Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

Alex Rios has a thumb injury.

<Insert “thumbs down” emoji here.>

This is a problem. An issue. The Royals, you see, signed Rios to a one-year deal to replace Nori Aoki in right field and to provide some “pop” to a lineup that is very much without “pop.” The signing represented a gamble of sorts for the Royals since Rios slugged .398 last summer and finished with a .118 ISO, his lowest Isolated Power mark since his rookie campaign in 2004. The culprit behind this poor production… The thumb.

This is pretty good, so follow along: The theory is, after Rios suffered a slight right ankle sprain immediately following the All-Star Break, he changed the mechanics of his swing. Because he couldn’t rotate his back foot properly, he allowed pitches to get too far inside on his hands, which caused a thumb contusion. (Hey, don’t kill the messenger. That’s not my theory. It belongs to Rios.) With the entire Ranger team seemingly on the DL last year, Rios played through the pain. The Rangers loved the example he set for young players. The back of his baseball card carries the scar of trying to play through that pain.

Rios in the first half of 2014:
.305/.333/.405 with 4 HR and a 109 wRC+.

Rios in the second half of 2014:
.246/.281/.281 with 0 HR and a 41 wRC+.

The first half was nice enough, but was nowhere near strong enough to withstand the horrid second half Rios put up with his bum thumb.

And now, from McCullough, comes this:

Alex Rios does not expect the occasional discomfort in his right thumb to disappear for good. He played with this condition for the second half of 2014. He has grown used to the pain he experiences on mis-hit balls and ill-timed swings. He described protecting his thumb as a “matter of management from now on” as he begins his first season as a Royal.

Yeah. That’s not good. Especially given his modus operandi from last season of doing everything he could to play through the pain. If the thumb was truly the reason for his second half struggles, this does not bode well for the forthcoming season.

Rios returned to the lineup on Sunday and walked and hit a fly ball to center. In those two plate appearances, he swung the bat twice. We will see how he rebounds on Monday. And Tuesday. And for the rest of the week leading to Opening Day.

For his part, Rios is optimistic about the coming season. (Warning, the link in the previous sentence takes you to a typical spring training puff-piece where we learn that Rios is smiling more this March.) The thumb isn’t going to bother him and he’s going to rebound.

<Insert thumbs up emoji here.>

Rios has had a decent spring. Through Sunday he posted a .333 batting average and clubbed three home runs to go along with three doubles. Easy math says that’s just one less home run than he hit in all of 2014. So maybe it won’t be a rerun of the offensive horror show of last year in Texas. Maybe he has learned how to cope with the pain and maybe it doesn’t affect his power. Maybe the smiles do matter. Dunno. That feels like a rather sunny assessment from a guy who doesn’t want to use injury as an excuse for a decline in production.

Missing a couple of spring training games isn’t exactly a cause for concern and if you, like Rios, are feeling pretty damn good about the Royals and Rios this season, I certainly wouldn’t say you should thumb your nose at your positive feelings. However, I would say this is something that bears watching in the early going. My guess is it’s something that will be apparent almost immediately. I wonder if the Royals knew this issue was going to continue to bother Rios. My guess would be no, otherwise they wouldn’t have committed that kind of money, even if is just for one year.

I decided to dig a little deeper at Rios’s 2014 season and how it related to his overall recent offensive performance. From Jeff Zimmerman’s Baseball Heat Maps site, here is the average distance of Rios’s fly balls from the last five seasons.

2014 – 266.48
2013 – 268.86
2012 – 284.31
2011 – 263.51
2010 – 283.20

Compare how his fly ball distances above correlates to his overall offensive production:

Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2010 29 CHW 147 617 567 89 161 29 3 21 88 34 14 38 93 .284 .334 .457 .791 111
2011 30 CHW 145 570 537 64 122 22 2 13 44 11 6 27 68 .227 .265 .348 .613 63
2012 31 CHW 157 640 605 93 184 37 8 25 91 23 6 26 92 .304 .334 .516 .850 126
2013 32 TOT 156 662 616 83 171 33 4 18 81 42 7 41 108 .278 .324 .432 .756 104
2013 32 CHW 109 465 430 57 119 22 2 12 55 26 6 32 78 .277 .328 .421 .749 102
2013 32 TEX 47 197 186 26 52 11 2 6 26 16 1 9 30 .280 .315 .457 .772 108
2014 33 TEX 131 521 492 54 138 30 8 4 54 17 9 23 93 .280 .311 .398 .709 99
11 Yrs 1586 6518 6034 845 1680 352 61 165 762 244 77 385 1050 .278 .323 .439 .762 102
162 Game Avg. 162 666 616 86 172 36 6 17 78 25 8 39 107 .278 .323 .439 .762 102
TOR (6 yrs) 809 3354 3071 451 875 195 36 81 395 112 33 224 567 .285 .335 .451 .786 105
CHW (5 yrs) 599 2446 2285 314 615 116 15 74 287 99 34 129 360 .269 .310 .430 .740 97
TEX (2 yrs) 178 718 678 80 190 41 10 10 80 33 10 32 123 .280 .312 .414 .726 102
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/29/2015.

