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Royals Review Dialogue: Pirates & Royals- Two Franchises in Despair (Part Two)

Continuing this week's discussion with Charlie Wilmoth of Bucs Dugout... Here's the second installment comparing the Pirates and Royals.

There are, I think, a number of problems that our teams have with regard to their minor league systems. There are some similarities and some differences between our teams here, so let's address them separately.

Drafting Low-Upside College Players

Bucs Dugout: Royals Review addressed this above with regard to the Royals' drafting of folks like J.P. Howell. Littlefield has done this too, and not just with his well-known choice of Bryan Bullington with the first pick of the 2002 draft. In 2002, for example, he also picked Taber Lee in the third round out of San Diego State. Lee was never, to my knowledge, regarded as a plus hitter, and his best skill was his defense at shortstop. The Pirates badly needed power in their minor league system at the time. Lee predictably climbed the ladder slowly, posting mediocre offensive numbers at each stop. Littlefield apparently hadn't learned his lesson: in 2004, he picked another college shortstop, Brian Bixler of Eastern Michigan, in the second round. Bixler had flopped badly in the wood-bat Cape Cod League before the draft, and his best tool was his speed. Lee and Bixler are pretty good bets to someday fill roster space at Class AA.

Aside from these three mistakes, Littlefield did choose a mix of talent in the 2002 through 2004 drafts. But in 2005, he picked Andrew McCutchen out of high school in the first round, then chose college players in each of the next twelve rounds. Not only that, but among those twelve picks were three relievers (one of whom, Matt Swanson, admittedly looks like a prospect), a shortstop with big-time strikeout problems against college hurlers, and at least two players with serious and well-documented injury problems.

In other words, most of these players didn't look like big-league material even when they were drafted. What I think Littlefield is actually doing is trying to fill organizational holes at the lowest levels of the farm system. His previous three drafts had all been pretty bad, and he needed college talent to help out immediately. The reason he does this - and this is something you may want to watch out for with the Royals - is so that he can point to the winning records of the Pirates' minor-league affiliates as evidence that talent is on the way to help the big-league club. (More on this in the section on developing talent.)

And no, I don't think I'm being too cynical here. The Pirates' minor league affiliates under Littlefield have always performed well, but it's not because the system is loaded with prospects. It's because Littlefield promotes players slowly and signs over-aged ringers to beat up on younger players. Then the Pirates' management points to its minor league affiliates' good records and says that things will change. This is, of course, a misrepresentation. My impression of Baird is that, unlike Littlefield, he seems like a reasonably well-intentioned and honest guy who wouldn't do something like that. So I'll leave it to you to say what he might be thinking in drafting these sorts of low-upside college types. If it really is just following Moneyball, that's probably even worse.

Royals Review: First, a qualification: I'm fairly uncomfortable talking about drafting, which is essentially a full-time job at this point in terms of discussing intelligently. I'm not sure, but something about baseball is just infinitely harder than baseball or football; the game is harder to play, harder to coach, harder to scout. Aside from salary cap issues there are high-school coaches in every city in America that would make great NBA or NFL GMs. I seriously believe that. Look at the NBA draft. Two rounds, and the second round more or less a joke. Are you kidding? It's a board game compared to the NFL draft, which doesn't even include the added complexity of baseball's 2-5 years of development time. This is a long was of saying, I'm open to whatever method Allard wants to try, but the proof is in the pudding. If a 31-year old Emil Brown is the best you can do at a corner outfield spot and its your fifth year as general manager, you've failed.

Other than David DeJesus (who missed half of last season with an injury) Carlos Beltran was the last Royal prospect that got better. We've spent half a decade now watching guys like Dee Brown, Jimmy Gobble, Colt Griffin, even the immortal Zack Greinke stall or outright decline by 21. Specifically, the play it safe approach of the last few seasons is perfectly summed up in someone like J.P. Howell, who set some kind of franchise record for the fastest promotion to the Major Leagues after being drafted or somesuch. That's one thing when you're Bo Jackson, quite another when you're Howell. He was the 31st guy taken in 2004 and he's not an All-Star talent; he'll stay healthy, be a good clubhouse guy, give good quotes post-game and post good control numbers, but he doesn't miss enough bats. The Royals pretty much already have pitchers like that. Perhaps it's the only way to get better, but it's like trying to get rich by buying savings bonds. Do you really have time to wait for that modest payout to matter?

