Friday, June 24, 2005

The Present, Near Future and Future - Starters

Before I get started, be sure to check out The Daily Lancer for a nifty post on the young Royal position players. I am not as down on Teahen and Buck as the Lancer, but good points are made. Also check out Warning Track Power for a very good review of the Royal starting rotation this season, which gloves nicely with what I am going to do this morning.

Periodically over the next few weeks, I thought I might take a stab at where the Royals are, will be shortly and want to be in 2007 with regard to various positions on the team. I picked 2007 as everyone generally believes that the Royals are intending to be contenders during that season. Today, the starting rotation.

Current Starting Rotation
Jose Lima - an absolute disaster
Runelvys Hernandez - getting better, will never be great
Zack Greinke - still the ace of the future?!*?
D.J. Carrasco - how long can he continue his Tom Glavine impression?
J.P. Howell - there's a pitcher under all that youth

Okay, as mentioned above, Warning Track Power will tell you all you need to know about what our rotation has done this year. Statistically, they have been something of a debacle. In reality, they have done a decent job of keeping the Royals in the games (Lima excluded). I do not think anyone, anywhere really believes Lima is going to get 'it' back during the season and frankly, I doubt many people really believe Carrasco can continue to be as good as he has been.
Where does that leave KC? Well, they are about to have three starting pitchers ready to go by late July (Bautista, Anderson and Snyder) and all of sudden they have major decisions to make (even Peter Gammons admitted the Royals had 'a glug' of arms).

Very Near Future Rotation (August 1)
Runelvys Hernandez - He will get you 6 or 7 innings
Zack Greinke - It will be a rocky road through the end of the season
D.J. Carrasco - His ERA will not be under 3.00 by the end of August, but he is still okay
Kyle Snyder - He will be in KC as soon as he throws 75 pitches in an Omaha start
J.P. Howell - Maybe he needs more seasoning, maybe not

The above assumes something is done with Jose Lima. I am not sure what that something would be (would you trade for him?), but an outright release may be in the cards. I am skeptical that Brian Anderson will make his return as scheduled on July 20th, and if he does I think he will be traded shortly thereafter. Bautista is the wild card, but the Royals will be cautious with him. Yes, they are being cautious with Snyder, too, but Kyle is two more weeks farther down the cautionary trail than Denny right now.
By September, you can certainly expect that Bautista will be back in the rotation somewhere - they may even revert to the six man by then as virtually everyone will be pushing career highs in innings pitched by then.

Near Future - Dawn of 2006
Runevlys Hernandez - He is the innings eater Allard Baird has always craved
Zack Greinke - I believe he will be back on track by then - poised for a great season
Kyle Snyder - He may never stay healthy, but if he does....
Denny Bautista - Probably the best pure stuff in the system
J.P. Howell - Something about this kid's approach just makes me think he's in the rotation to stay.

The above is probably unfair to D.J. Carrasco, but I have a hard time believing he can remain anywhere near as good as he is now. I do like him a lot, as I think he has become a thinking man's pitcher. With him and Mike Wood playing swing roles in the bullpen, you have some veteran (sort of) stability and the arms to compensate for an injury (particularly to Snyder).
One could make a case for acquiring a vetaran arm to stablize this young rotation, but that has not exactly worked out lately has it? Lima, Anderson, Darrel May...not exactly positive impacts. I would opt for letting these five mature together, especially given that Hernandez and Greinke will be embarking on their third full seasons by then.

Time to Contend - 2007
Zack Greinke - He just might be Greg Maddux by then (only with a fastball - remember the fastball Zack, please!)
Denny Bautista - He might still be maddenly inconsistent by then, but he will also be giving us some dominating performances by then.
Runelvys Hernandez - After carrying the rotation for two season, Runelvys can settle into his rightful role: a solid third starter.
J.P. Howell - Could he be the best fourth starter in the league - anyone thinking Jon Garland?
Andrew Sisco - Frankly, I don't believe Kyle Snyder will be healthy two years in a row, and even if he is, I think Sisco may be better by then.

