Wednesday, October 19, 2005

2005 Royals Wrap-Up

Where to begin? The 2005 season was pretty disappointing, so let’s address that and get it out of the way, so we can focus on the real work at hand, which is to build for next year. There are positives that need to be remembered, which need to serve as the foundation for a better year in 2006 and beyond.

Isn’t it interesting that after I wrote the paragraph above, I realized it could be used for either of the two season wrap-ups I’m writing, one for the Royals and one for the Red Sox? I ultimately decided to do just that, use it to open both articles, because, despite the obvious differences between the two clubs, they are both currently in the same boat. They each need to evaluate the 2005 season, determine which parts need to be kept, which need to be replaced, which youngsters are future regulars, and which are expendable. They then must go forth and spend or trade to fill their many holes.

The only difference is the level of expectations and the resources available to each GM. There are currently 27 other teams, playoff participants excluded, who are in the exact same position.

But this is about the Royals, so let me start being specific. Here are the clearly recognizable failures and successes from 2005:


The Rotation. Denny Bautista and Brian Anderson were hurt. Zack Greinke regressed badly. Jose Lima was arguably the worst single-season starting pitcher in the history of baseball. Only Runelvys Hernandez from the Opening Day rotation had a season that could be called a qualified success, and that’s because expectations weren’t that high since he was returning from a lost season. It’s a sad commentary on the rotation as a whole that Hernandez’s eight wins and 5.52 ERA are considered a success.

Second Base. Ruben Gotay never turned the corner. He got off to a terrible start, posting a .519 OPS through May 8th, and never really recovered. Shipped out to the minor leagues, his first replacement, Donnie Murphy, was even worse, posting an excruciating .501 OPS for the year, which left the team with nothing better than journeymen Joe McEwing and Denny Hocking. As a group, Royals’ second basemen posted an OPS of .630, the worst mark in all of baseball. To give you an idea of exactly how bad that is, Detroit’s pitchers had a combined OPS of .610. Aside from pitchers, only Cleveland’s third basemen (.628), Minnesota’s shortstops (.611), the Dodgers’ left fielders (.606), St. Louis’ catchers (.603), Washington’s shortstops (.583) and Seattle’s catchers (.568) had lower OPS figures at a single position.

Third Base. There is some sense of hope here, because Mark Teahen has talent, and seemed to be putting things together over the season’s final few weeks. If he keeps his September-October pace up for a full 150 games, Teahen would be a 21-homer, 113-RBI, .859-OPS third baseman, which would obviously be outstanding. But the fact is, his first few months of this season were bad, reflective of the fact that he really belonged in Triple A. Royals’ third basemen combined for an OPS of just .668, and that was mostly Teahen. Only Cleveland’s third basemen had a lower mark in all of baseball. Add in the fact that Teahen had the worst zone rating of all major league regular third basemen, and only four regular third basemen made more errors in the field, and his season has to be called a failure. As of now, it would be extremely premature to move Alex Gordon to another position, because it’s a real possibility that Teahen won’t put it together. Of course, this being the Royals, Gordon is already playing first base in the Instructional League.

Shortstop. Even with a decent second half at the plate, Angel Berroa’s overall season was a menace to good baseball. Listing the aspects of the sport in which Berroa needs to improve could take a while, so I’ll try to summarize. His hitting is atrocious. His OPS of .680 was 17th among 21 major league shortstops with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. It was one point lower than, get this, Neifi Perez. He drew a total of 18 walks for the year; the same number as the infamously impatient Perez, only it took Berroa over 40 more plate appearances to reach that number. His base running is also terrible. Not only did he manage to steal just seven bases despite being one of the faster runners on the team, but he did so at just a 58% success rate. On top of that, he regularly fell asleep on the base paths and got picked off, or thrown out trying to take an extra base. Finally, his defense has regressed significantly since his rookie year. He was 22nd among 24 regular shortstops in fielding percentage. He was 17th in zone rating at .827. Compare that to his rookie year, when his .861 zone rating was tied for 6th among all major league shortstops. His range factor has dropped from 4.79, a great figure, tied for second in all of baseball in 2003, to just 4.60, which ties for 10th. That’s still respectable, but is means that once every five games, over thirty times per season, Berroa is failing to reach a ball he used to get to. He is a significant liability in an everyday lineup, particularly one that is already lacking in production at most positions, and given his late-season comments that indicated he has no real concern about improving his pitch selection, I would be thrilled if they unloaded him for whatever some foolish GM offered.

