Saturday, March 24, 2012

Joakim Soria, Past & (Maybe) Future.

The elbow injury to Joakim Soria is terribly unfortunate, and possibly career-ending, at least with respect to his career as a member of the Kansas City Royals.

What the injury wasn’t was particularly surprising.

There’s not a ton of analysis to do on Soria’s injury. He blew out his elbow and required Tommy John surgery in 2003, when he was a 19-year-old in the Dodgers organization. The injury caused him to miss all of 2003, and he didn’t pitch in 2004 either, although he was probably in extended spring training much of that time. The Dodgers released him after the season, and he went back to pitching in Mexico in 2005, where he caught the eye of the Padres, he joined their system in 2006 while continuing to pitch in Mexico…and the Royals plucked him in the Rule 5 draft that winter, whereupon Soria, whose stateside experience had peaked with 12 innings in the Midwest League the year before, instantly became one of the best relievers in the American League.

(Quick aside, when I was down in Surprise last month, I was introduced to a group of Royals scouts before a scrimmage. “Rany, have you met Louie Medina?” I was so excited I didn’t even say hi, I just blurted out, “You’re the guy who’s responsible for Joakim Soria!” “Partly,” he responded modestly. “Soria is the guy most responsible for Joakim Soria.”)

While Tommy John surgery has revolutionized the game by allowing pitchers to recover from a major injury at 100%, one of its side benefits is that by giving pitchers a brand-new ligament in their elbow, there’s typically a “honeymoon” period, whereby the new ligament is almost guaranteed to hold up for five years after the surgery. It’s very, very rare for a pitcher to fully recover from Tommy John surgery, only to tear the new ligament within five years.

And right on schedule, Soria’s elbow didn’t give him any problems through 2008…but in 2009, his arm started barking a little, causing him to miss a few weeks an dlimited him to just 47 appearances. (I’m honestly not sure if it was his shoulder, his elbow, or both. The Royals initially denied that he had any injury at all, remember.)

Soria was back in peak Mexicutioner form in 2010, but in 2011, something was wrong from the beginning. By the end of May he had a 6.55 ERA and five blown saves, which was already a career high. Everyone panicked, myself included. It wasn’t simply that Soria was pitching poorly, it was that he wasn’t pitching like himself. His once-unhittable curveball had simply disappeared. He was throwing this weird cutter that he didn’t need and that didn’t work.

The Royals were convinced that there was nothing structurally wrong with Soria, and to their credit, he pitched like vintage Soria from June 1st onward: in 38 innings, he had a 2.58 ERA, struck out 41 batters and walked only seven. On paper, it looked like he was back.

On the mound, it wasn’t as clear. He still rarely threw his curveball – according to Pitch f/x data, here is the frequency with which Soria threw the Guillotine:

2007: 14.1%
2008: 14.2%
2009: 13.0%
2010: 6.8%
2011: 7.1%

It’s a testament to Soria’s command and his fearlessness on the mound that, despite missing his best off-speed pitch, and despite a fastball that averaged only 91, he was still an elite reliever in the second half. But the question as to what happened to Soria’s feel for his curveball remained. So did the question as to whether he could ever get back to his pre-2011 form.

Those questions only intensified when Soria started getting lit up from his first outing in spring training. During that same Royals’ scrimmage, Soria gave up three runs to his teammates – every other Royals pitcher on both teams gave up two runs combined. In three official spring training outings, he gave up 10 hits and 7 runs in 3.1 innings. In a “B” game against a bunch of Rangers minor leaguers, he got torched.

And then his elbow went pop. After seeing three different physicians, Soria finally accepted the inevitable and will undergo Tommy John surgery with Dr. Lewis Yocum on April 3rd. In a perverse way, the fact that Soria needs this surgery might be the best thing possible for his long-term career. Even when he was pitching well in the second half of last season, the magic was gone. The way he was pitching early in spring training had me terrified that he was going to reprise last season again, and that he’d cost the Royals three or four wins early in the season before they tried to adjust.

