Sunday, July 20, 2014

State Of The Royals: The Offense.

Oh, yeah, I guess I have to talk about the offense.

As you and I saw this weekend, it’s not so hot, and it’s not getting better. The Royals scored five runs while getting swept in a three-game series in Boston; about the best thing you can say about their performance is that at least Jon Lester didn’t no-hit them again. Today’s shutout drops the Royals to 12th in the AL in runs scored, and they're just eight runs ahead of the last-place Red Sox. (Yes, the Red Sox have scored the fewest runs in the league. No, I don’t know how that’s possible.) The Royals have scored 87 runs in their last 27 games. Maybe Dale Sveum isn’t a witch after all.

The Royals now have the 9th-best record in the AL, meaning that even with two Wild Cards in play they need to pass four other teams to make the playoffs. They are closer to last place (4 games ahead of Minnesota) in the AL Central than first place (7 games behind Detroit). They are nearly as close to last place as they are to the second Wild Card (3.5 games behind Seattle). Since their 10-game winning streak ended, the Royals are 9-17, which is to say, since their 10-game winning streak started, they are merely 19-17.

The winning streak not only looks like an enormous anomaly, it looks like it might have been the worst thing for the Royals in the long run. Had they simply played .500 ball for six weeks after they fell into last place on June 4th, the narrative of the season would still be that they have been enormously disappointing. The winning streak vaulted them into first place, into the national consciousness for a few glorious days, and took the focus off the front office at a critical time.

(And before you argue that the Royals are just unlucky because they’re 10-20 in one-run games, I’ll point out that they’re 12-5 in two-run games. For the season, they’ve been outscored by four runs, which is almost exactly what you’d expect from a 48-49 team.)

For purposes of this exercise, we will continue to treat the Royals as contenders, because their front office thinks they are a contender, and the question of whether their front office deserves to keep working will be left for another day. This is their last gasp, and I assume they will do everything in their power to turn the season around. Again.

Only…I don’t know exactly what they can do. Let’s take a look at their lineup regulars:

C: Salvador Perez. Hitting .282/.327/.432. Fantastic defender. Started the All-Star Game. Signatory to one of the ten best contracts in baseball. I think they’ll keep him.

LF: Alex Gordon. Hitting .269/.350/.421. Fantastic defender. Selected to the All-Star Game. Keeps himself in frighteningly good shape; the best lead-by-example guy the Royals have had in years. I don’t know if he’ll be a Lifelong Royal, but I wouldn’t complain if an effort was made to make him one. He’s not going anywhere.

CF: Lorenzo Cain. Hitting .297/.334/.413. Fantastic defender. Unable to play more than about 120 games a year, but the Royals are well-situated with a replacement to fill in the gaps, hiding his only weakness. He stays.

SS: Alcides Escobar. Hitting .281/.317/.383. Very good defender. Under contract with club options through 2017 that would pay him $14.75 million over the next three years – combined. When your shortstop has a higher OPS than your team as a whole, your shortstop isn’t the problem. Or at least not your main problem. He stays.

Okay, now it gets a little more serious, in increasing order:

2B: Omar Infante. Only hitting .279/.317/.389, but he’s rebounded nicely after a miserable start, hitting .344 since June 8th. He’s in the first year of a four-year, $32 million contract, and is hitting almost exactly his career norm of .280/.319/.402, which is to say he’s exactly what the Royals should have expected. He’s also a massive upgrade from the likes of Chris Getz; it’s hard to see how the Royals can upgrade here, or why they should try.

1B: Eric Hosmer. Three weeks ago this was a much easier call. After hitting .320 through May 11th, Hosmer hit .186/.229/.266 from then through the end of June; my suggestion in early June that he be sent down to Omaha was being picked up by, well, pretty much the entire fanbase. But he’s now on a 16-game hitting streak, and is batting .424/.493/.627 in July. The overall package remains unacceptable for a first baseman, but the Royals refused to bury him when he was terrible; they’re certainly not going to give him a break now. Hosmer has not only played every game this year, he’s played every inning this year.

3B: Mike Moustakas was hitting .152/.223/.320 when he was mercifully sent to Omaha in late May. Since returning, he’s hitting .221/.284/.402. That is both 1) unacceptable and 2) a huge improvement, not to mention 3) about what Moustakas’ true ability is. The Royals could upgrade here, although there is the matter of Danny Valencia, who is hitting .373/.397/.525 against LHP this year; if the Royals do upgrade, they would probably want just a platoon bat so they could continue to let Valencia do what he does best.

This doesn’t leave a lot of options; the Royals probably aren’t going to pay what it will take to get Chase Headley out of San Diego, and it’s not clear that they should. The obvious fit here is Luis Valbuena, who is hitting .246/.331/.408 for the Cubs, and who is eminently available. But Valbuena wouldn’t be THAT much of an upgrade on Moustakas, and he’s under contract for two more years after this one, driving up his price for value that the Royals aren’t really looking for.

Anyway, we know this ain’t happening. Moustakas, like Hosmer, was selected by Dayton Moore’s front office in the first round. They can’t bring themselves to admit they made a mistake on Bubba Starling and Christian Colon; they’re not going to bring in someone to take Moustakas’ job.

RF: The Royals would be happy for someone to take Nori Aoki’s job; they’ve been disappointed with him practically since Opening Day. He’s hitting .255/.324/.316 with defense charitably described as “creative”, so it’s not hard to understand why.

