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Long Live The Process

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Very few of us probably consider the Texas Rangers a model franchise.    Chances are, as Royals’ fans, we would be more likely to lump Texas in with the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels than to put them in with teams such as the Rays or Twins:  teams that we often look to for a blueprint as to how to make the Royals competitive.

What struck me during the recently completed three game set against the Rangers was how the heart of their very formidable lineup was actually assembled.    Would it surprise you to know that Michael Young is the only key player (I’m ignoring Jeff Franceour and Cristian Guzman because I want to) in that batting lineup that is making more money than David DeJesus?   Or that only Vlad Guerrero is really the only high profile free agent acquisition?  

Let’s start in the infield where the Rangers struck gold with a 17th round pick in the 2003 draft named Ian Kinsler.   He’s been hurt some this year and hence subjected Royals’ fans to seeing Andres Blanco go 6 for 12, but he is an undeniable talent when healthy.   He made his debut with the Rangers just three years after being drafted and has locked down the everyday second base job ever since.

Across the diamond is veteran Michael Young.   He was acquire way back in July of 200 in exchange for Esteban Loaiza.   At the time, Young was hitting .275/.340/.426 in AA, which was the worst line of his then three and one-half year minor league career.   Loaiza was a 6th year pitcher with a then career ERA of 4.72 and WHIP of 1.445.   If you could trade Brian Bannister for a AA middle infielder would you do it?   That is basically what Texas did back in 2000 and while Young may not quite justify his now $16 million salary, this was still a great trade.

Young played second base his first year up in 2001, but eventually moved to shortstop until just two years ago.   I bring that up to point out that despite having Young at short, the Rangers had no problem acquiring Elvis Andrus in July of 2007.

That, of course, was the year that Texas traded Mark Teixeira – their franchise player and former first round draft pick – to Atlanta for Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.    (Ron Mahay also went with Teixeira to Atlanta as part of that deal).    Essentially, trading Teixeira was the Rangers’ equivalent deal to the Royals trading Carlos Beltran.

What is different about that is that Rangers went and got the best talent they could, regardless of what they might have needed on the big league level.   Instead of saying we have to have a catcher and a third baseman (sorry, Allard Baird), the Rangers got talent and sorted the rest out later.    Keep in mind, besides Young in the majors, Texas also had Joaquin Arias playing shortstop in the minors.   At the time, Arias was a highly thought of prospect as well.

Andrus was rated by Baseball America as the #65 prospect in baseball and ended up at #18 by the next season.   He was hitting .244/.330/.335 in High A that July and the Rangers would have to wait until 2009 before reaping the real benefits of this trade.      He alone might have made this deal worthwhile, but the Rangers also got a closer in Feliz and another potential starter in Harrison.

Of course, the first base picture is pretty cloudy for the Rangers right now as they traded Justin Smoak as part of the Cliff Lee deal.   It is an interesting thought to ponder, but if the Royals has somehow been in contention this season, would you have entertained trading Eric Hosmer as the centerpiece of an acquisiton of Lee? 

The outfield presents some even more interesting trades:  first and foremost being Josh Hamilton.

We all know the Hamilton story, former number one overall who was eventually drummed out of baseball, resurrected his personal life and eventually was taken in the Rule 5 draft by the Cubs in 2006.   Hamilton was immediately sold by the Cubs to the Reds for whom he posted a .292/.368/.554 line over 90 games during the 2007 season.  

On December 21, 2007, the Rangers traded Edison Volquez (their #3 rated prospect and #56 overall in baseball) along with AA reliever Danny Herrera to the Reds in exchange for Hamilton.   That was a risky move, given Hamilton’s personal problems and injury issues.   It was especially dicey given that Volquez had struck out 166 hitters in 144 minor league innings spread across three levels the previous summer.   For lack of a better comparison, the Rangers basically gave up their Mike Montgomery and, say, Louis Coleman for Hamilton.

Another trade acquisition in the outfield is Nelson Cruz.   Back in 2006, he came to the Rangers along with Carlos Lee in exchange for Julian Cordero, Kevin Mench, Laynce Nix and Francisco Cordero.    Cordero (Francisco, not Julian) was in the midst of an off-season, but had saved 86 games the two season prior to 2006.    Mench and Nix were, well, Mench and Nix.

