Saturday, March 12, 2005

Bullpen Speculation

When it comes to deciding who might make the team in the pen this year (or any year), it is borderline impossible at this stage to even venture educated guesses. Having just returned from the Big12 Tourney in KC (watching Nebraska lose yet another first round game - don't get me started), I stole some of these speculative musings from the KC Star, but I thought they were interesteing.

Affeldt is the closer, barring something bad coming from the minor muscle strain he suffered today. I'm good with that, although I'd like him to get meaner, for lack of a better word. For as hard as he throws in combination with that curve, he should be unhittable in a closer setting. Last year's inconsistency could just be part of learning the role, I hope that was the reason. Affeldt is one of the guys who last year really got on my nerves with his 'that's baseball' and 'we'll try harder tomorrow' crap (ARE YOU LISTENING MIKE SWEENEY?!).

Andy Sisco, the Rule 5 draftee, is probably the only guy in the race that can probably be called a lock. I've been impressed with his outings so far in spring training, leading hope that he can be an actual contributor out of the pen. One would have to think that Cerda, Camp and Field are pretty close to securing positions also. Cerda because he was so good last year, Camp because of his flexibility and Field because of how well he's pitched this spring. I actually like all three, they throw hard, bring flexibility and some attitude to the team.

I've heard on one from near the team say anything but we'll start the season with a 7 man bullpen. That seems ridiculous to me, especially if Sisco can actually get people out. On a team that will struggle to score runs, I'd much rather carry a Diaz, Guiel or Harvey to roll off the bench for a good matchup (maybe Emil Brown for goddsake). Anyway, I'll continue on under the assumption that Allard Baird isn't listening to me and we will break camp with seven in the pen.

I think everyone would be delighted if MacDougal pitched his way onto the squad. When on, he can be devastating and maybe without the pressure of having to close the game Mike will be on more often. Keep in mind, even though he was an all-star two years ago, he was always on the ragged edge of control. Let's dream for a bit and imagine a well-tuned MacDougal setting up Affeldt.....that would seem to be a good combination to have at the back end of the pen. If MacDougal falters, this spot could get opened up to longshot: Byron Embry, Santiago Ramirez or the like.

The last bullpen spot will likely fall to whomever is the runnerup in the 5th starter race. Right now, Bautista has staked a major claim to that spot - one I hope he retains. That would push Snyder, Appier, Tankersly, Gobble, George, Jensen, and Wood into the battle for this spot. Gut feeling here is that the Royals would not and should not put Snyder and Gobble in the pen. It would be much better to have them pitch in Omaha: Gobble to work on upping his strikeouts, Snyder to build up arm strength. Appier is a guy who would probably be successful in 2 inning stints out of the pen, but I'm not sure he can get warmed up in 'bullpen time', nor would I be suprised if he'd retire rather than pitch in relief. I would not begrudge him that right, he's earned the final say on what he wants to do.
When it comes to Chris George, I think it's time for him to be cut loose. He is easily the most flammable of the group and I'm frankly tired of wasting innings on him. That narrows the field to Tankersly, whose out of options, Jensen and Wood. Personally, I liked what I saw of Wood last year and wouldn't mind him as a 4 or 5 starter. He could and would pitch out of the pen and will always take the mound and compete. I would think Ryan Jensen is not a serious candidate to change roles and might end up in Omaha as insurance for the rotation. Tankersly has hardly pitched so far (one good inning though) but given his upside (the Royals optimism that THEY can find upside no one else has - can you say Ruben Mateo?) and the fact that he has to clear waivers if we want to send him down, this may be Tankersly's job to lose.

This picture will clear a little as they begin to wittle down the staff in the coming weeks, but it may well be very very late March before we know who the final pieces of the puzzle will be when it comes to the pen.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Byron Embry

Thought I'd post a little on Byron Embry, the non-roster reliever the Royals signed out of the Northern League. As I live in Lincoln, Nebraska, and have season tickets to our Northern League entry the Saltdogs, I had a chance to watch Embry pitch last year.

