SweetSpot: Mike Moustakas

Nothing resonates with the modern-day baseball fan like a good prospect vigil. George Springer was all the rage before the Houston Astros took the plunge and summoned him from Triple-A Oklahoma City in mid-April. Pittsburgh’s Gregory Polanco is still working on some things in Indianapolis. But once the Super Two deadline passes, Pirates fans might storm the team’s administrative offices en masse demanding that he appear.

It’s an immutable and less uplifting fact of baseball life that the shuttle runs both ways. Prospects fail to make the necessary adjustments against top-flight competition, or lose confidence, or fall into a spiral that no amount of cage work, video or positive visualization can overcome. Suddenly you look up and yesterday’s savior has a chance to be tomorrow’s Omaha Storm Chaser.

Before Tuesday’s 5-1 victory over the Colorado Rockies at Kauffman Stadium, the Kansas City Royals brass spent some time in question-and-answer mode over the prominent question du jour. Sam Mellinger, a respected and thoughtful columnist for the Kansas City Star, helped kick-start the day’s events when he wrote a piece beneath the headline, “It’s time for Mike Moustakas to go to Omaha.” Presumably not because Moustakas has a fondness for steak.

[+] EnlargeMike Moustakas
Ed Zurga/Getty ImagesOne source of early frustration in the lineup has been Mike Moustakas' failure to hit.

Moustakas has 16 hits all season and an OPS of .536, which ranks 174th among 181 qualifying hitters. (The really bad news, if you’re a San Diego Padres fan, is that Will Venable, Jedd Gyorko and Yonder Alonso are among the seven players who are worse.) Combine that with the Royals’ crying need for an offensive lift, and it was only natural that manager Ned Yost and general Dayton Moore faced a barrage of inquiries about their struggling third baseman.

Moore and Yost presented a united front, saying positive things about Moustakas while throwing a figurative arm around his shoulder and assuring him that he’s their man. “He’s a guy that’s going to help us win a championship,” said Yost, who noted that Moustakas continues to play exceptional defense and “can change a game with one swing of the bat.”

Finding an answer to Moustakas’ woes is a pressing issue because the Royals are no longer in development mode. They were a fashionable pick for an AL wild-card team in spring training this year on the basis of a solid rotation, a killer bullpen and an athletic defense with Gold Glovers at catcher (Salvador Perez), first base (Eric Hosmer) and left field (Alex Gordon).

Those three elements of the team have generally performed to expectations. But the offense has been a noticeable drag on Kansas City’s ambitions, and a lack of pop helps explain why the Royals rank 14th among the 15 American League teams in both runs scored and slugging percentage.

The Royals hit a mere 16 homers in their first 37 games, the lowest total for an AL club since the 1993 Boston Red Sox hit 16. At the end of the year, Mo Vaughn led that Boston lineup with 29 homers, and Mike Greenwell and Andre Dawson (the creaky-kneed, 38-year-old version) were tied for second with 13 each.

Lorenzo Cain and Perez went deep Tuesday night, which made for very good news in Kansas City’s win over Colorado. The not-so-good: Both homers came against Rockies starter Franklin Morales, who fidgeted, stepped on and off the rubber and otherwise nibbled his way through a five-inning, 99-pitch evening.

Mike Moustakas
ESPN Stats and InformationMike Moustakas has had poor production on balls grounded to the right side.

Oddly enough, speculation about Moustakas’ short-term future is swirling even as he’s tied for the team lead with four homers. It’s the singles and doubles that have been elusive. Moustakas is an amazing 0-for-25 while hitting a ground ball or “short line drive” against a shifted defense this season. According to Baseball Info Solutions, opponents have employed a shift against him 62 times already this year, compared to only 23 times for all of 2013.

In his first two or three years with the Royals, Moustakas developed a reputation for flinging helmets, breaking bats and churning inside over oh-fers. By acclamation, he’s become better at rolling with the tough times. But it’s never easy for a young player entrusted with carrying a team to the next level. In March, resident Royals icon George Brett raved about Moustakas’ all-fields approach and predicted he was in for a “breakthrough” year at the plate. Two months later, Danny Valencia can expect to get more at-bats against lefties at third base, and the people in charge in K.C. have to wonder when the nurturing approach should end and a refresher course in Omaha might be a more palatable option for Moustakas.

It’s not all on Moustakas, by a long shot. Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon have a combined three homers in 433 at-bats. But Hosmer had only one homer on June 12 of last season and finished with 17, so he’s shown that he can dig himself out of a power rut. He has 15 doubles and a .429 slugging percentage, and he’s hit the ball hard in 18 percent of his at-bats this year. That’s identical to last season, when he logged an OPS of .801.

Gordon, fresh off his first All-Star Game appearance, still needs to find his swing against left-handers. He’s batting .200 (9-for-45) with no home runs against lefties, compared to .307 with eight homers last year.

For all their issues, the Royals have time to figure this thing out. Other than Milwaukee, Detroit, San Francisco and Oakland at the top end and Houston, the Cubs, Arizona and Tampa Bay at the bottom, most big league teams are within a few games of .500 one way or another. “Check the standings and it looks like the NHL,” said a National League personnel man. Kansas City is 19-19 with a run differential of plus-4. In the current climate, mediocre doesn’t look half bad.

The Royals also have hit four home runs in their past two games, and they take some comfort in extenuating circumstances. They’ve played a lot of games in cool weather, and the ball figures to fly more when summer arrives. Then again, Kauffman Stadium is a challenge for both home and visiting hitters; just ask Colorado’s Nolan Arenado, who crushed a ball to left field Tuesday night and wound up jogging back to the dugout. There’s no doubt it would have landed in the seats at Coors Field.

Teams can win without crushing the ball, especially in this era of more stringent PED testing and a ban on amphetamines. The 2012 San Francisco Giants hit an MLB-low 103 homers and won a World Championship.

But that approach is going to put an awful lot of pressure on James Shields and the rest of the Kansas City pitching staff. If the Royals can’t find a way to generate more offense or win a lot of games by the score of 3-2 or 2-1, Mike Moustakas isn’t the only one who’ll need some encouraging words.

SweetSpot TV: Rapid fire

April, 22, 2014

It's another edition of rapid fire, featuring Masahiro Tanaka, Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, Jesse Chavez, Chase Utley, Mike Moustakas, the Mets and the Mariners.
For some reason, players just can’t help themselves.

Yasiel Puig has missed the past two Dodgers games after suffering a thumb injury while sliding headfirst into first base. On Tuesday night, Josh Hamilton slid headfirst into first base in the seventh inning and was removed in a crucial situation in the ninth inning because he injured his thumb.

The Angels trailed 5-3 but Fernando Rodney had walked the first two batters, bringing up Hamilton’s spot in the lineup. Mind you, this is a hot Hamilton, hitting .444 in the early going. Instead, Ian Stewart pinch hit and struck out, as did Howie Kendrick, and when Raul Ibanez flew out the Angels had lost for the fourth straight time this season to the Mariners.

Studies have shown runners do not get to first base faster by sliding headfirst, so runners, please stop.