Instead, we now have good reason to think that Soria’s struggles last year were health-related after all. And there’s good reason to think that with a healthy elbow, he can return to being the Soria of old. My friend Will Carroll assures me that a second TJ surgery, while rare, has the same success rate as the first one. Soria’s previous ligament lasted him eight seasons; there’s no reason to think his next one won’t last just as long.

I can’t fault the Royals or their training staff here – at least not since 2009, when their mishandling of his symptoms was just a small part of the injury cluster that caused me to blow my stack. Whether it’s his relatively slight build, his mechanics, or the strain that his curveball put on his elbow, Soria may simply be prone to this kind of injury. It was probably inevitable that this day would come.

Which, of course, makes the Royals’ repeated refusal to even consider trade offers for him so damning.

I don’t feel like re-hashing the did-the-Yankees-offer-Jesus-Montero-or-not discussion. Clearly they were very interested in Soria, not only because Soria was one of the best closers in baseball, but because Soria was pretty clearly the most Riveraesque closer in baseball. His repertoire was different – there’s only one pitcher in baseball who can throw that cutter – but Soria’s demeanor and unflappability on the mound would have particularly appealed to the Yankees, who saw him as someone who could survive the fishbowl of New York, and be perfectly positioned to succeed Rivera whenever the Greatest Closer of All Time decided to abdicate his throne.

Was Montero formally offered? I have no idea. Was Montero discussed? From media reports, up to and including Jayson Stark’s most recent appearance with Soren Petro, almost certainly. Were the Yankees willing to offer a substantial amount of talent for Soria, Montero or not? Without a doubt. Were other teams interested in Soria? Of course.

Did the Royals screw up by not selling high on Soria? Do I really have to answer that question?

Jesus Montero wouldn’t fit the Royals’ roster at all, but then you see what Montero finally brought back – Michael Pineda – and you try to envision what the Royals’ rotation would like with him at the front of it…

I don’t want to come down too harshly on the Royals. Frankly, while I felt that the Royals should have traded him, I wasn’t nearly as forceful on the issue as I should have been. The reason I didn’t lay the hammer down is the same reason the Royals didn’t trade him: we loved Soria too damn much.

From 1998 to 2006 the Royals had the worst bullpen over a nine-year stretch in major league history. Dayton Moore was hired in 2006, when the Royals’ closer was Ambiorix Burgos, who 1) had a 5.52 ERA, 2) blew a franchise-record 12 saves in 30 opportunities, and 3) was one of the most malignant people ever to wear a Royals’ uniform – in a just world he’d probably be locked up for the rest of his life.

The other relievers in the pen were lefties Jimmy Gobble (5.14 ERA) and Andy Sisco (7.10 ERA), and right-handers Joel Peralta (4.40 ERA) and Elmer Dessens (4.50 ERA). Jeremy Affeldt (5.91 ERA) and Mike Wood (5.71 ERA) made cameos. Todd Wellemeyer, with a 3.63 ERA – despite having as many walks (37) as strikeouts (37) – was the best reliever on the team.

Joakim Soria was taken in the Rule 5 draft after the season, and this obscure kid from Mexico who no one had seen before was dropped into the nuclear wasteland of a bullpen the following April, put on a HAZMAT suit, and started kicking ass and taking names. After recording two outs in a 7-1 game in his major-league debut, Soria was brought in to protect a 3-1 lead in the eighth inning his next time out – he had graduated to being the team’s set-up man after one appearance. He threw a scoreless inning. In his third outing, he got four outs to protect a 2-0 lead in the seventh and eighth, only David Riske gave up three runs in the ninth to lose the game.

In his fourth major-league appearance, Soria was the Royals’ closer. It was six up, six down, three by strikeout. He would give up the closer’s role temporarily when Octavio Dotel came off the DL, but it was returned to him when Dotel was traded in July, and he’s held it ever since.

