Cheering for the New Kids

If one thing stands out when it comes to the teams looking to make the playoffs this season, it would be a new batch of younger, hungry teams look to be October bound. There is nothing like rooting for the underdog come the playoffs, hoping they can knock off a team like the Yankees. Three teams stand out to me this year as teams to root for in the postseason.

1) Washington Nationals

No one is surprised that the Nationals are making their first trip to the playoffs. What is a surprise is that it came this early. Washington is a team that did it the right way. Most of the Nationals talent are homegrown, from Stephen Strasburg to Bryce Harper. Sprinkle in some veteran pitchers(Gio Gonzalez), some cast-offs(Mike Morse), and one big free agent signing(Jayson Werth) and you have a team that could be a regular in the playoffs for years to come. Credit Gm Mike Rizzo for piecing this team together, and credit Manager Davey Johnson for getting them to gel. They will be interesting to follow, since Strasburg has been shut down, but this is a talented team that can go a ways just on their pitching. My guess? A NLCS appearance, before being knocked off in six or seven games.

2)Oakland A’s

In my On Deck Circle last week(which is weekly on, I discussed just how this team has been winning. If ever there was a team of nobodies that are surprising baseball, this is the team. Not only that, they are doing it in a rough division, which has the Rangers, Angels and Felix Hernandez. The fact they have gotten this far should be a sign of the great work of Billy Beane and Bob Melvin. But it is also a sign of what young talent can do, especially young pitching. Don’t expect any name players, or any stars to step up and dominate for this team. The concept of team is vital for this ragtag bunch, and so far it is guiding them to October. The A’s will probably be one of the wild card teams, so it’s a 50/50 shot of where they will end up. Either one and done, or going on to the ALDS. I wouldn’t expect them to go much farther, but so far they aren’t following convention. So if they go farther, don’t be surprised.

3) Baltimore Orioles

Now, here is a team I can get behind! The Baltimore Orioles are having one of those miracle seasons that are just amazing to watch. This is another team built around youth and veterans, and the mixture is working so far. Buck Showalter continues his career trajectory of turning every team around that he touches, as the Orioles are poised to make their first playoff appearance since 1997. There are stars on this team, like Adam Jones, and there are some great young talent like Manny Machado. Throw in some Jim Thome, a dash of Mark Reynolds, and a pinch of Nate McLouth and you have a recipe for a resurgent Baltimore franchise. This team has gotten by this year thanks to great relief work, clutch hitting and late inning heroics. Those are actually all great qualities for a playoff team, so don’t be surprised if this team makes a big run. World Series, possibly? Possibly. Yes, it seems crazy, but there is no reason to doubt them now. This team has been winning when they need to all year, so another rush of wins isn’t out of the question. If not, it is still a great story to follow. What was once a storied franchise could now make a case to add to their legacy…and we gain by watching it!

So there you go. Three teams to watch in the playoffs this year that can fill your heart with shock and awe. October can be a kooky month, so don’t be surprised if one of these teams makes a late appearance. Before you snicker and say no, who had the St. Louis Cardinals as the World Series Champions a week before the end of the 2011 season? Didn’t think so. So get ready folks, the playoffs are coming and don’t expect to see it coming. Trust me, it will be worth it.

The Dividing Line

The 2012 season for the Kansas City Royals has been one of many ups and downs, so many that it would feel like a novel to go over them all right now with you. But maybe the biggest story to come from this roller coaster is the giant divide that is growing daily between Royals fans and Royals management. Speaking as a fan for close to thirty years, I have never seen such a strong division between the two. How did we get here?

This season started innocent enough. In fact, I would say there was more optimism in the air than there has been in Kansas City for a very long time. For once, this team looked like one who could at the least hold their own in a very weak division. But a massive trip and fall in the form of a12-game losing streak in April killed the buzz. Oh, and that ‘Our Time’ slogan. Man, that died a quick death. It did leave some nice wordplay of that slogan, including “Our Time to Lose” and “Our Time to Perform Below Expectations”. All that was really obvious was the expectation of just a .500 season was too much for these Royals. We went from just looking at the positive of things to the dog shit that you find on the bottom of your shoe. It was “Our Time” to reevaluate.

