Friday, March 15, 2013

Five For Friday: 3/15/13.

Eric Loes (@loeseric): How would you rank those in competition for the 5th spot as of right now? (Chen, Mendoza, Smith, Ventura)

I still think it’s a two-man race for the fifth starter’s spot, with Chen perhaps having a slight advantage. On the one hand, I think Mendoza is better suited for the long relief role; on the other hand, if Chen starts, Tim Collins might be the only left-hander in the pen. On a third hand, even if Chen relieves, that would leave the Royals without a left-handed pitcher who actually gets left-handed hitters out – both Chen and Collins have been more effective against right-handers in their careers.

I know Ned Yost mentioned Ventura’s name as one of the candidates for the job, but I have to think this is just a case of positive reinforcement for the kid, telling him that if he keeps doing his job that he’s on the fast track to the majors. I love Ventura, but he’s made six starts above A-ball in his career, and Allard Baird isn’t the GM anymore. He doesn’t even turn 22 until June. To start his service time clock would be foolish even in a case of extreme need, and the Royals don’t have an extreme need.

That leaves Will Smith, and let’s be frank…giving Will Smith the job because of a terrific spring training would be a thoroughly Royals move. He’s been fantastic in Arizona this year – in a grand total of seven innings. Smith has allowed more than a hit an inning at every stop since he got out of A-ball. Giving him the #5 spot would mean that the Royals would enter the year with Chen, Mendoza, and Hochevar all in their bullpen. That would be weird.

So barring a trade or an injury, my guess is that Chen’s the fifth starter, Mendoza’s the long man, Hochevar will be the short man in the middle innings (with a chance to move into a later role if he pitches well), and the seventh reliever is J.C. Gutierrez, who’s out of options. But I wouldn’t sleep on Donnie Joseph, who’s been fantastic this spring and would be the perfect compliment to Collins, as Joseph is death on left-handed hitters.

I give the Royals a lot of crap, but that’s actually a pretty damn nice pitching staff.

Jeff Crawford (@jdcraw82): Hosmer looks awful in the WBC. Please tell me not to be concerned.

I’m not going to tell you not to be concerned, because you have plenty of reason to be concerned. But the reason to be concerned is because Eric Hosmer hit .232/.304/.359 last year. Hosmer was below replacement-level last year – THAT’S why you should be concerned.

But concerned because he’s 4-for-21 in the WBC? Nah. Not any more than I’d be excited that he was 9-for-23 in spring training before he got an emergency phone call to report to Team USA the next morning.

Marshall Miller (@iammarshall913): If Royals are in contention near the trade deadline, do you think GMDM completely leverages the farm in another “win now” trade?

Not only do I think that Dayton Moore might completely leverage the farm at the trading deadline, I think that in the right circumstances, and for the right player, he absolutely should make another win-now trade.

I don’t have anything against trading prospects for established major league players. I had a very serious problem with the specifics of the James Shields trade, but the concept is sound, in the right situation.

As to what that situation is, well, I have some ideas that I may explore once the season gets underway. Let’s just say that if the Royals are in contention, and their right fielder isn’t hitting very well, there’s a player down in Miami that I’d be willing to move the sun and moon for. You know that Dave Dombrowski would love to get his hands on Giancarlo Stanton, and the Tigers and Marlins have a long history of making trades together. This is where the Royals could leverage their superior farm system to hand the Tigers the first of what we hope will be many defeats.

LM (@LDMalm): Is the front office allowing Kyle Zimmer to long toss?

Two years ago the Royals had developed a very strong reputation as one of the teams most resistant to the growing trend of extreme long-tossing (300 feet and up) among high school and college pitchers. This reputation had a lot to do with Mike Montgomery, who chafed at the restrictions the Royals had placed on his throwing.

But since then, a couple things have happened:

1) The Royals, from what I’ve been told and what has been reported publicly, have become much less resistant to the concept of long-tossing.

