Friday, July 17, 2009

First Half Report Cards: The Position Players

Since the second half of the season is already underway, let's get to the grades post-haste. The rules are the same as they were for the pitchers--the number after a player's name was my preseason rank of their importance to the Royals and each player is graded on my expectations for him coming into the season.

Willie Bloomquist (12): A-
Has been surprisingly productive and useful. I have no complaints and really wouldn't have minded if the Royals just used him at shortstop the rest of the year.

Billy Butler (2): A-
One of three regulars with an OPS+ over 100. The homer total (8) might not be as high as you'd like, but 27 doubles is really good (tied for fourth in the AL). And he's only 23, so there is a good chance those numbers will go up. Plus, he's proven to be a decent defensive first baseman.

Alberto Callaspo (11): A-
The silver lining in the black cloud of Alex Gordon's injury, which moved Teahen to third and opened a spot for Callaspo. The Royals' OPS+ leader at 113, Callaspo has displayed surprising power. Still doesn't walk much, but at least he doesn't strike out much, either. His defense hasn't been good, though.

Brayan Pena (13): A-
Should play more. Let's find out if he really can hit.

Mark Teahen (7): A-
Filled in well at third base after Alex Gordon went down. Quietly having a very solid season (111 OPS+). I like Teahen a lot, but it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if he were traded in the next couple of weeks; he should bring some sorely needed AAA or MLB-ready talent in return.

Miguel Olivo (9): C+
Why you would ever throw him anything but a slider in the dirt is beyond me, but somehow he leads the team in homers with 13. It's not his fault no one else here can hit homers. Still has an amazingly low three walks this year, which knocks his grade down some. Also, may be the only catcher in the majors who can't, you know, catch (8 passed balls this year, plus the Royals have 47 wild pitches this year).

Coco Crisp (3): C-
Started the season well, and then tailed off, although he was probably playing through the injuries that eventually ended his season. I still feel like trading for him was a good move, but since it's unlikely Crisp will be a Royal next year, I have to say Boston won that deal.

Jose Guillen (5): C-
I waffled between a C- and a D+ here. On the bright side, Guillen is walking more this season and has yet to have a public blowup, so I gave him a break on his grade. Besides, what if he somehow sees this?

Mike Jacobs (8): D+
I liked the trade that brought him here. I was wrong. Please forgive me, dear reader. Almost half the outs he's made this year have been by strikeout (82 0f 200). Seeing the 13 homers he's hit this year (counting tonight's) hasn't been worth all the terrible at-bats and crappy defense.

David DeJesus (4): D
What the heck happened here? His offensive numbers are down, and his defense seems to have fallen off some too. He's only 29, so he shouldn't be falling off this fast. I think DDJ will have a good second half and this season won't look so bad as a whole.

Mitch Maier (N/A): D
OK, I'm convinced. He can't hit.

Tony Pena (14): F-----
I had no expectations for TPJ, and he has met them. Sure, he was designated for assignment, but no one is going to pick him up. So he'll go to Omaha and bide his time, and soon enough Bloomquist or Betancourt will get hurt, and Pena will be back. Maybe we should call him Freddy or Jason.

Mike Aviles (6): Incomplete
Maybe I'm too nice here, but now that we know he was injured pretty much from the get-go, his miserable season makes more sense. This injury just killed the Royals, since it opened the door for a roster featuring Tony Pena Jr., Luis Hernandez AND Tug Hulett, and then led to one of the worst trades in Royals' history. Nobody expected Aviles to duplicate his 2008 numbers, but at the start of the season it looked like the Royals would at least be above-average at shortstop. Now, Royals shortstops have an OPS of .503 this season. Not slugging, OPS. Ugh.

John Buck: (10): Incomplete
90 at-bats just isn't enough to make a judgement, but I think we all know what to expect from Buck by now. I like Buck, but frankly I'd rather see Brayan Pena as the backup catcher. Or even the starter.

Alex Gordon (1): Incomplete
Alex's hip was probably the most damaging injury in the Royals' season, which has seen its share. At the beginning of the season, I felt any Royals offensive improvement depended on Gordon and Butler becoming major league-level three and four hitters. Butler has progressed pretty well, but this looks like a lost season for Gordon, who will not be able to play every day for a while even though he is off the DL to start the second half. On the other hand, maybe his injury rehab will prove beneficial, giving him a chance to remember he's got a lot of talent.