He was used almost exclusively as a closer last year and brings somewhat of an intimidating precense to the mound - a poor man's Lee Smith if you will. He was absolutely dominating in the Northern, I'm not sure I saw one solid hit off him last season.

Bryon throws a 94-95 mph fastball, usually low in the zone and a good changeup. I think he has a breaking pitch of some type, probably a slider, but he didn't seem to use it much. As a one inning closer in the Northern League you don't exactly need a big repotoire to get people out.

I would love to see him make the Royals, or at least get a shot in the minors with them. He is, by all accounts, a good guy. I would say the big question marks are:
  1. Can he get hitters out that see 94 mph fastballs everyday?
  2. Can he be more than a one inning pitcher? I don't know of a lot of 'situational righties', nor do I know of many teams that carry a bunch of relievers who are only good for an inning at a time. (EVEN ONE'S THAT CARRY 12 PITCHERS- but that's for another time)
  3. Will guys such as Mike MacDougal, Santiago Ramirez and the 900 other guys competing for the 5th starter job struggle enought to give Embry a legitimate shot?

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Starting Pitchers - Many Questions, Much Hope

You can't begin a review of the starting rotation (at least no one has yet) without talking about Zack Greinke. He will be one of the best five pitchers in the A.L.....just not THIS YEAR. I would love for Zack to post a sub 3.50 ERA and notch 17 or 18 wins this season, but I think a more realistic projection is a year similar to 2004. I think a 4.00 ERA, 12-14 wins and 180+ innings is far more likely. I pay no heed to his early struggles in spring training - focus is not one of his strong points. As soon as 2006, this guy is going to be pushing for the Cy Young.

Unlike Greinke, my expectations for Runelvys Hernandez are probably completely out of whack with reality. All of us remember the Elvys who went 4-0 to start the 2003 season, very few of us remember his struggles with control or how he unraveled after plunking Matt LeCroy in the Metrodome that year. Still, I like his fire and his determination (and even the big fro he's sporting this spring). Like Greinke, he may well have his ups and downs this year, but assuming he can log 160+ innings with a respectable ERA (somewhere in the 4.20-4.50 range), he too could position himself for a big 2006.

Jose Lima - well, he could win 15 games or he could post an ERA over 7.00. He will be entertaining and he will, at least early in the season, be excited and a leader on a team that lacks both qualities. We'll have a better read on Lima Time as he pitches more in spring training, but I see no reason he can't be a solid number 3 starter.

Brian Anderson is apparently destined to be in the rotation. If he can return to form (or find some new form, I don't care which) he and Lima could each hit low double digits in wins. If Anderson explodes on contact as he did for much of last season, he'll be gone for a song by June 1.

The number five spot - right now, after today's game has to belong to Denny Bautista. He certainly has more upside than any other candidates. If he falters in future outings, Kyle Snyder has looked pretty decent too. Don't count out Dennis Tankersly - he's out of options or even Jimmy Gobble. Although Gobble and Snyder might both be served by a season in Omaha.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Quandry in the Corners

The corner outfield positions have probably been the most discussed in the off season, not so much because of who is on the roster, but because of who we WANT on the roster. In the end, there is no Kevin Mench or Austin Kearnes - at least not yet, so for now as we review both left and right field in this discussion we are left with a collection of players all of whom bring a variety of question marks and/or limitations to the party.

And sadly there may not be any real competition when push comes to shove. The Royals will keep five outfields and they have FIVE WITH MAJOR LEAGUE CONTRACTS: DeJesus, Stairs, Marrero, Nunez and Long.

I won't waste much time talking about Matt Stairs (although one has to grumble a little at the large number of at-bats he had been given early in spring training). He is what he is: a power hitting platoon player on the backside of his career who plays hard and gives you virtually nothing on defense. I think Matt Stairs probably makes the roster on even good teams. However, he is at the stage of his career where he should be getting 175 atbats a year, not 400.

