Friday, February 29, 2008

Money Doesn't Always Equal World Titles

I often see posts on message boards and blogs, bemoaning or ridiculing the fact that the Kansas City Royals are a small-market organization. They make statements about how there's no possible way the Royals can realistically compete for a World Championship with a payroll that has ranked among the bottom-third in baseball since the strike season of 1994.

Basically, many of their messages could be summed up this way: "The Royals can't pay their players as well as the Yankees, or the Red Sox -- or now the Tigers -- so they might as well just throw in the white towel and give up before they embarrass themselves."

Of course, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea. Posts like this make me want to reach through the computer screen and ring the writers' necks. It's such a defeatist mentality, and I'm so glad these people have absolutely nothing to do with running the Royals.

According to USA Today's Salaries Database, during 1988-94, Kansas City's payroll was among the top half in baseball, ranking anywhere from first in 1990 ($23,873,745) to 13th in 1988 ($11,558,873). And it was among the top 10 in all of those years except for that 1988 season.

But during that strike season in 1994, the landscape in baseball changed. The Royals, who had the fourth-highest payroll in baseball ($40,481,334) for the second-straight year in 1994, emerged the next season with a $27.6 million payroll that had plummeted to 21st among Major League teams. Kansas City has not ranked higher than 21st in payroll since, and has been next-to-last three times.

However, does the Royals' drop in payroll necessarily prevent them from making the playoffs, or advancing to their third World Series? Does a Top 5 payroll always lead to postseason success, or even a trip to the postseason, for that matter? Are those fans who make negative posts about payroll correct to think there's no hope for teams like the Royals?

That answer is no, and the proof is in teams like the 2007 Colorado Rockies, or the 2003 World Champion Florida Marlins, both of which had payrolls ranked 25th among the 30 teams. The Marlins captured their second world title by defeating the team with the highest payroll in all of professional sports -- the Yankees, of course.

In fact, in the 13 years since play resumed following the strike, eight of 26 World Series teams have had payrolls that ranked outside the Top 10, with four of those teams winning a title, and half (13 of 26) of the teams have been ranked sixth or lower, resulting in six world championships.

For an even more dramatic example, there have been 104 teams qualify for the playoffs since 1995 -- four teams in each league for the past 13 years. Of those teams, a total of 42 -- or 40.4 percent -- have had payrolls among the bottom two-thirds, while 66 playoff teams (63.5 percent) have not been among the Top 5 for payroll expenditures.

In two of the past three World Series, both participants were not found among the Top 10 for payroll. In 2005, it was the White Sox (13th) defeating Houston (12th), while the 2006 World Series saw St. Louis (11th) topple Detroit (14th). So, payroll is not the end-all means of achieving postseason success.

All of this goes to show how tremendously important a deep and talented farm system is, and that's something Royals' GM Dayton Moore has been focusing on since the day he was hired. Moore has been working to stockpile Kansas City's minor league affiliates with pitching prospects like Luke Hochevar, Tyler Lumsden, Julio Pimentel, Carlos Rosa, and Matt Mitchell, either through trades or via the draft.

At the same time, Moore has gotten the green light from Royals owner David Glass to increase the team's payroll, and aggressively pursue players such as current starting pitcher Gil Meche or right fielder Jose Guillen, both of whom signed multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts. Kansas City also made enticing offers to outfielders Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones, as well as Japanese pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, during the 2007 offseason. So the Royals are moving up the ladder in terms of money spent on players' salaries, and could possibly move out of the bottom third in payroll for the first time since 1994 this year.

Teams that are able to combine a healthy farm system with a middle-of-the-pack payroll have fared well in recent years, as noted above. It doesn't always take a Top 5 payroll to make the playoffs, or to win the World Series. I'm certainly not making an argument that teams that spend more money don't fare well, because they obviously have had incredible success. But teams that don't have huge payrolls aren't always left standing on the outside, looking in.

I just wish all those negative bloggers and message board naysayers would realize this.