Roster Management and Minor Transactions

Bucs Dugout: Here, I think, is a place where the Royals and Pirates differ. Perhaps you'll have a different take on this, but my perception is that if Allard Baird has a strength as a general manager, it's handling the last few spots on his roster and grabbing talent in seemingly minor trades. He grabbed Denny Bautista from Baltimore; he got Andy Sisco in the Rule 5 draft; he took a smart gamble with Calvin Pickering, even though it didn't really work out; and so on.

Littlefield, on the other hand, is very bad with seemingly minor transactions. The Rule 5 draft seems designed to help bad teams, and the Royals do use it to their advantage, but the Pirates notoriously lost five players in the first six picks of the 2003 Rule 5, including current Tigers first baseman Chris Shelton. Littlefield has also dumped valuable, cheap major leaguers like Bronson Arroyo, Duaner Sanchez and Chris Young for almost literally nothing. Perhaps there's something I'm forgetting, but I can't imagine Baird doing that.

Just considering the transactions involving both of the two teams is instructive, I think. True, the recent Victor Santos and Mark Redman transactions don't really fit the pattern (although neither particularly hurt the Royals, either). But before that, there was the ridiculous Benito Santiago trade, in which the Pirates gave up a real prospect in Leo Nunez and took on salary in exchange for a mediocre 41-year-old catcher who played six games for them. Before that, Baird managed to claim Pirates Rule 5 loss Jose Bautista, then insert himself into the Pirates' trade of Kris Benson to the Mets. For the price of a waiver claim, he grabbed by far the best young player in the deal in Justin Huber. In the last few years, Baird also managed to grab former Pirate farmhands Chris DeMaria, D.J. Carrasco, Shawn Camp, Rich Thomspon and Ronny Paulino. Not all those guys were useful, and Baird had to give two of them back, but the fact that there are so many of them says a lot about the differences in approach between these two organizations. Baird's is, to my mind, clearly better.

Royals Review: Its again funny how much exchange these teams have had, clearly there's some professional comfort there somewhere, which of course is an angle we can only really speculate blindly about. I spent a few years praising Allard for his junk heap moves - sometimes one just wants something to hold onto - but it's not a way to build a team. Picking up Raul Ibanez was nice, but a lineup of Raul Ibanezes still won't win, even if it was possible. These moves at the margins are nice, but Baird's a big boy, and he's not covering for other people's mistakes anymore. So again, it's the Emil Brown situation. And now that he's making $1.7 post-arbitration, it's not even really worth it anymore.

But between the family-run front office and the parade of old-school (i.e. wrongheaded) managers, I'm not even sure whom to blame anymore. Why would Allard acquire Calvin Pickering, spend a winter saying he would be given every shot to win the job, proclaim him the starter out of spring training, then bury him after 15 games? That just doesn't make sense. The Royals have to take chances but they operate on a day-to-day basis like they're the Yankees nursing a two-game lead with eight to play. Usually Allard's shown some flair with the minor moves, but the crushing ineptitude of his environment catches up to him.

Developing Talent

Bucs Dugout: Again, I think the Bucs and Royals differ here. Under Cam Bonifay, the Bucs did something like what the Royals do now, pushing players like Aramis Ramirez, Jose Guillen, Arroyo and Joe Beimel to the majors even though they were plainly not ready. This led to bad baseball at the time and caused problems down the road, particularly with Ramirez. Littlefield and Bucs farm director Brian Graham have, to their credit, mostly avoided promoting prospects before they were ready.

