Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

Episode #020 – Nick reviews the Angels series and previews the Tigers series.  He also discusses the umpiring fiasco from Thursdays game, the possible ascension of the franchise and the return of Danny Duffy.

:http://www.livekc.com/podcasts/bbs020.mp3|titles=BBS

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A week ago today, I wrote a column speculation on how many players the Royals would need to add right now to become a contender.   The number I came up with was eight.   Some commenters suggested nine (the ninth being a catcher) was the more reasonable number and that may well be true.

Be it eight players or nine players, I summarized that column by pointing out that it is possible that maybe all but one of those positions could be filled by the ever improving farm system.   There are two big problems with that sentence however:

  1. Not all prospects reach their potential.
  2. While prospects develop the major league roster changes.   You might fill one spot, only to have another open up due to contract issues, age, etc.   Basically, it is all fine and good that Mike Montgomery might well be an ace-type pitcher in 2013, but that won’t make the Royals any better if Zack Greinke left via free agency after the 2012 season.

In my mind, Greinke is the crux of the issue.   Unlike Carlos Beltran or Johnny Damon, it is not a lock that Zack will leave the Royals once his current contract expires.   If Kansas City is beginning to look like a winning organization during the 2011 and 2012 seasons and IF management is judicious in allocating salary, the possibility of resigning Greinke is relatively high in my opinion.      

Should the Royals still be floundering along at 70-92 and Greinke is still getting less run support than a college softball pitcher, what would be his incentive to stay?   Sure, he may not want to pitch in New York, but they score lots of runs in Anaheim, Texas, Tampa and Chicago.     

If you want to keep Greinke, then The Process has to be showing real signs of coming to fruition no later than the start of the 2012 season.   In fact, the Royals probably need to be at least looking like contender if not actually contending next season.   

The message:  don’t abandon The Process, but let’s get focused and hurry up.

Now, back to last week’s column.   The eight players that I thought the Royals needed were:

  1. Number two starting pitcher
  2. Number three/four starting pitcher
  3. Middle reliever
  4. A second middle reliever
  5. Impact, corner infield bat
  6. Good defensive middle infielder with an average-plus bat
  7. Good defensive centerfielder with an average-plus bat (or better)
  8. Impact, corner outfield bat

Where can the Royals afford to build from within and where do they need to be aggressive and go find someone to fill those spots from outside the organization?

If the Royals were a better offensive team and Gil Meche was healthy, they probably have a good enough starting five as it is.  That said, better than ‘good enough’ is preferable.  With the return of Danny Duffy (even if 2010 is pretty much a lost year), you have to like the idea of having him, Mike Montgomery and Aaron Crow all within hailing distance of the majors.   I am content to wait for one of those three to emerge as that number two starter by the end of 2011.

The key to making that happen, however, is getting Gil Meche healthy and here’s why.   Meche has zero trade value right now.   The Royals would be wise to take months making sure Gil is really at full strength before running him out to the mound.     There would be nothing wrong with a healthy Gil Meche being your number two starter for the first three months of 2011.    When healthy and right, as he was in 2007 and 2008, Meche truly is a number two starter.   He would buy time for Montgomery and company.   Can he get healthy and right?  Hard to say, but you might as well keep Meche around to find out as opposed to dumping him for little or no value this year.   So, the plan for the number two starter is keep Gil Meche, while you wait for Montogmery, Duffy or Crow to take his spot.   Keep in mind, if this scenario plays out, Meche will have real allure as a trade chip next July.

As for the number four type starter, I again am content to wait for the three guys above to come to the majors.   Behind them comes the John Lamb, Chris Dwyer, Tim Melville, Kelvin Herrera, etc. group of arms, who will also come into consideration as Hochevar, Bannister and Davies begin to become contract issues (or get worse, instead of better).

Truthfully, I like the Royals rotation of the future.   A 2011 crew of Greinke, Meche, Hochevar, Bannister, Montgomery/Davies would morph into a 2012 rotation of Greinke, Montgomery, Hochevar, Crow/Duffy, Bannister/Davies and frankly, if you resign Greinke, get better from there.   That statement allows for one of the Crow-Duffy-Montgomery trio to wash out and really counts on just one of the next group of young arms to truly develop into a major league starter.

Anyway, when it comes to the two starting pitchers the Royals need, I will ‘Trust The Process’ and do so without any hint of sarcasm.

When it comes to the two bullpen arms I believe this team needs, Robinson Tejeda might have already filled one of those spots, but let’s be greedy and add two more arms anyway.   Again, I like what the system has to offer in Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Blaine Hardy among others.   Heck, considering I am talking about your fourth and fifth best bullpen arms, I might be willing to see if Dusty Hughes can continue to develop.  

Although Dayton Moore has done a lot the last two years to test my faith that ‘you can always find a competent middle reliever’, I am still going to stick with the organization to fill these roles or a low-cost veteran arm when the time comes.

