Smiles & Hugs: Melky is Back in KC

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Credit: Chicago Tribune

There is nothing quite like late July in Major League Baseball; pennant races, visits to Cooperstown and the trade deadline. It’s long been believed that the Kansas City Royals would be buying at the trade deadline and last week Royals GM Dayton Moore swung a deal with San Diego for three pitchers to help both the rotation and bullpen. Earlier in the weekend, it was known that Moore was also on the hunt for a bat to beef up the lineup:

This was on Friday and the idea of a reunion with Melky seemed to make the most sense. Luckily, Moore agreed:

So the Royals have now added an additional bat for the lineup. The question has already been asked so let’s immediately address it: Where does Melky fit in?

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Cleveland Indians

The answer is ‘everywhere’. The most apparent fit would be left field, as Alex Gordon has struggled most of the season. The numbers seem to preach that as well:

Gordon-.201/.294/.296, 0.4 fWAR

Cabrera-.295/.336/.436, 0.8 fWAR

Since Melky would be a possible fit at DH against lefties, I decided to break down those splits as well:

Gordon- .186/.336/.209, 59 wRC+

Cabrera- .296/.327/.500, 118 wRC+

Moss-.318/.412/.591, 166 wRC+

In years past there have been some heavy splits for Moss against lefties, but so far in 2017 he is handling them very well. It would appear that Gordon would be the odd man out in this scenario, but while I expect to see Gordon’s playing time cut, he will probably still see a good  number of starts as well as being a defensive replacement late in the game. If you look up above at the fWAR numbers, Melky and Alex aren’t too far off and that is mostly because of defense. Alex has been an above average defender in 2017 while Melky continues to be below average. What I would expect to see is Melky floating around, playing left field one day, right field another, and DH every now and then too. Manager Ned Yost will probably mix and match according to who is on the mound that day and who is struggling/needs rest. Melky being a switch hitter helps in this equation, as he can fit in whether there is a righty or a lefty on the mound. While Melky isn’t exactly tearing up the league offensively, he is an improvement over what Kansas City has had most of this year and while not displacing just one player, will be a fairly regular in the Royals lineup, most likely in the two-hole.

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Credit: The Sporting News

While his bat will improve the lineup, maybe the biggest addition with Melky is his presence in the clubhouse. During his previous stint in Kansas City, he was beloved by the likes of Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez and Melky has still been known to give a hug to Hosmer whenever he reaches first base when he has been on the opposing team. In fact, it surprised me a bit that Melky didn’t try to return to the Royals before the 2015 season when he was a free agent. This is what I wrote back in August 2015 about it:

But while watching Melky this past weekend I started thinking about how much he loves these guys and I started pondering how much fun he would have if he was still with Kansas City. The thing is, he could have been a Royal again. This past winter, the Royals were on the hunt for a new right fielder to take the place of Nori Aoki. They had tried Torii Hunter but he returned to Minnesota. They had also talked to Melky about coming in, even offering him a contract fairly similar to what he got from Chicago. Chicago eventually won the Melky sweepstakes, but I found it interesting why he chose the White Sox over the Royals:

 Cabrera “really wanted to win,” Rick Hahn, White Sox GM recalled. “(He said) ‘But with all due respect are you guys really in a position to win and am I really a difference maker for you?’ ”

So Chicago’s winter moves swayed Melky, or at least he felt like they had a better chance to win. The funny thing is, the Royals offered a deal somewhat similar to what Chicago gave him. I believe it was one less year, and possibly a few million less. But here was my thought this weekend: with the Royals in about the same situation as Chicago, at least when pertaining to their chance of winning, why would he not take a little less money to be around a bunch of guys that he really enjoys playing with? Now, Seattle did offer Cabrera an extra year, so maybe the years weren’t as big a deal but with the Royals offering something in the same ballpark, I just find it odd that he wouldn’t try to come back to Kansas City. I’m sure that White Sox locker room is full of quality guys; I don’t doubt that a bit. But the chance to win a championship and do that with a bunch of guys you think fondly of? I tend to think you can’t beat that. But obviously it was not meant to be, and instead the Royals end up with Alex Rios who looks about the same as the Alex Rios that was sapped of power last year in Texas. We can only imagine how much better this Royals team would have been with Melky roaming right field…

So Melky is now going to get that chance to play with his friends and I can only imagine good things come from that. There is no statistic to quantify clubhouse chemistry, but it is well-known that Kansas City has a great group of guys that most have enjoyed playing with whenever they come play for the Royals. I have to believe the addition of Melky has put a bunch of smiles on the faces of the veterans who were with Kansas City back in 2011.

Chicago White Sox Workout
Credit: Sports Illustrated

Adding Melky to the Royals equation was a smart move, but there is always the other side of  a deal and in this one it involved two young pitchers. A.J. Puckett was the Royals first pick for Kansas City back in the 2016 draft (in the second round) and has been pitching this year in the Royals High A affiliate in Wilmington. Baseball America had Puckett ranked as the number 5 prospect in the Royals farm system before the 2017 season but he has struggled a bit so far in this campaign: 3.90 ERA over 108 innings, allowing 107 hits and a 1.412 WHIP. The original belief was that Puckett would go as far as his breaking ball takes him and at his ceiling would probably be a #3 starter in the big leagues. That being said, consistency has been his enemy this year:

Scoles does a great job analyzing the Royals farm system for Baseball Prospectus Kansas City and is someone who has been keeping an eye on Puckett. Davis is a 23-year-old lefty who hasn’t been listed on any of the Royals top prospect list but has done a good job against lefties this season at Class A Lexington: .216/.289/.352 batting line in 97 plate appearances this year. His overall numbers are a bit pedestrian: 4.82 ERA, with a 1.389 WHIP and a nice 3.78 strike out to walk ratio. Obviously Puckett is the bigger piece of this deal and while it always hurts to give up a solid pitching arm, this feels like a low regret type deal for the Royals in the long haul.

