Friday, November 18, 2011

Royals Report Card 2011: Part Two.

I normally save the off-field personnel to the end, but there are special circumstances here:

Nick Kenney, Kyle Turner, and the Rest of the Training Staff: A+

Two years ago, the Royals’ Head Athletic Trainer was Nick Swartz. He had been the team’s trainer for nearly 20 years.

That April, Joakim Soria was allowed to pitch through some shoulder pain. His pain worsened, and he went on the DL in early May for nearly a month. Around the same time, Mike Aviles, who had tried to play through some tenderness in his forearm, was finally diagnosed with an injury to his elbow that required Tommy John surgery.

In late May, Coco Crisp missed some time with a sore shoulder, which it turns out he had been suffering since spring training. He tried to play through the pain, the injury got worse, he rested some more, he played some more, the injury got worse, and finally on June 19th he was seen by Dr. James Andrews, who diagnosed a torn labrum that required season-ending surgery.

Two days later, Gil Meche took the mound despite some soreness in his shoulder, which he had noticed after throwing 132 pitches in a complete-game shutout his previous time out. Meche gave up nine runs that day, but was allowed to stay in the rotation, even after giving up four runs in five innings on June 26th, even after he complained of a dead arm. On July 1st, with that dead arm, Meche threw 121 pitches against the Twins, and was allowed to face the heart of the Twins’ lineup with the game tied in the sixth inning. He would make just 15 more starts in his career, just two of which were Quality Starts.

While acknowledging that the above decisions cannot all be blamed on the trainer – in particular, Trey Hillman and Bob McClure still haven’t answered for their complicity in the murder of Meche’s career – it was a breathtakingly terrible performance by Swartz. You may remember this.

Swartz was let go after the season, and the Royals hired Nick Kenney, who was previously the Assistant Head Trainer for the Indians, as his replacement. The Royals also brought in a new Assistant Head Trainer (Kyle Turner), a new strength and conditioning coach (Ryan Stoneberg), and this year even brought in a new team physician (Dr. Vincent Key).

In 2010, the Royals’ health performance was improved. Some injuries were unavoidable; Meche was already damaged goods, and Jason Kendall’s shoulder finally told the tale of his 15 years as a consummate warrior behind the plate. But you could already sense a change afoot.

In 2011, the Royals had one of the most injury-free seasons you’ll ever see.

Five different Royals – Billy Butler (159), Alcides Escobar (158), Melky Cabrera (155), Jeff Francoeur (153), and Alex Gordon (151) – all played in over 150 games. In the history of the franchise, only two other Royals teams had five players play in that many games in a season – the 1976 and 1977 Royals. Good company to be in.

The Royals’ starting outfield was so healthy and productive that Mitch Maier’s lack of playing time became a running joke among the fan base – Royals Review likened Maier to the kid at summer camp who never got to play. Finally, Francoeur and Gordon were shut down for the season’s last four games just so that Maier, along with Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson, could get some reps in. Otherwise, the Royals would have had five different players appear in 155 games each.

That’s not unprecedented; the 2009 Phillies had six players appear in 155 games or more. But then consider that after he was called up on May 6th, Eric Hosmer appeared in 128 of the Royals’ remaining 131 games. (Counting his minor league time, Hosmer actually played in 154 games this season.) Mike Moustakas was promoted on June 10th, and played in 89 of the Royals’ remaining 99 games – and the games he missed were more about his early struggles than any injury concerns. From August 5th until the end of the season, Moustakas missed only three games.

Once Hosmer and Moustakas were in place, then, seven of the nine lineup spots were spoken for almost every night. The only exceptions were at second base, where the Royals struggled to find a player worthy of playing every day, and catcher, which by nature of the position requires the occasional day off. (Although don’t be surprised if Ned Yost tests those limits. Yost got 149 starts out of Jason Kendall in 2008, and you know he’ll want to do the same next year with Salvador Perez.)

As best as I can tell, the entire Royals offense only used the DL twice during the 2011 season: Kendall, who spent the entire season on the DL in a failed attempt to return from a severe shoulder injury, and Treanor, who spent a month on the DL (half of it on a rehab assignment in the minors) after suffering a concussion on a collision at the plate.

The Royals had perhaps the youngest offense in baseball, and young players are less likely to get injured. But there’s no way to spin this as anything other than a fantastic job by the Royals’ training staff.

