The Royals think they’re close…and they might be right

So the Kansas City Royals are not a good baseball team, mostly because they don’t have good baseball players. This seems a simple enough concept, but I think it’s often overlooked. At the end of the day, it’s not about a winning atmosphere, doing the little things right, and taking it one day at a time. It’s about having better players than the other team. And, of course, actually putting those players in the lineup and on the mound.

And the Royals have been a bad baseball team for so long–their first pick has been outside the top ten precisely twice in the last eleven drafts–that they’ve had the opportunity to make nearly every sort of high pick. There have been high school pitchers. One from California, a lefty (Mike Stodolka, 2000) who experienced his grandest success in professional baseball by making the California League all star game in 2006–as a first baseman. One from Texas, a fireballer (Colt Griffin, 2001) who never made it past AA. And one from Florida, a precocious kid who, after several trials and tribulations, recently spun one of the most masterful pitching seasons in recent memory (Zack Greinke, 2002).

There have been more advanced pitchers, too. The Royals popped Luke Hochevar with the first overall pick in 2006, one year after the Dodgers failed to sign him as the 40th pick. Hochevar’s had a stunningly odd career as a major leaguer; one day he’s fanning 13 and walking none, the next day he’s throwing an 80-pitch shutout. If you believe in the concept of skill ownership, Luke’s your buy-low candidate, let me tell you. But there’s a reason his stock isn’t soaring. In between his bouts of excellence, he’s been perfectly mediocre. Still, he looks like a guy you might be able to stick in a winning rotation some day, and that’s important. The same might be said for Aaron Crow, selected by the Royals last spring with the 12th pick of the draft. It’s too early to evaluate the local product, but hopes are high.

Those are the pitchers. One superstar and two useful pieces out of six picks really isn’t all that bad. On the hitting side of the ledger, there are five entries. A complete bust (Chris Lubanski, 2003) preceded an undeniable hit (Billy Butler, 2004). The Royals have done their best to ruin the club’s next first round hitter (Alex Gordon, 2005), but he’s not dead yet. And after early struggles, the most recent first round hitters are raking in the minors (Mike Moustakas, 2007 and Eric Hosmer, 2008). And “raking” doesn’t do Moose justice; at 21, he’s making child’s play out of the Texas league by carrying a .368/.441/.724 line through 177 plate appearances.

And those ten first round picks–the most successful of which were boom/bust high school players–lead us to an eleventh. Last night, the Royals staged the first surprise of the draft, selecting Cal State Fullerton shortstop Christian Colon with the fourth pick. Widely linked to lefty Chris Sale and catcher Yasmani Grandal, the Royals’ selection of Colon is decidedly un-risky. As baseball draft picks go, anyway. Colon, profiling as a competent hitter who will get on base, and reach annual home run totals in the low teens at his peak, should be ready quickly. And that’s where this gets interesting.

It’s getting hard to ignore the signs: by 2012, the Royals might have left “bad” in the dust, rocketed past “mediocre,” and settled into “good.” This is far from the organizational goal of sustainable success, but it’s sure closer than the franchise has been in a generation. Dayton Moore has his warts to be sure; he’s been nothing short of dismal when it comes to constructing a major league roster from pieces outside the organization. See Betancourt, Yuniesky. And he’s done his best to bury some of the real talent left by his predecessor, Allard Baird. See Ka’aihue, Kila. But just take a look at what the Royals have brewing for 2012.

1B Billy Butler
2B Mike Aviles
SS Christian Colon
3B Mike Moustakas
LF Alex Gordon
CF Mitch Maier?
RF Eric Hosmer
C Wil Myers
DH Kila Ka’aihue

SP Zack Greinke
SP Luke Hochevar
SP Mike Montgomery
SP Aaron Crow

P Joakim Soria
P Tim Melville*
P Danny Duffy*
P John Lamb*
P Chris Dwyer*
P Noel Arguelles?*

I don’t mean to relegate all these guys to the bullpen. Just noting that the Royals have a great deal of pitching depth at the moment, and we don’t know how it will shake out.

Now, I’ll admit, the partial roster above requires some assumptions. It assumes Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer take to the outfield. Gordon, in particular, would need to hit surprisingly well to justify that spot. The list above also assumes Mike Aviles regains his 2008 form at the plate, and that Mike Moustakas can stay at third. It’s unknown whether Wil Myers can catch at the major league level, and the roster above requires Moore to acknowledge Ka’aihue’s value before he turns 35.