Not a lot of teams are able to throw the same five starters two years in a row, but good teams do have a lot of consistency in their rotations and it is not out of the question that Snyder could be in the rotation in 2007. Young arms get hurt and some just fizzle out, but Kansas City appears in decent shape to compensate for this - as long as Greinke AND Bautista both don't fizzle.
You could still have a Carrasco in the mix (and Chris George will no doubt still be pitching in Omaha) and maybe Wood, maybe even Affeldt for godssake. However, I think Wood IS a reliever and I think Affeldt will be gone. With any luck Matt Campbell, Billy Buckner and Luis Cota should be working towards the top of the farm system by 2007 also, and we have not even mentioned anyone pitching in Wichita or Omaha right now (not that there is a whole lot to be excited about).

All of the above is conjecture and based mostly on projections not past performance, but there is a reason to hope and a reason to be very excited about the possibilities of having a very, very good starting group in the very near future.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Random Thoughts

As I made a rare evening post last night, just a few off-day thoughts for this morning.

First off, you will note links to the two rookie teams: Idaho Falls and Arizona Royals. Royals Corner had a nice update on the signings and assignments of this year's draft picks. Here's hoping that KC can get first rounder Alex Gordon and third rounder Chris Nicoll signed and into the system yet this month.
Players of note to keep an eye on in the Rookie Leagues are Round 2 and 4 picks Jeffrey Bianchi and Joseph Dickerson in Arizona and Round 5 and 6 picks Shawn Hayes and Ryan Dipietro in Idaho Falls. Both Bianchi and Dickerson were viewed as 'signability picks' by the bulk of the baseball world, so it will be interesting to see how they perform.
Only one other pick of note remains unsigned, Round 22 pick Justin Bristow. I wish, but have no real hope, that the Royals would go big and offer this kid first round money. If they did, he would be an absolute steal and probably immediately become one of Kansas City's top 10 prospects.

Peter Gammons and Jayson Stark both have some snipets about trade rumblings today on ESPN.com that concern the Royals. Gammons reports (or may have just dreamed stuff up in his head) that Kansas City has not talked to Anaheim about Mike Sweeney. Additionally, he also reports that the San Diego Padres are looking for a veteran infielder and may be eyeing Tony Graffanino. Jayson Stark speculates that the most tradeable Royal right now is, as OP-Ed page sincerely hoped, Jeremy Affeldt. A general manager is quoted as saying 'they would love to have him' and also that the injuries Affeldt has/had were not a big detriment to his value as none of them have related to his arm.

Finally, Billy Butler has performed flawlessly in his first two games in left field for High Desert. Of course, he has not yet had an official chance in left field either, but let's all try to be positive.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Royals Swept...

Well, at least it has been a while since we had to say that. I was going to rail on the Royals' second day of being tentative at the plate, and tentative they were, but truthfully the real culprit of today's loss and probably yesterday's against Jon Garland, last Saturday against Roy Oswalt and last Friday versus a guy named Roger Clemens lies in a very simple fact: The Royals are really young, and are simply not ready to go out and knock around good pitchers who are pitching well.

Today's lineup featured THREE hitters with more than 1000 major league appearances: Terrance Long (2766), Tony Graffanino (1878) and Joe McEwing (1652). That's two career utility infielders and an outfielder who has fallen out of favor with two different teams. That's not exactly Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Mike Sweeney and Jermaine Dye (although THAT lineup did not win much either). Simply put, the Royals are not going to beat good pitchers very often. Sure, they may catch a Randy Johnson not pitching his best and there will be nights that they will get some blops and big home run against good, maybe even great, hurlers, but generally this group will continue to struggle against the best pitching - frankly, who doesn't?

In case you were wondering, David Dejesus (622) and Emil Brown (608) were the next most experienced hitters in the lineup. As a disclaimer, please note that I have no problem with playing the young guys - you don't learn to hit Mark Buerhle sitting on the bench - I am just pointing out that four of the last five Royal losses have come to four of the best pitchers in baseball (currently).

