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Is This Rock Bottom?

April 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Buddy Bell, ever the optimist, once said that things can always get worse. Sometimes as a Royals fan, you wonder how things can get worse than they already are. After the road trip they just took, I’m not sure how much worse it can get. I take that back. If they lay an egg on this upcoming nine game homestand, then things can get way worse than they are right now. Still, it’s hard to argue that a six game road trip in which they never had a lead isn’t as bad as it can get. Can you believe that? Six games on a road trip and they didn’t hold one lead in the entire series? Wow. What’s alarming about that is that any time they’d come back and tie a score or make it a game again, the pitching would just give up another homer and watch the hope deflate from their team.

Something we’ve seen from the Royals all season long is their resiliency within games, and that’s something that we’re going to have to see on this homestand. I’m not talking about within games, but within their season. Things can go one of two directions right now. They can spiral out of control and we can be looking at a 14-20 team by the end of the homestand, or they can rally around each other and tighten things up and end this homestand with an 18-16 record and back on track to be a surprise competitor for the division. They’re catching the Twins at what appears to be a good team as they are absolutely reeling and coming off a day in which they played a double header and then had to travel, so they might not be the freshest team out there tonight.

After the Twins leave town, the Royals draw the Orioles. No matter how bad the Orioles have been over the last few years, they’ve still been a huge thorn in the side of the Royals. Hopefully that doesn’t continue in this homestand. Following the Orioles into town are the Athletics. The Athletics are a solid team, but they’re beatable as evidenced by their identical record to the Royals. It’s important that the Royals go 6-3 on this homestand or better. And if they’re going to sweep a series, it should be the Twins for multiple reasons. One, their fans are so obnoxious when they invade Kauffman Stadium. Two, they’re a division rival, and it’s always important to beat them into submission.

The good news for the Royals is that even through all of this, they are still in second place though they are behind an Indians team that might actually be for real. I was talking with a friend about how good the Indians could possibly be, and my gut reaction is that they were all smoke and mirrors. Having seen them twice now and looking a little deeper into what they’ve done to start the season, I have to admit that my gut was dead wrong. They’re a good team. They’re probably not 108 wins good, which is their current pace, but they are much better than anyone anticipated. Their offense is solid, their pitching is fine for now and they have a pretty solid defense. Getting Grady Sizemore back was such a boost for that team that I think we’ll see them compete for the division this year. If they go out and get someone to shore up their rotation, then they’ll be downright dangerous both in the regular season and the playoffs. I don’t think their rotation can continue this throughout the course of the year, but if they can keep it up until they’re able to acquire reinforcements, then they’ll be in good shape.

The rest of the division looks to be in shambles right now. The Tigers are tied with the Royals as they’ve lost three in a row themselves. The White Sox and Twins are each six games below .500 and tied for last place. If anybody saw this coming, I need you to post your phone number in the comments section. I’m going to call you, you’re going to give me the Powerball numbers and then we’re going to split the winnings. Deal? It’s still very, very early of course, but digging out of holes is an incredibly difficult task for a Major League team. It’s made easier in a division like the Central where there is no true super team, but at some point the White Sox, Twins and Tigers are going to wake up and go on a hot streak. When that time comes, it’d be nice to have been able to run away and hide.

If pressed, I’d say that I still don’t believe the Indians (or Royals) will win the division. There’s just too much talent on the other teams and too much inexperience on the Indians. I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if the Indians did win the division, though, for the reasons listed above, but it’s hard to count out a team like the White Sox with their starting pitching and offense after just 26 games. So the ultimate question is this: where do the Royals fit in with this division now that the Indians are better than anyone thought? Are they the worst team in the division? The answer to that question is that they probably are, though I think it could be easily argued that they have the absolute brightest future of any team in the Central. Of course, if the Twins don’t pick things up, they could easily be the worst team in the division, which would be a huge shock considering their star power and $100 million plus payroll.

That’s why this series with the Twins is so important. They are sitting at 9-15 right now. For them to win 90 games, they have to go 81-57 the rest of the way, which isn’t an outlandish record for a good team. It just translates to a 95 win season which is just one more than they had last year. The Royals need to sweep this series to take the Twins out of the race. 9-18 is tough to come back from no matter how early in the season it is. It doesn’t make the road to 90 wins that much harder, but it just has the look and feel of a tougher trip to get there, so it’s vital to get rid of the teams who should have been in charge of this division in order to become the top dog. Honestly, I’m not terribly confident about the Royals for the rest of the first half of the season, but this homestand would go a long way toward restoring the confidence I had just a short week ago.

