Monday, December 19, 2011

Royals Report Card 2011: Part Three.

I apologize for the long gap between posts, but – aside from the fact that it has been a surprisingly (happily so) busy time at the office, the Royals just haven’t done anything really worth talking about.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this period of quiet will soon end. Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I’ve taken to referring to my “Daydar” – my sense that Dayton Moore is up to something. Well, as I write this, it’s six days until Christmas and both Edwin Jackson and Roy Oswalt – my two favorite free-agent targets this off-season – remain unsigned. Maybe the Royals reel in one of them, or maybe they pull off a trade for a starting pitcher. While it’s hard to see the Royals giving up the amount of talent the Reds surrendered for Mat Latos, the price that the A’s sold Trevor Cahill for was shockingly low, so much so that I’m writing a column for Grantland about it.

Cahill, as you might recall from my series on pitchers to acquire, was one of my favorite targets – he’s signed for the next four years for $29 million, along with two club options at $13 million each. The Diamondbacks got him (and Craig Breslow, a useful lefty reliever) for top prospect Jarrod Parker, and a pair of throw-ins in outfielder Colin Cowgill and reliever Ryan Cook. The Royals could have put together an equivalent package by offering, say, Mike Montgomery (or Jake Odorizzi), David Lough, and Kelvin Herrera. Parker is a slightly better prospect than Montgomery or Odorizzi, but then Herrera is a much better relief prospect than Cook. That’s a trade I absolutely would have made; it wouldn’t have gutted the farm system, and would have given the Royals an established #3 starter with genuine upside. (Cahill is one of the most groundball-oriented starting pitchers in the majors, his strikeout rate has jumped each of the last two years, and he doesn’t turn 24 until March. I think he’s a breakout waiting to happen.)

While not trading for Cahill was a missed opportunity, there are plenty of other starting pitchers still out there, and my Daydar is telling me that Moore won’t rest this off-season until he gets one. So stay tuned.

I need to address the one transaction the Royals made at the Winter Meetings, as they traded Yamaico Navarro to Pittsburgh for a couple of prospects in Brooks Pounders and Diego Goris. This was, to put it kindly, a strange move, as much for the timing as for the players involved. The Royals seemed obsessed with making this move prior to the Rule 5 draft, in order to open up a spot on the 40-man roster so they could draft a player. They fielded offers on Navarro from several teams, and settled on the Pirates’ offer Wednesday night. Thursday morning, with a roster spot now available, they were able to select left-handed reliever Cesar Cabral in the Rule 5 draft…and then immediately turn around and sell him to the New York Yankees.

Unless David Glass was using Bernie Madoff as his broker and didn’t tell anyone, I don’t think that the Royals were desperate to trade Navarro just to pocket 50 grand. It’s clear that they wanted to get rid of Navarro for the sake of getting rid of Navarro; while the rumors of a trade were brewing, I heard from two sources that Navarro, even in his short time in Kansas City, was a real negative influence in the clubhouse. You can put up with a jerk if he’s an integral part of the everyday lineup; there’s no point in accommodating a bench player in the same way, and that’s what Navarro projected as.

But that doesn’t explain the timing. Navarro had options; if the Royals couldn’t stomach his presence in the locker room, they could have just sent him to Omaha until the right deal presented itself. Instead they felt compelled to make a trade right this very instant, and wound up with pennies on the dollar.

Pounders has major-league possibilities; he was a second-round pick of the Pirates in 2009. He’s a huge guy (6’4”, 255) who doesn’t fit the stereotype at all, because he doesn’t throw all that hard (his fastball hovers around 90) but has excellent command (just 14 walks in 66 innings this year). He’s already been moved into a relief role – think of him as the Sean O’Sullivan of the bullpen. Which is to say, he’s nowhere near as valuable as Navarro. Goris hit .350/.387/.511 this season in the minors, which sounds great until you realize that 1) he was playing in the Dominican Summer League, and 2) it was his fourth straight season in the league. Goris turned 21 the day after the trade, and still hasn’t played a game on American soil. If Goris ever plays a game in the majors, the scout who recommended him in the deal deserves a raise.

Given Moore’s history of chicanery during the Winter Meetings – Jason Kendall, anyone? – I guess we should be happy that we got out of the meetings having only lost Navarro. The trade itself bothers me, but not nearly as much as the inexplicable urgency to make it.

Anyway, let’s move on with my report cards for the 2011 season. Today, I rate the infielders.