Other thoughts on Tuesday’s games:
  • Hard-throwing 22-year-old Yordano Ventura had an impressive 2014 debut for the Royals with six strikeouts and no walks in six scoreless innings against the Rays. Impressively, four of his strikeouts came on his changeup, one on his curveball and one on his fastball. Fourteen of the 19 changeups he threw were strikes -- and if he’s commanding that pitch, he’s going to develop into a very good starter. His average fastball velocity was 97 mph and peaked at 100.8. Alas, the Royals loaded the bases three times and failed to score and the Rays beat Greg Holland with a run in the ninth. My concern about the Royals’ offense heading into the season was a lack of power, and they’re homerless through seven games. Mike Moustakas -- remember his hot spring? -- finally got his first hit. He’s only 25, so you don’t want to say there’s no chance of a breakout season for him, but I don’t see it, and a hot spring didn’t change my opinion.
  • The White Sox pounded the Rockies 15-3 as Jose Abreu hit his first two home runs -- two of the six HRs the White Sox hit Tuesday. Avisail Garcia added his first two homers, as well. Could the White Sox be a sleeper team? I’m skeptical that they can jump from 63 wins into playoff contention, but if Abreu is a star and lineup anchor, and Adam Eaton provides speed and on-base ability from the leadoff spot, and Garcia hits in his first full season, the White Sox will score a lot more runs than the 598 they scored last year. The Sox have one-of-a-kind starter Chris Sale and a solid No. 2, Jose Quintana, so perhaps the Sox can surprise if the Indians and Royals fall back a bit from 2013.
  • The Reds are 1-4 against the Cardinals after blowing an early 4-0 lead in a 7-5 loss; Homer Bailey gave up four runs in the second and the bullpen lost it in the sixth. The four losses have been by a total of six runs. The Cardinals went 11-8 against the Reds last year while outscoring them 102-77. The Reds are 2-6, Billy Hamilton is struggling from the leadoff spot (.091/.130/.136, no stolen bases), and the bullpen clearly misses Aroldis Chapman. The Reds have to be careful about digging an early hole. After Wednesday afternoon’s game against the Cards (Mike Leake versus Shelby Miller), Cincy's next five series are against the Rays, Pirates, Cubs, Pirates and Braves. Four of those are tough series that could leave the Reds well under .500 by the end of April.
  • Brandon Belt continues to rake, going 2-for-4 with his fifth home run as the Giants beat the Diamondbacks 7-3 (I wonder if that Arizona dugout bench is getting a little warm for Kirk Gibson). The interesting thing about Belt’s season numbers is that he has 10 strikeouts and no walks. It’s obviously a small sample size (only eight games), but I checked to see if he’s been chasing pitches out of the strike zone. He’s swung at 36 percent of pitches out of the zone, compared to 28 percent last year. His swing rate at pitches in the zone has increased from 46 to 52 percent. Too early to draw any conclusions, but it appears he may be taking a more aggressive approach. Of course, if he keeps hitting like this, he’ll start seeing a lot more pitches out of the zone.
  • Speaking of being more aggressive, Mike Trout said in spring training he’d be more aggressive this year on first pitches or when the count was in his favor. So far, he’s swung at four first pitches in 35 plate appearances (11.4 percent) resulting in two misses and two foul balls. Last season, he swung at the first pitch 12.4 percent of the time and at 2-0 pitches 30 percent of the time; this season, he has faced just two 2-0 counts and swung once.
  • Bartolo Colon pitched seven scoreless innings in the Mets’ 4-0 win over the Braves. He threw 101 pitches -- 88 fastballs. Of course, those 88 fastballs come in at different speeds and move, cut, dive, fade and run. What a unique, fun pitcher to watch. The Braves are 4-3 even though they’ve scored just 15 runs in seven games. Jason Heyward (.107), B.J. Upton (.138, 13 K’s, no walks), Justin Upton (.231, no extra-base hits) and Evan Gattis (.188, no walks) all continue to struggle. Freddie Freeman -- six walks and just two strikeouts -- isn’t going to see much to hit until the guys in front of him start getting on base.

Today's scrubs may be tomorrow's All-Stars

July, 11, 2013
On Monday night, Carlos Gomez jumped, stuck his glove over Miller Park's center field fence, and pulled back what would have been a go-ahead home run from Reds first baseman Joey Votto. Instead, it was the third out in the ninth inning. Francisco Rodriguez got the save and the Brewers happily celebrated as Gomez jogged towards his teammates from the warning track.

According to FanGraphs, Gomez has been the National League's best player thus far, compiling 4.9 wins above replacement thanks to an .889 OPS, that great defense in center and 21 steals in 24 attempts. At one time, he was the No. 3 prospect in the Mets' system according to Baseball America, but the Mets included him in a package they sent to the Twins to acquire ace lefty Johan Santana.

Playing every day for the Twins in 2008 and '09, Gomez struggled at the plate. In 963 plate appearances, he posted a .645 OPS with a staggering 214 strikeouts and 47 walks, a ratio in excess of 4.5. His defense was great at times, but the Twins couldn't justify keeping his weak bat in the lineup. After the 2009 season, they traded Gomez to the Milwaukee Brewers for shortstop J.J. Hardy.

Though he missed some time between 2010-12 with injuries, Gomez still did not live up to the lofty expectations set for him when he ascended through the Mets' system. The Brewers used him as a fourth outfielder behind Nyjer Morgan in 2011, and splitting time with Norichika Aoki to start the 2012 season, primarily platooning him against left-handers. By the end of July, though, Gomez was back playing every day and he finally showed flashes of the player dominating the league presently. Between July 16 and the end of the 2012 regular season, Gomez posted an .812 OPS with 14 home runs in 273 plate appearances. He stole 26 stolen bases in 29 attempts.

In an article for Sports On Earth, Howard Megdal noted how Gomez himself decided to make a change. He discarded years of advice from the plethora of coaches and decided to try to hit home runs, rather than put the ball on the ground. "I always expected myself to be a three-hole hitter," Gomez said. "Thirty-plus home runs. That's how I saw myself ... But all the people wanted [was] to take advantage of was my speed. I mean, better late than never."

Gomez, still just 27 years old, is just the latest in a surprisingly long line of players who are now at the top of the game after having been given up on by their former teams. Jose Bautista went from club to club, never finding the kind of success that parlays into a starting role. He went to the Blue Jays in 2008, changed his swing, and the rest is history. Edwin Encarnacion has a similar story; he hovered around the league average offensively, came to the Blue Jays in 2009, and turned into one of the game's premier power hitters. Domonic Brown was nearly given up on by the Phillies organization just a few years after they refused to include him in a trade for Roy Halladay, and now he sits with the second-most home runs in the National League.

Perhaps the best example is Chris Davis. Davis tore up opposing pitching while in the minors with the Rangers between 2006-08. In 2008, he reached Triple-A at the age of 22, and he hit 23 home runs in 329 trips to the plate while posting a 1.029 OPS. He earned a call up to the majors at the end of June, and hit 17 home runs with an .880 OPS.

He was asked to replicate that in 2009 at the big league level, but he couldn't. Opposing pitchers had a book on him and his approach at the plate wasn't major league quality. While he was able to muscle out 21 home runs, he struck out 150 times and walked only 24 times in 391 plate appearances. The Rangers kept him in Triple-A for most of 2010 and he performed well; in three different stints in the majors that year, however, he looked completely lost.

At the trade deadline in 2011, the Rangers needed to add some pieces for a postseason run so they traded Davis to the down-and-out Baltimore Orioles with Tommy Hunter for reliever Koji Uehara and a small amount of cash. The Rangers lost the World Series in seven games and, they would eventually find out, they also lost an impact bat.

Davis flourished with the Orioles. Last season, he hit 33 home runs with a .827 OPS. This year, were it not for Miguel Cabrera hitting at an historic level, Davis would be baseball's best hitter. He has hit the most home runs in baseball thus far with 33 and he has the highest slugging percentage with a Bondsian .690. He is walking more, striking out less, and making good contact on seemingly everything. And he's only 27 years old.

The moral of the story is not to give up on players with a surfeit of talent but a deficit of results. Patience is often rewarded in baseball. And it is a never-ending cycle. Right now, there are struggling players who have yet to live up to expectations who will eventually be discarded by an impatient, unsatisfied team and picked up by an optimistic team hoping to strike lightning in a bottle.


Which of these young players is the best bet to develop into a future All-Star?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,307)

Mike Moustakas may be one such player. After hitting 20 home runs last year but posting overall below-average offensive numbers, he has been among the five worst-hitting American Leaguers this year, with only six home runs and a .213 average to his name entering Thursday's game against the Yankees. The Royals are 43-45 and just seven games out of the second wild-card spot. Their offseason trade of Wil Myers to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis was a public admission they wanted to compete for the postseason, so it wouldn't be surprising to see them use Moustakas in a trade to bolster the roster for a late-season run.

Lonnie Chisenhall is another. The 24-year-old has posted tremendous minor league numbers and was ranked as the No. 39 overall prospect by Keith Law before the 2011 season. In 542 PAs in the majors, though, he hasn't shown much. The power and plate discipline he showcased in the minors seems to disappear when he faces major league pitching, but the potential is there nonetheless. Since being recalled on June 18, Chisenhall has posted a .772 OPS. That is certainly a small sample, but also a glimmer of hope as well.

Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley was ranked No. 7 by Law before the 2011 season, but like Chisenhall, has not been able to translate minor league success into major league success. In 1,249 PAs in the big leagues, he has a .650 OPS, including a paltry .533 this year that includes a .209 average. With Triple-A Tacoma -- after getting sent down -- he posted a .947 OPS with more walks (19) than strikeouts (14). He's back with Seattle and now playing outfield.

You can look at Mets first baseman Ike Davis through the same prism. And to the Mets' credit, they have been incredibly patient with him and have been exhausting their options to get him to be an above-average major league contributor. In fact, Davis has a lot in common with Davis, including the tremendous raw power and the high strikeout rate.

As odd as it sounds, some of tomorrow's All-Stars may be found at the bottom of this year's offensive leaderboards. At the same time two years ago, you would never have expected us to be talking about Chris Davis and Gomez as their league's respective most valuable players, but here we are in 2013 doing exactly that. Baseball, it's a funny game that way.

