While it has been and likely will remain tough to watch, I am delighted that the Royals are giving a number of players – you know, guys who might actually be around when this team is ready to contend – a chance to prove themselves the remainder of this season. It begs the question, with 48 games remaining to go: is this enough of a sample size to determine who can play and who cannot?
Given the almost certain intrusion of Willie Bloomquist into the lineup on a semi-regular basis, we can probably expect to see somewhere around 175 more plate appearances this season for Alex Gordon, Kila Ka’aihue, Mike Aviles, Chris Getz, Mitch Maier, Gregor Blanco and Wilson Betemit. Will that be enough to make decisions on these players that will not only effect 2011, but the seasons beyong that as well?
We can go way back in time and find examples of players that struggled early and became great. George Brett posted an anemic .646 OPS (82 OPS+) through his first 527 major league plate appearances before beginning his run to the Hall of Fame with a .308/.353/.456 1975 season. Through his first 483 plate appearances, Mike Schmidt had a dreadful career line of .197/.324/.367 before slugging .546 in 1974. However, those guys were Hall of Famers for godssake and comparisons to that type of talent is not only unfair, but probably not all that relevant, either.
Taking a step back, the career of Raul Ibanez was a five year – 581 plate appearance journey between Seattle, the bench and AAA, during which he posted an OPS+ of just 73. As we are all keenly aware, Ibanez came to Kansas City in 2001 at age twenty-nine, received regular playing time and has posted an OPS+ of 110 or above in nine of the last ten seasons.
Billy Butler took a little longer to get his footing in the majors. At age 21, he posted a nice partial season in 2007 (OPS+ 108), fell back in 2008 (.275/.324/.400, OPS+ 93) and was an uncertain commodity with 838 major league plate appearances entering last season. Of course, Billy was terrific in 2009 and actually has a better OPS+ this season.
A couple of other guys did not take so long to emerge as legitimate hitters. Paul Konerko had 247 pretty awful plate appearances (OPS+ 60) spread over two seasons at the start of his career. After a trade to Chicago, Konerko hit 24 home runs in 1999 and has been a fixture at first base for the Sox ever since.
Travis Hafner did not get his first major league at-bat until he was 25 and in 70 plate appearances that season posted an unimpressive line .242/.329/.387. The following year, he got off to an even worse start, posting a .195/.267/.378 line in his first 90 plate appearances. So, what would you have thought of Hafner after 160 plate appearances? Well, he came back in July of that second season and took off. The very next year, his first full major league season, Hafner led the league in OPS+.
We could spend all day pouring through Baseball Reference and analyzing who many plate appearances it took for guys who really have made it in the majors to show what kind of player they would become. There are other variables, too: time in the minors, drafted out of high school or college, where they hit in the order, how good the teams were that they played on….. Shockingly, the raw numbers do not tell the entire story! At any rate, using the very rudimentary research above, let’s look at this group of current Royals.
ALEX GORDON – The Royals have always seemed to be in hurry when it comes to Alex. They rushed him to the majors in 2007 after just one minor league season, they rushed him back into the lineup in 2009 after hip surgery and then shoved him down to the minors over service time/performance issues. They rushed him back from a broken thumb this year and then were in a hurry to decide that he couldn’t hit AND needed to change positions. All that said, how many remember/realize that in 2008, Gordon posted an OPS+ of 109 – enough above average to be considered ‘above average’?
Given that Gordon, despite an injury plagued-demotion riddled- position changing season and half since 2008, still boasts a career OPS+ of 97 (basically average) and will end this season with around 1,600 plate appearances, I will be inclined to believe that what the Royals see out of Alex these final forty-eight games is likely to be a true indicator of what they can expect in the future.