There’s a story of the Royals meeting with high school sensation Dylan Bundy a month before the draft in 2011. Here’s Albert Chen reporting in Sports Illustrated:

"They did not like Dylan throwing long toss," says Denver. "They were discussing the way he throws, how he shouldn't throw on a long arc. Dylan and I were sitting there, just listening. And then, at some point, Dylan just took over. He took over the whole conversation, talking about specific muscle groups, why he does what he does. Before the session was over, he was teaching them about how the shoulder really works. They were in awe."

The story makes it appear that the Royals are these unfrozen caveman lawyers who are frightened and confused by our modern pitching methods. But here’s the thing: the Royals were planning – hoping – to draft Bundy, to the point where they had a financial deal in place had he slipped to #5. That wouldn’t be the case if they hadn’t agreed to accommodate Bundy’s pitching regimen.

2) The Royals let Montgomery have his way and allowed him considerably more autonomy on his throwing program after he got off to a poor start in 2011. This did not, unfortunately, fix whatever it was that was ailing Montgomery.

The night before Chen’s column ran, I spoke for over two hours with Alan Jaeger, a pitching coach in California who is widely considered to be the guru and driving force of the long-toss movement. While criticizing the Royals for not agreeing with his methods in the past, he was also complimentary of the fact that the organization had become more open minded over the past year.

So while I haven’t heard anything specific about Kyle Zimmer this spring, I believe that the Royals are as accommodating of long-toss programs as any other team. They want to make sure their pitchers aren’t overdoing it, obviously. But I no longer have concerns that the Royals are behind the curve on this subject.

Greg Brokaw (@gregbrokaw): If no major injuries surface and the team is in contention in September, how worried are you that Ned will hold us back?

It’s a good question, because Yost’s tactical errors were a big part of his undoing in Milwaukee, and it takes a special kind of panic to fire your manager in September when you’re in a pennant race. Joe Sheehan has been riding me on this point all winter, telling me that even if the Royals are a contender this year that their manager is going to cost them wins with his tactical moves.

It’s certainly a concern of mine, but I do think Yost won’t hurt the Royals too much if only because the team he’s being handed is kind of a push-button roster. The Royals have four closer-caliber relievers in their bullpen, so even if Yost screws up by bring in the right-hander when he should bring in the left-hander, at least he’s bringing in a quality pitcher.

The biggest potential mistakes are these:

- Failing to recognize that Collins gets right-handers out better than left-handers, and using him as a LOOGY.
- Failing to recognize that Crow is quite vulnerable to left-handers, and leaving him in to pitch against them in crucial spots.
- Letting Hochevar pitch in important situations and/or with men on base before he’s proven he can be effective in relief.
- Riding Salvador Perez’s knees into the ground by starting him 145+ times behind the plate.

Beyond that…I mean, sure, he’ll probably let Francoeur bat when he shouldn’t, and he might bunt too much with Alcides Escobar, and he’ll pinch-run for Billy Butler and then lose Butler’s bat in extra innings. But those are the kinds of moves that every manager in baseball makes. If Yost can just avoid the big mistakes and be a perfectly mediocre game manager, the Royals can win with him.

It remains to be seen whether he can rise to the level of mediocrity.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Hochevar: It's A Relief.

Sorry for my absence last week; I was working on my big article for Grantland – hey, any time you get the chance to write that the Yankees are doomed, you have to take it – and then I had to prepare for my Stratomatic draft. Priorities, people.

It may be a little light over the next 2-3 weeks, as I’m due to take my Dermatology re-certification exam later this month. Fortunately, I only have to take the exam every 10 years; if I’m still writing on this blog the next time I have to take the exam, something’s probably gone wrong.

Anyway…so, Luke Hochevar.

Let’s get the negative out of the way first. Luke Hochevar, who has a 5.39 career ERA, who in five seasons as a starter has never had an ERA below 4.68 – something unprecedented in major league history – was tendered a contract by the Royals, on the expectation that he would be in their rotation this season.

