Saturday, June 19, 2010

2012: Who Will Represent The Royals?

As you surely know by now, Kansas City will be hosting the 2012 All-Star Game. Sure, there are ill-informed people bashing the choice, but I'm excited. I'm confident KC will put on a good show and all those east coast elitists will be...well, they probably wouldn't admit being impressed, but at least satisfied. I doubt they'll die of boredom out here in flyover country, anyway.

OK, enough good old-fashioned Kansas City inferiority complex. There is too much to be excited about...2012 figures to be an interesting year for Royals fans. We should be beginning to see all that talent at Northwest Arkansas reach the majors and hopefully start to contribute. Meanwhile, with the big contracts of Jose Guillen and Gil Meche off the books, there is a chance for the Royals to add an important free-agent piece, as well. Throw in the fact that 2012 is the last season of Zack Greinke's current contract, and suddenly it looms as a very important year for the franchise.

So, who will represent the Royals in the 2012 All-Star Game? That player (or players) will be seen as the face of a franchise that (we can only hope) will be seen as on the rise. Here are my candidates, with what I think are the odds they will be selected. Please note, I am not a gambler, so these odds should be taken with an entire salt shaker.

Zack Greinke: Probably the best-known Royal to baseball fans across the country. An actual star after his Cy Young Award last year. And you can never have too many pitchers on the All-Star teams in case the game goes 20 innings. Possible complication: that pesky business about his contract being up after 2012. Will he still be a Royal in July 2012? Or will they feel the need to trade him? Odds: 2-1.

Joakim Soria: As I said, you can never have too many pitchers in this game. And it's nice to have some relief pitchers on the staff. If Zack is still getting the run support in 2012 he's received this year, Soria might end up being the choice. Odds: 3-1.

Billy Butler: First base is a loaded position, especially in the American League. Billy has a chance at an All-Star nod this year, so that might help him be on the radar in two years. But he has to overcome Miguel Cabrera, Paul Konerko and Justin Morneau, and that's just in his own division. Odds: 5-1.

Alex Gordon: I'm not hopping off this bandwagon. This is a rant for another day, but I seriously cannot believe Gordon is being allowed to put up a 1.100 OPS in Omaha while Scott Podsednik puts up a .689 in the majors. For comparison purposes, Miguel Cabrera leads the AL with a 1.056 OPS. I'd be willing to live with the occasional error as Gordon "learns to play left field" (seriously, is it that difficult?) in the majors to get that bat in the lineup. Anyway, the average AL left fielder this year has a .759 OPS. Alex put up a .735 in his rookie year and a .783 in 2008. He still figures to improve offensively, as he's only 26. Odds: 10-1.

Kila Ka'aihue: Currently putting up a 1.105 OPS in Omaha. Yep, even better than Alex Gordon. Kila has to overcome the same group of first basemen that Butler has to, plus Kila has to overcome Billy Butler. And the Royals' bizarre reluctance to give him a chance. Odds: 25-1.

Luke Hochevar: It looked like the light was starting to come on before his last start, which we now know was cut short by elbow soreness. With the old Royals' training staff, I would have expected the "sprained elbow" to become Tommy John surgery within months, but I think we're in better hands now. Anyway, if the Royals can improve their infield defense before the 2012 season, this ground-ball pitcher might have a chance. Odds: 40-1.

Mike Moustakas: Hey, Evan Longoria did it in his rookie season! Odds: 50-1.

Mike Aviles: The Royals will keep looking for middle infielders to replace this guy until they find one who can hit over .210. Age is working against him, though--he will be 31 when the 2012 season starts. Odds: 60-1.

David DeJesus: Probably won't even be a Royal in 2012, although he seems like he would be willing to re-sign with the team after his contract is up in 2011. But he might be too expensive, especially for a guy who will turn 32 after that 2011 season. Too bad, he's a fan favorite who would have ESPN on his jock if he played for the Yankees or Red Sox. Oh wait, I was going to stop the inferiority complex. Sorry about that. Odds: 75-1.

Yuniesky Betancourt: No.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

I'm Just Sittin' On The Shelf

(From "All Over You")

Are the Royals using their bench enough?