Wilson Betemit – Doesn’t it seem like Betemit is 35 years old or something? In reality, he will not turn 29 until November and will end this season with roughly the same amount of plate appearances as Gordon. Right now, Wilson is a dead average 100 OPS+ for his career. Betemit played in 143 games (for 2 teams) in 2006, which was his only real shot at an everyday job and posted, not surprisingly, an almost dead average 101 OPS+. Early on, he has hit a ton for the Royals, but is slowing cooling down. There is a touch of the ‘Ibanez factor’ in Wilson’s career to date, so a good 48 games down the stretch might make me lean towards seeing if the Royals could catch lightning, or more accurately Ibanez 2.0, in a bottle in 2011.
Mike Aviles – If a player’s first 400 or so plate appearances is not the true indicator of a player’s future, then Mike still has plenty to prove. He was in the discussion for Rookie of the Year in 2008 when he posted an OPS+ of 121 and the highest WAR of any Royal since Beltran over 441 plate appearances. 2009 was lost to injury and Mike has not been the same player in 2010 with an OPS+ of just 89. Depending on how much Ned Yost decides to play him, Aviles will end the year with around 1,000 plate appearances. Although they did it at different ages and are far different players, Aviles first 900 plate appearances compare somewhat to Billy Butler’s. He is a tough one to figure at this point as to whether we will reach October and know what to think of Mike Aviles.
Chris Getz – I was all for the Teahen-Getz trade, so seeing him in the lineup virtually everyday is okay from here on out. By the end of the year, Chris will have close to 800 plate appearances and currently sports a career OPS+ of 69. The big difference between the 800 plate appearances of Getz and the 800 of Butler and Aviles is that Chris really has not had a good stretch of performance in there – it has really been a pretty consistent run (his July numbers were identical to that posted last season). If he starts hitting and getting on-base, I would be inclined to believe in Getz. If he doesn’t, I might believe that, too.
Mitch Maier – Mitch has a career OPS+ of 84, but a 2010 mark of 98, which doesn’t surprise me. He is an average player, when given a chance to perform everyday, but has not shown much to make me think he will ever be more than that. Maier will end 2010 with 900 or so plate appearances and, right or wrong, will likely be judged by what he does between now and the end of the season. Again, he does not have that magical season on his resume like Aviles or the giant minor league resume that Butler came to the majors with, so his rope is shorter.
Gregor Blanco - I loved Willie Wilson back in the day and apparently so did Dayton Moore. He has traded for virtually every player who is fast and plays centerfield and drafted about ten more. Blanco is another in that mold. Like many of the other players in our discussion, he will end the year somewhere between 800 and 900 career plate appearances. He got an everyday shot with Atlanta in 2008 and posted a .251/.366/.309 line, but has tread water ever since. I’m not sure that the Royals will have a great read on Blanco by the end of the year and they probably don’t need to have one, either. He will be cheap and under team control and blocking no one in centerfield. Heck, if Gordon can hit and DeJesus returns healthy, there would be worse outfields than Gordon-Blanco/Maier-DeJesus.
Kila Ka’aihue – Next to Alex Gordon, here’s the guy you really wanted to talk about, right? Right now, Kila is struggling mightily, but then so did Konerko and Hafner (you didn’t think I pulled those two guys out of coincidence, did you?). Currently 54 plate appearances into his career – roughly the same point at which the Royals gave up on Matt Diaz once upon a time – Kila will end up with right at 200 by the end of the season. To be honest, I have thought all along that a couple months of regular duty was enough to tell what you had in a player, but in writing this column my mind has changed some.
Certainly it is a stretch to call Ka’aihue the next Konerko or Hafner, but would you want to be the teams that gave up on those guys after a similar stretch of time? Let’s make this a little more timely and note that Jose Guillen’s OPS+ after 1,953 plate appearances was jsut 82. It was only at age 27, that Jose went on to be post well above average numbers in four of his next five seasons. Sadly, that string ended when he signed his three year deal with the Royals, but we don’t need to discuss that again, do we?
So, in the end, I am not sure we have proven anything this morning, other than deciding at what point in time you have ‘seen enough’ of a given player is hardly an exact science. Do you believe what you see in the next 48 games is what you will get in the future?