They gave up the ghost on March 13th.

I know many of you think I’m an insufferably arrogant human being, possibly because I can be insufferably arrogant at times. And I know many of you think that all I do is bitch about the Royals, even though this blog started with 23 Reasons Why I’m Optimistic About The Royals, and I’ve been complimentary of such moves as signing Juan Cruz and signing Jeff Francoeur and trading for Jonathan Sanchez.

But tell me, guys, how would you react if for the past 20+ years, this was the story of your life?

Me: “I can’t believe the Royals did X. That makes no sense.”
Royals: “We know what we’re doing.”
Me: “No you don’t. Here are seven reasons why doing X hurts the team.”
Royals: “Trust us. We’re the professionals.”
Me: “Then why does a rank amateur like myself know that you’ve made a mistake?”

A few months pass.

Royals: “We have elected to reverse decision X. It’s no one’s fault. Sometimes things don’t work out in baseball.”
Me: “And sometimes things don’t work out because they were bad ideas to begin with.”
Royals: “Trust us. We’re the professionals.”

I’ve been having these conversations – admittedly one-sided, and in the early years, entirely in my head – with the Royals since 1989, when I was 14 years old. Here’s just a short list of the decisions the Royals have made which were clearly, unequivocally bad from the moment they were made, and whose badness was only made clear and more unequivocal by the passage of time.

1989: Signed Storm Davis
1992: Left Jeff Conine exposed in the Expansion Draft; protected David Howard and Bill Sampen
1993: Traded Gregg Jefferies for Felix Jose
1995: Traded David Cone for three magic beans
1997 & 1999: Rode Jose Rosado’s arm into the ground
2000: Traded Jeremy Giambi for Brett Laxton
2001: Traded Johnny Damon in order to get proven closer Roberto Hernandez
2002: Hired Tony Pena as manager instead of Buck Showalter
2002: Traded Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez
2005: Left Jose Lima in the rotation all year (and paid him incentive bonuses of $1 million) to finish with a 6.99 ERA in 32 starts
2005: Hired Buddy Bell as manager instead of anyone else in the whole world
2007: Signed Jose Guillen to a 3-year deal so he could poison the clubhouse, apparently
2009: Traded for Yuniesky Betancourt
2009: Destroyed Gil Meche’s arm
2009: Declined Miguel Olivo’s option and released John Buck so they could sign Jason Kendall to a two-year deal for more money than Olivo and Buck combined
2011: Brought back Kyle Davies for $3.2 million even though he wasn’t good at his job
2012: Thought so much of the Yuniesky Betancourt Experience that they signed up for it again

This isn’t a listing of the Royals’ worst mistakes, mind you; only a listing of the ones that were inexplicable to anyone with common sense. I’m not including the Mark Davis signing, or the many, many, many draft mistakes they’ve made over the years.

Now, you’ll notice that most of these occurred under a different administration, and it’s not fair to blame Dayton Moore for something Herk Robinson did. On the other hand, the pace of these unforced errors doesn’t appear to have slowed down at all. I think Moore has done more things right than his two predecessors, particularly in the player development department, which is why the Royals are poised to have their best season since John Schuerholz left town. But he’s also good for a doozy at least once a year.

And now we have one more. In December, the Royals tendered Hochevar a contract for more money than he would possibly have gotten on the free agent market. They didn’t even try to play hardball with him, the way they did with their two other arbitration-eligible players, Felipe Paulino and Chris Getz, both of whom signed before the tender deadline for less money than they might have earned in arbitration, out of fear that they might get cut.

But in Hochevar’s case, the Royals not only had no intention of cutting him, they were very explicit to the media that they had no intention of cutting him, which of course destroyed all of their leverage.

Three months later, he was moved to the bullpen.