Not really surprising. Of the previous five seasons, Rios’s best two were the same seasons he had his best fly ball distances. And what’s interesting is the ankle and thumb injury from the second half didn’t really sap his distance compared to his 2011 and 2013 seasons. It would be nice if the 2014 distance was really out of whack so we could point at his thumb and surmise that is the reason for the poor production. Except based on his recent history, we can’t really do that. Who knows how much the thumb injury caused his power outage? We do know his power production was down before he hurt his thumb. While the injury certainly didn’t help matters, to point to it as the lone reason ignores other signs (and raw numbers) that his power was pulling a disappearing act.

Really, Rios has been so inconsistent over his last five or six seasons, anyone who says with certainty they know what the right fielder will bring to the lineup, they are fooling only themselves. Steamer has Rios at .264/.302/.395 with a 94 wRC+. ZiPS checks in with a line of .281/.313/.419 and a 104 wRC+. PECOTA projects .268/.303/.400. All of those projections are really off of what the Royals would be expecting given the contract they awarded him last winter. But given Rios’s track record of being literally all over the place with his offense, I’m fairly certain he has outperformed projections once or twice in his career.

The Royals are paying Rios $9.5 million for this season and it comes with a $1.5 million buyout on a mutual option for 2016. That’s a hefty price for a guy with a bad thumb who you expect to hit in the middle of your lineup. I won’t go so far as to call Rios a “key to the season” because we’ve all seen strange things happen, and it feels like after what we saw last year this team could potentially absorb an extended absence or a general offensive walkabout. But it’s clear the Royals and Dayton Moore are bouncing on yet another bounce back season from their new right fielder.

Would it surprise me if Rios was better than last year and better than the projections? No, it wouldn’t.

Would it surprise me if Rios fared worse than his horrible 2014 season? No, it wouldn’t.

Basically, I can’t decide if this is worth a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down.”

We are inching ever closer to Opening Day.  Close enough to be teased by baseball on television last night.

Last night, Jason Vargas pitched well.  Louis Coleman and Franklin Morales did not, bringing a little urgency to the ‘exactly how close is Luke Hochevar to being ready?’ equation. It’s spring training, so it is possible that nothing that happened last night means anything.

We know the rotation now, which came with no surprises.  Ventura gets the nod Opening Day, followed by Duffy, Volquez, Vargas and Guthrie. The April schedule offers little in the way of opportunities to shorten the rotation and, given Ventura’s young age, I doubt the Royals would go out of their way to get him extra starts.  They could start Ventura three times in the first nine games and do so on regular rest.  It would not buy the team a roster spot as they would need a fifth starter (Guthrie) on the first weekend of the season no matter what.  After having the first two Tuesdays of the season off, the Royals play nineteen games without an off-day, so there is not a ton of opportunity to hide the back of the rotation even if Yost and Moore actually were to consider it.

Hey, if it was me, I would love to have Ventura AND Duffy each start three times before Jeremy Guthrie got his second start of the year, but that is an aggressive approach with young arms.  Besides, I have no sense that Ned Yost believes the back of his starting rotation needs protection.  Some years, the April schedule almost begs you to get your number one and two starters extra turns, but not this year.

We have also been teased with a ‘likely’ batting order:  Escobar, Gordon, Cain, Hosmer, Morales, Rios, Perez, Moustakas, Infante. I cannot say I hate it, even if it relies heavily on the BABIP fairy sprinkling truckloads of dust on Escobar. Let’s face it, any order you come up relies on Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios to be better (way better) than last year and hopes that Lorenzo Cain and/or Eric Hosmer parlay their post-season success into regular season production.  Plenty of ‘ifs’ and ‘hope so’ when it comes to any batting order Yost writes down.

Early prediction:  Escobar attempts to bunt for a hit on the first pitch of the season.

This team, now that they seemed determined to play a less than healthy Infante at second and have Gordon back in action, is now down to choosing the last guy on the bench and two mop-up relievers (make a note, NED:  MOP…UP…, not a need a lefty pitching with two on and one out in the 7th). Color me less than motivated this morning. Mark me down as ready for April 6th.

I’m certain you’ve seen this by now:

SI Cover

More cover love from Sports Illustrated. Pretty nice. Although I don’t think Royals PR is too thrilled.