I think the notion of a "set lineup" is not very realistic. Most players need a day of rest here and there, plus injuries--even if they are minor--are almost inevitable over 6 months of baseball. And normally catchers do not play day games after night games. So, while there are certainly regulars and a batting order that gets used the most, it is unlikely that a team will run the same order out there more than 20-25 times in a season. This is probably even truer in the American League, where a team can give that slugging outfielder or first baseman a game at DH and "rest" him that way.

But the Royals, with one-third of the season gone, seem intent on turning that conventional wisdom on its head. Maybe they've decided using the same nine players every day is the new market inefficiency.

This isn't a sermon on which batting order the Royals should use. Lots of studies by smarter people than me have decided that lineup order doesn't greatly effect a team's offensive output. The Royals could probably help themselves there by hitting David DeJesus first and Mike Aviles second.

No, this is more about the Royals basically ignoring Brayan Pena this season. Or about Mitch Maier needing Rick Ankiel's injury to get a chance. Or a mindset that keeps Kila Ka'aihue in Omaha.

In 56 games this season before Saturday, the Royals have used a batting order of Podsednik, Aviles, DeJesus, Butler, Guillen, Callaspo, Maier, Betancourt, Kendall a total of 10 times. I could say in 21 games this season, since Ned Yost went with that order in his first four games as manager, and he has been responsible for all 10 of those uses. You have to go back to 1989 to find an order the Royals used more frequently in one season (and that order was used 14 times).

I should add that I don't have major objections to that lineup. I would move Aviles to shortstop and put Chris Getz in at second base, but it's obvious the Royals love them some Yuniesky Betancourt. And hey, Yuni hasn't been a complete train wreck on offense so far this season. He even has managed to get his Ultimate Zone Rating up to 0.0 instead of last year's horrific -11.4. The problem is, this is probably about the best we can ever expect from Betancourt, and it's essentially a league-average shortstop.

Anyway, not only do the Royals use the same batting order every night, it seems like they are intent on having a team full of Cal Ripkens--playing every inning of every game. The Royals have six of the top 50 AL players in innings played. No one else has that many. Jason Kendall leads all AL catchers in innings played by a wide margin (65). He has been in there for 92.2% of all innings the Royals have played. That seems odd for a 36-year-old catcher. As a result of this, we still don't know if Brayan Pena can be a useful major league catcher. Sure, he hasn't played particularly well when he's been in there, but it might be tough to find a groove when you play 39 innings in two months.

To be fair, Kendall has been decent. He has no power, but he's done a decent job of getting on base. Defensively, he has at least helped the Royals cut down significantly on the wild pitches and passed balls that were such problems last year. The team has gone from 89 and 14 in 2009 to 17 and 2 this season, respectively. And he is throwing at basestealers at the same rate (25%) as Royals catchers did last year. I would just like to see Pena get more of a shot.

All over the field, there are Royals who have played practically every out this season. Alberto Callaspo has played 97.8% of the team's innings; he would be third in the AL at third base if he hadn't played 99 innings at second base. Billy Butler has played 97.4% of the innings; he is third in the league for first basemen. Scott Podsednik (91.8%, second in the league in left field), Betancourt (91.6%, 6th in the league at shortstop) and David DeJesus (91.2%, fifth in the league in right field) are all in the top 50 overall in innings. Even Jose Guillen has gotten in the act, starting 55 of the 56 games and pinch-hitting (and playing right field) in the other one.

Part of the problem is the Royals' insistence on carrying eight relief pitchers, which they have done for a good chunk of this season. Even now, with a more normal seven relievers, they don't have a true backup at first base, nor do they have anyone on the bench who you would want to give Guillen a day off at DH. This is where Ka'aihue could help. Like most Royals fans, I want to see Kila get a shot, a real shot, at the major league level. Although if the Royals are going to keep using their current philosophy of lineup management, perhaps he is better served getting regular playing time at Omaha. Still, as a left-handed hitter, he would be a nice option to have on the bench.

My main worry is that these guys will crash sometime in August if they don't get a day off here and there. I'm not calling for Willie Bloomquist or Wilson Betemit to get more playing time; in fact, I think the Royals are doing a better job this year of not overusing Bloomquist. It just seems to me that a bench of Kila, Bloomquist, Pena, Getz/Betancourt and an outfielder from Omaha (either David Lough or Jordan Parraz; the Royals have said they want to keep Alex Gordon there to keep working on being an outfielder, and I'm inclined to agree with that idea) would give Yost the ability to give everyone a little rest, plus some lineup and strategic flexibility.