I think to many, this really was the breaking point. But to be honest, our story really starts in the offseason. When the Royals jettisoned fan favorite Frank White from his broadcasting duties, the backlash was severe. Was Frank great at his job? Not really. He was improving, but not great. But Frank is honest and that didn’t sit well with Royals management. Look, we get you don’t want your announcers talking trash on the team. But let’s put this in perspective a bit. The Royals have had losing seasons 17 out of the last 18. The last thing I want from my announcers is a sugar coating. So of course, that is what we got. Management has shown a tendency to be very thin skinned, which further alienates a fanbase that wants to win. Put a winning team on the field, and you don’t have to worry about criticism. At the end of the day, this was the beginning of the rift.

Obviously, the awful start of the season was strike two between fans and management. Hey, we didn’t expect them to go out and win every night, but we did expect them to be competitive. It took close to a month for that to happen, but by then things were already sour. Manager Ned Yost would comment that things were fine, which wasn’t the truth, and GM Dayton Moore would give out his vote of confidence. The truth is that is what leaders do; the problem is as fans, we have seen this story unfold so many times that it was too much to take. ANOTHER losing season. ANOTHER season of being the butt of jokes. More than anything, it felt like we fans were the only ones who cared. When you get the feeling that management doesn’t really want to fix things, it makes it difficult to want to be a fan.

Some of the good feeling came back at the All Star break, as the town of Kansas City rolled out the red carpet for major league baseball and really showed them that it is a baseball city. Even more evidence was at the home run derby, as a crowd mostly made up of Royals fans booed Robinson Cano for him going back on his word, while cheering for their guy, Billy Butler. As someone who was in the crowd, I can tell you the place was deafening and I have no doubts that is what it would be like if playoff baseball ever returned to Kansas City. You can’t create that sort of passion, and showed just how much the fans care.

Coming off that high, the Royals get back from the break and proceed to stink up the place. It felt like all the goodwill that was felt from the All Star break was now gone in one fell swoop. Management did acknowledge that starting pitching was a major problem for the club, but it took way longer than it should have to do something about it. Most fans were ecstatic when Jonathan Sanchez was sent packing to thinner air, and Jeremy Guthrie was acquired. It has ended up being one of Moore’s better moves, and Guthrie has helped solidify the rotation.

But I think that right there is where some of this discontent comes from. Jonathan Sanchez started probably a good 3-5 more games than he should of, when everyone was clamoring for them to either ship him out or at least quit having him go out to the mound every fifth day. Look at Luke Hochevar, a guy who is a former first round draft pick. The Royals have said publicly that they are bringing him back for another season in 2013, which blows the mind of most. The consensus is that if he hasn’t figured it out now, he isn’t going to. We see him as a pitcher with good stuff who isn’t consistent. Management sees him as a guy who is on the cusp of turning the corner…even though he has sat on that very corner the past few years. Look at the Yuniesky Betancourt signing. All are signs of what the fans perceived as trouble yet management continues to wait out until it becomes one big frakkin mess.

So we are just about a week away from the end of the season, and the Royals are saying all the right things. David Glass told Bob Dutton yesterday that he was willing to spend money this offseason to upgrade the starting rotation. He even said he was committed to building this franchise into a contender. All great words, and I truly hope he means it. But when that comes out the same day as word that season ticket prices are going up, that makes my skeptical radar go batshit crazy. Add in the letter sent to Royals fans for “their commitment”, and it seems as if the organization is going all out to butter us up. To be honest, if they mean it, I think that is great. I don’t think there is any doubt we are committed. I mean, we continue to venture to the ballpark and spend our hard earned money on a team that hasn’t won since 2003, and is the only team in the last twenty years without a playoff appearance. We are about as devoted as it gets. But even that is part of the problem.

At the end of the day, the disconnect builds from one simple truth. Actions speak louder than words. So the organization has given out a lot of lip service this season, but the play on the field isn’t backing it up. We want a winner. We want something to cheer for. Bottom line, anything less than that is unacceptable. For too long, we have accepted this team because we love them and want to be able to say we hung around in hard times and we were rewarded. In the end, we need the actions to speak to that commitment. Otherwise, it is just words blowing in the wind. I can honestly say that if I don’t feel like they put forth a good foot this offseason, then I am very likely to not be as involved next year. We have enabled this team long enough, Kansas City. Time for them to step up and hold them to their words. Otherwise, this endless cycle of losing will continue. Give us a winner, and we are yours.