Hey, any cover is a good cover, right? At any rate, it’s regional, which probably takes some of the luster off of the honor, although I suppose it’s necessary with the dwindling subscription and ad rates in magazine land. Things are tough all over. That’s why I choose to make my millions on the blog. (Nice touch adding Wichita State. I’m now officially on the fence as to whether I’ll purchase this.)

The other teams honored with regional covers were the Mariners, the Nationals, and the Indians. And from the looks of things, they have picked the Indians to win.

Clark has covered the various roster scenarios and with a little less than two weeks, it appears the remaining competition for spots comes down to Paulo Orlando or Moises Sierra on the bench (although Clark mentions Ryan Jackson or Ryan Roberts as options) and a four man competition for the bullpen between Luke Hochevar, Louis Coleman, Bryan Flynn, and Ryan Madson.

My money is on Coleman going north with the club.

The spot is Hochevar’s if he’s ready to start the season. I think he’s close, but the team is going to be very careful, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he opens the year on the DL and stays behind in extended spring training. Flynn is on the 40-man roster, but has options remaining. Madson is in camp as a non-roster invitee. That leaves Coleman who has exhausted his options. That means if the Royals decide to sent him to the minors at any time this year, they will first have to pass him through waivers. Plenty can happen in the next 10 days and there will likely be plenty of teams looking for relief help. With rosters in flux ahead of Opening Day, if the Royals truly want to keep Coleman, they would risk losing him on a waiver claim. If the Royals stash Hochevar on the DL and keep Coleman to start the season, then expose him to waivers once Hochevar is ready to return, the likelihood of him going unclaimed probably increases. Of course, that’s with the thinking the Royals would like to keep Coleman, which I’m certain they do, given how he’s thrown this spring.

The good news in all of this is it looks like the Royals are going with the seven-man bullpen. “Good” news is relative since they were openly flirting with using eight relievers.

— The Royals will play in three home openers this year. They open at home against the White Sox, travel to Anaheim where they are the Angels opponent in their home opener, and from there they go to Minnesota for the Twins Opening Day.

— Welcome back Uncle Hud as Fox Sports Kansas City broadcasts their first Royals game of the year tonight. First pitch against the White Sox is at 8. It’s been far too long.

The most recent scuttlebutt (that’s right: scuttlebutt) out of camp reveals that Ned Yost is leaning towards a seven man bullpen and four man bench. That certainly is a more sensible approach to roster management.

The first three bench spots are locks:  Jarrod Dyson, Eric Kratz and Christian Colon. The same Royals.com article that suggests the prevailing winds are blowing towards a seven man pen also speculates that the fourth spot would likely belong to one of Paulo Orlando or Moises Sierra.   I would, however, offer that infielders Ryan Jackson and Ryan Roberts might also be in the mix, if only because they can play the position that is likely the weakest in the lineup: second base.

All four of those players hit right-handed.  Roberts has a ton of big league experience and can play some outfield if necessary. Sierra has played 180 games over the past three seasons in the majors, while Jackson has limited big league time.  Orlando has been in the organization for seemingly forever. If you squint just right, you can see some potential upside in Sierra, but in the end you have four guys who are, not so shockingly, ‘last guy on the bench’ guys.

The bench – you know, the place that Ned Yost really didn’t discover existed until the post-season.  Kudos, however, to Yost for what I really thought was a good job of managing both his bench and bullpen (Ventura in relief excepted) during that time.  Does that mean that he will continue to use it to such an extent?  I’m skeptical, if only because long term change is hard (I’m an old guy, and basically immune to change myself) and also because the American League regular season simply does not lend itself to using the bench much.

How could Yost utilize a four man bench this season, should he so choose?

Well, we know Kratz is going to catch…once in a while.  The Royals might try to assign Kratz to a particular starter if only to force Yost to not write Sal’s name in the lineup every fifth day.  They could simply go with the old ‘day game after night game’ plan, which would give Perez every Sunday and some Thursdays off. Whatever it is they need to plan it out and stick to it.

The second part of the backup catcher equation is that Yost, like many managers, is absolutely terrified of not having his backup catcher waiting on the bench for that one foul tip that knocks his starting catcher out of the game.  While Kratz has some appeal (not a lot, some) as a pinch hitter due to his moderate amount power, Yost will almost never, ever use him in that role simply because the idea of having Perez go down with a late-game injury and not have a bonafide catcher ready to go in.

Colon is the utility infielder, a guy likely to get a start at second every week and maybe one a third every other week. I don’t see him pinch-hitting for either Infante or Moustakas (or anyone else for that matter) and, short of continuing nagging injury issues with Infante, getting more than six or seven starts per month.  Standard utility infielder sort of stuff.  We can lament that a fourth overall pick in the draft turned into this, but it is what it is at this point.

