Monday, January 31, 2011

At Least We're Not...

Astros fans*.

*After trying to think of ideas for entries today, this is what I kept coming back to. Everyone is writing about the Royals Minor League system right now. Hell, it seemed like it was Kansas City Royals Week on ESPN (dot) com. I know I needed a change of pace, so I elected to look at this

For as shitty an experience as being a Royals fan has been post-strike, there is no way I would trade those years of pain and frustration for being a fan of the Houston Astros.

As someone who lives in Texas and has for almost seven years now, I see a good deal of Astros games. I have also seen an inordinate amount of Round Rock Express games, who for the past five years were the Astros' AAA affiliate. Even after the departures of Zack Greinke and David DeJesus during this offseason, I can say with confidence that I like where the Royals stand a lot more than the Astros.

As a team last season, the Houston Astros offense compiled 8.1 fWAR. Of all the teams in baseball, only the Mariners (6.1) and the Pirates (2.8) were worse. They had the lowest BB% in baseball*, tied with the Orioles at 6.9%. As a team, they triple-slashed .247/.303/.362 with their mark of .295 being good the second-worst wOBA in baseball, better than only the Mariners.

*Weirdly, the Royals had the lowest K% in baseball last season with 16.1%, comfortably lower than the second-place ChiSox at 16.8%. Apparently the Royals did something well last year--although there isn't necessarily anything that ties this thing they do well to winning ballgames.

Thanks in large part to a shockingly useful 4.0 fWAR season out of Brett Myers and the 2.6 fWAR that Roy Oswalt provided them while he was still in an Astros uniform last season, the Astros pitching staff was much more middle of the road last year with their 16.0 fWAR being good for 16th in baseball. Again, they got 4.0 fWAR out of Brett Myers, whose 3.82 xFIP would indicate that his 3.14 ERA was at least partially a product of luck. Myers hadn't posted an fWAR higher than 2.0 since 2006, so this may or may not have been an aberration.

I do distinctly remember a time in which Brett Myers was not good at throwing baseballs that ended up in getting batters out. Some might say that qualifies as sucking, but we all have our different standards for assigning suckage to people.

He was solid last year. 

Their lineup looks to consist of the following players with '10 fWAR after their name:

Chris Johnson not worrying about his abysmal BB% in Next
C - Jason Castro | 0.4
1B - Brett Wallace | 0.0
2B - Bill Hall | 1.0
SS - Clint Barmes | 0.4
3B - Chris Johnson | 1.6
LF - Carlos Lee | -0.8
CF - Michael Bourn | 4.2
RF - Hunter Pence | 3.1

C - Humberto Quintero | 0.5
IF - Jeff Keppinger | 2.4
OF - Jason Michael | 1.1

SP - Wandy Rodriguez | 3.6
SP - Brett Myers | 4.0
SP - J.A. Happ | 0.8
SP - Bud Norris | 1.6
SP - Nelson Figueroa | 0.5
CL - Brandon Lyon | 1.0
RP - Jeff Fulchino | -0.2
RP - Alberto Arias | 0.5 ('09 fWAR - missed '10)
RP - Wilton Lopez | 1.3
RP - Mark Melancon | 0.3
RP - Wesley Wright | -0.1

That's 22 players based on the depth chart at the Astros page. Of those contributors, it should be noted that Chris Johnson is unlikely to replicate the level of production he gave them in 2010, as his BABIP was .387 and he had his 4.1 BB% and 26.7 K% equated to a shockingly low 0.16 BB/K. Of hitters with over 300 PA, only John Buck had a lower BB/K than Chris Johnson in '10.

All of Michael Bourn's value is tied up in his defense. For their all-speed-and-defense 28-year-old center fielder, the Astros will pay $4.4MM with one more year of arbitration-elibigility to go.

Wandy Rodriguez just turned 32 and is owed at least $32.5MM over the next three seasons. He has a lame first name that evokes images pig-tails, Baconators, and Doogie Howser's girlfriend.