The Ballad of Johnny Giavotella

We’ve all had that feeling before. The feeling of knowing if we were just given a chance, if we were just given an opportunity that we would seize it and make the most of it. It’s not any different in professional sports, as players who were not expected to contribute show their team just what they are made of. As long as you produce, you are allowed to show your mettle. But if you “drop the ball” so to speak, then you aren’t given the same opportunities. Then there are times where it just seems like the organization you work for don’t have your back and aren’t supporting your climb up the ladder. I’m sure many of these thoughts have crossed the mind of Kansas City Royals Second baseman Johnny Giavotella. When Chris Getz went down with an injury last month, it seemed Gio(as he is nicknamed) was finally going to get a shot at the Second Base job for the Royals. But do the Royals want him to have the job?

Giavotella played college ball at the University of New Orleans and was drafted by the Royals in the second round of the 2008 amateur draft. Giavotella quickly climbed through the minor leagues, hitting at every level he has played at. By 2011 he was perched at Omaha, Kansas City’s AAA team, ready to make the next move to the Major Leagues. Gio was tearing up AAA pitching last summer when the Royals called him up in the beginning part of August. Gio started his big league career, getting two hits and an RBI against the Detroit Tigers. It seemed that it was just the beginning of a long stay in KC for Johnny. Little did he (or we) know what was in store for him.

At the end of the season, Giavotella went in for surgery on his hip, which had bothered him during the end of the season. Giavotella had only hit .247 in his two months in the bigs, but he showed enough glimpses of why he could or should be a Major League ballplayer. It seemed that going into spring training, the second base job was his to lose and with him fully healthy, he seemed primed for the new season. Or at least that was the prevalent thinking until the Royals signed free agent infielder Yuniesky Betancourt to be their “backup infielder”, even though he had never been a backup during his entire major league career. Royals fans everywhere wondered just what the team was thinking, and just who Yuni would be taking playing time away from. Basically, we didn’t believe he was just going to be a backup. We got our answer pretty quickly, as early in spring training manager Ned Yost said that Betancourt was in the hunt for the second base job. Most of us saw that coming, but it still seemed like Gio was the favorite. Then Chris Getz changed his batting stance, and learned to hit the ball to the outfield. Yep, next thing we know Getzie is in the mix at second. All of a sudden what seemed like a sure thing was anything but. A few weeks before spring training wrapped up, Giavotella was sent to AAA, as the team said he needed to work on his fielding. It’s not a secret that Johnny isn’t the best with the glove at second. He wasn’t going to have anyone confuse him with Robbie Alomar with the glove, but in one breath saying he was being sent down to work on defense, while in the same breath give playing time to Betancourt at second, who has the range of a rock, it was very obvious that Gio had fallen out of favor.

So there we were, with one second baseman having very little extra base power and another with no range, and the second bagger with the most upside playing ball in AAA, which he had shown the year before he already dominated. At this point, the best scenario was either an injury or for Giavotella to catch fire at the plate and force the Royals to recall him. The injury part helped his escalation, as Gio was called up on May 9th, as Betancourt ended up on DL. The only problem was Chris Getz had been hitting at a good clip, so Johnny was stuck with the occasional start or the even less occasional pinch hit. The partial playing time did him no favors, as he hit at a meekly .217 clip in only 73 plate appearances before being sent back down on June 12th. Seeing how little playing time Gio got during his month with the team, it was very apparent now: Kansas City did not see Giavotella as part of their future.

One of the things that I really like about Giavotella is how hard of a worker he is. He went back down to Omaha, worked on his defense like the Royals asked, and in a short matter of time, his bat went extremely hot. At one point in July, Giavotella ran off a 20 game hitting streak for the Storm Chasers, but it still wasn’t enough to get a call up to Kansas City. On August 17, the Royals hand was forced, literally, as Chris Getz went down with a thumb injury and the team recalled Gio to the big league club. With his recall, and Betancourt released a few weeks before, the second base job was his now for the rest of the season, a chance to show the team what he could do.

