No, it's not a weekly "forum" hosted by Bob Costas dedicated to having his friends come on and discuss issues with only the insight and intelligence that a guy who stands in front of a camera can deliver. No, not that at all.
It's Costa Now!
What this lineup needs is Costa. Costa now.
OK, that may be a bit of an overstatement. But I do think that it's time to give Costa an extended bit of playing time at the Major League level.
For whatever reason, a true Free Costa campaign has never really caught on on this site. He's had his supporters over the years, but no one has ever been too excited about his upside, or so it seems. Moreover, he's actually seen a fair amount of action with the Royals, albeit in weird chunks and in strange situations. Basically, this has been the only thing that I'd ever thought about him: the Royals have found a number of lineup slots and positions to play him, while never really committing to anything much. Costa for all the world has looked like a tweener: he can't play center and he can't hit enough to hold a corner slot. End of story.
I'm not sure that's necessarily true anymore. Costa is hitting .313/.357/.565 this season in Omaha, and has already hit seven home runs. Costa has always been a .300 hitter in the minors, but the knock against him has always been a lack of power. Well, he may have improved in that regard, and a modest power spike in the mid to late twenties is actually fairly standard. Furthermore, this is the Royals we're talking about, and at a certain point Costa's status vis-a-vis traditional conceptions of how to build a lineup is irrelevant. The question is, essentially, is he better use of a roster spot than Joey Gathright. Only it's not. Gathright is out of options and must clear waivers to hit the minors. It's hard to see Moore jettisoning Gathright (or running the risk of it) for a few weeks of Costa. So who has options remaining? Basically no position players other than Butler and Gordon. I believe Peralta might , but I am not positive. Ditto for Yabuta.
No, as odd as it sounds, barring any trades or dramatic changes of course, the only player that Costa can easily replace on the Big League roster is Billy Butler. Sending Butler to Omaha so that Costa can snag Joey Gathright's playing time isn't a terrifically obvious move, but I think it has some merit.
- Costa can outhit Gathright. Gathright is a career .265/.328/.312 hitting in the Major Leagues. While is lack of home run power is obvious, it's startling how few doubles Gathright produces, especially considering his speed. Last year, Gathright had 70 hits and 62 of them were singles. As a Royal, Gathright has cranked out 15 doubles, four triples and one home run in 586 trips to the plate. On a different team, Gathright's dogged efforts to get on base (he did post a .371 OBP last year) might be more valuable, but on the Royals it just means he can advance to third base on a Mark Teahen single and be stranded when Jose Guillen strikes out. The thing is, the knock on Costa has always been that he's basically a singles hitter, and he very well might be. Joey Gathright is still a bigger singles hitter, one of the most singles-based hitters in the universe, actually. Again, Costa is showing some pop this season in Omaha, and it wouldn't be unheard of for a guy to flash a little more power than previously shown when he turns 26. Costa doesn't have to slug .550 in the Majors to be an upgrade over Gathright. He doesn't have to slug .500. If Costa can slug .450 in the majors this year, maybe even just .400, he'll probably do enough to off-set what even the best case scenario for Joey Gathright is. Even if all of that isn't true, and Gathright's likely to be a better overall player, the Royals know what they have in Gathright at this point (I hope) but regarding Costa, they don't. They need to find out.
- Billy Butler needs a sabbatical. There is perhaps a deep irony in calling up Costa to chase after a 100 points of slugging but at the cost of demoting Billy Butler, as I well understand. However, at the moment the matter may be mute because Butler is slugging .362. That number is even more remarkable when you consider that Billy is actually hitting .277. As they did with Alex Gordon last season, the Royals have shown remarkable patience with Butler, which in many ways is very admirable, even courageous in the limited way that these matters can truly be courageous. Considering that Butler has no baserunning value and limits Hillman's options afield, it goes without saying that he's not pushing the offense much by hitting an empty .277. As is often said, the American League is not an instructional league, and I think that there is sufficient evidence that Butler could still use some lower-stress instruction in many aspects of the game. While I am generally not in favor of arb-clock gaming, it must also be said that it may be in the team's financial best interest to have Butler work on things in Omaha. Gordon and Butler are similar, but they are not the same: Butler is much younger and lacks much of Gordon's overall polish. Even though Gordon struggled last season, a rational case can be made that it was good for him to experience that, and hopefully learn from it, at the highest level. It isn't obvious that Butler is at that point.
-Increased Strategical Flexibility. With Costa replacing Butler, Hillman gains another chess piece for the late game pinch-hitting that he seems to be in favor of. The Royals have a number of extremely slow players (Buck, Olivo, Grudz, Gload) as well as a certain shortstop who essentially should never bat more than 3 times a game if you can avoid it. With Costa around, Hillman should feel more comfortable using German and Gathright more optimally and earlier in the game. Or, he can keep German in his back pocket, and feel safer using Callaspo earlier. Costa might also be useful in spelling Guillen and Teahen, while allowing Hillman to feel comfortable that he still has an infield reserve available in German. Butler creates problems, Costa creates solutions. (Ok, that's unbelievably cheesy, but I couldn't resist.)
The best Shane Costa has ever performed at the Major League level came at the opening of the 2006 season, when he was a nearly-regular player for the first 21 games of the campaign. Over that stretch, Costa hit .317/.333/.533, in 61 PAs. A little hacktastic, sure, but that issue is almost a sunk cost with this team at this point. Since then, despite appearing a lot, he's never really got extended playing time, which has likely driven his numbers down. Maybe, maybe not. Yes, unlike, say, Justin Huber, Costa has actually been given a solid chunk of playing time, over 400 PAs in fact, but on the whole it's been haphazard, with lots of pinch-hitting and spot starts. Plus, he's older now, and, the wonderful thing about being in your twenties is that it's a rare moment in your life when being older actually makes you better at stuff.
In both the short and long term, the Royals would be better served by replacing Billy Butler with Shane Costa on the roster. Butler will, without any doubt in my mind, have the better career in baseball. Actually, I'd be willing to be a large sum that he'll be better next year. He might even be better by August. But, with all facets of the game considered equally, he's not not better now. This season isn't about winning, it's about positioning the team to win next year (right? we don't have to wait until 2010, do we?). Billy Butler is still just 22 years old and remains one of the youngest players in baseball. His future is bright. However, he has no position and appears lost on the bases and he isn't hitting. The Royals' plan for him seems to be one of resignation: he is what he is and he isn't going to get better, so let's just guarantee that he becomes a Super Two and accept him for what he is. If that's the case, then the half-hearted efforts to get him starts at first base seem especially ill-conceived. Nothing is being accomplished by the status quo, and even less so will be forwarded once inter-league play begins.
What the Royals need now, is Costa, sweet Costa.