Bill Baer is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog. He runs the Crashburn Alley blog on the Phillies.

Royals' can't-miss prospects have missed

June, 8, 2013
This was supposed to be the year for the Kansas City Royals, the climax of all those of futile seasons, subsequent high draft pick selections, and constant rebuilding. In a perfect world the images of James Shields, Wade Davis, Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie donning Kansas City uniforms would never exist.

After all, just two seasons prior to beginning the year with the four veteran right-handers in the rotation, general manager Dayton Moore and Co. had amassed what could have been the greatest farm system in baseball history. Prior to the start of the 2011 season Baseball America issued its top 100 prospects list, featuring nine members of the Royals organization, five of them among the game's top 19: Eric Hosmer (No. 8), Mike Moustakas (No. 9), Wil Myers (No. 10), John Lamb (No. 18), Mike Montgomery (No. 19), Christian Colon (No. 51), Danny Duffy (No. 68), Jake Odorizzi (No. 69) and Chris Dwyer (No. 83).

It was a deep, diverse collection of talent, offering a solid mix of potential middle-of-the-order bats and potential front-of-the-rotation arms. It was supposed to be, simply, the farm system that would thrust KC back into October.

And, yet, here the Royals are, in the midst of a horrifically poor stretch where they find themselves at the back of the AL Central. That leaves the question: What happened?

Eric Hosmer: The young first baseman looked as close to a can't-miss prospect as any player in the organization, showing above-average to elite walk rates, solid contact skills, no discernible platoon splits, and promising power -- or was it?

Look at Hosmer's isolated power numbers:

Year Level PA ISO
2009 A 327 0.129
2009 A+ 107 0.093
2010 A+ 375 0.191
2010 AA 211 0.303
2011 AAA 118 0.143
2011 MLB 563 0.172
2012 MLB 598 0.127
2013 MLB 215 0.066

Outside of half of one season in 2010, he never consistently showed above-average power. Instead, his two best stops in the minor leagues (according to Weighted Runs Created Plus, or wRC+) were his stints in High-A in 2010 and Triple-A the next year, both of which he posted ridiculously high batting averages on balls in play (.382 and .500, respectively).

In all fairness, he projected to hit for more power, but hasn't. Hosmer is only 23 years old, so there's still some reason to hope.

Mike Moustakas: Heading into the 2010 season, the third baseman with the smooth left-handed stroke had been solid, but far from spectacular. He hit .272/.337/.468 as a 19-year-old in A-ball in 2008 and .250/.297/.421 in High-A the following season. But the former No. 2 overall pick broke out in Double-A in 2010, hitting an incredible .347/.413/.687 through 66 games. He was then promoted to Omaha where he hit .293/.314/.564.

Using Weighted Runs Created Plus -- a park and league adjusted offensive stat where 100 is league average and every point above or below it is equivalent to one percent better or worse than the league average -- and BABIP, Moustakas posted the following totals in the minor leagues:

Year Level PA wRC+ BABIP
2008 A 549 128 0.289
2009 A+ 530 95 0.275
2010 AA 298 194 0.342
2010 AAA 236 114 0.271
2011 AAA 250 105 0.314

His numbers with Northwest Arkansas certainly now appear to be the outlier, which is only supported by a unsustainable -- given his minor league track record -- .342 batting average on balls in play. But there were also two additional red flags: A history of below-average walk rates and an inability to hit left-handers consistently.

Fast forward a few years and, unsurprisingly, Moustakas owns a below-average walk rate and BABIP, and still hasn't learned to hit southpaws (he's hit .219/.274/.331 against them during his big league career).

John Lamb and Danny Duffy: Statistically speaking, there were no red flags for Lamb and Duffy. Each missed a lot of bats and showed solid control. The problem, however, is both serve as just another cautionary tale when it comes to highly touted hurlers nabbed out of high school. The duo succumbed to elbow woes and Tommy John surgery. And while they are making progress on the hill this season, they've yet to make any type of big league impact.

Christian Colon: The former fourth overall pick out of Cal State Fullerton in 2010 showed some offensive promise during his junior season: .358/.450/.631. But his bat -- namely his pop and walk rates -- has failed to develop in the pro ranks. Hi offensive production during his debut season in High-A certainly looked like a harbinger for things to come: He hit .278/.326/.376 and was 5 percent below the league-average, uninspiring production for a highly drafted college player in an age-appropriate level of competition.

Chris Dwyer: Kansas City found the 6-foot-3 left-hander in the fourth round out of Clemson in 2009. Dwyer tossed a combined 102 innings the following season, the overwhelming majority in High-A. And while his overall numbers look impressive -- 10.0 K/9 and 3.8 BB/9 -- he was another polished collegiate player that spent a significant amount of time in an age-appropriate level of competition. His numbers have regressed mightily since then.

Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery: Flipped this offseason for James Shields and Wade Davis, Myers and Odorizzi look like the two most likely candidates of the entire group to find sustained big league success.

Myers, who hit .314/.387/.600 between Double-A and Triple-A in 2012, started off slowly this season but has managed to pick things up as of late (.276/.355/.491). He has the potential to swing and miss a lot at the big league level, but the power output and strong walk rates have been consistent.

Odorizzi misses some bats and shows average control. He won't be a star, but should become a solid No. 3 or4 starter.

Montgomery, on the other hand, is another failed top prospect. And while he flashed some promise at certain points during his career, the southpaw's production hjas failed to match the hype once he entered Double-A.

Given the high attrition rate for prospects, you could project that probably only one, maybe two, of the team's prospects from that season would actually reach their full potential, with another two becoming solid big league regulars. Instead, the seven that remain within the organization have all struggled or been injured. For now, Myers and Odorizzi look like group's best bets. Unfortunately for the hometown fans, they no longer have a chance do so for the Royals.

Joe Werner contributes to the Indians blog It's Pronounced "Lajaway," writes at ProspectDigest.com and can be followed on Twitter @ReleasePoints.
The Kansas City Royals probably would be better off putting George Brett in the lineup than making him their interim hitting coach, but at least it will be good to see Brett back in a Royals uniform.

Because the real Royals sure haven't been good of late.

THIS WAS GOING TO BE THE YEAR, many prophesied before the season. Instead, after going 14-10 in April, the Royals have played like the Royals. In May they've gone 7-19, have lost eight in a row and 12 of 13, and have averaged 2.5 runs per game over those 13 games while hitting a grand total of two home runs.

And both of those home runs were hit by Miguel Tejada! A guy who wasn't even in the majors last year. Those may be the saddest two sentences I've written all year.

[+] EnlargeMike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer
Brad Mangin/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesHighly regarded prospects Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer have been slow to take the next step in the majors.
So, no, it's not a surprise that hitting coaches Jack Maloof and Andre David have been reassigned. The real surprise is that manager Ned Yost wasn't given the ax as well.

As Joe Posnanski wrote a few days ago:

The last three games, the Royals have had Chris Getz and Alcides Escobar at the top of their lineup. You are not trying to win when you put Chris Getz and Alcides Escobar at the top of your lineup. You’re just not. Chris Getz has a .311 career on-base percentage and a lifetime OPS+ of 70. Alcides Escobar has a .304 career on-base percentage and a lifetime OPS+ of 79. You hit those two guys 1-2 when you are trying to lose games for a better draft pick.

As Posnanski also pointed out, this power outage hasn't come at the expense of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. The 13 starters the Royals have faced: Jarrod Parker, Tom Milone, A.J. Griffin, Dallas Keuchel, Bud Norris, Jordan Lyles, Joe Blanton, Jason Vargas, Billy Buckner, Jerome Williams, Adam Wainwright, Tyler Lyons and Lance Lynn.

No, the ugly truth is everyone expected Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas to become stars because they were highly rated prospects, and highly rated prospects become stars. The ugly truth is this is a franchise trying to win with Jeff Francoeur and Getz eating up outs every day.

But Hosmer can't hit a fastball. In an excellent subscription piece on Baseball Prospectus, Sam Miller wrote about watching a week of Hosmer at-bats. His conclusion:
Hosmer is consistently late on fastballs. In seven days, I saw Hosmer foul off 18 pitches, and my recollection is that one of them—a slider that he dribbled toward the first-base dugout—was pulled. Nearly without fail, the rest were fastballs that he popped foul into the left-field stands or, occasionally, lined sharply toward the third-base dugout. Part of this is approach—as noted, he goes the other way—but the frequency of foul pop-ups on fastballs points to an inability to catch up and get on top of these pitches.