Ryan Freel (N/A): Incomplete
Hasn't done anything to make me dislike him yet.

Luis Hernandez (N/A): Incomplete
Eh. I guess he and TPJ were on the roster at the same time to prove they weren't the same person.

Tug Hulett (N/A): Incomplete
Who knows? We never saw enough of him to say. It was very important Hernandez and TPJ get to play more.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

First Half Report Cards: The Pitchers

The first half of the season is in the books. Thank God. Let's see where we stand as the second half of the season starts. These grades are based on my expectation for each player at the start of the season. The number in parentheses after the player name is where I ranked their importance to the Royals at the start of the season (pitchers and position players were ranked separately). If a player was not on the Opening Day roster, they were not ranked.
Today, the pitchers; tomorrow, position players.

Zack Greinke (1): A
The Royals' star pupil tailed off slightly in May and June, but by then he had set the bar almost impossibly high. Zack is easily the ace of the staff and might be the most exciting Royal since, I don't know, Bo Jackson? The difference is that Zack is harnessing his incredible talent, while Bo only showed us some flashes of his. Zack has to be the favorite for the AL Cy Young award, an amazing feat on a team that still has a chance to lose 100 games.

Brian Bannister (N/A): A-
Perhaps he was due for a bounceback after a tough year last year. The Royals must hope that Banny has figured out how to pitch effectively despite not having outstanding stuff. Still, a rotation that has Bannister at the back end is a pretty good rotation.

Luke Hochevar (N/A): B
His first two outings were horrible, but since then he's been pretty good (52 IP, 4.15 ERA, 24 K, 15 BB). Needs to cut down on the homers he allows (9 so far this season). Will probably never be the star you'd hope to get with an #1 overall draft pick, but he has shown the ability to be a decent major league starter, which is still valuable.

Jamey Wright (10): C
Had some good outings, especially early in the year. After that, Hillman decided perhaps Wright was a setup guy. That didn't work, so it was back to middle relief. Hasn't done much to get on my bad side, but I wouldn't be signing him to a long-term contract, either. Like most middle relievers, he's just a guy.

John Bale (N/A): C-
Nothing much to report here.

Roman Colon (N/A): C-
Hasn't done much to impress me either way.

Kyle Farnsworth (9): C-
See Sidney Ponson's entry. Sure, the Opening Day homer to Jim Thome was horrible, but he never should have been placed in that situation by Hillman to begin with. Professor Farnsworth compiled some decent numbers, but they were mainly in mop-up situations. If I were to grade the fact the Royals signed him to begin with, I would be giving an "F." But he hasn't been horrible, just not worth the $4.25 million he's getting this year. It would have been nice to spend that money somewhere else.

Gil Meche (2): C-
An odd season for the Royals' highest-paid pitcher. He started out well, then had some rough starts, possibly because of a bad back. Then he had another stretch of solid starts and is now scuffling a little bit again. It doesn't help that his manager seems willing to pitch him until his arm falls off.

Sidney Ponson (N/A): C-
As the great Al Bundy once said, "I haven't expected much, and Lord knows I've gotten it." When you sign a mediocre major leaguer at the end of spring training because he had a good showing in the World Baseball Classic, you don't expect Cy Young. He had a couple of decent starts early before being moved to the bullpen. Ponson has allowed at least one run in each of his 11 appearances this year.

Joakim Soria (3): C-
Remember, these grades aren't based on just performance, but performance measured against expectations. Now, it's not Soria's fault he got hurt, just as it's not his fault Trey Hillman seemingly picked the worst times to use him before he got hurt. But Soria just hasn't had much impact on this season, which speaks to the Royals' inability to score runs and get leads as well as to the stupidity of using your best pitcher to protect 3-run leads in the 9th (or, more often in Soria's case, to "get some work" in a 12-3 game). On the bright side, Soria did look much better in his last few outings before the break.

Bruce Chen (N/A): D+
Meh. Two OK starts, two bad ones. Organizational depth at its finest!