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The Losing Continues

April 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Well the last five games certainly have not been quite as much for Royals fans as the first 19 games, but that’s to be expected over the course of a long season. Even good teams sometimes lose five in a row, though we’re getting to the point in the losing streak where good teams don’t lose more than that, so tonight is going to be a pretty big test for the Royals. Teams go through slumps. It happens. Look at the Red Sox. They were predicted to be the best team in baseball this year, or at least close to it, and they started 0-6 and 2-10. They’re working their way out of the hole they dug and now sit at 10-13. The Tampa Bay Rays are an even better example. They, too, started 0-6 and now sit at 12-11 and in second place. Obviously you don’t want those stretches, but they happen to even the best of teams.

We all know the issues that the Royals have. Their starting pitching has the potential to be atrocious. Their offense has a few good performers and then Just as many black holes. Their defense is pretty good, but in order to make it that way, it comes at the expense of the offense. And the weakness that I least expected is the bullpen. I think that will stabilize throughout the course of the season as rookies tend to fluctuate in their performance, but they’re walking way more batters than I expected. It’s getting to me to question Ned Yost’s bullpen usage, which is something that was talked about often in Milwaukee as one of his biggest weaknesses.

It seems that Yost gets into a pattern and doesn’t know a way to get out of it. He likes defined roles, and so do I for the most part. There is one role I wish would be a little less defined, and that is the role of the “fireman.” I’m not going to get into too much detail of the merits of the fireman role in a bullpen, but when a manager gets so set in his ways of one person filling this role and another filling that role, I think it often gets lost in the shuffle that sometimes the biggest outs in a game can come in the sixth inning and not the eighth or ninth. That’s where I think Ned Yost needs to be a little less rigid because the Royals have a pitcher who is perfect for that role in Aaron Crow. Many believe that he’s a future closer if he never gets into the starting rotation, but until that point, why not get him out there in the top of the sixth of a one run game with two on and one out? The beauty of a guy like Crow is that he can get you through the eighth from there, too, and not burn the bullpen.

I’m not going to begin second guessing the things that Yost does, though he has been known to make some curious decisions. Last night’s decision to play Gordon at first could accurately be described as just that. I love the fact that he wanted to get Dyson and his speed in the lineup, and I’m pretty okay with shifting Melky Cabrera to left to make it happen, but I’m not a fan of putting Gordon at another position while he’s still learning left field and excelling at it. I love having a roster that is versatile enough to play multiple positions, and I love even more when that versatile roster isn’t made up exclusively of guys like Willie Bloomquist. Back in 2007-2009 I was pretty excited about the potential versatility of a lineup that included Mark Teahen. It would have made for a way to get him in the lineup every day and get people days off all the time to keep the roster fresh. Of course, Teahen couldn’t really hit, though he was better than Bloomquist.

My problem with Gordon playing first isn’t in this one game because it’s just one game, and for a guy who has never played outfield before, playing first base might be almost like getting a half day off. Nobody would have had a problem with Gordon if had gotten a real half day off as a designated hitter. I just hope that him playing at first base doesn’t become a regular trend because that is not his position moving forward and he needs to get more comfortable in the outfield. I don’t care how good he has looked. There is still work to do. Maybe Gordon is the type of player now who will hit no matter where he’s playing and it won’t bother him, but he’d be one of the few players who does well moving around the field. There’s a reason Mark DeRosa has always been in demand. What he does is very difficult.

I didn’t realize this would turn into a post about Ned Yost, but I guess it’s heading that direction, so let’s push forward. The thing I like about Yost as a manager for this young team is that he’s a positive voice. I know there’s way more to being a manager than being a cheerleader for his team, and bullpen management is probably the one place where a manager has a true impact on the game, but I like the fact that he’s so upbeat about his team’s chances day in and day out. I have no doubt that Yost is keeping the players positive through this losing stretch, and they’ll be better for it when they come out of it. Obviously I’d much rather have won the last five games and been in control of the Central division, but they’ve lost the games, so I’m looking for the positive behind it. Perhaps my favorite thing about Ned Yost is the fact that he sticks by his players. I think I’ve mentioned this in the past, but that’s a great attribute to have with a young team.

The question is what would he do if the Royals were expected to compete this season? What would happen if it’s mid August and the Royals are three games out of first place but Kila Ka’aihue is in a 2-25 slump with no extra base hits and 11 strikeouts? I hope the philosophy there would change and that Kila would sit while Betemit took his at bats or even Eric Hosmer came up to man first base for the rest of the season. Whatever the solution, I hope the Royals and Ned Yost would choose to do something rather than sit on a struggling player when a division title was within reach. It’d sure be a nice problem to find out about.

