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Mental Ward: On All-Stars and player development problems

The yin and yang of Royals baseball has turned out two World’s Series, a slew of All-Stars, and a lot of questions about player development.

SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

As All-Star week gets underway, it behooves us to highlight the players who are making the trip to Miami for the Kansas City Royals. Their selection to participate in this week’s festivities is, at the very least, an indicator of how good the Royals have been over the past half-decade at producing at the major league level. Kansas City is sending three representatives this season, and all of them have their own reasonable qualifications for attending.

Salvador Perez is the starting catcher for the American League, participating in his fifth consecutive All-Star game. Per FanGraphs, he is second among catchers in the American League in Wins Above Replacement, leads the position in home runs, is third in wRC+, and has precedent on his side; four Gold Gloves and four All-Star appearances in four years will do that for you.

The season so far is a familiar one for Royals fans. Perez has played a lot of games and has hit well for the position. His 18 home runs are four shy of his career high set last year, and if he can avoid the second half collapse that has become commonplace over the past three seasons he will set a lot of personal bests this year.

Mike Moustakas was voted in by the fans as a reserve, and he is certainly qualified as well. He is third in the American League in home runs (25) and will participate in the Home Run Derby as well. Outside of a serious decline in his on-base percentage, this is Moustakas’ finest season as a professional. He is very likely to set career bests in runs and RBI, has already beaten his previous career high in home runs (22), and he will make the first sincere run at Steve Balboni’s franchise record of 36 since Jermaine Dye hit 33 in 2000 (or, if you want to be charitable, since Billy Butler hit 29 in 2012).

Moustakas has a lot of room to hit 12 home runs over the season’s final 75 games. If he keeps up anything close to his current pace, he’ll cruise to the record sometime in late August with a month-long opportunity to distance himself from the field.

Jason Vargas is the third representative this season. He leads the American League in wins with 12, two shy of his career best of 14 set with the Mariners back in 2012. Despite a six-run shellacking by the Mariners last week in the Grass Creek Affair, he leads the league in ERA and is in the top ten in innings pitched.

He is also a prime candidate for AL Comeback Player of the Year, having missed nearly all of last season following Tommy John surgery. The feel-good story and his success on the field made Vargas an early front runner to start the game, but he will likely appear in relief at some point.

All three players are a continuing sign of Kansas City’ success over the past few years. In terms of All-Star representation, the Royals have sent more players to the All-Star Game the past five years than they did in the previous fifteen years combined.

An impressive feat, considering MLB has for the past several years mandated that every team gets a representative. More impressive, when you consider that some of the representatives during that fifteen-year period by no reasonable measure deserved to be an All-Star. Mark Redman went in 2006 with a 5.27 ERA. Ken Harvey hit 10 home runs with a 104 wRC+ in 2004. Both represented Kansas City during the lean, mean, 100-loss trifecta that was the ‘04 to ‘06 seasons, sandwiched around one of Mike Sweeney’s five appearances as the team’s sole delegate.

Suffice it to say, things are better now.

For a while, at least. Because while we are celebrating, and this is a week worth celebrating, the dark underbelly of the past half-decade has been a curious, puzzling, and at times downright baffling trend of player development concerns that has plagued the Royals franchise. Even as the Royals are lifting banners and accruing All-Stars and Gold Gloves, there remains some very real questions about their player development process.

Last September, I wrote about this very issue regarding the state of the farm system and the then-current MLB roster. And now, as Ashe Russell decides to take a break, as Kansas City stares down the last three weeks or three months of their core players being together, it is a topic worth revisiting.

I am not going to spend time trying to figure out why Russell is putting his career on hiatus. His reasons are his own, and regardless of whatever they might be, it is his choice, and the team is supporting him in his decision.

There are a few things about his situation that, as it relates to Kansas City’s player development overall, are a little curious. From an outside perspective, at least.

Eric Longenhagen at FanGraphs reported that Russell’s velocity had taken a sharp decline following the 2015 draft. Russell was sitting at 97mph on his fastball pre-draft, but had declined all the way down to 89-91 when Longenhagen scouted him in the fall. Fast forward to 2016, and Russell was held back at extended Spring Training before being assigned to Rookie Ball in June. He made two starts, pitched two innings, and was subsequently and rather unceremoniously shut down. Scattered reports indicated that he was working on his mechanics.

Russell’s 2017 season never got off the ground. He stuck around Arizona for extended spring training and was never assigned to a Royals affiliate before asking for a leave of absence.

How Russell ties into Kansas City’s player development issues is unclear, as the reasons for his struggles and his presence in Arizona as opposed to Lexington or later on in Idaho Falls is unknown. Russell’s agent released a statement saying that he was having trouble with his mechanics, and Royals GM JJ Picollo described the hiatus as taking a “mental break.”

Russell is now, however, the third Royals pitcher in recent memory to request a leave of absence during his minor league career. Zack Greinke stepped away for personal health issues and Danny Duffy took a leave of absence after losing his passion.

Breaks aside, these struggles also fit into a larger picture of the Royals having difficulty developing starting pitchers. The most notable successes of Dayton Moore’s tenure have been Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura, both of whom have come with their own set of questions.

For Duffy, he is still looking for his first full season of sustained success as a starting pitcher. He set a career high in starts last year (26) at the age of 27. Six years after his debut and with a Tommy John surgery to boot, Duffy might finally stick as a starter for a full season.