Soria was the vanguard of a revamped bullpen which included Riske (2.45 ERA) and Zack Greinke (3.54 ERA before returning to the rotation). Even Gobble had a 3.02 ERA. In 2006, the ERA of the Royals’ bullpen was 5.41. In 2007, it was 3.89. Dayton Moore had accomplished a miracle, but even he knew that it was Soria who wielded the staff.

That doesn’t excuse Moore’s decision to hold on to Soria at all costs, but it does explain it. Of all the mistakes a sports organization can make, excessive loyalty to its own players is the most understandable from a human standpoint. Bill Belichick is perhaps the most unsentimental executive in sports; he’s always willing to trade his players at the peak of their ability, if he senses an arbitrage that will make his team better. It’s a philosophy that has carried him to five Super Bowls and three championships.

If the debacle with Soria has any silver lining, it’s that it might teach Moore that a touch of Belichickian unsentimentality is a necessary ingredient to a winning franchise. But just a touch. For all his success, Belichick comes off as a bit of a dick. And personally, I’d rather that the guy running the Royals not be a dick. (That’s what we have the Chiefs for.)

And even Belichick is probably going to stick with Tom Brady when the Golden Boy is 47 years old and can’t throw a spiral more than ten yards.

That’s all spilled milk under the bridge now. (I’ll take “mixed metaphors for $400”, Alex.) The question is what do the Royals do going forward, because the sad reality is that while Tommy John surgery might be the best thing for Soria, it might be the worst thing for the Royals. Soria is already making $6 million this year, and he has an $8 million option for 2013 and an $8.75 million for 2014. Those options are worthless at this point; no one’s going to pay him $8 million in his first year off surgery, when he might miss the first month of the season before he’s ready to pitch.

That means that, for all intents and purposes, Soria is a free agent. But it also means the Royals have the opportunity to re-sign Soria and save money in the process. Both sides have shown loyalty to each other – Soria by signing a team-friendly contract early in his career, the Royals by repeatedly refusing to trade him. There should be a strong relationship here, one that the Royals should make use of by offering Soria a new contract for 2013 right now.

Let’s say the Royals tear up his options for 2013, but sign Soria to a guaranteed contract for, I dunno, between 3 and 4 million for next year. (He’s going to earn $750,000 anyway when the Royals decline the option.) This gives Soria the peace of mind that he’s got a guaranteed contract for next year, and it gives the Royals incentive to fully invest in his recovery from surgery.

Pitchers are generally on the mound 11-12 months after Tommy John surgery, so there’s no reason why Soria can’t be pitching for the Royals on Opening Day or close to it. Stephen Strasburg had surgery on September 3rd, 2010, and returned to the Nationals’ rotation (after three minor-league rehab starts) on September 6th, 2011. Adam Wainwright had surgery on February 28th of last year, and is ready to break camp with the Cardinals this spring. An April 3rd surgery date should put Soria on track to be activated sometime in mid-to-late April next season. Yes, there are risks involved, but about 90% of pitchers return from surgery with undiminished stuff. I think it’s worth the Royals offering him half his salary for the 90% chance that Soria pitches at 90% of his pre-injury talent level for 90% of the season.

(This also would require the Royals to adopt the standard rehab regimen for Soria, as opposed to the incredibly conservative timetable that they have John Lamb on. Lamb hurt his elbow last May, had TJ surgery on June 3rd, but the Royals have said they don’t expect him on a mound until July, that he will make “six to eight legit starts” this year, and that “he may make it as high as High-A this year.” I understand not wanting to push your young starter, but I don’t understand essentially giving up an entire year of development when the industry standard would have him on a mound a month earlier and you might get a half-season’s worth of starts out of him, putting him on course to start in Triple-A next season and be in Kansas City by mid-season.)

