who have established themselves in the bullpen, all of whom have at least lived up to expectations, if not exceeded them. Aaron Crow (#9 on Baseball America’s list) was an All-Star, and we’ll just ignore what he’s done since. Tim Collins (#13) needs to throw more strikes, but doesn’t need to miss a lot more bats. Louis Coleman (#19) has been terrific for most of the season. And Greg Holland, who didn’t even make the Royals’ Top 30 Prospects, has been the best rookie reliever in the American League.

And then there are the young but established hitters in the lineup. Billy Butler is Billy Butler, more or less, and Alcides Escobar is doing roughly what should have been expected of him, hitting an empty .250 but playing excellent defense.

As for Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur, well, you know the story there, and you know that there are still doubts they can keep hitting the way they can. So let’s just focus on Alex Gordon. In 2005, Gordon was the best college player in America. In 2006, he was the best player in the minor leagues. In 2011, he’s hitting .304/.377/.502. If that’s all you knew about Alex Gordon, you’d have to conclude that his career has played out as expected.

And, of course, you’d be completely wrong. Alex Gordon hit .215/.315/.355 last year. The year before, he hit .232/.324/.378. I know this, and you know this – and yet I don’t think you really know this, because I don’t think I really knew it either. Gordon has been such a consistently excellent player from the first (well, second) day of the season, and we all were so confident that he was capable of this kind of performance, that I think we may have forgotten just how close we came to never seeing this performance in a Royals uniform. A huge portion of the fanbase had written him off, and there was legitimate concern that the front office had as well.

Instead, he’s been absolutely fantastic. According to, Gordon has been worth 5.3 Wins Above Replacement this year, the best season by any Royals hitter since 2003 (and aside from Zack Greinke’s 2009, the best by any Royals player period.) And there’s still a month left in the season.

So when taking stock of, say, Wil Myers’ disappointing season in Double-A, it’s best to keep some perspective. Would the Royals be better off if Myers were raking like he did last year, but with Gordon limping to the end of another disappointing season? Of course not. While Myers has failed to meet expectations, he’s still just 20 years old. By 2013 he might be ready to join the Royals’ lineup as an above-average rightfielder – only now the Royals project to have an even better player in the other corner.

In calling up Giavotella and Perez, and signing Francoeur to a two-year extension, the Royals have accomplished something extraordinary: the lineup that took the field on August 10th, 2011 is likely to be the same lineup the Royals use for all of 2012. While I may have disagreed with the particulars of the Francoeur deal, I also believe that he is a fundamentally better player than he used to be, and is capable of being at least an average rightfielder for the life of the contract. (And he has hit .305/.328/.475 since re-upping.) I’m not a fan of Cabrera’s defense, but I’m a big fan of a .303/.337/.474 performance out of my centerfielder.

In almost every Royals game of the last 25 years, there has been at least one player in their lineup that didn’t deserve to be there – someone who was washed up, someone who was still productive but was too old to be a part of the next good Royals team, someone who had youth to dream on but not the talent to take advantage of it, or someone who was never that good in the first place. Whether it was David Howard or Jose Lind, Chuck Knoblauch or Neifi Perez, Terrence Long or Doug Mientkiewicz, Mike Jacobs or Jose Guillen – there was always someone in the lineup who it was difficult to root for. There was always someone in the lineup who deep in your subconscious you wanted to fail, because the more they failed, the quicker the Royals would give up on them and move on to someone who might be a part of a brighter future.

Today, for one of the few times in my history as a Royals fan, EVERYONE in the Royals’ lineup is a part of their future. I want to watch EVERYONE who comes to the plate. There are no bathroom breaks in the lineup anymore. I don’t care what the Royals’ record is – that alone makes this season a success of sorts.

For the season, the average age of the Royals’ hitters – weighted for playing time – is 26.1 years old. That is by far the youngest offense the Royals have had in the last 40 years. The 1969 expansion Royals averaged 25.8 years of age. The 1970 Royals were 26.4 years old. Every other Royals offense averaged at least 27.0 years old. And it’s already a good offense. The team ranks 6th in the American League in runs scored.

And…I’m having difficulty coming up with things to say. At least when it comes to the offense, what’s there to argue about? I’ve already said my piece about Francoeur, so going into next season, what other decisions need to be made? The Royals need to decide between Cabrera and Lorenzo Cain in centerfield. They need to decide whether Brayan Pena works as their backup catcher – I think he does, but I respect that my opinion is in the minority. They need to settle on their bench. They absolutely need to get Gordon signed to a long-term deal - and both sides expect that to get done this winter. And that’s it.

That doesn’t preclude them from entertaining bold ideas like trading Billy Butler for pitching or trying to sell high on Moustakas. But those ideas are luxuries; they’re not necessities. When it comes to the offense, standing pat is a completely viable option for the Royals this winter.

And that, in turn, relieves the pressure on the hitters in the farm system. Essentially, every hitter in the minor leagues gets a mulligan for next season, because barring injury, none of them will have their services required any time soon. Last year, all the fun we had as Royals fans was vicarious, as we perused minor league box scores and read scouting reports. Now, the fun is on TV every single day.

That doesn’t absolve the organization of the ongoing problems they have with the pitching staff, which merits its own column. And there is a cautionary tale from the organization’s past that must be dealt with as well. But if you’ll permit me to navel-gaze this one time, I just wanted to explain my reason for not writing about the Royals of late: I’ve been too busy rooting them on. This isn’t a lineup I want to analyze. It’s a lineup I want to experience.