Saturday, April 10, 2010

Did I Hear Someone Tell A Lie?

...did I hear someone's distant cry?
(from "Love Sick," Time Out Of Mind)

“I feel like if you start mixing and matching too early it sends a bad message"--Trey Hillman, on changes to the lineup, as quoted in Saturday's Kansas City Star.

Five games into the season, and I'm already questioning Trey Hillman's player usage. While his quote above may not technically be a lie, I do think it's a questionable statement, based on Hillman's past tendencies. I also think it's a huge disservice to the Royals' offense, which everyone knew coming into the season would be a problem. While five games is certainly a small sample size, the Royals as a team are hitting .265/.324/.392 and have scored only 17 runs.

Meanwhile, we're still waiting for the Royals' two best hitters in spring training, Mike Aviles and Mitch Maier, to make their first starts of the season. In fact, the two of them have only combined for one plate appearance--Aviles pinch-hit in the 9th inning Saturday night. It's true that spring training stats usually don't mean much, but Aviles hit .471 in 51 spring at-bats and Maier hit .475 in 59 at-bats. More importantly, each seemed to be hitting every ball hard, which is really all you can ask of a batter. As the Royals headed north to start the season, it looked like they had two somewhat surprising offensive leaders.

Now, here we are, almost a week into the season, and these two (as well as backup catcher Brayan Pena, who hit .302 in spring training) haven't started one game. Maier and Pena haven't even been in a game yet, which is especially odd in Pena's case, since 36-year-old catcher Jason Kendall was allowed to start a day game after a night game. Aviles hasn't had more than one at-bat in a game since April 1. Obviously Aviles and Maier won't hit for those averages over a full season, but one has to wonder what the lack of playing time will do to their timing at the plate. Hillman may have already torpedoed these three players' offensive seasons by not getting them involved before now.

In Maier's case, it's a little easier to see why he hasn't played yet. Even with his great spring, Maier was likely going to be a fourth outfielder. And Rick Ankiel has been the Royals' best offensive weapon so far, while Scott Podsednik and David DeJesus have both been at least solid hitters. However, Jose Guillen has started off slowly as the DH, so perhaps Maier could have helped a little more there.

As for Aviles, it's true he is still getting his arm strength back after Tommy John surgery last year. But his spring training effort certainly made it look like 2008 Mike Aviles was back. You might remember that guy--he put up a .325/.354/.480 line after finally forcing his way into the lineup in early June. A Royals team that had been 23-37 before that day went 52-50 the rest of the season. You'd think Hillman would remember that, since he was the guy who rather begrudgingly put Aviles in the lineup to begin with. That was only after Tony Pena Jr. had finally proven to everyone (the Royals of course being the last ones to realize it) that he could not hit. Then Esteban German was given a few starts at shortstop--when he didn't hit right away, it was finally Aviles' chance.

Now Aviles is sitting behind Yuniesky Betancourt, who has proven to everyone (except, of course, the Royals) that he can't hit, his Opening Day homer notwithstanding. If the Royals don't want to play him because they think he can't throw from shortstop, then he really should be in Omaha getting regular duty. If they want him on the major league roster, they need to find a place to play him. Chris Getz and Alberto Callaspo have both hit pretty well, but Aviles needs to be playing.

It would be nice to see Pena get a shot, too. Kendall has hit .313 so far, but he has little power. We saw last year that Pena can hit for power, and this lineup could certainly use it. I know the Royals don't think much of Pena's defense and love Kendall for his, but right now this offense needs some help. And why is a 36-year-old allowed to catch a day game after a night game, even in the first week of the season?

Last year, Hillman waited two whole games before shuffling up his lineup. In 2008, he changed things up in the 5th game. In two 162-game seasons as manager, Hillman has used 134 lineups (in 2008) and 141 (in 2009). And suddenly he's a spokesman for lineup consistency? I don't get it. I just don't get it.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Talking To Myself In A Monologue

(from "Highlands," Time Out Of Mind)

Here we are, less than 48 hours from the beginning of the 2010 season. I don't know quite why, but after a winter's worth of doubt about the direction of the entire Royals organization, in the last week or so I've had a growing sense of...well, maybe not optimism, but encouragement. This is despite the fact my previous post quite obviously jinxed at least two of the players (Robinson Tejeda and Alex Gordon) I was hoping would make big contributions to the Royals this season. And I should add right up front that I harbor no illusions that this Royals team will contend for a division title. So maybe "cautious encouragement" would be a better term. Besides, everyone ought to have a little optimism before the season starts.