Whether it is in July or October, the Royals are going to lose Jose Guillen and gain $12 million dollars.   When they do, someone should pin Dayton Moore down and tattoo ‘Kila Kaaihue is my designated hitter for 2011′ on his hand.   It is very possible that Kila might be only a modest (if that) improvement over Guillen, but Kansas City has to finally find out.    Spending time and money to fill this spot is simply a waste, given that one of your number one picks (Eric Hosmer)will be playing first base in AA come 2011.    While Kila is not really fill one of ‘the eight’, he fills a spot so that the organization can actually focus on ‘the eight’.

Mike Moustakas, on the other hand, IS one of ‘the eight’.   Is there anyone out there that is not hoping for a mid-season promotion to AAA, followed by an early season call-up to be the everyday third baseman sometime in 2011?   In the interim, Alberto Callaspo still hits and seems to annoy me a lot less in the field at third than he did at second.   The Royals can take their time with Moustakas, but they don’t have to be deliberate about it either.  I am content to rely on Moustakas to be my impact, corner infielder.

Since we are talking about impact bats, let’s move to the outfield corner.   Do we believe in Alex Gordon here or not?  Do we have a choice?   At some point this year, the Royals will bring Gordon up to play either right or left field.   When they do so, they had better be ready to give him 2011, too.     Kansas City pretty much has to give Alex one more chance to become that impact bat because there is no other outfielder anywhere close in the system that can fill this role.  

The downside to this year and one half commitment is pretty limited in my opinion.   Not only does Guillen salary come off the books this year, Meche’s will be gone after 2011.   Sure, other players (Greinke notably) will be getting paid more, but the Royals could still have some serious spare change in the cushions to go get an established free agent outfield bat after the 2011 season if Gordon washes out.

Okay, so now I am running the risk of being a Dayton Moore apologist, as I have filled six of my eight spots with homegrown talent.   I have done so, however, without counting on every pitcher to develop or speculating on a dramatic rise through the system by Eric Hosmer or Wil Myers.   I may be optimistic, but not euphoric…I don’t think, anyway.

Let’s stay in the outfield for a moment.   As I write this, it becomes clear to me that the Royals should keep David DeJesus and pick up his option for 2011.   We know what we will get from DeJesus and it is, frankly, pretty good baseball.   Having him around in 2011 gives Mitch Maier, David Lough and Jordan Parraz a little extra time to become, well, the next David DeJesus.   Hey, there is nothing wrong with one DeJesus in an outfield – two, however, is one too many.  That takes us to player number seven in our ascension to contention, who happens to be a centerfielder.

I am intriuged by Derrick Robinson, who spent four seasons proving to us that he could not hit, only to revert to his high school batting stance and suddenly pop the ball to the tune of .302/.394/.390 so far this year in AA.  Robinson brings tremendous speed and defense to the table, but two months in a hitters’ league does not a surefire prospect make.

That said, the free agent market the next two years is not exactly ripe with possibilities.   Next year, in fact, is pretty much without any real solution.   After the 2011 season, how do you feel about a 35 year old Carlos Beltran?   What about Nate McLouth or Grady Sizemore, assuming their options don’t get picked up?  I don’t know, man, I just don’t know.

This is a position that I think you go out and try to trade for a prospect or younger player that is, basically, a better prospect than Derrick Robinson.   That takes us back to getting Gil Meche healthy and a viable tradeable commodity at the deadline in 2011.   Perhaps you could package a Brian Bannister and Alberto Callaspo to fill this spot or do you same them for….

….player number eight:  the middle infielder.  

Again, I don’t see a ready solution in the system.  Somewhere between Mike Aviles, Chris Getz (yes, I said CHRIS GETZ), Jeff Bianchi and Johnny Giavotella, you have one solid middle infielder, but I’m not sure you want to base your playoff run on having two of them up the middle.   Maybe, but maybe not.

Truthfully, there is enough potential there that the Royals don’t have to panic (you know, go out and trade for Yuniesky Betancourt or something), but they ought to be looking around.   A guy like Yunel Escobar comes to mind, although his current mental state is pushing him closer to a Betancourt-type player than a real solution-type player.

In a stream of consciousness type of writing style, I find myself wondering what type of young player a team could net if the trade package was Meche (healthy and effective, mind you), Bannister AND Callaspo?   If the Royals made that trade in mid-2011 and the return was a potential star player in centerfield then maybe they can contend with a middle infield of Aviles and Bianchi in 2012.   Or, in the alternative, maybe they could live with Robinson or Lough in center if they had a star shortstop in the making.

Is it possible the Royals are six internal players, one star acquisition and a year and one-half away from contending for a period of years?   If so, is a healthy Gil Meche the single most critical piece of the entire puzzle?  

Honestly, all six of the prospects I am counting on to fill these positions won’t come through.  I think five is more likely, which puts this team one big, good trade and one rather expensive free agent away and all that without dealing with the catching situtation.   That said, I can actually see the future and, rose colored glasses or not, it looks promising. 

I am interested to hear what some of you think about the above scenario or feel free to propose one of your own.   Also, check back for the Royals Authority Annual Mock Draft coming this weekend.

