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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

More Berroa notes

Here's some additional thoughts I couldn't squeeze into today's piece:

Berroa: Is it really so outlandish for the Royals to consider eating Berroa's contract?

From an economic standpoint, probably so. When Berroa inked a four-year, $11 million deal last season (What were the Royals thinking?!), the deal was backloaded. He was guaranteed only $500K for this season's non-production. The next three years, it escalates as follows: $2 million; $3.75 million; $4.25 million.

So you'd be eating $10 million. The Royals can't afford to do that. That is why Andres Blanco was moved away from a position at which he could be dominant defensively. That is why Buddy Bell continues to spew forth balderdash like "Berroa will be just fine." Unfortunately, my idea to s***can Berroa is just wishful thinking.

On the other hand - you knew this was coming - think of the message this would send: get with the plan or get out, money be damned.

Ah, but it's not that simple. Never is. Berroa, talented as he is, wouldn't be unemployed long. And he'd have $10 million worth of ice to apply to his bruised ego. Likely, he'd be snapped up by a better organization, surrounded by a better support system of veterans, and be one happy little free-swinging camper.

Face it - the Royals are stuck with Berroa. That is why when a chincy franchise like the Royals chooses to invest in a player, they better make damn sure they invest in the right ones. Meanwhile, if I have to spend the next three years riding Berroa, then you can be sure that I will.

Looking at this issue from another way, economics aside, consider what the Royals would have if they just made the switch with Blanco.

Using my PROFITS model, if you switch Berroa with Blanco over a full season, you lose 31 runs offensively (that's how bad of a hitter Blanco is - Berroa without the power) but you pick up 33 runs defensively. That's a lot. Not only do you pick up two net runs but you get much better defensive support for your young, developing staff.

Yes, you do get a defensive boon by putting Blanco at second base not only are you minimizing the yield from his skills, but you're giving away yet another position offensively. If you're getting premium play defensively from one postion, perhaps you can surrender that spot in the batting order. But a team without any truly elite run producers certainly can't afford to give away any more spots than that.

Royals should just forget about Berroa

So the Royals have successfully completed the initial phase of their rebuilding scheme, as we learned Monday. Can't you just smell that World Series title?

OK, that's a cheap shot. Just a few weeks ago, it was pointed out in this space that, historically, a bottoming-out period has often been a prelude to success.

So let's try to wave away the smoke from this season's train wreck and focus squarely on the future. Here are some observations as we are entering what we now know will be "Phase II."

Angel Berroa

Berroa's performance has slipped to the point that the Royals need to think about eating the remainder of his contract.

Just pick a measure. Value over replacement, from Baseball Prospectus, has Berroa worst among AL regular shortstops with a 10.6 rating. Win-shares percentage, from The Hardball Times, also has him as the worst, at .257, and he's not really close to anyone else. Both metrics incorporate defense. Berroa's on-base percentage (.300) wouldn't crack the league's top 10 in batting average.

At 27, Berroa should be in his prime, but all of his numbers are down from last year. Worst of all, he doesn't seem to have the self-awareness that would seem to be a prerequisite for improvement.

Andres Blanco can at least play defense at an elite level. Long term, perhaps 2005 draftee Jeff Bianchi can be the answer.

The catchers

The Royals are content to have John Buck don the tools of ignorance now and for the foreseeable future. That might not be a bad thing. Buck is a decent defender, and research has shown that as a catcher works with a group of pitchers, the performance of those pitchers tends to improve.

However, Buck's performance with the bat this season cannot be ignored. As bad as Berroa has been, Buck has been worse. On the plus side, Buck at least has some history of production in his background.

While Buck has difficulty making consistent contact, his walk numbers in the minors were often respectable. He has plenty of power - he just doesn't make contact often enough for his power to manifest itself as an advantage.

If Buck were able to rediscover a semblance of plate discipline and improve his contact rate, he might yet turn out to be adequate with the bat.

At the same time, it seems risky for the Royals to put all eggs in Buck's mitt. The move of Justin Huber away from the catching position might come back to haunt them.

The scouting reports on Huber before this year usually noted that he was below average behind the plate. Does that mean he can't develop into an average catcher? After all, a bat like Huber's coming from the catching position would be quite a weapon for a ballclub.

Alas, we'll never know. The year of defensive development that Huber could have gotten this season cannot be recovered.

By the way, if you look at Buck's adjusted Class AAA numbers last season before he was traded to the Royals and compare them to Huber's numbers this season, they are eerily similar. That might be good. It might not.

The prototype

Love'em or hate'em, Royals fans should admire the high-functioning baseball machine that former general manger John Schuerholz operates in Atlanta.

Recently, this has been the Braves' everyday lineup as they close in on a 14th consecutive division title: Rafael Furcal, Marcus Giles, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Adam LaRoche, Jeff Francoeur, Ryan Langerhans and Brian McCann.

Not one of these players has played for another organization. They are Braves, through and through. That is how you run a player-development system.