Even better for the Royals would be to sign Soria to a one-year deal with an option for a second season – I’m thinking a vesting option with a really low threshold, like 25 appearances or something. Essentially it would be a two-year deal, but it would give the Royals an out in the event his rehab goes really poorly. Just pulling numbers out of the air here, but a $3.5 million contract for 2013, with a $5.5 million vesting option for 2014, might work for both sides. Soria is likely to be better in his second year after surgery than his first, and it would be nice for the Royals to swing a deal that keeps him in a Royals uniform for the next two years, saves the franchise some money, and still pays Soria close to market value for a pitcher returning from a season lost to surgery. (If Soria heads out onto the market, he won't even be the only closer returning from Tommy John surgery - it was announced today that Ryan Madson will be going under the knife and is out for the year as well.)

The best recent comp for Soria would be Joe Nathan, who along with Jonathan Papelbon was Soria’s main competition for the title of “Best Non-Mariano Closer In Baseball”. Nathan had Tommy John surgery on March 25th of 2010. He was back on the Twins’ roster on Opening Day of last year, but it was pretty clear he wasn’t completely ready – on May 24th he went back on the DL with forearm inflammation, having allowed 15 runs in 15.1 innings. He missed a month, but after returning on June 25th he was pretty much the Nathan of old – while he had a 3.38 ERA after returning, in 29 innings he allowed 21 hits, walked 5, and struck out 28. After the season the Rangers were convinced enough that they signed him to a two-year, $14.75 million deal.

So there’s your template – Soria may only be about half as valuable in 2013 as he was at his peak, but he ought to be close to 100% by 2014. Reworking his contract to give him $9 million over the next two years seems a fair deal for both sides. Just today, Soria made it clear he’d like to stay with the Royals, while acknowledging that he won’t be getting $8 million next season to do so:

“I’d like to have the opportunity,” he said, “to sign back here after I become a free agent – if they don’t take the option, which is obvious they won’t take it.

“I just want to get ready as soon as possible to have the chance to pitch on the major-league level again either with this team or another one. I would like to stay here.”

If the Royals are savvy, they’ll take the “after I become a free agent” scenario out of the equation, and get a deal done with Soria a lot sooner than that. The Royals guaranteed Salvador Perez five years and Alcides Escobar four years because they felt that those contracts might save the team money in the long term. The same wisdom applies here.

As to how this affects the is one of the biggest arguments in favor of Dayton Moore as a GM that even with Soria out all year, and even with Blake Wood out for at least the season’s first month, the Royals still have more quality relievers than they have roster spots to accommodate them. The only substantial impact the injury has is that it guarantees Aaron Crow will open the year in the bullpen, but that was likely going to happen either way. Jonathan Broxton, Greg Holland, and Crow are locks, and Jose Mijares seems to have the LOOGY job locked down. Louis Coleman is the ROOGY (Right-handed One Out GuY), the guy who can be used to terrorize a string of right-handed hitters – they hit .180/.250/.360 against him last season – but has the stuff to hang in against lefties as well.

Barring a surprise demotion of Danny Duffy to Omaha, either Luis Mendoza or Felipe Paulino will be the long man, as they’re both out of options. (You know where I stand on that battle. You also know that the Royals are almost guaranteed to make the wrong decision.) That leaves one open spot, for the following candidates, in decreasing order of likelihood:

Tim Collins
Everett Teaford
Kelvin Herrera
Tommy Hottovy
Jeremy Jeffress

That’s quite an extraordinary accomplishment, that even without Soria and Wood, the Royals have no less than 11 pitchers who are worthy of a major-league bullpen spot. (Well, 10 – I’m not sold on Hottovy yet, but his new sidearm motion makes him a potential left-handed specialist if he finds success in Triple-A.) The Royals have seven or eight pitchers who would have been one of their two best relievers in 2006, or 2004, or 2002, or 2000, or 1998.

Emotionally, the loss of Soria hurts. Practically, it may barely be felt at all.