Mike Aviles: D+

You never knew what you were getting from Aviles from one year to the next; he hit .325 as a rookie in 2008, then .183 in 2009, then .304 in 2010. So I guess it’s appropriate that we didn’t know what we were getting in 2011 even from one month to the next. Aviles started the year 3-for-28, then hit .355/.379/.677 over the next three weeks. From May 7th until he was traded at the end of July, Aviles hit .168 (16-for-95), and frankly it was impressive that after all that the Royals were able to trade him for Navarro and Kendall Volz. (The availability of Navarro is, admittedly, much less surprising today.) Naturally, after the trade Aviles hit .317/.340/.436 for Boston.

The thing with Aviles is that while he has surprising pop for a super-utility guy, he swings at everything, so he has to hit .300 to be valuable. In 2008, and 2010, and for the Red Sox this season, he did that. But when he hits .222 and has a .261 OBP, as he did for the Royals this year, he’s an out machine, and it’s not like he makes up for it with his defense. He turns 31 in March, and while I imagine he’ll have more good years in the future, I wouldn’t want to guess which years they will be. Whatever happens, we’ll always have 2008, when an unknown rookie was brought up out of desperation, and in 102 games fashioned one of the best seasons by a shortstop the Royals have ever had.

Wilson Betemit: C+

Betemit was the surprise of the 2010 season, hitting .297/.378/.511, and you might remember that late in the year I advocated signing him to a long-term deal. He didn’t hit nearly as well for the Royals this year, hitting .281/.341/.409 with his usual lousy defense at third base; when Mike Moustakas was deemed ready, Betemit rode the pine for a month before the Royals were able to work out a deal to send him to Detroit.

With the Tigers, Betemit hit nearly as well as he did in 2010 – he hit .292/.346/.525 for the kitties – but despite that he started barely half the time after the trade, splitting time with Don Kelly and Brandon Inge. Betemit then started just twice in the Tigers’ 11 playoff games.

I know I’m stubborn, but I still think Betemit should be starting every day – at some position – in the major leagues. Over the past two years Betemit had 674 plate appearances, almost exactly a full season’s worth of playing time. In that span he’s hit .290/.359/.479 with 21 homers, 42 doubles, and 67 walks. Yes, he’s a lousy third baseman – but with those numbers, isn’t he worth trying in left field, or even at first base or DH? Instead, the Tigers didn’t even offer him arbitration – as far as I can tell, it’s been hard to get confirmation on that – and wherever he signs as a free agent, it doesn’t appear he’ll be getting an everyday job.

Which is a shame, because he deserves one. The Royals no longer have any need for his services, but he gave them good production at a bargain price, gracefully moved to the bench to make way for the youth movement, and fetched a possible future lefty reliever in Antonio Cruz at the trade deadline. I’ll remember him fondly. Most people, it seems, won’t remember him at all.

Alcides Escobar: B-

I set the grading curve so that a B- met a player “met expectations”, and really, “met expectations” describes Escobar to a T. He showed modest – very modest – improvements on offense; his batting average improved from .235 to .254, and that was about it, as his power was roughly the same and he actually walked less (although that is likely the result of not batting in front of the pitcher all season).

Defensively, though, Escobar lived up to his reputation from his days as a prospect, when he was deemed the best defensive shortstop in the minor leagues. After making a highlight-reel gem seemingly every day for the first two months of the season, the spectacular plays were lacking in the second half, though that might have simply been because he had raised our standards so much after we had watched Yuniesky Betancourt play the position while wearing ankle weights in 2010. Regardless, Escobar was undeniably one of the best defensive shortstops in the league, giving him real value despite his offensive struggles.

I’d like to believe there’s still some improvement left in his bat. He just turned 25 last week, and while I don’t think he’s a future batting title contender, I do think he can do better than hitting .254. He hit .315 in his final two seasons in the minors, he rarely strikes out (just 73 Ks all year), and his speed should allow him to beat out a ton of infield hits. But his improvement isn’t going to come overnight. This season, he was hitting .203/.237/.236 in early June, and then he went on a two-week tear where he hit .512 and everyone thought things had clicked.

But baseball doesn’t work like that. At the end of his hot stretch, Escobar had raised his numbers to .255/.289/.322; from that point on he hit .253/.290/.362. He did hit for a little more power in the second half, and you hope that forces pitchers to respect his power and pitch him more carefully going forward. But realistically, as a Royals fan you ought to be happy if he can just hit .270 with the same meager secondary skills he’s shown so far. With his defense at shortstop, that’s a heck of a player.

Chris Getz: C-

Chris Getz is not a useless ballplayer. He plays an average, maybe slightly above-average, second base. He hits left-handed, always a useful trait from a middle infielder. For his career he’s averaged 33 stolen bases per 162 games, with an 84% success rate. He can bunt, and he’ll take a walk when it’s presented to him.