Check out the accompanying chart. It compares the Class AA statistics of this Braves lineup with the same for a projected 2007 Royals lineup. We've used OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), adjusted for ballpark, as our measuring stick. Some of the numbers have been projected:

Measuring stick
Just for fun: adjusted Class AA OPS numbers for the Braves' lineup versus that of a projected 2007 Royals lineup. Mark Teahen at second base? Might be a little too far out of the box. Also, Gordon's projection, which is based on college numbers, is really a stab in the dark. Sample-size caveats apply.
Braves
Royals
McCann (21, 835)CBuck (22, 745)
LaRoche (23, 892)1BHuber (23, 1022)
Giles (22, 865)2BTeahen (22, 969)
Furcal (19, 778*)SSBianchi (20, 978)
C. Jones (20, 974)3BGordon (22, 916)
R. Langrhns (23, 739)LFLubanski (21, 840)
A. Jones (19, 1118)CFDeJesus (23, 919)
J. Francoeur (21, 809)RFButler (20, 898)
Note: Class AA age and OPS are listed in parenthesis
Friday, September 02, 2005

STAT GUY: random thoughts

It's getting to be the time of the year when the pro & college football / high school sports monster devours the space allotted to a sad-sack, last-place baseball team.

Thusly, it will be a crapshoot from here on out whether Stat Guy will make the print editions. This week was a thumbsdown. The city was furious.

Anyway, never fear. This inevitable course of events is why I begged and pleaded to get this blog started up in the first place. Up till now, time constraints has dictated that I used this page largely as an archive and a place for additional content that had to be cut from the print version.

Most likely, till next spring, this blog will be my main outlet.

Perhaps it was a good thing that "The Stat Guy" was held this week. All of this losing has rendered me incapable of sustaining a linear train of thought. I've been in a real funk - borderline depressed.

So here are some random observations I compiled, nonetheless:

The Royals' decision before the season to convert Justin Huber away from the catcher's slot was troubling at the time. Now, given John Buck's disastrous season at the plate, if not behind it, the decision is worth revisiting.

In the minors, Huber has had a sterling season at the plate. In the majors, Buck has not.

Prior to this season, Buck had batting line of .271/.337/.431 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in nearly 600 minor-league games. He was 24 years old when he stuck in the majors with the Royals last season.

Huber will be 24 years old next season. Entering 2005, Huber had a line of .279/.364/.466 in 368 games. This season, it's .300/.368/.507. Buck's is .222/.273/.347.

You can't assume that Buck's development stops here, so to speak. His 2004 season, including his Class AAA numbers before coming to Kansas City, was eerily similar to what Huber's statistics are this year.

While it's way, way too early to declare Buck a bust, you have to worry. If he is, what is the contingency?

Huber was shifted away from the catcher position because of defensive considerations. According to scouting reports in Baseball America, Huber had average tools and below-average technique as a catcher. That technique will not have improved after a season of playing first base.

Should the Royals have been so quick to move Huber to a position (first base) where his bat is far less valuable?

Most of the Royals' best hitting prospects are destined for corner positions. Being that it's so hard to find a catcher with a good bat, it might have been better to develop Huber's catching skills rather than give up on them.

* TWINS NADIR: The Royals are following the Twins' model of stripping down the big-league roster and restocking with young talent from within. However, it should be noted that the depths of the Twins' rebuilding job were not as low as the Royals. The most games the Twins lost during their buildup was 97 games.

Also, alert readers were unconvinced by Stat Guy's attempt last week to be upbeat. Whereas many of the worst two-season teams in baseball history returned to contention in a reasonably short time frame, one point was missed: all of the turnarounds were completed with entirely different rosters from the teams that lost so many games.

* TAMPA ENVY REDUX: Last season, when the Devil Rays went 20-6 in June, Stat Guy wrote a piece that basically demonstrated why Royals fans should be jealous of the Rays' success.

Well, it's time to turn green again because the Devil Rays are having the season the Royals wanted to have.

Both teams entered this season with low expectations, low payrolls and a great deal of hope attached to some young players. While contention was out of the question, it would do much to bolster fan enthusiasm if the young players got better and won more games as the season went along.

Have you noticed what has happened in Tampa? The Devil Rays are suddenly tough to beat. They're 27-17 since the All-Star break, tied for the third-most wins in the league.

The Devil Rays are really starting to see the bounty from a system full of young position players. They are fourth in the league in scoring during the second half and have been one of the top five or six teams in the AL offensively all season.

When you consider that Rocco Baldelli has missed the entire season and super prospects B.J. Upton and Delmon Young are very near to being big-league ready, Tampa will have a group of position players that most organizations would love to have.

The pitching is another story. Still, to be young and a Devil Rays fan...

* CELLAR DWELLERS: Categories in which the Royals rank last in their league:

The hitters: runs scored (542), on-base percentage (.315), slugging percentage (.390), home runs (98), stolen base success rate (58 percent).

The starting pitchers: strikeouts per nine innings (4.88), ERA (6.01), batting average allowed (.297), wins (28), innings pitched (698).

The relievers: walks (206), losses (28), hits allowed (478).

The fielders: defensive efficiency record (.668).

That about covers everything, doesn't it?