Ron Mahay (7): D+
Inexplicably was not traded last year when his value was highest. Now he's a moderately effective reliever who could be dealt at the trade deadline, but probably won't bring much in trade since he's a free agent after the season.

Kyle Davies (4): D
Coming off that great September last season, Davies has made a case as Most Disappointing Royal (non-injured division). A 5.76 ERA, 14 homers allowed in 14 games, and 41 walks against 54 strikeouts all make me wonder if Davies will ever amount to anything at the major league level. To be fair, he has done well at Omaha since being demoted in June. And he is still only 25, so there is still a little hope.

Robinson Tejeda (6): D
Showed some potential last year, but has regressed this year, especially in the control department. Already has more walks than he did all last season.

Juan Cruz (5): D-
Another entry in the Most Disappointing Royal contest. This is the one move Dayton Moore made in the offseason that was widely viewed as a positive, which just goes to show that Joaquin Andujar was right ("youneverknow"). I don't know if he's lost velocity, control or just had a long slump, but his strikeout rate is way down from where it has been in his career.

Horacio Ramirez (11): F
An "F" signing, and an "F" performance. At least it only took the Royals 19 appearances to figure it out (/eyeroll).

Doug Waechter (8): Incomplete
Only pitched in 3 games before getting hurt.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Little More Ranting

A few more thoughts on the Betancourt trade...

1. I failed to mention that Betancourt's defense doesn't make up for his offensive liabilities. Defensive stats in baseball are still kind of rough, and I have a hard time wrapping my head around the really advanced ones. That doesn't mean they are not accurate or valuable, just that they're complex. But every defensive stat I've seen in reference to this trade makes Betancourt look like a below-average shortstop. I would feel better about acquiring a below-average hitter at a prime defensive position if he were actually an above-average fielder. But he's not.

2. Perhaps Dayton Moore thinks OBP stands for "Outs Batting Percentage" and therefore thinks a lower number is better. I hate to harp on this, but it's very frustrating for me because it is such a basic concept. You cannot score runs without players who get on base. And the Royals seemingly seek out players who cannot get on base. With Betancourt on board, the Royals could conceivably run out a lineup most days with three players who do not get on base even 30% of the time: Betancourt, Miguel Olivo, and Mike Jacobs. Of course, Moore got all three of these guys. Trey Hillman could also let Mitch Maier start in the outfield; that would give the Royals four guys who get on base less than 30% of the time. At least Moore didn't acquire him.

3. I always thought teams that were out of it by the All-Star Break were supposed to acquire prospects, not trade away a couple of them to fill a position that could have been filled for the remainder of the season by someone already on the roster. And what does it say about Betancourt that the Mariners, only 4.5 games out in their division this morning, traded away their starting shortstop for two minor leaguers who won't help them win this year? It tells me they were sick of him.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Wisdom Is Thrown Into Jail rots in a cell, is misguided as hell, leaving no one to pick up a trail
(From "Political World," Oh Mercy)

The Royals have traded for shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, and frankly, I don't understand why. We know Dayton Moore has had a mancrush on Betancourt for a while, since he supposedly once wanted to trade Billy Butler to Seattle for him, a deal every Royal fan should be thankful never happened.

In my opinion, the Royals' biggest problem this year is offense; specifically, an inability to get on base. The Royals could survive their lack of power if they were getting on base more regularly, but of course they have the worst on-base percentage in the American League (in fact, they are tied with San Francisco for the worst in baseball). Betancourt is unlikely to do anything to help that. He currently has an OBP of .278. That's horrible. In fact, the only Royal regular with a lower OBP is catcher Miguel Olivo, who is at .272 and can claim he has reached base on strikeouts as often as he has on walks this season (3 of each). But at least Olivo is leading the team in homers with 13. Betancourt has never even reached double digits in a season in that category.

Betancourt is currently on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, but that is no excuse for such a horrendous OBP. And this is who Betancourt is. He's never had an OBP over .310 in a season. Even for someone who's played in a pitcher's park, he has little power; his highest slugging percentage was .418 in 2007. And he doesn't even steal bases well, with only 24 in his five seasons, against 20 times caught stealing.