I've written before about Hosmer's inability to hit fastballs. It could be a mechanical thing. It could just be that he can't react to good fastballs. It could be his approach, and maybe that's why Maloof and David are no longer here. If they were telling their guys to go the opposite field, that's a problem. Yes, that's part of being a good major league hitter, but the majority of home runs are pulled. If you can't pull the ball, you're not going to hit many home runs. Not every hitter has the strength of Ryan Howard or Miguel Cabrera. And while the San Francisco Giants proved last year that home runs aren't the only way to score runs, the Royals are 14th in the AL in walks, so if you're not getting on base and not hitting home runs, your offense is going to stink.

And the Royals' offense stinks.

Also, that hot start in April? Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie were great and allowed 10 home runs between them. In May they've allowed 18 and haven't been great.

In other words, the pitching that fueled that hot start may not really be as good as it was in April.

Somehow I got through this whole post without mentioning general manager Dayton Moore. He was hired May 31, 2006. Has it really been that long? His team has essentially made no progress in seven years.

It's time.

Guthrie rewards Royals' win-now needs

May, 5, 2013

After beating the Chicago White Sox 2-0 with a complete-game shutout Saturday, Jeremy Guthrie is now 9-3 as a Kansas City Royal, and that’s at a time when it hasn’t been easy to do anything of the sort wearing a Royals uniform, even with the vagaries of run support and how much a win-loss record for any one starting pitcher can amount to a series of coin tosses.

From disappointing high expectations as a top prospect in Cleveland, to being stuck as an innings-eater in Oriole irrelevance, to the brief horrors of a mile-high exile as a Rockie, Guthrie has paid his dues and deserves a good turn. That he’s given the Royals more than one in kind is one of those happy developments. With the additions of James Shields and Ervin Santana to the rotation, Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore can reasonably brag that he’s managed to cobble together a better-than-average rotation in short order despite limited supply and limited cash. Thanks to their rotation, the Royals are in that gaggle of teams fighting for bragging rights to be second in the American League to the Detroit Tigers in quality-start percentage so far -- just a tick or two below 60 percent -- even as they fight to keep up with the heavily favored Motor City Kitties in the AL Central.

One thing to always keep in mind is the separation between “how things would be if everything goes our way,” and how things are. That’s worth keeping in mind because while the Royals are 16-10, the really interesting thing about the team at this point of the season is the number of things that haven’t gone entirely its way -- and yet Kansas City is competing just the same. Anybody can win when everything you thought would happen, does, but the Royals haven’t been nearly that fortunate.

The biggest problems are to be found in the lineup, which has a number of bats that have gone MIA so far -- and for far longer than a mere month. Starting third baseman Mike Moustakas is on the wrong side of the Fermin line for OPS (which is .600, since I just made it up; Felix Fermin’s career mark was .608). If the Royals had an alternative, a punitive trip to Omaha would have been long since earned. Former Brave Jeff Francoeur, briefly a source of bragging rights for an organization run by a former Braves exec, is now a month into a second season of brag-unworthiness as an outfield regular. Catcher Salvador Perez has yet to really get on track. Overhyped wunderkind Eric Hosmer is slugging a whopping .350, which would be considered terrible if he hadn’t already slugged just .359 last year. In his age-23 season, Hosmer obviously has nowhere to go but up, but that’s just because he’s dug himself a hole; he needs to prove he isn’t merely the Midwest variation on an unslugly Justin Smoak theme for massive first-base disappointments of his generation. And after four years of ghastly production at second base, it’s time for the franchise to be honest with itself: It (Chris "Getz") better? No, no it does not, at least not for this guy.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Guthrie
AP Photo/Colin E. BraleyJeremy Guthrie gets an early shower after his shutout of Chicago, leaving him 4-0 and the Royals right on Detroit's heels in the AL Central.
Admittedly, this kind of caustic snapshot of an offense is easy in the season’s fifth week. If or when most of these guys start hitting -- and once the team replaces Getz with Johnny Giavotella, a move that’s at least a year overdue -- they could propel the Royals’ offense toward the top of the AL in runs scored per game, which would mean cashing in many more great games from Shields, Guthrie and Santana for wins. But Francoeur, Hosmer and Moustakas all need to rebound sooner rather than later if the Royals are going to keep alive their case for either unseating the Tigers or making a run at one of the two wild-card slots.

In the meantime, barring any major moves to fix these problems on offense, it’s going to be up to the Royals’ rotation to make sure the team can survive until its fixed, which makes for narrow margins to work with and tight games. More big games like Guthrie’s will help, but how well the rotation lasts over the next five months is an open question. After all, Wade Davis has one quality start in five turns, Santana broke hearts all over Anaheim, and fifth starter Luis Mendoza is a cipher at best or a placeholder due to be bumped at worst. Maybe Bruce Chen or Luke Hochevar will have to swing back to starting, and maybe that would merely lead to more of the same after counting on them as rotation regulars the previous three seasons.*

In the big picture, it’s important to keep in mind how transient this window of opportunity being bought by Kansas City's rotation might be. Santana is a free agent at season’s end, while Shields is here for one more year if the Royals spring for his option ($13.5 million). Santana was available in part because he has been so reliably maddening; Shields was available because, like much of the Rays’ statistical thaumaturgy, not everyone believed they could reproduce the same success in their own home laboratory. The Royals were sufficiently desperate to take a chance.

Which is where the Royals are now: Desperate to deliver, and deliver now. Young talents like Hosmer and Moustakas have plenty of time to develop, but it remains to be seen if the Royals’ leadership can afford the time it will take for them to fulfill their promise. Clearly, they couldn’t wait on Wil Myers, having dealt him away to land Shields (and Davis).

The Shields trade is a reflection of win-now desperation, but one armed by the knowledge that it has never been easier to make the postseason. If the Royals finally do make it to October and buy Moore more time to deliver on whatever master plan he might have beyond self-preservation, he’ll have bought himself continued opportunity to try to make people forget that he traded away a stud prospect to land just two seasons of Shields at near-market pricing.

With so many of their remaining top talents struggling even as the Royals get off to a good start, the Shields deal might sound like a defensible exchange, but just as you can’t judge the Royals on the basis of their getting off to a good start now, it remains to be seen if the full potential benefits of trying to win now will be realized. If the Royals get more than a boost in ticket sales in June and July, good on them. If they get to sell tickets in October, good on Dayton Moore -- he’ll have bought himself another several seasons worth of tomorrrows in the Royals’ front office. The odd thing is, that might add up to hope and faith in KC for many loss-addled Royals fans after decades of irrelevance, even as it frustrates those who’d rather still have Myers and the promise of an even better tomorrow.

* Yes, the Royals have at least four guys on this staff you’d call swingmen, if you count Mendoza and Davis as well as Chen and Hochevar. But hey, if you want to stick with the current fashion and pretend nobody’s employing swingmen, by all means, keep playing make-believe.
Quick thoughts on a Tuesday night that featured a lot of home runs across this great land ...

  • Look, Pablo Sandoval is fat. I'm about 99.7 percent sure if that if he lost 10 or 50 pounds that he'd be a better player. But, hey, he is who he is and right now the Giants don't care if can't tuck in his jersey as long as he keeps hitting like this. He crushed an 0-1 fastball from J.J. Putz for a two-run homer in the ninth inning to give the Giants a dramatic 2-1 win over the Diamondbacks. He's 11-for-18 in his past four games, but the best thing about his home run: He sort of called it. Andrew Baggarly of CSN tweeted, "Sandoval told Pence on his way to the plate that he was 'gonna click one.' So he called his shot? 'Pretty much.'" For Putz, that's already four blown saves (although the D-backs managed to win the first three of those games) and you wonder if Kirk Gibson will consider moving David Hernandez or even Heath Bell into the role.
  • [+] EnlargeSan Francisco's Pablo Sandoval
    Rick Scuteri/USA TODAY SportsPablo Sandoval's two-run home run in the ninth gave the Giants a win over the Diamondbacks.
    Watched a lot of the Rays-Royals game to see James Shields battle against his old pals. Alex Cobb was dominant through five innings, leading 2-0 and going to two balls on just two hitters. The Royals broadcast showed a cool split screen showing the similar deliveries of Shields and Cobb; Shields has that little Tiant-esque twist and Cobb has maybe a little more deliberation, but the two are very similar. Cobb even credits Shields with showing him the spike curveball that he now uses with his fastball/changeup combo. Suddenly with two outs and nobody on in the sixth, the Royals got to Cobb with an Eric Hosmer double, Lorenzo Cain single, Mike Moustakas home run to right (his first of the year), Jeff Francoeur double and Salvador Perez single. Meanwhile, Shields served up a two-run homer to Matt Joyce in the first, but settled down and delivered another quality start. He's only 2-2 as the Royals have struggled to score runs, but he has a 3.00 ERA and 39/10 SO/BB ratio. He's been everything the Royals wanted.
  • The reports of Roy Halladay's demise may have been exaggerated, but the reports of his return may also have been a bit premature. The Indians tagged him for three home runs, nine hits and eight runs in 3.2 innings. Cleveland then added four more off the Philly bullpen -- with Ryan Raburn hitting two for the second game in a row -- in a 14-2 win. The Indians have scored 33 runs in their past three games. Oh, Carlos Santana is good: .389/.476/.722. I'll have to check in on the Indians one of these nights.
  • Ian Kinsler is quietly having a great season for the Rangers -- two more hits in a 10-6 win over the White Sox to raise his line to .317/.395/.525, along with outstanding defense at second.
  • Fun back-and-forth game in Toronto as the Blue Jays beat the Red Sox 9-7 after David Ortiz had given Boston a 7-6 lead with a three-run double in the seventh. Big win to snap a four-game skid. Edwin Encarnacion hit two home runs, including the go-ahead two-run shot off the very tough Junichi Tazawa, and this ginormous shot off Jon Lester into the fourth deck, just the 14th player to hit one there. Melky Cabrera continues to struggle but Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are starting to heat up. Still, as Dan Szymborski wrote, the Jays' slow start has hurt their playoff odds big time. Insider
  • Yuniesky Betancourt, you are awesome.
  • This happened at Dodger Stadium tonight.