Hunter Pence was eligible for arbitration last year as a 27-year-old Super-Two and is set to make somewhere between $5.15MM and $6.9MM as a 28-year-old in '11 depending on what arbitrators decide, with two more years of arbitration-eligibility to go. Rooting for him also means having to root for someone named Hunter (what, is he eight years old?) and whose last name is the most worthless of British coinage. The only way he makes up for this fact is if he embraces it fully and selects this for his walk-up music:

The Rentals - Friends of P. from The Rentals History on Vimeo.

The aforementioned Myers is due a guaranteed $21MM over two years (with a buyout for the third) that turns into $28MM over three if an option vests.

Barring a violation of the 'nominal weight clause' in his contract, the negative-value Carlos Lee is still due $18.5MM in each of the next two seasons. Despite his nickname, he cannot actually be taken to the glue factory. Whether or not that is still the case if his clause comes into play is conceivably another story altogether.

Clint Barmes will inexplicably by making $3.925MM this season to presumably play over super-sub Jeff Keppinger. I use the qualifier 'inexplicably' because he is somehow 32 years old come Opening Day, yet the former prospect has compiled a mere 4.4 fWAR since playing sporadically beginning in 2003. He is coming off a 0.4 fWAR season yet is getting paid money that would indicate that (a) he is decent, and (b) he is better than Jeff Keppinger. Neither of those statements would seem to be accurate. I am sure he is a really nice guy, though.

The awful underwhelming Brandon Lyon is set to make $5.25MM in '11 and .$5.5MM in '12.

The club is also still paying roughly $7MM of Roy Oswalt's salary in 2011.

Before factoring in the salaries of any of their league-minimum players, the Astros are currently looking at $64.748MM guaranteed (not counting what Pence is awarded in arbitration)on the books in '11 and $47.25 still in '12. And for what? They have a solid RHSP and a solid LHSP, an all-glove CF, a solid RF, and a remaining roster of filler.

Moreover, their farm system is not going to be helping anytime soon. FanGraphs had their farm system ranked 29th overall. This was before Milwaukee traded away its then first- and third-ranked prospects for Greinke, but Milwaukee was five spots ahead of them. Having done their drafts on the cheap for years under the reign of tight-fisted Drayton MacLane, the system is well shallow.

Jordan Lyles, their top prospect was a 19-year-old in AAA-Round Rock last year but does not have overpowering stuff. It is also entirely possible that they are detrimentally rushing their only inarguably top flight talent through the minors. He profiles as a #3 starter. Delino DeSheilds Jr. is their only other four-star prospect according to Kevin Goldstein, and he was thought to be an over-draft at the eighth overall pick last year. John Sickels had Lyles as the only B+ grade he handed out to anyone in the system, being much less bullish on DeShields, who he had tentatively lumped in with other B- players, Mike Foltynewicz, Austin Wates, and J.D. Martinez.

If Jason Castro were still a prospect, Kevin Goldstein would have him in between Lyles and DeShields on his Top 10 Talents 25 and Under in the system, with Brett Wallace ranked fourth. Let's just say that after three trades (that means four organizations) in two years, a bit of the luster of Brett Wallace's prospect sheen has come off.

Obviously, there is a lot more that is still up in the air for the Royals, but Billy Butler's 3.4 fWAR was higher than every Astros offensive player other than Michael Bourn. The Royals bullpen looks to be solid. At his peak, Jeff Francis was a 4.1 fWAR player, and he was a 1.9 fWAR pitcher in 19 starts last season.

And then there's the farm. What is there left to say?

Optimistically, the Astros could be competitive in, what, five years? That's a best-case scenario and is also operating under the assumption that the Mayans were wrong. At least in 2012, when the world ends, Royals fans will have been looking hopefully to the future with the Holy Trinity (or perhaps the Unholy Triumvirate given the circumstances) of Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Wil "One-L" Myers having taken the field at The K together. Can Lastros fans say the same?