Looking to potential Royals rosters with optimistic assumptions is nothing new. But here’s why it’s different this time: the Royals don’t need everything to go right. In the past, the Royals were constructed such that every break needed to go their way for the team to be competitive. Only a couple years from now that will no longer be the case. Wil Myers might not catch, but it sure looks like his bat will play elsewhere. Alex Gordon might not make it, but there are other promising outfielders in the system. Some of the pitchers might not pan out, but there is enough depth to allow for that. The Royals’ system is finally built to withstand some misfires.

For the first time under Dayton Moore, and maybe the first time in a generation, the Royals are close to being good. Not playing-above-themselves good. Actually good. Competitive good. Now, everything might go haywire. Maybe Moustakas isn’t a superstar in the making. Maybe Zack Greinke demands his freedom. Maybe Colon’s instincts don’t make up for his lack of elite athleticism, and his bat doesn’t play at second. Maybe Dayton screws the whole thing up. It’s entirely possible things don’t work out, but that’s for us to decide several years down the road. As things stand now, Royals fans are (and should be) legitimately excited. “Unless, of course,” quoting Monty Burns:

…my nine all-stars fall victim to nine separate misfortunes and are unable to play tomorrow. But that will never happen. Three misfortunes, that’s possible. Seven misfortunates, there’s an outside chance. But nine misfortunes? I’d like to see that!

Royals fans know all-too-well that this could go badly. But I think the club is close enough that the fans’ conditioned expectation of catastrophe can make room for hope. Maybe it will work out. Maybe it won’t. But the Royals are going to make an honest run at it, and that alone is comforting progress.

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  1. DonCoburleone said...

    It’s a good point and the argument you’re making that they will be “GOOD” does have merit, but what does that mean anyway? 85 win average for a few years? Who cares about that?

    Teams like this (aka small market) HAVE to be able to recognize talent outside their own organization to become truly successful IMO.  And not only recognize talent outside their organization, but also be able to make unbiased and objective decisions on their own players.  I’ll go right to the model for this, the Rays, who have acquired their 25 man roster in a number of different ways (despite what everyone says) and don’t just rely on their farm system to be good.  Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, Ben Zobrist, Dionner Navarro, Carlos Pena, JP Howell, Lance Cormier, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Rafael Soriano and Willy Aybar are all “good” players and were all acquired for next to nothing.  Can you even name 1 player on the Royals 25 man who was acquired on the cheap and is actually contributing right now? That is why I have no faith in Dayton Moore. He may be good at drafting & developing prospects, but when it comes to actually putting a winning product onto a Major League field he has no clue.

    The Royals had a strength in the bullpen a couple years ago. Nunez-Ramirez-Soria was a pretty potent 7-8-9 inning trio and they were all cheap. Then that offseason he trades Ramirez & Nunez for Coco Crisp and Mike freaking Jacobs, then he signs Kyle Farnsworth to a big money Free Agent contract!  And he actually believed that was upgrading his roster! I am all for trading away good relievers IF you are getting something of value in return and IF you’ve shown the ability to build an effective bullpen on the cheap (think San Diego Padres).But he has shown neither!

    So in summary, here is a list of things small market GM’s must be good at in order to succeed:

    1) Draft & Develop – PASS

    2) Be able to acquire low-cost talent from outside the organization – FAIL

    3) Ability to build an effective bullpen from scratch at a relatively low cost – FAIL

    4) Ability to recognize weaknesses in players currently on your roster or in the minors – FAIL

    5) Ability to recognize strengths in players currently on your roster or in the minors – FAIL

    Thats 4 out of 5 failed.  And yes he is so far passing the most important aspect (draft & develop) but that doesn’t matter if you can’t get anything else right.  The Royals are like that wholesome girl with a great personality who doesn’t understand why she can’t find a husband.  Well the bottom line is that she’s 250lbs with pale skin and a bald head and thats why nobody will marry her!

    Dayton Moore has got to go!

  2. Jeff Sackmann said...

    I wrote a similar article about nine months ago, and made some points along the same lines:

    …but while 2012-13 may be the target, it requires so many things to go right.  Few of those players have true *star* potential, even if their development goes well.  So in the best-case scenario, the Royals have a team full of David DeJesuses, average or slightly above-avg guys.

