Friday, February 22, 2013

Five For Friday: 2/22/13.

So after years of avoiding the temptation of easy content – the regular mailbag – I have finally surrendered to temptation. Let’s face it: I need content of any kind, easy or not. So here’s the plan – every Wednesday, I will send out a call on Twitter for questions about the Royals. You will respond with questions. I will select my five favorite questions and answer them on Friday. I will call it “Five For Friday”. I will not pay royalties to Sam Mellinger or Bob Dutton, even though they may deserve it.

I can’t guarantee this will play every week, but I’ll do my best. Here’s the first installment. Questions may have been slightly altered for grammar or to escape Twitter’s oppressive 140-character limits:

CWDIG (@ChrisDiggins): What kind of season would Wade Davis have to have to get moved back to the pen?

A pretty bad one, I think, not simply because the Royals have a lot invested in him as a starter, but because they really don’t have a need for another reliever at this point. I’ll have more to say about this when I get to Aaron Crow, but as much as I would like to see Crow get a chance to start, keeping him in the bullpen means the Royals have four relievers – Holland, Herrera, Crow, and Collins – who have the ability to serve as closers in their career. (Collins might not get the opportunity, simply because left-handers rarely get moved to the 9th inning, but he has the ability). This thankfully limits the temptation to limit yet another pitcher’s upside by shuttling him to the bullpen, whether that pitcher is an established major-leaguer like Wade Davis or a prospect like Yordano Ventura.

We saw what Davis could do as a reliever last year, and it was pretty spectacular – he was Aaron Crow with more swing-and-miss stuff. And if Davis is struggling to get his ERA under 5 in June and one of those four guys gets hurt, I could see a move being made. But even as a #4 starter, he has more value than as a middle reliever.

Also keep in mind – if he moves to the pen, then the Royals are probably going to decline his option after 2014, because they’re in no position to spend $7 million on a middle reliever. (Which is why they didn’t pick up Joakim Soria’s option this winter.) That would leave the Royals with nothing to show from their big trade after just two seasons. So I think they’ll give Davis every opportunity to establish himself as a mid-rotation starter, making his three club options very appealing.

Tom Lee (@tompl81): Who is your most unlikely candidate in the minors to see time with the big club this year?

The only likely candidates in the minors to get a big-league callup would be the Big Three starters (Kyle Zimmer, Yordano Ventura, and John Lamb), along with Donnie Joseph if there’s an opening in the bullpen, Christian Colon if there’s an opening in the middle infield, and David Lough if someone goes down in the outfield.

If you’re looking for a darkhorse…I guess I would go with Orlando Calixte. He hit well (.281/.326/.426) in Wilmington last year, and people still underrate just how tough it is to hit in that ballpark, particularly for right-handed hitters. I could see him going off in Double-A, in which case an injury on the left side of the infield could get him a shot, or – if the second base situation remains unsettled into August and the Royals are in contention – he might be asked to stop the leaking there.

The other darkhorse would be Chris Dwyer, who has been all but written off by most people, but if gets moved to the bullpen – where he really belongs at this point – he could come on quick and give the relief corps a second-half jolt.

Bart Parry (@Bart41CPA): If Vegas’s over/under of 78.5 wins is close, that’s the end of the Ned/DM era, right? We’re rooting for either under 78 or over 86 wins, right?

I’m glad you brought up the Vegas line, not because I partake – I have religious objections against gambling – but because for all the grief I’ve gotten from Royals fans for crapping all over the Shields trade, it’s important for people to realize that I’m actually considerably more optimistic about the Royals than most observers. I’ve been predicting 86 wins for 2013, which would put the Royals on the fringes of the wild-card race at least. But most people don’t see it that way.

Dayton Moore is already declaring Mission Accomplished and patting himself on the back for only taking seven years to build a competitive team. (Royals Review has a good takedown of his comments here. Frankly, I think they went too easy on him.) Of all the criticisms I have about what Moore said, the biggest one is this: you haven’t won anything yet. Not to go all Winston Wolf here, but maybe you should at least wait until you have a winning season before getting too pleased with yourself. According to the industry consensus, that won’t happen in 2013.