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So the Royals pick up another piece on their latest run to the playoffs and if anything the front office and ownership has shown they will step up when needed:

So in the last week Kansas City has acquired a rotation arm, two bullpen arms and a solid bat for the lineup….and it appears that Kansas City isn’t quite done yet:

The MLB trade deadline is set for 3pm Central on Monday, more than enough time for ‘Dealer Dayton’ to grab another arm. If the last week has been any indication we should expect another surprise within the next 24 hours. It feels good to know that no matter the end outcome, Royals management is giving this team everything it needs to play October baseball. The band is back together and getting ready to spin their greatest hits over the final two months of the season…and maybe the encore come October.

 

 

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Getting His Due

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This weekend, baseball honors the greats of the game in Cooperstown, New York, as the induction ceremonies will be held on Sunday afternoon. The players voted in this year are more than worthy but one player in particular will finally take his deserved place in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. That man is Tim Raines and over the last few years I have been one of the many beating the drum for his inclusion into the greats of the game. If anything, Raines has become a poster child for advanced metrics and increased value in stats revolving around on-base percentage, defense and base running. It took way too long, but are finally to a point where logic has taken over.

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Now, if you are expecting this to be an article slathered with statistics, you are wrong. I wrote in-depth about Raines back in 2013, so if you are wanting to read the argument for his induction click the link. What I will say is that Rock’s argument is pretty simple: he is one of the most proficient base stealers in the history of the game, his on-base percentage is comparable to the great Tony Gwynn, and there for a few years in the 1980’s he was in the argument of being the best player in the game. But Raines ended up falling under the radar, whether it be from being hidden in Montreal all those years or not being as good as Rickey Henderson (which is just as laughable writing it as saying it out loud). Raines numbers are on par with some of the greats of the game…and even I was late to the party.

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

Call it ignorance or just being out of the loop, I wasn’t even aware of advanced metrics until about 5-6 years ago. Once I was aware, I did research into them and realized it broadened my view of the game and made me pay more attention to the areas of the game that I already valued. I was already a big proponent of walks, realizing they were just as important as singles. To this day I still value great defensive players over guys who contribute very little with the leather. I love watching the players who are five tool guys, which is why I used to love watching Barry Bonds play, but found him boring once he became ‘just a masher’. To this end, statistics like OPS and WAR speak to me more than the numbers we are used to seeing on the back of our old baseball cards. Once I looked into Raines’ case, it became very obvious very early that he was being overlooked and was worthy of a plaque in the Hall of Fame.

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Credit: USA Today

Once I realized the mistake that was occurring,  I made sure when Hall of Fame discussions came up to mention Raines as much as possible. My voice didn’t reach as far as a Jonah Keri, but even if it changed one person’s mind it was worth it. Raines and Edgar Martinez became the two players I rallied for the most. Advanced statistics had opened up my worldview and my appreciation for Tim Raines had grown immensely. Most of my viewing of Raines was late in his career, the period where he wasn’t the dominating force he was in Montreal. Now I look at his stolen base percentage, or the amount of walks he tallied throughout his 23 year career and I just shake my head. Raines was under all of our noses and a large amount of baseball fans had no clue just how great he was.

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

While I loved what the advanced metrics taught me about Raines, the best part of this revelation was being part of a united community. Since I was a kid I’ve long considered myself a “stathead” and pushing the cause for Raines made me aware of how many baseball fan’s had the same sentiment. Knowing that because of extensive research and lots of number crunching led to opening the eyes of voters made it more than worthwhile. I’m sure no actual voter for the Hall of Fame read any of my articles or tweets about Raines, but many saw the effort and time put in by Jonah Keri and were open-minded enough to listen and change their mind on Tim. Brian Kenny was another strong proponent of Raines and made sure to argue his case whenever he could on MLB Network. The fact that so many writers and analysts pushed this agenda for a number of years and had a big enough spotlight to change people’s minds is  more than impressive. To know that this community of like-minded individuals were able to make such a dent in the minds of what is normally a very ‘stuck in their ways’ audience is double as impressive. This movement made a difference and helped to get a deserving player the recognition he rightly earned.

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Credit: Baseball Hall of Fame

So to say this Sunday will be rewarding is an understatement. Myself, I am super happy that Raines will get to take his rightful place in Cooperstown this weekend and he will get to share that with his family and peers. Over the years, guys like Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Dwight Evans and Bobby Grich have been passed over for election to ‘the Hall’ and one has to wonder if they had the same push and media attention drawn to them they could have garnered the same result as Raines. It will be a joyous occasion at the induction ceremony this weekend, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina and Billy Wagner are just a few names that deserve to be in the Hall of Fame and the push for the next election should begin now.  While all the hard work for Tim Raines paid off, it’s time to push the next cause. There is always a deserving player who just isn’t getting their just due. Remember, the numbers never lie.

 

Authors note: I have been reading Tim Raines’ new book, “Rock Solid: Life in Baseball’s Fast Lane” and highly recommend it. If you interested here is the link on Amazon. Hopefully when I get it done I will be able to post a book review as well. So far, I am really enjoying it.