In the end, the entire discussion about the bench and it being three guys or four, really comes down to how Yost wants to use Jarrod Dyson.  If the Royals were hellbent on roster flexibility, they likely would opt to keep Ryan Roberts, who has played some outfield in addition to his usual infield roles (although not much short, by the way), but that they are thinking the fourth bench spot will be possessed by an outfielder tells me they want the freedom to use Dyson more often.

In particular, they want to pinch-run Dyson for Kendrys Morales – likely any time Morales gets on base after the sixth inning.  In reality, Yost should really use Dyson to run not just for Morales, but also Moustakas and Infante as well (yes, Perez, but refer to the above and just accept it).   We can speculate all we want about how to really, REALLY, utilize the bench, but when the real games start and Ned Yost is in command, bench utilization comes down to when and if to insert Jarrod Dyson into a contest as a pinch-runner.  That is your entire Kansas City Royals bench equation.

Now, after a few months pass, the Royals may grow weary of Alex Rios’ defense in rightfield and using Dyson as a defensive replacement might well come back. We know that the best defense alignment the Royals have – regardless of whether we see ‘good Rios’ or ‘disinterested Rios’ – is Gordon-Dyson-Cain.  I doubt that we will see any sort of regular defensive substitutions in the outfield until summer time.

Given the Royals’ lineup and their manager’s preference for playing his regulars regularly, it is not necessarily a criticism that the entire theory about who and how many players to carry on the bench centers around how much the team utilizes Dyson as a runner. In fact, given the realities of the situation, it is probably the right way to look at the situation.

 

The Royals made several cuts on Sunday, shipping nine players to the minor leagues. Among those was one of the heroes of last October, Brandon Finnegan.

This is very good news.

You recall the Royals had been weighing keeping Finnegan in the majors as a reliever, or farming him out to be a starter. Would they go for the short-term option and bring him north with the team as a piece of the bullpen? Or would they keep an eye on the long-term and send him to the minors in order to get work as a starter? Finnegan’s struggles this spring made it all but impossible for the Royals to break camp with him on the roster.

Finnegan made four appearances this spring, throwing 6.1 innings and allowing nine hits, four walks and four strikeouts. Among those hits were two home runs. And it’s not like he was getting crushed by major league hitters. Sure, there were some players in the mix that he faced, but according to Baseball Reference, his quality of opposing hitters faced graded out at a 7.7. An eight is considered Triple-A talent.

Between Finnegan’s final collegiate season, his start in the minor leagues after being the Royals first-round draft pick, and his final September and October turn in the Royals bullpen, he logged over 145 innings. Quite the workload for someone of his age and experience. Although it was an amazingly successful year for Finnegan, no matter where he was pitching, he wasn’t able to replicate that high level of output this spring.

Baseball Prospectus had this scouting report on Finnegan from early in the spring:

While the TCU product is coming off an impressive inaugural campaign, there are notable transformations in his frame and pitching approach. Finnegan looks to have put on weight, with some thickness noticeable in the mid-portion of his body. The extra bulk on the frame isn’t necessarily a red flag, but could potentially push him towards a bullpen role sooner rather than later. Finnegan is showing more exertion in his delivery this spring, with a mild arm drag. He still has the big drive and hides the ball out of his hand due to a slight rotational delivery. The fastball was 91-93 mph and lacked the same big plane and explosiveness from last season, which led to a first-pitch homer to Kyle Kubitza on a grooved fastball down the middle. The slider was sharp and displayed hard bite while entering the zone, flashing plus.

I was wondering about Finnegan’s weight (yes, I know) as he looked a little puffier in interviews he conducted in Surprise, although I was wanting to actually see him pitch before I made a comment. Finnegan carries a little weight at 5’11” and 185 pounds and his frame seems like the kind that would gain a few if he wasn’t devoted to winter conditioning. It’s only speculation on my part, but maybe he didn’t take the best care of himself this winter (gasp!) and maybe he wasn’t in the best shape of his life. He wouldn’t be the first prospect to fall into that trap. Everything was spectacular for him last year, so maybe he didn’t think about, or didn’t understand, the required work he needed to put in in order to remain a major leaguer.

So maybe this is a win-win. The Royals win because they get to try to develop one of the better arms in their system as a starter. Finnegan gets an early career wake-up call that hard work is required to play in the bigs. As I wrote earlier, Finnegan’s future is in the Royals rotation. I still believe that despite the above scouting report. Even if he washes out as a starter, at least the Royals will have tried and they can fall back to Plan B. However, the Royals will have at least one spot open in the rotation in 2016. It would be nice to have him compete – and win – a key role on this team going forward.