In Moore’s defense, 78.5 wins seems curiously low. The Royals won 72 games last year, with a Pythagorean record of 74-88. They had the youngest offense in baseball, and young offenses usually – but not always, as we saw from 2011 to 2012 – improve. They added a lot of starting pitching, not all of it great, but all of it better than the back of their rotation last year. They have a number of hitters who could be significantly better and almost can’t be worse. They don’t have a lot of candidates for regression.

Then again, Baseball Prospectus projects them to win 76 games. If that happens – particularly if the Royals play poorly in the first half of the season, as opposed to collapsing in September – then I think Yost is gone. Moore’s fate may be decided by the details of the Shields trade. If Shields and Davis are pitching well and Myers isn’t running away with Rookie of the Year honors, he’ll probably hold his job. But if the Royals are under .500 and the trade goes sour, the entire front office might get fumigated.

As for your second question – yes, that’s pretty much what I’m rooting for. 86+ wins, and Moore can take a bow, and I’ll happily eat my crow while watching a pennant race. 76 or fewer wins, and maybe the next Royals’ GM will be able to build on the foundation that Moore has created. But 82-80 does nothing for us, in the short or long term.

StillLovesZack (@ZackCanDeal): Are we selling Moose short? Am I wrong in remembering that at ST two years ago, Moose was considered a better prospect than Hos?

We might be. The dramatic improvement in Moustakas’ defense last season raises his ultimate ceiling, and his offense, while slightly disappointing, didn’t lower his ceiling much if at all. A .242/.296/.412 line doesn’t look that great, but he was just 23 years old. Compare that to Dean Palmer at 23 (.229/.311/.420) or Gary Gaetti at 23 (.230/.280/.443) or Matt Williams at 23 (.202/.242/.455), and you realize that Moustakas probably has a long and occasionally illustrious career ahead of him.

Palmer had only 10.5 career bWAR, while Gaetti had 38.0 and Williams 43.5, which you can mostly attribute to the fact that Palmer was a butcher in the field and the other two were Gold Glovers. By flipping his defense from a negative into a positive, Moustakas is likely to wind up somewhere in the range of the latter two – not a Hall of Famer, but a damn fine ballplayer.

Two years ago, Hosmer ranked #8 on Baseball America’s Top 100 list, Moustakas #9, and Wil Myers #10. You could make a case then for any of the three, and you can make a case today for any of the three.

Shawn Walker (@shawnywalk): Will Salvy’s large frame cause him to have more knee problems than the average catcher?

That’s the 6’5” elephant in the room. Perez is listed at 6’3”, but I’m 6’3”, and I’ve been close enough to him in the clubhouse to say that he’s at least 6’4” and might be 6’5”. And he’s listed at 245 pounds.

Bill James speculated a quarter-century ago that the constant squatting and unsquatting required of catchers put much more stress on the knees of the really tall ones, which is why many great and durable catchers in history (most famously 5’7” Yogi Berra and 5’9” Ivan Rodriguez) were short. Shortly thereafter, Sandy Alomar came along, who is probably the player Perez has been comped to the most, and is listed at 6’5” and 205 pounds. Alomar’s career was ravaged by knee problems. Joe Mauer, the only other 6’5” catcher who has caught 1000 games, has also had extensive knee problems which have forced the Twins to play him at first base and DH a lot.

In the live-ball era, they are the only two catchers 6’5” or taller with more than 512 games. So we don’t really have a huge data set to compare Perez to. Matt Wieters, listed at 6’5” and 240 pounds, is at 509 games already, and has been very durable. Players are simply bigger than they used to be, and it’s possible their bodies can take the pounding better than players in the past, who were just as tall but perhaps more spindly.

On the other hand, Perez already missed half a season with a knee injury, and it wasn’t even traumatic – he simply lunged for a pitch wrong. As much as the Royals acknowledge how vital Perez is to the entire organization for the rest of the decade, you have to hope that they take an active – and proactive – approach to keeping his knees healthy. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

2013 Opening Day Preview, Part 1.

I was unfortunately unable to find the time to do a postseason review of every player this winter, so instead I’m going to preview the projected 25-man Opening Day roster. (Obviously, the Royals will use more than 25 players this year, but work with me here.) I’m ranking the players from #25 to #1, not based on projected value but based on how important it is to the franchise that the player plays to his potential in 2013.

Put it this way: if you could pick any Royal to have a season at the top end of his range – his 90th percentile projection, in a sense – who would that be? Billy Butler is one of the Royals’ best players, but he wouldn’t rank near the top of this list, precisely because he’s such a known quantity. You’d certainly be thrilled if he played at the top of his range, but you’d be happier taking his typical season and giving the Get Out Of Jail Free card to someone else.