There's no shame in losing to the Atlanta Braves these days, not with the way they're hitting and pitching.

What was disappointing for the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday night is that the supposed strengths of their team faltered again. Kelvin Herrera, one of the members of the bullpen that was so good in 2012, entered in a tie game in the eighth inning and promptly served one-out, back-to-back home runs to Jason Heyward (who hit a 98-mph heater) and the scorching hot Justin Upton. Then, an out later, Herrera gave up his third home run of the inning to Dan Uggla as the Braves ended up with a 6-3 victory.

Herrera allowed just four home runs in 84 innings last year and had been dominant so far in 2013, with two hits and 11 strikeouts in 5.1 innings. So maybe it was just one of those innings, although if you want to contend for the postseason your bullpen can't afford too many of those innings. Still, in the long run the Kansas City bullpen should be just fine with its arsenal of power arms.

Of more concern is the lack of power -- or any kind of production, really -- from the left-handed bats of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. One reason for much optimism around the Royals this year was the expected improvement for the 23-year-old Hosmer and 24-year-old Moustakas. Those expectations were a reason the Royals believed they could trade minor league stud Wil Myers for James Shields. After all, even though both were pretty bad last year, there were signs of hope: Hosmer had hit well as a rookie in 2011 and Moustakas had a very good first half before falling apart in the second half.

[+] EnlargeKansas City's Eric Hosmer
AP Photo/David DurochikEric Hosmer, above, and Mike Moustakas have struggled for the Royals so far this season.
But after going 1-for-8 in Tuesday's loss, their batting lines:

Hosmer: .242/.359/.273, 1 2B, 5 BB, 8 SO
Moustakas: .171/.244/.220, 2 2B, 4 BB, 6 SO

That's a .203 average, three doubles, no home runs and five RBIs in 74 combined at-bats. This is where we point out that it's early and that all this is small-sample-size kind of analysis and each player could have two big games and suddenly be having good seasons. There is some positive news in those numbers as well, as neither player is striking out excessively.

In Hosmer's case, he just isn't driving the ball -- at all. He had his one double to deep left-center and one fly out to deep left, but after flying out twice and striking out twice on Tuesday, he now has 12 ground balls in play and six fly balls. He has hit seven line drives, but those lines drives aren't being driven into the gaps.

This is somewhat similar to the issue he faced last year when he had trouble pulling the ball with much authority -- he only pulled three home runs all season (he hit seven to the opposite field and four just to the right of center). You can be a good hitter even if your natural stroke goes to the opposite field, but unless you possess the raw power of someone like Ryan Howard or David Ortiz, you're not going to develop into a big home run hitter unless you pull the ball more. Hosmer hit .284 and slugged .444 against fastballs last year, which sounds pretty good, but the major-league averages were .295 and .485 for qualified regulars. Hosmer ranked in the 42nd percentile in batting average and 32nd percentile in slugging percentage against the fastball. The trouble is, he was even worse against "soft" stuff -- he hit .177 and slugged .245, well below the .242 and .393 marks of the 144 qualified regulars.

I would argue that it all stems off hitting the fastball. If he can't catch up to the good fastballs, he's going to struggle much more against offspeed stuff. So far in 2013, he's 0-for-14 in plate appearances ending in fastballs. Until he shows he can hit the hard stuff with authority, Hosmer isn't going to meet the lofty expectations everyone had for him after his rookie season.

As for Moustakas, he has had the opposite problem: Twenty-two fly balls, seven ground balls and seven infield pop-outs. He had one fly out and one foul infield pop-out on Tuesday. He's just getting under everything (he has had four deep flies to center field that were caught).

In looking at Moustakas' success rate against fastballs, last year he hit .261 and slugged .478. The power was there but the batting average was low -- in large part because his chase percentage (swings at fastballs outside the strike zone) was 32 percent, which ranked in the 10th percentile of all regulars. So far in 2013 that chase percentage is 35 percent, not a sign that he's going to drastically improve.

Both are young. Both have a lot of work to do before they become stars and meet the hype they generated coming up to the majors.

The good news for the Royals: The bullpen has struggled, their two young corner infielders have struggled, and Salvador Perez hasn't hit yet. And they're still 7-6.
Player comparisons are fun. It's part of talking baseball with our friends: Who do you like better? Who should you take in your fantasy draft? Would you trade this guy for that guy? Here are a couple of comparisons to consider.

Player A is Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, still highly regarded enough that Grantland's Jonah Keri recently called him the 32nd-most valuable trade asset in baseball. Player B is Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager, a less heralded prospect who outhit Moustakas -- not to mention former North Carolina teammate Dustin Ackley -- in his first full season in the majors.

In fact, the more you dig into the numbers you realize how much better Seager was than Moustakas at the plate. Seager had to play half his games in the Safeco Field dungeon. He hit just .223 with five home runs there, but hit .293 with 15 home runs on the road, pushing his slugging percentage over .500. Moustakas, meanwhile, hit .279/.333/.461 at home, but just .205/.260/.364 on the road. After a good first half, he also faded in the second half. Seager had slightly better walk and strikeout rates. In looking at wRC+ from Fangraphs, a stat that is park-adjusted, we see Seager was better. In terms of runs created, he was about eight runs better than an average hitter while Moustakas was nine runs worse.

The difference in perception between the two comes from their prospect pedigree. Moustakas was the second overall pick in the 2007 draft and heralded as a star after hitting 36 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A in 2010 (sound familiar, Royals and Rays fans?). Seager was a third-round pick the same year the Mariners drafted Ackley second overall. Seager was viewed as a utility guy coming up through the minors but all he's done is hit and then added surprising power in 2012.

Moustakas does have advantages on his side: He rated as an excellent fielder this past season, pushing his Baseball-Reference WAR ahead of Seager's. Importantly, he's also a year younger, and as Bill James showed long ago, the difference in career length between two players with the same stats but one being a year younger can be significant. Still, Seager keeps exceeding expectations and with the Mariners moving in the fences at Safeco, I like his chances to put up even bigger numbers in 2013.

Watching Seager, he may not look like a star hitter in uniform (his legs are short and he wears the baggy pants, making him looking short and squat), but he hits the ball hard (35 doubles as well). Look, Moustakas may yet live up to his prospect hype; Seager may have already maxed out. But right now I don't see a lot that separates the two.

Player A is a guy who goes high in any fantasy draft, an All-Star signed to a long-term contract that will eventually pay him $20 million in one season. Player B is a guy who finally broke though in 2012 after several years bouncing back and forth and not producing at the big league level. Player A is Carlos Gonzalez; Player B is another Mariner, Michael Saunders.

Obviously, the raw batting lines here are much different -- a .303 hitter (.299 career) versus a guy who hit .247. But we must again must dig into park effects. Not surprisingly, CarGo has generated monster numbers at Coors Field, and pedestrian numbers on the road: In 2012, .368/.437/.609 versus .234/.301/.405. In his career, he's hit .353 at Coors, .258 on the road. Saunders, like most of his Mariners teammates, hit much better on the road -- .262/.324/.469 versus .229 at home. In considering park effects, you have to remember that a run created in Safeco is more valuable than a run created at Coors, since games are lower scoring. It leads to a question that we can't fully answer: What would Gonzalez hit if he played for the Mariners and what would Saunders hit if he played for the Rockies?