But in a career of nearly 1000 at-bats, he has hit just two home runs. He doesn’t even hit doubles – he has 33 in his career, or less than four different Royals had this year alone. Since joining the Royals his power has actually declined; in 604 at-bats he has 15 doubles, three triples, and no home runs. He holds the Royals’ all-time record for most plate appearances (677) without a homer, and only Jason Kendall comes within 300 PA of his record.

His slugging average as a member of the Royals is .283. Among players with at least 400 plate appearances with the Royals, only Jackie Hernandez (.282) had a lower slugging average.

There are certain skills that are absolutely mandatory for a major-league hitter, and the ability to hit the ball 330 feet on occasion is one of them. Getz has the kind of power that even Jarrod Dyson scoffs at, and at 28 it’s hard to see him improving in that category. It’s frankly surprising that the Royals haven’t released him, given that he’s eligible for arbitration. You can’t carry a backup second baseman in the majors, so if Johnny Giavotella wins the starting job, Getz is going to spend a year as a very overpaid Triple-A second baseman. If it gets to that point, the Royals would be better off cutting ties with him completely.

Johnny Giavotella: A- (minors), C (majors)

For a guy who was drafted in the second round, Giavotella has had to prove himself at every level; that’s what happens when you’re 5’8” and not particularly fleet of foot. To this point, he’s done so. After hitting .322/.395/.460 in Double-A in 2010, Giavotella hit .338/.390/.481 in Omaha this year, and both seasons he tore the cover off the ball in the second half after initially struggling to adjust. Giavotella might have been the best player in the Pacific Coast League in June and July – from June 1st until he was called up, he hit .382, with 25 doubles and seven homers in 246 at-bats.

We have to hope that he got his adjustments to the major leagues over with in 2011, because his performance was disappointing: he hit .247/.273/.376, and when you factor in his subpar defense he was actually below replacement-level. The good news is that, with 15 extra-base hits in just 46 games, he’s pretty convincingly shown that he can punch above his weight. (Getz has 18 extra-base hits in 190 games with the Royals.) But the lack of plate discipline has to be concerning; he only drew six walks in nearly two months with Kansas City.

He’s always been a one-walk-per-ten-at-bats hitter through the minors, so my guess is that he was simply pressing, trying to prove he belonged in the majors on every pitch. The bigger concern is his defense, which was at times average, and at times decidedly less than that. The Royals were concerned that he let his struggles at the plate affect him on the field; on September 9th Giavotella failed to cover second base on a stolen base attempt, which convinced the Royals to bench him for a couple of days to clear his head and teach him a lesson.

The toughest path to the majors might be at second base, because there’s no backup option. Being a second-base prospect is like being a salesman in “Glengarry Glen Ross”, except the prize for third place and second place is getting fired. The window for Giavotella to establish himself as an everyday player in the majors is narrow; it might be this year or never. Fortunately for him, he’s in the perfect situation to do so in 2012. Getz is a more of a speedbump than a roadblock, Christian Colon is still a year away, and Rey Navarro is even further behind. I expect a .280 average and a ton of doubles overcoming some occasionally shaky defense next season. And I expect the Royals to have some difficult decisions to make next winter.

Eric Hosmer: A+ (minors), B+ (majors)

Given that I’ve been comparing Hosmer to Will Clark pretty much from the day he was drafted, it’s time for a comparison of their rookie seasons.

Eric Hosmer, 2011: 128 G, .293/.334/.465, 118 OPS+
Will Clark, 1986: 111 G, .287/.343/.444, 121 OPS+

Hosmer marginally beat Clark in OPS, but owing to the lower offensive levels of the NL in the mid-80s, The Thrill had the slightly higher OPS+. They’re still two peas in a pod. Both hit exactly 27 doubles and walked exactly 34 times as rookies.

The biggest difference between their seasons is this: Clark turned 22 in March, while Hosmer didn’t turn 22 in October. Seven months isn’t an enormous difference, but in players this young it’s not meaningless, and it favors our guy.

There were two flaws in Hosmer’s campaign that keep me from awarding him an A. The first is that his plate discipline was surprisingly lacking. In his breakout 2010 season, Hosmer walked 59 times against just 66 strikeouts, and it was expected that he’d be a patient hitter in the major leagues. But he drew just 34 walks this year, seven of those intentional. A batter with 27 unintentional walks in 523 at-bats – that’s practically Berroaesque.