That was a tidy ballgame.  You don’t often see 6-3 games clock in under 2:15 like Tuesday’s.  I hate to go all Denny Mathews on you, but I do enjoy the quick ballgame.  Credit to both starters who kept the game moving at a great pace.

Whenever I watch Brian Bannister pitch, I’m looking for groundballs.  Last night, he got a ton.  Eleven of his 16 outs came via the ground ball.

The runs he gave up in the second were soft.  I mean, they came on batted balls that weren’t struck especially hard.  Soft or not, they were line drives and those tend to fall for hits.  What was really frustrating about that inning was it came immediately after the Royals jumped ahead.  Is it just me, or does it seem like Bannister gives back his runs almost immediately?  I don’t have any numbers or stats to back this up, but it sure feels like everytime I watch him pitch and his bats give him a lead, Bannister immediately goes out and coughs it up.

He tried to give it back in the sixth inning (immediately after the Royals scored four runs in the fifth) when Macier Izturis led off with a home run.  Seriously?  Then Torii Hunter laced a single to right and Hideki Matsui launched a bomb that just missed tying the game by inches.

Time for the Good Tejeda-Wood-Soria Triumverate to bare it’s fangs once again.  This time, they retired 11 in a row.

Good Robinson Tejeda was simply electric.  When he uncorked his first pitch that was about helmet high, I worried that he wouldn’t be on his game.  Ha.  Once he got rolling, the Angels were helpless.  He couldn’t get his slider over for a strike and the Angel hitters weren’t biting, so he just brought the gas.  Hey, whatever works.

Brought in with runners on second and third and one out, to get out of that fix without allowing a run… That’s a save in my book.  A shallow fly and a strikeout got the job done.

Then Blake Wood… He threw his first nine pitches for strikes and only tosses his first ball after he jumed ahead of Torii Hunter 0-2 with two outs.  He’s still pitching to contact I suppose – his strikeout of Hunter was only his second this year and he’s faced 35 batters – but he’s jumping ahead.  He’s thrown a first pitch strike in over 70% of all plate appearances.  Major league average is 58%.  Nice.  If you’re going to let hitters get the bat on the ball, you may as well tilt the battle to your advantage as much as possible.

Finally Joakim Soria.  The 68 mph curveball he broke off to punchout Juan Rivera following a pair of 93 mph cutters was pure poetry.  I don’t think I’ve seen that pitch from him this year.  Then poor Mike Napoli couldn’t even get the bat off his shoulders, looking at five pitches and striking out to end the game.

Yost’s bullpen plan has mostly been letter perfect.  If Hillman had been so insightful (or fortunate) he’d probably still be employed.

Scott Podsednik hit leadoff for the 20th time last night.  Entering the game, he was hitting .286/.349/.351 at the top of the order, which isn’t horrible, but his sOPS+ of 89 indicates his performance there is below average.  You probably already knew that.

Last night he saw a grand total of seven pitches in his four plate appearances.  Seven pitches!  I really wish the Royals had someone else who could bat at the top of the order.

I suppose I’d prefer DeJesus at the top of the order, but Yost seems to have hit on something by dropping him to the third spot where he’s caught fire and hit .361/.451/.443 in the 16 games since he’s made the move.  Obviously, you’d like more power out of your number three, but I’m not going to be so picky.

In his short tenure, Yost has largely been golden.

I joked on Twitter before the game that the order that featured Betancourt, Getz, Podsednik and Kendall hitting eight through second could be called the Gauntlet Of Suck.  Ha.  All four hitters came through big… Kendall hit a double in the first that was probably the hardest ball he struck all year and scored the game’s first run.  Then Betancourt opened the fifth with a triple to left, scored on a Getz single and Podsednik kept the rally rolling as the Royals broke the game open with a four spot.

So maybe Gauntlet Of Suck was a bit harsh.  I dunno.  If you stack those four in a lineup 10 times, they’ll have a game like this maybe once.  Like I said… Golden Yost.

Last week Clark wrote a great article about how many players the Royals are from contention.  I agreed with everything he wrote, and it made me a little more hopeful about the short-term and long-term future of the team.  It does finally seem like the Royals are on an upward tajectory.  I believe this team is better than the team from last year.  I do honestly feel that the worst is behind us, even though the present can be pretty rough at times.

Throughout this seeming eternity of bad baseball we’ve had to endure, it seems like it is always getting worse.  However, if this team is truly ascending then the absolute nadir is at some point in the past.  So I decided I would try and find that low point.

The easy way to pinpoint rock bottom is to simply find the year with the worst record and call it good.  For a baseball team it’s more complicated than that.  The low point certainly can coincide with the worst record, but I don’t think that is all there is to it.  A particularly bad season could be the result of some bad luck or some poorly timed injuries to key players.  If the team still has great young players on the roster and in the minor leagues then it could be just a minor set back or it could be a penultimate step.