Another way to look at this is this: the higher a player ranks on this list, the more likely it is that a breakout season from him will coincide with a playoff berth for the Royals in 2013.

Working from the bottom up:

#25: Seventh Reliever

Six of the bullpen spots appear locked up: the two losers for the fifth starter’s job, and the four guys who made 60 relief appearances for the Royals last year (Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow, and Tim Collins.) That leaves one spot up for grabs barring an injury, and maybe a dozen guys who have at least a puncher’s chance at winning it.

Louis Coleman is the most obvious candidate; for all the homers he gives up, he has a 3.25 ERA the last two years, and 129 Ks in 111 innings. But the Royals could go in many directions. If they want another lefty – neither Collins nor Chen are good fits for the role of lefty specialist – then maybe they go to Francisley Bueno. Or maybe Donnie Joseph, if the main piece in the Jonathan Broxton trade is lights out this spring. Everett Teaford has experience as a swing man. And that’s just the lefties; they could also consider Nate Adcock, and they added J.C. Gutierrez to the 40-man roster this winter, and don’t sleep on Guillermo Moscoso, who they claimed on waivers from the Rockies, and who pitched very well for Oakland in 2011.

With so many options for the 7th bullpen spot, the Royals effectively could run an 8 or 9 man bullpen by simply shuttling guys back and forth from Omaha – ride a reliever hard for five days, then send him back to Triple-A to rest his arm and bring another guy up in his place. That’s what the Royals did last year. The difference is that the Royals needed 8 or 9 relievers last year; the rotation averaged less than 5.5 innings per start, which forced the bullpen to throw 561 innings. You figure the average full-season reliever throws about 70 innings a season, so 561/70 works out to exactly eight relievers.

This year, the Royals might actually be able to reach Dayton Moore’s goal of 1000 innings from their rotation, which would leave only about 450 innings to the bullpen. You can get those innings from just six relief spots, particularly if you use that sixth spot as a revolving door from Triple-A. By carrying just 11 pitchers, that would open up another spot on the bench for a pinch-hitter, or a defensive specialist. Maybe David Lough gets the spot and allows the Royals to hide Jeff Francoeur’s flaws by sitting him against hard right-handers (by “hard”, I mean “big platoon split”, not “difficult”). Or they can carry three catchers, which would free them to use George Kottaras’ bat without worrying that they’ll be left without an emergency catcher.

It’s not going to happen; the 12-man pitching staff has become de rigueur in recent years, and anyway, Ned Yost isn’t the kind of manager who would make much use of an extra bench player. But the Royals really don’t need two long relievers this year; if they do, they’re cooked anyway. Trading away one of them and using that spot for a hitter makes tactical sense.

As it is, even with seven relievers, the Royals may not have room for Louis Coleman. That’s a deep bullpen. And aside from Chen, none of them are even arbitration-eligible yet (although Aaron Crow is still making seven figures thanks to the major-league contract he signed out of the draft). Building an elite bullpen, cheaply and almost entirely internally, is undeniably one of Dayton Moore’s biggest imprints on the 2013 Royals.

#24: Miguel Tejada

I kind of already covered this one. I’m skeptical that Tejada has anything left, and think that Irving Falu is a better fit for the job. But if the Royals recognize that the primary job of the second utility infielder is to wave pretty for the cameras, it really doesn’t matter. Barring injury, there’s no reason why this role should garner more than 100 plate appearances all season. If that’s all it entails, then Tejada’s clubhouse influence might be worth putting up with his diminished skill set.

But it’s the Royals, the team that signed Yuniesky Betancourt to be their utility guy last year, and wound up giving him more innings at second base than Johnny Giavotella. The issue isn’t whether Tejada or Falu wins this job. The issue is whether whoever wins this job will get playing time way out of proportion to his talent.

#23: Backup Catcher

Well, we’re all hoping that this job won’t rank any higher than this. I hope Ned Yost is exaggerating when he talks about starting Salvador Perez eight days a week – but remember, this is the same manager who started Jason Kendall behind the plate 149 times in 2008, the most starts by a catcher in the last 30 years. Kendall was on pace for an even heavier workload under Yost in 2010, before his shoulder broke down and ended his career, an event that I hope weighs on the mind of the front office when determing Perez’s workload this season.