Now, about being tentative at the plate, part of which can also probably be attributed to young hitters facing good pitching. The Royals swung at just 9 first pitches in 31 plate appearances today (29%) and took 11 first strikes looking in the remaining at-bats (50%). Both numbers better than Tuesday's game, but not quite the numbers they generally post when hitting the ball well (typically 33% first pitch swinging and low forties in first strikes taken). HOWEVER, in the first six innings of today's game, the Royals only swung at 4 first pitches and not until Joe McEwing's fly out in the sixth inning did they put a first pitch actually in play - a span of 21 plate appearances. That is a very unaggressive 19% of first pitch swinging, against a pitcher in Buerhle who is always around the plate. All things being equal, the Royals need to swing at good pitches earlier in the counts EARLY in the game - like they have been doing for the past month.

As a parting evening shot, with the off day tomorrow (Thursday) is anyone else thinking that we could skip Lima for the Sunday start in Colorado? Yes, I know that means Greinke, who may not have any better luck than Jose in keeping balls in the park, but I would certainly be entertaining the idea. Unfortuneately, I doubt the Royals are thinking along the same lines.

Tentative Royals Fumble to Loss

Last night on the south side of Chicago the Royals looked, for the first time in a while, like a last place team.

A bright spot in my mind was Zack Greinke, whose line ended up far worse than he pitched. Greinke hefted the fastball up there at 94 mph several times and did a very good job of mixing in a variety of off-speed pitches instead of relying almost solely on the 65 mph curve. When Zack is throwing 92-94 with the fastball and coming back with a low 80's slider and mid 70's curve and change up and he can be very effective.
Yes, he still threw too many pitches (94 in 5 1/3 innings) and his control is not back to what it has been in the past, but it was a major improvement over his last two starts. Particularly, Greinke's arm speed and delivery pace was virtually identical pitch to pitch (after Op-Ed's well documented theory of the disaster in Arizona). What last night showed is that maybe Greinke has decided to be Zack Greinke instead of trying to be Greg Maddux.
One warning sign that I saw was that from the fifth inning on, Greinke topped 90 mph only once, after routinely doing so in the first four innings. Was this an attempt to vary the pace the third time through the order? Or does Greinke have something of a stamina problem? Time will answer that question.

Although charged with 5 earned runs, Greinke probably did not deserve to be charged with any. In the fifth inning, one out and runners on first and third, Greinke induced a ground ball to Matt Stairs at first. Turning a 3-6-3 double play is never easy, but this had a very definite chance at being just that. Instead, Stairs muffed the ball and got only the out at first, leading the way to a two run inning. Then, in the sixth inning after a tiring Greinke loaded the bases with one out, Andrew Sisco induced a sharp grounder to Teahen at third. This was, without a doubt, an inning ending double play ball, but Teahen muffed this one and got only the out at third, opening the door for the Sox' other three runs. Now, the Royals were inept offensively last night, but by not converting two potential double plays, they essentially allowed the opportunisitc Sox to score ALL of their runs.

How about that ineptness? Well, first off Jon Garland is all of sudden really good (and by the way, the poster child for being patient with a young pitcher), but Kansas City was also very tentative at the plate. Off the 33 Royal plate appearances last night, our hitters swung at the first pitch only 9 times (27%), and three of those nine were in the top of the ninth inning. Worse, they took called first pitch strikes on 14 of the remaining 24 appearances (58%). Those are Tony Pena era 'work the count' numbers.
Continuing on, if you exclude balls in play and foul balls after two strikes, Garland and Marte threw 41 strikes. Of those 41, the Royals took 28 of them looking (68.3%).

Regular readers will remember that I tracked the Royals first pitch swinging, first pitch strike looking numbers for a few weeks after Pena resigned and Kansas City immediately started hitting. What we found back in May was that aggressive hitting did not mean measurably more first pitch swinging, but instead led to swinging at first pitch strikes more. During that study (if you can call it that), the Royals swung at the first pitch somewhere in the 31-34% range and took strike one looking in the remaining at-bats at a rate in the low 40 percentile. What happened last night was a reversion to early season form: swinging less, taking more, resulting in less (or no) offense. Let's hope it was just a good pitcher throwing on one of our off nights.