That’s particularly the case of Broxton is back to full health. He has pitched well in limited spring training innings, and he’s running his fastball up into the mid-90s. It seemed a curious decision for the Royals to sign him at the time; they were spending $4 million for a toy they didn’t need, given the strength of the bullpen. It looks like a stroke of genius now, which has led more than one Royals fan to wonder if the team already knew they would be without Soria’s services this season. Given the way Soria finished last year, I doubt that’s the case.

I think this was just another example of Moore being unable to resist a young veteran talent available on the cheap. I can’t say I blame him: Broxton is 27, the same age Jeff Francoeur was when the Royals signed him, and just a year older than Melky Cabrera was. Like Francoeur and Cabrera, Broxton is coming off a couple of poor seasons, but with reason to think he may improve – in Broxton’s case, it’s because the downturn in his performance can be traced to a 48-pitch outing in July of 2010, and that persisted until he was shut down last year to have bone spurs removed from his elbow. Broxton was a good bounce-back candidate regardless; with Soria out, his value to the Royals intensifies.

I’ve been asked by Royals fans – and by more than a few fantasy baseball players – who I think will replace Soria in the closer’s role. While Greg Holland is clearly the team’s best reliever based on performances last year, I would actually give Broxton the first crack at the job myself, and I think the Royals will decide the same thing in the next week or so.

For one thing, given the straitjacket that is put on closers in today’s game, it’s not entirely clear that you want your best reliever to close anyway. You don’t want a Burgos or a Ricky Bottalico in that role, but if you have two relievers, one of whom is capable of a 2.00 ERA and the other is capable of a 3.00 ERA, I’d probably prefer the latter in the closer’s role. That role involves an awful lot of two-run and three-run leads, and almost always requires no more than three outs of work. Let Broxton take the glory role, and let Holland do the heavy lifting, coming into tie games and coming in with men on base and staying in to pitch multiple innings.

Last season, Holland made 46 appearances with the Royals, and in 21 of them he was brought in with men on base. In 20 of them, he recorded four outs or more. Nine times he pitched at least two full innings. You won’t see that kind of usage if he’s in the closer’s role, which would be a shame.

There are ancillary benefits to making Broxton the closer. Broxton’s a free agent at year’s end, but Holland is under club control for five years, and will be arbitration-eligible in 2014. Adding saves to his resume will increase his future salary without increasing his future worth. Letting Broxton close also makes for much less drama if and when Soria returns next season; his interim replacement will have signed somewhere else, so Soria won’t be taking the glamour job away from one of his teammates.

The bottom line is that this injury is not nearly as painful on the field as it is in our hearts. Losing a half-season of Salvador Perez is probably worth two wins in the standings, but an entire lost year of Soria, based on what we saw from him last year, is likely worth only a single win. There’s still a chance for a happy ending to this, if Soria re-signs and re-discovers the magic from the first four years of his career. The thought that Soria has thrown his last pitch for the Royals is a difficult one to stomach. But I’m optimistic that we won’t have to digest that thought just yet.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Joakim Soria may have thrown his last pitch in a Royals uniform.

That was not the worst injury news the Royals received last week.

Oh, and they also made a silly trade, giving up legitimate prospects at least in part to acquire a player who creates a roster crunch without being notably better than what the Royals already have on hand.

Other than that, it’s been a fantastic week.

Let’s start at the beginning, when Salvador Perez reached for a Jonathan Sanchez pitch during warm-ups, caught his spike in the ground awkwardly, and limped off the field. The roller-coaster of emotions began – maybe it’s nothing, oh my God maybe he tore his ACL (out for the year!), oh the MRI shows it’s just a torn meniscus (4-6 weeks!), oh he’s come out of surgery and they’re saying…12-14 weeks?!

I don’t know about you, but I enjoyed the previous drama surrounding Salvador Perez a lot more.

While it was a meniscal tear, my understanding is that the tear was on the lateral (outside) part of his knee, and that the tear went all the way through the meniscus, both things which lengthen the recovery time. I’m also under the impression that 12-14 weeks is a conservative recovery time; I’m hopeful that with the training staff the Royals have in place these days, that Perez will be back towards the lower end of that estimate. (Speaking of which, Perez’s injury will be the first major test case for the quality of Nick Kenney, Kyle Turner, et al. Last year they did such a fantastic job of keeping guys healthy that we didn’t get a chance to see how effective they could be at nursing a player back to health.)