I wouldn’t worry about it at all. Clark drew 34 walks as a rookie, and ten of his were intentional. Two years later, Clark led the NL with 100 walks. The difference? After hitting just 11 homers as a rookie, Clark pounded 35 home runs as a sophomore. While he would never hit for as much power again, Clark established himself as a power threat in the minds of pitchers. Power and plate discipline are allies. Sometimes a player will start to hit for more power because he’s learned to lay off the bad pitches, and sometimes a player will see more pitches out of the strike zone because pitchers fear his power.

While Hosmer didn’t walk much as a rookie, he was hardly a free-swinger; he struck out just 82 times. (Clark, as a rookie, whiffed 76 times.) In at-bats where Hosmer fell behind 0-and-2, he still hit .264 and slugged .409; you don’t do that if you’re swinging at bad pitches. Hosmer has shown more power at this stage than Clark did, and scouts project him to have even more power than Clark. If that’s the case, the walks will come, possibly as soon as 2012.

The second weakness in Hosmer’s game is a controversial one: despite a great defensive reputation, and despite qualifying as a good defender by the eye test, Hosmer’s defensive statistics were, well, abysmal. Most defensive metrics graded out Hosmer’s rookie season as about ten runs worse than the average first baseman, making him one of the worst fielders at the position in the game.

Defensive stats are not nearly as reliable as batting stats, and one season’s worth of data is simply not conclusive. But before you dismiss those numbers entirely, read this two-part evaluation of his defense at Royals Review. The conclusion they arrive at is both plausible and grounded in evidence: Hosmer was positioned to close to the first-base line, which allowed far too many balls to slip past his right side.

Defensive positioning is a crucial and very underrated aspect of fielding. Chase Utley had insanely good defensive numbers at his peak, and analyses done at the time suggested that the reason he was so good is that he positioned himself farther to his left than any other second baseman – basically, he closed up the same 3-4 hole that Hosmer appears to have opened up. The Tampa Bay Rays had the best Defensive Efficiency in the majors this season – really, it wasn’t close – in large part because Joe Maddon is so aggressive about shifting his fielders around based on who is at the plate.

Poor defensive positioning is certainly the easiest way to reconcile Hosmer’s poor defensive numbers with his potential-Gold-Glove reputation. It’s also an easy problem to fix, assuming the Royals are aware that there’s a problem in the first place. Fortunately, as Jin Wong reveals in this two-part interview with Jeff Zimmerman at Royals Review, the Royals are in fact aware of the positioning issue. If Hosmer is positioned further from the line next year, and if his defensive numbers improve, this will be a fantastic exhibit of how a public-private partnership can lead to a better product on the field.

Hosmer’s defensive numbers almost have to improve in 2012, and I expect his bat to take a step forward as well. He hit .313 and slugged .493 after the All-Star Break; both numbers seem like reasonable approximations for what he can do next season. Any better than that, and he’s a candidate to make the All-Star team in front of his hometown fans. And he’s only 22.

Kila Ka’aihue: D- (majors), D (minors)

If Kila had gone to Omaha and hit the crap out of the ball, the way he did in 2008 (.314/.456/.628), or in 2010 (.319/.463/.598), the narrative would be pretty simple: big guy, slow bat, AAAA hitter. He can beat up on minor league pitchers, but put him in a double-decker stadium against guys who can throw in the mid-90s and can control their secondary stuff, and he doesn’t have the bat speed to catch up to the fastball unless he cheats and starts his swing early, in which case the off-speed pitches will eat him alive.

But that’s not really what happened. Ka’aihue struggled for the Royals – granted, it was all of 23 games – hitting .195/.295/.317 before he was demoted to Triple-A. And he continued to struggle, hitting .272/.379/.433 for the Storm Chasers. He had an identical number of at-bats in Omaha in 2010 and 2011, but last year he hit 24 homers and walked 88 times, and this year he hit 11 homers and walked 57 times.

So then you take a step back, and you look at 2009, when Ka’aihue hit .252/.392/.433 in Omaha, and you wonder if he’s just a wildly inconsistent hitter, prone to really good years and really mediocre ones. He just had the poor timing of synchronizing one of his mediocre seasons with his one big shot at everyday playing time in the majors.

Billy Beane is gambling that it’s the latter. Granted, he didn’t wager much, trading a fringy pitcher named……Ethan Hollingsworth for Ka’aihue. The A’s will get a look at him in camp, where Ka’aihue will have to fight for playing time with Daric Barton and Brandon Allen and Chris Carter. If they don’t like what they see, Ka’aihue could be looking at a long and financially rewarding career in Japan.

But the A’s aren’t yet convinced that Ka’aihue is a AAAA player, and neither am I. For the first time in his career, Ka’aihue is playing for an organization that not only respects his approach at the plate, they encourage it. I’d hold off on writing his career obituary for one more season.

