Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Best Is Always Yet To Come

...that's what they explain to me.
(From "If Dogs Run Free," New Morning)

So here we are, hours away from the beginning of the 2011 season. I don't think anyone anywhere expects this season to be a success, despite the Royals' excellent spring training record. But I am excited about this season. The transformation of this franchise is finally underway. Consider this: 16 players on this year's Opening Day roster were not on last year's Opening Day roster (the holdovers: Mike Aviles, Billy Butler, Kyle Davies, Chris Getz, Luke Hochevar, Mitch Maier, Brayan Pena, Joakim Soria, and Robinson Tejeda. Alex Gordon was on the DL last year, while Jason Kendall is on it this year. Other than that, the roster has been turned over. The bullpen will feature four rookies, and two more guys who are essentially rookies (Sean O'Sullivan and Kanekoa Texeira).

This is only the beginning; we're going to see more rookies and second-year players joining the roster this year. The position players have more experience, but there's a good chance several of them will be gone by Opening Day 2012 (the only position player currently under contract for next year is Butler). So if somebody is lousy, or if a top prospect is ready, the roster flexibility is there to do what needs to be done.

I wouldn't say the win-loss record doesn't matter this year--the goal is always to win. But this season, a close second might be how well the fleet of rookies and second-year players perform. Even if 2011 is another 90-loss season, Royals fans can look for youngsters who seem like they "get it"--even the best rookies will struggle at times, but if they can play and then make adjustments when the league figures them out, then we'll know we've potentially got something.

That said, I think the two key players this season are Luke Hochevar and Alex Gordon. Although they haven't exactly earned it on the field at the major league level, both have been put in important positions to start the season, with Hochevar getting the Opening Day start and Gordon set to hit third in the lineup. I really like these moves. At some point, top draft picks have to stop being prospects and start being key cogs in the machine. If these two can step up to the roles the Royals have assigned them, the season may be better than anyone expects. If they can't, it may be time to cut bait.

As for predictions, I'm thinking the Royals go 72-90. I imagine they'll finish last, although they certainly could be better than Cleveland. My hope is that a seemingly improved defense will help a less-than-stellar rotation, and that the offense will be better than last year's. The Royals gave up 845 runs last year, worst in the AL and 130 over the league average. Cutting that down to around 800 would be a good start, even though it would still be too high. Meanwhile, they scored 676 runs; getting to around 725 this year would be a good sign.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Youth Movements: Is This One Different?

These are exciting times for Royals fans. Or you would think so, anyway.

It seems like you can't watch or listen to or read any sort of baseball media these days without hearing how great the Royals' farm system looks. I assume most of you are familiar with the details, but if not, let's just say there's a good chance the Royals have the best collection of minor league talent assembled in recent memory. Whether you're a scout or a stathead, whether you like a team built on pitching and speed or a team built on power and offense, this system has something for you.

But recently it seems like there is a mild undercurrent of, I don't know, distrust? A reluctance to embrace the immense potential in the minor leagues. A fear that, like so many other things in recent Royals history, this too will go wrong, and possibly spectacularly wrong. I sense this dread coming from both casual fans and from some of the more hardcore fans (the ones who frequent blogs and message boards, for example). The former may not know all the names that have us hardcore fans salivating, but they seem convinced that the Royals will be trading them all off within the next two years. The latter seem convinced that every single prospect will fail to live up to expectations, and that it doesn't matter even if a few of them do work out, because Dayton Moore is not a good enough evaluator of major league talent to add the proper supplemental pieces.

I do understand the trepidation. It is true that most prospects fail to pan out completely. For every Billy Butler or Zack Greinke, there's an Alex Gordon, Mark Teahen, Kyle Davies or Jeremy Affeldt. Or worse--all those guys are roughly average major leaguers. Not stars by any stretch, but they do have a role and even a deep team would probably find a use for them. For every Butler or Greinke, there are even more guys who are total busts. It is probable that one or two out of the Royals' top 10 prospects will suffer from injuries, inconsistency, or inability to hit a curveball. Or all three. Of the other top 10 guys, two or three more will likely fail to reach their full potential for whatever reason, but will hang on in the majors for a while. The rest will be solid players, and perhaps one or two will achieve stardom.

But here's the thing: the Royals probably have twice as many top prospects as anybody. That is to say, if their entire top 10 list started the season in the majors and all the folks doing the rankings had to pick a completely new top 10, that list would still be impressive. Rany Jazayerli has made this point far better (and with far more authority) than I could, but I certainly believe the talent is there to make the Royals a very good team in the near future.