Arms Dealer: Royals, Padres Trade Pitchers

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There has been a large question mark surrounding the Kansas City Royals since before the season even started and it revolved around three simple words: buy or sell? It has been well-known for a while now that the Royals nucleus of their championship teams in 2014 and 2015 are eligible for free agency at the end of the season and how the Royals performed this year would go a long way towards determining which party they attended. I’ve long felt they wouldn’t be selling but that didn’t exactly mean they would be buying either. The honest truth is that there aren’t a lot of pieces in the minors for Kansas City to use as bait and dissecting the big league roster would most likely damage their chances of contending. With that said, baseball was taken aback on Monday as the Royals traded pitchers Matt Strahm and Travis Wood with minor league infielder Esteury Ruiz to San Diego for pitchers Brandon Maurer, Ryan Buchter and Trevor Cahill. It was a trade that will help both teams but the heavy emphasis is how it helps Kansas City as they make another run to October baseball.

San Francisco Giants v San Diego Padres

Pitching is what the Royals needed and adding the three arms is a plus for Kansas City moving forward. Cahill will slide into the rotation, an instant improvement on the young arms they have tried to stabilize the 5th spot in the rotation. Cahill has been an above average starter to far in 2017, posting an ERA+ of 115 in his 11 starts, a 3.39 FIP and a nice 3.00 strike out to walk ratio in 61 innings. Cahill has posted his highest strike out rate of his career so far (27.4%), mostly due to an increased use of his curveball. Cahill has dealt with some shoulder discomfort this year and spent a bit of time on the disabled list because of it. But he is already an improvement over the Junis’ and Skoglund’s that Kansas City has been throwing out there this summer and could even see more consistency with the Royals defense behind him.

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Buchter (pronounced Book-ter) will add another stellar left-hander to the Royals pen and improves an already solid array of relievers. Buchter has been productive so far this year: 139 ERA+, 2.61 strike out to walk ratio, and a 29.2% strike out ratio. His FIP is a bit high (4.55) but his work against lefties is exactly what any manager would expect from a left-handed specialist: .175/.277/.386 line against lefties, striking out 20 over 15.2 innings against batters from the left side. Buchter has allowed a few too many home runs for the short amount of work he has pitched (7 home runs given up over 38.1 innings) but he was less productive at home this season (batters hit .238/.304/.492 against Buchter at Petco Park this year) which could be a plus at Kauffman Stadium. Buchter has also performed admirably in high leverage situations (posting a slash line of .071/.188/.214 and a wOBA of .187) and has been on lock down when he has had runners in scoring position (.156/.270/.226 and a wOBA of .231). Buchter isn’t going to be one of your main setup guys, but he could be the guy Ned Yost goes to when a tough left-handed batter needs to be vanquished.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at San Diego Padres

The most intriguing piece of the trade is Brandon Maurer, who has been the Padres default closer for most of this year. While his surface numbers won’t pop out at you (74 ERA+, 5.72 ERA and 39 hits over 39 innings), underneath tells a different story. While Maurer’s ERA is above 5, his FIP sits at 3.22. He also has the highest strike out rate of his career (23.5%) and the lowest walk rate as well (4.9%). What has hurt Maurer this year has been those high leverage situations; Maurer has posted a .283/.309/.442 line in those situations and a wOBA of .310. This goes double for his performance with men in scoring position, as they have hit .400/.455/.641 with a wOBA of .450. I mentioned ‘default closer’ earlier and that was for a reason; Maurer is probably better suited as a setup guy and it’s not just the numbers that speak of that:

If this is the case, Maurer will be a great fit for the Royals, being one of the bridges to closer Kelvin Herrera. Even better for Kansas City, the Royals will be able to keep Maurer and Buchter for the foreseeable future:

While Cahill will be a free agent after the end of the year, Maurer and Buchter look to be staying for a while. The contract control had to be a great selling point for Dayton Moore as he was working on this deal.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Minnesota Twins

The Royals meanwhile gave up a couple of solid arms and a young prospect for the three San Diego pitchers. Matt Strahm, currently on the disabled list, was the big get as he was ranked as the Royals second best prospect by Baseball America before the season started. While Strahm struggled during his two stints in Kansas City this year (84 ERA+, 22 runs given up in 34.2 innings), he was initially going to be a big part of the Royals pen. While Kansas City envisioned him as a future starter, there are some concerns that he might be better suited for the bullpen in the long run. Either way, losing Strahm does hurt any pitching depth the Royals had in their minor league system. Travis Wood was also dealt and to be honest it is amazing that someone was willing to take him with the season he has had this year. Wood’s time in Kansas City was not good, as he compiled an ERA+ of 66 with 33 runs given up in 41.2 innings. While the Royals shipped Wood to the Padres, they are still paying on his contract:

Okay, now I see how the Royals were able to deal Wood. Being able to ship him off is still a win-win situation and should actually improve Kansas City. Finally, minor league infielder Esteury Ruiz rounded out this trade. Ruiz isn’t ranked on most prospect lists, but scouts really love this kid:

I tend to believe if the Royals had any regrets, it will end up being because of Ruiz. He is only 18 years old so the likelihood of regretting trading him probably won’t happen for at least four years at the earliest. Overall, this trade was one that made sense for both clubs and appears to help the them both now and in the future.

