Monday, April 23, 2012

We Might Work Too Hard have it too fast and too much/And anyone can fill his life up/With things he can see but he just cannot touch
(from "Dear Landlord," John Wesley Harding)

Eleven. Freaking. Losses. In a row.

The obvious question is, are the Royals really this bad? Short answer: no. Long answer: as presently constructed, no, but they really are not very good.

I base the short answer on the fact that no team can play .200 baseball for very long. Over a full season, that is a 32-130 record, or 10 games worse than the '62 Mets, the gold standard for awful baseball teams. While it is possible that some team someday will be worse than that, this Royals team isn't close to that bad, talent-wise. That Mets team was a collection of castoffs, has-beens and never-would-bes. Unless the entire industry has been wrong about several members of the Royals, KC looks to have more talent than that. When your team is caught in a long losing streak, it certainly can feel like they will never win again, but this team is going to win a lot more than 32 games. Really. I promise.

However. With all the injuries, and with some questionable personnel decisions (yes, I'm beating the Giavotella drum again here), the current roster really isn't that great. If anything, this streak has shown just how razor-thin the margin is for the Royals. I would argue that while they haven't exactly played well this season, they have really had a chance in every game except maybe two or three. Yet it just hasn't worked out.

I've wondered several times already this season how much this team misses Salvador Perez. Not just offensively (Humberto Quintero has contributed enough offensively to offset Salvador's absence, but that's not going to last), but defensively and especially when a pitcher gets in trouble (see the Cleveland series, where each starter gave up one monster inning). In Perez' debut last year, Tampa Bay scored five runs in the 9th to pull out a win (you might remember that game). Almost a week later, the Yankees put up a 5-spot against the Royals with Perez behind the plate. The rest of the season, no team scored that many in one inning against the Royals when Salvador was catching. There is no stat to quantify it, but pitchers seem to love throwing to Perez, and he seems to have an ability to calm them down in tough situations. But without him, Royals pitchers gave up more 5-run (or more) innings in one weekend against Cleveland than they did in 39 games with him.

Elsewhere, not having Lorenzo Cain in the lineup hurts, too. I like Mitch Maier, but I don't think he hits well enough to play every day. Unfortunately, I am definitely not sold on Jason Bourgeois as anything more than a slightly better hitting version of Jarrod Dyson. I'm pretty sure Cain is better offensively than both of them, and definitely sure he's better defensively.

Meanwhile, having Johnny Giavotella at Omaha is just silly. I don't buy for a minute that he can vastly improve defensively there but somehow can't do that in the majors. To be fair, Yuniesky Betancourt really has hit pretty well so far, and he even has three walks! But you can't convince me he's any better defensively than Gio, and both of them would be better offensive options than Chris Getz.

One more injury that has hurt is Felipe Paulino's forearm strain, which opened a rotation spot for Luis Mendoza. I have no problem with them giving Mendoza a chance, based on his strong year for Omaha last year and his excellent spring training this year. But three strikeouts in 13 innings isn't going to cut it (small sample size alert, of course).

So what can the Royals do? Paulino and Cain should be back in the next couple of weeks; that will help. Also, and it's not really an answer, but at some point the Royals' luck will turn around. They came into Monday's game ranked 8th in the AL in on-base percentage and 7th in slugging, yet 13th in runs. That can last for two weeks, but not for a whole season. Eventually some of those baserunners and some of those extra-base hits will happen in the same inning. Also in the bad-luck category: how about 17 double plays in 13 games? Last year, the Royals hit into 121 double plays, or .75 per game. The 1.31 double plays per game so far this year is probably also not going to last.

While they wait, they can actually do some things to help themselves. This team is working too hard to score runs. By that I mean, they need to quit giving away outs on the bases and with sacrifice bunts. So far, the Royals have been caught stealing eight times and picked off another five. Throw in four sacrifice bunts and that's over half a game's worth of outs! I understand the Royals want to be aggressive, and they still are not a team that will hit lots of home runs, so they're inclined to run. But for crying out loud, could they be a little smarter or more selective? Everyone in the league knows they're going to run, it seems like. Even though many of them are struggling, the Royals do have good hitters. Maybe they could just see if a rally develops through line drives once in a while.

Another thing that might help is picking a lineup and sticking with it. A manager's natural tendency is to tinker when things aren't going well, but I think most players would prefer to know where they will be batting every night. Some of the problem here is due to the best candidates for the number two spot being hurt (Cain) or in Omaha (Giavotella). But that's no reason to run Getz or Yuni out there in that spot, or worse, the leadoff spot. I wouldn't mind seeing Maier (fairly patient hitter) or even Alcides Escobar (quietly putting together a good season so far) there behind Alex Gordon. So far it seems like Ned Yost has been putting his lineups together based on what he's afraid the other team will do in the 8th inning, rather than just trying to go out and score some runs.

I know, this is not a lot of fun right now for any of us. I don't think we (or the Royals) should panic. Make personnel changes, sure. There are still 146 games left. Despite the "Our Time" slogan that looks increasingly stupid with each loss, this was not a contending team, unless everything went right. That went out the window with Salvador Perez' knee injury and the injuries that followed. Obviously, contention is a pipe dream right now, and even a .500 record is unlikely--they would have to go 78-68 the rest of the way just for that. Heck, my prediction of 78 wins is probably toast already. Let's just get a win and get on with our lives, and let's hope that win comes tomorrow night.

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