Big Inning Luke Strikes Again

April 27, 2011 Leave a comment

You might remember before the season that I made a prediction that Luke Hochevar would have an ERA around 3.50. I said that because I felt that the improved defense would help him more than almost anybody else on the pitching staff. I said that under the assumption that he would continue to keep the ball on the ground at about the same rate that he had and that he would keep his home run rate about the same as he had throughout his career. The bad news for both my prediction and for the Royals is that Hochevar is not the same pitcher he was before. He has actually gotten more ground balls than he did last season, but the other thing he’s doing way more of is leaving pitches in very hittable spots. It could be argued that his HR/FB% is ridiculously high and that there’s no way he can maintain a 20.9% rate there, but if you’re watching the games and seeing where the pitches are that are hit out, you know that it might not be that far off.

Over the last few years I’ve been one of Hochevar’s biggest supporters, and the point of writing this isn’t to backtrack on my initial prediction. If he can stop leaving fat pitches over the middle of the plate, I think he can have a very nice season. I’m not sure that a 3.50 ERA is in the picture anymore due to the start that he’s had, but he could put up that type of ERA throughout the rest of the season. There’s something not quite right with him, though. I’m not saying he’s injured, though he might be. Prior to his elbow injury last year, it looked like he was finally putting things together. The game where Ned Yost famously left Hochevar in against the White Sox led to a really nice stretch before interleague play wreaked havoc on Luke’s elbow. Then when he came back, he wasn’t quite the same, at least I thought. It didn’t bother me because I figured the Royals were using September as his rehab.

I noticed, though, that his pitches weren’t quite as crisp. The velocity was there, but the stuff wasn’t quite the same as it was before the injury. If there’s one positive you can take from Luke Hochevar, it is that he has excellent stuff. Well, maybe it was had excellent stuff because I’ve only seen it in flashes throughout the course of the 2011 season. I could be way off base and he’ll reel off eight starts in a row that show Cy Young potential, but right now he looks like a different pitcher than the one who looked like he had turned a corner last season. The big encouraging sign is that his xFIP, which measures what his ERA should be factoring in average defense and an average home run rate is just 4.03. Now, if the problem is that his pitches are just too hittable, then his homer rate won’t drop because Major League hitters hit hanging sliders out of the park. But, if my eyes are deceiving me and he hasn’t actually hung that many pitches, then better things are in store.

The other encouraging thing is that Luke isn’t walking hitters. He’s walking less than two per nine innings which is fantastic. It would be better if that was coupled with a better strikeout rate, but it’s better than a bad strikeout rate and a bad walk rate. I’ll take a 3:1 K:BB ratio any day of the week, even though I’d like about two strikeouts per nine innings more for Hochevar. On the flip side, Hochevar has allowed just a .244 batting average on balls in play. His career average is .305, which means there might be further regression. Of course, if he does improve the home run rate, then the regression won’t be drastic and would put him at about a 4.25 ERA or so. That’s not ace quality, but it’s certainly not minor league quality either, which is the way he’s pitching right now.

I’ve probably muttered that the Royals should just release Hochevar, but outside of the intensity of a game, I think that’s a ridiculous solution. Of course, one radio show host in this city thought it was the way to go prior to the season. I won’t name names here, but Soren Petro made a stupid argument on that one. The funny thing is that if Hochevar wasn’t the first overall draft pick, he’d be on a much shorter leash. Of course he was the first overall draft pick and he’s the same pitcher who threw an 81 pitch complete game. He’s the same pitcher who struck out 13 Rangers and walked nobody in seven innings. The flashes of brilliance are there, and the knock has always been that he can’t keep it up. I don’t think anyone is expecting him to throw a complete game on less than 90 pitches every time or strike out 13 every seven innings, but he needs to be expected to do better than he has.

Right now, Luke Hochevar is a part of the Royals rotation, and as much as I said to the contrary last night while watching the game, I’m fine with that. I think he’s a big part of the Royals future. If he’s the ace on future Royals then one of two things has happened. Either he’s turned the corner and he legitimately is the ace of the staff or something has gone terribly wrong. Still, though, he has immense value as a righty to break up the lefties, but he has to be able to make quality pitches and get groundballs. We’ve seen this season that when he gets the ball up, it is hittable enough that it leaves the yard. Luke Hochevar can be a part of the next good Royals team, but he has to make some serious adjustments or else he’s going to get passed by and be on the outside looking in.