It's possible that Gonzalez is suffering from the "Coors effect" -- that something happens to Rockies hitters once they hit the road, and that, like Matt Holliday, he'd hit just fine if he played for another team. Holliday, however, did receive a sizable advantage from Coors, hitting .358 there compared to .294 everywhere else. And he hit much better on the road with the Rockies than Gonzalez has -- .301 in his big 2007 season, for example.

The other factor in comparing Gonzalez to Saunders is defense. Gonzalez won his second Gold Glove Award in 2012, and that's one where the sabermetric analysis splits widely from the managers and coaches who vote on that award. Baseball Info Solutions rated Gonzalez as -13 runs in left field in 2012, after being a positive defender in 2010 and 2011. Saunders spent most of the season in center field, but he also rated poorly via Defensive Runs Saved at -12. In the end, Saunders' positional advantage as a center fielder, and the park effects of hitting in Safeco that make their offense closer than it appears, gives him the edge in Baseball-Reference WAR. (Gonzalez does have the edge in FanGraphs WAR at 2.7 to 2.3.)

I'm not saying Saunders is the better player; 2012 was Gonzalez's worst year since his 2010 breakout campaign. And Saunders, despite just establishing himself, is only a year younger, so he probably doesn't have a lot of growth left in his game. I'd like to see Saunders improve his strikeout/walk ratio a bit before I declare him a sure thing, but like Seager, he could be a big surprise in 2013 if Safeco plays a little more fair. Again, this comparison is to point out a matter of perception; Gonzalez is viewed as a superstar; but Saunders, at the least, is clearly an underrated asset.

Check back later today for two more comparisons. And I promise they won't involve any Mariners.

Power rankings: All 30 teams!

December, 22, 2012
Last weekend, I presented the top 10 teams in my personal power rankings. That was before the Blue Jays officially acquired R.A. Dickey, so I updated my top 10 after that trade, and, to spur on more debate, now present the rest of my rankings. Agree or disagree, but I do think this is the most parity we've seen in a long time. It's why the Orioles and A's were able to surprise this past season and why we will undoubtedly see another surprise team in 2013. It's a great time to be a baseball fan.

1. Nationals
Most talented rotation in the majors, deep lineup, depth. Re-signing Adam LaRoche to add another lefty power bat will help.

2. Reds
Superb rotation could be better if the Aroldis Chapman transition works, bullpen is deep enough to absorb his loss and Shin-Soo Choo provides a needed leadoff hitter.

3. Yankees
I think they can stretch things out more season with a deep rotation, excellent bullpen and power. Remember, they had the largest run differential in the American League last season.

4. Tigers
Deep rotation, great 1-2 punch with Miggy and Prince, and Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez should improve the lineup.

5. Braves
Left-handed power, power bullpen and a young team that could improve from last year's 94 wins.

6. Blue Jays
Addition of Dickey adds a needed No. 1 to a rotation that could be dominant if Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow remain healthy.

7. A's
Young teams that show big improvement are usually for real, and this team has a solid rotation, a strong outfield and power arms in the bullpen.

8. Dodgers
Have to love the Clayton Kershaw-Zack Greinke combo and an offense with big upside if Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez come close to 2011 levels.

9. Rangers
I think the rotation is playoff-caliber with Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando, Martin Perez and Colby Lewis.


Which of these five teams should be No. 1 right now?


Discuss (Total votes: 35,031)

10. Cardinals
Have to replace Kyle Lohse, but they'll score plenty of runs as long as Carlos Beltran (36 years old in April) and Matt Holliday (33 in January) keep producing.

11. Rays
Still some holes in the lineup, and replacing James Shields' 220-plus innings won't be that easy, but underestimate the Rays at your own risk.

12. Angels
Oddsmaker Bovada.lv has the Angels with the second-best odds to win the World Series (behind the Blue Jays), but I see a rotation with a lot of question marks behind Jered Weaver, and Josh Hamilton only replaces Hunter, who was terrific in 2012.

13. Giants
I discussed my issues with the Giants here. I could be wrong, although our friends at Bovada only put the Giants tied for ninth in their World Series odds.

14. Diamondbacks
Their run differential wasn't much different than the Giants last year, and they've added Brandon McCarthy, infield depth and still have Justin Upton.

15. Phillies
I want to say we're all underestimating a team that includes Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, but then I see an outfield of Darin Ruf, Ben Revere and Domonic Brown, and an infield defense that includes Michael Young and Ryan Howard and 30-somethings Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley.

16. Brewers
They can score runs -- most in the National League last season -- and if the bullpen regroups after 2012's gruesome late-inning efforts, this team could surprise.

17. Red Sox
There will be no expectations after the disaster in 2012 (the franchise's worst record since 1965), but I see a big rebound coming.

18. Royals
I'll buy -- but I'm not buying a playoff spot. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have to take huge leaps forward ... or the Royals could be headed for another rebuild.

19. Orioles
Last season's 93-win playoff team provided a beautiful ride, but the Orioles haven't added that big bat they need.

20. Padres
Young team is moving in the right direction after winning 76 games in 2012. Can rotation improve to push Pads over .500?

21. Mariners
Mariners have pursued a big bat all offseason but were only able to pick up Kendrys Morales, and he cost them Jason Vargas, opening up a 200-inning hole in the rotation. Looks like 2014 before Mariners can make a push in the tough AL West.

22. Pirates
Still no No. 1 or even No. 2 starter (sorry, A.J. Burnett is a No. 3 at best) and not enough support for Andrew McCutchen. One of these years, Pirates fans, one of these years.

23. White Sox
No A.J. Pierzynski, a declining Paul Konerko, good year/off year Alex Rios due for an off year. Then again, White Sox had a bigger run differential in 2012 than the Tigers.

24. Cubs
Rotation of Edwin Jackson, Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Scott Baker and Scott Feldman could be competitive, but offense won't be.

25. Mets
At least Mets fans can dream of a future rotation that includes Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Jonathon Niese and Noah Syndergaard. Unfortunately, the 2013 version still includes Frank Francisco and a bunch of fourth outfielders.

26. Marlins
Giancarlo Stanton still makes this team worth watching on a daily basis.

27. Indians
Getting Trevor Bauer in the Choo deal added a much-needed starting pitcher prospect. Unfortunately, much of the rest of rotation remains suspect.

28. Twins
Kevin Correia, Vance Worley, Mike Pelfrey ... what, Rich Robertson and Sean Bergman weren't available?

29. Rockies
At least the Twins have a direction as they wait for young position players to reach the majors. I have no clue what the Rockies are doing, intend to do, want to do, wish to do or hope to achieve.

30. Astros
Welcome to the AL West, boys.

How the Royals can win the AL Central

December, 11, 2012
Mike Moustakas/Eric HosmerJamie Squire/Getty ImagesImprovement from Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, right, could lift the Royals into contention.

What would it take for the Kansas City Royals to unseat the Detroit Tigers, overtake the Chicago White Sox and hold off the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins to win the American Central in 2013?

Over the past three seasons, the AL Central champions finished the season with a roster totaling about 38 wins above replacement.

The 2012 Royals finished the season 25 wins above replacement, so there is a gap to be closed. We’re going to see if we can come up with the combination of numbers to close it.

Position players
The chart on the right shows MLBdepthcharts.com's projected Royals lineup for 2013 along with 2012 WAR total for those players.

Let’s take the youngest players in that group and give them some room to grow. Let’s bump Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez up an average of half a win each. And let’s work off the idea that Alex Gordon and the Chris Getz/Johnny Giavotella platoon will match in 2013 what they did in 2012.

Then, let’s make two leaps of faith.

1. That Jeff Francoeur goes from being the lowest-valued position player in baseball (minus-2.7 WAR) to borderline-replacement level (minus-0.7 WAR) by getting his defensive game back to something reasonable and by improving slightly as a hitter and baserunner (remember, he’ll be only 29 when the season starts).

2. That Eric Hosmer fixes what ailed him during his sophomore slump and gains back the WAR that he lost from 2011 to 2012, pushing him back up to 1.3 for 2013.

If all of that was to happen for the Royals, that lineup would be worth a collective 22.8 WAR, up 6.5 wins from what it was worth in 2012.

The Royals are not projected to have a strong bench in 2013, and most of their top-prospect position players are projected to start the season in Double-A or below.

So we’re going to presume that when they do go to reserves, they are hurt by replacement-level-or-less players more often than they are helped by Jarrod Dyson and Irving Falu.

Let’s subtract 2.0 WAR over the course of the season for the time seen by the bench.

That gives the Royals a position-player group worth 20.8 WAR.

