Monday, February 11, 2013

Royals Today: It Begins.

I’m a big fan of the World Baseball Classic, and I look forward to the day when the best players in the world take the event as seriously as the fans do. But the event sure does throw off my internal baseball timetable. Spring training isn’t supposed to begin until after Valentine’s Day, but here we are, at the exact midpoint of winter, and pitchers and catchers are down in Surprise, and James Shields and Salvador Perez are getting acquainted, and Bob Dutton is already reporting two-a-days.

Wait a minute – why am I complaining? This is awesome. We should have the World Baseball Classic every year.

The roster for the 2013 Royals is pretty much set – there’s the annual dumb last-minute trade right before Opening Day to account for – and news is starting to trickle in from Arizona. I’m starting to put the ugliness of the off-season behind me and get excited for the season to come, like I always do. My love-hate relationship with the Royals is obviously unhealthy, like Kirstie Alley with food, or Danny Duffy with Twitter, but try as I might I can’t quit this damn team. So let’s break it down.

- In his opening column from spring training, Dutton proclaims “This is the club’s most anticipated camp in more than a generation”. That’s an awfully bold statement from someone not prone to hyperbole. He’s probably right.

The only real competition since the strike would be 2004, after the Royals faked their way to an 83-win season in 2003, and followed their winning campaign by re-signing Brian Anderson and bringing in veterans like Benito Santiago and Juan Gonzalez. In retrospect, I don’t know what we were all smoking. Ken Harvey was a folk hero, Angel Berroa was going to be a star, Darrell May was a front-of-the-rotation starter, Mike MacDougal threw 110 mph and his curveball dropped so hard it could penetrate the earth’s crust. Chris George and Jimmy Gobble were the future of the rotation. I guess you had to be there. (Or you could just listen to the song.)

Anyway, aside from that brief, glorious delusion, there really hasn’t been a season with expectations like this one since 1994. Ewing Kauffman had just passed away the year before, and the team was set up to win now in his honor. (That included the regrettable decision to trade Jon Lieber to the Pirates for Stan Belinda the previous summer.) David Cone was still a Royal, and the entire infield (Wally Joyner, Jose Lind, Greg Gagne, and Gary Gaetti) were imports, as was leftfielder Vince Coleman. Tom Gordon was still a starting pitcher, and he and Kevin Appier were just 26 years old.

That team won 14 games in a row just before the strike hit, and were four games out of first place when the season ended. That was also the first year of the wild-card ever, with divisions whittled down to five teams and a backdoor to the playoffs. The optimism before that season stemmed as much from the added opportunities as from the team itself.

Before that, you have to go back to 1990, when the Royals were coming off a 92-win season, then were deemed to have won the off-season by masterfully signing both Storm Davis and Mark Davis. What a coup! (Incidentally, this was the precise moment at which I developed the baseball arrogance that continues to delight audiences today. I was 14 years old, and I knew that Storm Davis’ 19-7 record in 1989 was a fraud, the product of fantastic run support and quite possibly the greatest bullpen in baseball history to that point. Meanwhile, professional baseball men were telling us that Storm Davis just knew how to win.)

Mark Davis’ astonishing fall from grace after winning the 1989 NL Cy Young Award remains a mystery to this day. What’s not a mystery is that it was silly to think that a reliever would make that much of a difference in the first place.

Anyway, of the last three seasons that began with as much anticipation as this one, two of them (1990 and 2004) were fraudulent, and the other one (1994) was aborted. We can only hope this season goes better. But still: credit to Dayton Moore & friends for getting the Royals to this point in the first place.

- We’ll be seeing more Top Prospect lists come out in the near future, but over at, Keith Law has ranked the organizations, and the Royals – even after trading away two Top 100 Prospects and two other interesting names – rank a very solid 11th overall.

Law was one of the few people more critical of the trade than I was, so it’s only fair to point out that he still has nice things to say about the farm system. Notably, “They’ve got more sleeper/breakout candidates than any other organization” and “I didn’t like the trade for James Shields, but I still really like the overall direction of things in Kansas City when you look from top to bottom.

Last spring I wrote that given that so few of their minor leaguers were likely to lose their rookie eligibility in 2012 – Kelvin Herrera was the only player among their top 20 prospects by Baseball America who did – “I think the Royals are in excellent position to have a Top-5, if not Top-3, farm system yet again next spring.” If you annul the trade, and add two Top 100 guys (along with Montgomery and Leonard, both of whom would rank in the #15-#25 range in the organization) back into the 11th-ranked system, the Royals might well be in the top 5. Law has the Cubs at 5th and the Astros at 4th, and the Royals would compare favorably to them. Heck, Law has Tampa Bay 3rd, and if you take away Myers et al, the Royals might rank ahead of them as well.

What’s done is done, but the point is that the Royals had a chance at a Top-5, if not Top-3, farm system for the third straight year. The system is still developing talent.