For his part, Cruz had posted very good minor league numbers prior to this trade and then huge AAA numbers afterwards.   He struggled in the majors and was, at one point, taken off the Rangers 40 man roster – a missed opportunity that haunts me to this day (I really, really did think the Royals should have made a move back then).   While Lee gave the Rangers a nice half season before leaving via free agency, Texas really didn’t realize the bounty of this trade until Cruz hit 33 home runs last year and has followed up with a .943 OPS so far in 2010.

Now, Joakim Soria is better than Cordero was or is, not to mention younger and farther from free agency than Francisco was at the time, but this is a ‘closer’ trade.   We would all want more than Nelson Cruz and half a season of Lee in return for Soria, but the Rangers’ willingness to entertain offers is valid learning point for the Royals’ organization.

The final piece of the puzzle is either Julio Borbon (1st round draft pick) or David Murphy.   I bring up Murphy because he was acquired by the Rangers in what I would call their ‘Octavio Dotel deal’.  

You might remember that prior to the 2007 season, the Rangers signed Eric Gagne.   After being THE dominant closer in the majors, Gagne had managed to toss a grand total of just 15 innings in 2005 and 2006 combined.   Much as the Royals did with Dotel for half a season, the Rangers babied Gagne through a very effective 33 innings of work (29K, 23 hits, 2.16 ERA) and then traded him at the deadline to Boston for Murphy, Engel Beltre and Kason Gabbard.

At the time, Murphy had a five year minor league line of .273/.343/.407 and was in his second year of AAA ball.   He has since compiled a decent major league line of .278/.338/.456.   Essentially, Murphy is better than Mitch Maier, but not quite as good as David DeJesus (although you could make the case that he is pretty close to David).

Gabbard at one time looked like a guy who might be a decent major league starter and Beltre is still in AA, sporting all sorts of potential and not a whole lot of actual production.   Of course, Gagne imploded for the Red Sox, so the Rangers won that deal solely on a Gagne for Murphy level.

On Tuesday, Nick posted a column on Kyle Davies that sparked some excellent debate and I don’t quite know how to equate Dotel for Davies versus Gagne for Murphy.   They are certainly very similar deals.

Through this entire dissertation, I am not intending to point out how the Royals might have botched deals, but simply how the Rangers built one of the better batting orders in the league.   They did it via the draft, via the trade of their franchise player (who they acquired via the draft), and by trading their own prospects and by acquiring prospects from other teams.

Sure, along the way the Rangers have spent tons of money on free agents, but in the end, they have a powerful lineup that any team in baseball could afford.   Am I advocating trading Mike Montgomery, Eric Hosmer and Joakim Soria?  Not really. 

Instead, I am just pointing out that while we look longingly at the Rays and the Twins, it might not hurt to survey the Texas Rangers as well.   

And yes, I would trade Mike Montgomery for a shot at the next Josh Hamilton.

Most years, about this time, I write a column where I wake up one July morning and find myself General Manager of the Kansas City Royals.  To be totally candid, I wake up most mornings thinking I am in that position, but that’s a whole separate physiatric session.    The basic premise of this scenario is that one wakes up on July 22nd to find themselves as the GM, inheriting the situation ‘as-is’ with all the perceived constraints of ownership, money and at least some basis of reality. 

This exercise lost any semblance of fun last summer with the  Yuniesky Betancourt deal and hence I did not bother.  The July, however,  before I donned the GM hat and traded Ron Mahay for Chris Carter (then with the  Red Sox), Kyle Davies for Nelson Cruz (at the time toiling in AAA) and Blake Johnson (plus someone else) for Joaquin Arias.   All in all, that would not have been a horrible summer simply based upon acquiring Cruz.    Let’s see how I do this July.

The first day of my reign at the top begins with the inheritance of a team that has won two of its last three games, but lost seven of its last nine.   The Royals are closer to last than to first and have done so with a roster that really is not that young.   My predecessor has left a farm system that is much stronger than what he inherited.   Frankly, dare we say it, ‘the process’ was starting to work – just not in 2010 and probably not for a fair portion of 2011.  