Royals Payrolls Since 1988 (Rank)
2007: $67,116,500 (22nd)
2006: $47,294,000 (26th)
2005: $36,881,000 (29th)
2004: $47,609,000 (22nd)
2003: $40,518,000 (29th)
2002: $47,257,000 (22nd)
2001: $35,422,500 (27th)
2000: $23,132,500 (28th)
1999: $16,527,000 (27th)
1998: $32,912,500 (21st)
1997: $31,225,000 (23rd)
1996: $18,480,750 (29th)
1995: $27,608,834 (21st)
1994: $40,481,334 (4th)
1993: $40,102,666 (4th)
1992: $33,643,834 (8th)
1991: $28,722,662 (7th)
1990: $23,873,745 (1st)
1989: $15,427,162 (9th)
1988: $11,558,873 (13th)

Playoff Teams Since 1988 (Payroll Rank)
AL - BOS (2nd)*, CLE (23rd)**, NYY (1st), LAA (4th)
NL - COL (25th), ARI (26th)**, CHC (8th), PHI (13th)
AL - DET (14th), OAK (21st)**, NYY (1st), MIN (19th)
NL - STL (11th)*, NYM (5th)**, LAD (6th), SD (17th)
AL - CWS (13th)*, LAA (4th)**, NYY (1st), BOS (2nd)
NL - HOU (12th), STL (6th)**, ATL (10th), SD (16th)

AL - BOS (2nd)*, NYY (1st)**, LAA (3rd), MIN (19th)
NL - STL (9th), HOU (12th)**, LAD (6th), ATL (8th)

AL - NYY (1st), BOS (6th)**, MIN (18th), OAK (23rd)
NL - FLA (25th)*, CHC (11th)**, ATL (3rd), SF (9th)

AL - LAA (15th)*, MIN (27th)**, NYY (1st), OAK (28th)
NL - SF (10th), STL (13th)**, ARI (4th), ATL (7th)

AL - NYY (1st), SEA (11th)**, CLE (5th), OAK (29th)
NL - ARI (8th)*, ATL (6th)**, STL (9th), HOU (17th)

AL - NYY (1st)*, SEA (15th)**, OAK (25th), CWS (26th)
NL - NYM (6th), STL (11th)**, ATL (4th), SF (17th)

AL - NYY (1st)*, BOS (5th)**, TEX (2nd), CLE (4th)
NL - ATL (3rd), NYM (6th)**, ARI (9th), HOU (11th)

AL - NYY (2nd)*, CLE (4th)**, TEX (5th), BOS (8th)
NL - SD (14th), ATL (3rd)**, CHC (10th), HOU (15th)

AL - CLE (4th), BAL (2nd)**, NYY (1st), SEA (15th)
NL - FLA (7th)*, ATL (5th)**, SF (21st), HOU (22nd)

AL - NYY (1st)*, BAL (2nd)**, CLE (4th), TEX (10th)
NL - ATL (3rd), STL (9th)**, LAD (12th), SD (18th)

AL - CLE (9th), SEA (11th)**, NYY (2nd), BOS (19th)
NL - ATL (3rd)*, CIN (6th)**, COL (15th), LAD (17th)

1994: Postseason cancelled due to MLB Players Strike
AL - TOR (1st)*, CWS (13th)**
NL - PHI (20th), ATL (7th)**

AL - TOR (3rd)*, OAK (5th)**
NL - ATL (11th), PIT (12th)**

AL - MIN (16th)*, TOR (9th)**
NL - ATL (20th), PIT (14th)**

AL - OAK (10th)*, BOS (6th)**
NL - CIN (20th), PIT (16th)**

AL - OAK (12th)*, BOS (4th)**
NL - SF (13th), CHC (20th)**

AL - OAK (14th), BOS (3rd)**
NL - LAD (5th)*, NYM (4th)**

*Won World Series; **Lost in League Championship Series

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Gordon Living Up to Brett Comparisons

The comparison to George Brett is going to follow Alex Gordon for his entire career, or at least for as long as he's wearing a Royals uniform and playing third base -- the same position that Brett, a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, roamed when he played for Kansas City from 1973 through 1993.

