Thursday, September 20, 2012

2013 Top Prospects: #1

For the second straight season, the Royals have played well enough in the second half to give us legitimate reason to think that, with an off-season of maturation and a few savvy roster additions, they might be ready to contend next year. Since the All-Star Break, the Royals have scored more runs (285) than they’ve allowed (284).

Unfortunately, last year they also scored more runs than they allowed after the All-Star Break (328-313), and we saw how well that turned out.

Still, the Royals have basically been a .500 team on paper since the Break, which not coincidentally is around the time they got Salvador Perez (and Lorenzo Cain) healthy and jettisoned the likes of Jonathan Sanchez and Yuniesky Betancourt. In the AL Central, where 89 wins will probably take the division this year, there is absolutely no excuse for a .500 team to go into the off-season without a firm expectation that they will contend next year. Particularly a team with the youngest offense in the majors for the second straight year, and a team that won’t lose a single meaningful player off its roster to free agency (with the exception of Jeremy Guthrie, I suppose.)

All this talk about 2014 is, frankly, a cop-out. The Royals can win in 2013 if they make the right moves. It is therefore incumbent that they make the right moves.

So in the limited time that I have to devote to this blog, I plan to focus on a few big things. The “For Want of a Pitcher” series is scheduled to return soon, looking at the many, many options the Royals have to upgrade their rotation between now and spring training. I’ll be grading out the current roster once the season ends, figuring out who should stay and who should go. And I’ll be breaking down the Royals’ top prospects as time allows. Aside from being an endeavor I particularly enjoy – dreaming about the future is always more fun than lamenting the present – if the Royals are going to acquire quality starting pitchers, they’re probably going to trade prospects at some point. If they’re going to trade prospects, then it’s a good idea to know which prospects are disposable and which ones are untouchable.

Writing about prospects also makes it easier for me to artificially raise my article count – rather than writing about them 10 or 15 at a time, I might write about them 2 or 3 at a time and get my evaluations in your hands that much faster. Or, like today, I might write about just one of them.

#1: Wil Myers
Pos-B: RF-R
H-W: 6’3”, 205 lb
DOB: 12/10/1990 (Age 21)
Signed: 3rd Round, 2009, NC HS ($2 million)
Overall Rank in Baseball: Top 5

2009: .315/.429/.506 in low A/high A
2010: .254/.353/.393 in AA
2011: .314/.387/.600 in AA/AAA

It’s not exactly a stretch to put Myers at #1; he is Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year, the third Royal to be so honored (after Tom Gordon and Alex Gordon). It’s important to note that he’s not the best prospect in baseball – the award is given to the top prospect who had the best season, but that’s not necessarily the same thing. Jurickson Profar, who didn’t have the numbers Myers did but is 19 years old and a quality shortstop, is a better prospect. Oscar Taveras probably is. Dylan Bundy, even though he’s a pitcher, probably is.

But after those three, there’s no one clearly better. Myers rebounded from his injury-plagued 2011 and then some, a rebound which started in the Arizona Fall League. He hit 37 home runs, finishing second in the minors, and actually led the minors if you count his postseason exploits. He hits for average, he walks a fair amount, and he has enough defensive versatility that the Royals played him at third base 15 times for reasons not clearly evident. (Myers actually played 87 games in center field, and only 18 in right. But he’s a right fielder, if not right away then soon enough.)

Meanwhile, with Lorenzo Cain out for the rest of the year, the Royals are platooning Jason Bourgeois and David Lough.

You might think that I’m upset with this arrangement, with the Royals giving playing time to a pair of non-prospects while their best prospect, who has destroyed pitching at the highest levels of the minors, got sent home after Omaha was eliminated from the PCL finals. You would be wrong.

I was annoyed with the Royals for not bringing him up in July, or even in early August, when it was clear that he had passed every reasonable hurdle in the minor leagues. But given that the moment has passed, I think it would be a waste of resources to bring Myers up in September. For one, the Royals aren’t playing for anything. The Rangers and Orioles are, which is why Profar and (now) Bundy are both in the majors. If those teams were buried under .500, they would have left their prized prospects in the minor leagues as well.

The Royals have publicly stated that roster issues have forced their hand in keeping Myers in Triple-A. As the prospect wave continues to mature, the Royals have a lot of players who will become eligible for the Rule 5 draft this winter if they are not protected on the 40-man roster. Because Myers was drafted out of high school in 2009, he is not eligible for the Rule 5 draft, so keeping him in the minors and off the 40-man roster opens up a spot for someone who might otherwise be left off and drafted by another team. Whereas someone like Jake Odorizzi, who was drafted in 2008, IS eligible for the Rule 5 draft, needs to be added to the 40-man roster anyway – so he got called up.