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The Royals need for pitching appeared to be fulfilled with this trade but alas it appears Moore might not be done dealing yet:

The Royals have not only discussed Liriano with Toronto, but also Marco Estrada as possible fits in the Kansas City rotation. Estrada would appear to be the better fit, as Liriano as struggled with consistency and efficiency for years now, while Estrada had put together five solid seasons before this bump in the road in 2017. There are still about five days left before the trade deadline so it is possible that Kansas City isn’t done adding to their team. Even if it doesn’t happen, the Royals upgraded both the bullpen and rotation with the trade earlier this week and have put themselves in a better position to go after a playoff spot. Time will tell whether these moves pay off, but no one can say that the Royals didn’t at least give it a go. They aren’t big moves like picking up Ben Zobrist or Johnny Cueto, but we all knew Kansas City couldn’t afford moves like that. Instead, the Royals appear to be following the model of 2014; let the rotation eat enough innings and then hand the ball over to the bullpen. It worked once, so there is no reason to think it can’t work again.

The Black Hole of Death…is Alive!

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We all remember April. April was not kind to the Kansas City Royals and in large part it was due to the lack of offense. The Royals were last in almost every offensive category in the American League (outside of home runs and ISO) and produced a wRC+ of 57 as a team (league average is 100). While almost the entire team was struggling, the most glaring weakness was the bottom of the lineup, which consisted of Brandon Moss, Alcides Escobar and Alex Gordon. The last third of the lineup continued their struggle through May before June started to see a bit of life. But over the last few weeks, this trifecta that was denoted ‘The Black Hole of Death’ has awoken from their slumber and helped guide the Royals to where they now sit 1.5 games out of first place in the American League Central and tied for the second wild card spot in the AL. So how has this group gone from basement dwellers to driving forces behind a Kansas City Surge?

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Let’s start by looking at where this group started at in April with a look at their slash lines:

Moss: .167/.250/.367, -0.3 fWAR

Escobar: .171/.200/.220, -0.4 fWAR

Gordon: .184/.268/.218, -0.3fWAR

The numbers didn’t see a big uptick in May:

Moss: .203/.266/.508, 0.0 fWAR

Escobar: .197/.220/.248, -0.5 fWAR

Gordon: .164/.307/.192, -0.1 fWAR

Now remember, WAR factors in defense and Moss for the most part doesn’t see a whole lot of time on the field. So what might be the most telling sign of how badly Escobar and Gordon were performing is looking at the WAR statistic; both players are former Gold Glove winners and are still great defensively. The fact that both put together below replacement level performances really shows you how lackluster they were with the bats. Also, take a look at Escobar and Gordon’s slugging percentage in April and May: both months, Escobar had a higher slugging percentage than Alex, which shows that Gordon wasn’t driving the ball at all in those two months. Escobar is not known to get a bunch of extra base hits while Gordon in the past has been known as a guy who can rack up a decent amount of doubles and home runs. At that point, one would wonder how much better this Royals team could be just by getting replacement level play from the bottom third of the batting order. Luckily, June would see their bats start to wake up.

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All it took was a trip to the west coast and warmer weather to get a pulse from these three (or at least two of the three):

Moss: .156/.240/.178, -0.5 fWAR

Escobar: .294/.301/.412, 0.5 fWAR

Gordon: .231/.295/.436, 0.3 fWAR

Moss’ June was not pleasant, as he only drove in one run the entire month and had a wRC+ of 13. Gordon actually went deep three times and a lot of his production can be attributed to hitting coach Dale Sveum working on his stance and having Gordon use his legs a bit more to help him drive the ball. The Royals as a team had a great offensive month in June but the best was yet to come in July:

Moss: .326/.392/.630, 0.5 fWAR

Escobar: .271/.320/.414, 0.4 fWAR

Gordon: .254/.318/.407, 0.3 fWAR

While Moss was almost invisible in June, his July has seen his numbers drastically move upward, thanks to something that doesn’t have a stat to quantify it: confidence:

“Before the last couple of weeks, I’d get to two strikes (and) not to say that you knew it was over, but you knew you probably missed your chance,” he said, smiling and adding, “Been seeing the ball a lot better and have better balance at the plate, so it’s not a panic any more.”

Escobar has gone with a more balanced attack, spraying the ball all over the field. In July, Escobar is pulling the ball 30.7% of the time, hitting the ball up the middle 35.5%, and the opposite way 33.9%. Gordon appears to be taking the ball to the opposite field more, 28.6% compared to 13.1% last month. Gordon is also focusing more on off-speed pitches to hit, as his wCH/c (which is a linear weight against change-ups) is sitting at 1.69 in July, compared to -3.67 in April. Gordon has always been a better hitter when he isn’t pulling the ball as much and most of his big hits in the last week have been to the opposite field:

So for the month, these three are almost all above the league average for wRC+ (Moss is above with 168, Escobar and Gordon are almost there with 94 and 91 respectively) and all have a wOBA of .313 or higher. Kansas City has sought any offense from the bottom three and it has finally come to fruition. The next big question is ‘Can they sustain?’ this pace?

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Credit: Kansas City Star

With a little over two months left in the season, there is no reason to think these three hitters can’t continue this pace of production or something close to it. Moss might not slug at a .620 clip but as long as meets a happy medium between his low and his high that should keep him at a respectable level. Both Escobar and Gordon are performing at levels that are very sustainable and would be more than accepted if they can keep it up. Moss and Gordon are well-known to be streaky hitters so the highs and lows could be a bit extreme, but as long as they evened out to respectable numbers it should mark an improvement. The Royals have waited all season for these guys to hit and now comes the hard part-maintaining it. These three don’t need to carry the offense, they just need to contribute.

