Thursday, July 28, 2011

March Me Away To The Station

...I'm off to some far-distant land.
(From "Little Maggie," Good As I Been To You)

With the trade deadline coming up Sunday, the Royals are in a unique position. It's one you don't normally see for a team roughly 20 games under .500. Normally when you are that bad, you need help anywhere you can get it. But in the Royals' case, with so many young players on the major league roster and many more waiting in the wings, KC can afford to be picky if they decide to make some moves.

The Royals appear to be set at pretty much each defensive position, if not for this year, then for 2012 and beyond. Presumably they will pull the trigger on Johnny Giavotella at some point and he will be starting at second base next year, and today's promotion of Salvador Perez to Omaha makes me think he will be given every opportunity to win the starting catcher spot next spring.

Given that, Dayton Moore's focus the next few days and in the offseason has to be fixing a starting rotation that has ranged from mediocre to downright awful this season. Plus, there is a good chance they will need two new starters to fill out the rotation before next season. I feel like the Royals can compete for a division title next year in the normally weak AL Central, but only with a serious upgrade to the rotation. Moore's secondary objective should be solving the outfield logjam that is likely to result whenever Lorenzo Cain is deemed worthy of a spot on the major-league roster.

As a bonus, the Royals have plenty of prospects at all levels of the minor leagues now. Also, with this year's payroll at $38 million and change, there is plenty of room to add payroll. For once in recent Royals history, money is no object. Or shouldn't be, anyway.

Perusing the list of potential free agent pitchers this winter, it looks like a pretty thin class. Normally, big name free agents wouldn't even consider signing with the Royals. But I think players know what's going on with this organization and would at least consider coming here now. If there were plenty of big names available, I'd say the Royals would have a chance of signing one. But the limited star power in this particular class certainly hurts their chances. So any upgrade will probably have to come via trade, whether it's this week or in the offseason.

If it were up to me, I would be looking to trade for major league pitchers or pitching prospects who are ready to make the majors next year. I would certainly be looking to trade either Jeff Francoeur or Melky Cabrera. Or both, if I got enough return. I like both Frenchy and Melky, and both have played well here. But there is no guarantee the Royals can bring Frenchy back next season, and there is no guarantee Melky will hit as well next year. While it's true Cabrera is only 26 and theoretically entering his prime years, it is also true he has never had an offensive season this good. So I wouldn't feel locked in to bringing him back.

Beyond those two, I would be willing to listen to offers for anyone. While the Royals can afford to be picky, they shouldn't feel like any player is untouchable. The flip side of having a low payroll is that nobody on this team has a contract that would be untradeable. That should help the Royals get a better return if they trade someone on the major-league roster.

So KC is in a good position to trade a Joakim Soria or a Billy Butler, if that is what it takes to get a good starting pitcher. Of course I like Soria and Butler and would like them to stay, but I would like the Royals to win, too. And in Soria's case, I feel like he can be replaced by Aaron Crow or one of the other promising young relievers. Butler would be more difficult to replace--I'm not sure Clint Robinson is up to it, and the next really big hitting prospect in the system is Wil Myers, still in Class AA ball.

This trade deadline, and really the offseason, are going to be very important times for this franchise. You can only hoard so many prospects, and the payroll is unlikely to be this low again for some time. Smart, aggressive trades can set this team up for contention over the next several years.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Anger Management

Think back to last Sunday's Royals game, the last one before the All-Star Break. In the bottom of the ninth, with the Royals down by one run, Eric Hosmer tried to steal third. It was a close play, but I thought he was safe when it happened. Replays didn't prove it, but it certainly looked like there was a good chance Hosmer was safe. So instead of the tying run being on third with one out, there was no one on with two out. Hosmer argued (well, questioned might be a better word) briefly with the umpire as he got up. He insisted to the media after the game that he was safe.

I know lots of people didn't care for this gamble. Personally, I didn't have a problem with it. The Royals have obviously put an emphasis on stolen bases and baserunning as keys to their offense this year. While we can debate the merits of that strategy, I can't fault them for sticking to their guns in a game situation.

No, my problem with the play was that Ned Yost didn't even go out and argue the call. Now, it's true that manager-umpire arguments are mostly exercises in futility. But I think there is value in a manager sticking up for his players, particularly young players.

Tactics matter, but many times a manager has little or no effect on the outcome of a game. However, a manager can help his team every day by psychological means. I'm a stats kind of guy--I believe they can tell us a lot about who is actually a valuable player, who is overrated, where a guy is best suited to play in the field, and so on. But stats have never, and probably never will, tell us about the human aspect of the game.

Given that, I feel a manager can really help boost his team's confidence by standing up for them when they are on the wrong end of a bad call. It's just human nature to perform better when you know the boss has your back.

If I may switch sports...not to disappoint MU or K-State fans reading this, but I am a KU fan. And I'm one of those rare KU fans who cares as much about the football team as I do about the basketball team. And I believe with all my heart that Mark Mangino's comments after a horrible
offensive pass interference call cost the Jayhawks a game against Texas in 2004 helped make KU football competitive, at least for a few years. Starting the week after that game, KU went 39-21 until the end of Mangino's tenure. And many players pointed to that press conference as a turning point for the program.

Go watch the video I linked--fast-forward to the 3:40 mark for Mangino's postgame comments. It's commonly referred to as a rant, but watching it it's apparent that Mangino knows exactly what he's doing--sending a message to the league, the officials, and especially his own players that KU football would no longer be a pushover.

I'm not saying Yost needs to develop a Mangino-like attitude (insert eating joke here), especially given what we know now about Mangino's treatment of players and assistant coaches, which ended up being his downfall. But I do think it would help the Royals if Yost would stand up for his players a little more.