    Now, that’s fantastic, from a player development perspective, and it does mean they’ll win more games in ‘12 than in ‘10.  But as DonCoburleone points out, the Royals haven’t done very well at everything else.  To win 90 games instead of 85, you need to supplement that core smartly, pretty much no matter how good the core is.  Not saying they can’t do it, but the track record isn’t very inspiring.

  3. DonCoburleone said...

    They need to fire Dayton Moore after the season and hire Kevin Towers.  Towers is good at everything required for a small market team to be successful EXCEPT drafting & developing. Bring him in after this year, trade scraps for an Adrian Gonzalez type (just like he did in SD) and build a Top 5 bullpen at next to no cost (just like he did in San Diego year after year).  Boom, now we’ve got a team that can win the Central in 2012 or 13!!!

    Seriously though, why not hire Kevin Towers? People are so quick to forget but the Padres were a model small market organization from 2004-2007 with Towers at the helm…

  4. geo said...

    @DonCorbuleone –

    Acquired on the cheap and contributing now:  Joakim Soria.  Need I say anything? 

    Robinson Tejeda.  A solid waiver wire pickup.

    Alberto Callaspo.  Gave up basically nothing to get him.  That was a GOOD trade.

    No, three is not enough, nor does it outweigh the egregious sins of throwing money at guys who are, at best, band-aids to plug holes while waiting for the prospects on the farm to ripen.  Or the bizarre trades of young, cost-controlled players for useless and expensive vets.  But I’m not without hope that after last year, Dayton Moore learned from those mistakes.  He’s talked like he has.  Time will tell.

  5. Scott said...

    I’m sorry, but I have to call bullshit here. A ton of things have to go right for the above team to be “good” as Fisher describes them. Here’s a short list:

    - Colon rockets through the system to the majors and becomes a decent MLB player in his rookie season.
    – Hosmer is moved to the OF and becomes a decent OFer.
    – Hosmer moves quickly through the system (certainly more quickly than he’s moved so far) and becomes a decent MLB player in his rookie season.
    – Wil Myers rockets through the system to the majors and becomes a decent MLB player in his rookie season.
    – Wil Myers sticks at C.
    – Moustakas sticks at 3B.
    – Moustakas becomes a good MLB player pretty quickly.
    – Dayton Moore promotes all of these players in a timely manner.
    – Dayton Moore allows Maier and Ka’aihue to be MLB regulars.
    – Aaron Crow becomes a decent MLB SP in what would probably be his rookie season.
    – Michael Montgomery becomes at least an average MLB SP in what would probably be his rookie season.
    – Melville, Duffy, Lamb, Dwyer, Arguelles or a bunch of the Royals other pitching prospects (all currently in A-ball) will make it to the majors by 2012 and be at least decent MLB relievers.

    And another couple big optimistic assumption:

    - Dayton Moore doesn’t trade away any of the above players for someone worse.

    - Dayton Moore doesn’t choose to play “proven veterans” who have “great intangibles” and show “leadership” rather than some of these younger, more talented young players.

    While some of these things may happen, the likelihood that all or even most of them will happen is exceedingly small. Prospects very often fail. It should be expected. Highly touted prospects fail. Top prospects fail. It happens all the time. Prospect success is actually the exception to the rule. But we should think that most of the Royals prospects will succeed? Why?

    Fisher says that things are different now because not everything has to go right. Well, almost everything would have to go right. As an example he says that maybe Myers won’t stick at catcher, but “it sure looks like his bat will play elsewhere.” Really? We should feel confident that he’ll be a good MLB hitter? He’s in A-ball and isn’t a top 50 prospect according to anyone. But we should be confident that he’ll make it to the majors and hit well enough to play a position other than catcher? The odds are against EVERY prospect. But we know Wil Myers will make it. Why is that?

    I’m sorry, but there is no reason to believe the Royals are close. Things could go just right for the Royals and the prospects could blossom early enough to contribute before Greinke, Butler, Gordon and Hochevar are gone. But the odds don’t support such a prediction.

  6. Steve said...

    Moore also got Brian Bannister for Burgos, who less than a year later was out of baseball and in a courthouse.  With the ascension of Wood, resurgence of Tejada and a couple of other young pitchers rising through the minors (Coleman, Hardy, etc.) it wont be difficult to make an effective cheap bullpen.