As a result of the trade, the Royals’ roster is pretty well set without expecting a contribution from a single rookie. Among the Royals top 20 prospects this year, not one is guaranteed to lose his eligibility to be on next year’s list. Donnie Joseph may work his way into the bullpen by mid-season. Christian Colon might get the call if 1) Alcides Escobar gets hurt or 2) the Chris Getz/Johnny Giavotella deathmatch at second base actually ends with both contestants dead. And it’s possible that one of Kyle Zimmer, Yordano Ventura, or John Lamb will blast through Triple-A and land in the Royals rotation by August – but quite unlikely, given that by that point they’ll be behind Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino in the cafeteria line.

Everyone else is at least a year away. Which means that this time next year, the Royals are in good shape to be a top-five farm system again, unless they trade away more top prospects to fill another hole. Like, say, right field.

- As you would expect from a team that’s playing to win now, there aren’t a lot of position battles in camp. James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, and Wade Davis are your top four starters, in some order after Shields. Your fifth starter will be one of Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen, and Luis Mendoza.

Last year’s rotation contained all three of those guys, so the fact that there’s currently room for only one of them has to be deemed progress. I’m not going to waste time pointing out why Hochevar shouldn’t be here – that horse has been tenderized enough. But he shouldn’t be here.

(By the way, mark today down. I was listening to Soren Petro’s show on 810 WHB, and Danny Clinkscale was reporting from Surprise, and he had spoken with Luke Hochevar, who told him that he had looked at video of himself pitching from the stretch and he thought he had found a problem in his delivery. Now, this is about the tenth time that Hochevar or the Royals have spotted a flaw, and the last nine times didn’t fix anything. But at least this time, on February 11th, 2013, the Royals have finally acknowledged that Luke Hochevar’s problem boils down to the fact that he falls apart with men on base. Progress!)

Honestly, if it were my decision – and I had to make the decision today – I’d give the job to Mendoza. I was slow to come around on him, as you may remember, but the Royals believed that his 2011 season in Omaha wasn’t a fluke, and once he mastered the cutter last year, he was an above-average starter. (In his last 20 starts, he had a 3.82 ERA.)

Despite bouncing around for years trying to stick in the majors, Mendoza is actually six weeks younger than Hochevar, he’s the only one of the three who is a groundball pitcher, and he’s under club control for the next four seasons. He was just named the MVP of the Caribbean Series. Some pitchers break out in their late 20s; I’m not saying Mendoza will, but he’s got a much better chance than the other two.

Ned Yost feels Mendoza is better suited for long relief. I would have agreed with him up until last June – Mendoza’s stats the third time through a lineup were horrific – but adding the cutter gave him a new weapon to use the second and third time he faced a hitter, and he was able to work deeper into ballgames.

All three pitchers are out of options, and the Royals say they don’t want to lose any of them, so two of them are headed for long relief. Having two long relievers may have made sense last year, when the Royals were having trouble getting even five innings out of their starters until August. But I thought the Royals just spent a considerable amount of money and talent to upgrade their rotation precisely so that they wouldn’t need a long reliever, let alone two.

Over the last two years, Shields has averaged 7.23 innings per start. Ervin Santana has averaged 6.46 innings per start. Guthrie averaged 6.11 innings per start – but if you take out his time in Colorado, it was 6.41 innings per start. Wade Davis, in his last two seasons as a starter (2010-11), averaged 6.07 innings per start.

The Royals, as a whole, averaged 5.49 innings per start last year. If their four projected starters pitch as deep into ballgames as they have the last two seasons, the Royals will need somewhere between 100 and 150 fewer innings from their bullpen in 2013. Two long relievers, which were a necessity last season, would be a luxury this year – and given the team’s bullpen depth, a luxury they don’t need.

Which is why I’ll predict now that – barring an injury to one of the top four guys, which is certainly possible – the Royals do not break camp with Hochevar, Chen, and Mendoza all on their roster. I could certainly see a scenario in which Chen gets traded to a team that has a sudden opening in their rotation. Chen had a disappointing 2012, but he’s on a one-year, $4.5 millon contract, he’s suddenly durable (led the AL in starts last year), he set a career high in K/BB ratio last year…I don’t think you’re getting a top prospect for him or anything, but unlike Hochevar, I think his contract is moveable.

And for as much noise as the Royals have made about their faith in Hochevar, it’s worth noting that most of that noise came before they added two starting pitchers to their rotation. It’s also worth noting that most of Hochevar’s contract is not guaranteed. If he’s released prior to March 15th, he’s only owed about one-sixth of his contract (roughly $800,000). If he’s released after March 15th but before Opening Day, he’s owed about one-quarter of his contract (roughly $1.2 million). If he’s on the roster on Opening Day, his entire contract is guaranteed.

Truthfully, I doubt he’ll get cut, unless his spring training performances are surprisingly poor – not just results, but his velocity is down or something. But I do think something will happen. You can never have too much pitching, but you can have too much overpriced pitching, and right now the Royals have at least one overpriced pitcher too many.

More to come. I’m just getting warmed up.