So how do we determine the bottom?  Clearly the team has to be bad.  While it may not be the worst performing team, there is no way for say, 2003 when the Royals had a winning record to be the low point.  So, while this may be painful let’s look at the winning percentage for the Royals since 1985 (which is obviously the last apex).  The following is a graph of the Royals winning percentage from 1986-2010:

Clearly there is a negative trend from 1986 through about 2005, and what might be the beginning of a positive trend from 2006-2010.   The worst team in terms of winning % is clearly the 2005 team.  They only won 56 games that season.  So if we assume the team is currently ascending then the bottom had to be somewhere around 2004-2006 range.

One other factor is potential future talent.  If a team struggles on the field, but is loaded with young talent ready to break through or there is a plethora of highly touted minor leaguers then it is hard to say it is at the bottom.  I’ve narrowed the time frame down to 2004-2006, so how did the minor leagues look during that time?  Here is how Baseball America ranked the organization during that time period:

2004 – 19

2005 – 28

2006 – 23

Ouch.  Again, it looks like 2005 was potentially the bottom of the barrel.  Alex Gordon was drafted in the 2005 and is the main reason the Royals went from 28 to 23 in overall rankings.  Billy Butler was the best prospect in the system in 2005.

So all signs point to the low point being sometime in 2005, however I don’t know that is the case.  While the 2005 team performed woefully, there were some potential bright spots on that team.  Sweeney hit .300 in 122 games with 21 homers . Dejesus was on both the 2005 and 2006 teams so he doesn’t matter here.  Angel Berroa was having an ok year hitting .270 with 11 homers.  Greinke was having a rough season but he was actually on the team and struck out 114.  J.P. Howell was a young rookie with potential.  The bullpen had a good Macdougal, a good Burgos, a good Sisco and Jeremy Affeldt.  The team didn’t win very many games but relatively speaking there were reasons for hope.

The next year, however was a completely different story.  In 2006, the Royals had Butler and Gordon in the minors which was something everyone could be excited about. However, the major league team was a complete disaster. Here is the most likely used lineup in 2006:

  1. Dejesus – CF
  2. Grudzielanek – 2B
  3. Sweeney – DH
  4. Sanders – RF
  5. Mientkiewicz – 1B
  6. Brown – LF
  7. Teahen – 3B
  8. Berroa – SS
  9. Buck – C

Sweeney played in only 60 games and wasn’t very good, this truly was the beginning of the end for him.  Grudzielanek was good, but clearly not in the future plans.  Berroa hit .234 and it was the beginning of the end for him as well.  Mientkiewicz was the 5th hitter.  The best hitter by far in 2006 was Mark Teahen with a .290/.357/.517 line.  The odd thing about this lineup is that they somehow scored the 8th most runs in team history.  I have no idea how.

What really makes the 2006 team so terrible was the pitching.  This was the year, you might remember where Greinke was taking time off and most were worried we would never see him in uniform again.  So the Royals trotted out this starting rotation, in order of most starts:

  1. Mark Redman – 5.71 ERA
  2. Scott Elarton – 5.34
  3. Runelvys Hernandez – 6.48
  4. Luke Hudson – 5.12
  5. Odalis Perez – 5.64

Jeremy Affeldt and Jorge De La Rosa got a handful of starts but neither fared particularly well either.  This very well might be one of the worst if not THE worst rotation in the history of modern baseball.  Not only was it bad, but only Perez and Hernandez were under the age of 29.  None of these guys had future potential and none of them were very good at the time.  Todd Wellemeyer was by FAR the best performing pitcher on the team in 2006 and he had a K/BB ratio of 1:1.

So 2005 had the worst record and the worst farm system.  2006 had the disappearance of Zack Greinke, and a veteran laden team with the worst pitching staff of all time.  Dayton Moore was hired in 2006, Tony Pena left in 2005.  Somewhere between the beginning of 2005 and the end of 2006 lies the absolute lowest point (I hope).  So let me try and pinpoint the exact day that I think it was:

May 25th, 2006

The Royals had lost 12 straight games entering the day of May 25th.  They had a 1:10 start at home against the Tigers.  The Royals sent Denny Bautista to the mound.  He shut down the Tigers in the first inning and the Royals scored 6 runs in the bottom of the first.  The 11,488 announced fans in attendance had to be feeling that the losing streak was over.  The Royals had an 8-5 lead going into the top of the 8th when Keppel and Burgos allowed the Tigers to tie the game with 3 runs.  The Tigers tacked on another 5 runs in the top of the 9th and won the game 13-8.  It was the Royals 13th straight loss.  The Royals did win the next day and Allard Baird was fired 6 days later.  The Royals were 25 games below .500 at the time and 22 games out of first place and it was only May!

On May 25th, 2006 in the top of the 9th inning Craig Monroe hit a go-ahead homerun off of Elmer Dessens.  At the exact moment that ball cleared the fence, it was the lowest moment in Royals history.  Since that moment things have started to get better.  The farm system has improved, the drafts have improved and the major league team has improved even if it is only slightly.  While the ascension hasn’t been as swift as I have liked, it does seem like it is happening.  So when you get bummed out about a bad stretch of games this season, just think back to that Craig Monroe homer and say to yourself “The worst is behind us”.