Essentially, the Royals have added another player with no special offensive skill, a player who in fact is below league average offensively. Betancourt's OPS+ is 63 this season (100 is league average). That's a couple of points better than Mitch Maier. That's not good enough. Although he has averaged an 88 OPS+ in his three full MLB seasons, that's still below average.

Even worse, Betancourt is 27, so this is theoretically his peak season. He is unlikely to get any better, and in fact will probably decline from his already modest offensive output. And his contract runs through 2011, with a club option for 2012, meaning the Royals are likely stuck with this on-base sinkhole for two seasons.

And I haven't even mentioned the fact the Royals gave up not one, but two minor league pitchers for this. One of those pitchers, Danny Cortes, was considered one of the Royals' best pitching prospects, even though he has struggled at the AA level this year. Look for him to crack the Mariners' rotation about the time the Royals decline that 2012 option on Betancourt.

Finally, I don't understand this move in the big picture of the major league roster. Betancourt's offensive numbers are not even as good as Willie Bloomquist's have been this season. Sure, Bloomquist isn't really a shortstop, but the Royals have already made clear they don't consider defense a priority. Presumably, Betancourt will be the fulltime shortstop and Bloomquist will go back to filling in where needed at multiple positions, thereby weakening an already pitiful offense. And this is also doesn't make sense for next year, when Mike Aviles will at some point return from his Tommy John surgery. Aviles may never be the offensive player he was last year, but he figures to be better than Betancourt. Yet he may now be without a position, since the Royals are unlikely to move him to second and replace Alberto Callaspo.

Then again, Callaspo is one of three full-time players on the Royals roster with an OPS+ over 100. So perhaps he is targeted for replacement too; he obviously does not fit with the Royals' team concept.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

How Does It Freel?

The Royals have traded for infielder/outfielder Ryan Freel. In my last post, I almost advocated the Royals pick up Freel, who had been designated for assignment by the Cubs. I figured he'd clear waivers and be a free agent, though. Apparently the Royals weren't sure, so they will be giving up a player to be named later. That's the only part of this deal I don't like. Sure, the Royals won't be giving up a top prospect, but I hate to give up any minor leaguer for a stopgap.

I'm reserving full judgement until I see who the Royals give up and if this leads to any other moves at the major league level. When I was thinking the Royals should add Freel, it was with the assumption they would release Tony Pena Jr. or send Luis Hernandez to the minor leagues, put Willie Bloomquist at shortstop full time, and use Freel as a fourth outfielder. If they do that, I think this is an OK move, although it's not going to vault the Royals into contention.

On the other hand, if this is a precursor to a trade of Mark Teahen or David DeJesus, I am not happy because there is no way Freel can replace their offense. And offense is one area the Royals cannot afford to weaken.

At least the Royals have added another layer of crazy to their team. With Jose Guillen, Kyle Farnsworth and Miguel Olivo already on the roster, I feel sorry for any team that tries to start something with the Royals.

All things considered though, I'd be more impressed if the Royals had added Anna Friel. I'd certainly be going to more games...

Saturday, July 4, 2009

You Could Have Done Better But I Don't Mind just kinda wasted my precious time, but don't think twice, it's all right.
(From "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan)

I didn't intend to take a month off, but one thing about buying a house and moving--it has a way of putting the rest of your life on hold. At the same time, the Royals haven't exactly been an inspiration to write about lately. But in the last week or so, as they've found new lows on and off the field, the frustration level has been building. I don't know what we did as Royals fans before the internet came along to let us publicly vent. Let's rant...

It's tough to take this franchise seriously anymore. They say one thing and do another. They don't seem to have a clue on how to construct a decent roster. And then they don't seem to have any idea how to avoid alienating fans.