There were more injuries on the pitching staff, but only a few more. Bruce Chen went on the DL in early May with a strained lat muscle, and missed six weeks; he returned in late June and had no problems thereafter. Kyle Davies was mercifully put on the DL with shoulder pain in mid-May; he returned in early July, but last only four more starts before he went back on the DL, and eventually was transferred to oblivion.

No other starting pitcher so much as missed a start as a result of injury. Luke Hochevar made 31 starts before he was shut down in late September when he reached his innings limit. More impressively, Jeff Francis, who missed all of 2009 with a torn labrum and a full month in 2010 with more inflammation in his shoulder, took the ball for all 31 of his scheduled starts this year.

Felipe Paulino was plucked off waivers in late May, went into the rotation after one relief appearance, and made every start thereafter. Danny Duffy made every one of his starts after his call-up in May. No other pitcher that started for the Royals this season missed any time with an injury. Vinny Mazzaro and Sean O’Sullivan missed time because they sucked, but that’s not the same thing.

The bullpen was equally healthy. Robinson Tejeda didn’t look right from day one, and after nine ineffective outings went on the DL for a month with shoulder inflammation; after giving up runs in his first two outings upon his return, he was outrighted to Omaha.

Joakim Soria got hit hard early in the year, which made us suspect a recurrence of his arm problems from 2009, but he managed to work through his struggles, which in the end were probably the result of an over-reliance on his cut fastball. Soria did miss the last three weeks of the season with a strained hamstring. Aaron Crow battled through a strained shoulder in the second half, and while he never went on the DL, he pitched ineffectively and infrequently after the All-Star Break. (He only threw 11 innings in the season’s final two months, and allowed 28 baserunners and nine runs.) In retrospect, the Royals should have just shut him down completely for a few weeks.

And that’s it. For the season, the entire Royals roster spent a total of 271 days on the Disabled List. That is astounding. And today, not surprisingly, the Royals’ health record earned their training staff the Dick Martin Award.

The Dick Martin Award was started by Will Carroll back in 2005, as a way of honoring the best trainers in the game. While Nick Swartz was the head trainer, the Royals never won this award. The Royals never came particularly close to winning the award. With Nick Kenney – who was the Assistant Head Trainer in Cleveland when the Indians won the award in 2007 – at the helm, the Royals won in their second season. Keeping players healthy is a skill, and Kenney seems to have that skill in spades.

I don’t want to rehash the events of the summer of 2009. I wrote some deeply critical things about Swartz, the Royals responded in kind. Both sides probably crossed the line. And in fairness to Swartz, the failure of the organization to keep its players healthy was a systemic issue that ran a lot deeper than any one person.

So it’s telling that when the Royals made changes after the 2009 season, they didn’t stop with Swartz; they turned over the whole operation. And this year, they reaped the rewards.

I have some regrets about the way I handled the situation. But I have no regrets about bringing the issues with the Royals’ training staff to the forefront. The team’s amazing health record this season is all the justification I needed.

In the aftermath of L’Affaire Swartz, I hoped I wouldn’t have to write about the Royals’ training staff ever again. I couldn’t be happier to be wrong. A major weakness has turned into an undeniable strength. Let’s hope that what has happened with the training staff presages what happens with the organization as a whole.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Royals Report Card 2011: Part One.

Unlike the last several off-seasons, the Royals are unlikely to have a lot of transactions this winter. The transactions they do make might be particularly significant, like the Cabrera-Sanchez trade, but they’re also likely to be rare. This is a testament to the job Dayton Moore & Co. have done over the last few years; they’ve built a roster that, with the exception of the rotation, doesn’t have a lot of holes to fill.

With the trade of Cabrera, the Royals’ starting lineup is completely set, and if there is any intrigue at all – who starts at second base, who are the backup outfielder(s) – the intrigue is going to come from internal battles. I suppose the Royals could sign a utility infielder, but they might be better off just going with Yamaico Navarro. And alas, Willie Bloomquist has already signed elsewhere.

The bullpen is stacked; if there’s a transaction involving a reliever, it’s more likely to involve one departing than arriving. Really, the only need the Royals have this winter is for another starting pitcher, which is why I spent the better part of a month writing about it. (Come on, Dayton. Give Roy Oswalt what he wants.)

