Spreadsheet Baseball: The Purple Crayon and the Contention Window

    The Royals are considered by most to be a team in rebuilding mode right now. I'm sure that there are those who disagree with that idea; those who believe the Royals will never win the world series, or those who have already lost faith in Dayton Moore's ability. But the fact remains that most of those who actually care look at the team and see a real rebuilding program, one that was not really seen during the Baird era. Naturally, we're all inclined to see this is as a positive thing. Really and truly, it is nice to see the franchise have some direction. However, looking towards 2008 the near future of the Kansas City Royals, there are some things that are bound to make you slightly nervous. I am not talking about some "anything can go wrong" feeling, I'm thinking more specifically on this one. And do not mistake this for a condemnation of the Royals future chances, because it's anything but that. I am not a negative person, I think, when it comes to what I think the Royals can accomplish in the next three years.

    One of the other teams that I follow throughout the season and the off-season is the Baltimore Orioles. I am, as I'm sure you all know by now, a Red Sox fan tried-and-true, but I was born in Maryland, deep in Oriole country, and I remember the O's from the days when Cal Ripken, Mike Mussina, Chris Hoiles, and other heroes of my single digit years played. I vaguely remember the change over from good old beer-conducive Memorial Stadium to the white wine park of Camden Yards. So if you're wondering what a Red Sox fan cares about the fortunes of the Orioles, that's the reason right there. I think that if you're such a fanatical baseball fan like me, you don't forget the team you saw the first time you went to a ballpark, or the team you saw on TV almost everyday.

    The relevance of the Orioles to this discussion is this: we, the Royals, are not the Orioles. We're surely both rebuilding teams, and we certainly both lost 90+ games last year. We've both got some good young players that provide hope for the future of the franchise. With the exception of the Royals' blip in 2003, these are both franchises that have fallen on hard times. Now, it looks like things are starting to turn around for both franchises, as the rebuilding programs seem real for both teams. But again, the Royals are not the Orioles, and not in the same situation. The Orioles, with the trades of Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard (as soon as it goes through), have officially blown up the team that wasn't winning and are attempting to start again with the prospects they're getting from those deals, a few good internally developed prospects, and hopefully without the old guard that remains signed on for a couple more seasons. That's a rebuilding program in year one, really, and while the prospects might turn out to bring the O's back to relevance faster than one might think, there's really not much of a timetable on said program. After years of Angelos preventing any real direction for that franchise, the presence of an actual plan should have them giddy.

    The Royals are further along in their own plan, and that's the thing that has to make you nervous if you've been following this team for any length of time. I'm, of course, not the best person to gauge Royals' fans feelings about their team beyond those who post on this blog and by looking at the K's attendance records, but this is a team that's been directionless and wallowing in underachievers for quite a while. Now that Moore has come in and put his stamp on the team--yes, I'm well aware that some players on the team are Baird's--and there's actually progress being made, hope springs again. This upcoming year is one where people have reason to be optimistic, with the power of optimism comes the possibility of disappointment. This is not just a team that is relying on prospects to rebuild from the ground up, this is a franchise that has significant assets committed to veteran players who--as with us all--will not be around forever. Whatever your opinion on the subject, Dayton Moore and the Royals FO have signaled that Kansas City is close to contention. The first big signing, that of Gil Meche to a contract that looked ridiculous at the time, was successful. The signing that made headlines this off-season was the apparently-cranky Jose Guillen being inked to a multi-year deal. These are, of course, not the only deals made by Moore and to suggest otherwise would be to sell him short. However, it's time to realize that if the value gained by pouring millions into Meche and now Guillen is actually to be used, the Royals need to be a real, live, contending team very soon. Where "very soon"  means "by 2010."
   