Over the last month, Johnny Giavotella hasn’t put together a big hot streak, or played so good to make sure the team is forced to stand up and take notice. What has happened is Gio has put up a solid .277 average since his recall and 5 extra base hits but the really impressive stat is an OPS of .703. Giavotella has shown a knack to take a walk and really work the count, which many of the Royals could take note of. He has also improved his defense to the point that he is solid, and looks a lot more fluid, smooth and comfortable at second base than at any point in his career. Last week, Royals manager Ned Yost made mention that next year, the team needs to keep in mind that a few of their players have become injury prone and that the team needs to have players ready accordingly. If Giavotella hasn’t worked his way into a battle for the second base job for next year, the fact that Getz has consistently gotten injured over the past two seasons should be enough to keep him around. At this point, Gio still has two weeks to convince management that he can be a regular for this team in 2013. But do the Royals even want him around?

I ask this question because it just doesn’t seem like Royals management wants him to succeed. I know, that sounds ridiculous. Why would any team not want a young player with upside to succeed for their team? I’ve been asking that question since they sent Giavotella down in spring training. But it really seems like it is an inconvenience for the Royals to develop him in the big leagues. It struck me back in May or June that what separates Gio from guys like Moustakas or Hosmer is where they were drafted. Moose and Hos were first round draft picks; Giavotella was a second round pick. Look at how much time the team has spent over the years working with guys like Luke Hochevar, who has never been consistent yet the Royals seem willing to keep giving him chances. Hosmer struggled for most of this season, yet he never got sent back down to AAA. Moose was hitting around.200 most of last year, yet the Royals never thought about sending him back to the minors. My point isn’t that those players should have been sent down. No, my point is that if they picture you as part of their future, you will get more chances. If you are a high draft pick, the Royals will give you more than enough chance to earn your spot. But if you aren’t in their plans…well, just look at Kila Ka’ahiue. Kila tore up the minors in 2008, hitting 37 homeruns at two levels of the minor leagues. Yet he couldn’t even sniff the bigs. No, the Royals went out, acquired Mike Jacobs to play first base, and he did nothing but stink up the place. Even that didn’t matter, as Kila was still not given a chance with the Royals, as he was left in AAA. He didn’t get a real chance till late in the season 2010, and a month in 2011. I firmly believe that Kila was not in their plans, so they weren’t going to give him that opportunity. I think Giavotella is in that same boat. The team has Christian Colon down in the minors, probably another year away, and the Royals consider him their second baseman of the future. Colon is a great defender who hasn’t ever really hit in the minors up until this season, but the key part is he was drafted in the first round back in 2010. This isn’t to talk down Colon as much as show that the team has already written Giavotella off, because their future is getting closer. That doesn’t seem like a sound business choice, to look past certain players because they weren’t part of your original plan. But it appears this is what the Royals are doing.

So what will happen from here? There is still a good chance Johnny will go to spring training with the Royals, and hopefully contend for a job. If not, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to bump up his value, so the team could at the least trade him for something of value. I personally like Giavotella, and would love to see him succeed in Kansas City. But I don’t know if he’ll ever be given a real fair shake. I still think he can be a productive major league player, especially since he has nothing else to prove in the minors. Time will only tell, but it’s hard to see the Royals continue to make the same mistake over and over. As a small market team, Kansas City needs to take advantage of every opportunity given to them. You can’t throw something away just because it wasn’t part of your plan. Sometimes life makes you take a different path than you originally planned on taking. That would be the time to just go with it.

My Top 5 Most Hated Royals

If you are a fan long enough of one team, you gradually start to demise certain players. There could be lots of reasons, although normally it is just bad play on the field that makes you wish they were executed in a field by a couple of guys wearing jumpsuits. Being a Kansas City Royals fan for close to 30 years has not only made me a bit jaded, but I’ve also accumulated my fair share of hatred for certain players. I’ve noticed I don’t have much venom for players during my youth. It must be how naive I was, or maybe because when I was young the Royals weren’t one of the worst teams in baseball. Either way, I’ve only ever really hated (HATED) a handful of Royals over the years, with some just a passing thought. Before we dive in, I do have to throw out a couple of honorable mentions. First, Miguel Olivo gets an honorable mention for his atrocious defense. I know I’ve heard broadcasters mention how good Olivo is defensively, but I don’t remember that guy. I remember the guy who spent half his time at the backstop of the K, looking for the baseball that got away from him (again). Between that and his knack of being a ‘all or nothing’ hitter at the plate, I wasn’t sad when the Royals let him go as a free agent. Another honorable mention should go out to one Jonathan Sanchez. Yep, a guy gets a mention even though he was with the team for only half a season. That’s how bad he was. It wasn’t just that Melky Cabrera got off to a great start for the Giants, or that Sanchez couldn’t seem to get past the fifth inning. No, the worst part was it seemed that Sanchez just didn’t want to be in Kansas City. If his goal was to receive a one way ticket out of town, he got it. The amazing part is that even though Sanchez was really, really bad (really), someone was willing to take him. Thank you, Colorado. Not only did you give us Jeremy Guthrie, but you took the albatross that was around our neck.  Alright, with that out of the way, let’s get to the top five.