Royals Suffer Through Bad Weekend in Arlington

April 25, 2011 2 comments

Well that was not a strong showing over the weekend in Arlington for the once high flying Royals. About a week ago, they stood at 10-5 following the Seattle series. Now they’re 12-10 and looking like they may be fading to a point where people thought they would be anyway. My first thought is that I wouldn’t worry too much about what happened over the weekend because the Rangers are a bad matchup for the Royals, especially in Arlington. I know that the Royals need to figure out a way to make every team a good matchup, but that just happened yet. For a team like the Royals who don’t have much in the way of home run power or much in the way of strikeout pitchers, this just wasn’t a battle they were going to win in all likelihood. It would have been nice to take one of the games, but that didn’t happen, so the Royals are left with their first series loss and their first rough skid of the season.

It’ll be interesting to see how they handle this over the next couple of weeks. The amazing thing about this is that they’ve only lost 0.5 games in the standings during their little skid, so if they do plan to contend, that dream is still alive. On the flip side it would have been nice to take advantage of this and be able to move into first place. Still, the season isn’t dead just yet, especially heading into Cleveland for a three game series with the Indians. The Royals get a day off to lick their wounds and then get right back to it tomorrow with first place somehow still on the line. The Indians are a much better matchup for the Royals, though they very easily could have been swept by them at home last week.

What was most impressive to me was the fact that this team continues to fight until the very last pitch. It seems like such a cliché, but the Royals do play all nine innings, all 27 outs. You don’t see that very often with Major League Baseball teams, but they simply do not give up at any point in the game. On Friday, they scored five runs in an inning to tie the score. That was amazing. Yesterday, the three run homer in the ninth by Mike Aviles made what was once an 8-2 game a one-run affair. They seem to lack the killer instinct, though, when they are up or rolling, which is something they’ll need if they plan to make some serious noise at some point soon in the American League. Look at Wednesday’s game against the Indians when Hochevar was perfect through five. The Royals scored two in the first and Hochevar looked fantastic. It seemed like they had the idea that two runs was enough and sort of shut it down for the night. It clearly wasn’t enough, and it took a three run homer in the bottom of the ninth to make the score respectable.

On Friday, when the Royals scored five runs, it looked like they were on the road to some serious scoring that may have even led to a blowout in the Royals favor, but they tied the score and then appeared to pack it in. I’m not saying there’s not effort because if there’s one thing this team has, it is effort, but they just don’t seem to have that instinct that puts teams away. Not to get too violent here, but they need a kill shot sometimes on offense when they’re up 5-0. They just need that three run blast that lets the opponent know that it might be time to get a position player warmed up to pitch because it’s going to be a long night. Interestingly enough, the 2008 Royals had that instinct and I haven’t looked, but I’d bet they won more blowouts than almost any other team the Royals have fielded in the last ten years. I remember a very hot game that Zack Greinke pitched against the White Sox in 2008 where the Royals were just mashing and there were two runners on and Aviles was up. He mashed a three run homer into the construction zone that put the game out of reach in something like the second. It was beautiful to watch.

Moving away from that, I’d like to mention Alex Gordon once again. He’s probably gotten more mentions in this blog than anyone, especially since the season started, but there’s just been so much to write about him, so I have. His hitting streak is up to 18 games, and it’s not a light 18 games. He’s hitting about .400 during this stretch. At some point it has to end, but I love what I’ve seen from Gordon in the last few weeks as pitchers are starting to pitch him a little tougher than they had early in the year. I love the fact that he’s able to spray the ball around the field and get hits everywhere. My one concern is that he’s only hit one home run, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that the Royals have played in some weather not so conducive to homers. Over the weekend was an exception, but he also faced two pretty tough lefties. While he’s gotten better against them, he’s still not a huge power threat against a left-handed pitcher. Hopefully that comes, but if not, his development from what he used to be is good enough for now.

It’s silly to panic after a rough week just like it’s silly to get too excited after a great one. Keep in mind that the Rangers are the reigning American League champions and a very good team. The Royals are coming off a year where they were one of the worst teams in the league and got rid of some of their best players in the off-season. They’re building for something that wasn’t expected to be this year, so a minor setback during the season isn’t something to get too concerned about. As the Royals head to Cleveland, my guess is the pitching gets back on track and so do the Royals.

Who is the Best Player in Baseball?

April 22, 2011 1 comment

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about the person who should be anointed with the term “Best Player in Baseball.” As long as I can remember following baseball, there have been just three BPiBs. The first I remember was Ken Griffey, Jr. When he came into his own in the early 90s, there was seemingly nothing he couldn’t do and it was incredible to watch. He played amazing defense, he could throw, he hit, hit for prodigious power and he wore that backwards hat and looked like he was always having the time of his life. Griffey was replaced by his teammate, Alex Rodriguez, which seems a little bit like Brutus stabbing Caesar, but I don’t think it was anything quite so underhanded. For years, A-Rod was the best player in baseball. He played a premium defensive position and played it well. He stole bases. He hit homers. Then something like five years ago or so, the torch was passed to Albert Pujols, who is one of the greatest hitters to ever play the game. He’s a few notches down on the defensive spectrum from Griffey and A-Rod, but he plays first base as well as just about anyone and did I mention that he can hit?

