Saturday, May 15, 2010

It's All Over Now, Baby Blue

Well, that was sudden.

I think we all knew Trey Hillman would not be the Royals' manager for long, it was just a question of how long he would last. I admit I was surprised when Hillman was fired Thursday afternoon (or to be technical, when it was announced Thursday afternoon)--I figured he would last for a few more weeks, and there was even a good chance he'd finish out the year and his contract, then not brought back next year.

I don't take joy in anyone losing their job, but Hillman needed to go. When the Royals hired him, I really thought he had a chance to be a success. But I was wrong; I greatly underestimated the need for a manager to have spent some time in the majors as a player or coach before taking over a major league team. That sort of experience doesn't guarantee success, but it now seems obvious it helps give even a rookie manager some credibility. Looking back, it is apparent Hillman lost most of his team almost before his tenure even started, and I believe ultimately that doomed him as a manager. And then there were the odd strategic decisions, the irrational desire to use sacrifice bunts, and the inability to stand up to veteran players (letting Gil Meche talk him into leaving Meche in games, letting Jason Kendall play everyday, etc.), among Hillman's other failings.

I am OK with the Royals hiring Ned Yost as Hillman's replacement. Yost will probably never be confused with John McGraw, but he has played, coached and managed in the majors, and has even had some success (let's discuss that in a minute).

Ultimately, however, a manager is only as good as the players he's given. I do believe the Royals have more talent than their current 13-23 record shows, but not a lot more. Even if Hillman had managed every game perfectly this year (by which I mean, chosen the best option when he picked a relief pitcher or pinch hitter, or picked the right time to steal or bunt or whatever), how many more wins would that be worth? Three? Four? Whatever it would be, I'm sure it wouldn't be enough to vault the Royals into contention. For example, look at the May 6 game in Texas--Hillman brings in his best reliever (Joakim Soria) to hold a 1-run lead in the 8th inning. I suppose you could argue that Hillman should have let Robinson Tejeda, who had looked good getting the first two out in the inning, finish the job. But I think every Royals fan probably felt good about Soria coming in with a 1-run lead. Two homers later, the Royals had another loss.

That said, I believe one area where a manager can make a difference is in setting the atmosphere and mood of the team. At any level of baseball, it is impossible to play well if you are pressing too much or trying too hard. So I can only imagine what it's like for players at the highest level of the sport when they find themselves in a pennant race in September. And this is an area where Yost apparently failed in his previous managerial stint--the Brewers fired him with 12 games left in the 2008 season, as they desperately tried to hold on to a playoff spot. That Brewers team started September with the second-best record in the NL, 4.5 games behind the division-leading Cubs and with a 5.5 game lead in the wild-card race. They proceeded to go 3-11 over the next two weeks and blow the entire wild-card lead. That's when the Brewers replaced Yost, and they were able to capture the wild-card spot.

I suppose the bright side here is that the Royals are a long ways away from any sort of playoff contention. And to be fair, I think Yost deserves some credit for leading the Brewers' young talent from a 106-loss season the year before he took over to the brink of a playoff spot. It just looks to me that, based on history, if Yost helps the Royals get to playoff contention, they may need to find someone else to finish the job. For now, though, the emphasis should remain the same: getting young, talented players to the majors ready to play, and then put them in position to succeed. Yost is supposed to be good at this part of the job. We will see.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Never Bein’ Able To Separate The Good From The Bad

(From “Dead Man, Dead Man,” Shot of Love)

I find it funny (funny strange not funny ha-ha) sometimes that, in most aspects of life, I tend to be a pessimist. Yet, when it comes to the Kansas City Royals, an organization that has spent 20-some years screwing up the most basic decisions, a franchise that invariably chooses the worst option possible, I tend to be an optimist. I don’t know why this is, although I suspect it’s partially human nature and partially a coping mechanism.

I started writing this post on Tuesday, and was going to write about how that optimism may have finally met its match in the last week. I was ready to blast the Royals for trading Omaha relief pitcher Carlos Rosa to Arizona for shortstop prospect Rey Navarro, because I felt Rosa had a chance to help the Royals’ bullpen in the short-term. Meanwhile, Navarro will start his journey up the Royals’ ladder at Class A Wilmington. Also, while I admit I’m no expert on the minor leagues, the people who seem to be experts don’t seem to have a consensus on Navarro’s future, except he’s not much of a hitter. Then again, he’s only 20. While I know the Royals are not contenders this year, it would be nice to win as many games as possible, and I’d rather have found out if Rosa could help the bullpen than see the Royals waste money on another “big name” relief pitcher, like Kyle Farnsworth.

I also was going to blast the Royals for their handling of Alex Gordon. After giving him 12 whole games this year to prove himself, the #2 overall pick in the 2005 draft was sent to Omaha (bright spot: Mike Aviles finally gets called up and, hopefully, given an actual chance to play this time). Then came the real bombshell: the announcement that Gordon would be learning to play left field and first base at Omaha.

I don’t understand why the Royals seem to have it in for Gordon. I’m afraid they are going to start jerking him around much like they did with Mark Teahen, giving him a new position to learn every year, then wondering why he never hits like they think he should. I don’t know that there is a correlation between changing defensive positions and subpar offense, but I don’t think it helps a player concentrate on offense when he is constantly learning a new defensive position. It’s true that Gordon will probably never be a superstar like we all hoped, but he can still be a valuable major league third baseman (assuming he can stay healthy, which has certainly been a problem). Let’s not forget, he posted a 109 OPS+ when he was 24.

But here comes that stupid optimism again. My mind begins to entertain the possibilities…if Gordon can work himself into an acceptable defender in left field, I think he will hit well enough to be a contributor (for comparison, David DeJesus had a .781 OPS and 106 OPS+ as a left fielder last year, and in Gordon’s last full season, he had a .783 OPS and that 109 OPS+). Now you’re looking at a 2011 outfield of Gordon, Rick Ankiel (or Mitch Maier, if the Royals decline to bring Ankiel back), and DeJesus. Not too shabby.

And then, even more optimism. Have the Royals decided to give Mike Aviles a real shot at reclaiming his shortstop position? When he started the season on the major league roster, he got two token appearances. This time around, he waits one day, then gets a start (a productive one, with three hits and a homer). Miracle of miracles, he gets another start the next day. I think we all know that a healthy Aviles is going to hit much better than Yuniesky Betancourt, and probably field better too. The question now is, will the Royals let him prove that? An infield of Billy Butler, Chris Getz, Aviles and Alberto Callaspo is also not too shabby. And that doesn’t include Mike Moustakas, who has been tearing up the Texas League in Class AA and could conceivably be ready for his major league debut next year.

Finally, the cherry on top of this optimism sundae: after Ankiel went on the disabled list, the Royals actually called up Kila Ka’aihue for something more than a September appearance. I don’t know that he will play regularly, or even that the Royals will keep him in the majors after Ankiel comes off the DL. But I take this as a sign that he has finally made an impression on the Royals—after all, they could have easily called up an outfielder (or another relief pitcher). It would be nice to find out for sure if Kila can hit in the majors, as he could be a very affordable replacement for Jose Guillen next season.

Sigh. Perhaps one of these days I will finally get the optimism out of my system and join reality. Until then, though, I guess I will keep hoping for the best.