First Base. Only the Angels got fewer home runs from the first base position than the 13 paltry dingers the Royals managed, while just two teams’ first basemen drew fewer walks than the 44 put up by the Royals’ crew. Their ranks in the other major offensive categories were similarly bad – 27th in runs scored, 23rd in total bases, 20th in RBI, 20th in on-base percentage, 25th in slugging percentage, 22nd in OPS, 21st in extra-base hits, 29th in isolated power (which is slugging percentage minus batting average), 20th in runs created, 29th in secondary average (a measure of a player’s extra bases gained, including walks and steals, independent of batting average), 24th in pitches seen per plate appearances, 24th in strikeout to walk ratio. For a position that is supposed to be a major supplier of offense in most lineups, that just plain sucks. Given that the position was mostly populated with such stone hands’ as Matt Stairs, Mike Sweeney, Justin Huber and Ken Harvey, I’m not even going to talk about first base defense. If I did, I might be contributing to the suicide rate, and I couldn’t live with that.

Left Field. A sore spot last season (.608 left field OPS in 2004), the position definitely improved this year, but it was still pretty damn bad. Royals’ left fielders combined for a .717 OPS, 25th in all of baseball, 11th in the American League. (That mark still would have been dead last in 2004, but overall offense dropped a bit this year.) A litany of poor offensive rankings, similar to those listed in the first base comments, could be cut and pasted here, but what’s the point? From 2004 to 2005, there was improvement from horrific and embarrassing to merely terrible. Let’s just leave it at that.

Team Defense. The Royals’ defense, essential in such a big ballpark, particularly with such a young pitching staff, was awful. Baseball Prospectus publishes a report on each team’s defensive efficiency, which is nothing more than the rate at which a team translates balls in play into outs. That’s really what defense is all about, obviously, and the Royals have the worst Defensive Efficiency mark, .672, in all of baseball. What that means is that, as a team, when the Royals’ opponents put the ball in play, they are collectively hitting about .330. Good grief. There are only two ways to combat that – make hitters swing and miss more often, or get better defensive players. Since the Royals’ pitchers posted just the 26th-best strikeout rate in baseball, some better gloves are needed desperately. (Note – This doesn’t not have to apply to every position on the field, just the key up-the-middle and other infield spots. More to come in the Right Field comments.)


The Bullpen. Credit to Allard Baird for finally putting together some decent young bullpen arms. Mike MacDougal is still pretty shaky as closers go, but he showed immense improvement. Pitching the same number of games as his All-Star season of 2003, he managed to throw more innings and give up fewer runs and walks. His strikeout rate topped one per inning, and he struck out three men for each walk he allowed. If not for a few brain cramps in save situations, I’d love the guy. As it is, I still like him a lot. Added to MacDougal were two rookies, Andrew Sisco and Ambiorix Burgos, each of whom struck out better than one batter per inning. They both allow too many base runners, but command should come in time, as it did for MacDougal. In fact, Sisco is probably best suited to start eventually, because his numbers in multi-inning outings were much better than in appearances where he threw one inning or less. Throw in two solid middle-to-long relief men, D.J. Carrasco and Mike Wood, plus a solid debut by rookie Jonah Bayliss, and suddenly the Royals have a full bullpen, and we haven’t even discussed Jeremy Affeldt or Leo Nunez yet.

Center Field. Hold on to your hats, here comes a bold statement - David DeJesus was the best-hitting center fielder in the American League after the All-Star break. No lie. After the All-Star break, DeJesus had an OPS of .864. The next best mark in the AL was Grady Sizemore’s .857. No one else was even close, but the enormous caveat attached to this accomplishment was that DeJesus couldn’t stay on the field. He had just 142 at bats after the break due to a shoulder injury, and had a few other nagging injuries throughout the year. Even so, his performance at the plate and in center field easily makes him the Royals’ Player of the Year. If anyone else gets that award it will be a cruel joke. If he can put together 150 games next year, DeJesus should be the team’s only sure All-Star.