A second-round selection in the 1971 amateur draft, Brett quietly made his Kansas City debut by batting eighth and going 1-for-4 with a strikeout in a 3-1 win over the White Sox at Comiskey Park on August 2, 1973. He was a 19-year old prospect, who played in just 13 games that summer, batting .125/.125/.175 with two doubles and two runs scored.

I dare say there was not a soul who could have predicted the type of career Brett would have following that meager introduction to Major League Baseball. But he made enough of an impression in Spring Training prior to the start of the 1974 season to earn a roster spot, made his first start at third base on May 4, and wound up in the starting lineup 128 times that season. He never looked back, he just kept impressing people on his way to three American League Batting Titles, 13 All-Star Game selections, and the 1980 A.L. Most Valuable Player Award.

Gordon's arrival in Kansas City, on the other hand, was like offering a bucket of water to a family who hadn't enjoyed anything to drink for weeks, or months -- he was met with open arms and hailed as the next savior of Royals baseball. Kansas City had enjoyed one winning season in 13 years, so it strengthened the fans' desire to have a player of his ilk in the lineup, and quickly.

He arrived following consecutive seasons in which he had earned the top awards for the level he was playing, and I'm sure there are Royals fans out there who included his name in their bedtime prayers.

In 2005, as a junior at the University of Nebraska, Gordon hit .372/.518/.715 with 22 doubles, 19 home runs, 79 runs scored, and 66 RBI in 72 games. He led the Huskers to the College World Series, was named the ABCA National Player of the Year, and also received the Golden Spikes Award, the Dick Howser Trophy, and the Brooks Wallace Award.

Drafted by the Royals with the second overall pick of the 2005 amateur draft, Gordon's first full Minor League season was 2006 with Class AA Wichita. He played in 130 games for the Wranglers, batting .325/.427/.588 with 39 doubles, 29 home runs, 111 runs scored, and 101 RBI to earn recognition as Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year. In doing so, he became the first player to win collegiate player of the year one year, and then minor league player of the year in his first professional season.

If you didn't understand already, now you know why the bucket of water analogy makes sense. Royals fans were thirsty for a winner, and....ah, I'm sure you figured it out. The Royals were bad, and he was good.

Despite questions about whether or not he'd make the Royals' roster out of Spring Training last year, Gordon left no room for doubt with a sizzling spring, earning the starting third base position, and forcing previous third baseman Mark Teahen to move to right field.

But after one full season in which Gordon played 151 games for Kansas City, does the comparison to Hall of Famer Brett still hold water? Sorry, couldn't resist. In short, yes it does. In fact, Gordon's numbers compare very favorably to Brett's at the same point in his career. I'll drop the last game of the 2007 season for Gordon, in order to examine the first 150 games of each player's career.

After 150 games in the Major Leagues, Brett's numbers looked like this: .270/.298/.346, 511 AB, 54 R, 138 H, 23 2B, 5 3B, 2 HR, 49 RBI, 23 BB, 4 IBB, and 45 SO. These figures include those 13 games after he was called up in the summer of 1973, the 133 games of his rookie season of 1974, and the first four games of 1975. He finished third in A.L. Rookie of the Year voting in 1974.

If you factor out Brett's horrendous start during August and September 1973, and just look at his first 150 games as an everyday player, his totals are as follows: .284/.319/.365, 518 AB, 57 R, 147 H, 24 2B, 6 3B, 2 HR, 54 RBI, 28 BB, 4 IBB, and 43 SO.

In Gordon's first 150 games, he hit .248/.315/.413 with 540 AB, 60 R, 134 H, 36 2B, 4 3B, 15 HR, 60 RBI, 41 BB, 4 IBB, and 136 SO. Obviously, he needs to pare down that last number, and hit at a higher average, but his second half of the season last year was much more indicative of what he seems capable of.

Through 53 games, Gordon was batting .173/.285/.281 with three home runs, eight RBI, and 55 strikeouts. From that point on, he hit .285/.330/.478 with 102 hits, 27 doubles, 12 home runs, 52 RBI, and 82 strikeouts in 98 games.

