...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.