 In early May of 2006, the Kansas City Royals sent a struggling Mark Teahen (.195/.241/.351) down to Omaha.   Teahen’s rough start to 2006 came on the heels of a rookie season that saw him hit just .246/.309/.376.   He responded to the demotion by blasting AAA pitching to the tune of  .380/.500/.658 over 24 games.   Mark returned to the majors and was easily the second best offensive third baseman in the American League that summer (after Alex Rodriguez), hitting .313/.384/.557 before being shut down for shoulder surgery on September 5th.

We all know that Mark Teahen was unable to sustain the production of that glorious summer of 2006.   He changed positions three times in three years and generally never recaptured the power that he once displayed.   That said, Teahen did post a respectable cumulative line of .270/.330/.407 from 2007 through 2009.   

If you throw out the 2006 offensive explosing, Teahen was a well below average player in 2005 and early 2006 and at least average from 2007 to 2009.   The difference in his OPS between those two time periods is nearly sixty points.  

Fast forward to early May 2010.   The Royals send a struggling Alex Gordon (.194/.342/323) to AAA Omaha.     Gordon’s poor start came on the heels of an injury plaqued 2009 season that saw him hit just .232/.324/.378.     In his first eighteen games in AAA, Alex is blasting minor league pitching to the tune of .378/.513/700. 

 Now, of course, there are some critical differences in these story lines.   Gordon had two full seasons in the majors prior to 2009:  hitting  .247/.314/.411 in his rookie season and posting an overall line of  .250/.331/.415 from that season through the end of 2009.   He even had suffered the indignity of a demotion already, having been sent to Omaha in a ‘get healthy – slow down your arbitration clock’ move in August of last year.

Still, the two players were without question struggling mightily when the club sent them to Omaha in those two Mays and both annihilated AAA pitching like few have during their time there.   Will this demotion (and position change) ignite a ‘Teahen 2006′ type offensive eruption for Gordon when he returns to Kansas City?    If so, will Alex be able to sustain his beyond one brief summer?

Fine.  It wasn’t really a massacre.  However, it was an interesting game last night for a couple of reasons.

First the walks.  I have said numerous times that I just can’t bear to watch Daisuke Matsuzaka pitch.  The time he takes between pitches, the long windup when he actually gets around to throwing the ball and the fact he couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat, to borrow a phrase from Crash Davis.

(Yes, I’m aware I sound like Joe West.  That guy is taking a beating isn’t he?  Deservedly so.  His strike zone was as fine an example of umpiring malpractice I’ve ever seen.)

So the Royals draw eight walks in total – all from Dice-K.  They grab just four base hits, yet score four times.  One run on a bases loaded walk, one run on a passed ball and a pair of runs on a pair of David DeJesus base hits.

The eight walks for the Royals sounds like a ton, and it is.  We’re talking about a franchise that hasn’t valued the walk since 1995.  Somehow, it’s not entirely uncommon for the Royals to walk at least eight times in a game – they’ve done it 38 times since 2000 and did it five times alone last year.  In fact, the last team the Royals had at least eight walks against was the Red Sox last September.  Tim Wakefield started that game.

And what about the bullpen?  Has Blake Wood been awesome or what?  He was consistently hitting 96 mph on the radar gun.  Throw in Good Robinson Tejeda and the ever reliable Joakim Soria and you have three innings of no-hit relief.

Going forward, I hope that Ned Yost flip-flops Tejeda and Wood in the bullpen pecking order.  Good Tejeda is simply overpowering and will blow hitters away.  On the other hand, Wood has decent velocity, but he doesn’t miss enough bats for my liking.  Plus, through his first 8.2 innings, he owns a .146 batting average on balls in play.  I don’t think I need to tell you, there’s absolutely no way he can keep that number that low.  I’d advocate using the pitch to contact pitcher earlier in the game.

And how about that WEB GEM from Billy Butler last night?  Oh, the vertical!  If that rocket from Varitek goes down the line, it’s the tying run on second with one out.  Obviously, Soria is in the game, so my confidence level would still be high.  In this case though, I think it’s better we didn’t have to deal with that situation.

Finally, big congratulations to David DeJesus who celebrates his first game back with the team after becoming a father with a pair of hits and two RBI.  He’s had a solid first two months and could be on the path to a career year.

 Luke Hochevar had a second strong start yesterday for the Royals as they finally found a way to beat the Rangers.   After his first start of the year, I wrote this post and now we find ourselves wondering if Luke can string not two starts together, but three.   That’s progress, but not the topic of today’s column.

Instead, with the Royals winning eight of their last thirteen games, it raises a question that periodically gets discussed throughout the media, amongst fans and, of course, the blogosphere:  how many players away are the Royals? 

By ‘away’, I refer to being in contention for the playoffs, playing meaningful games in September and generally being in the conversation as one of the better teams in the league.   By definition, ‘away from what?’  means the 25 guys on the roster right now.  Forget about the farm system, contracts and tradability for now, and even ignore specific players.  Instead look at the current roster and think about how many and what type of players would you need to put on the roster to reach contention.  