One final parting shot, and I hate to be bitter but this has rankled me all season: Mark Teahen, with two strikes and the Royals trailing - swing the freaking bat! (Editors Note: Mr. Teahen took two (the only two) called third strikes last night)

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Mystery Man

From KC Royals.com:
Baird wouldn't identify who will replace Burgos in the bullpen, except to say that he has not yet pitched in the Majors this season.

Who will be this mysterious 25th member of the Royals' roster? And why, exactly the mystery? There are several options in answer to the first question. The answer to question number two is either: Baird has not yet decided, but has narrowed it down to two or three pitchers OR he is just trying to be cute (Allard every once in a while strays into 'silly territory').

Okay, realistically who could it be? Much to the chagrin of many Royal fans, it will not be a starter to replace Lima. Several reasons, foremost being that Snyder, Bautista and Anderson are all in the process of coming back through the pipeline and I doubt the Royals will shake up the rotation now, knowing that they will have to again within a month. Secondly, if KC just cannot take Lima starting another game, they already have Jensen and Gobble up with team and no real good option after them to be a starter. DISCLAIMER: The Op-Ed page makes no representation that we advocate that Ryan Jensen or Jim Gobble or Jose Lima should ever start another major league game, we are simply relaying what appears to be a frighteningly factual scenario.

One then, might logically look to your AAA affiliate to find a bullpen sacrifical lamb to eat innings in Denver this weekend. The options currently there appear to be:
Justin Huismann - 48 IP, 54H, 23BB, 30K, 3.91 ERA
Wes Wilkerson - 45IP, 51H, 6BB, 23K, 4.57 ERA
Santiago Ramirez - 37IP, 58H, 13BB, 30K, 6.87 ERA

Huismann has never shown much in brief stints in the bigs, but at least has some experience. Ramirez is one of Allard's 'finds' who got lit up pretty good early in Omaha but has improved lately. Wilkerson obviously has the best control of the trio, but control and 'Mile High' do not go together particulary well.

Of course, we all know that Omaha is the backwater of the Royals' system and that if you really want to get to the majors, you need to be playing in Wichita (sarcasm intended). Last week, I mentioned both of these guys as possible callups should injury strike and my hunch is that our mystery man is one of these two:
Jonah Bayliss - 47IP, 46H, 22BB, 33K, 2.66 ERA
Shawn Sonnier - 33IP, 26H, 12BB, 46K, 2.18 ERA

Bayliss is a PROSPECT, Sonnier used to be one and is trying to get back to that status. Both have impressive numbers in Wichita, but keeping in mind their age and where they are going to have to pitch this weekend, our prediction is that Shawn Sonnier will get the call. His strikeouts to innings pitched and his strikeout to walk ratio both point towards getting the nod. Additionally, with Wichita off for their all-star break, he will be rested.

All is Not Lost

This does not feel like a team that has dropped three of their last four games. This team is still playing hard and, generally, still playing well. Sure, the offense managed 2 runs total against Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, but those guys do that to everyone. Even in those loses, the Royals had a combined 22 baserunners: they were inefficient, but not inept. And last night, despite throwing maybe the worst possible combination of pitching against the best team in baseball (maybe), Kansas City stood in toe to toe with the White Sox before falling 11-8.

Since Zack Greinke's implosion in Phoenix take a look at the what the starting pitchers have done for Kansas City:
Ariz - 5 IP 1 ER (Howell debut)
Ariz - 6 IP 1 ER (Carrasco)
LAD - 6 IP 2 ER (Hernandez)
LAD - 8 IP 1 ER (Lima, miracles do happen)
LAD - 5 IP 3 ER (Greinke, he cut his runs allowed by a whopping 75% from his previous start)
Hou - 6 IP 4 ER (Howell allowed 3 runs in the first, was solid after that)
Hou - 7 IP 3 ER (Carrasco)
Hou - 7 IP 1 ER (Hernandez)

That's eight sometimes great, often good, always acceptable starts in a row...until last night, when Lima returned to form and allowed 7 runs in just 4 innings of work. Sure, he had his share of bad luck, particularly when Emil Brown lost a ball in the lights and allowed 2 runs to score, but Lima was getting hitting all over the park. Enter Ryan Jensen, who since pitching a solid 5 innings against St. Louis has now allowed 15 runs in 12.2 innings. Then Leo Nunez, who gave up two soft singles, had some control issues and generally pitched like Leo Nunez pitches. Sadly, Jimmy Gobble...yes Jimmy Gobble, was the most effective of the Royal pitchers last night: allowing one hit and no runs in one inning. All in all, not exactly a fiercesome foursome we threw at the Sox last night.