As a general manager, I find myself faced with two options (three, actually, if you are willing to stay drunk and high for three months and believe the Royals can contend this season).   So, two options:

  1. Stay the course and wait for Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers to become everyday regulars, while Mike Montgomery, Chris Dwyer, John Lamb, Danny Duffy and Aaron Crow move into my starting rotation.
  2. Try to accelerate ‘the process’ and, at the same time, buy a little insurance in case some of the highly touted prospects do not develop into major leaguers.

Pretty obviously, the answer is yes to both options:  stay the course, but push it along at a quicker pace if you can do so without jeopardizing the future.  Easier said that done, even for a blogger.

Prior to departing, Dayton Moore may have been presented with a couple of trade offers.   The first would have sent Alberto Callaspo to the Angels for Sean O’Sullivan and a ‘fringe’ prospect.   The second was David DeJesus to the Braves for Kris Medlen and a AAA reliever.   Neither offer quite rings my bell.

O’Sullivan was the Angels’ number five rated prospect by Baseball America prior to the 2009 season, but lacks a true out pitch and has struggled against better hitting.    While he did have a nice start upon his recent recall (6IP, 2ER) and I am faced with the looming spectre of Bryan Bullington starting on Sunday, the 23 year old O’Sullivan just doesn’t seem to offer enough potential for my tastes.    However, the Angels are truly interested in Callaspo and while he is a good hitter having a somewhat down year, I just don’t see Alberto as a building block for a contending team.

I counter the Angels’ offer by asking for pitcher Trevor Bell, their 10th rated prospect prior to this season who has been obliterated in brief appearances in the majors, and a ‘fringe prospect’.   Bell comes with a good fastball and good control and, if not an upgrade over Bannister and Davies, he is at least younger than both (23) and is almost certainly a better option than Bryan Bullington or Anthony Lerew.  

The discussion turns to the ‘fringe prospect’ and begins to bog down.   Every name I produce is not ‘fringy’ enough to the Angels and the line ‘well, if you want him, then you have to take O’Sullivan instead of Bell’ comes up often.   In the end, I remind myself that I am trading a third baseman with a .308 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage barely over .400.

The deal is made:  Callaspo to the Angels for Bell and a player to be named later.   When the dust settles, the PTBNL ends up being catcher Brian Walker.    Bell, for now, takes his place as the Royals number five starter, while Wilson Betemit and Mike Aviles take up the bulk of the innings at third base.   This gives us a chance to see some more Chris Getz at second without taking Aviles’ bat out of the lineup.   Can Getz play or not, who knows?   This gives us a chance to find out.

Now, while I like Kris Medlen, I like David DeJesus a lot better.  Truthfully, any hopes/prayers of being competitive in 2011 probably include having DeJesus in the Royals’ outfield.    His option is affordable for next year and the compensation picks, while nice, would still be a player or players that are at least two years away from contributing in the majors.   Plus, DeJesus is still likely to be an effective everyday player for the next three or four years and seems like a guy that the Royals could resign after the 2011 season.   Heck, I might even entertain extension talks after the season to lock him down through the 2013 campaign.

Given that, we will continue to market DeJesus just in case someone gets really desperate and really silly, but the organizational thought will be to keep David, exercise the option and know that we have at least one major league outfielder set for 2011.

Although there has been interest in Joakim Soria, moving a closer of his effectiveness with what may be the best contract in baseball right now does not excite me at all.   Frankly, any hope of catching lightning in a bottle and contending in 2011 instead of 2012 includes having Joakim in the Royals’ pen.   Again, we’ll be happy to listen, but if the Yankees or whoever really want Soria, they will have to overpay by a factor of two to even make me answer the phone.

Of course, the real problem I have inherited is that Jose Guillen is blocking Kila Kaa’ihue, Scott Podsednik is blocking Alex Gordon and Rick Ankiel is healthy.   It would actually be so much easier if Guillen was limping along with a sub-.300 on-base percentage and not much power or Podsednik was hitting .270 instead of .300.   One could simply release the older players and ‘find out’ about younger players yet this year.    As it stands right now, however, both Podsednik (especially) and Guillen (to some extent) have some value to the Royals and have played just well enough to make even me think they ought to have some trade value as well.