Currently, the Royals rank first in the American League (and all of baseball actually) with a .280 team batting average, yet they are just 8th in runs scored.  Kansas City is tied for fifth in the AL in on-base percentage and also fifth in slugging.   That all adds up to be ranked 6th in OPS, although the Royals do sport the lowest walk percentage in the league.

Kansas City’s starting pitching ranks twelfth in the American League in earned run average, eleventh in WHIP, thirteenth in strikeout to walk ratio and tenth in innings pitched.   The relief corp currently ranks thirteenth in ERA, thirteenth in WHIP, twelfth in strikeout to walk ratio and a respectable (and surprising) seventh in left on base percentage.

In the field, the Royals have committed more errors than all but three teams in the American League.   They rank fifth in Revised Zone Rating, are tied for last in outs made outside of zone and eleventh in UZR/150.

So, there’s your team right now.  What does it need to become a contender?

STARTING PITCHING

Zack Greinke may not win the Cy Young this year, but he still is a legitimate number one starting pitcher, which is a pretty good place to start.  If Gil Meche was pitching like he did in 2007 and 2008, I would be tempted to make an argument that the Royals could contend with the starting five they have right now.   Sadly, Meche is not that guy anymore and I just glanced at the paragraph above that showed the Royals’ rotation near the bottom of every category.

Given that, without question the Royals need another starting pitcher – a solid number two starter type.  That’s ONE.

Luke Hochevar, Brian Bannister and Kyle Davies are an okay back three of a rotation,but if the intent is to stand toe to toe with the league’s big boys, they probably need someone better than either Bannister or Davies.   While the addition of a legitimate number two starter makes this rotation competitive, to truly make a solid playoff bid, a starter to slot in towards the back of the rotation is necessary.   That’s TWO.

BULLPEN

Like the rotation, having Joakim Soria at the back of your pen to close out games is a heck of a place to start.   In front of Soria, you have to like the looks of rookie Blake Wood, but other than that I can’t say I’m in love with anyone else.   That said, how many really solid late inning relievers does a contending team need?  

Frankly, in a seven man pen, the Royals can probably fill out three more spots with guys they already have.   Of course, the spots I am filling with existing personnel are the last three spots in the pen.  That means the Royals need to add two quality relievers to team with Wood to bridge gap between the starters and Soria.   That is player numbers THREE and FOUR.

INFIELD AND DESIGNATED HITTER

I am lumping DH in with the infield because two of the Royals’ best hitters, Alberto Callaspo and Billy Butler, currently play the infield and neither ever makes me feel comfortable with a glove on one hand and a ball headed towards them.   That said, both of those guys can hit and, in the case of Butler, really, really hit.   Speaking of hitting, Mike Aviles is rapidly proving that 2009 was the fluky season, not 2008 and that gives the Royals three good bats on their infield right now.

With four infield positions and designated hitter to fill, the Royals pretty obviously need two more bats.   One of those hitters needs to be a power, impact type hitter.    Butler is going to hit for average, contend for the league lead in doubles and pound out 15-20 home runs per year, but Kansas City needs someone behind him that will routinely blast 30 balls over the fence and still be a respectable on-base guy, too.   That’s player number FIVE.

The second player probably needs to be a middle infielder who is a good defender and a solid hitter.   The Royals don’t need an All-Star here, but a guy who can, say, hit like a David DeJesus but be a plus defender at one of the two premium defensive positions.    Adding that player is number SIX.

Now, you might be tempted to say the Royals need one more here and I would entertain that argument (Callaspo is the guy who does not quite fit despite his ability to hit), but adding two better players would be enough to make this team a contender.

OUTFIELD

I have to admit that I do like all three guys the Royals have in the outfield right now.   Scott Podsednik is not great, but he isn’t bad and plays hard (I’m willing to ignore the horrific pick-off yesterday).  Mitch Maier is solid and David DeJesus, who I discussed on Monday, is better than most Royals’ fans want to admit.   That said, that trio is not good enough.

There are a lot of contract issues coming up in the outfield, not to mention the return of Rick Ankiel at some point, but we are taking that out of the equation.   For right now, one of any of those guys is okay and two might be alright if they were sandwiched around a true star.  You know, Podsednik and DeJesus on either side of a healthy Carlos Beltran is probably a ‘contending team’ outfield, but Beltran is not healthy, not a Royal and guys like that just don’t come around everyday.

If we are being realistic, the Royals need a true corner outfielder with pop  and an excellent defensive centerfielder who can hold his own at the plate.   Welcome in player numbers SEVEN and EIGHT.

CATCHER

Okay, I saved catcher for last because I really didn’t know what to do here.  Hard as it is to believe, IF the Royals added the EIGHT players above, Jason Kendall probably is good enough.  Heck, I know he’s good enough to bat ninth on a team with the above additions.   

The biggest problem with this position is that outside of Joe Mauer and maybe a handful of others, every team’s catcher has warts.   Some can really field, but not hit.   Some can hit, but not field.   Some of the great blockers of wild pitches can’t throw worth a lick and some great throwers cannot call a decent game.   Even though this is something of a journey through fantasy, I can’t ignore that there are not any real solutions to great improvement across the board at the catching position.