There’s nothing wrong with this line of thinking, but I think it’s more a convenient excuse for the real reason than anything else. The real reason to keep Myers on the farm is – or should be – that you have a chance to delay free agency by a year. In order to do that, though, it’s not enough to keep Myers in the minors all of this season – it also means starting next season with Myers in Triple-A, at least for about three weeks.

As well as he played this season, I thought that it would be almost impossible to justify sending him back to Omaha to start next year, which is why I was agitating for him to get called up around the All-Star Break. But having made it this far, there’s a chance the Royals can pull it off. They did so two years ago with Mike Moustakas, who was nearly as dominant as Myers has been. Moustakas hit .322/.369/.630 between Double-A and Triple-A, but in Triple-A hit .293/.314/.564. More importantly, in 52 games he walked just eight times – that was sufficient reason to send him back to start last season, to work on his plate discipline.

Myers didn’t really have that problem – after his promotion to Omaha, he hit .304/.378/.554, and walked a healthy 45 times in 99 games. He did strike out 98 times, and 140 times for the season. That’s not an enormous total, but the Royals have conveniently focused on his strikeout rate as proof that he still has things to work on. Myers had never struck out even 100 times in a season before 2012. He had also never hit even 15 home runs in a season, but if that’s the argument that succeeds in getting him back to Omaha for a refresher next spring, we can overlook the logical fallacy embedded in it.

It’s hardly a lock that Myers will go back to Triple-A at all. I imagine the plan is that he’ll come to spring training “with a chance to win a job”, as it were. But for that to happen, 1) he’ll have to rake in March and 2) Jeff Francoeur will have to look even worse than he has all of 2012. As aggravating as it is that Frenchy is still on the books for 2013 (at $7.5 million!), his presence and that contract will give the Royals the opening they need to send Myers back to Omaha to start the year. It means that Francoeur basically gets the month of April to plead his case for his job, and if he doesn’t hit out of the gate, Myers gets his job by Mother’s Day. Will it be a buzzkill to see Francoeur in right field on Opening Day? Yes. Is it worth losing a few weeks of Myers when he’s 22 to get another year of service time from him when he’ll be 28 (and essentially at his peak)? Absolutely.

Still, this whole situation puts the Royals in a very awkward position, one in which they’re essentially rooting for their best prospect to not play too well and force their hand. Fortunately, I have an idea that eliminates this problem and is a win-win for everyone involved.

Five years ago, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had a similar problem on their hand. Evan Longoria, who like Myers today was 21 years old, had completed a fantastic minor league season, hitting .307/.403/.528 between Double-A and Triple-A. He hadn’t advanced quite as far as Myers had – he only played 31 games in Triple-A, and hit .269/.398/.490 there – but he was also a superior defensive third baseman. He had entered the season as Baseball America’s #7 prospect in the land, and was #2 overall when the rankings came out the next spring. It was very clear in spring training 2008 that Longoria was ready for the major leagues.

Instead, the Rays (they had just dropped the Devil) sent Longoria back to Triple-A Durham to start the year. It looked like a clear manipulation of service time, especially when they called him up after he had played just SEVEN games there (and was just 5-for-25). Longoria made his major-league debut on April 12th, just two days past the point at which he would have qualified for free agency a year early. It looked to the outside layman like Longoria might even have a grievance on his hands.

Longoria never filed a grievance, because he was too busy negotiating a long-term contract. On April 18th – six days into his major-league career – Longoria signed a six-year contract with the Rays with three option years. He was guaranteed $17 million over the six years, and a maximum of $44 million if all the options were exercised. Obviously, the negotiations had started before Longoria had been called up.  His demotion to Triple-A to start the year was only a formality until the contract was finalized.

The Rays didn’t screw over Longoria by delaying his service time for a year – instead, they got him to sign what is widely considered to be the most club-friendly contract in baseball today, if not of all time. If Longoria had been a free agent after the 2014 season, he’d be in line for $20 million a year or more. Instead, the Rays can keep him for $11 million in 2014 and $11.5 million in 2015. Oh, and sending Longoria back to Triple-A briefly in 2008 didn’t hurt the Rays in the development of their young team – they went from 66-96 in 2007 to 97-65 and the World Series.

Which brings us back to Wil Myers. Myers, unlike Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, is not represented by Scott Boras, which is a sign that he should be amenable to at least listening to a long-term deal. He got $2 million out of the draft, which is big money to you and me, but compared to the $4 million Moustakas got and the $6 million Hosmer got, it’s not exactly money he can retire on – so he might be amenable to trading long-term upside for the security of a guaranteed payout.