 

Hype, Man

Aaron Judge
Credit: Sports Illustrated

As a “seamhead”, it is in our disposition to love everything that is great about this game we adore, baseball. Whether it be the history of the game, the classic stadiums, the evolution of strategy or the uprising of analytics, I love it all. But with that said, I have a confession to make. This won’t go over well and for some it will be heresy. I would apologize beforehand, but I feel justified in what I am about to confess. It isn’t the popular opinion but here we go: I am not enamored with Aaron Judge. Yeah, I know, he hits the ball high and far and is a statue of a man. I am aware that his numbers say he is a force to be reckoned with and he deserves the praise. The problem is the praise is just too much. Waaaaaay too much. The media are obsessed with a guy who has put up half a season of All-Star numbers and they are ready to anoint him the second coming of every great power hitter. But it is too much, too soon and the baseball analysts and talking heads need to stop.

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Look, the numbers ARE impressive. It’s hard to see a wRC+ of 184 and not be overwhelmed, since it is a stat that is league and park adjusted. That number gives him more validity than any home run number or slugging stat out there. Playing in Yankee Stadium makes those numbers a bit skewed, as it is a park that leans more toward the hitter. Some of the numbers make me think he is going to come down to earth soon; a high BABIP normally means you are getting a bit lucky on balls put in play, so that .398 will probably slope down a bit soon. But it is obvious the power is real and he has become a better hitter, as shown by the 16.6% walk rate or the 24.9% O-Swing percentage, which is pitches he has swung at outside the zone. The improvement shows in his numbers and he should be a player that is talked about. But there is talk, and then there is focusing on one player like they are head and shoulders above every other player. The latter has been going on quite regularly lately, especially on ESPN.

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Last week I tuned into Baseball Tonight the afternoon before the All-Star Game, hoping to get some analysis on the game and a few interviews with players. I knew Judge would be talked about, as he should since he had won the Home Run Derby the night before. Over the next 45 minutes, I witnessed ESPN talk about nothing but Judge…seriously. They had an interview with him. Showed highlights of the derby. Talked to other players about Judge. After 45 minutes, I stopped my recording and deleted it. I couldn’t even make it through the entire hour. There was no talk about the pitching matchup that night, no discussion about the lineups, no conversation about Zack Cozart’s donkey. It was all Judge and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. As much as Baseball Tonight has been my go to since the 1990’s, it has deteriorated over the years and after the bloodshed in Bristol earlier this summer, I should have seen this coming. There is a reason I hardly ever watch ESPN anymore and my default channel on my TV is MLB Network. At least the network tries to cover a wide spectrum of topics around the sport and only slightly hints at their “East Coast Bias”; ESPN has completely embraced their bias.

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

If there was ever a major reason for the over exuberant coverage of Judge, the answer is right there-he plays for the Yankees. New York has long wanted a young slugger to be placed on the pedestal, to follow in the footsteps of Ruth and Mantle. Even more, New York has wanted that one player they can zoom in on ever since Derek Jeter retired. If you remember, the coverage of Jeter that final season was nauseating and I didn’t even hate the guy. But by the end of that season, I didn’t want to hear Jeter’s name for a very, very long time. While New York is the biggest market in the sport, there are 28 other teams with players just as worthy of your attention as the one’s in the ‘Big Apple’. I could list a whole slew of young players to discuss; everyone from Machado to Correa, Bellinger to Betts, Arenado to Goldschmidt. I even heard analysts saying Judge should be the face of the game, which just seems preposterous when Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw are still playing (never mind the fact that you shouldn’t have just “one” face of the game). He is a great young player and worthy of headlines; just not all the headlines.

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One comparison that has not been mentioned for Judge that actually is very comparable is Mark McGwire, or more specifically, their rookie seasons. Let’s size up Judge and McGwire’s rookie campaigns:

Judge- .311/.432/.649, 184 wRC+, 5.2 fWAR

McGwire- .289/.370/.618, 157 wRC+, 5.1 fWAR

So I didn’t go the HR/RBI route since Judge is has only 391 plate appearances with two plus months left of action and McGwire ended up with 641 when it was all said and done. Factoring that extra 250+ PA, average and slugging feel like they are fairly close, while Judge already has McGwire beat with WAR; Judge is a better defender in RF than McGwire was at first base. While the numbers skew toward Judge right now, one has to wonder if the extra couple months will bring Judge back down closer to where McGwire ended up. In all honesty, Judge to me feels like this generation’s McGwire if he can stay healthy. He will hit a bunch of home runs, he’ll get his walks (especially if pitchers start pitching around him) and he’ll produce runs. It’s not a bad thing and McGwire was one of the elite sluggers in the game for a lengthy period of time. It goes to show you that as much as many protest and say they love a well-rounded player, many still dig the long ball.

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At the end of the day, it would be wise for the baseball media on the east coast to remember there are fans all over the country that would prefer a well-rounded analysis of the game, not just what is happening in ‘The Bronx’. Judge is a good player who has the potential to be a mainstay in the spotlight for years to come and making comparisons to baseball legends will only put undue pressure on the kid. Take it down a notch, New York, and let him just go out and play. Even Jesus Christ doesn’t get as much press as a star Yankee gets. The home runs are great, but let’s wait to see how the league adjusts to him and how he handles that. That is the true telltale sign of how good a baseball player really is. Besides, Mike Trout is back from the disabled list; maybe you should remember how consistently great he is before trying to dethrone him with Judge.

