Thursday, May 9, 2013

Royals Today: 5/9/13.

Remember when the Royals were the toast of the town, and working their way to becoming one of the best stories in baseball? I believe they called that time “Sunday”.

It’s still early, folks. It’s still early. When a three-game losing streak – the first streak that long this season – can upend the way the entire team is perceived, that’s a pretty good sign that it’s too early to be making any firm conclusions about what this team is supposed to be. I can’t overstate how important it is to keep this mind. Because when you don’t, you wind up writing columns like this.

“No One Hating The Big Game James Trade Now”

I won’t quote anything past the headline; you can guess how it goes from there. I’m sure there have been some trades in baseball history that can be accurately judged in less than 30 games, but this ain’t one of them. I don’t want to keep going back to the Shields trade, partly because you guys are sick and tired of hearing me talk about it, and partly because a trade of this nature – prospects for established veterans – can’t be adequately judged for years.

But if Jeff Flanagan wants to judge the trade right now…well, if the season ended right now, the Royals wouldn’t be in the playoffs. For the talent the Royals gave up, they can’t win this trade unless they go to the playoffs. There’s always next year, I guess.

So far, Shields has been everything the Royals could have expected, and more. I happily admit that he’s been better than I expected to this point – a 2.52 ERA (and no unearned runs) is exceptional. If he stays healthy, averages over 7 innings a start, and maintains a 2.52 ERA through the end of 2014, I will concede that it was a price worth paying. But can we not render judgment on a trade after seven starts?

Meanwhile, Wade Davis has a 4.75 ERA, which is about what I would expect from him – not bad enough to get pulled from the rotation, but not good enough to be any kind of asset. It’s early, of course, and he’s making a big transition. Wil Myers has slumped a little in Triple-A (9-for-his-last-48), bringing his overall numbers down to .276/.372/.414. (I’ve heard through the grapevine that Myers is not happy – justifiably so – that the Rays have not promoted him to the majors. He wouldn’t be the first elite prospect to slump in Triple-A out of frustration that he’s not in the majors.) Meanwhile, Jake Odorizzi threw seven no-hit innings in his last start, and in 34 innings has more strikeouts (39) than hits + walks (34).

The final chapter in this trade has yet to be written. The first chapter in this trade has yet to be finished. Let’s all calm down about declaring victory or defeat just yet. And let’s see if the Royals can win one of their next three days, and thus avoid a six-game losing streak by mid-May for the tenth consecutive season.

Moving on…

- It’s really quite remarkable that the Royals are 17-13 despite getting virtually nothing from The Best Farm System In The History Of Baseball. Of the nine guys on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect list two years ago, here’s what we have:

Myers, Odorizzi, and Mike Montgomery brought in Shields and Davis.

Eric Hosmer is hitting .268/.339/.330.
Mike Moustakas is hitting .219/.294/.333.

John Lamb, Christian Colon, Danny Duffy, and Chris Dwyer have contributed nothing.

So the contribution those nine guys have made on the 2013 Royals are a pair of corner infielders who haven’t hit, a #5 starter, and James Shields. This is…sub-optimal.

And yet the Royals are 17-13. That’s a credit to the front office, for not letting the disappointment of their farm system inhibit them from getting contributions elsewhere. Obviously, they’ve benefited mightily from the two holdovers from the Allard Baird administration, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler. But the acquisitions of Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie, which were maligned by large portions of the blogosphere, have paid dividends so far. (Yes, it’s early. There’s still plenty of time for these transactions to go south, particularly Guthrie, who’s on a three-year deal.)

Salvador Perez, obviously, has contributed far more than the 17 guys who were ranked ahead of him in the farm system two years ago. The Royals have turned a 10th-round pick, an undrafted high school player who they got in a trade for Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth, a Dominican prospect who couldn’t stay healthy as a starter, and a first-round pick who had failed as a starter, and turned them into an excellent bullpen.

