Friday, May 06, 2005

For the Want of a Run

Yesterday's giveaway was one of those games Royals fans will not soon forget. Listening to the game on the radio, it reminded me of a slow-pitch softball game when the pitcher simply can't throw strikes...or in this case, a major league game when the pitchers simply can't throw strikes.

Zack Greinke pitched an outstanding game and, quite frankly, had earned the right to decide the game for himself. Sure, he had walked and hit a batter in the 8th and was obviously not as fine as he had been earlier, but with just 84 pitches under his belt he deserved to continue on. Part of developing is learning how to finish - something of a lost art among 21st century starter, I guess, and Pena denied what might be our future ace a valuable learning experience.

Now, I can't fault the Royal manager for bringing in Sisco. I am as much on the Sisco bandwagon as the next guy, although I wonder if maybe we should still protect the Rule Fiver a little by only putting him in games to start an inning, or at least with no one on base. The bottom line is, when you trot three pitchers out who combined aren't old enough to qualify for full social security benefits and you get a 2 run/2 hit performance, that is pretty much all you can ask.

The problem, as stated yesterday and probably 10 times before that, is that this team does not score enough runs. As recently as yesterday, I pretty much advocated staying the course, but now I am wavering. To begin with, just how effective an offensive unit will this be in 2006?

I am in the camp that says keep Sweeney, so we'll start with him at DH or first base (I've given up caring on that one). If you have not noticed, Mike Sweeney can hit the baseball. If you have read this blog much at all, you know that I have complete confidence in David DeJesus (despite his recent slump). So you can plug him in at center and hitting .290-.310 with a good on-base percentage. THEN WHAT?

Buck is a fine defensive catcher and will hit for some power, but he will never be a guy who can carry a team offensively. I am not sure he will ever hit over .260. Frankly, if he progresses from good defensively to very good or great and hits 15 homers, what John hits average wise will be the least of this team's problems. At catcher, the Royals are at best going to hold their own offensively.

Up the middle we have Berroa and Gotay or Blanco and Murphy or some combination thereof. Given the tenuous nature of young players, you really have to assume that the Royals are going to have an offensive liability at one of these positions, quite possibly two. I wish Pena would just play Gotay every day for two months so we could decide if he can hit or not, but that issue aside, at best you will have a .285 hitter with a marginal on-base percentage and some power at one spot and probably something less at the other. Pretty much we have filled out the bottom three spots in the order with Buck, the shortstop (anybody want to go back to last winter and trade Berroa for Jose Guillen?) and the second baseman. NOW, WE REALLY NEED TO FIND SOME OFFENSE.

Let us be optimistic and pencil in Mark Teahen for something above .280 and 40 doubles next year. He just looks like a hitter to me, if for no other reason than he has really sprayed the ball to all fields in his limited time with the Royals. I also think he will, in the future, register a pretty decent on-base percentage. Making that optimistic assumption, we now have Teahen, DeJesus and Sweeney hitting the ball. Where do we go from there?

Did everyone just say Justin Huber? Yes, he's learning to play first base and yes, he's only in AA Wichita - be patient I said yesterday. Screw it, bring him up now. The kid his hitting .378 and will ACTUALLY TAKE A BASE ON BALLS. Plug him into the lineup right now, give him 400 at bats so he is ready to be a middle of the order hitter starting April, 2006. I would be tempted to bat him between DeJesus and Sweeney this year, just because of his ability to walk. By 2006, he would be more of a 3 or 5 hole hitter, but let's get started right now. We might even score enough runs this year to keep our young pitchers from becoming fatalists.

That leaves us to the two corner outfield spots. Yesterday, I advocated Aaron Guiel and he's still a viable option in my book only because he is a) cheap b) knows what a base on balls actually is and looks like and c) is easily disposable once we get/find/develop someone better. After a night of reflection, however, I think we bring Matt Diaz back up and give HIM 350 at-bats this year. If he flops, then we know he is just another AAAA hitter. If he hits, well then maybe we have something. Matt Stairs always has been and always will be Matt Stairs (he still has some trade value too, come stretch run time) and Emil Brown is, well, he's pretty much a poor-man's Aaron Guiel (and no, that's not very good). What have we got to lose with finding out about Diaz? Nothing, we are 7 and freaking 21 - we have lost everything there is to lose.