So now, as Pujols is getting older, we’re frantically searching for a new Best Player in Baseball, but it’s something that is not so easy to find. These players have to jump out at you. You have to be watching a baseball game and all of a sudden see someone do something that normal people just cannot do. Over the first couple weeks of the season, what some feel is a worthy successor has emerged. He plays an outstanding shortstop, he hits homers, he hits for average and he even will occasionally steal a base. I’m talking, of course, about Troy Tulowitzki. The other thing he does is that he has a flare for the dramatic. Maybe not so much in the moment, but anybody who hits 14 homers in 15 September games when his team needs to be carried has a flare for the dramatic.

In a series against the Mets, Tulowitzki did the equivalent of slapping each of the Mets players in the face in front of the prettiest girl in the room. He made them look absolutely silly, going 10-16 with four homers, eight RBI, five runs and four walks. The man hit .625 for the series over 20 plate appearances! Yes, that’s a very small sample, but it’s still incredibly impressive. He hasn’t homered in his last six games, but his season line currently stands at .343/.451/.761. Again, it’s early, but that is still outstanding. He is as important a cog as anyone on one of the very best teams in baseball, and there’s serious value in that.

My question, though, is this: Is he truly the best player in baseball? Has he done enough to wrestle the title away from Albert Pujols? I think you have to look at it through more than the lens of this year and last September. While we may eventually look at these last two baseball months as the time when Tulowitzki began to take the title away from Pujols, I don’t think he’s done it just yet. Before anyone gets all excited, I’m well aware that he has two consecutive fifth place finishes in the MVP balloting, but he’s a mere two years removed from a very rough season. The Best Player in Baseball doesn’t have a track record as limited as Tulowitzki does at this point. That isn’t to take anything away from how amazing a player he is. It’s just not quite at the level of the BPiB.

For someone to be the very best player in all the land, I think they have to get on base at a .400 clip or better. I’d be willing to make an exception for someone like Tulowitzki because he’s been pretty close the last two years and plays an absolutely fantastic shortstop. The hits he takes away has to be worth the extra 20 points or so in OBP that he is missing. Still, though, he has to do it for more than just a couple of years in order for me to be a true believer that he is worthy of such a big title. You might be thinking that a .400 OBP is a really difficult feat to achieve, and you’d be absolutely right. In my mind, though, the Best Player in Baseball should be able to achieve more than most, if not all players.

I think that my argument might be a bit of a waste of time simply because at some point, I believe that Troy Tulowitzki will take over the helm as the best in the business. Of course, a lot can happen between now and that time. There are players all around baseball who have so much talent that they don’t have any idea what to do with it. The first name that popped in my head as someone who has been pretty good but could make a huge leap is Justin Upton. Essentially, anyone who is young and athletic (and quite good) has a chance to make the leap from good player to great player to the best. Obviously, one or two at most may emerge as contenders for the title, but there is the possibility that it happens.

So, after almost 900 words, I bring you the players who I think have an opportunity to be the Best Player In Baseball starting in about 2013:

Troy Tulowitzki: I’ve talked about it him more than enough throughout this entire post, and I think he’s the front runner to eventually take over the title. Detractors will cite Coors Field as a reason why he should not be labeled as the best, but he plays where his team plays and it’s not his fault that it’s a mile above sea level.

Buster Posey: It’s difficult for a catcher to be at the top of a list like this only because of the sheer fact that catchers play less games than other position players do. In the National League, too, Posey can’t take a half day off as a designated hitter. Still, though, if any one catcher is going to be able to take the mantle of BPIB, it’d be Buster Posey. He hits for average, power and gets on base in addition to being a good defensive catcher who keeps getting better.

Jason Heyward: Reading the stories about the sound of the ball hitting Heyward’s bat give me chills and I’ve never even heard it up close. They say it sounds like it did when legends hit the ball. The biggest thing between Heyward and the title is injuries. He was out for awhile last season and has already had some back trouble this spring, so there’s a chance that he may end up as a guy who is great when he’s in the lineup, but you can’t count on for more than 130 games per year. That’d be an unfair label to put on him at this point, but he unfortunately has to prove it wrong before people stop mentioning it. Heyward, like Posey, can hit for average, power and get on base, but he’s probably a little better than Posey at all three of those facets. He’s a right fielder, though, which takes some points away from him compared to a catcher.