Pressure is something that Alex Gordon is always going to have to deal with. A third baseman with his talent is not going to be able to escape the shadow of George Brett, especially when Brett makes comments like he did last year, saying Gordon is "much better than I was at (23). Much better."

Gordon has a long, long way to go before he can even come close to touching any of Brett's Royals records. Brett amassed 3154 hits, 665 doubles, 317 home runs, 1595 runs batted in, 1583 runs scored, batted .305/.369/.487 over his 21-year career -- and he chased a .400 average before winning his second batting title with a .390 average in 1980. Those are amazing figures, which earned Brett his plaque in Cooperstown.

But, at least for the first part of his career, Gordon has withstood all the pressure of the constant comparisons to No. 5, and is delivering just what Royals fans have wanted for so long -- a fresh glass of water.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Hochevar Impresses in 6-1 Loss to Rangers

Wednesday's 6-1 loss to the Texas Rangers in the Cactus League opener for both teams wasn't exactly the kind of result most Royals fans were hoping for. In fact, Kansas City's offense looked an awful lot like last year's version -- little punch, and a lack of runs, which included stranding guys in scoring position.

But it might be exactly what Trey Hillman needed to help get across his message that the Royals need to work diligently on fundamentals in order to manufacture runs. And, before people start complaining about this or that, let's remind ourselves that this was the first game of Spring Training, for crying out loud. These games truly mean nothing, so here is a look at some of the bright spots.

Without a doubt, the most positive thing to come out of this game was the sparkling performance of right-handed pitcher Luke Hochevar. The top overall pick in the 2006 draft, Hochevar is coming off a 2007 season in which his Minor League numbers weren't overly impressive. He was a combined 4-9 with a 4.86 ERA for Wichita and Omaha last year, but those results might be skewed because of the fact that he was working on strengthening his weaknesses.

Hochevar enters this spring with an outside chance at earning a spot in Kansas City's rotation, but is probably more likely to start the year as a starting pitcher in Omaha. He's also been talked about, though, as a possibility in the Royals' bullpen, where he could be eased into a rotation slot -- sort of like Kansas City did with Zack Greinke last year.

Against the Rangers, the 6-foot-5, 24-year old former University of Tennessee standout threw two perfect innings, facing six batters and not allowing a ball out of the infield, yielding four ground balls, one line-drive, and a pop-up.

It's far too early to be raving about anything, especially after the first Cactus League game of the year, but Royals fans have been hoping that Hochevar will start to display some of the dominance that led him to be drafted not once, but twice, by the Dodgers. He turned down both chances to sign with Los Angeles, before the Royals took him with their first selection in 2006.

Offensively, six Kansas City players had one hit apiece, including a promising ground-rule double for left fielder Justin Huber, and an RBI single for shortstop Tony Pena. Third baseman Alex Gordon and first baseman Billy Butler also collected singles.

Butler, who's attempting to earn the starting first base job, played flawless defense before being replaced in the lineup. Ryan Shealy, Butler's primary competition at first base, was 0-for-4 as the designated hitter.

So, it's one game down, and way too many to go. But seeing Hochevar throw the way he did makes this loss almost feel like a win.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Are Royals on Verge of Next Winning Era?

Today, I was looking back at past Royals seasons on Baseball Reference -- an incredible site for any stat-heads out there like myself. So, I was doing some research about the point where Kansas City's success of the 1970s and 1980s began, and I found my eyes drawn to a pair of seasons -- 1974 and 1975.

Now, this is not to say that I think the Royals' good fortune between 1975 and 1985 was definitively kick-started in 1974. I'm sure there will be someone who takes the time to write me to point out that it all actually began in 1973, or 1972, with the acquisition of such-and-such a player. That's not my point. What's interesting, though, is that Kansas City's losing season in 1974 seems to have some similarities to last year's losing campaign.