For now, Finnegan is going to the minors to pitch out of the rotation. He will build stamina and work on refining his change-up. If he can do those two things, there’s no reason to think he couldn’t contribute in Kansas City next season. Barring another late-season call-up for an October run.

If you have been around long enough or, at least, hung around some old guys and not spent that entire time making sure you displayed to the old guys how much more intelligent you are, then you might well have heard tales of a long extinct creature called the nine man pitching staff.  NINE (9).  Hell, I bet they even brought up a four man rotation! Those were the days, my friend.

Even within the last twenty-five years, starting pitchers were racking up 250 innings per year with at least some degree of regularity.  Go back a decade or two more and check the innings pitched.  Worried about James Shields pitching too many innings?  Steve Busby and Dennis Leonard sneer at you.  Let’s not kid ourselves, Bret Saberhagen and Mark Gubicza even sneer.

The five man (or even four at times) bullpens are gone forever.  Now, it seems, carrying just six relievers makes many managers edgy.  Seven is/has become the norm and now, here were are on the first official day of Spring and no one in Surprise has come out and said ‘No, carry eight relievers is crazy.’   Maybe it is not, but it does beg the question as to how much you really – really – use those last couple of relievers.

In 2014, 102 relievers appeared in at least 30 games for American League clubs.  Thirty appearances is a arbitrary number – more than Eric Kratz will appear this year – but at least seems like a reasonable number to use for something equating to a ‘full time reliever’.  By that clumsy approach, 102 pitchers for fifteen teams is almost exactly a seven man bullpen for each squad.  Of course, thirty appearances is basically pitching once per week plus one extra appearance.

If a reliever threw 10 times in a month, would you consider him overworked?  Short of going three innings a stint, I would not.  That level of game involvement would equate to 60 appearances per season.  Fifty-one pitchers made that many relief appearances.  However, innings matter, so let’s ratchet down to 45 appearances and we have 75 ‘full-time’ relievers or five per team. From a purely ‘feels right’ perspective, it seems as though most teams lean on five main relievers with an often carousel of junk, situational, warm-body types filling out the last two spots.  That does not mean you don’t need those sixth and seventh guys, it simply shows you don’t need them as often.

Overall, there were 7,225 relief appearances in the American League last season, totaling 7,338 innings.  That averages out to 482 appearances and 489 relief innings per team.  The Royals used 451 total relief appearances to log 462 innings.

Holland, Davis and Herrera appeared in 65, 71 and 70 games respectively, with Aaron Crow pitching in another 67 (no comment).   After those four, the next most used reliever was Louis Coleman, who pitched 34 innings over 31 games.  He was closely followed by Francisley Bueno’s 30 games and 32 innings.  Let’s take a liberty or two here and combine the mid-season acquisitions of Jason Frasor (23 appearances) and Scott Downs (17 appearances) with Coleman and Bueno.  That would give Kansas City’s ‘fifth’ reliever (Coleman/Frasor) a season total of 54 games and 52 innings.  The Bueno-Downs sixth reliever would have totaled 47 appearances and 47 innings.

Now, the Royals are down to Tim Collins (22 appearances), Michael Mariot (17) and Casey Coleman (10).  Combined, that is 49 appearances and 58 innings for the seventh reliever.   So, exactly when does the eighth guy pitch?  Frankly, with Holland, Davis, Herrera, Frasor, Young and, come mid-April, Hochevar, when does the SEVENTH guy pitch?

If the meat of the Royals’ bullpen even approaches the level of effectiveness as last year, the team could carry (a.k.a HIDE) Rule 5 Jandel Gustave as the seventh reliever, not the eighth, and give themselves some flexibility on the bench with an extra position player.  As I wrote earlier in the week (or was it Craig?  we can’t tell each other apart), Ned Yost is not exactly prone to making a lot of in-game maneuvers with his position players, but it would be at least nice to have some options to debate on Twitter.

Eight relievers?  Seemed silly in February, seems even sillier now.

 

 

Assuming, it is a pretty big assumption right now, that Omar Infante is healthy, you know exactly what the Royals’ 2015 starting lineup is going to be and the starting rotation AND the first five guys in the bullpen.

A bad elbow and mending wrist notwithstanding, this is your 2015 Kansas City Royals:

C – Salvador Perez, 1B – Eric Hosmer, 2B – Omar Infante, SS – Alcides Escobar, 3B- Mike Moustakas, LF – Alex Gordon, CF – Lorenzo Cain, RF – Alex Rios, DH – Kendrys Morales

Starting Rotation – Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy, Edinson Volquez, Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie

Bullpen – Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Jason Frasor and Chris Young

Bench Locks – Jarrod Dyson and Eric Kratz

That is twenty-one players locked in to the roster and, honestly, the twenty-one that are going to play and pitch the most.  One could make the argument (again, not factoring in injuries) that whatever the Royals decide to do with the remaining four spots will have little impact on how the season plays out. That may very well be true and it could mean good things or bad things for how this team will perform in 2015. Time will tell, duh, and this isn’t my ‘if this goes right and this goes right and that breaks just right’ column, nor is it time for Craig’s ‘if this happens it will be bad and then that will bad and then I’m going to spend the summer tweeting about soccer’ column.