Contract wise, we are stuck with Long/Marrero platooning in left and now that Marrero has started to hit, that's fine. I like to watch Long play defense, he has saved runs this year on several occasions. These guys are nice placeholders until we make a trade (Affeldt for Kearns anyone?).

Ahh, there's the point of this entire diatribe, we absolutely have to make a trade for offense that DOES NOT TRADE AWAY THE LIMITED OFFENSE WE HAVE NOW (a/k/a Mike Sweeney). Otherwise, the Royals are simply back to square one and headed for yet another inept offensive season next year. One bat will not be enought to solve all our woes. One bat, Justin Huber and someone else (Diaz, Berroa...Butler dare we say?) could put us on the road to respectability.

The time is now, not next season. We have to begin getter better now, before this crop of young players decides that they cannot and will not ever win.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

At Least it Was Not Another One Run Loss

No, it was by two runs last night, although it might as well have been twelve. Despite collecting 9 hits, the Royals seemed light years away from catching the Sox once they tagged Runelvys Hernandez for three runs in the fourth.

For his part, Hernandez did a nice job of staying in the game, especially since I am certain he believes his pitching hand will just fall off from frostbite anytime the temperature is below 50 degrees. After luckily escaping the first three innings giving up just one run (at least 5 White Sox outs were absolute rockets early on) and getting hit hard for the three spot in the fourth, Runelvys settled down and pitched as well as he had all season. Like Brian Anderson the night before, it was not a great pitching performance, but solid - very solid.

The problem is that solid, sometimes even downright good, is not enough given this team's incredible inability to generate runs. Last night the Royals had FIVE players in the starting lineup whose on-base percentage was below .300. Shockingly, that group did place 13 runners on base, only to leave nine of them stranded. Let's face it, with David DeJesus in a minor slump right now, it is pretty much Mike Sweeney and then, well....I guess Matt Stairs is your next best hitter. Yikes.

DeJesus is still showing a good approach at the plate and I am confident this little dip in production will be followed by a nice hot streak. He's not the problem. I also was encouraged by Mark Teahen last night, not just because of the two hits (one to the opposite field, by the way), but also because he certainly looked like someone who had an idea what the strike zone was and what he wanted to do at the plate. It has only been two games, but Teahen looks like an entirely different player than the guy who started the season.

The problem is two-fold. One, we are very young and almost inevitably is seems as though we have Ruben Gotay or John Buck coming to the plate in crucial situations. Buck, to me, looks lost at the plate right now - similar to how he looked when he first came on board last season. He has been behind 0-1 in 30 of his 73 at-bats this season. To be honest, I do not know if that stat means anything, but I have a hunch it is an indication that when you are slumping 'you are taking strikes and swinging at balls'. I am firmly convinced that if you batted Ken Harvey, Angel Berroa and John Buck all in a row and threw ten consecutive pitches in the dirt, you could strike at least one of them out.

So, is there a solution to this mess? You have to play Berroa and Buck - too much invested and too much potential down the road. Same with Teahen and you have to find out about Gotay and now is as good a time as any. Probably you need to find out once and for all about Ken Harvey, too. He did pull a double down the line last night, but otherwise looked horrible at the plate (I could tell he had decided to swing at one two-strike pitch when he was adjusting his batting gloves - it was 18 inches outside and four inches off the ground, strike three swinging). For now, the options are somewhat limited, although I would shuffle that batting order if Teahen continues to look good at the plate (second spot, maybe?).

I keep looking down in Wichita where Justin Huber is hitting .378 with a .500 on-base percentage (22 walks), but you would have to DH him in the majors right now and that will not help him learn how to play first base, so one must be patient here (July maybe?). How about Aaron Guiel? Sure, he is hitting just .245 in AAA Omaha, but his on-base percentage is nearly 100 points higher. He will take a pitch and have professional at-bats and work his butt off, too, something that would not hurt to have on this team right now (see the articles on the Pena blowup last night to check the mental state of this ballclub).