In 1974, the Royals had, by all accounts, a disappointing year. The team went 8-11 in April, before heating up over the next several months to the point it was 10 games over .500 on August 25. But then Kansas City took a nosedive in the standings by losing 27 of its final 36 games to finish in fifth place in the American League Western Division at 77-85.

Last year's team also got off to a slow start, and stood at 19-35 at the end of May. But the Royals responded by going a combined 41-39 in June, July, and August to improve to 60-74 heading into the final month of the season. However, just like in 1974, the team struggled mightily in September by going 9-19 to end the year in fifth place in the A.L. Central at 69-93.

Offensively, believe it or not, the 2007 Royals had better numbers in many statistical categories than their 1974 counterparts. Here is a comparison of some key team stats (1974's total vs. 2007's total): at bats (5,582 vs. 5,534), runs scored (667 vs. 706), hits (1,448 vs. 1,447), batting average (.259 vs. .261), doubles (232 vs. 300), triples (42 vs. 46), home runs (89 vs. 102), and runs batted in (623 vs. 660). Strikingly similar numbers, wouldn't you agree?

The key differences were that the 1974 team struck out 301 fewer times, while drawing 122 more walks, and stealing almost twice as many bases (146 to 78).

And then there was the pitching, where the 1974 staff of
Steve Busby (22-14, 3.39), Paul Splittorff (13-19, 4.10), Al Fitzmorris (13-6, 2.79), Bruce Dal Canton (8-10, 3.13), and Nelson Briles (5-7, 4.02) was much deeper than the 2007 staff. Beyond Gil Meche (9-13, 3.67) and Brian Bannister (12-9, 3.87), last year's starting pitching was a crazy mix of washed up veterans and unproven youngsters -- that is, until Zack Greinke rejoined the rotation late in the year.

Of course, today's game is much different than it was in 1974, but stay with me here. The 1975 season, in which the Royals rebounded to go 91-71 and finish second in the A.L. West, was the start of an incredible 11-year stretch where Kansas City was a combined 179 games above .500 in regular season play. And I think the 2008 Royals could be on the brink of making a similar leap back to playing winning baseball.

With a young and talented team, whose average age was about 28 years old -- just like the 2008 Royals -- Kansas City made a drastic turnaround in 1975 under the guidance of new manager
Whitey Herzog, who took over for Jack McKeon after a 50-46 start. Herzog led the Royals to a 41-26 record to reach that final mark of 91-71.

So, the $64,000 question is, can new manager Trey Hillman also guide the 2008 Royals to a winning record, and begin another successful chapter in Kansas City's baseball history?

Here's a look at the Royals'
1975 Opening Day starting lineup versus the Royals' projected 2008 starting lineup* (with the players' previous year stats in parenthesis):

Freddie Patek, SS, 30 years old/entering 8th MLB season
(.225/.324/.298, 72 R, 121 H, 18 2B/6 3B/3 HR, 38 RBI, 33-48 SB, 77 BB, 69 SO, 77 OPS+)
David DeJesus, CF, 28 years old/entering 5th MLB season
(.260/.351/.372, 101 R, 157 H, 29 2B, 9 3B, 7 HR, 58 RBI, 10-14 SB, 64 BB, 83 SO, 89 OPS+)

Amos Otis, CF, 27 years old/entering 7th MLB season
(.284/.348/.438, 87 R, 157 H, 31 2B, 9 3B, 12 HR, 73 RBI, 18-23 SB, 58 BB, 67 SO, 121 OPS+)
Mark Grudzielanek, 2B, 37 years old/entering 14th MLB season
(.302/.346/.426, 70 R, 137 H, 32 2B, 3 3B, 6 HR, 51 RBI, 1-3 SB, 23 BB, 60 SO, 100 OPS+)

John Mayberry, 1B, 26 years old/entering 6th MLB season
(.234/.358/.424, 63 R, 100 H, 13 2B, 1 3B, 22 HR, 69 RBI, 4-6 SB, 77 BB, 72 SO, 120 OPS+)
Mark Teahen, LF, 26 years old/entering 4th MLB season
(.285/.353/.410, 78 R, 155 H, 31 2B, 8 3B, 7 HR, 60 RBI, 13-18 SB, 55 BB, 127 SO, 98 OPS+)