The Royals basically have a No. 2 starter (James Shields) filling a No. 1 role, a No. 3 starter (Jeremy Guthrie) filling a No. 2 role, and a No. 4 starter (Ervin Santana) filling a No. 3 role. They have Wade Davis as their No. 4, which seems about right, and Bruce Chen as the No. 5.

Again, remember that we’re creating a scenario in which the Royals win the AL Central. So let’s take a rosy view of this fivesome and hand them 140 starts.

Let’s peg Shields as a 4-WAR pitcher, Guthrie as a 3-WAR pitcher and Santana as a 2-WAR pitcher.

That’s not a horrendous reach. Those numbers would rate as the third-, fourth- and fifth-best seasons for those pitchers, respectively.

Davis was a 1.1-WAR starter in 2010, so let’s plug him in for 1.0 in 2013.

With Chen set to turn 36 in June and trending downward, we’ll drop him from -0.2 to -1.2.

We’ll split up the remaining 22 starts among Luis Mendoza, Luke Hochevar, Guillermo Moscoso, Will Smith, Tommy John-recoverees Felipe Paulino and Danny Duffy and whichever prospects (and they still have a few) emerge from the minors.

The big thing here is that if those top five Royals starters are healthy, their fill-ins can’t do too much damage. We’ll subtract 1.0 WAR for their work.

Now to the bullpen -- and we know that relief pitching is volatile. But again, we’re trying to establish what the Royals need to win, not what they will do.

Among Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow, Louis Coleman and Tim Collins, two will probably struggle to duplicate their 2012 numbers, and maybe one of the others gets hurt.

As a group, those five guys were worth 6.8 WAR last season. That’s pretty good and strikes us as hard to duplicate. But again, this is a young group, so maybe the drop-off isn’t so great.

Let’s give them 5.0 WAR this time around and take away 1.0 WAR for anyone else who fills in for a time (the starters listed above, and Everett Teaford get the first crack).

Let’s add it all together. The lineup has a value of 20.8 WAR. The starting rotation is worth 8.0 WAR and the bullpen is worth 5.0 WAR.

That gets us to almost 34 wins above replacement.

Our target was 38.

So we still have four wins to make up.

How do we do that? We change a few numbers.

Let’s add a win to Shields and make him a 5-WAR pitcher, something he has done once before in his career. That means he should be getting some Cy Young votes.

Let’s make Guthrie a 3.5-WAR pitcher, meaning he basically does what he did in 91 innings for the Royals in 2012 for 200 innings in 2013.

Let’s make Davis a 1.5-WAR pitcher, which is better than he has done before, but he's young enough to improve.

That takes care of half of the win gap. Now we need to find two more wins among the position players.

There are a number of ways to do this, such as adding 0.2 WAR to every regular (boring), taking a couple regulars and making them a bit better (also boring), making Francoeur into an almost-average player (meh) or hand all of that WAR to one player (fun!).

I like the last option, even though it’s a bit reckless.

I’m going to give those 2 WAR to Hosmer and make him a 3.3 for 2013.

Hosmer rated 26th in WAR among the 30 players with 300 at-bats who played at least half their games at first base last season. Bumping him to a 3.3 would jump him 20 spots, to the point of being viewed among the better first basemen in the game.

So, Royals fans, that’s what you’re looking at. Unrealistic? Probably.

But here’s the key point: No one said this was going to be easy.
Our friend Jonah Keri has dared to brave one of those lists to end all lists -- he ranks the 50 most valuable trade properties in baseball. With the winter meetings slated for next week in Nashville and trade rumors flying violently across cyberspace, it's the perfect time for such a list. Like the one Bill Simmons does for the NBA or the Dave Cameron does at FanGraphs, this isn't simply a list of the 50 best players in baseball. Contracts, service time and age matter. Here's the first part of Keri's list (honorable mention to No. 32).

Since this is meant as great debate fodder, some quick thoughts.
  • SportsNation

    Which of these young starters has the most trade value?


    Discuss (Total votes: 1,031)

    Keri lists a bunch of young starters as honorable mention -- Jeremy Hellickson, Derek Holland, Trevor Cahill, Mat Latos, Lance Lynn, Jarrod Parker, Matt Harvey, Trevor Bauer, all of whom have at least three years left of team control. While Keri groups all those guys together, he says to keep an eye on Harvey and Bauer. I completely agree on Harvey, who looked very impressive in his 10 starts with the Mets, both visually and statistically. I think Bauer rates behind all those other guys; I know the hype, but I see a guy who hasn't proven anything at the major league level with some command issues in the minors (4.2 walks per nine). It requires too much projection to put him on the same level as guys like Latos, Parker and Hellickson. But which one should rate highest? I'd probably go Parker, Latos, Harvey, Hellickson and Holland. What do you think? Let's put it to a poll.
  • No Matt Cain. The Giants owe Cain $121 million, thus the reluctance to include Cain in the top 50. That's a lot of money and pitchers are always big health risks, but Keri lists Wade Miley at No. 49. Yes, Miley is dirt cheap, but I'm pretty sure Cain would still bring a bigger haul -- in part because he is signed to a long-term contract, but also in part because Miley still has to prove he can do this again.
  • Honorable mention for Todd Frazier. Keri cites some sort of man crush on Frazier. I don't see it. Nice rookie season, but he's already 26 and never hit this well in the minors. I wouldn't be surprised to see him drop off next year.
  • Elvis Andrus and Andrelton Simmons at 46 and 45. I like both these guys, glad to see they made the top 50. In fact, they may be underrated. For example: Desmond Jennings at 39? If the Braves or Rangers called up and offered the Rays their shortstop for Jennings, I'm pretty sure the Rays think about 26 seconds before saying, "Done." Jennings was already 25 in 2012 and posted a .314 OBP. He does other things to help you win, but I love the defense and acceptable offense Andrus and Simmons offer.
  • Alex Gordon 34. Very underrated player. Signed for four more years at $44 million.
  • Mike Moustakas at 32. I know he's cheap for the foreseeable future and under team control for five more seasons. But he also posted a .708 OPS last year. That's, umm, not good. After a hot April, he hit .231 the rest of the way. Yes, first full season and all that, but I'm not quite on the Moustakas bandwagon. In fact, ignoring the prospect hype, is Moustakas any better than Kyle Seager? Yes, Moustakas is a year younger, but Seager had better numbers in a much tougher place to hit, playing in a tougher division. Seager hit .293/.324/.511 on the road; Moustakas hit .205/.260/.364.

Anyway, great list. The bottom part of it is actually a lot more fun to debate than the top 10. Part 2 on Tuesday on Grantland.

How the Royals can be contenders

November, 18, 2012
One lesson to take away from the 2012 season is that parity is as strong as ever.

The Baltimore Orioles, after 14 consecutive losing seasons, improved by 24 wins over last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 1997. While the Orioles' impressive record in one-run games helped them finish 24 games over .500 despite outscoring their opponents by just seven runs, the Orioles did make a drastic improvement over 2011, allowing 155 fewer runs.

The Oakland A's improved by 20 wins and captured the AL West, despite featuring an all-rookie rotation late in the season. Oakland's improvement came on both sides of the ball: The A's scored 68 more runs and allowed 65 fewer than they did last season.

If the Orioles and A's can make such dramatic gains in one season, why not the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners, two other downtrodden AL franchises? The Royals have suffered nine consecutive losing seasons and have just one winning season during the wild-card era. The Mariners have had two winning seasons in the past nine and haven't outscored their opponents in a season since 2003. But with the right moves, either team -- or both -- could end up the 2013 version of the Orioles or A's.

Let's discuss the Royals today and the Mariners on Monday.

Kansas City Royals
2012 runs scored: 676
2012 runs allowed: 746

We start with the currency of wins: runs scored and runs allowed. The Royals won 72 games in 2012, but their run totals project to a 74-win team. In order to project them as an 88-win team (the Tigers' win total in 2012), we'd have to get them to 766 runs scored (plus-90) and 696 runs allowed (minus-50).

On offense, the good news is the Royals should have scored more than 676 runs. Their offensive statistics say they created 709 runs, but due to inefficient timing of that production, they scored 33 fewer than that. (A main culprit appeared to be their hitting with the bases loaded: .283 in 113 plate appearances, but with just one home run, three doubles and two walks.)

So if we consider the Royals a 709-run offense, we need to find 59 more runs. There are three obvious spots they can improve: Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and right field. Hosmer hit .232/.304/.359 in his disappointing sophomore campaign, worth about 62 runs created. It's not difficult to project him with an additional 25 runs -- players with about 87 runs created in 2012 included Justin Upton, Andre Ethier and Bryce Harper.

Moustakas had a big first half before falling apart after the All-Star break. He created about 71 runs in 149 games. As another young player, we can project offensive growth; let's say 15 more runs created.

