Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dave Eiland, Difference Maker?

I think we all understand this offseason is a crossroads of sorts for the Royals. The right personnel moves can augment the young talent on the roster and put them in position to contend in 2012, while the wrong moves could potentially make us all wait a couple more years.

So the first big move the team made was adding Dave Eiland as pitching coach, replacing the fired Bob McClure.

I liked McClure, but it is amazing to me he lasted as long as he did as the Royals' pitching coach. Six years with one team is a long tenure for any coach, especially a team that lost as often as the Royals did in that time. When you consider that McClure survived not one, but two managerial changes, it's even more surprising. But I suspect the message had gotten stale. The Royals have led the AL in walks allowed two of the past three years. Changing that will be Eiland's biggest challenge.

So, what is Eiland's background? Drafted by the Yankees in the 7th round of the 1987 draft, he made his major league debut the next season at the age of 22. I suppose that could be a useful experience when the Royals' promising young pitchers start reaching the majors.

After bouncing between the majors and the Yankees' farm system for four seasons, Eiland moved on to San Diego, back to the Yankees, and finally to expansion-era Tampa Bay before finishing up his career in 2002. Fashioning a major-league career out of what he told the Kansas City Star was "a little bit south of mediocre" stuff, Eiland had to learn how to prepare and be a pitcher, not just a thrower.

Eiland then began his coaching career in the Yankees' minor leagues, finally becoming the major-league pitching coach in 2008. He held that job through the 2010 season before the Yankees fired him. Eiland spent the 2011 season in the Tampa Bay front office.

The 2007 Yankees had an ERA+ of 101, meaning they were slightly above league-average. They improved to a 104 in 2008 and 108 in 2009 before a slight dropoff to 106 in 2010. Also, the Yankees' walk and strikeout rates did improve over 2007 during Eiland's tenure:

2007: 3.6 BB/9, 6.3 K/9, 1.75 K/BB
2008: 3.1 BB/9, 7.1 K/9, 2.33 K/BB
2009: 3.6 BB/9, 7.8 K/9, 2.20 K/BB
2010: 3.4 BB/9, 7.2 K/9, 2.14 K/BB

Now the downside: the Yanks' 2011 numbers were better in all three of those categories than in 2010 (3.1 BB/9, 7.5 K/9, 2.41 K/BB). But if Eiland can help the Royals improve their 2011 numbers (3.5 BB/9, 6.7 K/9, 1.94 K/BB) at the same rate, the Royals could certainly contend in 2012.

Of course, the thing Eiland can't control is what he is given to work with. There is a big difference between coaching CC Sabathia and, say, Danny Duffy. It will be up to Dayton Moore and the farm system to give Eiland talent to work with.

In my opinion, Eiland's most important task will be working with Luke Hochevar. We saw a much-improved Hochevar in the second half of the season, but let's be honest: Hochevar has shown flashes of brilliance before. It's unlikely he will ever be an ace, but if he can be an above-average starter, a bona fide number 2 starter, he will be a key piece of the Royals' rotation.

Other big projects for Eiland: getting Aaron Crow back on track and getting Tim Collins and Danny Duffy to improve their control. I have my doubts about Crow as a starter, although there is certainly no harm in giving him a shot to make the rotation in spring training. But even if he returns to a relief role, the Royals need him to be first-half Aaron Crow. Collins could be a valuable 7th-inning guy, maybe even a setup guy in a pinch, but he averaged 6.4 walks per 9 innings pitched in 2011. You just can't let a guy that wild pitch in the late innings. I think Duffy can be a middle of the rotation guy, but he too needs better control--100 pitches in 5 innings isn't going to cut it.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

And The Corner Sign Says It's Closing Time I'll bid farewell and be down the road
(From "Restless Farewell," The Times They Are A-Changin')

With the curtain pulled down on the Royals' 2011 campaign, it's time to look back at the last six months and also look ahead a bit to 2012.

Like many of you, I wanted the season to go on a while longer. We are all used to looking forward to the end of the season sometime around August 1, if not sooner, but this year was a little different. For me, the interesting part of the season really began on August 10, when the Royals called up Salvador Perez, completing the lineup they would basically use for the rest of the year and the lineup that will likely take the field on Opening Day 2012:

Salvador Perez C
Eric Hosmer 1B
Johnny Giavotella 2B
Alcides Escobar SS
Mike Moustakas 3B
Alex Gordon LF
Melky Cabrera CF
Jeff Francoeur RF
Billy Butler DH

That is probably the most solid everday lineup the Royals have run out there since...I don't know, 2003? Heck, I'd take the catcher and most of that infield over the 2003 team. Anyway, it's been a while since we've seen a lineup where it's enjoyable to watch at least 7 or 8 of the guys hit (I love Escobar's defense of course, but when he's struggling at the plate, it's especially difficult to watch. However, he's not here for his bat--we just have to hope that he'll at least throw in an empty .250 batting average in the future).

But for all the excitement for 2012 in the Royals' fanbase, that lineup only went 22-24 to close out the season. I think there certainly is reason to be excited, but I wouldn't expect a playoff appearance in 2012 unless several things go right. Yes, the Royals played well in September (15-10). They were 18-8 in September 2008, and what did that get us in 2009? The 2012 Royals will almost certainly be better than the 2009 version, but I don't know that they will be as good as we are hoping.

On the bright side, in those 46 games the Royals outscored their opponents 225-207. Over a full season, that would equate to an 87-75 record. But that was fueled in large part by a .297 team batting average in those 46 games. I don't think that's sustainable for six months. The .792 OPS they put up might be sustainable, but the team will need to take more walks to keep that number high. And this is still the Royals--they tied for 11th in the league in walks this season.

I'm sorry if this comes across as pessimistic. Believe me, I'm as excited as anyone to see these guys continue to grow and develop next year. I just don't want to start thinking playoffs quite yet, when there is still so much improvement that needs to take place.

For the Royals to truly contend next year, the first thing that needs to happen is an upgrade to the rotation. Part of the fun this year was seeing Danny Duffy develop, Felipe Paulino come off the scrap heap to strike out nearly a batter per inning, and Luke Hochevar to tease us with a solid second half. Those three will almost certainly all be back for 2012, and I wouldn't mind it if the Royals brought Bruce Chen back for another year of crafty leftiness. There's nothing wrong with this group, it just needs a guy who is clearly THE guy. Unfortunately, the free-agent market is weak this offseason, so the Royals' best bet is a trade. Who they should trade for is a separate post entirely, however.

Any contention in 2012 will also depend on the outfield of Gordon, Cabrera and Francoeur at least approaching the offensive numbers they put up this year. While none of them are at an age where you would expect a big decline in numbers, Gordon and Cabrera both had years quite a bit better than any previous season in their careers. Frenchy's 2011 was his best full season so far, but at least comparable to what he did in a half-season his rookie year and again in a half-season with the Mets. If you add up the trio's OPS+ numbers, you get a total of 380. The Royals will likely need something approaching that from the three of them next year, as the rest of the lineup is so young that there is no guarantee they will produce at the same level or even improve.

Right now, with a whole offseason of moves ahead of us, if I had to guess, I'd say the Royals will have a 2012 much like Cleveland's 2011: hang around 1st place for a while before tapering off and finishing around .500. Which would be a fun season and one I could live with at this point.

In the meantime, I have a few ideas for some offbeat offseason posts, and of course I will be around to opine on whatever moves the Royals make. Opening Day 2012 seems like a long ways away, but I think it will be here before we know it.