Speaking of Gobble, I wonder if he may be something of a Mike Wood type, who could be above average in a middle relief role. He was throwing as hard as 92 mph last night and with that cutter, could be effective one time through the order.

One day after I speculated that Jeremy Affeldt was the most likely Royal to be traded and the Royal who should be traded, he lands once more on the disabled list. Short of Jeremy returning in early July and pitching 10 dominating innings, this injury probably makes him virtually untradeable at this point.

The injuries to Affeldt and Burgos may force the Royals to once more lean heavily on Andrew Sisco. The organization, no stranger to ruining young arms, had become concerned over how many appearances that Sisco was on a pace to make this season and had made a determination to use him in less games for more innings. Sisco has appeared in only 5 games in June, after 13 in May and 11 in April. However, he and Mike Wood now stand as the only viable bridges to MacDougal. With Burgos and Affeldt supposedly due for just short stints on the DL, I see no harm in using Sisco regularly through the end of the month. Overall, however, I agree with the thought process that we should be careful with young Andrew. Plus, his future may lie in the rotation, which also points to using him for 3 and 4 inning stints once or twice a week from July through the end of the year.

Of course, the big news is that Justin Huber has been called up to take Mike Sweeney's spot on the roster. Bell is quoted today as saying Huber will 'play some' and 'probably go back down when Sweeney returns', but it will give us at least a taste of what to expect from Justin. I would obviously not be heartbroken if Huber hits so well that KC HAS to keep him with the big club, but we shall see.

Finally, Kyle Snyder pitched last week in Omaha (2 2/3 scoreless innings on a strict 45 pitch count) and Denny Bautista is due to start the same process shortly. The Royals' intent is to add 10 pitches per start for each of them, and not ponder a call up to KC until they are up around 70-75 pitches. Bottom line, neither will be ready much before late July (supposedly about the same time Brian Anderson is scheduled to return) - which means, quite frankly, that you have another month of Lima time to endure.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Should the Royals Play Let's Make a Deal?

As June begins to wind down, the talk of trades will become more and more prevalent. The Royals, viewed by everyone as sellers in this year's market, will no doubt come up in conversations over the coming weeks. That brings up a number of questions: who should the Royals trade? who should they keep? what can they get in return? how will it help/hurt the team in the long run?

A person could spin any number of scenarios and plug in any number of names on both sides of any transaction, but for now, let's take a look at some Royals that could be/should be on the block. I am going to put them in order of those most likely to be traded (not who should or who I want to be traded).

1. Jeremy Affeldt - If his last two appearances are any indication, Affeldt is about as enthused with KC as we are with him. From a personal perspective, I have long thought he had kind of a me first attitude and also something of a what is going to go wrong next thought process. Affeldt has been injury prone and inconsistent in every role in which the Royals have placed him. Yes, at times he was a very good starter, but not for very long. Yes, there were moments last year when he looked like a dominant closer, but not for long stretches. Jeremy appears to be a guy in need of a fresh start and, luckily for the Royals, he is the kind of guy teams are willing to take a gamble on. Just 26 and left handed, with a tantalizing stuff and a contract under $1 million (with little hope of winning any arbitration award) will at least warrant a phone call from a number of teams.
What can the Royals expect in return? Probably not as much as they once would have wanted, but you could see the sense in an Affeldt for Kearnes trade (similar ages/salaries/situations) or something similar. Something of a younger, lower cost Terrance Long for Darrel May deal. While a trade to a contender is a possibility, Affeldt is probably too inconsistent and unproven for a team trying to win now to gamble on. I think it is more likely that a trade between teams building for next year would come to fruition.