Hal McRae, LF, 29 years old/entering 6th MLB season
(.310/.375/.475, 71 R, 167 H, 36 2B, 4 3B, 15 HR, 88 RBI, 11-19 SB, 54 BB, 68 SO, 139 OPS+)
Jose Guillen, RF, 31 years old/entering 12th MLB season
(.290/.353/.460, 84 R, 172 H, 28 2B, 2 3B, 23 HR, 99 RBI, 5-6 SB, 41 BB, 118 SO, 116 OPS+)

Harmon Killebrew, DH, 38 years old/entering 21st and final MLB season
(.222/.312/.360, 28 R, 74 H, 7 2B, 0 3B, 13 HR, 54 RBI, 0-0 SB, 45 BB, 61 SO, 90 OPS+)
Alex Gordon, 3B, 24 years old/entering 2nd MLB season
(.247/.314/.411, 60 R, 134 H, 36 2B, 4 3B, 15 HR, 60 RBI, 14-18 SB, 41 BB, 137 SO, 87 OPS+)

George Brett, 3B, 21 years old/entering 2nd MLB season
(.282/.313/.363, 49 R, 129 H, 21 2B, 5 3B, 2 HR, 47 RBI, 8-13 SB, 21 BB, 38 SO, 91 OPS+)
Billy Butler, 1B or DH, 21 years old/entering 2nd MLB season
(.292/.347/.447, 38 R, 96 H, 23 2B, 2 3B, 8 HR, 52 RBI, 0-0 SB, 27 BB, 55 SO, 105 OPS+)

Vada Pinson, RF, 36 years old/entering 18th and final MLB season
(.276/.312/.374, 46 R, 112 H, 18 2B, 2 3B, 6 HR, 41 RBI, 21-26 SB, 21 BB, 45 SO, 93 OPS+)
Ryan Shealy, DH or 1B, 28 years old/entering 3rd MLB season
(.267/.332/.402, 53 R, 105 H, 21 2B, 0 3B, 11 HR, 62 RBI, 0-1 SB, 35 BB, 109 SO, 88 OPS+) **

Cookie Rojas, 2B, 36 years old/entering 14th MLB season
(.271/.309/.339, 52 R, 147 H, 17 2B, 1 3B, 6 HR, 60 RBI, 8-12 SB, 30 BB, 43 SO, 83 OPS+)
John Buck, C, 27 years old/entering 5th MLB season
(.222/.308/.429, 41 R, 77 H, 18 2B, 0 3B, 18 HR, 48 RBI, 0-1 SB, 36 BB, 92 SO, 90 OPS+)

Fran Healy, C, 28 years old/entering 5th MLB season
(.252/.343/.375, 59 R, 112 H, 24 2B, 2 3B, 9 HR, 53 RBI, 16-24 SB, 62 BB, 73 SO, 103 OPS+)
Tony Pena, SS, 27 years old/entering 2nd MLB season
(.267/.284/.356, 58 R, 136 H, 25 2B, 7 3B, 2 HR, 47 RBI, 5-11 SB, 10 BB, 78 SO, 66 OPS+)

Steve Busby, RHP, 25 years old/entering 3rd MLB season
(22-14/3.39/198 SO, 38 GS, 20 CG, 3 SHO, 292.3 IP, 284 H, 118 R, 110 ER, 92 BB, 112 ERA+)
Gil Meche, RHP, 29 years old/entering 8th MLB season
(9-13/3.67/156 SO, 34 GS, 1 CG, 0 SHO, 216.0 IP, 218 H, 98 R, 88 ER, 62 BB, 128 ERA+)

*2008 projected lineup does not factor Jose Guillen's pending 15-day suspension
**Ryan Shealy's 2007 numbers are projections for a 120-game season

Granted, it's very difficult to compare and contrast two teams that are more than 30 years apart. But looking at the lineups for both teams, and factoring in the energetic and motivational managing style of Hillman, it's easy to wonder whether Kansas City is about to put an end to the frustration and turmoil that has surrounded the organization for the past decade-plus.