Mike Moustakas: B (minors), C (majors)

Honestly, I’d like to give Moustakas three grades: a B for his performance in the minors, an F for his first two months in the majors, and an A for the final six weeks of the season. Take a look:

Minors: .287/.347/.498
Majors, June 10 – August 16: .182/.237/.227
Majors, August 17 – end of season: .379/.412/.564

Moustakas, to me, is a fascinating test case in the importance of intangibles. By “intangibles”, I’m not referring to things like his ability to bunt and hit-and-run – I’m referring to the things that we can’t see from the stands that affect a player’s ability to reach his full potential. I’m referring to a player’s work ethic, in other words.

Statistical analysis is an incredibly useful tool to determine the value of a player’s present performance. It is a much less useful tool to predict a player’s future performance – not because of any inherent weakness in statistical analysis, but simply because we can’t predict the future. The error bars in projecting a player’s career are massive, in the same way that the error bars in projecting the weather forecast for a weak from Friday are massive. Since so much of an organization’s success is based on their ability to project how players will perform in the future, it makes sense that they take into account as much information as possible to do so. How a player has performed in the past is obviously an excellent starting point for predicting how he’ll fare in the future, but you’ll want to layer on all sorts of information on top of that: scouting reports, his health record, and yes, his willingness to better himself.

Moustakas, even when he was a top-10 prospect in all of baseball a year ago, had weaknesses in his game. His defense at third base was still shaky at times, he had difficulty hitting left-handed pitching, and he was too aggressive at the plate. But he also had a reputation for a sterling work ethic. He loved to play baseball, and he was willing to put in the time to get better at it.

His numbers in 2011 were superficially disappointing after his mammoth 2010 season in the minors. But take a look. After always struggling to hit left-handers in the minors, he went back to Omaha and hit lefties nearly as well (.260/.325/.507) as he hit right-handers (.300/.357/.493). His plate discipline held steady even after he reached the major leagues; he drew 22 walks in 338 at-bats with the Royals, not a great ratio but no worse than he had done in the minor leagues, despite facing superior pitching.

Most importantly, his defense was solid, even surprisingly good. The Royals already have a backlog of players at first base and DH; the last thing they need is to have to find a new position for Moustakas. But Moose played well enough at third base to put off any talk of a position change until well into the future. Notably, unlike Giavotella, Moustakas didn’t carry his at-bats into the field; he played solid defense at third base even when he was doing his Ray Oyler impression at the plate.

And, of course, after going into a horrific slump for two months, Moustakas emerged from the ordeal a better hitter.

Maybe I’m reading too much into things, and Moustakas will prove all the gains he made in the final part of this season to be illusory. But look: we know that not every top prospect fulfills his potential. We know that for every Evan Longoria, who has a smooth and easy progression from top prospect to major-league superstar, there’s a Brandon Wood (rated a top-10 prospect by Baseball America in 2006 and 2007) or a Chad Hermansen (a top-40 prospect four straight years from 1997 to 2000), who seems to have everything in his favor and still falls flat on his face.

We’ll never be able to predict the future perfectly, or even well. But it seems to me that if you’re trying to predict which top prospects will make it and which ones won’t, you probably ought to favor the guy who seems to be giving it his all.

To paraphrase Tolstoy*, successful prospects are all alike; every failed prospect fails in his own way. There are many pitfalls that can trip up a top prospect. Some are physical, like a hole in his swing that he isn’t able to close. Some are mental or emotional – a player is going through a bad breakup with his wife or girlfriend, or he starts drinking too much.

*: Yes, Tolstoy. To quote Hans Gruber**: “The benefits of a classical education.”

**: Yes, Hans Gruber. Hey, I wasn’t studying ALL the time.

But probably the pitfall that brings down the most prospects is simply an inability to make adjustments. Pitchers learn that you struggle to hit the inside fastball; you need to learn how to hit the inside fastball. Word gets around that you’re now susceptible to soft stuff away – you need to learn how to lay off those pitches. And so on. It took Alex Gordon, who has all the talent in the world, four years before he finally made all the adjustments that he needed to make.

I’m not saying that Moustakas has made all those adjustments. I am saying that a prerequisite to making adjustments is the willingness to put in the time to do so, something Moustakas seems to have in spades. And his performance over the season’s final six weeks suggests pretty clearly that he’s made at least some of the adjustments he needs to make.

Work ethic is no substitute for talent – but it’s a hell of a complement to talent. Moustakas, by all reports, has both. And that’s why I’m optimistic that going forward, he’s going to resemble the player we saw in September more than the player we saw in July.