And two years on, I think we can safely say that the Royals did an excellent job of extracting talent in the Zack Greinke trade. (Though in May of 2011, I’m willing to bet that some people who cover the Brewers thought that they pulled a heist on Kansas City. Alcides Escobar was hitting .200! Lorenzo Cain was in Omaha! “No One Hating The Zack Greinke Trade Now”)

Today, Escobar is hitting .272/.308/.392, largely putting to rest concerns that his offensive improvement last year was a mirage. The Royals have a shortstop who is slightly above-average both offensively and defensively, and who is under club control through 2017. And Cain has been the most pleasant surprise on the entire roster. He leads the team in OPS, hitting .327/.383/.455 so far, while continuing to play excellent defense in center field.

Cain has been worth 1.1 Wins Above Replacement in 28 games, which is an All-Star pace, but is really in line with his value his entire career. In 138 career games, he’s been worth 5.3 bWAR. That’s exceptional. Like Escobar, the Royals control him for the next five seasons. And Odorizzi, the third player in the Greinke trade, was good enough to be the second player in the Shields/Davis trade.

I’m not saying that Brewers fans hate the trade now, even though they probably would have made the playoffs in 2011 without Greinke, and even though he pitched poorly in the postseason when they needed him most. But if they don’t, it’s only because the Brewers were able to flip Greinke for three prospects of their own last July, one of whom (Jean Segura) is hitting .328/.372/.513 as their starting shortstop. The Royals won the trade, but the Brewers didn’t lose it. The Angels did.

Dayton Moore deserves considerable credit for the Royals’ 17-13 record. What’s astonishing is that almost none of that credit is due to his ability to develop players out of his own farm system. At least not until Hosmer and Moustakas start hitting the way we think they can.

- While Moore has said on multiple occasions that you need about 40 games to properly evaluate your roster, the Royals elected to shake things up starting at game #30. I don’t blame them.

Last night, for just the second time this season, the Royals started Dyson in center field and Cain in right field. As you know, platooning Dyson and Francoeur is something I’ve been advocating for some time, so this was a welcome development. (Tonight’s lineup, however, has Francoeur back in right field against right-hander Freddy Garcia.)

Last night, Elliot Johnson started at second base over Chris Getz for the second straight night; Getz, in fact, has only started two of the Royals’ last seven games, with Johnson getting four starts and Miguel Tejada one start at second base. (Getz is back in the lineup tonight.)

It’s not hard to discern why; Getz is hitting .216/.247/.338 on the season. Even great defense can’t justify putting that kind of bat in the lineup, and as Getz showed on Monday, when he failed to corral a ground ball up the middle that would have ended the game with a victory, he’s not a great defender.

But this raises the question, for the umpteenth time, of why the Royals aren’t willing to give an opportunity to Johnny Giavotella. During spring training, the second base job was a battle between Getz and Giavotella; no one saw Johnson or Tejada as anything more than utility guys. But now that Getz has – not surprisingly – revealed himself as the same replacement-level player that he’s been his entire career, the Royals are giving his playing time to Johnson, who’s only better than Getz insomuch that he can be a replacement-level player at multiple positions.

Meanwhile, Giavotella is hitting .277/.357/.411 in Omaha – not great (he was hitting .326/.396/.489 a week ago, before embarking on a 1-for-21 slump), but certainly no worse than what Getz has provided. And Giavotella, at least, has shown the ability to hit in the past – he’s a lifetime .325/.392/.469 hitter in Triple-A – something Getz really hasn’t.

Instead of optioning Getz to Triple-A and giving Giavotella an opportunity to play, the Royals started Giavotella at third base yesterday for the first time this year. Two weeks ago, when Moustakas was playing so badly that a demotion to Omaha seemed like a real possibility, I advocated that Giavotella should get some playing time at third base to see if he could fill in. Naturally, now that Moustakas has heated up (in his last 10 games, he’s hitting .367/.432/.633), and now that Getz is ice cold (since hitting his first home run as a member of the Royals, he’s 4-for-37) – NOW the Royals try Giavotella at third base.