Back to the roster for now.

As we discussed yesterday, a third bench spot is likely destined to be Christian Colon’s, but it could end up in the hands (or is it the rear?) of Ryan Jackson or Ryan Roberts.  Somebody to spell Infante and maybe Moustakas against a tough lefty now and then.  A guy you can put in if Alcides Escobar gets spiked at second and has to sit out his three innings per year.  Now we are at twenty-two.

With more and more rumblings pointing towards Luke Hochevar not being quite ready for the start of the season and non-roster invitee (and lefty) Franklin Morales pitching well, it would seem the Royals will break camp with two Morales on the roster.  That’s twenty-three.

We also know that few teams, if any, can seem to function without a seven man bullpen and the Royals are absolutely on board with that.  Frankly, I am not sure I have ever heard a manager worry more about overusing his bullpen than Ned Yost does. Hell, I don’t know, maybe he’s right in doing so. Bottom line:  the Royals will carry at least seven relievers and that, to me, indicates that the out of options Louis Coleman will get at least a temporary reprieve and stay with the team to start the season.  I would advise a extended stay hotel as opposed to an apartment, Louis, as it would seem that Luke Hochevar’s return would knock Coleman from the 25 man roster.  Coleman or maybe Ryan Madson or Brian Flynn or Yohan Pino…one of those guys gets this spot and now we are at twenty-four.

Wait, wait, wait, you say?!  What about Rule 5 guy Jandel Gustave.  He of the 100 mile per hour fastball who must stay on the major league roster all season to remain a Royal?  Go back to my previous paragraph about Ned Yost and bullpen usage.  In a season where Kansas City intends to compete for the division title, do you think Ned will want his seventh spot – however, unused it might realistically be – occupied by a guy he doesn’t really want to pitch unless up 10 or down 10?  Couple that mentality with Dayton Moore’s valuation of inventory (i.e. what if Louis Coleman goes somewhere else and pitches 31 good innings?) and I think Gustave goes north ONLY as the reliever number eight.

Now, the Royals are at twenty five guys and only three of them are bench players and one of those is Jarrod Dyson, who you would like to use as a late inning weapon on the basepaths or for defense.  Or would you?

I seriously doubt whether the Royals will remove Alex Rios for defense early on this year.  I mean, messing with domes and such.  Go back up and look at the starting lineup.  Who in that list would you pinch-run for?  Before your answer, keep in mind the premium that Yost puts on defense and that Colon is likely a downgrade defensively from the starters at second, short and third.  Ned is probably not pulling Perez, Moustakas or Infante for a runner unless one of them is on representing the tying or winning run in the bottom of the ninth (maybe you throw Rios in there, but he runs pretty good…and domes, you know).

If Dyson is going to be a seldom used pinch-runner and a possibly never used (at least for a the first month or so) defensive replacement then do the Royals need a four man bench?  Yost is not going to pinch hit and he is not going to platoon.  Really, the bench comes down to giving guys a day off here and there.  A team that is not going to use its bench for in game strategy does not need very many guys sitting on it.

It remains possible that Yost will surprise me.  He might pinch run Dyson often.  He might tell Rios to live with it and play Dyson in the field every eighth and ninth inning of the season.  He might pinch hit for Moustakas and sit Infante often (Ned might not have a choice there).  He might….

More likely, however, is the Royals breaking camp with eight relievers or, at least, going to eight relievers as soon as Luke Hochevar is ready to join the big league team in mid to late April.  At least Eric Kratz will have room to spread out and be comfortable as he watches 140 games this year.

 

 

Ned Yost is hoping to get ten (10) spring training games out of Omar Infante, with the idea being that will be enough to get the ailing second baseman ready for the regular season.  Hey, when you have a 33 year old middle infielder with a career line of .276/.316/.395 with a bad elbow that likely needs surgery, you do what you have to do to get him on the field.

The Royals seem hell-bent on trying to coax Infante through the 2015 season as opposed to getting the troublesome elbow fixed.  It could be all about the money as Infante is in the second year of a four year/thirty million dollar deal, but that seems more like something that might have happened ten years ago, not now.  They might just be hoping that the 2013 version of Omar somehow reappears despite the injures (Infante posted a triple slash of .318/.345/.450 that year and a respectable 2.4 bWAR), but it would be wise for all to note that Infante’s 2011 and 2012 seasons resembled 2014 much more than the good 2013 campaign.