And yes, I can hear you say that Aaron Guiel is not going to make us much better. He might, just might, make us a little better, however. Especially if you put him in right, platoon Marrero and Long in left (don't get cute, Tony, just freaking platoon them) and then platoon Harvey and Stairs at DH. Would that be enough to turn some of these close losses into close wins? Not all the time, no, but forty percent of the time, maybe.

This team is not trying to win 90 games. It doesn't really expect to even finish .500. The Royals just need to win SOME of the time; just enough to keep the young pitchers from being frustrated and just enough to plant the seed for next year's team that yes, we can win games.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Good and the Bad

Tony Pena handled the pitchers almost exactly as I would have wanted.
Andy Sisco gave up the lead. You can make a case that the first two hits were a little cheap, but Everett's hit was a jolt and a half. As an aside, did you know that Carl Everett believes the moon landings were a hoax and that dinosaurs never roamed the Earth? Sisco did rally to strike out the last two hitters of the 8th, which I thought showed some mental ability to 'toughen up'. By the way, Sisco had given up 5 hits to the rest of league and 6 to the White Sox.

Tony Pena pinch hit for Emil Brown with Terrance Long and for John Buck with Matt Stairs in the top of the 9th.
Royal pinch hitters are not zero for 15 on the season. Of course, it has to be hard to pitch when the umpire will call any pitch that doesn't physically come in contact with the ground a strike. Exactly what kept Matt Stairs from unloading on the home plate umpire after that called 3rd strike to end the game?

Unlike some years, the Royals are competitive with the White Sox, playing three one run games out of four.
The Royals have lost all three games. Part of that is being a young team, especially one whose veterans have not had a history of winning. At times it has been bad managerial decisions, although last night it was more just a matter of a hot pitcher getting hit. 22 year old Rule V guys are not perfect, ya know.

Mike Sweeney is absolutely on fire right now and is Eli Marrero. Sometimes hot hitting is contagious.
It better be a freaking epidemic. The Royals are last in the AL in on-base percentage, second to last in batting average and although up to 12th in runs scored, there is a 15 run gap to get to 11th. Plus, the more Marrero hits, the more Pena will want to play him against right handers.

Finally, while both Ruben Gotay and David DeJesus are in slumps, I am confident that DeJesus will be fine. However, Gotay's apparent inability to hit a breaking ball is of concern. The league has adjusted to his ability to catch up to and drive fastballs and hence Ruben has not seen many lately (see the KC Star article this morning). While I am not ready to give up on Gotay (especially since I was ready to sign him to a long term contract three weeks ago), it will be very interesting to see what he does over the month of May. Keep in mind, Donnie Murphy is off to a very good start in AA Wichita.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Rumors, rumors, rumors

The 'highly reliable' Rumor Central today is speculating that the Texas Rangers have an interest in former Indians closer David Riske. Included in that column is that the Rangers also had expressed an interest in, among others, Mike MacDougal.

Now, my first question is have the Rangers gone completely insane? One of the few pitchers I would trust a game to less than MacDougal is Riske. The implosion quotient of both is among the top five in the league!

Sarcasm aside, however, if the Rangers are shopping for former closers perhaps the time is right to offer Jeremy Affeldt. Certainly they would need proof that Affeldt is healthy, but planting the seed now with an eye towards making a deal later would not hurt. There was no mention of what the Rangers would be willing to part with (as they were pursuing Riske and MacDougal, one would think they would be looking for something on the cheap), but Affeldt would certainly command more than either of the aforementioned gas cans.

As I discussed last night, a package deal (Affeldt and Anderson, Affeldt and Gobble, MacDougal and Anderson and goes on and on) might yield another offensive threat without giving up Sweeney. No, I am still not a 'Sweeney guy', but dammit you don't need many fingers to count the .300+ hitters with 25 home run potential in our organization.

After writing my blog last night, I started to think about potential trading partners and one team kept coming up: the Cubs. They are struggling with injuries in the pen, the rotation and in the middle infield...hmmm, Affeldt and Blanco and Anderson? I have read nothing to substantiate this, so take this simply as the rambling of a disturbed Royals fan, but Chicago does have a right handed hitter outfielder names Jason Dubois on their roster. All the twenty-six year old did last season in AAA Iowa was hit .316 with 31 homers, register an on-base pct of .389, slug at .630 clip and post a pretty decent OPS of 1.019. Again, no idea what it would take to pry him away from the Cubs, but a person can muse/dream/hope, can't he?