Maybe Perez is the second coming of Johnny Bench, but if he is, it’s worth mentioning that Bench – who caught in 154 games when he was 20 years old – was done as an everyday catcher at age 32, and retired at age 35. Maybe we shouldn’t care what happens to Perez in his 30s, but given that 1) he’s under club control for seven more years and 2) he’s already had a knee injury, I’m going to say that discretion is warranted. And while Bench caught in 154 games when he was 20, some of those were late-inning appearances only – he started “just” 139 games behind the plate, and that was a career high.

(Quick aside – I think it’s forgotten what a ridiculous phenom Bench was in his early years. In 1970, when he was 22, Bench won the MVP by hitting .293/.345/.587 with 45 homers and 148 RBIs – as a catcher. Well, mostly as a catcher. The Reds were so intent on keeping him in the lineup that in addition to 130 starts behind the plate, he started five games at first base and seventeen in the outfield – including two games in center field. I’d love to see video of that.)

But again: Johnny Bench, possibly the best catcher of all time and certainly the best young catcher of all time, never started 140 games behind the plate in a season. In fairness, there were a lot of scheduled doubleheaders back in Bench’s day, which forced him to sit some games out. But even in 21st-century baseball, 140 starts for a catcher is extremely unusual. From 2001 to today, only two catchers have made 140 starts in a season: Russell Martin, with 143 in 2007, and Jason Kendall…SIX TIMES (2002 through 2006, and 2008). Kendall's signing was one of Moore's biggest mistakes and I said so at the time - but I'll grant you, he was a warrior out there.

Joe Mauer, who is at least as talented as Perez, has had his career severely impacted by knee problems traced to him squatting behind the plate too much – and Mauer’s career high in starts behind the plate is 135. Weighing all this information, I think it would be crazy to give Perez more than 140 starts this year, and I’d like to limit him to 135. That leaves 22-27 starts for the backup, hopefully Kottaras, who if used as a pinch-hitter occasionally could give the Royals close to 150 plate appearances of league-average offense.

#22: Bruce Chen

I’m ranking Chen here on the assumption that he doesn’t beat Luke Hochevar for the fifth starter’s spot; at this point, I’m operating under the assumption that Clayton Kershaw wouldn’t beat Hochevar out for that spot. As a middle reliever, Chen is certainly qualified, and just as certainly overpaid, but barring a trade that’s what the Royals are stuck with. You can’t even use him as a lefty specialist; for his career he’s been more successful against right-handed hitters (.258/.321/.464) than left-handed hitters (.282/.353/.450).

The shame of it is that, in some ways, last year was the best of Chen’s 14-year career. He set a career high in starts (and tied for the AL lead), and also set a career high in strikeout-to-walk ratio; at 140 Ks to 44 UI walks, he was at better than 3-to-1. Now, some of that improvement can be traced to the game itself – strikeout rates keep going up every year. In the year 2000, the AL's K/UIBB ratio was 1.74. As recently as 2004, Chen’s first year in the AL, the league’s K/UIBB ratio was 2.08. Last year, it was 2.57.

Stop and think about that for a moment. Strikeout-to-walk ratios are one of the most common quick-and-dirty ways to evaluate a pitcher’s stuff, and the scale has been completely thrown off in less than a decade. In Mark Quinn's rookie year, a ratio of 2.5 was exceptional. In Zack Greinke’s rookie year, a ratio of 2.5 was considered excellent. Last season, it was below average. (In the NL, where pitchers can make strikeouts at the plate as well as on the mound, the K/UIBB ratio last year was 2.76.)

But even so, Chen had a ratio better than league average last year, up from not even 2-to-1 the year before. His xFIP (4.62) was his lowest mark since 2005. But after consecutive years with a 4.17 and 3.77 ERA (and, not coincidentally, winning records), Chen’s ERA jumped to 5.07 last season. What happened was simple – his batting average on balls in play, which is usually in the .280 range, jumped to .305. You might say that a career of good fortune finally regressed to the mean, but Chen’s flyball-oriented style of pitching – he has one of the highest flyball ratios in the majors – should lead to slightly lower than average BABIPs. So Chen might well have been unlucky last season, and since (unlike Hochevar) he doesn’t have a history of consistently underperforming, he’s a good candidate to bounce back.