When I look at what the Royals are doing, though, I have to wonder, and I'd appreciate your insight on this - are these early promotions really necessary? Before last year, for example, Nunez had never pitched above Class A, so his awful pitching for the Royals last year should have been predictable. J.P. Howell, too, and Shane Costa and Andres Blanco - did Royals fans really need to see those guys? Is this what you meant when you said earlier that the Royals seem to treat their Class AAA teams with contempt?

Royals Review: You nailed it. Beyond Howell and Nunez, nothing spelled Pickering's demise more clearly last summer than his presence in Omaha, the AAA club rather than in AA Wichita, which has become the standard way-station for rehabbing vets and guys in slumps. Sometimes this makes sense, its much easier for Cleveland to Hafner to AA Akron than to AAA Buffalo if he only needs a few days. I just don't see that advantage when it comes to Wichita versus Omaha. The Royals are in a bad spot, because clearly they don't place any value in the actual instruction being given in their system. I don't really believe whole-heartedly in these sort of things, but I'm sure you've read old paeans to the "Dodger Way" or the "Oriole Way". Not only is there no "Royal Way", they don't think that, for example, Alex Gordon has anything to learn from their coaches in the minors. When a .350 team is promoting people they drafted the year before, or refusing to even send Greinke down for a long weekend when his ERA's over 6.50, that's contempt.

Bucs Dugout: I was thinking about this while waiting for your reply. Maybe the answer to my question - Was it really necessary to promote Howell, Nunez and so on? - really is that yes, it was. It seems a little unfair of me to criticize the Royals for acquiring Elmer Dessens, Scott Elarton and Joe Mays and for playing Nunez and Howell. Obviously, the Royals have to play somebody. And looking through their Class AA and Class AAA rosters, I don't even see a lot of guys being blocked, just some prospects who probably weren't quite ready (Donnie Murphy, Huber) and filler. The only guy who you might say was getting jobbed was Matt Diaz, another free talent acquisition, and even in his case his defense is pretty bad. So maybe we're not being entirely fair - but if not, it's because the situation is just so incredibly bleak. There are lots of positions where there's really no one worth playing. The Pirates really don't have that problem; they're just incredibly poor at choosing which guys to play. Actually, reading over this again, I even kind of feel bad for you guys.

Big Trades

Bucs Dugout: Here, I think, Littlefield has an advantage, even though he has hardly been great in this department. He got virtually nothing for Benson, Ramirez and Jason Schmidt (although the poor return for Ramirez was almost certainly mostly ownership's fault). But he scored big by trading Brian Giles for Jason Bay and Oliver Perez, and his trade of Todd Ritchie to the White Sox netted two functional starters in Kip Wells and Josh Fogg. I'll leave the descriptions to you, but I can't think of a big trade that has worked out well for Baird.

Royals Review: As for the trades, I think Allard's held his own. The Berroa-Damon (and about 6 other guys) trade has gone from being a punch-line, to surprisingly pro-Royal, to vaguely negative again. Because everyone always knows their hand, the trade market is always a loser's game for the Royals. The amount that their talent might be overvalued is always counteracted by their being forced to make a deal. Pathetically, the Royals always hold on too long, furthering their problems: the Dye, Damon & Beltran trades all came at least three months too late. The Royals' 83-win 2003 clearly delayed the Beltran deal, which on-balance I accept. Still, Baird got three major-league ready players - John Buck, Mike Wood, Mark Teahen - for a half-season of Beltran. It wasn't Bonifay's Giles trade but I can't see how he could have done better.

Once again, the franchise's conservatism limits their horizons. Trading Beltran three months late is akin to the Emil Brown pickup, more or less a face-saving "I've got to get something" gesture. The winning move would be trading Zack Greinke for some insane package. At the same time, that same move could literally haunt a franchise for a decade if you lose it. So nothing happens. In the meantime, we're burning his cheap years, praying that he makes the drastic leap that only the truly great make, and that when that happens the randomness around him congeals into about four career years... and the team wins 87 games.

That's what is so damn crushing, you need so many good players to matter. The "Proven Starter" Wells and Fogg trade was one of the most lopsided of the last decade, almost from the start, and what did it get the Pirates?