I don’t dislike Podsednik: he is what he is on the field and is a good veteran guy in the clubhouse.   I’ll let his name float around as July 31st approaches.   In the case of Guillen, he would almost certainly pass through waivers and be tradeable in August, but the urgency is in getting Kila Kaa’ihue to the majors so I can find out if he can hit.     Yet, I have an owner who is not going to just release a player with 15 home runs and $5 million still coming.

I look once more to the evil empire because they have a gigantic hole at designated hitter, even with Jorge Posada spending most of the time there recently, – big enough to make Guillen’s .278/.339/.461 look appealing – and a clubhouse that could certainly contain any of Jose’s ‘quirks’.    What’s Jose going to do when he is not in the lineup for three days?   Spout off to Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera?

After cornering David Glass in an elevator, I wear him down with the logic of giving up some money to move Guillen and open a spot for Kaa’ihue.   It helps that it was 105 degrees in the elevator and Glass  had to go the bathroom.   He agrees to pay $4 million of Jose’s remaining salary.

The deal is Jose Guillen to the Yankees for minor league outfielder Ray Kruml, a 24 year old still toiling in A ball.  Kila Kaa’ihue is promoted immediately and bats fifth on Sunday afternoon in Yankee Stadium.   Sure, he goes zero for four and Trevor Bell gives up five runs in four innings that day, but I still feel better.

The Royals return home on July 26th and I continue to work the phones.   The Reds are looking for bullpen help to ease the workload on their relievers.  Obviously, Kyle Farnsworth is the name I shop to them.  He has been much better this season and the last time he pitched in the National League (Braves-2005), Kyle fashioned a 1.98 earned run average in 27 innings of work.   Despite having signed Russ Springer and the ghost of Jason Isringhausen, the Reds are still interested.

Who I want in return is currently injured outfielder Chris Dickerson.  Now twenty-eight years old and nursing a bad wrist, some of the luster has worn off Dickerson, but not enough to net him straight up for Farnsworth.   The Reds, however, are in a pennant race and, for all his faults, Willie Bloomquist is a guy that would certainly have a spot on a National League team.   Bloomquist’s skill set also gloves nicely with the Reds’ other utility player, Miguel Cairo.

The deal gets done:  Farnsworth and Bloomquist to the Reds for Chris Dickerson.   While Dickerson’s injury pretty much means he will be in rehab mode for a while, he adds another player to the outfield mix for 2011.   Maybe it all comes together for Chris, maybe not, but the Royals have given up two free agents to be and the Reds have gotten a couple of veteran guys to help them in their pursuit of St. Louis without really damaging their future.

Veteran minor-leaguer Ed Lucas gets the call to replace Bloomquist and Blaine Hardy gets a shot to replace Farnsworth in the bullpen.   At the same time, Victor Marte is sent down in favor of Louis Coleman.   Getting a good look at Hardy and Coleman this year will go a long way in determining how much of the Royals’ precious resources will have to be devoted to the bullpen in the off-season.  The hope, obviously, would be ‘none’.

Now, the trade deadline is right in front of us and Boston, while still after every outfielder available has not been able to make a deal.   Sure, they would ‘love to take DeJesus’ off our hands, but the return is not enough.  My asking price starts with Casey Kelley and that generally grinds the conversation to a stop right there.  

The Red Sox have been decimated by injuries and currently bat Darnell McDonald in the lead-off spot and are playing Bill Hall (.735 OPS) at second base.   While McDonald has been decent and Daniel Nava a revelation, is Theo Epstein really ready to make a run at the playoffs with them?   You see, I’ve got a guy with a World Series ring who happens to play leftfield and bat lead-off that just might be of interest to him.

By now, we are deep into the morning of July 31st and the Red Sox have pretty much stood pat as they tried to make ‘the big deal’.  It has become obvious that the asking prices for top shelf outfielders are exorbitant and so we begin to discuss Podsednik.  The match-ups don’t seem to be working out until we begin to include middle infielders in the discussion. 