That’s what I’d be telling any potential trade partners, anyway.

#21: Jarrod Dyson

Much like Luis Mendoza, I’ve grown rather fond of Dyson after originally dissing him as not major league-caliber. Dyson isn’t much of a hitter and probably never will be, but the dude can run, and he knows how to apply his speed to useful baseball endeavors. Not only does he have 50 stolen bases in just 146 career games – and just 106 career starts! – but he’s only been caught stealing seven times. (Although he’s also been picked off seven times.)

He’s taken the extra base on hits (first-to-third on a single, first-to-home on a double) 63% of the time, well above the major league average of around 40%. And despite an absolutely horrible defensive start to last season, which colored everyone’s impression of his defense all season long, Baseball Info Solutions once again graded him out as above-average in centerfield. In 104 starts in center field, Dyson grades out as 12 runs above average, which over a full-season is almost Gold Glove worthy. He has a better arm than you’d think as well – he actually ranked second among all AL centerfielders with 8 baserunner kills last season, even though he only started 79 times.

His speed and defensive skills are such that even with his comical lack of power, if he could muster a .350 OBP he would be a legitimate everyday player. He probably can’t, but he does have a .320 career OBP, and Baseball Reference rather shockingly rates him as being worth 2.6 Wins Above Replacement in less than a season’s worth of playing time.

I don’t think he’s that good, but he’s good enough that I won’t lose much sleep when Lorenzo Cain inevitably needs to sit out a few games. And if Jeff Francoeur doesn’t quickly prove that 2012 was a fluke (and 2010, and 2009, and…), then you will see me clamoring for a Gordon-Dyson-Cain outfield. The Cleveland Indians just spent a lot of money so that they can field Michael Brantley, Michael Bourn, and Drew Stubbs, which might be the best defensive outfield in the majors. But that alignment for the Royals would be nearly its equal.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Royals Today: Lineup Preview.

The Royals acquired Elliot Johnson as the player to be named later in the Wil Myers trade, which changes everything.

It doesn’t, but Johnson is a useful pickup, a better acquisition than I was expecting. Of course, I wasn’t expecting much – not when the PTBNL was amended to include the option “or cash”. And let’s be honest – Johnson isn’t much; if he was, the Rays wouldn’t have designated him for assignment before the trade was completed. While Bob Dutton has intimated that the Royals and Rays were already talking about Johnson being the final piece beforehand, I prefer to think that the transaction went down like this:

Friedman: Hello?
Moore: Andrew, it’s Dayton. How are you?
Friedman: Hey, Dayton, how’s my favorite trading partner?
Moore: That’s nice of you, Andrew. I’m sure you say that to every GM.
Friedman: No, Dayton, you really ARE my favorite trading partner…uh…so what can I do for you?
Moore: I noticed you DFA’ed Elliot Johnson.
Friedman: We did.
Moore: And you owe us a player.
Friedman: We do.
Moore: Send Johnson our way and we’ll call it even.
Friedman: Done.

While Johnson wasn’t good enough to stick on the Rays’ 40-man roster, that doesn’t mean he’s without value. He has an interesting backstory, given that he signed with the Rays as an undrafted free agent out of high school back in 2002. I’d say that he’s unique in that regard, except that the Royals already have such a player on their roster in Tim Collins. I’d be surprised if there was another player in the major leagues who fits that description; I’m not aware of one, at least.

Johnson made it to Tampa Bay for a cup of coffee in 2008, but didn’t stick until 2011, when he was 27 years old, and hit just .194/.257/.338. Last season, though, he hit .242/.304/.350, and more importantly played all over the field. He has played every position except pitcher and catcher in his brief major-league career, though about 85% of his innings have come at shortstop. Which is exactly what you want to see in a utility player – the skills to play shortstop, the willingness and adaptability to move anywhere. His offense isn’t a complete cipher, not when you factor in his ballpark. In about a full season’s worth of at-bats, Johnson hit just .196/.258/.269 at Tropicana Field – but .251/.308/.411 on the road. In his last season in the minor leagues, 2010, Johnson was an all-around offensive threat, hitting .319/.375/.475 with 11 home runs and 30 steals.