Mike Trout: Trout is on this list for a couple of reasons. One, sometimes the best players in baseball sneak up on you as they actually become the best. Two, you’ve got to start young to stake claim to the title. His place on this list depends a lot on how aggressive the Angels are with Trout this season. Peter Bourjos is doing nothing more than keeping center field warm for Trout, so whenever this young man is ready he’ll be patrolling center for the Halos. Trout is a rare combination of size, speed, power, hitting ability and intangibles that you pretty much just see in the great ones. Sure, there’s an opportunity for a huge bust here, but if I had to bet, I’d say that Trout is going to become a superstar. He’s certainly an unlikely candidate for this role in the majors, but four years ago did anyone think that we’d  even be talking about Troy Tulowitzki as the best in the game?

Eric Hosmer: He’s on this list partially because this is ultimately a Royals blog and I have to play the homer role a little bit here, and partially because I think he has the tools to ultimately become an absolute superstar. Like Pujols, he only plays first base, but, also like Pujols, he does it extremely well, so defensively he should be up to the challenge. Offensively, Hosmer has a chance to be an absolute beast at the plate. I think it will take a little bit of wishful thinking to bring his offense to the levels of Pujols, but the potential is there within him to do just that. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if Hosmer had multiple seasons of .300/.420/.550 and that line will be enough to at least vault him into the conversation. His odds are probably lower than anyone’s of being of the list, but he certainly has the talent.

Bryce Harper: I don’t know that I buy the hype to the extent that it’s been shoved down our throats for the better part of two years, but I would be remiss if I didn’t include Harper on this list. He has the pedigree of a Griffey or an A-Rod who started in the big leagues at such a young age. If he can truly do the things with the bat that people claim he can, and if he can play a competent center field, then he has an opportunity to be one of the best to ever patrol the field. That’s very high praise for someone who has played about 15 professional games, but this list is all about possibilities. The odds are that he won’t reach the lofty expectations set for him, but if he does, we could all witnessing something special.

Justin Upton: I think Upton is the least likely of all these players to take his place among the pantheon of players crowned as the best in the game, but I also think he has every ounce of ability necessary to be there. He’s still young and is improving in every facet of the game. If Justin Upton goes onto a 500 homer, 500 double, .300/.400/.540 career, I’m not sure anyone would be shocked. He has all the tools to be an amazing player, and just needs to put it together completely. If ever does, look out baseball world.

What I’ve learned from compiling this list is that the National League West has a chance to be incredible over the next four to six years. What I’ve learned even more is that there’s so much that goes into being the best baseball has to offer that very few people make the grade of possibilities. Three of the guys on the list have never seen a pitch in the Major Leagues, so they’re on this list more for what we think they might become rather than what they already are. It’s very easy to project greatness on a prospect. I believe that John Sickels predicted over 500 career home runs for one Alex Gordon. That hasn’t quite worked out as planned.

There were players I left off this list for various reasons. A guy like Joe Mauer is amazing, but who knows where he plays in two years? Miguel Cabrera is quite possibly the best hitter in baseball, but he plays a mediocre at best first base and he’s dealt with weight issues in the past, so he could balloon at any time. Someone like Robinson Cano is fantastic and has really improved his defense, but it’s tough to hand off the torch to someone who is already 28 years old. He’s got a lot of great baseball left in him, but his decline will come when some of the above players will just be hitting their stride. There were many others I thought of but discounted for whatever reason. My guess is that, of the players above, Troy Tulowitzki absolutely steals the show and takes the crown. He hasn’t yet, but with his combination of defense, hitting and flare for the dramatic he’s as good a bet as any to hold down the fort for a few years before the next young gun comes up and tries to take his crown.

Hochevar’s Perfection Ends Early

April 21, 2011 Leave a comment

I don’t want to talk about last night. I suppose I have to, but I really don’t want to. Everything was going great through five innings, but when the sixth inning started, something strange happened. It’s almost like everybody in the stadium collectively looked at the scoreboard and realized what was happening and the typical hum of a small crowd quieted a bit. It wasn’t silence, but there was a definite decrease in the noise level at the stadium. Michael Brantley stepped to the plate and ended up hitting a solid single up the middle. People applauded Hochevar for his perfect game/no-hit attempt, and the game went on. My thought at the time was that it was nice that the hit that broke it up was a clean hit and not something we’d look back on for years and wonder if it should have been an error. I then realized that over Hochevar’s previous 11 innings he had allowed zero hits.