Still, given the timeframe here, it’s unlikely Perez will be on the field again for the Royals until mid-June. Furthermore, the Royals have already made it clear that even upon his return, he’s likely to catch no more than 3-4 times a week the rest of the season. Do the math, and the over/under on the number of games Perez plays this season is 65, maybe 70 tops.

By comparison, Perez started 39 games for the Royals last year. On the list of reasons why the Royals could be substantially improved from last year, “a full season of Salvador Perez” was near the top. That won’t be happening now.

While this sucks for 2012, my understanding is that if rehabbed appropriately, this injury should have a minimal impact on Perez’s career going forward. The key is “if rehabbed appropriately”, which is why, as painful as it is in the short term, limiting him to 65-70 starts is absolutely worth it if allows him to return to full-time duty in 2013. Perez is the first Royal in a quarter-century to be under club-control for eight seasons; if ever there was a player where long-term health takes precedence over short-term performance, it’s him.

The injury is unfortunate, and it only reinforces why a player like Perez might sign a long-term deal that could cost him millions of dollars over going year to year. But it’s still a great deal for the Royals, and if they had the option to re-consider the deal, they would (and should) still do it. Dayton Moore made a reasonable point after the injury, stating that because Perez had the security of a long-term deal, he would be less inclined to try to rush back onto the field before he was ready. Many a player has jeopardized his long-term future by downplaying or flat-out lying about his pain symptoms. There’s no guarantee Perez won’t still do that, but you have to hope that the security of a long-term deal, as well as the responsibility of a long-term deal, will keep him from doing that.

The Sandy Alomar comparisons have followed Perez around for at least the past year. We can only hope that the comparisons don’t extend to his fragility – after playing 132 games as a rookie in 1990, Alomar wouldn’t play in even 90 games again until 1996.

Perez, unfortunately, was perhaps the single player the Royals could least afford to lose to injury. I mean, even an injury to Eric Hosmer – perish the thought – would only open up an opportunity for Clint Robinson to play, and maybe even establish some trade value in the process. The dropoff from, say, Alex Gordon to Mitch Maier or Jarrod Dyson would be substantial, but at least the Royals have someone available to replace him.

In the case of Perez, it’s not just that the difference between him and Brayan Pena is significant – it’s that you have to carry two catchers, and it just so happens that the Royals’ third catcher, Manuel Pina, suffered the exact same injury a few weeks before Perez. The next two guys on the depth chart, Max Ramirez and Cody Clark, are not guys you want to go to war with on Opening Day.

So the Royals went shopping for short-term options, even kicking the tires on Ivan Rodriguez, a reasonable short-term option given that Pudge can still throw with the best of them (he nailed 13 of 25 runners last year). But from the beginning, the Royals appeared to be focusing on Humberto Quintero, who has been with the Astros for seven years and has worked his way up to playing about half the time.

I like Quintero, and thought he was a good guy to be focusing on – particularly since he looked like he was out of a job in Houston. Jason Castro, the Astros’ first-round pick in 2008, missed all of last season with a torn ACL but is back this year; between him and backup Chris Snyder, who was signed as a free agent this winter, there wasn’t a place for Quintero.

I like Quintero because, sort of like Brayan Pena, he’s not quite starter material but a step up from your typical backup catcher. In Pena’s case, his bat is a notch better than most backups; in Quintero’s case, he hits like a backup catcher but his defensive skills are near-elite. He’s thrown out 28% of attempted base-stealers in his career, which is about average, but as Jeff Sullivan summarizes here, the numbers suggest he is terrific at both framing and blocking pitches. The numbers agree with the scouts, who have long been high on his defense.