There are times when a below average team makes a free agent signing with the very simple idea that if somehow everything gels, this player will be an asset. If the more likely occurrence is actualized, and the team in question has a losing season, the player can be flipped at the deadline for prospects. Octavio Dotel was a classic example of this type of move, and that he yielded someone like Kyle Davies at the deadline is not really the point (nor should it have been, in retrospect, all that unexpected). Meche and Guillen represent the type of big free agent contact where if the team does not post a winning record during their tenure, the signings will be wasted. No prospect that Guillen brings in at the deadline in 2010 if the Royals are 38-53 at the time is going to make people consider his signing a success. No one is going to be all that thrilled if Meche pitches his butt of for four more years and the Royals never get a whiff of the post-season before flipping him to the Yankees in year five of the deal. Hell, even signing Ross Gload to a multi-year deal is another thing that suggests the Royals think they're getting close. How many times have I typed the words "Ross Gload would be a good bench player for a contending team"? More than I care to rehash.

    It's not just the signings, of course. By 2010 Alex Gordon will be in his first  arbitration year and 26 years old, and unless he's adopted a very atypical career path we'll know a lot more of who he is by then. Either way, he'll be starting to get expensive. Mark Teahen, who always seems to get lumped in the Royals "young promising players" category will be 28, the prime of his career if he's going to have one, and a free agent at year's end. Gil Meche will be 31. Guillen will be an ancient 34 and probably starting to slip a bit. We'll have made a decision about where Joakim Soria fits in, as he'll be 26 and in his first year of arbitration. John Buck might be a Washington National by then. I'm not typing this things to scare you, I'm typing them to put this in perspective. The Royals are a team this has had a lot of trouble in their recent history with re-signing young stars. Did I mention that Zack Greinke, who seems like he's about 18, will be a free agent at the end of 2010.

    The point is not to say that the Royals will fail in their attempt to become a first division team again. I am one of the most positive people you'll find in all of New England when it comes to the Kansas City Royals. I tell people around here that I write for a Royals blog, and even the non-baseball fans question why that would be. Of course, it means that I just laugh at them, but the point is that I don't wish to be considered in the Neyer camp on this matter. I think Dayton Moore is a good GM, and I like the progress the Royals made last year. I think 2008 will go a long way towards re-establishing KC as a team that no one can just dismiss, and that it will make clear the acquisitions that will need to be made to make the Royals contenders in 2010 (or, Buddha willing, before that). The point, rather is to point out that the Royals are a team on the upswing of their rebuilding program. This is the year that we should see progress to the tune of getting out of the cellar and seeing Alex Gordon start to develop into an All-Star.

     Now I know that there's the possibility I'm coming off as Captain Obvious. "Really NHZ? You really think we need to a winning team by 2010 for things to be going well? No way." Well, it's not that I think that we need to be a winning team in 2010 if the Royals are ever going to be a success team again. I'm saying that after 2010, there's a distinct possibility that the team will have to go into "win now" mode for the current generation of Royals to get to the playoffs, barring some excellent drafting or big FA acquisitions (the latter of which is hard to see coming). Suffice to say that Moore's recent move suggest the goal is to compete in 2009 or 2010, and I think he had better be right. Teams on a "five year plan" simply don't have the Royals current roster construction. Teams far from contention like the Orioles are dumping Meche and Guillen contracts, not acquiring them.

      Anyway, I believe the Royals have done well for themselves thus far. I believe Moore's done a good job remaking this team without the underachievers that seem to symbolize the Allard Baird era. I am merely trying to be realist about this: I think our contention window is coming up fast, and I think the Royals need to show significant progress this year for Moore to keep my confidence in him assured.

     All this being said, I was talking to my dad at length over Super Bowl weekend, which I went home from Maine for to spare my dad from having to watch the Super Bowl without another football fan in the family--I have four younger sisters and, like most of you, a mother--and because watching the Super Bowl at home assures me of watching the game with an actual fan as opposed to some of the bandwagoners I meet up here. I digress. The conversation turned from school and football to my writing for this blog, and subsequently to what the Royals needed to do this year to do well.