You might remember in Hochevar’s start against the Mariners on Friday that he gave up a leadoff single to Ichiro and didn’t give up another hit. If you want to skew the numbers a little bit, since he hadn’t yet recorded an out, he really recorded 36 outs without giving up a hit. After Brantley’s single, a graphic displayed on the scoreboard that Hochevar had just completed a stretch where he retired 31 straight batters, which fell just two short of Steve Busby’s club record. Think about that for a second. 31 straight batters is a full complete game plus an inning and a third into his next start. There’s very little more dominant than that, and that is why, if the Royals give up on him, Hochevar will get chances for a long, long time. His ability to dominate and his draft status will keep him in the majors for quite some time.

Of course, as we’ve seen so often with Hochevar, he unraveled at that point. At first he balked and that got Brantley over to second. It was a strange balk because at least 2/3 of the crowd thought the umpire was saying that Ka’aihue had talked Brantley on the knee and was calling him out. Reality set in among the crowd when Brantley began trotting to second and we realized that the umpire was just indicating that Hochevar’s knee had buckled and he had committed a balk. So the forceout was dead, but nothing had come of anything yet. Then Hochevar hung a pitch to Matt LaPorta who doubled down the left field line scoring Brantley. Then Hochevar got two groundouts and LaPorta was on third but now with two outs. Hochevar was pitching in the windup with LaPorta on third. I even mentioned to my friend who I was with at the game that I hate how he pitches from the windup with a runner on third. Not three seconds later, he started his windup and then stopped for some reason. It was his second balk of the inning, and LaPorta scored.

After that, a high chopper to the mound off the bat of Asdrubal Cabrera went off the glove of Hochevar and allowed Cabrera to reach safely. You could argue that the wheels really came off when Hochevar balked for the second time in the inning, but even then he hadn’t been hit hard. With Cabrera on first, Shin-Soo Choo hit a ringing double to the gap that scored Cabrera. On the throw home, Choo went to third and Travis Hafner hit a little squib double down the left field line that put the Indians up by two. Orlando Cabrera ended the inning by striking out, but the damage was done. What was once a perfect game was now a 4-2 deficit heading into the bottom of the sixth inning. To make matters worse, Justin Masterson who was hit hard in the first had figured things out and was on cruise control. Luckily the Royals had forced him to throw 32 pitches in the first, so he wasn’t going to be able to go much longer, but while he was in there he was pretty dominant.

Hochevar came out for the seventh and continued to get hit hard before being replaced by Tim Collins who allowed both inherited runners to score before shutting the door. The Indians would add one more in the top of the ninth before the Royals scored three in the bottom of the ninth to make it more of a game, but this one was lost when Hochevar imploded in the sixth. It’s something that Yost has talked about before with Luke about how he needs to keep focus and work his way out of jams. If you’ll remember, in Hochevar’s first start with Yost as manager, he got in some trouble. I don’t know if this is revisionist memory, but I feel like Hochevar looked to the dugout in that start and Yost didn’t move. Hochevar gave up something like four or five runs, and the Royals ended up losing, but the purpose of that game was for Yost to show Hochevar that he’s going to have to work out of his own jams.

For about a month after that, Hochevar was very good. Then he got hurt and missed most of the rest of the season. I don’t even count what he did when he came back because he was on a limited pitch count, it was September and the Royals were way out of things. Up until the sixth inning yesterday, Hochevar had not been too bad this year. His first start and the first inning of his second start weren’t exactly top notch, but after the first inning of his start against the White Sox, he had been very good. It seems cliché to say, but the difference between Hochevar being a fourth or fifth starter and him being a first or second starter is his ability to keep focus and not implode. If the Royals can find a way to coax the good Hochevar to be there 85% of the time, then they have figured out one of their rotation spots for the next five seasons. If, however, he continues his pattern of implosion at any sign of trouble then the Royals need to be on the lookout for someone better.

At this point, it doesn’t matter if Hochevar was drafted first overall or 1,000th overall. By the time you get to the Major Leagues, it’s a game of results, and if you don’t produce, you’ve got to go. At this point, I’m convinced that the Royals are going to be good, and they’re going to be good soon. I don’t think it’s this year. They’re going to come back to earth at some point, and be about where I expected them to be, but the clock is ticking on guys like Hochevar who have struggled to carve out a niche on this team. I read something the other day about what would happen if the Royals made the playoffs this season and who you’d want starting game one. Almost unanimously, the choice was Mike Montgomery. What does that say about the current staff? Nothing good, that’s for sure. The key to the current staff is Luke Hochevar. I’m not saying he has to be perfect every time out, but last night’s meltdown can’t happen again or else he’ll soon be a part of the past and not the future.