So yes, this is exactly what I’m advocating: between now and spring training, Dayton Moore needs to open negotiations with Wil Myers and his agents on a long-term contract, one that will potentially (if all options are exercised) keep Myers under club control for nine years. Assuming Myers went back to Triple-A for long enough to delay free agency by a year, it would only buy out two years of free agency, which should be acceptable for a young player in exchange for being set for life.

I think I’ve argued for the Royals to offer a long-term contract to every good young hitter they’ve developed since John Hart and the Cleveland Indians pioneered the concept back in the early 1990s. Unless my memory is slipping, though, the Royals didn’t pull it off even once until Dayton Moore was hired. (The closest they came was Mike Sweeney, who was close enough to free agency that they paid close to market value, and the contract turned into an albatross.) For all the mistakes Moore has made, his aggressiveness in this regard has been an enormous boon to the organization.

Starting with Joakim Soria, then getting Zack Greinke signed just before he went all Cy Young on us, buying out two years of free agency on Billy Butler and Alex Gordon, and culminating with the perfectly-timed Salvador Perez and Alcides Escobar deals, Moore has done a fantastic job of keeping his best players in the fold at below-market prices. Obviously, the earlier you start the better – Greinke, Gordon, and Butler gave a modest discount on their services, while Perez’s and Escobar’s contracts are borderline theft. Perez, in fact, might succeed Longoria as the player with the most team-friendly contract in the game. (Grant Brisbee made that very argument earlier this week.)

Precisely because of Moore’s track record in this regard, I think the biggest impediment to this kind of contract – ownership signing off on it – is a hurdle that can be overcome. “Mr. Glass, you remember when I came to you and asked if you’d guarantee $7 million to our young catcher no one had heard off? Now he’s the second coming of Johnny Bench, and between now and 2019 we’ll pay him less than Joe Mauer makes this year alone. Our young shortstop who plays Gold Glove defense, has 30 steals, and is flirting with .300? He’s ours through 2017 for the same price. So I hope you’ll trust my judgment when I tell you I think we should guarantee this Wil Myers kid eight figures…”

How much will it take to get Myers signed? The Longoria contract sort of ruined it for top prospects – it’s pretty universally agreed that he gave the Rays too much of a discount. That wouldn’t affect someone like Perez, who wasn’t an elite prospect coming up, but for a can’t-miss guy like Myers that matters. Longoria got $17/6 guaranteed, $44/9 upside. The Royals won’t get a deal that good, and there’s inflation on top of that. So…$26/6 guaranteed, $56/9 upside? Myers wouldn’t be arbitration-eligible for the first three years of the contract, so he’d make no more than about $2 million for those three years anyway. That means he’s being guaranteed $8 million a year for his first three arbitration years, and $10 million a year in options for his last arbitration year and two free agency years. (Probably divvied up as $8M/$11M/$11M.)

That’s a huge chunk of change, enough for Wil Myers to retire on even if he suffers a career-ending injury the next day (unless he spends money like Vince Young). But it’s absolutely something the Royals can afford. If Myers is the biggest prospect bust of all time, they’re out $26 million – so what? They wasted more than that on Jose Guillen. But even if he turns into just a solid-average player, a Hunter Pence or something, that contract represents only a mild overpay. And if he’s a perennial All-Star right fielder, well, the Royals have an All-Star for no more than $11 million all the way through 2021. (2021!)

I don’t think it’s likely that this will happen; no player has ever signed a long-term deal while still in the minors. (Although Longoria was almost still in the minors when he signed his; he was only called up because of an injury.) But Moore has the track record to make me think it’s possible. I'm sure he'd like to get one of the Hosmer/Moustakas/Myers triumvirate signed long-term, and the other two guys ain’t interested. You’d like to think he has earned the confidence of ownership at this point. And as he learned from Salvador Perez, while there’s risk in putting your trust in a player so soon, there’s also immense reward. If you truly believe that Wil Myers can be an above-average regular in the majors – not even a star, just above average – then there’s no better time to get him signed to a contract than before he’s cashed his first big-league paycheck.

So get it done, Dayton. Give us all another spring surprise, get Myers signed in March, and then you don’t have to adhere to some artificial timetable as to when he gets called up – he’ll make the team the moment he deserves to, and not a moment later.

I was at the Futures Game when Wil Myers was introduced, and 40,000 fans gave him a standing ovation. I can’t wait to see what kind of reception he’ll get in his first major-league at-bat at Kauffman Stadium, if the fans know he’s theirs well into the next decade.