As for the notion that the Royals will be trading off all these players in the near future, I think the team has proven in recent years that they will sign talented young players to contract extensions if they are willing. Greinke, Butler, and Joakim Soria are proof of that. And yes, the Royals traded Greinke. But they did sign him to one contract extension first, and Zack apparently wasn't interested in signing another. So instead they turned him into four prospects and even got rid of Yuniesky Betancourt in the process.

On the other hand, the Royals probably will eventually have to trade some of these players, either to fill a need or to clear payroll. The way the Royals will maintain success in the future is by having a core of young (and therefore inexpensive) but talented players supplementing the older players the Royals have signed to extensions or added through free agency. But the notion the Royals will be trading all of this young talent in the next couple of years is just silly. We know from the past couple of years that David Glass is willing to have a $70 million payroll, yet this year's will be around half that. The flexibility is there to lock up any young player the Royals want to.

Meanwhile, it is true that Dayton Moore has made some, um, questionable free agent signings and trades. Yet in the last year, he has seemed to learn from some of his bigger mistakes. Thus, Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera got one-year deals, not three-year deals. And nearly every trade he made at the trade deadline last year and after has received at least some praise. Plus, it seems odd to say that the same scouting department that has amassed this minor league talent is incapable of properly evaluating major leaguers.

I think once it becomes clear the Royals are on the upswing, it will be easier to convince free agents to come here. Look at most of the free agents the Royals have signed the last few years. Many of them were coming off injury or some sort of ineffectiveness. Essentially, the Royals have become the Last Chance Saloon for many a free agent, a chance to cash a few more paychecks before moving on to life after baseball. I'd argue the only real in-his-prime, could-actually-be-useful free agent Moore has signed is Gil Meche. Now, the Royals weren't smart enough to keep him healthy for all five years, but they did get good value for that money before he got hurt.

Of course, part of the fear is that we have heard this "youth movement" argument many times, and been burned nearly every time. I checked's franchise encyclopedia for the Royals, which includes the average age for batters and pitchers for each season. In the absence of an average age for the entire roster, I added those numbers together for each season. Since the 1994 players' strike, that total has decreased by one year five different times.

The first two times were the 1995 (-1.1) and 1996 (-1) seasons, which makes sense. In the aftermath of the strike, the Royals either foresaw the coming salary explosion and refused to join in, or threw in the towel, depending on your point of view. Ewing Kauffman's death contributed to this, as the group tasked with selling the team made an effort to keep payroll low. I am guessing this is the first time the Royals uttered the words "youth movement," but a look at the 1995 roster especially shows a large number of veterans. Still, these two years were the first real chances for guys like Johnny Damon, Joe Randa, Michael Tucker, Jose Rosado and Jim Pittsley (with Glendon Rusch coming along in 1997). So what happened? Rosado and Pittsley ended up getting hurt, while Rusch never really lived up to his potential with the Royals. The Royals traded Randa for Jeff King and Jay Bell, then reacquired him two years later for basically nothing. They traded Tucker for Jermaine Dye. Position player-wise, they should have had a good foundation. But without Rosado and Pittsley, the pitching got old. There just wasn't enough pitching, especially in that era of inflated offense, for the Royals to succeed.

Next up, 1999 (-3.8). This group of prospects included Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye, Mike Sweeney, Jeremy Giambi, and Carlos Febles. But once again, the pitching failed to materialize. The only real impact hurler ended up being Jeff Suppan. If you were a Royals fan then, you probably remember 1999-2000 as a long stretch of 11-10 games, usually with the Royals' bullpen blowing a big lead. The Royals had their two best run-scoring years in 1999 and 2000, but gave up even more runs than they allowed. Once again, a lack of pitching undercut this particular youth movement.

The most recent wave of youth was in 2005 (-2.8) and 2007 (-2.3). Yet this was offset by a rise of 3.9 years in 2006. If you're reading this, I'm guessing you're familiar with this group: Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Mark Teahen, Joakim Soria, J.P. Howell, and Leo Nunez, among others. Of course, we're still seeing how this group will turn out, but you will notice two of those pitchers are already gone.

If you are a skeptical Royals fan, whether you are a diehard or a casual fan, you've earned it. The promises we've heard, the pleas for patience from three different GMs, the signings of past-their-prime free agents, all have probably been even more damaging to the fanbase than the three failed youth movements I've listed above. But this time certainly feels different to me. I don't remember the Royals' farm system getting this much attention ever before, certainly on a national level. There are good hitters and good pitchers on the way, and lots of them. I don't want to tell you to trust the process, but perhaps if you've hung in there this long, you can hang in there a little bit longer. Some of those prospects are going to reach the majors this year; my advice is to enjoy watching them develop.