You know who Johnson is? He’s basically Willie Bloomquist. Bloomquist’s overall numbers are better, but Bloomquist benefited from playing at the tail end of the Juiced Era; by OPS+, they’re very close (78 for Bloomquist, 75 for Johnson). They both can play all over the field. They both can run. Johnson is even more versatile in that he’s a switch-hitter, and he’s hit RHP better than LHP in his career, making him a viable option to give someone like Alcides Escobar a day off when a right-hander with big platoon splits, someone like Justin Masterson, starts for the opposition.

As you recall, I hated the acquisition of Bloomquist four years ago. I don’t hate the pickup of Johnson, for several reasons:

1) Bloomquist was signed to a two-year guaranteed contract. Johnson isn’t guaranteed anything; he could be cut in spring training if he doesn’t impress.

2) Bloomquist was paid $3.1 million over those two years. Johnson isn’t arbitration-eligible for another season, and will make around the major league minimum if he makes the team.

3) Bloomquist was a ridiculous luxury for a team that didn’t look to be in any position to contend in 2009. Johnson is joining a Royals squad that is all-in for 2013, and for whom even small improvements on the margins could be the difference between a playoff berth and another early end to the season. (Though it should be noted that the Royals’ record in 2008 – 75-87 – was better than the Royals’ record last year.)

4) It looked pretty clear at the time that the Royals intended to give Bloomquist a lot of playing time – and that’s exactly what happened, as he had a career-high 468 plate appearances in 2009. Call me naïve, but I don’t get the same vibe here. Johnson is looked at as a super-utility player capable of starting in a pinch everywhere, but isn’t expected to start anywhere.

5) Johnson has more defensive value than Bloomquist. The defensive metrics suggest Johnson is slightly below-average at shortstop and slightly above-average at second base; he hasn’t played the other positions enough to know for sure. Bloomquist didn’t play shortstop nearly as much as Johnson has – a red flag in itself – and has been pretty consistently below-average at every position he plays. (Also, Bloomquist was used considerably more in the outfield than in the infield as a Royal.)

Johnson makes the 2013 Royals a better team. Not much better, mind you, but better.

If Johnson’s arrival cost Miguel Tejada a spot on the roster, that would be even better, but he won’t. The Royals appear to be going with two backup infielders along with Jarrod Dyson and a backup catcher. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s far better than carrying a 13th pitcher – but that second backup spot on the infield is Tejada’s job to lose and Irving Falu’s job to fight like hell for.

I went off on the Royals on Twitter when they signed Tejada, as it was reported at the time that it was a guaranteed $1.1 million contract with incentives. As it turns out, something was lost in translation – this happens sometimes with Latin American players – because Tejada has not been added to the Royals’ 40-man roster. Nevertheless, the Royals have made it clear that Tejada will have to play his way out of a job.

This is one of those decisions that will likely have little impact on the Royals’ fortunes on the field, but says so much about how the Royals operate. Miguel Tejada did not play in the majors last season. He did not play in the majors not because he was hurt, but because all 30 teams collectively decided that he had nothing left. This was a reasonable decision, given that Tejada was 38 years old, and that he had hit .239/.270/.326 with lousy defense for the Giants in 2011. He signed a minor-league contract with the Orioles, and played 36 games before asking for his release. In those 36 games, he hit .259/.325/.296.

Last year, Miguel Tejada failed to slug .300 in Triple-A. He failed to get called up by a team that might well have set some sort of record for most transactions in a season; the Orioles resurrected people like Lew Ford on their way to the most unlikely playoff berth in recent memory. But now, at age 39, on the basis of his performance in winter ball, the Royals are prepared to ignore a major league track record that says he’s been in a constant state of decline for eight years now. Look at his bWAR ratings going back to 2004, his first year with the Orioles, when he was 30:

7.1, 5.5, 4.2, 2.0, 1.7, 1.6, 0.3, -0.2, DNP

That’s actually kind of eerie. You’d expect sheer random variation to step in at some point, but no, Tejada’s bWAR declined seven years in a row until he was under replacement level, and once he dipped below replacement level, he was out of a job. That line above combines the sabermetric principles of the aging curve and the concept of replacement level into one tidy package.

The Royals stopped reading that sentence at “sabermetric”, so naturally, they think that because Tejada looked better for a few months in his home country against sub-standard competition, he has something left. And they’re prepared to pay him significantly more than minimum wage to do so, even though Irving Falu is cheaper, younger, has hit over .300 each of the last two years in Omaha (and hit .341 in brief playing time for the Royals last season), and after a decade of toiling in the minors, would probably be thrilled to be in the major leagues in any capacity.