Waiting On Soler

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Credit: Kansas City Star

On the surface, the expectations for Jorge Soler were simple: play average defense, take a few walks and most importantly, hit bombs. He didn’t have to be the main cog in the middle of the Kansas City Royals offense; all he needed to be was a dangerous bat who could drive mistakes over the outfield fence. Instead, Soler’s inaugural campaign in Kansas City has been rather mundane, as he is hitting a pedestrian .154/.245/.275 with 2 home runs and a wRC+ of 34 in 102 plate appearances. Because of the lack of production,  Soler was optioned back down to AAA (again), with Billy Burns taking his roster spot. Manager Ned Yost explained that the lack of at bats and production factored into the decision:

“It’s just been a struggle to get going,” Yost said. “He just doesn’t look comfortable in the box. He just hasn’t been able to get on a role up here. We were hoping after his stint down there where he was hitting .320 and hitting homers that he could get up here and get comfortable. But we just need him to get at-bats.”

So now the Royals are left with a struggling DH in Brandon Moss and a player who many hoped would be a run producer in the Kansas City lineup now sent down to Omaha. But I am here to tell you that it is too soon to give up on Jorge Soler.

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Let’s start with the easy reasons. For one, Soler is just 25 years old. Two, the Royals still have control of him through the 2020 season. If you have ever wondered why the Royals only got one player (Soler) for Wade Davis, this is why. One contract controlled season for Davis equals four controlled seasons for Soler. Third on the list of reasons is his raw power. His power can be a game changer:

Some scouts give Soler 80 raw power on the 20-80 scale…

This came from a scouting report in Baseball America from back in 2013 and if you have seen him in batting practice you know that power is legit. The belief has always been that if he could get regular playing time and stay healthy (both have plagued him in his short career) we would start seeing improvement from Soler. Unfortunately, the injuries have piled up (Soler was even hurt to start this year) and 2015 was the only year where he received over 400 plate appearances. Even this year has seen his at bats scattered, as he has spent about the same amount of time in both Kansas City and Omaha. Soler is a player who needs consistency and so far this year he hasn’t been able to get that.

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Credit: Kansas City Star

One of the reasons I am not too down on Soler is because of what scouts and those close to him have said this past winter. One comment mentioned numerous times was that Soler takes a bit to adjust, whether it be to a new team or a new league and he is one who needs to be comfortable, which he has not been at the plate this year. The promise is in the numbers he has accumulated in Omaha: .324/.453/.667 with 11 home runs and 31 RBI’s. But we all know that AAA is not the same at the major league level and it shows in his numbers. Some of the issues he had earlier in the season have expanded and led to the reason for his demotion. While his walk rate isn’t awful (10.8%), his strike out rate is the highest of his career as is his ISO and wOBA. while his hard hit rate, line drive rate and fly ball rate are on par with his 2016 numbers. Besides the strike outs, his contact rate is the lowest of his career (65.3%), which is not a good sign. If one was to digest these numbers, you would tend to believe that if he made a bit more contact and even be a bit more aggressive at the plate, you might see some of those numbers progress up. In the past he has been accused of being a bit too aggressive at the plate, but over the last couple seasons he has been more patient and while I am a big proponent of the walk (and on-base percentage), in his case it might be better for him to be a smidge less selective. The problem to this whole scenario is that the Royals can’t afford for him to figure this out at the big league level, not with them in the hunt for a playoff spot.

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Colorado Rockies

The patience and at bats that Soler need isn’t readily available at the moment since the Royals need production now from their DH, as Brandon Moss has struggled throughout most of the 2017 campaign. Moss’ numbers are borderline anemic: .191/.261/.383 with 10 homers and 16 RBI’s, not exactly the numbers Dayton Moore expected when he signed him to a 2 year deal this offseason. With Soler slugging in Omaha, it made sense to recall him and give him a shot to produce. The only problem is he struggled even more these last few weeks, striking out 15 times over 37 plate appearances in June and July. Soler just hasn’t found his groove and with the Kansas City offense being a streaky bunch, the Royals need offense now, not a few weeks from now. The hope has to be for Soler to get hot again down in AAA and recall him again, hoping it shifts over to the big league club. If not, the more time goes on the more it will feel like 2017 was a wasted season for Soler.

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While 2017 hasn’t been what the Royals wanted from Soler, his contribution to the team isn’t relegated to just this season. When I had read the comments from scouts about him needing to be comfortable, I knew not to expect much the first few months of the season from Soler. In fact, considering all the factors in play (the injury, new team, new league, the weight of being the guy traded for Davis, etc.) I wasn’t even planning on making a judgment on him until midway through the 2018 season. The Royals still have him under contract for the next three seasons after this and very well could end up being the elite power bat that Kansas City needs. The problem is the Royals are contenders NOW and immediacy is of the highest value. Royals fans, don’t shun Soler just yet; he might end up where he needs to be, it just might not be as fast as we would all like.