Obviously, this is just a cursory glance at another organization--one that I am somewhat familiar with as a result of living where Astros games are locally broadcast. Cheap ownership has hamstrung this franchise, which is now a shell of what it was in the middle of the last decade. They never equipped themselves to rebuild after the core of their roster got too old to play. Jeff Bagwell was just on his first Hall of Fame ballot, and it has been nearly that long since they've resembled a contending ballclub. Things would not appear to be much brighter on the horizon.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Billy Butler In Royals' Shackles (or Club Control If Your Glass Is Half-full) Through 2015

Luckily I do not find myself having to write about the news coming out of FanFest this weekend regarding what most of us had assumed was going to happen anyway: Wil Myers will officially be moving from behind the dish to the outfield. Luck plays into this two ways. First, I don't have to write about a development that already seemed inevitable. Second, the other news is much more interesting.

Saturday, as FanFest* was going on, the news leaked that the Royals and Billy Butler's camp were getting a contract ExtenZed extension meted out. As terms of the deal rolled out, the deal went from being a four-year deal that bought out the first year of his free agency to a four-year deal with a club option for a fifth year. Kicking things off with a $2MM signing bonus, Butler will make $3MM in 2011, $8MM each season from 2012 - 2014, and a club option for the 2015 season for $12.5MM that can be bought out at $1MM.

*Weirdly, I did not make the trek from Texas to Overland Park for the festivities...

For a WAR breakdown of the deal, Scott McKinney (until the past 24 hours known as NYRoyal) has already taken care of this over at Royals Review. It is clear to almost everyone that this is a very club-favorable deal. As explained for the uninitiated* last week (and imaginably prior to that as well), FanGraphs assigns a dollar value (in millions) to the amount of money that a player's performance based on WAR would yield on the free agent market. In the past two seasons, Butler's performance was worth $11.7MM and $13.8MM. Given the facts that the value of a win above replacement inflates each year as salaries go up and that Billy Butler posted a 2011 season that already exceeded the most expensive season in the deal (and the one that is technically optional) and did so at the age of 24, it is hard not to see how this works in the Royals' favor.

*I do have the time to educate.

More importantly, Billy Butler is The Special Lady Friend's (known as TSLF for my Inconsiderate Prick readers) favorite Royal. If his continued presence on the Royals softens the repeated quasi*-abusive blows that TSLF feels, then it makes my life easier. Of Jesus is gone. So is Bert Calypso. No more Greinke. What would she have to take from a game without her chubby-cheeked pal Billy Butler working the count and motoring down the basepath, arms a-churnin'?

*If one wanted to be technical, forcing a non-Royals fan to watch the Royals qualifies as something that exceeds quasi-abuse and perhaps stretches to reach grounds that should be punishable by law. I know I hate myself at least ten times during the typical Royals game, and only five of those times are spawned by the image/mention of Jason Kendall, whose place will surely be held by Melky Cabrera.

This deal is about as club-friendly as the Joakim Soria contract. Even if the Royals should elect to trade him at some point, Butler's contract is so friendly that it would almost have to yield a lot in return. Maybe this signifies the beginning of the end for Kila Ka'aihue and to a lesser extent for Clint Robinson, as Eric Hosmer is expected to be beating the door down at first in 2012 (barring an extremely unlikely Kila-Monster-forced shift to the outfield). Clearly the future at 1B/DH would appear to consist of a combination of Hosmer and Butler. This extension just sets in stone the fact that we should not get too attached to Kila this season.

These other things are mostly irrelevant. Billy Butler is a Royal until he isn't at a club-favorable cost. Good move, Mr. Moore. This almost makes me not wretch when I think about the sunk cost that is anything being deposited into Melky Cabrera's bank account.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Gil Meche Unexpectedly Retires, Gifts Needy The Glass Family $12.4 Million

In this space, I have ranted at length (most specifically here) about the abuse and misuse of Gil Meche by the broken-hooked Trey Hillman. I shall refrain from doing this again today.