Yes, you can argue that at the time Hochevar was tendered, the Royals hadn’t yet traded for James Shields and Wade Davis. But that’s a diversion. The fact remains that for the money they’re paying Hochevar, the Royals could have found better starting pitchers on the free agent market. The fact remains that in the last five years, 108 pitchers have made 90 or more starts in the majors, and Hochevar ranks dead last among them with a 5.45 ERA. No one else is higher than 5.06.

(This is kind of an aside, but it’s too funny not to mention: if you lower the minimum to 70 starts, here are the three worst ERAs from 2008 to 2012: Brian Bannister (5.58), Luke Hochevar (5.45), and Kyle Davies (5.20). Royals Baseball!)

The Royals are saying all sorts of nice things about how this will free Hochevar to air it out for an inning or two, and how they don’t see him as a long reliever but as a genuine power arm that could pitch the seventh and eighth innings alongside Crow and Collins and Herrera. That’s, um, debatable. What’s not debatable is that a small-market team that has an incredibly deep pool of young, cheap relievers is paying Luke Hochevar $4.56 million to pitch middle relief.

What’s not debatable is that, assuming Bruce Chen wins the fifth starter’s role, Hochevar will be paid more in 2013 ($4.56 million) than the other six relievers in the bullpen combined (about $3.8 million).

And sometimes things don’t work out because they were bad ideas to begin with.


OK, we’ve dispensed with the negativity. Which is good, because I would much rather dwell on the positives of this decision, which are plenty. It may sound snarky to say that upon hearing the news, I felt a lot better about the Royals’ chances to make the playoffs this year – but it’s absolutely true.

Because look, as silly as it was for the Royals to bring Hochevar back as a starting pitcher this season, it would be MUCH MUCH MUCH more silly for them to backtrack on their decision in May or June, after he’s already put up a 7-spot in the box score a couple of times, than to do so in March. Moving Hochevar to the bullpen now puts egg on their faces, but it doesn’t put any losses in the standings.

In past years, the Royals would stubbornly send a starting pitcher out there every fifth day in the hopes that he would turn it around, whether it was Jose Lima in 2005 or Kyle Davies in 2011. But in past years, the Royals weren’t really playing for anything; there weren’t really any consequences. That was what made Hochevar’s return so frustrating: a team that was going all-in on 2013, that had gambled so many prospects on that proposition, was prepared to undo all of that just to prove a stubborn point about Luke.

The Royals are still putting a brave face up about him, as they should, publicly. But by making this move, they are in effect acknowledging that if they’re serious about winning this year, they have to stop sacrificing potential wins to prove a point. As a fan, it was easy to say “why I should take the Royals’ chances of winning seriously when the organization itself doesn’t?” By making this move, the organization is finally saying: we do.

So I give them credit for doing it. I didn’t think they had the guts to – I mean, in my very last column less than two weeks ago, I said that Hochevar almost certainly wouldn’t lose his job. “And if they cut bait with him now, they’d be admitting they made a mistake without even giving him the chance to prove it. The embarrassment that would cause makes it highly unlikely that they would do such a thing.”

Instead, they sucked it up and accepted the embarrassment. They knew that when they made this decision, they’d be mocked the way I mocked them in the first half of this column. It’s that fear of embarrassment that causes organizations – not just in baseball but all of sports – to double-down on bad decisions long after they’ve been proven wrong. (Matt Cassel, anyone?)

Every year in spring training, the Royals say that the better player will win the job, even though the winner appears to be a foregone conclusion. It’s not just the Royals – every team puts on the illusion of competition even though they’ve already made up their mind. And I (and lots of other people) honestly thought that was the situation here.

That’s why this decision is so potentially significant. The Royals have made it very clear that when they say the best pitcher will be named the fifth starter, they mean it. That gives them the credibility to say that whoever wins the job at second base, or backup catcher’s spot, or the last spot in the bullpen, really did win the job because they were perceived to be the best player for it, and not just because the organization had already made up its mind and was too stubborn to change it.

