Monday, August 17, 2009

There's No Success Like Failure

...and that failure's no success at all.
(From "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," Bringing It All Back Home)

Interesting and revealing quote from the Star this morning about Brayan Pena:

"...manager Trey Hillman continues to insist:

'By the end of this season, I want to be able to accurately answer the question of whether we think he can be a front-line guy or is he what he is right now — a backup, a bat off the bench and an occasional DH. He gives you a great (at-bat).'

That prompts the question: Why not play Peña at least four or five times a week over the final seven weeks to provide an answer?

'The argument against that,' Hillman said, 'is (the desire) to continue utilizing a guy who has a lot of power production and helps generate runs and throws out base stealers better when you’re playing teams that do run in a Miguel Olivo.

'That’s the argument. And trying to go with the difficult balance of, yeah, you’d like to find that out (about Peña) but, at the same time, you’d like to win ballgames.' "

This is exactly the problem the Royals have now and have been re-enacting for 15 years (at least). They never fully commit to finding out what their young players can do, preferring instead to sign veterans and hope those players can have some sort of career year. If not, at least they're theoretically solid players.

The problem with this process is that the Royals are never going to be able to afford difference-making veterans, so the guys they end up getting are usually on the decline. Even worse, they block the Royals from finding out if they have any worthwhile prospects. And they seem to fill the front office with false hope, the odd idea that the team is a few players away and a .500 record is the goal.

Frankly, I'm tired of the Royals shooting for a .500 record. That doesn't get you anything. Even in the AL Central. Yes, the Royals need to get to .500 before they can be a winning team, but the goal is and always should be a World Series title. Quit building teams that might be .500 if things go well and start trying to win. Let's not forget, this year's team was supposed to be one that would be around .500 and "maybe contend if things go well." Instead, things have gone straight to hell, and the Royals are likely not going to be much better record-wise than their 2005-2006 predecessors.

If the Royals are going to stink, I'd rather they do it with young players. I don't mean I want them to call up Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, but could we at least see Kila Ka'aihue instead of Mike Jacobs or Jose Guillen? Last year, when the Royals made Ka'aihue a September callup, they still managed to ignore him, only letting him play in 12 games and get 24 plate appearances. They did this so Ross Gload could keep playing, apparently.

Now the Royals are giving Brayan Pena the same treatment. Right now, there are 3 Royal hitters on the roster with an OPS+ better than 100. Billy Butler and Alberto Callaspo get to play all the time and hit in the middle of the order. The other guy? He has fewer plate appearances this season than Tony Pena Jr. and Luis Hernandez combined (those would be OPS+ numbers of 19 and -33, respectively). He has roughly half the plate appearances of Mitch Maier (75 OPS+). Even worse, he has a fourth of the combined plate appearances of Olivo and John Buck (93 and 77 OPS+, respectively). Ladies and gentlemen, Brayan Pena. A

Can Brayan sustain that offense if he plays every day? I don't know (although his minor league numbers look consistently good). But shouldn't the Royals try to find out? This team needs to find undervalued talent wherever they can, so they can save what money they do have to see if they can sign an actual difference-maker or two. Buck is making $2.9 million this year, and Olivo is making $2.7 million. Pena is making $405,000 and outhitting them both.

One other thing about Hillman's quote above: yes, Olivo does have a decent power output this year--if you look at home runs. Olivo leads the team in homers with 16. Yet he only has 12 doubles (and 4 triples). Even though is slugging percentage is a respectable .473, his on-base percentage is low (.272). The man has walked 9 times in 86 games. And yes, Olivo has been good against base-stealers this year, nailing 30% of them (the league average is 24%). But Olivo also has made 6 errors, allowed 10 passed balls, and is the main catcher for a team with 67 wild pitches this year, which leads the AL by almost 20. Pena's defense is supposed to be suspect, but once again, this is something the Royals need to find out before the end of the season.

Win ballgames? Sure, the Royals should try to do that the rest of the year. Put forth a professional effort and all that. But who's to say they wouldn't have a better chance with Pena playing more often?

Monday, August 3, 2009

When You Gonna Wake Up

...and strengthen the things that remain?
(From "When You Gonna Wake Up," Slow Train Coming)

I was off work last Friday, the non-waiver trade deadline for major league baseball. I was pretty excited to be able to follow along as all the big trades were made, and I was anxious to see what the Royals would do to improve the organization. Obviously, with the major league team in freefall, I did not expect them to add pieces at the major league level, but I was hoping that the Royals could improve the upper levels of the minor league system, which is not exactly teeming with prospects. Baseball America's ranking of the Royals' top 10 prospects last fall included only two players who are at Omaha this season, Kila Ka'aihue and Carlos Rosa.

Instead, the Royals chose to stand pat. Well, that's not entirely true, since they did pick up Josh Anderson, an outfielder whom Detroit had waived. However, Anderson's .282 on-base percentage and .315 slugging percentage do not have me expecting great things. Anyway, the Royals had some trading chips, but did not cash them in.

Obviously, we out here in bloggerland don't know what offers the Royals entertained, or what trades they proposed. Perhaps they were aggressively shopping players but were not offered enough in return. The bottom line is, they didn't get anything done, and the roster remains essentially unchanged from the group that has gone 23-53 since May 7 (that's the worst record in baseball in that timeframe, by the way).

Even worse, the Royals didn't even provide themselves with any payroll flexibility for the coming offseason. According to the awesome Cot's MLB contracts website, the Royals have $51.6 million in payroll obligations for next season, with 10 players eligible for arbitration (meaning their salaries will almost certainly be going up). Since the team's payroll is supposedly maxed out at this year's $70 million, it looks like the Royals will be bringing pretty much the same team back next year. So, if you believe the 29 games at the start of the season were the "real" Royals and the 76 games since have been a fluke, you should be thrilled. On the other hand, if you have a basic grasp of logic and statistics, you are wondering what the 2011 Royals will look like.

This is yet another reason I wish the Royals had really tried to get younger (and a little cheaper for some flexibility in the next couple of offseasons). Take a look at the team's active roster. Go on, I'll wait. OK, note that there are 10 players born in the 1970s. That's not a knock on the 70s--I was born during that decade. But I'm not a major league player, and therefore exiting my prime years as an athlete like those guys are. It's a sad fact of baseball life: you peak around age 27, have a few years just under that level, then start the decline. Obviously, there are exceptions, but that's the general rule.

Compare the Royals to a team with a similar record this year, a similar market size, and a similar recent history: the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates were very active before the trade deadline, making 4 trades in the days leading up to July 31, plus a couple more earlier this season. As a result of those trades, Pittsburgh now has an active roster with ONE player who was born in the 1970s. Most of the Pirates are 24-25 years old now, meaning their best years are at least theoretically ahead of them. If I were a Pirate fan, I would be excited about the next few years.

The Royals have a decent core of players who are approaching age 27, but not nearly enough. Here's who I would consider that core: Brian Bannister, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Zack Greinke, Luke Hochevar, Joakim Soria. And you could throw Alberto Callaspo in there, too. The sad thing is, Bannister is 27 now and Greinke and Hochevar turn 26 this year. The Royals need to find ways to build around this core, and they need to do it soon. Or we'll be looking forward to 2015.