Sometimes this organization drives me nuts. Just as the hole they had at third base is closing up, the hole they’ve always had at second base is gaping wide – and not only is the potential solution to that hole being ignored, the Royals are actively steering him away from the problem he might be able to fix.

I hope I’m wrong when I say this, but at this point, one can only assume that the Royals have internally decided that they want nothing to do with Giavotella as their starting second baseman. They might be right about Gio; he has had his chances at the major league level, and has not taken advantage of them.

But they might be wrong, and right now, he can hardly be worse than their alternatives. Maybe the Royals will eventually go outside the organization for a solution, and by July the answer will be Chase Utley or someone else. But in May, the best solution the Royals have on hand right now might be Giavotella. At the very least, he deserves the same opportunity to make his case as Getz has.

- Some more changes are in store for tonight’s game, as Ned Yost finally got tired of the lack of production around Billy Butler, and caved in to conventional wisdom, moving Alex Gordon into the #3 hole, Butler to cleanup, and making Alcides Escobar the new leadoff hitter.

Look, I get it. Eric Hosmer hasn’t hit a home run yet this year. The Royals don’t have a home run from the cleanup spot this year. Billy Butler is on pace for 108 walks this year, and as much as I’d like to compliment him for his new-found patience, I have no doubt that his walk total is influenced by the fact that teams feel comfortable pitching around him and taking their chances with whoever comes next.

And while Gordon has hit very well in the leadoff spot this year, his profile is…weird. He only has five walks all season, as the organizational plague of poor plate discipline appears to have finally infected him. (Personally, I blame Francoeur. That dude’s a cesspool of the hacking virus.) But Gordon leads the team in homers; he has as many home runs as walks, which is something you hardly see from anyone, let alone a leadoff hitter.

(It has happened, though. In 1966, Felipe Alou led off for the Braves 127 times year, even though he hit 31 home runs and walked just 24 times. Manager Bobby Bragan hit upon the then-revolutionary idea that you should bat your best hitters at the top of the lineup so that they’d get more at-bats. He probably took the philosophy a little to the extreme, but not only was Alou his primary leadoff hitter, Eddie Mathews got the most plate appearances in the #2 spot, just ahead of Hank Aaron. And Alou did lead the league with 122 runs scored.)

On top of that, Gordon has some very funky splits this year. With no one on base, he’s hitting .205/.224/.337, and leading off an inning he’s just 9-for-53 with one walk. But with runners in scoring position, he’s batting .483 (14-for-29), and he’s 10-for-20 with a man on first base alone.

Those splits are a complete fluke, and if the Royals are moving him down in the lineup to take advantage of them, they’re making a big mistake. If they’re moving him down because they want to bunch their two best hitters together, or because his power is wasted in the leadoff spot and his lack of walks is a problem, then I’m fine with it.

This still leaves two problems. The first is that Hosmer is still batting behind Butler, just one slot lower, and if he doesn’t start hitting, teams are going to continue to pitch around Billy until someone makes them stop. The other is that Escobar is no more a leadoff hitter than Hosmer is a cleanup hitter. Since the start of last season, Escobar has a .327 OBP, which is fine for a shortstop but less than ideal for your leadoff guy.

One way to kill two birds with one stone would be to move Hosmer into the leadoff spot. It’s unconventional, but no more unconventional that moving Gordon into the leadoff spot in the first place. Hosmer’s getting on base, at least, at a .339 clip, and he’s faster than you’d expect from a first baseman – since the start of last year, he’s 18-for-19 in stolen base attempts. At least until he starts pulling the ball and hitting for power again, putting him in the leadoff spot is the best use of his talents, allows you to bat Escobar lower in the order, and you can move Salvador Perez – who’s probably the best choice to protect Butler in the lineup – into the #5 spot.

I will say this: lineup analysis is overrated, and the most important priority in building a lineup is maintaining left-right balance. Tonight’s lineup goes R, R, L, R, L, R, L, R, L. Ned Yost literally can’t do any better than that.