Monday, May 02, 2005

And Now for Something Entirely Different

I have, since about June of last year, operated under the assumption that Mike Sweeney would, and should, be traded. After all, the Royals are in a youth movement and Sweeney does consume a big percentage of the payroll. Additionally, he is limited defensively and about to turn thirty-two. All of which has always pointed me in the direction of 'saving money for younger players and getting maybe two decent prospects in the deal'.

Now, before I proceed, let me say that the idea I am about to propose is not my own. A caller to the Soren Petro show on WHB radio today had the following idea: with our young pitchers coming into their own, we should keep all the offense we can and instead of being sellers at the trading deadline be buyers instead.

The caller's logic was based on three past Royal pitchers who all were basically at their best by their third seasons: Steve Busby, Dennis Leonard and Bret Saberhagen. He was using these three as a guide to what we can expect from Greinke, Hernandez and Bautista. Now, I do not believe that Busby and Leonard are good comparisions simply because times, and the way in which young pitchers are handled (babied), have changed since those two came up. Saberhagen probably is a better test case, but I opted to pick 10 very good American League starting pitchers instead. What follows is simply the ERA's of each pitcher for their first four seasons:

Mark Buehrle - 4.21, 3.29, 3.58, 4.14
Tim Hudson - 3.23, 4.14, 3.37, 2.98
Mark Mulder - 5.44, 3.45, 3.47, 3.13
Barry Zito - 2.72, 3.49, 2.75, 3.30
Freddy Garcia - 4.07, 3.91, 3.05, 4.39
Andy Pettitte - 4.17, 3.87, 2.88, 4.24
Brad Radke - 5.32, 4.46, 3.87, 4.30
C.C. Sabathia - 4.39, 4.37, 3.60, 4.12
Roy Halladay - 3.92, 10.64, 3.16, 2.93
Mike Mussina - 2.54, 4.46, 3.06, 3.29

Okay, these are ten very good starting pitchers and it is probably extremely presumptuous to say that Zack Greinke, Runelvys Hernandez and Denny Bautista are all going to end up on a list like this after four seasons. However, what the above list does show is that all ten had reached or were close to reaching a prime level of effectiveness by their third seasons (some by their second and some as rookies - I said these guys were very good).

That said is it too much of a stretch to put Greinke in the class of a Mulder or a Garcia by next season? How about Runelvys, who for all intensive purposes will be in his third year next season? Could he be a Halladay or a Radke? And could Bautista, just in his second season in 2006, be a Buehrle or Zito? Let's pretend for a moment they are, or at least 'poor man's' versions thereof.

One could assume that Justin Huber will be ready by 2006, but Butler, Maier almost certainly will not be. So we have Huber at first, still leaving room for Sweeney at DH (or vice versa). You have DeJesus, Buck and Berroa up the middle and hopefully Teahen anchoring third base. Decent to below average offensive pop wise. Conventional wisdom says trade Sweeney and the big contract and get something good in return (again Kevin Mench, Austin Kearnes, insert your outfielder here).

Let's expand the horizon a little. Outside of Sweeney, who could be of interest to other teams come the trading deadline? Brian Anderson (everyone loves lefty starters and he's been okay at times in the past), Matt Stairs (stop laughing, some teams will need a veteran left handed hitter with pop), Jeremy Affeldt (if Burgos is our closer and Sisco, Snyder and Wood our setup guys is Affeldt the key piece he once was?) or you could go into the minors for Andres Blanco, Donnie Murphy, Jimmy Gobble, Chris George - okay I threw George in there to make sure you were paying attention, but you get my point.

If you were the GM of a team on the playoff bubble come July, wouldn't you take a look at a left handed possible dominant closer like Affeldt? What if you packaged Affeldt and Anderson for a power hitting outfielder coming up on a big arbitration number? Even keeping Sweeney's salary, the Royals could ante up 7 or 8 million a year for a good player to go with all the promising youngsters and still probably not top out over 50 million in payroll.