Quintero almost replaces Perez with the glove, which is a good thing, because his offensive skills are almost comical. He’s a career .234/.268/.321 hitter. (As Craig Brown points out, only one player this century – the immortal Jeff Mathis – has a lower OBP than Quintero in 1000 plate appearances or more.)

In 1075 at-bats, he’s walked 37 times. It’s actually worse than that, because eight of those 37 walks were intentional. And it’s actually worse than that, because about 80% of his career plate appearances have come in the #8 hole, in front of the pitcher, so no doubt many of his unintentional walks were not completely unintentional. (In 194 plate appearances outside the #8 spot in the lineup, Quintero has walked six times.) Quintero figures to be one of the least patient hitters in the recent history of the Royals, and that’s saying something.

Oh, and his power, modest as it is, is mostly a creation of Minute Maid Park. Ten of his 15 career homers were hit at home; his career slugging average on the road is .299.

Still, Quintero fills an obvious need, he’s only getting paid $1 million this year, and he seems to be a real impact-maker on defense. The Rays – who kinda know what they’re doing – signed Jose Molina to a $1.5 million contract this winter because of his defensive skills, even though his career line is .241/.286/.344 and he’s 37 years old. Given the Royals’ predicament, Quintero isn’t a bad acquisition. I expect him and Pena to share the job about 50-50 until Perez comes back, and at that point, well, Pena better hope he justifies my belief in his bat, or Quintero won’t be the one looking for gainful employment elsewhere.

It’s the second player in the trade that makes no sense. The Royals also acquired 30-year-old outfielder Jason Bourgeois, who hit .294/.323/.357 for the Astros last year, and also stole 31 bases in 37 attempts, despite playing in just 93 games.

I don’t get it.

Bourgeois had nice numbers for a fourth outfielder last season, but his performance was out of character for him. In 2010, he hit .220/.294/.268 in 123 at-bats. That was his rookie season, when he was 28 years old. That alone should tell you something.

Bourgeois’ career line in the majors is .262/.307/.324. His career line in Triple-A is .296/.348/.405.

By comparison, Mitch Maier’s career line in the majors is .253/.332/.346. His Triple-A line is .295/.342/.447.

Maier is also five months younger than Bourgeois. He also bats left-handed. Consider the makeup of the Royals’ bench. Yuniesky Betancourt bats right-handed. Quintero bats right-handed; when he starts, Brayan Pena is a switch-hitter. If Bourgeois takes Maier’s place on the roster, then the Royals essentially have no pinch-hitting options for Alcides Escobar against right-handed relievers in the late innings. The lineup already tilts to the right side – the only left-handers in the lineup are Hosmer, Gordon, and Moustakas. The first two aren’t being pinch-hit for in any circumstances; if the Royals want to sit Moose in a tight spot, that’s what they got Yuni for.

So the Royals have to have a legitimate left-handed hitting option on the bench. It’s hard to see how Bourgeois could take Maier’s spot.

That leaves the final bench spot, tentatively being given to Jarrod Dyson. In some respects, Bourgeois is a hybrid between Maier and Dyson; he doesn’t hit as well as Maier or run as well as Dyson, but he does a little of both. But it seems to me that you’d rather have a player with Dyson’s skill set on the bench, because Dyson is the rare player with speed that can truly be game-changing, as we saw last year. He’s also an elite defender, something Bourgeois – despite some pretty fielding numbers from one of the defensive metrics last year – isn’t.

Bourgeois did start a game at second base for the Astros last year (his only start at second base in the majors) and it was his primary position in the minors – up until 2007 or so, when he became a full-time outfielder. It’s nice to have a guy with some experience at the position in a pinch, but you don’t design your roster around what might happen in the 17th inning of a game. Or at least you shouldn’t.