For Ventura, his results never quite lived up to his ability. During his tenure at the major league level, everything went through revisions. His pitch selection changed, his mechanics were altered, his velocity declined, and his peripherals suffered.

Behind those two is a long string of starting pitchers who never developed, starting pitchers who flared out at the major league level, and several more who were shunted into relief roles. A brief and non-exhaustive list includes the likes of John Lamb, Chris Dwyer, Mike Montgomery, Luke Hochevar, All-Star Aaron Crow, Noel Arguelles, Brandon Finnegan, Everett Teaford, Tim Melville, and Carlos Rosa. That is to say nothing of current system guys like Kyle Zimmer, A.J. Puckett, Foster Griffin, Miguel Almonte, Josh Staumont, and Christian Binford, who either have struggled, are struggling, or were struggling until very recently.

Since Zack Greinke left, the Royals have yet to draft and develop a starting pitcher who has earned 3+ Wins Above Replacement in a single season. Things look only marginally better on the position player side of things.

Jarrod Dyson is great. He was treated like a part-time player and then traded, but he’s great. On a per-inning basis, he is the best defender in Royals history and his speed keeps him relevant as an offensive player.

Salvador Perez is very good, but was shoved through the minor leagues and, perhaps as a result, has zero plate discipline.

Mike Moustakas has developed, but like Duffy it took a while for the offense to show up. He played four seasons at the major league level with a wRC+ below 100, bottoming out at 75 in 2014.

Eric Hosmer has a career wRC+ of 108 and never quite developed the power that it seems like he should have. He has sporadic but frequent periods of Groundball Fever that have utterly killed his production at times, and despite being a top-shelf blue chip prospect, he’s comparatively low-ranked among current major league first basemen.

At age 28, Whit Merrifield looks like he might be a slightly-above-average player maybe perhaps.

Christian Colon was taken in the first round and was DFA’d this year without showing much in the way of anything after being peppered in games weeks apart and doing a lot of benchwarming for three years.

At the time Elier Hernandez signed in 2011, it was the second-largest bonus for a Latin American player (just $100,000 behind Miguel Sano). Hernandez was just starting to show flashes this year before going down with an injury. Jorge Bonifacio struggled to get through the minors. Hunter Dozier lost two years fussing with swing mechanics. Bubba Starling has not developed despite five full years in the minors. He’ll be 25 at the end of the month.

The most obvious, and by far the most egregious, example of the Royals development woes has been the treatment of star prospect Raul Mondesi. He made his debut in the 2015 World’s Series after a .243/.279/.372 line in AA. This was after hitting .211/.256/.354 in High-A the year before. That was after a .261/.311/.361 line in Low-A the year before that.

Somehow, he worked a decent Spring Training and a 32 wRC+ last season into a starting job for 2017. Mondesi completely bombed, hitting .095/.156/.167 in 15 games (a -21 wRC+) before being shipped back to AAA. He also lost his rookie eligibility by five at-bats in 2016 and will have burned some service time in the major leagues with nothing to show for it.

He’s still young (he turns 22 in about a month) and he has all the tools in the world. But for Kansas City to have pushed him as fast and as hard as they have, in light of all of the other development issues, and with no clear need for him to be in the majors considering Alcides Escobar will start until he dies, you really have to wonder what the hurry was.

The lack of development can already be felt at the major league level. For 2018, Kansas City is on the hook for $30 million to be paid out to Ian Kennedy, Jason Hammel, and Travis Wood. Brandon Moss is getting another $7 million. Most of these signings were made to make up for a lack of internal options. The Royals apparently didn’t have someone who could strike out a lot and also not make contact, so they got Moss. They needed a mid-tier starting pitcher, so, Jason Hammel. Travis Wood got the Bruce Chen Special of two years and an option.

And while none of those are particularly egregious moves on the surface, it ties up a lot of financial resources for moderate production, the kind of production that should be filtering out of the minor leagues. Not in waves, but in drops and streams.

But it is not, so here we are. $37 million might not seem like a lot, but it would cover a couple of contract extensions for some soon-to-depart free agent types.

This might read like a lot of complaining, akin to the perfect being the enemy of the good when it comes to player performance. The point isn’t so much that there have been few if any unqualified successes among starting pitchers, or that position players didn’t live up to their presumed potential. It is more about the fact that it if they do not perform up to or near that potential, everything goes wrong, because no one is around to pick up the slack.

It is not so much that the system is thin right now. The system is supposed to be thin right now. That is what happens when you trade premiere prospects to win World’s Series games. But you get the sense that it is not supposed to be this thin. Kansas City has had six first round picks since Christian Colon was taken in 2010. Over that same time, they have had three picks in the top five, four in the top ten, and five in the top twelve. Only one, seventeenth overall pick Brandon Finnegan, has appeared in a major league game, and he debuted the year he was drafted. If you include Christian Colon and Aaron Crow (taken the year before in 2009), the Royals have received a combined 0.6 Wins Above Replacement from eight players taken in the first round in the last eight seasons.

And Kansas City is coming up on another one of those development periods very soon, where the club’s track record on churning out successful, sustainable players will take center stage with the farm system becoming a much more prominent fixture. And at the very least, some of the difficulties of this season are directly related to the Royals’ inability to consistently produce even marginal major league talent.

Yes, they were successful. Yes, it has been a great five years. But despite the success, there are still lingering concerns about the organization’s ability to identify talent and develop it through its minor league system. The questions are there, poking around the edges of outfield pennants:

Why did it take so long?

Why did it dry up so fast?

Where is it going to come from next?