Basically, since being an All-Star (and a fairly legitimate one at that) in 2010, three of Omar Infante’s next four years were sub-par.  He’s battling an injury and not getting any younger.  Yet, the Royals are praying, pushing and hoping he is going to be in Ned Yost’s lineup come April 6th. We joke and commiserate about things the Royals do – yes, even after being a Madison Bumgarner away from a World Championship – but is this situation less about money and what they perceive Infante to be as a player and more about the other options in camp?

Christian Colon, who by most accounts is the leader to make the team as the utility infielder, would be first in line should Infante not be ready to go. A former fourth overall pick in 2010 draft who was pegged to have a somewhat low ceiling but would be quick to the majors did, in fact, make it to the majors….after four years in the minors.  He has hit the crap out of the ball this spring, but made a couple of errors and been caught stealing twice.  Colon hit well in 49 major league plate appearances in 2014 as well.  If only a career could be made on good springs and 20 games in the majors:  Angel Berroa might still be playing.  Last I saw Angel, he was ordering a lemonade…from a vendor…while playing shortstop…in an independent league (American Association) game.

Anyone see a little bit of a Mike Aviles career (both the good and the bad) in Christian Colon?  It is possible they Royals see something along that lines and are fearful they’ll get the 2011 Aviles and not the 2008 if Colon were to take the field for an extended string of games. As much as the organization currently values defense (a good thing, by the way), they may view the gap between an 80% healthy Infante and what Colon brings with the glove too wide to tolerate in the middle of the infield.

After Colon, the Royals have two Ryans.  Jackson, the one with few if any tattoos, and Roberts, the one with a ton of them.

The twenty-six year old Jackson has 25 major league plate appearances on his resume and, like seemingly everyone so far, has knocked the ball all around the park this spring. In the minors, he has displayed a consistent ability to get on-base while playing 508 of his 572 career games at shortstop.  In fact, Jackson has played just 23 games at second in the minors. Truthfully, if you can play shortstop, you can play second – I don’t even think there is a learning curve other than turning the pivot on the double play, which for a professional shortstop, should take about a day.

Unlike Colon and Jackson, Ryan Roberts has been around:  five major league teams and 1,692 plate appearances.  During that time, the thirty-four year old has hit a combined .243/.320/.388.  He played 143 games in both 2011 and 2012, but only mustered 68 major league appearances the last two years.  This Ryan has played just three innings of shortstop in the majors in his career, but – at least in his prime – posted decent defensive metrics at both second and third.  If the Royals decide Infante cannot make a go of it to start the season, they may opt to lean on the veteran Roberts to carry the load at second.

Of course, if you want ‘veteran’, then you were delighted to hear that the Royals singed Rafael Furcal to a minor-league deal.  Now, Furcal has had a really nice career since winning Rookie of the Year in 2000.  The problem is that almost all of the ‘nice’ occurred prior to 2011.  He has been neither healthy nor productive for the past four seasons and is not healthy right now.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this signing.  Take a flyer on a guy to see if he can get healthy (it’s hamstrings this time, I believe) and once there, see if he can be even a shadow of the player he used to be.

The Royals may be thinking that if Infante gives it a go to start the season and eventually breaks down completely, they could then turn to the hopefully by then healthy Furcal to step in.  Not a bad plan C at all.  The problem at second base right now, however, is Plan A and B may not be very good.

If we’ve learned anything about Ned Yost the last several years, it’s that he enjoys automation.

He doesn’t care for the match-ups. He likes defined roles. A sixth-inning left-hander? If he could, he would.

And so it goes for the lineup. Yost rolled through the end of September and the entire postseason with a single lineup. Just in case you don’t remember:

Escobar – SS
Aoki – RF
Cain – CF
Hosmer – 1B
Butler – DH
Gordon – LF
Perez – C
Infante – 2B
Moustakas – 3B

How could you forget? Based on what happened after Yost decided this was his batting order, that lineup should be legendary.

Seasons change, though, and players move on. Gone from the starting nine from last summer are Nori Aoki and Billy Butler. And their leaving the team has created two rather large holes in the lineup. Of course, they have been replaced by Alex Rios and Kendrys Morales. The issue for Yost is, neither one of his new bats profiles as a number two hitter. This means he will have to do some shuffling and will have to figure out a new optimum lineup.

Alcides Escobar is back at the top of the order. Despite September and October, this is less than ideal. The shortstop has 3,198 plate appearances in his career and has posted a .299 on base percentage. Naturally, the Royals will tell you he performed really well at the leadoff spot. And that is the truth. In the final 15 games, Escobar hit .375/.412/.484. Neat, except he walked three times in 68 plate appearances. That’s a 4.4 percent walk rate. That’s actually right in line with his career walk rate of 4.2 percent. It turns out Escobar’s final two weeks of the regular season was powered by a .411 BABIP.