I liked the trades for Coco Crisp and Mike Jacobs when they happened. And since Crisp is out for the year and probably was hurt when he did play this year, it's tough to make a final judgement on that deal (certainly, the Red Sox look like they got the better of it, but I still think it was a good trade since you can't predict season-ending injuries). But the Jacobs trade...I was wrong. He hasn't hit enough homers to make up for his lack of defense or on-base percentage. I'm sick of the Royals talking about the importance of OBP and then acquiring players who never walk. Everyone knew when the trade happened that Jacobs would not have a good OBP or walk total, yet he is second on the team (behind Crisp) with 25 walks. By comparison, Joe Mauer has 32 walks even though he's only played 56 games! With Crisp out, Jacobs is the only Royal on pace for 50 walks. As a team, the Royals are 13th in the AL in walks (shame on you, Seattle, for being behind the Royals in this category). Of course, they're last in on-base percentage. It's no wonder they can't score runs.

For the short term, the Royals are probably stuck in this mess. They could attempt to trade Jacobs and bring Kila Ka'aihue up from Omaha--he already has 60 walks in 78 games for Omaha. It's unlikely they'd get much for Jacobs, but it looks like time to move on from this experiment. Kila probably wouldn't walk as much at the major league level, but he would be an improvement.

Other options might include bringing up outfielder Scott Thorman (.296/.373./577 in 53 games for the O-Royals) or letting utility infielder Tug Hulett play a little more (he had a .388 OBP in 46 games at Omaha but has only 14 major league plate appearances this year). Thorman is 27, so it's not like he's a hot prospect, but he could help.

Hulett is a symptom of another Royals' problem, the inability to construct a roster of 25 useful players. Right now, the Royals are carrying 3 utility infielders, and two of them are sorry excuses for big league hitters: Tony Pena Jr. and Luis Hernandez. This doesn't count Willie Bloomquist, who has played every position except pitcher and catcher in his 8 big-league seasons. TPJ is following up his epic OPS+ of 7 last year with a -32 this year (remember, a 100 OPS+ is league average). Somehow, Hernandez has been slightly better, posting a sterling OPS+ of 19 this year. There is no reason for a major league club to carry both of these guys and a guy like Hulett, who actually has a -62 OPS+ (I'm cutting him a break because he only has 14 plate appearances). Pena in particular has shown he cannot hit at the major league level.

Yet if you look at the roster on the Royals' website, there are only 3 outfielders listed. This is another reason to bring Thorman up or otherwise change the roster. Bloomquist is not a good hitter, but compared to Pena and Hernandez, he's freaking awesome. Put him at shortstop for the rest of this year, cut Pena, and choose between Hulett and Hernandez for your middle infield backup.

I know injuries have really affected this team. I'm sure Dayton Moore did not have this roster in mind at the start of the season. And I know building an entire organization takes time, so the Royals do not have the depth they would like at Omaha or in AA ball at Northwest Arkansas. But there is no reason Trey Hillman should have to pinch-hit for Pena with Hernandez, then hit for Hernandez with Hulett, as he did in a game this week. There is no reason he should have to have a lineup where Hernandez hits 7th, Mitch Maier (75 OPS+) hits 8th, and Pena hits 9th, as he did Saturday night. This isn't a defense of Hillman; I don't believe he's done a good job managing the pieces he's been given. But the pieces he's been given signal an organizational failure, in my opinion.

Finally, the Royals seem to be trying to aggravate the fans they have left. This has been an incredibly frustrating season to be a Royals fan, in part because they were 18-11 at one point (seems like years ago now). But I think it's even worse because many of the Royals' problems are so fundamental. Anybody who has played baseball or softball, or just been a fan for years, probably feels like they can avoid getting doubled off first on a routine fly ball, or catch a grounder hit at them, or not swing at sliders in the dirt over and over. Yet the Royals seem to have trouble with all of these fundamentals and more, like bunting.

It will take an organizational refocus to fix these problems, and it will not be a quick fix most likely. But the Royals can and need to look for defensive players in the coming trade season and beyond. It appears the Royals have good enough pitching to keep them in games; better defensive play will give them a better chance to win more of those games.

I've been a Royals fan for more than 25 years now. I don't know how to stop being one. But this season has been so aggravating that it is tempting to spend more time reading or going to movies or almost anything to avoid sitting through another loss where the starting pitcher does well, the offense stinks, a couple of defensive lapses lead to some cheap runs, and the bullpen gives up a couple of runs on their own, leading to a 5-1 loss. This can't go on like this, and I'll be interested to see how the organization goes about fixing it.