     Well, I was completely honest, even if you might read this and think I'm too optimistic. I am expecting--banking on, you might say--significant improvements from Teahen and Gordon to buck up the offense, as well as a continuing Assault on Spheroids by Billy Butler. I'm onboard with the Guillen signing, especially with the upgrade over Emil Brown, and I recognize that DDJ v. 2007 would be an acceptable CF performance, and that I think he's capable of a little more. I mentioned that at this point I just can't forecast Grudzielanek as doing anything other than what's he's done for the last million years. I mentioned that I hate Tony Pena's batting approach almost as much as I hate raisins, but I said that his defense makes him a solid "not the problem" player. John Buck, of course, is the elusive average catcher. I don't see any reason not to expect that to continue.

     On the pitching side, I told dear ol' dad that there's no reason that Meche and Bannister can't do approximate 2007's value, even if I suspect they might start a bit slowly. I was optimistic on the bullpen, and I mentioned that the Royals are probably no worse off then most teams with the back of the rotation. I said that Hillman seemed like a capable manager, for whatever that's worth. All the stuff I've listed above, I think, is totally reasonable and, in some cases, very probable.

     That leaves only a couple things. One I covered extensively last week, which is that the Royals need to figure out what's going on with the 1B/DH situation, first base in particular because DH should be the easiest position to find an average candidate for in baseball (with the exception of middle reliever). The Royals need to figure out if Butler can handle first base, if Shealy is worth anything, and if they can absorb the contributions of Gload in the line-up for any long period of time (or if Gload can). Then, a decision has to be made that will most benefit the team going forward. You just can't punt on production from two power positions and expect it not to bite you in some way. You'll see what I mean this year when if Jose Guillen hits, say, .XXX/.350/.450, as it represents such an upgrade at a position that's supposed to be a good hitter's spot.

     The other question mark that would be huge if it were to turn into a positive is Zack Greinke. If Greinke can finally realize his potential and approximate his level of ability in 2004, then it's going to do wonders for this team, for Greinke, and for all of us Royals supporters. Can you imagine a team coming to town with Meche-Bannister-Greinke on the ticket, if Greinke pitches well? I'll tell you exactly what I'd think having to face that as a Red Sox fan: we're not going to sweep, and 2 out of 3 would be a damn good result. That's the funny thing about having three good starters. You can be a thorn in anyone's side if they catch all three of them for a weekend set. Get a few good contributions from a resurgent Davies and Hochevar shows potential and...well...a fan can dream, can't he?

     We all know the story with Greinke, as he's a popular Royal and his ups and downs have been well-documented, so I'm not going to harp on this for a long time. Still, this point needs to be made, I think. While I'm not an intangibles guy generally, because I feel they're almost always overrated, but that does not mean I can't recognize their value in certain cases. It will be very key for the Royals' staff to work with Greinke if he goes through a rough patch and, this time, it sure would to keep the guy in the rotation if he's  bit hit-unlucky. You can disagree with my opinion and that's fine, but I'll argue for a long time if you want me to that Greinke never should have left the rotation last year when a joker like Odie Perez was sucking up starts and spitting them back out like some kind of defective vacuum cleaner from hell.

     By VORP, Greinke ended up being the third best pitcher on the Royals' staff last year, posting a 30.1 figure in that particular nerdy statistic. His strikeout rate was 7.82/9 IP, which is better than anyone else who made a start for the Royals last year. His walk rate was a solid 2.66, and he did a fair job limiting home runs with less than 1.00 per 9 in a park generally considered a fairly good place to hit. Oddly enough, what with his stint in the bullpen and his strong finish, his BABIP was still up at .321. That's actually a hit higher than you would expect from a pitcher with Greinke's stuff. I don't wish to alarm anyone, but if Zack can come close to these rates next year, than there's a darn good chance he'll be the best starter on the Royals' staff. And if he is, I'm throwing out a lot of the negative possibilities I've conceived when thinking about the Royals' rebuilding program.

Going forward, I do think Greinke has the potential to be a very good starter. I cannot lump him into the category of "near sure thing" because his career has just been a little weird for us to really count on him. If Zack emerges from the craziness of the last three years of his career, it will be a bright and significant development for the franchise. Hope is a dangerous thing, but it sure feels good, doesn't it?

Spreadsheet Baseball returns next week on Thursday, as this appears to be my easiest day on the schedule. For this article, questions/comments are, as always, welcome/encouraged. Happy reading!

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