In the postseason, Escobar continued to Escobar. Meaning, he swung the bat and made a bunch of contact. In 70 plate appearances in October, Escobar walked once. He finished with a .310 on base percentage. The Royals won a bunch of games.

With spring training rolling along, the Royals are primed to give the leadoff spot back to Escobar full-time. If you’re OK with this, that means you’re buying two weeks of games and overlooking a career that spans parts of seven seasons. That essentially means you’re on the side of the Royals. If you think this is a less than optimal idea, that means you are dismissing his torrid close to the season as a simple hot streak. It means you hope the Royals decide on Plan B before Plan A condemns the team to a place in the middle of the American League pack.

I think you can guess where I fall.

If you disagree with me, “Who would you hit leadoff?” is the question you’re asking. Totally fair. Why not Alex Gordon back at leadoff? He’s done it before and he’s done well in that role. According to Baseball Reference, his tOPS+ at the top of the order is 111. (That’s the measure of a player’s OPS+ relative to his own career. In other words, he’s performed better hitting leadoff than, say, hitting fourth, where his tOPS+ is 68.)

I don’t know why the Royals are fighting this so much. Gordon doesn’t fit the leadoff profile, but he’s accumulated more plate appearances batting first than any other spot in the order. That’s a credit to Yost for thinking outside the box. But damn, if he doesn’t want to jump right back in that box. Escobar may look like a leadoff hitter, but he makes far too many outs. It’s not always about the walks when you hit leadoff (although a 12 percent walk rate seems to be the cutoff for successful leadoff hitters) it’s about getting on base. And Escobar’s OBP is powered entirely by the base hit, meaning his success as a hitter is tied to his batting average on balls in play. That’s a dangerous cocktail. The Royals, for all their throwback offensive appeal, still lack a leadoff hitter in the vein of that 1980’s burner. The Willie Wilson type who did everything he could to get on base and then run with abandon. Jarrod Dyson is a burner for sure, but he lacks the offensive acumen. Besides, he’s a fourth outfielder. He’s not in this conversation.

The Royals see Escobar as a steady, durable and dependable player. I agree with that assessment. However, that doesn’t translate to a successful leadoff hitter. They see Gordon as a “run producer.” That’s a throwback term for RBI guy. Which is a horrible way to look at hitters in the lineup.

For this team to get the most out of their offense, they need someone more adept at avoiding outs at the top of the order. That means hitting Gordon leadoff.

We’ve had about a week of games and the Royals have yet to lose. At this point, I’m ready to accept this team for what it clearly is – and will be – in 2015: Amazingly awesome. I don’t see how any team will beat them. They’re like the Kentucky of the MLB, just coming at you in waves. They may lose… In 2016.

(This is my opinion as of Monday night. I reserve the right to change it on Tuesday.)

With a 6-0 record, it seems like a decent time to throw some spring notes up on the Interwebs to see what sticks.

Alex Gordon Watch

Gordon is slated to take live batting practice for the first time this spring on Tuesday. This all seems to be on schedule with his timetable he put forth last month at FanFest, give or take a few days. Gordon still feels like he will be ready to play on Opening Day.

Luke Hochevar throws bullpen session

In his latest step in recovery from Tommy John surgery, Hochevar threw another side session in Surprise. The arm action is there, so now the Royals are monitoring how he recovers. In other words, the key day isn’t when he throws, it’s the day after.

As long as he feels fine, the Royals are targeting his next action in a spring training game. Good news for the Royals bullpen if Hochevar can open the year in Kansas City.

Ailing Infante

Omar Infante is expected to take batting practice on Tuesday. It will be his first action since receiving a cortisone shot on his right elbow.

We traveled this path last year with Infante as arm and shoulder issues clearly bothered his throwing. His hitting suffered, too, enough to make it his least productive season as a professional. Poor timing as he was in the first year of a four-year, $30.25 million contract. We will see how Infante progresses this spring, but this doesn’t bode well for the upcoming year.

Bubba Starling in camp

I missed this, but Starling made contact on Sunday against the Angels, twice flying out to center. That was after five strikeouts in his first five plate appearances.

The knock on Starling has always centered around pitch recognition. Specifically, his lack of said pitch recognition. To me, he’s not on the radar anymore so it’s kind of irrelevant that he’s in the major league camp. I suppose it’s nice the Royals have brought him in for the first couple of weeks of spring and it’s good that he can talk to George Brett and Mike Moustakas, but let’s be real – this prospect ship sailed long ago. That’s what happens when you strikeout over a quarter of the time in A and high-A ball.

 

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