Saturday, July 28, 2012

Royals Today: Trade Deadline Edition.

I’ll be frank with you: I’ve pretty much checked out of 2012. Not in a temper tantrum sort of way, but just in the sense that there’s no joy in continuing to keep tabs on the Royals in what might be their most disappointing season of the century. Yeah, 2009 was disappointing after their 18-11 start, but based on my expectations before the season, it wasn’t nearly that disappointing. It’s just sad that the Royals found a way to waste the most valuable season by a pitcher since Pedro Martinez was in his prime.

But this year? I legitimately thought on Opening Day that they were a .500 team. Instead, they’re on pace to lose 95 games, and gaining steam – they’ve lost 19 of their last 25 games. And it’s not just that they’re a bad team – it’s that they’re so uninteresting to watch.

I don’t know how that’s possible. Last August and September, after the Royals promoted Johnny Giavotella and Salvador Perez to the majors, they were as fun to watch as they’ve been since at least 2003. Most days they fielded a lineup in which Jeff Francoeur, at age 27, was the OLDEST player in the lineup. And they were winning – they were 15-10 in September.

They finished sixth in the league in runs scored, with the youngest offense in baseball. The prospect of watching them take a step forward as one of the best young lineups in the game was, itself, reason enough to watch the Royals this year.

Instead they’ve taken a step into the abyss. The Royals are 11th in the league in runs scored. This is true even though:

- Mike Moustakas has been an above-average hitter (.263/.318/.463), and one of the best defensive third baseman in the league. He doesn’t turn 24 until next month.

- Alcides Escobar is hitting .301 and is on pace to finish with 38 doubles. He’s 25.

- Eric Hosmer is 22, and when he was 21, he was a very good hitter.

- Alex Gordon is 28, and after a rocky start is hitting .351/.423/.492 since May 29th. For the year he’s hitting .292/.375/.428.*

- Billy Butler is having a Billy Butler season. This is the fourth straight year he’s hit between .291 and .318, and the fourth straight year he’s had an OBP between .361 and .388. But his slugging average is a career-high .507, because he’s already hit 20 homers, just one off his career high. He’s only 26.

*: No, he’s not hitting homers, and no, I have no idea how a guy with as much raw power as him has hit one more homer than Escobar. But he leads the league in doubles, plays great defense in LF, is the only guy on the team who takes a walk, and hasn’t missed a game. For the second straight year, Gordon leads the Royals in Wins Above Replacement (according to Baseball-Reference). And yet no one seems to acknowledge just what a fine year he’s having. That contract he signed still looks like a dandy.

The Royals got their starting catcher back on June 22nd, and their centerfielder back on July 13th, so now we can add:

- Lorenzo Cain is hitting .273/.316/.455 on the season, .314/.356/.549 since returning from the DL, and has played very good defense, even though his legs are still about 85%. He’s 26, and this may be all he is, but this is plenty good enough.

- Salvador Perez is 22 – the youngest guy in the lineup – and he’s hitting .326/.351/.543. Put it this way: he has five home runs – and six strikeouts. I don’t expect him to finish with that kind of a ratio, but just to put it in perspective: since 2000, only three players have finished a season with a HR/K ratio of 0.8 or better, with at least five homers: Barry Bonds (three times), Albert Pujols (twice), and…Paul Lo Duca, of all people, in 2001. And, at least at the moment, Salvy.

That’s seven building blocks in the lineup. And yet the Royals still feel like a drag to watch, probably because the other two spots are such a drag on the lineup.

Jeff Francoeur is hitting .238/.276/.368. So to those of you who thought he would regress back to the mean, and return to being the hitter he was in 2010, you were wrong: he’s regressed way past the mean. He’s worse than he was in 2010, or any other year other than 2008, when he hit .239/.294/.359 and was worth 1.9 Wins BELOW Replacement.