I think we all know that young players are not as likely as veterans to get the benefit of the doubt from umpires. It may not be fair, but it's been that way in baseball for decades. When a team is full of young players, the franchise has been irrelevant for almost 20 years now, and a joke for the better part of the last 15 years, it's going to be tough to get the umpires' respect. That's where a veteran manager, who has also played and coached in the majors, can help. I'm not saying Ned Yost should become Bobby Cox, but he has only been ejected once this year and once last year, as best as I can tell (if anybody knows where to find a comprehensive list of manager ejections, please let me know!). All these young players the Royals have? They have enough problems and pressure trying to figure out the game at its highest level. I think it would help them somewhat if Yost were a little more aggressive with the umpires.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The 2011 Royals: Progress?

A year ago, heading into the All-Star Break, the Royals were 39-49. This year, after today's loss, they are 37-54. That doesn't sound like much progress has been made, does it? I have seen and heard this be said many times in the last few weeks as the bottom has fallen out of the 2011 season.

Yet, I feel like this is a better team now than it was a year ago.

For one thing, the 2011 Royals are on pace to score 716 runs. Last year, they scored 676. Even better, with offensive numbers down all around the league, this year the Royals are sixth in the AL in runs scored and above the league average. In 2010, the Royals were 10th in the AL in runs scored and 45 runs below the league average. Even better, the Royals are doing this with the youngest offense in all of Major League Baseball, according to

That leads me to two key thoughts about the Royals' offense: it should continue to improve over the next few years as players like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas get more experience, and this offense should get even younger, but better, in the short term whenever Lorenzo Cain (age 25) and Johnny Giavotella (turning 24 tomorrow) are added to the mix.

In other good news, all those rookies in the bullpen are having solid years. I like that the Royals are using the bullpen to get a potential starting pitcher like Aaron Crow acclimated to the majors while controlling his innings. And guys that project as relievers in the majors, like a Louis Coleman, are getting to experience success in 6th- and 7th- inning situations. With Joakim Soria apparently back to his normal form, you have to like the Royals' chances for a win if they can get through 5 or 6 innings with a lead.

Defensively, this team at least looks better than any Royals team in recent memory. With Alcides Escobar playing a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop, Eric Hosmer showing Gold Glove potential at first base and the outfielders leading the majors in assists, the eye test tells me this is an upgraded defensive team from last year. Oddly enough, though, the Royals rank last in the league in the Defensive Efficiency stat, which is simply a measurement of how many batted balls are turned into outs. Which leads me to the main problem with this year's team...

Many expected the 2011 Royals to have the worst starting rotation in baseball history. They haven't been that bad, but they have been awful. Royals starters have won 19 games this year. The relievers have won 18. Royals starters have compiled a 5.13 ERA this year, while the bullpen has a 3.56 ERA (and remember, Vin Mazzaro's amazingly awful outing in May counts against the bullpen's numbers, even though he's normally a starting pitcher). But the most telling (and damning) statistic about the starters: in 519 1/3 innings pitched, they have 303 strikeouts. In 303 2/3 innings pitched, the relievers have 262 strikeouts.

That's right. In 216 more innings, Royals starters have managed to strikeout only 41 more hitters than the relievers. And this is after Felipe Paulino has amassed 42 K's in 43.2 innings. Basically, if the Royals hadn't plucked Paulino off the waiver wire, the strikeout competition would be a dead heat.

This ties in to the defensive stats of the team. The fewer strikeouts the pitchers get, the more opposing hitters are putting the ball in play. That doesn't necessarily impact the Defensive Efficiency stat, but it does give more chances for bloopers to fall in, grounders to find a hole, line drives to find a gap, or fly balls to get over the fence. It's nearly impossible to win consistently as a starter when you are striking out only five batters per nine innings pitched. About the only way to do it is to limit your walks, but of course the Royals are failing at that too. KC has given up the second-most walks in the AL, and the bullpen has contributed to that (178 walks by starters, 137 by relievers).

The plan on Opening Day was to have a starting rotation of Luke Hochevar, Jeff Francis, Bruce Chen, Kyle Davies and Mazzaro. They have 198 K's in 369 innings. Hochevar in particular is a mystery--for all his faults, he struck out 6.7 hitters per nine innings in 2009, 6.6 last year, but is only at 4.6 this year. Chen and Francis have never been big strikeout guys, but their rates have fallen off a bit, too. Only Davies has maintained his normal rate. Unfortunately, he's also maintained his normal rate of awfulness, too.

On the bright side, Paulino and Danny Duffy have both put up good strikeout numbers in their limited time as Royals. Paulino is at 8.4 K's per nine innings, while Duffy has 7.4. In fact, they rank 3rd and 4th on the team in strikeouts (Duffy and Crow are tied at 43). Both of them should expect to be in the rotation next year.

Unfortunately, any help from the minor leagues seems to be a ways off. I think we all expected Mike Montgomery to be in the majors by now, but a prolonged bout of wildness at Omaha has kept him in the minors. I'm not too worried--it sounds like his velocity is still there, just the command has been off. After skipping one turn in the rotation, he has had two consecutive good starts. Also, he just turned 22 last week and he's already had a half-season in AAA ball--that's very advanced for his age. If Monty keeps putting together solid outings, I would expect him to be called up in August or September, depending on what moves the Royals make at the July 31 trade deadline.

The 2011 Royals are a prime example of how important good starting pitching is. The offense is good enough to win, especially in a weak division like the AL Central (the Royals are second in the division in runs scored, only 10 behind Detroit). The bullpen is solid. In Escobar, Hosmer and Alex Gordon, the Royals have three of the best defensive players in the league at their respective positions. But without starting pitching, they have one of the worst records in the league. Progress has been made, but not in the most important area of any baseball team.