Give me my eight players specified above and I will live with Jason Kendall and his contract.

THE SUM TOTAL

Eight players away from contention seems about right to me:  not overly pessimistic and not overly optimistic, either.  

Of those eight players, we are really looking for three pretty big time talents:  the number two starter, a corner outfielder with pop and an infielder (corner probably) with an impact bat, as well.   Those are the tough ones, obviously.

The number four starter (three would be better, but a fourth will do) is doable and, despite the Royals’ recent failings, finding two competent and steady middle relievers is not like finding the New World.    In fact, filling these three spots is probably much easier than finding the two plus defenders we need to man one middle infield position and centerfield.

TRUST THE PROCESS?

I have not said ‘trust the process’ without sarcasm in over a year, but I am doing so today.  Should we/do we?  Well, my guess is that you have already been thinking about names as you read through the above.  

Number 2 starter – Mike Montgomery

Number 4 starter – Aaron Crow

Middle reliever – Blaine Hardy (recently promoted to AAA)

Middle reliever – Louis Coleman, Greg Holland or any of a number of promising arms  in the minors

Impact bat infielder – Mike Moustakas

Power outfield bat – Alex Gordon

Centerfielder – Derrick Robinson

Middle infielder – Ahh, here’s a snag.   Is it Getz, Johnny Giavotella or an injured Jeff Bianchi?   Do you forego defense and install Kila Ka’aihue at DH or first, Moutakas at third and live with Callaspo at second?   Tough one, here.

All that said, if you trust the process or even kind of half believe, the Royals might actually be able to fill seven of those eight slots internally and do so not in eight to ten years, but in two.   We have done all that without mentioning Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers or Tim Melville, which is probably optimistic, but impressive nonetheless.

While that sounds fairly positive, we all know that the world is not going to sit still while the Royals wait for ‘their eight guys’ to develop.   Contracts will come up and injuries will happen and, let’s face it, great prospects don’t all become great players and good prospects often don’t make it at all.

On one hand, eight players away does not seem like all that many.  On the other, eight players might well seem like an eternity from contention – especially when two years from now, Zack Greinke’s contract expires.

Episode #019 – Nick is back from a short and unplanned podcast hiatus.  He discusses the Rangers series and previews the Red Sox series.  He also discusses some of the storylines worth following this season and which young players are performing well.  Also, do the Royals have a tradeable shortstop?

:http://www.livekc.com/podcasts/bbs019.mp3|titles=BBS

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There were a number of great comments on my Kendall post from Friday.  One that caught my eye was from TJ:

“I would love to see a column on pitchers and stolen bases.  I think most people understand and can easily look up stats to see how a catcher impacts the running game.  But what about the pitchers?”

I thought that was a great (and valid) question.  I made an assumption that runners were attempting to steal against Kendall because they perceived they could be successful.  His attempted steals per nine (which is the highest rate in baseball at 1.6) struck me as the result of an aging catcher behind the plate who the opposition knew couldn’t cut down enough runners to make a difference.  Anyway, the comment prompted me to look at the Royals pitchers and the stolen base attempts when they are on the mound.

I found something extremely interesting.

Through games of the weekend, here’s where we stand, ranked by stolen base opportunities.

(SB Opp is the number of times a runner is on first or second with the next base open.  SB and CS are self-explanatory.  SB Att% is the percentage of stolen base attempts.)

What can we glean from this?

– We can add holding runners to things that Greinke is awesome at doing.  He’s always been good at it.  Last year, runners attempted a steal in just 4.4% of all opportunities.  That was actually kind of high for him.  For his career, runners are going on Greinke just 3.4% of the time.  Like I said, he’s kind of great.

(By the way, Greinke has more stolen base opportunities because he’s thrown 10 more innings than any other starter.  Aside from pushing Meche to the first Sunday of the season, the Royals have yet to skip – or substitute – a starter.  Greinke has now made 10 starts.)

– Meche is a problem.  He has really slowed his delivery with runners on base.  Last year, he was at 7.6% for his SB Att% and in 2008 he was at 4.3%.  I figured since runners were going crazy on the bases against Meche, it would mean he’s struggling from the stretch and hitters would be having a field day when they came to bat with runners on.  After all, the guy has a 6.75 ERA.  However, that’s not really the case.  The opposition is hitting .263/.377/.379 with men on base.  It’s the walks that prolong the inning.  Meche has walked 17 batters with a runner on base, but 12 of those have come with first base open.

Makes sense, I suppose.  He’s struggled with his command all year and has always featured a high leg kick from the stretch.  I went back and looked at some of his starts from this year.  Earlier in the season, his leg kick was about half of what it’s been lately.  Lately he’s been bringing his front leg all the way to his waist and hiding the ball behind his front knee.  This isn’t always the case… He will still take a lower kick and shorter stride.  For fun, I grabbed a couple of shots.  The one on the left is Meche’s first start of the season with the knee just below the waist.  The one on the right is Meche’s start against Texas earlier this month.  Note the knee above the waist.