On that note, at least, Tejada seems to be an asset. The Royals rave about his influence on the younger Hispanic players, and I won’t deny that a former MVP with 2000 hits and 300 homers will command respect in the clubhouse. If he doesn’t make the team, and the Royals get the benefit of his spring training presence without the financial and on-the-field cost of him during the season, he’ll prove to be an asset. Otherwise, this has the makings of yet another minor but revealing unforced error by the Royals.

Tejada will take the Yuniesky Betancourt Memorial Roster Spot, which is better than giving that spot to Yuniesky Betancourt. Not only did Yuni refuse to accept the fact that he wasn’t an everyday player, the Royals tried their best to assuage his hurt feelings; Yuni started 43 games at second base last year, even though he was released in mid-August. He played more innings at second base than Johnny Giavotella did.

I’m taking the Royals at their word that the job of everyday second baseman is a two-man battle between Giavotella and Getz, and that Johnson’s and Tejada’s playing time there will be sporadic and need-based. You know who I’d like to see win that battle, but it’s not the absolute slam-dunk that it was a year ago. Getz is coming off his best season; he hit .275 last year, and even showed the ability to drive the ball a bit with his new upright stance. I’m not suggesting that he hit a home run – perish the thought! – but he hit enough doubles and triples to slug a respectable .360.

Getz is an average defender, and if the Royals could bank a .275/.312/.360 line with average defense from second base this year, they’d take it and I wouldn’t blame them one bit. But on the other hand, they could have upside. Giavotella has been a remarkably effective – and remarkably consistent – hitter in the high minors for the last three years. From 2010 to 2012, his batting average has ranged from .322 to .338, his OBPs from .390 to .404, and his slugging averages from .460 to .481.

In the major leagues, he has failed two separate opportunities, with the caveat that the Royals didn’t give him consistent playing time last season, leading to a second extended stint in Triple-A. Gio hit .247/.273/.376 in 187 plate appearances in 2011, then .238/.270/.304 in 189 PA last year. Neither line is acceptable, particularly given that his bat needs to carry him. Both his defensive reputation and defensive metrics peg him as a below-average, but playable, second baseman.

Giavotella has 376 plate appearances, which isn’t nearly enough to state definitively that he can’t hit major league pitching, but is enough to create a justified concern on the part of the Royals. This is the shame of not giving him more playing time last season – by not letting him play every day during a season in which you weren’t competing for anything, the Royals face a situation in which they may not have the luxury of developing him as a player because they’re trying to win in the here and now.

I think Giavotella deserves the job; his minor league performances strongly suggest he can be an above-average second baseman offensely, and he did hit .264/.303/.375 in September last season. He’s still just 25 years old, while Getz is 30. But it’s a closer call than it was last year. The shame of it is that, as Joe Sheehan rails about in his most recent Newsletter, the Royals are going to make this decision based on a razor-thin sample size against uneven competition in exhibition games, instead of looking at Giavotella’s and Getz’s body of work over the last several years. Here’s hoping the best man wins, even while acknowledging that it’s not quite as clear as it used to be who the best man is.

The only other roster battle among position players is between Brett Hayes and George Kottaras for the backup catcher’s job. This is a classic glove vs. bat battle, and the Royals almost always go with the glove, but you have to think that the offensive difference between the two is too great to be ignored. Hayes has hit .217/.266/.361 in 357 major league plate appearances, and there’s no evidence in his minor league record that suggests he’s anything better than that. He’s John Buck without the hot streaks, basically.

Kottaras is a career .220 hitter, but in 694 plate appearances – essentially a full season – he has 91 walks, 36 doubles, and 24 home runs, leading to a .320 OBP and a .412 slugging average. He bats left-handed, making him a perfect complement to Salvador Perez. He’s overqualified to be a backup on the Royals, frankly; he’s the kind of catcher who should be starting 60-70 games a year, while barring an injury, whoever backs up Perez is lucky to get 20 starts.

But if the Royals are creative and realize that having Perez behind the plate frees them to use their backup catcher as a pinch-hitter, Kottaras would be an excellent ninth-inning option to pinch-hit for the Royals’ many right-handed bats. I doubt that will happen, but when Bruce Rondon or Chris Perez is on the mound and the tying run is at the plate, I’d rather take my chances that Kottaras can pop one than stick with Escobar or Giavotella or – ahem – Jeff Francoeur.