And while defensive metrics are notoriously unreliable in the span of a single season, it bears mentioning that his defensive numbers are even worse than his offensive ones. According to Baseball-Reference, Frenchy has been 1.1 Wins Below Replacement as a hitter this year – and a full 2.0 WBR on defense. I’m not sure how that’s possible – while Francoeur’s range has never been great, his arm is worth something. But despite 12 assists in 95 games, BB-Ref says his range has been just that bad.

I feel some degree of responsibility for Francoeur. I mean, I advocated for the Royals to bring him in years ago, and I took a lot of credit when he responded with a year of redemption in 2011: .285/.329/.476, a 20-20 season, 71 extra-base hits. I wasn’t thrilled with the two-year extension he got last August, but I wasn’t angry about it either – my preference was to move Melky Cabrera to right field to make room for Cain, but that was about keeping the switch-hitting bat and getting a draft pick for Francoeur more than because I wasn’t convinced Francoeur’s bat was for real.

Obviously, his bat wasn’t for real; if Francoeur’s 2011 was any more of a mirage, Siegfried and Roy would have been performing there. I admit that I didn’t see this coming, and I was wrong to not foresee the possibility of this level of performance from him. But while I should have known that this amount of regression was possible, I still don’t think that I should have known it was likely.

Because in my defense, I present to you…Melky Cabrera. Like Francoeur, Cabrera had an excellent 2011; like Francoeur, it was completely out of sync with the rest of his career.

From 2008-2010, Jeff Francouer: .256/.301/.389, 83 OPS+
From 2008-2010, Melky Cabrera: .260/.319/.372, 82 OPS+

Cabrera is younger than Francoeur, but only by six months – at this stage of their careers, that difference is negligible. And while it was in the distant past, Francoeur’s performance early in his career (.300/.336/.549 at age 21, .293/.338/.444 in a full season at age 23) dwarfed anything that Cabrera had ever done.

And yet Cabrera has not only proven that 2011 was a true improvement in his performance level, he’s taken a further step forward, leading the NL in hits and batting .359/.400/.530 at the moment. If there was something in their track records that suggested that Cabrera was likely to build on his 2011 and Francoeur was likely to regress, please point it out to me. I don’t mean that in a snarky manner – I genuinely would like to be educated, because obviously, that’s the sort of differentiation that can make or break a team.

The only thing I see that distinguishes them was that even when he was not hitting, Cabrera had a good strikeout-to-walk ratio – from 2008 to 2010 he had 114 walks and 181 Ks. But his K/BB ratio actually worsened in 2011 – he had 94 strikeouts and 35 walks. Even this year, his K/BB ratio is higher than it was in 2009 or 2010. Francoeur, meanwhile, has struck out three times as often as he’s walked throughout his career: 282 Ks vs. 92 walks from 2008 to 2010, then 123 Ks and 37 walks in his breakout season last year. (This year he has 74 Ks and 16 walks.)

Given two players with identical offensive performances, I would lean towards the player with better command of the strike zone. But at least in 2011, Francoeur walked a little more often than Cabrera. He struck out 30% more often – but was that, alone, enough to distinguish between them? I don’t think so, but if there’s a definitive study out there on the predictive value of K/BB ratios, please send it my way.

The Royals obviously couldn’t distinguish between the two outfielders – they offered them identical 2-year, $13.5 million contracts. If Cabrera had been the one to take the Royals up on the deal, that would have been worth literally seven games in the standings. Plus, the Royals would have spent the Jonathan Sanchez money on another pitcher, who almost certainly would have been worth two or three additional wins simply on account of not being Jonathan Sanchez.

The Royals are 41-58 at the moment, 13 games out of first place – and yet I can say without hyperbole that if the decision between Francoeur and Cabrera had played out differently, they would probably be above .500 and in the thick of a pennant race right now. That’s baseball. And that’s the Royals.

Francoeur, of course, has a higher OBP than Yuniesky Betancourt.

I don’t know what else I can write about Yuni. He’s hitting .241/.270/.422. Yes, he has genuinely above-average pop for a middle infielder. And…well, that’s about all I can come up with. He’s not hitting for a high average. He never walks. His defense is the subject of the next installment of the Saw franchise. And he has more plate appearances (212) than Chris Getz and Irving Falu combined.