5) Yuniesky Betancourt

“See no ball, field no ball…”

I’m sure my hatred for Yuni is bigger since he donned the powder blue more than once. I know some thought that he welded a solid bat, or they didn’t realize just how bad his range really was. But I saw a player who had amazingly regressed throughout his major league career, and was to a point where he had no game plan at the plate and no clue on defense. Sure, he’d occasionally pull out a good play on the field, but only if the ball was hit right to him. Forget him getting something to his right, and his left wasn’t much better. The worst part of having Betancourt on your team would be that occasionally he would show flashes of what was once a good player. A clutch hit here, a nice play there. But they were so few and far between that it couldn’t make up for all the holes in his game. The fact that Royals management thought that he would be a solid backup infielder shows just how little they actually pay attention to the play on the field. For all those reasons, I will forever hate the one I christened ‘Jabba the Betancourt’.

4)Luke Hochevar

I can only hope he was hit by a comebacker in this photo…

A part of me wonders if Luke would be on this list if he wasn’t still in a Royals uniform. Part of me wonders if he didn’t show signs of talent from time to time if I would loathe him so much. But the truth is he is still a Royal, and from time to time we see this guy put it all together. But right there is why he comes in at #4. Hochevar has good stuff, which would explain why he has been drafted in the first round by two separate teams.  In fact, maybe we should blame this on the Dodgers. If only they had signed Hoch when they drafted him the year before the Royals did(or even back in 2002, when they drafted him then), then his mess wouldn’t be on our hands. Instead, he goes unsigned, played some independent ball, then is drafted by the Royals in the first round of the 2006 draft. The rest is history, as in the past five years, Hochevar always seems at the cusp of being a solid major league starter. Well, it’s not quite history yet, as the Royals still trot him out every fifth day, and that is where the problem lies. Five years is more than enough time to know whether a guy can pull his weight in the majors or not, and Hochevar seems to do just enough to keep a job. He is probably one of the most frustrating players I have ever watched,  which makes me dislike the guy more and more. I want to think he can be the solid starter the Royals need, but alas it seems he is destined to just be what he is. A guy who occasionally goes out and dominates. Or the guy who goes out and gives up eight runs in less than two innings. It’s hard to root for a guy who can’t decide if he wants to be Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde.

3) Neifi Perez

My guess is Neifi didn’t hit this pitch.

Ask any Royals fan from a decade ago, and Neifi Perez evokes either anger or sadness. Perez was the Royals big gain from the Jermaine Dye trade(in fact, their only gain) and was coming off a couple of very good seasons in Colorado, including winning a Gold Glove. Some baseball folks even thought he was one of the top Shortstops in the National League. Dye was a fan favorite, but the Royals thought he was getting too pricey and needed help in the middle of the infield. In came Perez, and it was obvious very early that he wasn’t the player the Royals thought they were acquiring. Perez barely managed a .241 average those last 49 games of the season with only nine extra base hits. 2002 wasn’t much better for Perez, as his bat vanished and his glove seemed to as well. You couldn’t rely on Neifi to do much of anything at the plate, and even less on defense, which used to be a positive for him. Instead we ended up with an infielder who couldn’t hit, field and cost just as much as Dye would have. Why this trade was made makes absolutely no sense not only to me, but to most Royals fans. To top it all off, Perez complained about his playing time, only to then refuse to enter a September game as a defensive replacement. To sum it up for newer Royals fans, Neifi was Yuniesky Betancourt, only with even less value. The day the San Francisco Giants signed him was almost a holiday in Kansas City, as fans rejoiced everywhere. To this date, I can’t think of one positive thing Neifi did in a Royals uniform. Not one.