So there may not be much of a need to write about Royals personnel moves over the next three months. Which gives me the chance to clear up a backlog of other columns, starting with the annual report cards for each player that I should have started six weeks ago. I apologize if these seem dated. Just think of it as my way of keeping Royals talk alive during these cold, sunless months we refer to as the off-season.

As usual, I’ll be grading every player who played a substantial amount for the Royals in 2011, a number of top prospects, and a bunch of off-field personnel. Grades are given out on a B- curve; a player who met his pre-season expectations exactly, but did not exceed them, gets a B-.

I’ll start today with the catchers:

Brayan Pena: C-

As you probably know, I’m particularly fond of Pena, perhaps more than is warranted. I love the strategic advantage of having a switch-hitting catcher, and I’m partial to having an offense-first backup, and I enjoy his Cuban refugee backstory and his infectious attitude.

That said, it wasn’t a particularly good year for him. He’s an extreme-contact player, putting the ball in play in over 80% of his plate appearances, which makes him particularly susceptible to the vagaries of batting average. When he hits .273, as he did in his first year with the Royals, he’s valuable; when he hits .248, like he did this year, he’s not. While he has good raw power, he hit just three homers all season.

His defense was marked by two astonishingly bad plays at the plate, which obscures the fact that he actually had a pretty good year with the glove. On May 29th, with the score tied and two outs in the ninth, Elvis Andrus singled to right field with Mike Napoli on first base. Napoli was sent around third base as Pena set up to catch the throw a few feet up the first base line, and should have been out by about 20 feet. Out of surprise or just lack of preparation, Pena sauntered back to the plate in geologic time, and seemed equally surprised when the umpire called Napoli safe with the walkoff run.

Pena got deservedly reamed for that play, and for the next three months he blocked the plate like it was his newborn child – he was tagging out baserunners, umpires, members of the grounds crew, and in one unfortunate incident he decked Ned Yost when his manager got too close to the plate on his way to a mound meeting. And then all his good work was forgotten when in early August, Pena – perhaps spooked after Matt Treanor had just gone on the DL with a concussion following a plate collision – once again exhibited poor technique on a play at the plate, tagging the runner high and allowing the runner’s foot to touch the plate first.

These two egregious mistakes aside, Pena wasn’t bad. He threw out an impressive 36% of attempted basestealers – the AL average was 28%. He’s worked his ass off to get better, and those two plays notwithstanding, he has.

In three seasons with the Royals, Pena has 597 plate appearances – basically a full season worth of playing time. In that span he’s hit .257/.302/.369. He’ll be 30 next year. He’s unlikely to make seven figures in arbitration, and anyway the Royals have made it clear that they would probably release a bench player before they’d pay one over a million dollars.

If he’s willing to come back for a modest raise from his $660,000 salary in 2011, I’d keep him. Particularly after the Cabrera trade, the Royals now have six right-handed hitters in their everyday lineup, and they need as many bench guys as possible who swing from the left side. Pena can give Salvador Perez a rare day off against the Jered Weavers of the world, the right-handed starters who throw from three-quarters or below. He can pinch-hit for Alcides Escobar against right-handed closers in key situations, assuming Ned Yost doesn’t continue to value “development” over winning games in the here and now. As backup catchers go, Pena is still better than most.

Salvador Perez: B+ (minors), A (majors)

I’ve written this before, but now that the season is done I can give you the definitive list:

Highest Batting Average By Catcher, min: 100 PA, Age 21 or Less

1. Salvador Perez, 2011, .331
2. Jiggs Donahue, 1901, .318
3. Al Lopez, 1930, .309
4. Joe Mauer, 2004, .308
5. Ted Simmons, 1971, .304

Think batting average is kind of gimmicky?

Highest OPS By Catcher, min: 100 PA, Age 21 or Less

1. Joe Mauer, 2004, .939
2. Johnny Bench, 1969, .840
3. Salvador Perez, 2011, .834
4. Jiggs Donahue, 1901, .826
5. Darrell Porter, 1973, .820

Yes, yes, these lists are based on just a sample size of just 39 games, and Perez’s .331 average is unsustainable (although his line drive rate with the Royals was 29%, which is fantastic) and all that. But still. A 21-year-old catcher with a fearsome defensive reputation hit .331 and slugged .473. You have to be at least a little excited by that.