  7. Steve said...

    Moose and Hosmer are both young for their level.  There are only 2 HS position players from Moustakas’ draft class who are in the MLB (or AAA for that matter) in Heyward and Stanton. I’m not sure what kind of expectations you have for a high school draftee.

    Moose has advance to AA and should arrive in AAA this year. That is flying through the minors.  Hosmer should see AA at the rate he’s hitting which would be advancing 3 levels in 2 years after starting in A Ball.  That’s rediculous advancement.

    The key word in your statement about the long list of pitchers is “or.” If 2 or 3 out of Montgomery, Lamb, Crow, Melville, Arguelles, Sample, Duffy, Dwyer, etc. can make the rotation and 1 or 2 can land in the bullpen, it will be a tremendous success.

    Moore has shown tremendous failures in free agency, a mediocre track record in trades, a stubbornness to promote prospects that weren’t his acquisition. He has also been trying to peicemeal together a roster without the ability to use anyone from his own system. He absorbed a team coming off 3 consecutive 100 loss seasons and a farm system ranked in the bottom 5 in baseball by every reputable source. It’s hard to describe a situation more bleak than the day Dayton stepped in as GM.

    The key to the new hope for the Royals is that unlike the past, the “list” doesn’t all have to come true. 

    -SS: Colon lives up to his projection and becomes a solid MLB regular in a year and 1/2; OR Jeff Bianchi returns from injury and turns into a servicable player; OR Rey Navarro/Yowill Espinal develop into MLB quality Shortstops.
    -CF: Maier gets a shot and sticks; OR Derek Robinson shows that the last 3 months haven’t been a fluke and we get a +OBP ++Speed CF; OR David Lough gets his shot at CF.
    -C: Myers continues to hit and learns how to catch; OR Manny Pina continues to catch and learns how to hit; OR Perez continues his development and becomes an MLB quality player.
    -1B/DH: Any combination of Butler, Hosmer, Ka’aihue, Moustakas
    -2B: Aviles could show that his ‘08 and ‘10 numbers are who he actually is and that ‘09 was the injury/fluke; OR Johnny G could develop as expected; OR Getz could flash a bat
    -3B: Callaspo is an average MLB 3B currently; OR Moustakas could develop. The Royals also dropped a wad of cash on Cuthbert who could become great.
    -Corner OF: Gordon, DeJesus, Hosmer/Myers if they move, Lough, Parraz… there are options
    -SP: Greinke. Hoch could get things pointed in the right direction, Bannister is a fine #5, Monty could keep progressing, there are about 10 other prospects that could be ready to start in the majors in 2 with #2-3 type potential
    -BP: Soria, Wood, Tejada are in there. Davies, Coleman, Sisk, Hardy, any of the SP prospects that don’t end up starting

    At every position there are 3+ viable options. We aren’t locked into every single player and prospect having to reach their maximum potential.

  8. Steve said...

    Should Dayton be fired? Possibly.
    Anyone who thinks Yuniesky is a +defender or has any value with his bat must instantly be questioned.
    Picking up Farnsworth isn’t horrid, dropping 9 million on him is.
    Outbidding yourself on Jose Guillen was awful as well.
    Moore wasted Leo Nunez.
    On these points, no one can argue. The Royals have not had this many options in 20+ years though.  Will it work out and the Royals become the new TB Rays? Maybe so, maybe not, but calling “bullshit” on this hope is a silly. You are right when you said prospects fail. But where you are wrong is where you said all/most must succeed for the Royals to succeed. We only need some to succeed for hope to turn into reality.

  9. J35J said...

    Steve said…“The Royals have not had this many options in 20+ years though”

    This comment is what its all about…while nothing is guaranteed and the Royals are still a long shot our prospects and depth in certain areas haven’t looked this good in a couple decades…no reason not to get at least a little excited about that!


  10. Brad Johnson said...

    I think it’s worth noting that we’re talking about a roster that’s almost entirely under the reserve clause or early arbitration years. Even as a smal market club, the Royals would have a ton of money to go out and get some free agents.

    Of course, they’ve failed at this in the past, but hypothetically they can patch a hole or two (say CF and SP2) with pricey free agent models. And if they can pull that off, they need less ‘luck’ with the prospects.

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