For roughly two-and-a-half seasons, watching Gil Meche pitch brought me joy. Over the course of his first 82 starts as a Royal, Meche managed a 3.74 ERA with 406/166 K/BB over 510.2 IP. His BABIP of .303 over this span of time points toward much of his performance being on the level. As is one of the risks in signing pitchers to long-term contracts, Meche's surgically repaired shoulder began to fail him in 2009, for arguably preventable reasons. During that stretch, though, there was a reason to watch the Royals when he set foot on the mound. In 2008 and the first half of 2009, this meant that casual Royals fans having cause to watch 40% of the time. We have not been able to say that often since The Strike.

If we are to judge Gil Meche by his actions this week, he is a pretty stand-up dude. Rather than lay blame at the stoop of the team that paid his an assload of money*, he is saying thanks for the opportunity and walking away from the game that his body will no longer allow him to play. To leave that kind of money on the table presumably speaks to his character. If ever Dayton Moore's infatuation with signing gritty, character guys paid off, it was today. It may seem ludicrous to those of us sitting in our mothers' basements, but sometimes these high-character guys have value in that they'll walk away from a contract they don't feel they can fulfill.

*His having given back $12.4 of the $55 million he initially signed essentially makes it a four-year $42.6 million deal. While most of the value of the contract was tied into his first two seasons, the FanGraphs' Dollar Value (based on what that performance would yield on the Free Agent market) for this time in a Royals' uniform was $47 million. Say what you will about luck and Meche bailing the Royals out, in the end he was worth every dime he got, even if it wasn't spread out evenly over the four years.

Oh, who am I kidding? If this were the case, Jason Kendall would give each and every fan who attended a Royals game a check in the amount of a refund for having to watch him call awful games--
No, seriously, hang another curve, Zack. It'll totally work. Do you see how gritty I am? My fucking dad played ball. I'll eat your face. *juts chin out further and looks more dickish* 
--and do nothing with his bat while hitting second in the order.

Regardless, Gil Meche = Stand-Up Dude.

His announcement comes on the heels of the two FA pitcher signings last week. Now the Royals simply need to designate one player on the 40-man for assignment. To me, this would figure to be Kevin Pucetas, who seems like the least likely success story amongst the unlikely success stories filling out the back-end of the 40-man. It also increases the likelihood that one of the young relievers (Tim Collins, Louis Coleman, Jeremy Jeffress, etc.) makes the 25-man roster coming out of Spring Training, giving us hope that we can glimpse a brighter future any day of the week from Opening Day.

While Meche wasn't here for when the winning started (unless you wanted to argue that 75 wins signaled a paradigm shift in Royals culture), he didn't stand in the way when he couldn't toe the rubber. There's a certain meth-cook's brother who could learn a thing or two from him.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Dayton Moore Comes Out as a Francophile and Re-signs a Sino-Panamanian

After giving me nothing to write about last week (which coincided with having all of my sports-energy drained by that other Kansas City team), Dayton Moore went out and addressed the most gaping hole on the roster: the starting rotation.
*Little known fact: Townes Van Zandt wrote this song because he would have been such a Jeff Francis fan. The selection of this song for this post is in no way trying to attach a possibly racist collective nickname for Brucie Chen and Francis.

It was no secret that as the roster had been constructed that the Royals were thin on Major-League-ready pitching.  Heading into the end of this past week, their opening day rotation was likely going to consist of Luke Hochevar, Kyle Davies, Vin Mazzaro, Sean O'Sullivan, and one of the likes of Danny Duffy, Everett Teaford, Kevin Pucetas, or Nathan Adcock.