At the beginning of the season, Perez was something like the 18th-best prospect in the Royals system. Today, the only player on that prospect list I’d rather have is Eric Hosmer. I think Perez has vaulted past even Mike Moustakas and Wil Myers. His batting average could drop 80 points and he’d still have value because of his defense.

A year ago, when I was hyping Perez as one of the biggest sleepers in the system, I threw out names like Sandy Alomar Jr. and Yadier Molina as possible best-case-scenario comps. If anything, he may have left those comps behind. Alomar wasn’t an everyday player in the majors until he was almost 24. Molina was a late-season call-up when he was 21, but hit just .267/.329/.356.

Perez isn’t a .331 hitter. But he hit .290 in the minors in 2010, and .290 in the minors in 2011. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call him a true .270 hitter, with a decent amount of pop, very good defense, and with all the future development you’d expect of a 21-year-old player. He’s not a star, but he’s almost certainly a championship-level starting catcher. Molina, after all, has two rings.

Manny Pina: B (minors)

Two years ago, as a 22-year-old catcher in Double-A, Manny Pina walked 19 times and struck out 58 times. This season, as a 24-year-old catcher in Triple-A, Pina drew 36 walks and struck out 40 times. His strikeout-to-walk ratio, which was greater than three in 2009, was almost 1-to-1 in 2011.

Pina is Brayan Pena’s primary competition for the backup catcher’s job next season. I’d still say the job is Pena’s to lose; Pina has options, and despite the improvement in his plate discipline he only hit .239 this season (but slugged .372). Pina was a catch-and-throw guy when the Royals acquired him for million-dollar-arm/ten-cent-head Danny Gutierrez, and he still has good defensive skills. He threw out 27% of basestealers this season, down from 42% the year before.

Pina would be well-served by another year in Triple-A, to see if he can consolidate his offensive skills. He’s probably never going to be an everyday catcher in the major leagues, but there’s no reason he can’t carve out a ten-year career as a backup, in the mold of…

Matt Treanor: B+

…who didn’t even reach the majors until he was 28, but will be starting his ninth year in the majors next season after agreeing to a 1-year, $1 million contract with the Dodgers. (Treanor was originally drafted by the Royals in 1994, traded to the Marlins for Matt Whisenant in 1997…and spent the next seven years in the Marlins’ farm system before finally getting his shot.)

Treanor was acquired at the end of spring training for the price of his contract, which paid him $850,000 this season. For their money, the Royals got the player they thought they were getting when they signed Jason Kendall for twice the time and seven times the money the year before. Like Kendall, Treanor couldn’t actually hit, but he drew 33 walks in 186 at-bats (his previous career high was 22), leading to a strange and strangely effective .226/.351/.306 line for the Royals. He gave the Royals on-base ability, leadership in the clubhouse, mentorship for the Royals’ other catchers, and a toughness that manifested itself when he suffered a concussion at the plate that ended his Royals career – but he held onto the ball.

For his troubles, Treanor was sold back to the Rangers before the roster deadline at the end of August, although he didn’t appear in any postseason games this year. He was a perfectly, and surprisingly, tolerable stopgap for the Royals until Salvador Perez was ready. He’s not going to be immortalized in the pantheon of Royals’ greats, but he gave the Royals everything that they brought him in for.

Jason Kendall: Incomplete

I’m not going to kick a man when he’s down; I hope Kendall’s second shoulder surgery is successful and that it doesn’t give him any issues in his post-baseball life. It’s not his fault that the Royals wildly, laughably overpaid him two winters ago.

I only bring up Kendall because in retrospect his signing, coming less than five months after the trade for Yuniesky Betancourt, looks like the absolute nadir of Dayton Moore’s tenure. I’m not going to rehash the whole thing, but declining Miguel Olivo’s option and flat-out releasing John Buck in order to sign Kendall to twice the guaranteed money is one of the most baffling things Moore has ever done.

Kendall was signed on December 11th; a few days later the Royals signed Noel Arguelles to a five-year contract (which, granted, had been rumored before the Kendall signing). While Arguelles has been a disappointment so far, the signing of a premium amateur talent started the ball rolling on one of the most fantastic years of player development that any organization has ever had. If Dayton Moore was a stock, the moment after he signed Jason Kendall was the time to buy.