Marrero, I believe, was a fine pickup. At minimum a solid fourth outfielder or good platoon partner and maybe, just maybe, a good everyday player. Given enough at-bats, Eli could approach Raul Ibanez type numbers - that's best case scenario but possible. By the way, did anyone think it would be that hard to replace Raul Ibanez and Michael Tucker?!!!

Terrence Long has a, and will be given the, chance to regain what was once promising form. He posted back to back years of a 280+ batting average and 80+ rbi's back several seasons ago. Then Long apparently lost his way as far as his approach at the plate, rebounded somewhat as a pinch-hitter in San Diego last year and claims that Jeff Pentland has corrected a swing flaw in one afternoon that no one else saw for three years (yes, that statement is both hopeful AND sarcastic).

Abe Nunez is someone I would like to be good, to be the player everyone thought he could be. He LOOKS like he should be a ballplayer. Last season he had his moments, some outstanding and some dreadful. With Stairs, Marrero and Long absolute locks to be on the roster opening day, Nunez is the one guy who could be beaten out. It would take an outstanding spring by either Aaron Guiel or Matt Diaz. The Browns and Brian Hunter have no shot.

Guiel has hit well in the very early spring training and Diaz had a triple today. Kevin's Royals Blog was well in front of me on the Diaz wagon, but he does look intriguing. He will need a monster spring for management to keep him over Nunez, given that Diaz has options.

Aaron Guiel came out today saying he would not go back to Omaha, which at 32 I can't say I really blame him. However, again, he would need a monster spring to make the Royals think about keeping him. Given his track record of two years ago (277 avg, 345 OBP and 15 homers) his hill is steep, but not as steep as the one Diaz is climbing.

We can hope for the 'big deal' or the 'monster spring', but in the end prepare yourselves for Marrero/Stairs and Long/Nunez on either side of DeJesus come April.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Centerfield - Even better than you think

Of all the roster spots, probably nothing is more certain than David DeJesus playing centerfield and leading off. Over the long term, as the Royals hopefully improve other positions, we may find that David is more suited for the two-hole than leading off, but on a team devoid of any real lead-off hitters, he will clearly be there for 150+ games this season.

KC has enjoyed relative stability in this position throughout history, taking out 1969, we really have only had six centerfielders: Amos Otis, Willie Wilson, Brian McRae, Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran and now DeJesus. I went back and did a little 'early year' comparisions between these players. I threw out Wilson's rookie season when he was mostly a pinch runner (198 at-bats in 127 games), McRae's first partial year (only 168 at-bats) and Damon's first partial season (188 at-bats) and then compared all 6 first 'full' seasons in the majors. DeJesus, who had 363 at-bats, may get a little break here as the rest of the guys have 500+ at-bats, but keep in mind that David was getting better and better as the season wore on.

Anyway, did you know that DeJesus' on-base percentage was higher than any other first year centerfielder's in Royals history?
DEJESUS - .360
OTIS - .353
WILSON - .351
BELTRAN - .337
DAMON - .313
MCRAE - .288

His numbers for his rookie season (BA-OPB-SLG) are strikingly similar to those of Amos Otis:
Otis 1970 - 284-353-424
DeJesus 2004 - 287-360-402
*The only major difference being that Otis stole 33 bases

Otis parlayed those rookie numbers into a 301-345-443, 15 homer season in 1971. I'd take those numbers from DeJesus in a heartbeat. Beltran's sophmore season struggles are detailed under the Berroa/Rookie of the Year column posted earlier. However, DeJesus' number are markedly superior to those of Johnny Damon in 1996 (271-313-368) or 1997 (275-338-386).

All that said, I'm hoping for DeJesus to make the jump over those first few mediocre Damon seasons to the solid 1999 & 2000 type numbers that Damon was able to post before being traded to Oakland. If so, the Royals would be wise to try to lock-up DeJesus for multiple years sooner rather than later. He will never hit for the power of Beltran or run with the speed of Wilson (or even Damon), but he could very well post All-Star caliber or near All-Star caliber numbers for years to come.

At last, a position of relative strength for the boys in Blue.