With a new week comes a bolstered rotation featuring lefties Jeff Francis and Bruce Chen. If ever there was a southpaw fetishist in the MLB GM ranks, that man would be Dayton Moore. Since taking the reigns in the wake of Allard Baird's departure, each off-season has been marked by Moore trying in vain to acquire left-handed starting pitching. In the AL Central as it has been constructed for the duration of his time in Kansas City, this has made at least a little sense, as many of the best bats in the division are left-handed. Yes, this obsession has been mocked amongst the ranks of the more cynical Royals fanbase, as it has led to some pretty dubious signings--or, in the worst case, a inexplicable re-acquisition after successfully dumping the briefly useful Horacio Ramirez onto the roster of the intradivisional rival Chicago White Sox and getting the raw but toolsy Brazilian outfielder Paulo Orlando in return just months prior to signing Ramirez to a guaranteed contract. 

Chen. Determination incarnate.
First the bad news: Bruce Chen will likely be considerably worse than he was last year. His BABIP of .286 will likely regress to the mean. The pedestrian nature of his 6.29 K/9, 3.66 BB/9, 1.72 K/BB, 33.9% GB rate, and 8.1% HR/FB all point toward the over-performance indicated in his 4.54 FIP and 5.01 xFIP from 2010.

The palatable side to this $2 million signing (with another $1.5 million in performance-based bonuses) is that there is value to the Royals at this stage in the game in simply having arms that can go six innings every five days. There is nothing sexy about the 5.00 ERA that last season's xFIP is pointing towards, but there is also nothing sexy about watching Sean O'Sullivan pitch. Period. Ultimately, O'Sullivan still has options left, Hochevar missed more than half of last season, and the four aforementioned starters in the mix in Spring Training are not likely to be ready. By the end of the 2010 season, the rotation held only two of its starters that had been in the rotation at the onset of the campaign, with Gil Meche, Brian Bannister, and Hochevar all having missed significant time. With the defections to Japan of Bannister, Anthony Lerew, and Bryan Bullington, the depth of arms that do not need protection and can be modestly trusted to get you into the sixth inning was shockingly non-existent. Simply said, the Royals need innings. Chen can give them this.

Is this a great signing? Not even remotely. The fact that we have to hope he doesn't zoom right past the mean on his way to the ERA-stratosphere is a little disheartening, but of the remaining candidates to be signed to fill out the rotation, Chen was probably going to cost less than Kevin Millwood, and the Royals really only need Chen to be serviceable until June or July, when not only do arms like Duffy, Mike Montgomery, Chris Dwyer, Aaron Crow, and Teaford start to garner serious consideration for getting called up but Zach Miner also is likely to be able to pitch again. At the least, Chen needs to serve as a bridge to the first wave. At most, he needs to pitch all year because injuries have ravaged the rotation. Given the price tag and what the Royals actually need him for, much more damage could have been done.

The other wrong-handed pitcher is a Canuck by the name of Jeff Francis. Setting aside the fact that the Royals now have the makings of an excellent baseball reality show called Jeff Franc Squared, Francis came to Kansas City for Chen money and actually has some upside--enough that Dave Cameron deemed this the Best Free Agent Signing of the Winter. Dave Cameron is much better at this than I am.

While this seems like a bit of an overstatement, it does seem like there is very little money committed to Francis in the deal with another one-year $2 million deal with incentives that can add up to another $2 million. While it is true that both Bruce Chen and Jeff Francis were once highly regarded prospects, Francis's track record in the Majors is much more encouraging. Where Chen's career GB% is a scant 35.1%, Francis possesses a more impressive career rate of 43.2%--an average that is actually lower than all of his campaigns but one thanks to an extreme outlier of 37.7% in 2005. Every other season has seen Francis sitting in the 43.6 - 47.0% range. Furthermore, his career ERA of 4.77 is more than a quarter of a run higher than both his FIP and xFIP (both of which are weirdly 4.46), which has been inflated by .314 BABIP. His 2010 ERA was inflated by both a .322 BABIP and a 64.5% LOB%, so worries about that 5.00 ERA are probably unwarranted (even with the Royals defense behind him), as both his FIP and xFIP were over a full run lower--3.88 and 3.94, respectively.

If you skipped that last paragraph (or read the aforelinked Dave Cameron article that had much of the information regarding his 2010 campaign in it), Jeff Francis is a good candidate to have an ERA in the low-4.00s this year, even with some admitted holes defensively.