I snicker when I offer Yuniesky Betancourt and Epstein flat out laughs and calls me an unprintable name.  However, the real name in the discussion is Mike Aviles.   I love Aviles, love his story and think he is likely to gravitate towards a performance line somewhere in between his fabulous rookie season and what he is doing for the Royals right now.   He can fill in at second until Dustin Pedroia is healthy and help out at shortstop where the Sox have turned to rookie Jed Lowrie.

What’s Podsednik AND Aviles worth to you, I ask?   Not Jose Iglesias is the first answer.

However, how about pitcher Kyle Weiland?  Now, that’s a start.

The name of AA outfielder Che-Hsuan Lin comes up at my prompting.   He is a cut below the prime outfield prospects in the Sox system (Westmoreland, Kalish and Fuentes), but is 21 year old in AA who has as many walks as strikeouts.  

There is some hemming and hawing on the other end as the clock ticks closer to the deadline.  Finally, the deal is done:  Podsednik and Aviles for Che-Hsuan Lin and Weiland.   With that, the trade deadline comes to a close.

When the dust has settled, the Royals have an August 1st roster of:

C – Kendall, Pena

1b – Butler, Kaaihue

2b – Getz

ss – Betancourt

3b – Betemit (as we await the September call-up of Mike Moustakas)

Util – Ed Lucas

OF – DeJesus, Maier, Ankiel (sorry), Gordon (to replace Podsednik) and hopefully Dickerson in short order.

SP – Greinke, Chen, Bannister, Davies, Bell (with Hochevar & Meche hopefully soon to follow)

RP – Soria, Tejeda, Wood, Hardy, Coleman, Hughes, Texeira

The minor leagues have been strengthened with the addition of Weiland and Lin, plus some organizational depth in Kruml and Walker.

Perhaps most importantly, it gives us two full months to gauge whether Kaa’ihue, Gordon, Hardy, Coleman and even Dickerson can be projected as regulars on a major league roster building to contend.   Simply knowing those answers will allow me, as general manager, to have a pretty accurate guide as to what needs to be fixed in the off-season.  

Now, it’s your turn, tell me if this makes sense or not?   Are the Royals in better shape after these moves or just ‘more of the same’?

Playing revisionist history with a professional draft, while fun, is unfair. Redraft the new version of the Cleveland Browns and you can get close to having a Pro Bowl player at all twenty-two positions on the field. No general manager can hit on every pick.

That fact is especially true when it comes to Major League Baseball’s draft. Despite all the scouting and all the work, every team passed on Albert Pujols TWELVE times, some even did so thirteen times. Forty-eight players were drafted in front of Carlos Beltran. Zack Greinke was considered a ‘signability’ pick when he went sixth overall in 2002. You get the picture.

So, it is unfair to look back at the Royals’ rather hideous draft record and say “they should have done this here and that the next year and taken these two guys in the 14th and 20th rounds in 2003 and we would be in the World Series”. We are not going to do that sort of exercise today, but I am going to look at one, just one, pick that might have changed the direction of this franchise.

The 2001 draft is one that will life in infamy for the Royals forever. It was headed by Colt Griffin in the first round and Roscoe Crosby in the second round: both unmitigated disasters. Worse, the brief major league appearances by Angel Sanchez and Devon Lowery are the only contributions on the big league level the Royals ever got out of the fifty picks they made that year. This draft stands as the crown jewel of crap among an array of pretty awful drafts in the early part of this century.

Obviously, it also lends itself handily to us revisionists.

The first round of 2001 had Joe Mauer going number one and Mark Texiera going at six, but there are not names that leap off the list after the Royals picked Griffin that make your stomach hurt. Until you get down to the supplemental phase of that round and find David Wright going at pick number thirty-eight and signing for $960,000.

Sure, thirty-eight is a long way removed from nine, but it would not be unheard of for the budget conscious Royals to take a ’30 to 50 level talent’ to save money (Chris Lubanski anyone?). What if the Royals would have picked David Wright instead of Colt Griffin?