Having said all that, the Royals haven’t gone far enough. Sparing us Hochevar’s 5+ ERA in the rotation is an enormous relief, but there’s no real evidence that he will pitch better in the bullpen, or at least better than Donnie Joseph or JC Gutierrez or Louis Coleman or whoever else would take that spot. Even when you apply the natural bump that pitchers get when they move to the bullpen, Hochevar’s looking at an ERA in the mid-4s. That probably deserves to be in a major league bullpen somewhere, just not for the money they’re paying him.

So yeah, you could argue that the best move for the Royals would be to just release him outright. And I’m not 100% convinced that they won’t. While the initial deadline to release a player and pay him just one-sixth his salary has passed, the final deadline is still two weeks away. If the Royals cut Hochevar by March 27th, they’ll owe him just under a quarter of his salary, about $1.1 million. By moving him to the bullpen now, they have two weeks to evaluate what they see. While I’m sure they’re not intending to cut him, if he handles the transition poorly, they have that option in their back pocket.

The other option is that they could trade him. I don’t think he has any trade value at his full salary, but I do think that if the Royals pick up a significant amount of his contract, he could be moved. Since they owe him $1.1 million anyway, let’s say they’re willing to pick up $2 million of his contract in a trade. Now another team might look at Hochevar and see a pitcher who, if nothing else, has made over 30 starts each of the last two years, a pitcher who is just 29 years old, who has the stuff and peripheral numbers of a #3 starter. The opportunity to acquire that pitcher for one year and $2.5 million dollars – along with the option to bring him back for one more year if he figures things out – might appeal to some teams.

No, not every team. Not most teams, honestly. But, say, the Colorado Rockies? Just maybe.

The Rockies have already been linked to Luke Hochevar this winter, although the reported rumor is that the Royals called them, not the other way around. But right now, the Rockies’ projected rotation is Jorge de la Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin, Drew Pomeranz, Juan Nicasio, and Jeff Francis. There aren’t a lot of rotations that Hochevar might improve, but that’s one of them. Then factor in that the Rockies…how do I put this nicely…don’t seem to know what they’re doing right now. Their front office is in disarray; I’m not even entirely sure who’s in charge. The Royals have already taken advantage of the Rockies’ poor decision making by acquiring Felipe Paulino for nothing and Jeremy Guthrie for less-than-nothing.

To you and me, it looks like no team could possibly have interest in Hochevar. But Hochevar’s trade value looks like Clayton Kershaw compared to where Jonathan Sanchez’s stock was last July, and the Royals were able to convince the Rockies to take a flyer on him.

There’s an added bonus to sending Hochevar to Colorado if you’re the Royals: it seems to me (and a lot of people) that the Royals don’t want to give up on him because they’re deathly afraid that they’ll let him go and he’ll figure it out somewhere else, and not only will they miss out, but they’ll like idiots for not fixing him themselves. Not to be cruel, but if you wanted to put a pitcher in a position where he was least likely to succeed and make you look foolish, um, wouldn’t you pick Colorado? Between the ballpark and the organization, Hochevar could have the best year of his career and still have a 5 ERA.

And if they’re able to convince the Rockies to take Hochevar and half his contract, and maybe even surrender a modest prospect in return, their decision to tender him that contract may yet be redeemed. After all, for all the inexplicable decisions the Royals have made over the last 20 years, few seemed as self-defeating as the decision to keep sending Sanchez out there last year to walk the ballpark and get pulled in the third inning every five days. I was adamant that he was never going to turn it around, and I was right. But the Royals found a way to be right as well, by finding a team even more oblivious to his suckitude than they were. If they can do it again with Hochevar, their decision to tender him will be explicable after all.

Even if they don’t, and they keep him around to pitch low-leverage innings, the worst he can do is turn a 6-3 game into a 10-3 laugher. Sure, I don’t want the Royals to throw away money. But I’d much rather that than to see them throw away games.