Sure, each pitcher is only committed to one season, and Francis is likely just playing for a contract with someone else in 2012, but $4 million total for two pitchers is a sound investment for a team that is in dire need of ML-ready starting pitchers with the ability to eat innings for one year while the prospects are sufficiently seasoned.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Another Chiefs Playoff Loss Equals No Real Monday Column

I do not think many of us thought the Chiefs were going to win on Sunday, but that does not make the brutal loss any less soul-crushing.  After playing a solid if uninspiring first half, the Chiefs were awful in the second half.  The refs didn't help, but the Chiefs were awful and would/should not have won anyway.

I was in the seventh grade when the Kansas City Chiefs last won a playoff game.  There will be high school seniors graduating in the Kansas City metro area who will have never been alive to have seen a Chiefs playoff win.  Realistically, if you aren't at least 25 years old, you don't remember what it was like to have seen a Chiefs win in the postseason. 
As fans of Kansas City teams, we have been subjected to what is now the longest playoff losing streak in NFL postseason history (four of those seven losses have been at home!) and 25 years without a postseason berth for the Royals.  It will be at least one more for the Royals, as we can all agree that 2011 is lost.

I do not have the energy to write about sports today. 

Nothing really happened with the Royals anyway, unless the "blogger access at FanFest contest" counts as news.  As someone who lives 12 hours from Kansas City by car, I don't think I'll be putting my name in that hat.  Oh, and there is that whole penchant for cursing* that I have.

*In fairness to myself, I do try to keep the cursing to instances in which frustration boils over.  I also try not to make it too personal (certain hateful trollers excepted).  Yes, it's cursing, and I do drop the occasional F-bomb in here, but what rational fan can look at 25 years of ineptitude and not get upset from time to time?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Royals Go Low-Risk With Zach Miner

Dayton Moore signed former Detroit Tigers' righty Zach Miner to a minor league deal last week.  He went under the knife toward the end of May of 2010 to have Tommy John surgery, which kind of makes me wonder what the point of this signing was.  After all, the Royals are reportedly looking at him as a possible starter--he has been both a starter and a middle reliever over the course of his career--and it seems more than likely that he wouldn't be ready by the time he would do the Royals the most good.

The weirdest Miner pic I could find.  What's in the box, Zach?
It is certainly possible that he will be back in time for the start of the season, which is when a possible starter would be most necessary for the Royals.  Even if Moore signs someone like Kevin Millwood to actually eat innings, the opening day rotation does not have anything resembling depth.  One injury in Spring Training and the Royals find themselves right back where they are right now--with four question marks in the rotation and not a lot of immediately promote-able fodder in the wings at AAA-Omaha.  Yes, once June rolls around, someone like Mike Montgomery or Danny Duffy may be ready and the ticking of their arbitration should have been adequately delayed, but past that the Royals are likely to have their AAA rotation filled out with the likes of Everett Teaford, Luis Mendoza, and Manauris Baez/Gaby Hernandez*.  The issue with those players** is that they simply will not be able to go deep enough into games to not stress the bullpen. 

*To my knowledge, Hernandez is currently a free agent.

**I just really do not see Everett Teaford as being a semi-competent Major League starter.

While that is the case, I just don't know how Miner fits in.  The bullpen should actually be one of the few sources of strength at the Major League level, enough that guys like Louis Coleman, Jeremy Jeffress, and Tim Collins may not break camp with the Royals despite their apparent readiness.

And it isn't like this is a costly signing.  Signing a semi-useful former occasional starter to a minor league deal can't ever really be deemed a bad signing for a team like this.  It is just that given the timing of his surgery I am skeptical that he will be ready to pitch in time for the signing to even mean anything to the Royals, who really need the rotational depth for the first two months of the season. 

Now, who do we all think drafted Miner in the fourth round of 2000?  Shockingly, the Atlanta Braves.