 

Royals Help in the Minors

 

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

With it becoming more and more apparent that the Kansas City Royals will be buying and not selling this month, the question has arisen more and more on who they might be buying. Names like Jaime Garcia, Brad Hand, Dee Gordon and Pat Neshek have all been bandied about and I’m sure more will be tossed out there before the trade deadline at the end of the month. While Kansas City does appear to be buyers, the honest truth is that they won’t be able to buy much, as a combination of a depleted farm system and a need for almost everyone on the current roster leaves them few options for dealing. With that in mind, I thought today we would look at a few options in the Royals farm system that could help the team down the stretch run. Now there is no guarantee we will see these players, but they would fill a need and are currently just a call away.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Let’s start with a former first round draft pick in Kyle Zimmer. Zimmer has been able to stay healthy over the last month and has been converted to the bullpen for the Royals AAA club in Omaha. His numbers are less than spectacular so far ( 7.52 ERA, 5.52 FIP & 4.87 walks per 9) but his velocity has been stellar and can be dominate when he is around the strike zone. He has given up one run or less in 8 out of his 12 outings this season, but the last few appearances have seen Zimmer get lit up (7 runs over 3 2/3 innings). I’m sure the Royals would like to see a bit more success before recalling him, but with his stuff (he was clocked between 94-97 mph in his last outing) he could be a nice addition to the pen down the stretch.

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Credit: Kansas City Star

Brian Flynn pitched on the big league club in 2016 but has spent most of this year on the disabled list. He returned near the end of May to the Royals AAA team and has been superb over his last four appearances (2 runs given up over 9 1/3 innings). Flynn has the ability to get both righties and lefties out and could be a trusted arm out of the pen as a situational lefty or a guy to eat a few innings for the pitching staff. I do think we will see Flynn in Kansas City before the year is out.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Raul Mondesi, Hunter Dozier and Bubba Starling would all be good additions to the Royals bench/DH/outfield situation. Unfortunately, all three are dealing with an assortment of injuries and while I can see a scenario where we could see them this season, I doubt we do before September. Mondesi has found his groove in Omaha before the injury, hitting at a .316/.346/.544 clip with a wOBA of .372 and wRC+ of 121. Mondesi still swings at too many pitches and hardly walks, but his strike out rate is the lowest of his career (20.9%) and well below his career major league rate. I talked a bit about Starling last month and he would be an interesting option in the OF/DH situation for Kansas City. Scouts still think he will struggle mightily once he finally gets to the big leagues, but his adjustments this year have given the team a sign of hope and his defense has been major league ready for years. Don’t expect to see any of these guys in the next month, but we very well could see all three in September.

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Maybe the most intriguing prospect that entered into Royals’ conversations is left-hander Richard Lovelady, a reliever stowed away down in AA Northwest Arkansas. The 6 ft. twenty-two year old is only in his second professional season and has been dominating this year between Wilmington and NW Arkansas. He is averaging over 11 strike outs per 9 and has not allowed an earned run since May 1st. In 42 innings this season, Lovelady has an ERA of 0.86 in 42 innings, allowing only 4 earned runs and striking out 52 in that span. His name has been tossed about more and more as a possibility in the Royals bullpen come September and could be in the vein of a Brandon Finnegan and his contribution to Kansas City back in 2014. I would say at this point the likelihood we see him in September is very good, so keep your eye out for the young lefty with a fantastic name.

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A couple of names in AA to keep an eye on the next couple of months are Foster Griffin and Nicky Lopez. Both are currently playing at Northwest Arkansas and have had fantastic years. Griffin just appeared in the MLB Futures Game, getting both of the batters he faced out. He has started 19 games this year, posting a 2.89 ERA, striking out 108 batters over 109 innings. I doubt we see him in Kansas City this year, but the former first round draft pick has an outside shot of seeing time with the big league club in 2017.  Lopez has been a rising star in the Royals farm system, racking up a .299/. 378/.402 line, 122 wRC+ and a wOBA of .357. Lopez is a shortstop and while he isn’t going to take Alcides Escobar’s job this year, it might not be long before he is in the middle infield for Kansas City, possibly forming a double play team with Mondesi. He started the year in Wilmington and while I’m not expecting him in Kansas City yet, he could at least be in the discussion come September. If there is a name you should be keeping an eye on in the next year, it’s Nicky Lopez.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

I am still expecting the Royals to buy and acquire someone for the back of the rotation, but for now those are the names within the system that could provide some help over the next couple of months. I would love to add top prospect Josh Staumont to this list, but he has struggled mightily at AAA over the last 6 weeks or so and was shipped down to AA recently. His arm is electric but he is still battling the control issues that have plagued him for years. Even without him in the discussion, the Royals have some arms to count on during the pennant race if they so choose. There is no one there that will steal the show and become household names, but every winning team gets contributions from player one to player twenty-five on the roster. If the Royals are serious about heading back to October, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to let a few of these kids shine.

Bleeding Royal Blue Radio-Episode 3

Home Run Derby Baseball

With the All-Star Game and Home Run Derby in the rear-view mirror, Scott Hayes joins Sean to talk about the game and the derby, looking at the Royals first half and what to look forward to in the second half, the Cubs and what they need to do in the second half of the season and discussion on who should be the ‘Face of the Game’. Lots of fun baseball talk that you can listen to. The podcast is a new thing here on Bleeding Royal Blue, so I would love any feedback on what you think. Any and all comments are appreciated and thanks for listening!

 

The Royals Debate: Buy or Sell?

