Saturday, April 23, 2011

Give Me A Minute, Let Me Get It Together

...I just gotta pick myself up off the floor
(From "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)," Street Legal)

He was a promising young hitter, although it took him a couple of seasons to get out of Class A ball. After splitting a season between AA and AAA, he was sent back to Triple A the next season, although he did get a September callup. An injury basically wiped out the following season, but he finally stuck in the majors in his sixth professional season. However, he only managed a .248/.313/.442 line in 182 plate appearances, good for a 97 OPS+. It would take three more seasons and 266 games before he found his niche, at age 28.

Our mystery player is one of the greatest hitters in Royals history: Hal McRae. And I hope his story will encourage Royals fans to be a little more patient with Kila Ka'aihue.

The point of this exercise is not to say that Kila is the next Hal McRae, but rather to show that even very good hitters can get off to slow starts at the major league level. And frankly, Ka'aihue's minor league stats compare favorably to McRae's.

It has been frustrating to watch Kila struggle during the first three weeks of the 2011 season. Just like it was probably frustrating to watch McRae hit .188/299/.328 in his first 18 games in 1973. Or George Brett hit .242/.324/.409 in his first 18 games in 1978. But 18 games is just not enough to give up on a guy, particularly a guy who has only played the equivalent of half of one season in the majors, like Kila has.

I know, it seems like Kila has been around forever. We've been hearing about him and looking forward to seeing him play since his monster 2008 season, split between Northwest Arkansas and Omaha. But really, he has only been a major leaguer for 82 games (going into Saturday night's game at Texas). After making him wait behind Ross Gload, Mike Jacobs, and Jose Guillen, I think the Royals owe it to Ka'aihue to give him at least into June to prove himself.

I understand why fans might want to push Kila aside. Both Eric Hosmer and Clint Robinson are off to hot starts at Omaha. The major league team looks like it might have a shot at actually contending for a title this year in a mediocre division, and division champs don't have first basemen who hit .188. But the same caveat applies to Hosmer and Robinson--both are in their first seasons at Omaha. If they can keep up their hitting for a longer period of time, then yes, figure out a way to make room for them in the majors. I don't think it's really fair to them (or to Kila) to bring them up now and expect them to keep the Royals in contention.

Furthermore, I would be more concerned with Kila's slow start if he were not still drawing walks. Part of the reason Royals fans have been excited by his minor league numbers was that sterling on-base percentage. In an organization that has done a great job talking about the importance of getting on base a lot, but has not been so good at getting players who actually, you know, get on base a lot, Kila stood out. So far this year, Ka'aihue is tied for second on the team with 10 walks. He's still exhibiting a good understanding of the strike zone, which gives me confidence he will hit at some point. Part of his problem is the team-high 21 strikeouts, which is rather high for a player who only struck out 39 times in 206 plate appearances last season.

Also, Kila's luck hasn't been the greatest this season, with a .256 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Since a normal BABIP is around .300, I would expect his average to go up. And as the weather gets warmer, his power should improve too.

The time is coming when the Royals will have to decide which two of the four 1B/DH types they have between KC and Omaha they want to keep. But that time is not now. Kila may need a change of scenery to hit, or he may just need a little more time to get his game going. Getting rid of him now, though, would be selling when his stock is at its lowest. And it would be a mistake.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Thoughts On The Futures Game

John Lamb pitching to Eric Hosmer. Mike Montgomery pitching to Wil Myers. Christian Colon fielding Johnny Giavotella's grounder and throwing him out at first. Is this a bizarre dream? No. Is it a sample of a Red Sox-Yankees game from 2020? God, I hope not. In this instance, it definitely is not. No, this is the Royals Futures Game, a matchup between the Northwest Arkansas Naturals and Omaha Storm Chasers. And it's a wonderful thing.

The Amazing Michelle (that's my way better half if you're new to this blog) and I spent most of our Saturday at the old ballpark, taking in the Royals-Angels game and then the Futures Game. Thankfully, it was a beautiful day for baseball, and the major league team played well. This was my first in-person look at the Royals, and I was pleasantly surprised. Of course, it's hard to tell anything from one game, but it does seem like the Royals will be better defensively and certainly in the bullpen. Yes, the defense has struggled a bit in the first few games, but I think most of that has been Mike Aviles, and I believe he is better with the glove than he has shown so far. We've seen him play a decent shortstop, so he should be able to handle third base. And if he does keep making two errors a game, he won't be playing third very long.

Meanwhile, Alcides Escobar is a lot of fun to watch. Especially after years of watching Angel Berroa, Tony Pena Jr. and Yuniesky Betancourt. It's just nice to not have to hold your breath every time a ball is hit towards the shortstop.

And this bullpen. So far, it looks outstanding. You may remember that last year, for the first month of the season, the bullpen was the weakest link by far on a bad team. That pretty much torpedoed any hope that existed at the start of the season. This year, knock wood, that looks like it won't happen. Aaron Crow looked darn near unhittable yesterday. And I think after three games, Angels manager Mike Scioscia would trade his entire bullpen for the Royals' relievers. So that's a positive. And if the rookies in the bullpen are any indication of the talent on the way to the majors, that's a big positive.

It was a lot of fun to see some of that talent actually on the Kauffman Stadium field. I'm no scout, but I have been watching baseball for a good 30 years now, and I saw lots of things to like. Once again, it's hard to tell much from one game, but I really like Mike Montgomery. Pitching for Omaha, he held Northwest Arkansas hitless for four innings. Montgomery was throwing hard (mid-90s), yet displayed a terrific breaking ball a few times. I also like his delivery--it seems compact, simple, and repeatable. It will be fun to follow him at Omaha this year and see how he does.

Overall, I thought all the pitching looked good. Chris Dwyer struggled a bit, and Danny Duffy walked 3 batters in his 3 innings (while striking out 5, so he wasn't terrible, just a bit wild). Of course, the flip side is that the hitters didn't do a whole lot. David Lough hit the game's only homer--I hope he gets a shot at the majors sometime soon. Johnny Giavotella had a couple of walks and a stolen base, plus a nice defensive play. The two hitters everyone wanted to see, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, only went 1-8 combined. I think they might have been trying a little too hard to put on a show. I'm not worried about them--what they've done in their minor league careers so far tells me they can hit.

Kudos to whomever came up with the idea for this game. The Royals should definitely make this a yearly tradition, even after this group of prospects is in the majors. Let's face it, this franchise's success will always depend on a strong farm system. So why not give fans in KC a chance to see them and get to know them? Plus, it's got to be good for the prospects to get an opportunity to play in a major league stadium. Perhaps it will reduce the nerves just a bit if and when they actually reach the majors. I really can't see any downside to having this game every year. I would hope the Royals promote it more in the future--I know a couple of fans who didn't know anything about when I talked to them this week, and these weren't casual fans either. But if this game does become an annual event, I suppose it will become well known.