Having said that, I know there's a very good chance that, sometime in June maybe, I'll be wondering how I ever allowed myself to have any optimism about this team. So, for posterity's sake, here's how I talked myself into being cautiously encouraged about the state of Royals baseball in 2010...

First, start with the lineup. It's true that the Royals hardly look like an offensive juggernaut heading into the season. There are still not enough high-OBP guys on the roster, and there aren't enough power hitters, either. But this spring did see two players who contributed little last year look like they could be helpful this year: Mike Aviles and Mitch Maier. Aviles is still recovering from the Tommy John surgery he had last year, so he may not play regularly until his throwing arm is strong enough for everyday duty at shortstop. But it certainly looks like his bat is back where it was in 2008. If he really is going to hit that well again, it would help the Royals immensely. Not only would they have a productive bat at shortstop, they would be removing perhaps their worst offensive player (Yuniesky Betancourt) from the lineup.

In Maier's case, this could be the continuation of his minor league career pattern, where he makes a substantial improvement in his second year at each level. Maier probably won't be starter, but he can certainly contribute as a fourth outfielder. If I were managing the team, it would be very tempting to stick him in Scott Podsednik's starting spot and see how he responds. Get Alex Gordon back healthy, stick Alberto Callaspo at DH (or, if you think you can live with his defense, put him at 2B), and suddenly you have a respectable-looking lineup, maybe something like this:

DeJesus LF
Aviles SS
Callaspo DH
Butler 1B
Ankiel CF
Gordon 3B
Maier RF
Kendall C
Getz 2B

Of course, this brings up the question of what to do with Jose Guillen. In my perfect world, the Royals would eat his salary, trade him for whatever they can get, and call up Kila Ka'aihue from Omaha to provide better production for much less money. However, in reality the Royals are probably stuck with Guillen for this season. We'll all have to hope that the last year of his contract provides some sort of extra motivation, although I admit I'm worried that if he does have a good season, the Royals will be interested in re-signing him.

Anyway, if you stick Guillen at DH and move Callaspo to second, now you just have one real dead spot in the lineup--catcher, which can be filled by Brayan Pena if you can live with his defensive shortcomings. If you just have to have Kendall in there, well, at least most teams in baseball wish they had more offense at that spot.

As for the pitching staff, I think it's the one area where Royals fans don't need much convincing to be optimistic. Obviously, there are question marks there, too, but I think most people would say the starting pitching is the strength of this team. Get a couple of relievers to step up and suddenly the bullpen looks decent in front of Joakim Soria.

Of course, much of this cautious optimism is based on players staying healthy. But even if they don't, I think the AAA Omaha roster is in much better shape to provide short-term help than it was last year.

In this spring training, the Royals had young players who had good showings, but still did not make the major league roster. Guys like outfielder Jordan Parraz and relief pitcher Blake Wood. Because the Royals have players like that in Omaha, ready to replace the inevitable injured or poor-performing major leaguer, they should not have to sign a Ryan Freel off the street. A Parraz or David Lough or Jarrod Dyson may never be a star, but they can at least be an inexpensive fill-in who can contribute a little bit offensively. Frankly, I wouldn't be too upset if the Royals simply cut some of the overpriced, underperforming vets from the big league club and used some of these players instead. We already know what Kyle Farnsworth can do in the majors. Why not find out what Blake Wood can do? But that's a rant for another day.

Along those lines, I do feel like the Royals are moving ahead slowly as an organization. The first wave of "Dayton Moore prospects" are finally reaching the AA level. Even with Danny Duffy walking away from baseball, the Royals do seem to have quite a bit of pitching talent in the minors. And while there will certainly be disappointments in that group of prospects, there is also the opportunity to trade some of that surplus for needs elsewhere. I'm excited to see how it shakes out over the next few years.

So, feeling the cautious optimism yet? Look, I'm not going to predict a division title here, or even in the next few years. I don't foresee a winning record this year and probably not next year, either, unless the Royals do something drastic in the next 12 months. However, I do think that we Royals fans have (justifiably) become a very pessismistic fanbase. For some reason, I tend to be a sports optimist. Or maybe I'm just a contrarian. Either way, I though I would throw these thoughts out there for argument's sake, if nothing else.