I looked for a pattern… game situation, type of runner on base, etc and came up with nothing.  It seems pretty random when he uses his high kick compared to a lower one.  Either way, it’s not working.  He can take forever to deliver his pitch.

Nobody has been run on more than Gil Meche.  Nobody.

– Runners have always stolen against Hochevar.  His stolen base attempt percentage has gone up each year he’s started in the majors.  From 8.3% in ’08 to 10.6% in ’09 to this year’s 13.1%.  Runners have attempted to steal third base four times with Hochevar on the mound – that number leads the league.  Three of the four have been successful.

We’ve known almost since he was drafted that Hochevar had difficulty keeping the running game in check.  Statistically, it looks like he’s getting worse.

– Bannister and Davies are run on more than the average pitcher (ML average is a SBAtt% of around 6.5%), but compared to Hochevar and Meche, it seems like they know what they’re doing in controlling the running game.

– Finally, I lumped the relievers into a group for simplicity.  No reliever stands out as being easy to steal on and the game is different in the later innings – managers take fewer risks on the bases.  Robinson Tejeda and Kyle Farnsworth have both had two successful steals against them in three attempts.  Both steals and attempts are tops in the relief corps.  No one has attempted a steal in 25 opportunities against Joakim Soria.

So to revisit my Kendall post from Friday, it now seems to me that runners are going more on Hochevar and Meche.  Over 46% of all stolen base attempts against the Royals have come with those two on the hill.  They’ve only thrown 24% of the Royals innings this year. In other words, it’s a highly disproportionate number of stolen base attempts.  I can’t blame the catcher for the fact that Royals games have turned into one way track meets.  This rests on the starting pitchers (Greinke excluded, naturally).  Especially Meche and Hochevar.

I still think Kendall is pretty average defensively (although he’s definitely an improvement over the previous catching duo), and Matt Klaassen has the numbers that back up my assumptions. But he took too much heat for what ultimately was the failings of his pitching staff.

Sorry, Kendall.

Sometimes when a team is playing poorly, a great individual performance can go relatively unnoticed even amongst the fan base.  So if you haven’t noticed, Billy Butler is tearing the cover off of the ball.  He is currently hitting .341 which puts him fourth in the American League.

I realize that this isn’t 1986 anymore and that there are much better ways of measuring players against each other, like OBP and wOBA, but batting average still carries weight.  The .400 season will always capture the attention of baseball fans and a .300 hitter will always be looked upon in a good light.  Statistics are good for more than just comparing one player to another overall, they tell a story.  Batting average tells you how often a guy puts wood on the ball and ends up on base and as fans, hits are exiting to watch.

In Royals terms, how significant is this season so far?  Here are the top 10 individual batting average seasons in Royals history:

Player Average Year
1 George Brett .390 1980
2 Mike Sweeney .340 2002
3 George Brett .335 1985
4 George Brett .333 1976
4 Mike Sweeney .333 2000
6 Hal McRae .332 1976
7 Willie Wilson .332 1982
8 George Brett .329 1990
9 George Brett .329 1979
10 Johnny Damon .327 2000

Every Royal fan knows, or should know that George Brett’s 1980 season where he hit .390 is the bench mark.  Not very many teams have a player with a .390 or better season in their history.  Suffice to say, I don’t think Butler is going to reach that record this season.  However, he is currently above .340 so I think there is certainly a chance he could end up in the top five of this list if he keeps hitting.

I wanted to see where Butler stacked up after 45 games with some of these great seasons.  I plotted the batting averages for the top five seasons on a per game basis.

Click To Enlarge

On the left axis is the batting average and on the bottom axis isa running total of the players games played that season.  I drew a line at 45 to see where Butler ranked.  There is some very interesting information on this chart:

  • George Brett did not play a whole lot of games in 1980 when he was making his run at .390
  • In 1985 Brett was hitting .317 which was the lowest of all the seasons on the chart after 45 games
  • Somewhere right around 45 games the batting averages stop fluctuating wildly, indicating it is a pretty significant sample size
  • In general at around game 30, the batting averages start a steady rise, which peaks around game 82 or so and then begins a decline up until the end of the season

So it appears that at this point, Billy is on pace or better than on pace for a top five season in Royals history.  The next forty games likely will be the difference maker.  It seems that in this pretty small sample, being at or above .350 at the peak of the season is the key to having a .333 or better season.  I don’t know if all good batting average seasons look like this chart, but there is a definite pattern in this one.

It is still early in the season, but it doesn’t look like we are going to be rooting for a contender.  However there are good story lines within the team, and possibly a historic batting performance for a young Royal.

Player Average Year
1 George Brett .390 1980
2 Mike Sweeney .340 2002
3 George Brett .335 1985
4 George Brett .333 1976
4 Mike Sweeney .333 2000
6 Hal McRae .332 1976
7 Willie Wilson .332 1982
8 George Brett .329 1990
9 George Brett .329 1979
10 Johnny Damon .327 2000
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