Right Field. Contrary to what some “experts” have stated (yes, Jeffrey Flanagan, I’m talking about you), Emil Brown was a good overall baseball player for the Royals in 2005. Was he a defensive liability? You bet. Was he, in the grand scheme of things, a candidate for the All-Star team or for Royals’ Player of the Year? No, of course not. But Emil Brown did a couple of things extremely well for the Royals, things they had been lacking from right field since Jermaine Dye’s days in KC. First, he showed up healthy every day. Don’t underestimate the importance of having a consistent presence in the lineup, when nearly every other position on the field was in flux. More importantly, unlike the only other consistent presence in the lineup, Angel Berroa, Brown hit well. Really well. An overall OPS of .804 is quite good. Royals’ right fielders combined for an OPS of .814 (Aaron Guiel contributing to these numbers as well), a mark good enough for 10th in all of baseball and 4th in the American League. I’ll take it, bad defense and all, particularly when you keep in mind that in 2004, Royals’ right fielders combined for an ugly OPS of .682, dead last in all of baseball. Against lefties, Brown was a terror, hitting .313/.368/.539/.906, meaning that even if his defensive liabilities prove to be too costly to allow him to play in the field, he is still an excellent option for the right-handed half of a platoon at DH. As it is, I’d love to move him over to left field, where his liabilities will be minimized, and put Aaron Guiel in right field every day until a youngster like Chris Lubanski or Billy Butler is ready. Guiel came back healthy after a series of eye problems in 2004, and quickly proved that he had returned to the very promising form he had in 2003. A pure righty-lefty platoon of Brown and Guiel would produce an OPS of .873 based upon 2005 performance. That’s excellent, even if their average (Guiel)-to-poor (Brown) defense gives back a few of the extra runs their bats produce. Corner outfield defense just isn’t important enough to sacrifice that kind of run production.

The Draft. A qualified success. Slow as the process was, the Royals did manage to sign top pick Alex Gordon, avoiding a potentially embarrassing situation, and they did so with enough time to at least get him some Instructional League and Arizona Fall League playing time. Had they stalled until Gordon went back to school, or even until it was too late to get him any playing time before Spring Training, nothing else they did in the draft could keep it from being classified a failure. As it happens, they did a couple of other nice things in the draft as well. Second pick Jeff Bianchi had a spectacular debut in Arizona, posting a .408/.484/.745/1.229 line. And he’s a shortstop! Who can hit! What a concept. The third pick, Chris Nicoll, had a nice debut as well, posting a 3.62 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 3.78 K/BB ratio and sparkling 11.20 K/9IP ratio in Idaho Falls. The Royals certainly need that kind of swing and miss capability. They saw much of the same from 7th-round pick Brent Fisher. He was a high school pitcher, which always raises red flags, but the kid was terrific in the Arizona rookie league, going 5-2 in 13 games as a starter and reliever, and posting a 3.04 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in a hitter’s league. More importantly, he showed both outstanding command (2.32 BB/9IP ratio) and outstanding punch out ability (12.34 K/9IP). They also had promising results from catchers Kiel Thibault (9th round) and Jeffrey Howell (10th round), and gigantic (6’8”) right-handed pitcher David Henninger (21st round). First baseman Jase Turner (27th round) promises to be a fascinating guy to follow. If strikeouts were hits, Turner would have batted .349 for Idaho Falls, which is certainly ugly, but he managed to post a promising .282/.385/.498/.883 line anyway. What that means is that when Turner made contact with the ball, his numbers soared to .434/.550/.765/1.315. Wow. Talk about a great pet project for some hitting coach. All in all, I was pleased with the draft. Had the club signed Gordon faster, I would have taken the qualifier off completely.

The Farm System. Also a qualified success. The top level of the talent pool down on the farm is outstanding. Billy Butler, Justin Huber, Chris Lubanski, and Mitch Meier all hade solid-to-stellar years, a nice indication that some homegrown help for the offense may not be far away. Let me also throw in a name I never see mentioned as a big prospect, and that’s Kila Kaaihue, the first baseman for High Desert in the California League. I realize that’s a hitter’s league, so his numbers have to discounted a bit, but Kaaihue hit .304 and slugged .497 while demonstrating the one talent sorely missing from the Royals’ offense – pitch selection. He drew 97 walks in 132 games, boosting his on-base percentage to .428, good enough to lead that league. And he’s still just 21-years old. Bears watching. As mentioned, the Royals’ rookie level talent increased a lot with this year’s draft, another positive sign to build upon a 2004 draft that saw some success as well. We all know about Butler from 2004, but others from that class started to show some promise this season, like J.P. Howell, and shortstop Chris McConnell, the team’s 9th-round pick in ’04, who batted .331/.403/.516/.919 at Idaho Falls. Closer Chad Blackwell (6th round in ’04) put up nice numbers at Burlington, including a 2.23 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 9.70 K/9IP. Pitcher Billy Buckner (2nd round, ’04, and a really unfortunate name) put up solid numbers, including a strikeout per inning and a promotion to High Desert mid season.

In between those extremes of solid youngsters and excellent top-level talent, the talent isn’t quite there. Most of the good pitching in the farm system was rushed straight to the big leagues. Some performed well or at least showed promise (Burgos, Bayliss, Howell), while some were awful (Leo Nunez, Chris Demaria), but in almost all cases they should still be in the minor leagues, building experience and arm strength. The team has already announced that they are likely to focus next year’s draft, including the number one overall pick, on pitching, and that makes complete sense. Another positive step would be to make ample use of the Rule 5 draft, since the Royals will chose first in each round of that draft and have demonstrated an ability to make good on their selections – Miguel Asencio in 2002, D.J. Carrasco in 2003, Jose Bautista in 2004 (who was neatly flipped straight up for Justin Huber), and Andy Sisco in 2005.