I could see the Royals going for a name player here, possibly Alexis Rios, who is hitting .302/.330/.435 and could be a free agent in three months. (He has a club option for next year; at $13.5 million, he’s on the fence as to whether it should be picked up.) But Rios won’t be cheap either, and again, I’m not sure he’s a significant upgrade. His defense is below-average, and as I’ve written several times, Jarrod Dyson’s defense is so far above average that his overall value is higher than Rios, or Marlon Byrd, another name that’s rumored.

I don’t understand why the Royals won’t simply embrace their identity and go with the All-World Defense outfield alignment of Gordon, Dyson, and Cain. Against lefties, Aoki can start over Dyson; even this year Aoki’s hitting .348 against southpaws, and while it’s extremely unusual for a left-handed hitter to have a “true” ability to hit lefties better than right-handers, Aoki’s batting style is so unusual that it might actually be the case for him.

Oh, and just for the record: Jarrod Dyson’s .351 OBP leads the entire team. The Royals, as they have pretty much every year since I was in kindergarten, desperately need OBP. Replacing him for a guy like Rios or Byrd, who would add power but subtract baserunners, seems like treading water. Trading away prospects to do so seems like a mistake.

DH: And finally there’s everyone’s favorite punching bag, from Caller Todd on line one to Ned Yost. Billy Butler is hitting .269/.320/.348. He has three home runs. He has grounded in 14 double plays. He was Jayson Stark’s pick for the AL Least Valuable Player in the first half. He’s been terrible.

I’m not completely convinced he’s done, but I’m growing more convinced by the day. Yeah, he’s only 28, and even slow overweight unathletic guys usually can hang on until they’re 30. But while Butler isn’t unusually overweight, he is unusually slow and (seemingly) unathletic; even at his best he had literally one baseball skill. I wish it wasn’t so, but this looks like the beginning of the end for Butler. Remember, this slump didn’t come out of nowhere – last season he hit .289/.374/.412, his lowest batting and particularly slugging numbers since 2008. He kept his on-base percentage high by being more selective at the plate, but now that pitchers don’t fear his power anymore, they’re just pouring strikes over the plate and he’s been unable to adjust.

Ben Grieve was Rookie of the Year at age 22. At age 24 he hit 40 doubles and 27 homers. That winter the A’s traded him to Tampa Bay in the three-team deal that brought Angel Berroa and Roberto Hernandez to Kansas City and sent Mark Ellis and Johnny Damon to Oakland. As usual, Billy Beane picked the perfect time to trade Grieve; at age 26 he hit just .251/.353/.432, and he was done as a full-time player by the time he turned 27.

Billy Butler hit .313 with 29 homers just two years ago. It doesn’t seem like he should be done. I don’t want him to be done. But he might be done. And with a $12.5 million option for next year looming, his time in Kansas City is almost certainly done.

So the question is, can you improve upon him? If the question is “can you improve upon his performance in the first half”, the answer is unequivocally “yes” – Butler is a below replacement-level player this season, and that’s the very definition of what replacement level means. But they don’t need someone better – they need someone MUCH better, is why futzing around with Raul Ibanez is so pointless. This is where Rios or Byrd would fit better, if they just slotted those guys in at DH and left Dyson to roam the outfield.

The rumors that the Mariners are still interested in Billy Butler seem too good to be true, but it’s been well known that the Mariners have had their eye on Butler for years; their interest in him was compared by a trustworthy source to Dayton Moore’s interest in Jeff Francoeur, which is to say it’s almost inevitable that he’ll end up there in some capacity at some point. Maybe my dream of snatching Nick Franklin away from Seattle is unrealistic, although there’s no question they’ve soured on him. But if the Royals can get something – anything – for Butler at the same time that they replace him with an upgrade, they should do it. Yeah, Butler may help Seattle, and the Royals are chasing Seattle in the standings, but given the way he’s hit this year he’s equally likely to hurt them.

Speaking of Franklin, there’s the guy I argued over the winter represented his absolute upside: Ben Zobrist, who is out there, and given his ability to play all around the field, would be the perfect solution for the Royals, who could trade for him first and figure out where he played second. But Zobrist 1) may be paired in a trade with David Price to extract maximum value and 2) even on his own would be very expensive. Would you give up Miguel Almonte and Sean Manaea for him? If you were fighting to keep your job, you might. And given the unpredictability of pitching prospects, you might even be justified.

But the trade market fits the Royals as poorly today as it did three months ago when it was clear they needed to beef up their offense if they wanted to contend. There just aren’t that many hitters out there worth acquiring, and the positions that could stand an upgrade the most are the positions where the Royals have the most invested in their incumbent.

As I speculated they would last week, they went out and made a small trade for a middle reliever, grabbing Jason Frasor from the Rangers in exchange for Spencer Patton. Frasor has accomplished the neat trick of being a middle reliever who’s never had a bad year; in 11 seasons in the majors, he’s never had an ERA above 4.58, and he’s had an ERA under 3.7 in six of the last seven years. Patton has pretty numbers in Triple-A, or at least a pretty hit total – he had allowed just 26 hits in 46 innings. But he had also allowed 22 walks and 9 home runs, and he’s 26 years old; he’s 18 months older than Tim Collins. He’s a fair price to pay.

But if the Royals are going to replicate their whiz-bang second half from last season, they’re going to need more than a reliever. They need offense, and it’s no easier to figure out where they’re going to get that offense today than it was in May. Maybe they’ll surprise me and deal for Zobrist, or Chase Headley, or someone who at least has the potential to be a middle-of-the-order hitter for the next three months. But, well, it will be a surprise. And if this is who the Royals are, after getting swept in Boston thanks to a combination of managerial and lineup failure, then writing columns about who the front office should go after suddenly seems a lot less relevant than writing columns about whether their front office should just go.