When the Royals re-signed him, I didn’t like the deal, but I was not apoplectic about it – I figured he would be used in a utility role, which would limit the damage. I was wrong. I should have been apoplectic. Dayton Moore’s inability to see that Betancourt is a below-replacement-level player (I mean that literally – the Royals would be better off with Falu, who is the very definition of a replacement-level player) is Exhibit A in the case that Moore is an excellent scouting director who has been promoted past his competence level.

Johnny Giavotella, meanwhile, went 0-for-4 on Friday night, which is notable because it ended his 21-game hitting streak. Even with the 0-for-4, Giavotella is hitting .333/.422/.513 in Omaha, and .385/.464/.635 in July. He turned 25 two weeks ago. He has spent nearly three seasons and played 314 games in the high minors, and has raked the entire time. He has not taken advantage of his major-league opportunities, but they have been scarce – 67 games overall. Scouts do not feel he is another Kila Ka’aihue – the consensus is that he can be at least an average-hitting second baseman in the majors.

And as for his glove…when you’re playing Yuniesky Betancourt instead, you have forfeited the right to pass judgment on Giavotella’s defense.

It would be nice to see the Royals exhibit a modicum of common sense and let Giavotella play regularly in the majors, but at this point they can’t even find it fit to give the lion’s share of playing time to Chris Getz, who’s hitting .295/.328/.380 for the Royals.

I feel like I’ve written this many times before, probably because I’ve written this many times before. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to stop banging my head against this particular wall.

- While Giavotella has been crushing the ball of late, Wil Myers is in a massive slump that seemed to start after he flew around the country playing in various feature games (the Futures Game in KC, the Triple-A All-Star Game in Buffalo). He’s 6-for-his-last-49; in his last 10 games he has two walks and 19 strikeouts.

He’s still hitting .280/.362/.560 in Triple-A, with 16 homers in 63 games; for the season he’s hitting .302/.381/.621. He’s still a leading candidate to be named the Minor League Player of the Year.

This is what keeps me from giving up hope entirely: the solution is so simple. Replace Betancourt with Giavotella, and replace Francoeur with Myers. Suddenly you can field an offense where all nine hitters are potentially average or above this year, and an offense full of guys still in full ascent. Gordon is 28, and every other hitter in the lineup is 26 or younger.

It seems so simple. But no one makes the simple seem so hard quite like the Royals.

- With the trade deadline approaching, the good news is that the Royals seem to be focusing their efforts on trading four players: Francoeur, Betancourt, Jonathan Broxton, and Jose Mijares.

The bad news is that two of those players have no trade value. Actually, that’s not true. Betancourt might be useful for a team that has a need for a utility infielder – he can play three infield positions, albeit poorly, and he’s got a lot more sock than the typical futility infielder. He’s only under contract for 2012. He’s owed around $800,000 the rest of the season.

Unfortunately, the San Francisco Giants, one of the few teams with a need for such a player and with a GM that has a genuine fetish for mediocre veterans, filled their need Friday night by trading for Marco Scutaro from the Rockies. That doesn’t leave a lot of other options. The Pirates are winning with Clint Barmes and his unprintable .206/.231/.298 line, but Barmes can at least play defense, and I doubt they’d want to take the defensive hit just to get Yuni’s bat in the lineup. The Nationals might have a need, now that Ian Desmond is out for a month, and Davey Johnson uses his bench so masterfully that Betancourt would probably slug .500 for them the rest of the way. But other than those two teams, I don’t see a fit anywhere.

It’s also not true that Francoeur has no trade value. He has substantially negative trade value, and if Moore can find a way to trade Francoeur – even if he eats 80% of his salary – that would be a major win. He won’t, and with $10 million owed to him, and the Royals unwilling to eat a sunk cost, that almost certainly means Frenchy will continue to play every day. Myers’ recent slump only gives the Royals a convenient excuse. At this point, you have to be genuinely concerned that Francoeur will be in the Opening Day lineup next year, sabotaging another season’s playoff hopes before the Royals own up to their mistake.