2) Hiram Davies

“Hiram, in all his glory.”

For anyone wondering, since the day after his release, I abstained from referring to him by Kyle. No, from that point forward, I will call him by his given name, Hiram. Davies was a Dayton Moore acquisition from his time in Atlanta. Hard to believe, but when Davies first reached the majors with the Braves, he reeled off 3 scoreless outings in his first three starts. Kansas City got him for gypsy reliever Octavio Dotel, and was seen as a future part of the rotation. In fact, in Hiram’s first full season in KC, he actually had a decent record(9-7) and ERA(4.06). Unfortunately, he seemed to slide backwards in 2009, with an ERA well over five and a WHIP of 1.5. Probably my biggest complaint of Davies was his lack of attacking the strike zone. No great pitcher ever got anywhere by nibbling constantly, yet that was almost the biggest part of Hiram’s repertoire. Davies was known to have good stuff, and his strikeout totals show that. Unfortunately, he never learned that if he threw more strikes, he could last longer in the game. It never failed, the fifth inning would roll around and Hiram would be approaching one hundred pitches. It was fairly certain that if a guy throws that many pitches, he is going to end up out of the game early, and will tax your bullpen. Davies never got around this, and when it was all said and done, it cost him his job in Kansas City. Hiram Davies was so historically bad that unless former teammate Luke Hochevar passes him in the next couple seasons, he will continue to hold down the title of ‘Worst Starting Pitcher EVER’! Davies has the highest ERA and WHIP of any pitcher who has started 90% of his games and thrown over 700 innings. Ever. That covers a lot of ground, folks, and most of it is charred earth. It can be really simple sometimes in baseball. For instance, if you throw strikes, you are more likely to succeed than if you don’t. Hiram Davies learned this the hard way. Davies didn’t leave on the best of notes, as he was arrested the day before he was released last year for disorderly intoxication. Now, I have no way of knowing or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear ol’ Hiram found out that day he was going to be cut by the Royals and decided to tie one on. Far be it from me to blame him for that, but it does make for an interesting story. Davies signed with Toronto’s AAA team for the remainder of last year, but no team has taken a chance on him in 2012. I hated watching Davies pitch, and in some ways I’m glad he hasn’t signed elsewhere. God forbid some longtime fan has to sit through watching Hiram throw his version of craptastic magic for over thirty starts a year. We Royals fans took that medicine, and now can only hope we will forget it someday.

1) Michael Tucker

“I’m surprised he got that close to the ball. That would take effort.”

Michael Tucker, how I hate him so. I could tell you so many reasons why, but the main one is that Tucker was a lazy bastard. Here is a guy who might not have ever been a five tool player, but it wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities that he could be a four tool player. He had speed, good defense, hit for average, smart baserunning skills, but not a lot of power. Unfortunately, he didn’t do any of these things as well as he should have, because he always seemed to half-ass it when playing. Here was another former Kansas City first round pick that just never lived up to expectations. He was good on defense…when he wasn’t loafing it to the ball. He could hit for average…when he would actually focus. He even screwed up being speedy, as he just didn’t hustle every time he was on the field. Here was a guy with all the talent in the world, but maybe used only a third of it. Instead of being an All-Star, or even just a full time starter, Tucker was at best a platoon player who never learned to hit lefties. Guys like David Eckstein and Chris Getz would kill to have the kind of talent that Tucker had, yet it was given to a guy who preferred to coast. Tucker actually had a few decent seasons in Atlanta, but in his two stints in Kansas City, he was an average .260 hitter with a .330 On Base Percentage. You would think someone with that much speed would steal a lot of bases, or at least a decent amount. Not Tucker, as he could only muster 43 in four seasons for the Royals. Tucker would actually have a long career, lasting twelve seasons in the bigs. But at the end of the day, he was a platoon player at best who never learned how to up his game. Guys like Michael Tucker never figure out what god given advantages he has. Instead, guys like him piss it away to ‘just get by’. That is why he is my host hated Royal. That is why I will always refer to him as ‘Michael F’n Tucker’!

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