So I don’t get what Bourgeois does. He does have an option, so maybe he just goes to Omaha and is injury insurance – but then why bother to acquire him in the first place? You already have David Lough for that anyway. Or maybe the Royals truly think that Dyson still has the ability to be an everyday outfielder, and want him playing every day in Omaha. That’s about the only explanation I can come up with for why they wanted Bourgeois in the deal. (For what it’s worth, Bob Dutton is suggesting that this is the likely outcome – Dyson returns to Omaha to make way for Bourgeois.)

In exchange, the Royals gave up left-handed reliever Kevin Chapman, who Baseball America ranked as the 18th-best prospect in the system. Chapman was drafted in the fourth round in 2010 as a college product who ought to move through the system quickly, and while there have been some bumps along the way, he’s done mostly that. Lefties who throw 94 don’t grow on trees; even though his command is iffy and his slider is only average, he could be a seventh-inning guy in the majors.

Ignore his 4.94 ERA last year; in 62 innings, he struck out 90 batters – nearly one-third of those he faced – which is an impressive ratio. He finished his first full season in the minors in Double-A. He’s sort of the left-handed version of Louis Coleman, who was drafted in the fifth round the year before. While I don’t think he’ll be as good as Coleman was last year, I do think he could be a part of a major-league bullpen for several years. In the Astros’ system, he might be a Top-10 prospect.

Having said that, Chapman alone is not a terrible price to pay. The Royals have Tim Collins and Everett Teaford, and they signed Jose Mijares cheap, and Tommy Hottovy is trying to remake himself as a sidearm specialist, and they still have Blaine Hardy, and they picked up Ryan Verdugo and Antonio Cruz in trades…they have options. Unless Chapman develops into a true impact reliever, they won’t miss him.

It's a shame they have to give up a guy like Chapman, because while he might not have earned a spot with the Royals, and while he wasn't going to bring back big talent in a trade on his own, he's the perfect third or fourth guy to throw in a trade when the Royals are ready to cash in their prospects for an elite player, and they need one more guy to get the deal done. Think Jeremy Jeffress in the Zack Greinke trade, or Brad Boxberger from the Reds in the Mat Latos deal. A strong-armed reliever isn't worth much on his own, but he makes for a nice clincher. Chapman won't serve that role for the Royals going forward, which is a shame. But you have to give something to get something, and Chapman was something.

The problem is that Chapman’s not all they gave up. There’s also a Player To Be Named Later, and in a deal like this, that PTBNL could be anything from a courtesy throw-in to a legitimate prospect. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow was quoted after the deal as saying that the PTBNL was a “key component” of the trade.

I have no idea what that means. He’s obviously not going to say that the player is a nobody. On the other hand, there’s no incentive for him to pump up the player if it’s some kid in Idaho Falls that no one’s heard of. And then there’s the question of why the player’s a PTBNL in the first place.

My guess - perhaps I should say hope - is that it might be a player who is out of options, but the Royals want to see how their roster shakes out first. Would Sean O’Sullivan or Vinny Mazzaro qualify as a “key component” of the trade? They might, simply in the sense that they’d go right to the Astros’ major league roster and maybe even into their rotation. (It’s the Astros, people. Look at their team. No, really: go look at it. It’s like looking into a Royals time capsule from 2005.)

If it’s someone along those lines, someone the Royals probably would have lost on waivers in the first place, I can live with the trade. If it’s an actual prospect, then you have to ask why the Royals would give up so much talent for a backup catcher who was going to struggle to make his team’s roster, and a 30-year-old fourth outfielder who doesn’t bring any skills that the Royals’ two backup outfielders don’t already have.

Ten days ago, the Royals were rolling, Danny Duffy was dealing, and some of us (okay, me) were thinking ambitious thoughts. One injury later, the Royals have lost probably two wins in 2012, there’s at least a small chance that their prized young catcher may be injury-prone going forward, and they’ve given up at least one and maybe two fine prospects for a catcher they need for only half a season and an outfielder they didn’t need at all. Suddenly, that Grantland article I wanted to write about how the Royals could be this year's miracle team doesn't seem like such a smart idea.

And that was just one injury. I’ll talk about the other injury next time.