Perhaps it is time to turn the tables on the trading deadline. Just because you're not in the playoff hunt THIS year, does not mean you cannot make trades for players that will immediately make you better and set you up to make a run NEXT year. With Aviles and Sanchez behind him in the minors and Berroa entrenched (whether he deserves to be or not), the Royals could move Blanco without sacrificing the future. Plus, with Gotay and Murphy, you could also trade a young promising second basemen - anybody want a double play combination for the next 5 seasons? I am not sure what it will take to pry the type of player or players we are wanting away from a team, but I know people would jump at a shot at Affeldt. Packaged correctly, the Royals would seem to have the ability to swing not one, but two deals for established or near-ready offensive talent.

The bottom line of my musing is simply that maybe we should hang on to Sweeney and build an offense to support a young pitching staff that could be very ready to be dominant as early as 2006.

Arms in the Minors

It is nice to have two wins in a row. Amazing how it becomes easier to see the future now that it did just a few days ago. I have spent quite a bit of time on the bats in the Royals system and thought this off day would be good to look at some of the arms down on the farm. However, before moving onto the main subject, let me make one note on the weekend.

This column may often rag on Mike Sweeney for his poor defensive fielding (some of you may disagree, I think he's horrendous) and on what I perceive to be inadequate leadership qualities, BUT he sure is nice to have in your batting order. The 8th inning home run yesterday was absolutely huge, not only for the outcome of the game, but for a struggling team trying to learn how to win close games.

Okay, onto the subject line. With Sisco, Wood and Burgos settling down in the bullpen and Lima at least managing to keep us in games for five or six innings, the pressure is off on the farm system to provide help. Basically, with Burgos and Snyder called up, the system already has done its job. Let's take a look at what is going on for future reference.

OMAHA is not exactly boiling over with any exciting pitching at the moment (unless you are ready for another Chris George appearance - he is a fine AAAA pitcher, sarcasm intended). Op-Ed favorite and former Lincoln Saltdog Byron Embry is beginning to struggle, sporting a 6.30 ERA in 10 innings. Byron does have 9 strikeouts versus 3 walks, but I am wondering if will be able to get people out without a consistent second pitch.
D.J. Carrasco, a name from the past, has swung between the bullpen and the rotation for the O Royals and done a nice job: 2.53 ERA in 21.3 innings and a 14/8 strikeout to walk ratio. If, via injury or trade, Mike Wood moves into the starting rotation one would think that D.J. might be ticketed to take that role in the bullpen for KC.
A guy that came into camp with some publicity was Santiago Ramirez. After starting off the year on the disabled list, Ramirez had come on for Omaha and struck out 5 hitters in 5 innings without issuing a walk.
I could tell you what Nate Field is doing in Omaha, but does anyone really want to know?

Down in WICHITA, Colt Griffin has reverted to form and now has 15 walks in 15 2/3 innings versus 10 strikeouts. I believe that draft pick can officially be labeled a bust. On the plus side, in his second season in the Wichita rotation, Kyle Middleton has fashioned a nifty 2.30 ERA in 31 innings of work spanning 5 starts. He has allowed 26 hits and 8 walks while striking out 14. Although not really labeled a 'prospect', it will be interesting to see if he can jump over veteran free agents like Ryan Jensen, Dennis Tankersley and the always available Chris George and get into the Omaha rotation this season.

Two players really stand out for HIGH DESERT. 2004 first round pick J.P. Howell has a 1.71 ERA after five starts (26 innings). While he has issued 17 base on balls, Howell has also punched out 29 batters. He is joined in the High Desert rotation by John Gragg III, a 9th round pick in the 2003 draft, who has a 2.08 ERA in 26 innings spanning four starts. Gragg has an impressive 21 strikeouts to just 5 walks to start the season. What I really find encouraging about these numbers is that the California League is most definitely a hitters' league.

Although not ready yet, it does appear that the Royals have some promising young starters working their way up the system. With Lima and Anderson almost certain to be gone after this season, that will provide an oppportunity for some of these guys to compete with Kyle Snyder and Jimmy Gobble for those open spots.