First off, Kansas City would have enjoyed a third baseman who has a career line of .309/.389/.518 who has played 144 or more games in every season between 2005 and 2009. He has pop, he can run and has made himself into a decent defender. Wright signed a six year/$55 million dollar extension near the end of the 2006 season, which might have been doable for the Royals – albeit probably in 2007 as Mike Sweeney’s contract was about to come off the books.

Just having David Wright at the hot corner obviously makes the Royals much better, but what else would it have done?

Well, Wright came up with the Mets midway through the 2004 season, right about the time Allard Baird was demanding a major league ready third baseman and catcher for Carlos Beltran. With Wright ready to go at third, Baird’s demands would not have included a third baseman (Allard suffered from tunnel vision, but he wasn’t an idiot).

As the Beltran sweepstakes heated up, the Yankees offered Robinson Cano and Dioner Navarro for the Royals’ centerfielder (also reportedly offered at the same time by the Red Sox were Kevin Youkilis and Kelly Shoppach, but that’s a story for another scenario). Would the Royals have pulled the trigger on that deal if Wright was ready to take over at third base? Let’s say yes.

Okay, so now the Royals have David Wright at third base and, beginning in 2005, have Robinson Cano and his career line of .306/.339/.480 at second. Cano signed a four year/$30 million extension before the 2008 season, but even if the Royals were not prepared to do so, they would still have Robinson under control for the 2010 season. Assuming Kansas City did get Wright signed to a Met’s like extension in 2007 and signed Cano, too, they would be paying $19 million for their second and third basemen in 2010.

Navarro has had a choppy career at best and might not have prevented the signing of either Miguel Olivo or Jason Kendall, so we’ll just leave the catching position as is in this scenario.

Now, with Wright playing third starting in mid-2004 and Cano manning second starting in 2005, it is pretty hard to believe the Royals would have chosen Alex Gordon with the second overall pick in the 2005 draft. In fact, they probably would not have considered Ryan Zimmerman or Ryan Braun, either, but they might well have looked at a shortstop considered the most ‘major league ready’ player of that draft: Troy Tulowitzki. Beginning in late 2006, Tulowitzki has hit .283/.357/.474 as the Rockies’ everyday shortstop. He had an injury plagued 2008, but a big year last season (.930 OPS). Sure, those numbers are inflated by playing in Denver half the time, but tell me you don’t want him in a Royals’ uniform.

So, beginning in 2007, Kansas City could put an infield of Cano, Tulowitzki and Wright….and Ross Gload on the diamond. At that time, all three players’ salary load was low enough that I do not think it would have prevented the Royals from signing Gil Meche. As an aside, how many wins does Meche get in 2007 with those three guys hitting for him? Or how many does Greinke get in 2009? Twenty-eight?!

Fast forward to 2008 and assume that Wright and Cano have signed the extensions referenced above, plus Tulowitzki has signed his six year/$31 million dollar deal at the same time as Cano. That would almost certainly have kept Kansas City from pursuing Jose Guillen…or at least have kept their offer considerably below the three year/$36 million mark! By the way, with Tulowitzki in the fold, the Royals would be paying the Cano-Tulowitzki-Wright combo $22.5 million in 2010. Take Guillen’s $12 million out, plus the four to Kyle Farnsworth and that gets pretty doable.

Throw Billy Butler into the mix at first base and the Royals would be looking forward to 2010 with arguably the best infield in baseball. Sure, the Cano-Butler combination on the right side of the infield is not a defensive strongpoint, but Tulowitzki-Wright is above average.

The Royals would not have any real money to play with this off-season, which might have precluded the Kendall signing (boo-hoo!), but probably would not have kept them from getting Scott Podsednik and Rick Ankiel. The pitching staff, probably minus the Farnsworth albatross, would be the same (actually better in the addition by subtraction way of thinking) and the spectre of Jose Guillen would not be an issue.

Maybe all this still does not make the Royals championship contenders, but I would wager it certainly puts them in the mix for the playoffs. It is all an exercise in fantasy without question, but it does point out how just one pick…ONE PICK…might have changed the course of a franchise.

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