The other area for improvement is right field, where Jeff Francoeur was one of the least valuable players in the majors, playing every day while posting a .287 on-base percentage. Francoeuer created just 56 runs, while using up way too many outs. Dan Szymborski projects top rookie prospect Wil Myers to hit .266/.330/.450, which would be a big improvement over Frenchy. In fact, factor in a full season from catcher Salvador Perez and you can see why the Royals should be optimistic about scoring a lot more runs.

The trouble is finding gains on the pitching staff, specifically the starting rotation. The five likely starters as of now -- Ervin Santana, Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen, Luis Mendoza and Chris Volstad -- all project to ERAs over 5.00 in Szymborski's system. It will help if Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino can return sometime after the All-Star break following Tommy John surgeries, but neither can be counted on. Assuming the bullpen is once again stellar, that means the Royals need to improve by 50 runs in the rotation.

Is that possible? Last season, Kansas City starters allowed 527 runs in 890 innings, or 5.3 runs per nine innings. We're talking 10 runs per rotation spot, which seems easy to achieve, but is more difficult than it sounds. One Jonathan Sanchez-type result, and suddenly the other rotation slots have to pick up the margin of error. If they allow 477 runs over the same number of innings, that's 4.8 runs per nine innings -- which would have ranked ninth among AL rotations in 2012, right between the Rangers and Orioles.

This is why you've seen the Billy Butler trade rumors out there (including some involving the Mariners, who reportedly covet the designated hitter). After hitting .313 with a career-high 29 home runs, Butler is the one Royals hitter who may regress a bit in 2013. But trading Butler would give the Royals a big gap at DH to fill -- without an obvious in-house candidate (Clint Robinson?). But maybe the Royals believe they can get enough offensive improvement from Hosmer, Moustakas, Myers, Perez and perhaps second baseman Johnny Giavotella (.404 OBP at Triple-A Omaha) and center fielder Lorenzo Cain to part with Butler.

If the Royals do trade Butler, it would likely be for a major league ready pitching prospect -- and the Mariners happen to have one in Danny Hultzen. The Royals could also sign a veteran starting pitcher such as late-season acquisition Jeremy Guthrie, who posted a 3.16 ERA in 14 starts with Kansas City. A bounce-back year from Santana and a full season of Guthrie leaves the Royals short of that 50-run improvement -- but in the vicinity. Guthrie would be worth about 10 to 15 runs over the likes of a Will Smith over half a season; if Santana posts an ERA closer to 4.00 than 5.00 over 200 innings, that could be a 20- to 25-run improvement over Hochevar. With slight improvement from Chen and Mendoza, we get close to that 50-run mark. If you trade for somebody like Hultzen, the Royals improve their depth as they wait for Duffy and Paulino to return.

It can be done, and the Royals don't have to wait until 2014 to do it. Make at least one more move in the rotation, dump Francoeur and watch Hosmer and Moustakas start hitting line drives all over Kauffman Stadium. In the new world order, anything is possible.
OK, the first round of the second annual Franchise Player Draft is in the books.

Like last year, we thought it would be to conduct a second round, where we make the picks for a distinguished panel. Eric starts with pick No. 31 and makes all the odd-numbered choices and Dave makes the even-numbered ones, which means we get to select for each other.

We used a snake-draft format with each participant's first-round pick in parenthesis. Remember, these picks are from Karabell and Schoenfield, so yell at us if you disagree!

31. Jonah Keri (Jason Heyward): Jose Bautista. Hey, Jonah took him last year.

32. Mark Simon (Miguel Cabrera): Mark already has Cabrera, but we're moving him to first base and giving him David Wright of his beloved New York Mets.

33. Jerry Crasnick (Yu Darvish): Dylan Bundy. You can never have enough young pitching, and really, Darvish isn't all that young.

34. Amanda Rykoff (Carlos Gonzalez): Matt Moore may win two or three Cy Youngs in the next 10 years. I'll take him to headline a pitching staff.

35. Rick Sutcliffe (Jeff Samardzija): Josh Hamilton should still be hitting for major power the next few seasons.

36. Chris Singleton (David Price): Adam Jones. If the power surge is for real, we have an MVP candidate. And Jones is still just 26 years old. He'll be running down fly balls for years to come.

37. Jorge Arangure (Jurickson Profar): Terrific first-rounder, and Carlos Santana could be the best catcher in the game for years, so lock up the up-the-middle spots.

38. Jim Bowden (Buster Posey): Nice pick with Santana. He was next on my board, except Bowden already has a catcher. Let's go with Posey's Giants teammate Matt Cain, still just 27 years old and he's never missed a start in the big leagues.

39. Enrique Rojas (Neftali Feliz): Well, as if anyone was really concerned, Albert Pujols is hitting now and we know he'll be around another what, eight years.

40. Jayson Stark (Robinson Cano): Cano is a little older, so with this team we may be thinking of the next five years as opposed to 10. So let's go with Cole Hamels, arguably the best pitcher in baseball right now.

41. Mark Mulder (Ryan Zimmerman): Ah! How did Hamels not go in the first round? Well, I think Madison Bumgarner has a pretty bright future himself, so let's go there.

42. Doug Glanville (Matt Wieters): Austin Jackson is maybe the best defensive center fielder in baseball and he looks much improved at the plate this year. Potential stud leadoff hitter for a long time.

43. David Schoenfield (Eric Hosmer): I think Emmanuel Burriss is a terrific pick for Dave here. Whatta ya think, Dave? OK, we'll give you Jay Bruce. First-rounder last season and he hasn't exactly regressed.

44. Keith Law (Andrew McCutchen): #freetrevorbauer

45. Molly Knight (Prince Fielder): Elvis Andrus. A Gold Glove-caliber shortstop showing improving on-base skills? Thank you very much. Plus, we need some defense on this team.

46. Steve Berthiaume (Brett Lawrie): Steve is a closet Red Sox fan. Give him Dustin Pedroia, although we hear he's very high on this Scott Podsednik kid.

47. Christina Kahrl (Giancarlo Stanton): What, I thought it was Marlon Byrd. OK, Christina can't pass up Adrian Gonzalez. Tremendous value here; what a start for her offense.

48. Jim Caple (Mike Trout): We know Caple would definitely take a West Coast player. And definitely not a closer. Let's a big risk here and go with Dustin Ackley and hope he learns to hit left-handed pitching.

49. Tim Kurkjian (Bryce Harper): He's closing these days, but Aroldis Chapman is a future ace, and Tim will love the numbers he'll put up.

50. Mike Golic (Ryan Braun): Chapman! Ehh, who wants a guy who throws 100 mph. Joining Braun will be up-and-coming third baseman/masher Mike Moustakas.

51. Mike Greenberg (Felix Hernandez): Curtis Granderson has some flaws, but had a terrific 2011 and should be good for years.

52. Aaron Boone (Starlin Castro): Continuing the up-the-middle theme, we'll give Boone 25-year-old catcher Alex Avila. If he can come close to 2011's .895 OPS the next seven years, he's an extremely valuable player.

53. Dave Cameron (Joey Votto): Zack Greinke is nearing a monster contract. An ace slips deep into round 2.

54. Barry Larkin (Justin Upton): Speaking of aces, Gio Gonzalez's improved command has turned him into one. And at 26, he's two years younger than Greinke.

55. Karl Ravech (Stephen Strasburg): We're not expecting Gold Gloves from Jesus Montero, but man, can the guy hit. Decent building block.

56. Eric Karabell (Evan Longoria): Let's see, tough call here: Do we go Utley, Howard, Rollins or Wigginton? OK, we know Karabell loves hitters ... Jason Kipnis will look good in that infield with Longoria.

57. Orel Hershiser (Justin Verlander): Former ace already has added an ace, and another ace is sitting there in Jered Weaver. Can't pass that up.

58. Kevin Goldstein (Clayton Kershaw): We have to give Goldstein a prospect so let's go with Royals outfielder Wil Myers, who has bashed his way through Double-A and just got promoted to Triple-A, and may be in Kansas City before long.

59. Buster Olney (Troy Tulowitzki): Pretty strong middle infield if we give him Ian Kinsler as well, so let's do exactly that.

60. Terry Francona (Matt Kemp): We need a pitcher. So many good ones left to choose from. He's a health risk, but if he's on he's as good anybody in the game: Josh Johnson.

Wow ... no Hanley Ramirez or Jose Reyes. Tim Lincecum's slow start scares us off. Joe Mauer and Brian McCann left on the board. Jordan Zimmermann, Brandon Morrow, not to mention top prospects like Manny Machado or Taijuan Walker. What do you think?