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A funny thing happened in June; the Kansas City Royals kicked it into another gear, going 17-9 and putting them near the top of the American League Central. As of this writing, the Royals are 3 games out in the division, half a game out of the wild card. It feels very apparent that the team is making another one of their patented runs, a run that has been christened ‘The Last Ride’ due to a number of key players becoming free agents at the end of the year. It is ‘Do or die’ at this point and the Royals appear to be saying ‘We aren’t dead yet’. Despite all of this, there are some that believe Kansas City should still sell before the trade deadline and start acquiring pieces for the future. The farm system is weak and depleted and has been ranked by numerous sources (including Baseball America and mlb.com) as one of the worst in baseball. So…should the Royals buy or sell?

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The argument for buying is simple: they are within reaching distance of a playoff spot and have performed way more consistently through the last 4-6 weeks than during their horrid April. Over the last 30 days, the Royals are 5th in home runs, have the 4th lowest strike out rate, 4th best ISO (Isolated Power), 4th best slugging percentage, and 2nd best WPA. The WPA (or Win Probability Added) might be the most telling, as it determines each player’s contribution to a win. Also, they have the best Clutch stat in the American League over the last 30 days, a stat that measures how players perform in high leverage situations. Overall, the offense has awoken and has performed more along the lines of their expectations. When I was deciding on my predictions back in April, I felt that overall the offense was going to bounce back from a rather lackluster 2016 and produce closer to their 2015 numbers. But the first month of the season made me question whether I had raised my expectations too high and was betting more on hope than reality. The pitching has been mostly efficient during that same span, as they were able to keep the team on pace while enduring injuries to two of their starters (Danny Duffy and Nate Karns) while dealing with a few struggles from some of their younger arms (Eric Skoglund, Jake Junis, Luke Farrell). Over the last month, the Royals pitchers have the 5th best walks per 9, 4th best HR per 9, 4th best LOB%,  have the best HR/FB%, 3rd best ERA, and 5th best FIP in the American League. Considering the state of the rotation during this span, it gives one comfort especially now that Duffy has returned to action. The numbers are all on the incline, which is a positive sign for a team wanting to play October baseball. This makes me believe they should be buyers, but what they will be able to buy is another issue.

Mike Moustakas

While in theory buying appears to make the most sense, the big question being asked for the Royals is ‘who can they offer?’ if a deal goes down. To be honest, not much. It would seem that anyone dealt off the main roster would leave a hole on the team and the farm system is pretty thin on tradeable talent. One would think they would go after a starter for the back-end of the rotation, someone who wouldn’t cost much but would eat up innings and be a notch above the performances we have seen from Junis and Skoglund. The Royals sent scouts to go watch Jose Quintana of the White Sox, but I’m pretty certain Kansas City would not be able to assimilate a package for the lefty that would fit what Chicago is looking for. A rotation “rental” might be the way to go for the Royals, someone like Scott Feldman , Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb, a veteran arm that wouldn’t cost the team very much. I can also see the Royals looking for another arm for the pen, as Kansas City has sent scouts to look at Philadelphia’s Pat Neshek who will be a free agent at the end of the season. The Royals were able to make big deals back in 2015 that netted them Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist; I would not expect a deal of that magnitude, but I can see them scouring cheaper options that would improve on the current roster.

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So why should the Royals sell? There are some analysts who believe that with how weak the Kansas City farm system is, they would be best suited to sell at the deadline so their rebuild after this year doesn’t drag on for a 3-6 year period. Amongst those who believe the team should swing into sell mode is former MLB General Manager Jim Bowden:

Look, I get the arguments that are made that say if Kansas City doesn’t sell, the rebuild will be a huge task to bounce back from. I am very well aware that the farm system is one of the weakest in the game and probably won’t really be supplying steady, regular major league talent for a couple more years. But…I can live with that if it means we get one more season with a run in October. As a fan for 33 years, I know what it is like to be at the bottom looking up; been there, done that. But I also remember the 20 year period where the Royals played very few (if any at all) meaningful games. In my eyes, the Royals have this one more year to give the fans and the nucleus of this team one more playoff run for us to etch into our memories. Baseball’s parity has never looked better and with the second wild card, it opens up a whole other realm for teams that are on the fringe of the postseason. After all these years, I have confidence in the Kansas City front office that they will be able to assemble a game plan for the future, that is if they haven’t already. From Dayton Moore’s interviews, I have gotten the vibe that they are very well aware of the position they are in and what that means for the future of the franchise. That makes me believe that they aren’t blindly walking into this scenario like ostriches with their head’s stuck in the ground. They are aware and feel this is the best course of action to take. I also believe that if the Royals are able to make it to October, the money made from playoff baseball will help the team in the years to follow, whether it is used to sign free agents or help with something like scouting. It would be a major disservice to this team, the organization, the fanbase and even baseball to dismantle this team when they are within breathing distance of a playoff spot. A small market team like the Royals succeeding is good for baseball and helps build interest all across the game.

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At the end of April the Royals looked like sellers that were just biding time until July. The last six weeks have been proof that baseball is a long season and one month does not make an entire season. I don’t know if I would label Kansas City as a team that will win the World Series but I also won’t count them out either. The last four seasons have shown us that this Royals team loves to defy logic and are never truly out of a race. Wasn’t it Han Solo who wasn’t a big fan of odds?

Maybe it’s just me, but when ending the story of these last few years of Kansas City Royals baseball it seems fitting that the end should be a team that never says quit and bounced back from a horrible start to reach the playoffs. Maybe I’m a sucker for a good story or maybe the homer in me just believes in this team. No matter which it is, it makes sense to let this play out and see where the Royals end up. It could be a let down or…it could be the storybook ending we all have wished and hoped for.

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