2. Matt Stairs - An experienced left handed power hitter, who you can plug into any clubhouse, is a valuable commodity - perhaps more in the National League than American, but Stairs has value in both leagues. Did you see who the Dodgers were playing in the outfield?
One of the things we as fans forget sometimes, is the need to have veterans on a team. I often fall prey to the lure of 'potential and upside' and forget that you need crusty old guys who play fundamental baseball - even if they are not great or even good players. I think Stairs is a good influence on this team and part of the reason the Royals have gone from laughingstocks to a downright solid baseball team the five weeks. I hope KC hangs onto him and for that matter, if the money was not obtrusive, I would sign him for 2006 too.
However, you have to refer to my opening comment on Stairs, and understand that he is a player contending teams will want. What could the Royals reasonably expect in return? Probably not anyone you have heard of, unless KC could manage to spark a bidding contest between two teams. Still, personality and clubhouse influence aside, would you take a chance on a A or AA mid-level prospect in exchange for a 37 year old platoon player whose contract ends after this season? Maybe.

3. Terrance Long - There are two reasons Stairs is ahead of Long on this list: contract and attitude. Long costs more and has a little bit of a reputation as a head case, although he has been fine in KC in my opinion. Long's recent offensive surge has moved him from the 'dump salary' mode to the 'maybe we CAN get something' mode. Terrance is still just 29, can play all three outfield positions and last year was a very effective pinch hitter.
The play of Emil Brown and the promise of young outfielders in the system make both Stairs and Long expendable sooner rather than later, so trading one does not mean the Royals would not trade the other, too.
It is quite possible that, while easier to market Stairs, the Royals could expect to get more in return for Long. Again, the buyer would be a contender looking for some left handed punch, looking somewhat desparately I might add, and the return would probably not be anyone above AA, but there will certainly be inquiries. All things being equal, I advocate a trade of Long and keeping Stairs, both for monetary and attitude reasons.

4. Brian Anderson - This will not be a July trade, as I don't think teams will gamble on Anderson's health that soon. However, it is not unreasonable to think that Anderson could make it through waivers and be dealt in mid-August. Watch for pitching thin teams who either suffer an injury in the rotation or begin to struggle in the late summer heat of a pennant race. The league does not believe Anderson was as bad as he was last year and know that he's a solid veteran and clubhouse guy who won't cause any problems.
What can you get for an average left-handed starter? Well, if someone is desparate enough, more than you can get for two left-handed hitting outfielders.

5. Tony Graffanino - Big problem: everyone knows that Tony will not hit .321 playing everyday. Hell, everyone knows he won't hit .321 playing twice a week. He is a veteran guy, hard-nosed, can sort of play everywhere. Is there a market this kind of player? Maybe, particularly if a contender loses a middle infielder for six weeks and knows they don't have to count on Tony to be their everyday guy in the post-season.
What do you get for a vetaran utility player? Not very bloody much. Still, worth exploring and taking a chance on a prospect some other organization has given up on. The Royals have a wealth of utility guys in the making in their system (not to mention three ex-major league utility guys in Omaha), so shipping Graff for a flyer might make some sense.

6. Mike Sweeney - Everyday he doesn't play makes it less likely a team would give the Royals want they want for the Captain (Beltran like return). Plus, I think KC had come around to the OP-ED theory that it would be better to ADD bats around Sweeney rather than get a bat to REPLACE him. Sure, his contract is huge, but it also runs out after the 2007 season, about the time the Royals will have to start spending real money to keep their younger guys.
Why not keep a guy, who injury prone or not, is going to hit 290 with power? A veteran guy who can bat between DeJesus and Brown or Costa and Huber or after Maier, DeJesus and Huber or whomever?
Whether the league did it or the Royals did it, the conclusion is Mike Sweeney should stay in KC, at least for now.

Names you'd think might be here, but aren't:
Jose Lima - would you give up your worst A ball reliever for him? I wouldn't.
Joe McEwing - the market for Graffanino is slim, what do you think the backup to your utility infielder would bring?
Mike MacDougal - there was interest from Texas early in the year, but the Royals think he is their closer again.
Ken Harvey - if you read this all the way through, then you deserved a laugh.