Okay, so where does all of this leave the team? In a word, nowhere. The club seems to be adrift, floating without direction or purpose. There is a supposed “youth movement” underway, and we can see signs of that in the bullpen and about half of the lineup. They pushed that agenda beyond reason at times, rushing Nunez, Howell, Bayliss, Murphy, Teahen and Gotay to the big leagues, and refusing to send Greinke down when he struggled so badly in the middle of the year.

At the same time, the team also chose to give significant playing time to the likes of Terrence Long when they could have given those appearances to Matt Diaz, or recalled Shane Costa. They retained the putrid Jose Lima beyond all reason, to the point of actually letting him continue to vest incentive payments with each additional hideous outing. They re-signed Matt Stairs for next season, despite an apparent logjam at the first base/DH positions, and have made some noise about re-signing Long as well. In order to garner meaningless wins late in the year, they regularly benched Teahen to play Joe McEwing, and started Denny Hocking frequently as well.

These are the signs of a team that either doesn’t have a plan or can’t execute on one. So what to do? Here’s my view:
  1. Spend a good chunk of that new, reported $50 million payroll on two good, veteran starting pitchers. One of them (Matt Morris, Kevin Millwood, A.J. Burnett) is likely to cost somewhere north of $10 million per year, and another (Paul Byrd for example) is going to run about $6-$8 million. It’s worth that price to have 400 or more solid innings to replace the output of Jose Lima and the terrifying combination of Jimmy Gobble, Ryan Jensen, Brian Anderson and Kyle Snyder. They would be at the top of a rotation that featured a fully recovered, and hopefully matured, Runelvys Hernandez , either J.P. Howell or Denny Bautista, whichever is more effective, and Zack Greinke, who will hopefully throw exclusively to whatever backup catcher the team keeps and not John Buck. As I have written before, Greinke’s career ERA throwing to Buck is 6.04. It’s 3.40 throwing to anyone else. That rotation can keep the club competitive, particularly with the improved bullpen.
  2. Sign a veteran second baseman, like Mark Grudzielanek or Ray Durham. It will cost at least a couple of million, and possibly five or six million if we manage to sign Durham, but there is clearly no ready replacement on the horizon and the hole is too big to use a stopgap, as the team tried this year.
  3. Move Emil Brown to left field and give him the everyday job.
  4. Give Andres Blanco the everyday shortstop job.
  5. Make Justin Huber the full-time DH.
  6. Keep Teahen, Buck and DeJesus in their current roles, only move DeJesus to the second spot in the batting order to take advantage of the power he's developing.
  7. Trade Mike Sweeney, Matt Stairs, Angel Berroa, Ken Harvey and Jeremy Affeldt. They represent over $15 million of payroll, all of it either aging, ineffective, or both. In return, the club would need a regular first baseman and right fielder, which should be do-able. For instance, Tampa Bay has six players on the current roster who need regular time in the outfield – Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, Joey Gathright, Aubrey Huff, Jonny Gomes and Damon Hollins – plus they have super prospect Delmon Young ready for playing time, too. Since they are desperate for some pitching, a Gathright-for-Affeldt trade, or Gomes-for-Affeldt trade, is entirely possible, particularly now that they don’t have to deal with Chuck LaMar’s strategy of hoarding talent at the expense of filling holes. Getting a first basemen and prospects for Sweeney and some other parts (Casey Kotchman from the Angels? Chad Tracy or Conor Jackson from the Diamondbacks?) should also be possible.

Doing all of this, plus proactively signing David DeJesus to a contract extension that gives him $2 million or so each year but safely removes the danger of much higher numbers in arbitration, would only cost the club about $44 million in payroll next year, and that assumes that Sweeney’s replacement makes about $5 million and it takes $5 million to sign Ray Durham. It would give the Royals a lineup that would look something like this: 2B - Durham, CF - DeJesus, 1B - Kotchman/Jackson/Tracy , RF - Gomes, LF - Brown, DH - Huber, 3B - Teahen, C - Buck, SS - Blanco.

That lineup would score, certainly more than they did this season. And with Butler, Lubanski and Gordon in the pipeline for help in the near future, the team could confidently turn to developing more pitching depth with the first pick of the June draft. It would also give the team two desperately needed things that have been missing for a long, long time.

Direction and Hope.

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