The other bad news is this tweet from ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick: #Royals want young starting pitching for Broxton. They’d like it as close to MLB-ready as possible. No interest in A-ball types.

If this is true – and I have no reason not to trust Crasnick – this might be the single most depressing thing I’ve read about the Royals all season.

The Royals want MLB-ready starting pitching for Jonathan Broxton? HAVE THEY LEARNED NOTHING FROM THEIR OWN FREAKING HISTORY?! Somewhere, George Santayana is shaking his head sadly.

The Royals wanted “MLB-ready starting pitching” for Alberto Callaspo. They got Sean O’Sullivan. They wanted “MLB-ready starting pitching” for David DeJesus. They got Vinny Mazzaro.

Both of those guys were MLB-ready, in the sense that they were already as good as they were going to be, so they didn’t need any more development time in the minors. O’Sullivan, in 129 innings with the Royals, had a 6.63 ERA; he allowed 24 homers, and had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 56-to-52. They sold him to the Blue Jays last month. Mazzaro, in 61 innings with Kansas City, has a 7.12 ERA. He’s in Omaha at the moment, I believe; he’s traversed I-29 so many times this year he’s turning into the Royals’ version of Schrodinger’s cat, where we can only state his location in probabilistic terms. (Yes, I make physics jokes too!)

The Royals wanted MLB-ready talent in those deals, and they got it – crappy, no-good, awful MLB talent. WHICH IS WHY THEY STILL NEED MLB-READY STARTING PITCHING IN THE FIRST PLACE.

And beyond that: IT’S JONATHAN BROXTON. We’re talking about a guy whose strikeout rate is less than half of what it was three years ago. Yes, he has a 2.27 ERA – and a WHIP of over 1.4. His save percentage (23 of 27) is below the average for closers. I’m not saying he’s chopped liver, but he’s chopped steak – certainly not filet mignon. AND HE’S A FREE AGENT IN TWO MONTHS. If a team had a MLB-ready starting pitcher worth acquiring, they wouldn’t trade him for Jonathan Freaking Broxton.

Six years ago, Dayton Moore traded his soon-to-be-free-agent closer, and got Kyle Davies for Octavio Dotel. If he’s still insisting on getting a ready-to-go major-league starter for Broxton, then he’s learned absolutely nothing in six years – and he’d be lucky to get another Davies-caliber starter in return. If the Royals are going to get anything of real value for Broxton, it would be precisely if they targeted an A-ball type. Trade for the 19-year-old kid who touches 95 but has no command; maybe you can teach it to him. Or the 19-year-old kid who tops out at 89, but has a projectable arm and might add 3 mph to his fastball in the next two years. The kid probably won’t, but if they do they might actually turn into an impact player, and I’d rather the guy with the 20% chance to be an impact player over the guy with the 90% chance to be on the Omaha shuttle for the next two years.

Or better still: try to find a way to use Broxton – and Mijares if necessary – as a means to get Francoeur off your roster. Offer Broxton to any team, and don’t even ask for a prospect back – just ask them to take Francoeur as well, and you’ll still pay half the money due to him. Hell, throw in Yuni while you’re at it. Getting those two off your roster would do more to help this team win games, both this year and next, than anyone you could actually get for Broxton in return.

We all know this won’t happen. We all know that we’re stuck with Francoeur, and probably Yuni as well. That Giavotella is stuck in Triple-A. And that we’re all stuck on the fast track to 100 losses, something which seemed inconceivable four months ago, and not just in the Vizzini usage of the term.

But of course, we’re the Royals. Nothing is inconceivable on the low end, and it’s my fault for thinking otherwise. So I guess it’s time to look to 2013, when Dayton Moore will either prove he deserves his job, or I – and all of you – will strive to see him fired in earnest. One 2012-caliber disaster is more than enough, thank you very much.