Gordon Steals The Show….And Two Bases

April 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Last night was exactly what the Royals needed to break their mini slump of two games and get back in the win column. Well, it sort of was. For the first seven innings, it was a walk in the park for the Royals as they scored five runs early and Bruce Chen was pitching well. Actually, things started to get a little uneasy in the top of the seventh when Chen started to get a little tired and gave up some hits. Luckily for the Royals they decided to give Alex Gordon one more chance because he was very clearly the star of the game. I’ll get to him in just a minute. While there were some late inning theatrics induced by the bullpen and the defense, the Royals held on and are now a game back of first place once again with two more games to go versus the first place Indians. I don’t care how early it is, that is still weird to say.

This post is going to end up being a mish mash of thoughts about last night, so keep with me as I might jump around a little bit from topic to topic. The first thing I want to talk about just sort of makes me laugh and it’s the fact that the Royals had two communications issues. I believe one of them entirely and one of them I want to believe but just can’t. The first happened in the top of the seventh when Chen began to run out of gas. I guess the Royals had decided that as soon as Chen gave up a hit that they’d get Blake Wood up in the bullpen. Well, Chen gave up a hit and nobody started warming up. Then Chen gave up another hit, and as I looked down to the bullpen, I started to think that it was odd that Yost was sticking with Chen when it was clear he wasn’t throwing his best stuff up there. Eventually Blake Wood started throwing, but it wasn’t until the Indians offense was starting to click.

We found out after the game that the bullpen phones were out and that the Royals couldn’t call down there to get a pitcher warmed up. Eventually they just had the security guard in the dugout use his walkie talkie to tell the security guard in the bullpen who to warm up. This strikes me as something that shouldn’t happen in a stadium that was recently renovated and redubbed “The New K.” It also strikes me as amusing. I’ll let that lead into my next point that I just don’t like Blake Wood as a Major Leaguer. I know his strikeouts are up in the minors and that I should give him a shot, but when he comes out of the bullpen, I cringe. I read that he was really upset when he didn’t make the team out of spring training and couldn’t figure out why. I’m not saying the Royals were right to leave him off the roster because he did have a very nice spring, but I’m just not sure he’s long for this organization with all the arms coming through. After the way Louis Coleman has pitched so far in AAA, I’d much rather have him in the big leagues. He’s struck out 16 batters in seven innings. That’s filthy.

The second miscommunication that happened last night was during Kila Ka’aihue’s at bat in the eighth inning when he ended up laying down a bunt with an 0-2 count that moved Wilson Betemit from first to second. At the time, I thought it was incredibly odd that Yost would have Kila bunting there. My thought was that if you don’t trust him with the bat and you’re going to bunt, then why not send up someone like Dyson or Maier who we know can bunt well and let them get it down. When Kila kept bunting on the 0-2 count, I thought Yost had gone certifiably insane. As it turned out, Yost explained in the post game press conference that the bat boy had actually gotten in between him and Eddie Rodriguez when the signs were being given and that there was confusion. Let me take this opportunity to express my skepticism about that story. I get it for the first pitch, but Ka’aihue kept bunting. Doesn’t the coach check in for the sign constantly? Maybe I’m wrong, and if I am please tell me, but it seems very odd. Plus, once Yost saw that Kila was bunting, don’t you think he would have made a production to get the attention of Rodriguez in order to get him the correct sign? I’m not sure what they have to gain from lying about this, but it just seems awfully fishy.

Luckily, the lack of insurance runs that the Royals couldn’t tack in didn’t hurt them, but that’s mostly because of the man who was clearly the player of the game – Alex Gordon. He had two more hits, extending his hitting streak to 13 games. He threw out a runner at the plate in the top of the seventh inning to get Chen out of the jam. Then in the ninth inning he made a diving catch on a sinking liner by Grady Sizemore that ultimately saved the game. Oh yeah, in between he stole two bases and scored yet another run to give him 15 already on the young season. People gave Gordon a lot of trouble for saying he would dominate this season, and he even admitted that he didn’t really know what to say when he was asked the question of how he’d do this year, but it’s hard to deny that he has basically dominated. As the hits stop falling for him (and they inevitably will), I’d like to see him go back to taking some more walks, but the longer this goes on, the more for real it is.

The Royals are in the midst of a ten game stretch in which they play the first place Indians seven times and the first place Rangers three times. This is an important stretch for the team as they look to determine whether they are a contender or a pretender. So far, they are 1-1 in this stretch. I think to feel really good about themselves, they need to go at least 6-4 over the ten games. I figured they’d need to win three of four against the Indians at home, one of three in Texas and two of three in Cleveland. Texas is tough and even tougher at home, and you have to win the games against your division foes. If they can do 6-4, they’ll be sitting at 16-9, which is getting dangerously close to a record I can believe in. It’ll still be a bit longer than that, but the longer they keep this up, the more confidence they gain and the more chance they have to sustain success throughout the entire season.