As stark as the offensive difference is, I can’t just wave away the defensive issues. In 781 innings behind the plate – just over half a season – Hayes has allowed 55 steals while nailing 19 runs, a caught stealing rate of 26%. In 1457 career innings – the equivalent of one full season catching every single game – Kottaras has thrown out 24 runners, but allowed 126 steals. I’m not sure what’s worse – that he’s only thrown out 16% of attempted thieves, or that he’s allowed nearly a stolen base per game.

The defensive difference between Hayes and Kottaras comes out to about 10 runs if they both played a full season. I’d submit that the offensive difference between them is greater than that, and when you throw in the tactical value of Kottaras, the decision should be clear. The Royals kept a bat-first backup catcher in Brayan Pena the last few years, and I’m hoping they make the same decision this time. While Kottaras has a weaker arm than Pena – who was surprisingly good at that aspect of the game – I don’t sense that he has the plate-blocking issues that plagued Pena and drove the Royals justifiably crazy.

The right decision there would leave the Royals with a four-man bench of Kottaras, Johnson, Tejada, and Jarrod Dyson. Even granted that Tejada probably has nothing left, that’s not the worst bench in the world, not in today’s American League. Kottaras can pinch-hit; Dyson can pinch-run; Johnson can do a bit of everything.

And it means the Royals field this lineup:

L LF Gordon
R SS Escobar
L 1B Hosmer
R DH Butler
R C  Perez
L 3B Moustakas
R RF Francoeur
R CF Cain
2B To Be Determined

(Another slight reason to favor Getz – he’d add some left-handed balance to the lineup, which is in danger of being very right-handed. On the other hand, 13 players batted 100 or more times for the NL Central Champion Cincinnati Reds last year, and 11 of them – everyone except Jay Bruce and Joey Votto – batted right-handed. Lineup balance is good; hitters who can hit are better.)

The most important part of that lineup is the top line. Alex Gordon may not fit the Platonic ideal of a leadoff hitter, but he’s so far and away more suited for the leadoff spot than anyone else on the roster that it would be criminal to put anyone else there. Thankfully, Ned Yost has made noises to suggest that, as much as it pains him, he might be forced to let Gordon lead off again this year.

I’m not an enormous fan of Escobar batting second, because his place there seems to be a nod to tradition more than to run maximization. If he hits .293 again, he’ll be fine there; if he hits closer to his 2011 performance, he’s going to kill the team. But putting Butler or Perez in that spot is too outside the box for most teams, not just the Royals. Let’s be blunt: the best fit for the #2 slot is in Tampa Bay now.

Otherwise, the lineup order is pretty close to optimal, and this could be an above-average lineup this year. Two things need to go right, though. First, they need to get something out of the 7-8-9 slots, which means that Jeff Francoeur needs to bounce back at least a little, and they need one of their second baseman to win that job and run with it.

The other thing is that the lineup needs to stay healthy. That’s a cliché, maybe, but I would argue that the only way losing Wil Myers won’t hurt the Royals in 2013 is if every one of their corner players avoids significant injury.

They all stayed healthy last year – Moustakas, Francoeur, Hosmer, Butler, and Gordon played in at least 148 games each – which is why Myers never got called up. Remember, the Royals were experimenting with Myers at third base, and if something had happened to Moustakas, Myers probably would have gotten the call. But now that he’s gone, the Royals are painfully exposed at the corners.

Up the middle, the Royals could fade a short-term injury. Dyson can fill in for Cain (and probably will have to) ably enough. The Royals have options at second base, and Christian Colon could hit an empty .270 at shortstop, although the defensive drop would be significant. While the Royals say Perez is their most indispensable player, the addition of Kottaras at least means the Royals wouldn’t be forced into a desperation trade if Perez were to get hurt.

But if Gordon gets hurt, or Hosmer, you’re probably looking at Elliot Johnson getting extended playing time. Aside from Colon, the Royals don’t have any hitters in the upper minors who can be counted on to contribute this year. (David Lough, I guess. Consider me unimpressed.) If everyone stays healthy, it probably won’t matter. But if any of Hosmer, Moustakas, Gordon, or Butler hit the DL, it’s going to hurt.