It could turn out that 2008 is actually this era's 1974. But it never hurts to dream, and anything is possible.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Pena Needs to Show Improvement at Plate

This is the third installment of a position-by-position look at the 2008 Kansas City Royals.

When Tony Pena, Jr., was acquired by the Royals last March 23, about 10 days before the start of the 2007 season, the news was met with excitement for some, and exasperation for others.

The excitement stemmed from the prospect of someone new and different at shortstop for the Royals. Many Kansas City fans had long since grown weary of the steadily-declining numbers produced by former American League Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa, and felt it was time for a change.

Berroa earned his rookie honor by going .287/.338/.451 with 92 runs scored, 17 home runs, 73 runs batted in, and a 101 OPS+ during Kansas City's 2003 season. However, what followed are seasons of .262/.208/.385 in 2004, then .270/.305/.375 in 2005, and finally .234/.259/.333 with an OPS+ of 52 in his last season as a starter in 2006. His .259 OBP that final season was the lowest among regulars in the A.L.

In came Pena, a new name from the Atlanta Braves' organization who received praise for his defensive abilities.

"He's an above-average Major League defender, fielding and throwing," said the Royals' Rene Francisco at the time of the trade. A member of Atlanta's organization during 1993-2006, Francisco added, "Defense is what got him to the big leagues."

Offensively, Pena's skills were still very much a question mark, but he was hitting .342 in Spring Training for Atlanta, and he had just hit a three-run home run against the Mets the day before the trade.

So, compared to Berroa's downhill trend, Pena seemed to be just what the Royals needed -- a younger player, with better range, and a good pedigree as the son of former Royals manager and 18-year Major League veteran Tony Pena.

The exasperation, however, came from the fans who took a closer look at Pena's offensive numbers. And what they found was that Kansas City had just acquired a slightly-better defensive shortstop, whose numbers over seven Minor League seasons looked an awful lot like Angel Berroa's.

Over the span of his Minor League career, Pena hit .252/.282/.332, although his numbers were trending upwards and culminated in a .282/.312/.359 season for the Braves' AAA affiliate in 2006. But Berroa registered averages of .263/.305/.384 over seven Major League campaigns. Both players have incredibly bad plate discipline, with Pena having drawn a total of 102 walks over his entire Minor League career, and Berroa taking even fewer (94) bases on balls during his time with the Royals.

Pena made quite an impression in his debut with the Royals, going 2-for-3 with two triples, two runs scored, and yes, even a walk, in a 7-1 win against the eventual World Champion Red Sox at Kauffman Stadium. But he ended April with a .197 batting average, and then went a team-record 244 plate appearances between May 5 and July 27 without a single walk. His season-ending numbers were .267/.284/.356 with 58 runs scored, 47 runs batted in, and seven triples, but only 10 bases on balls. Yes, that's 10 walks -- in 536 plate appearances! Ouch.

As the 2008 season nears, a big question is whether his offensive numbers will improve, or decline like Berroa's. Though he is projected as the starting shortstop once again, it is fair to say that new manager Trey Hillman will expect a better on-base percentage from Pena.

Listed behind Pena on the team's depth chart are veteran utilityman Esteban German, and 24-year old Angel Sanchez, who missed the 2007 after undergoing surgery on his right elbow. To read more about German, take a look at what was written about him in last week's third base preview. In his most recent full season, Sanchez batted .282/.339/.352 with 105 runs scored, 57 RBI, and 24 doubles for Class AA Wichita in 2006.

So, unless another trade is in the works prior to 2008, it looks as if Tony Pena will once again be the Royals' everyday shortstop. Of course, there's always Angel Berroa, biding his time in Omaha and just waiting for another opportunity with Kansas City.

I can just imagine the exasperated sighs coming from the mouths of Royals fans everywhere.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

A Long Weekend...

I'm trying to establish regular readers, so going two-plus days without something new to read on this site is not something I intend to do very often. But this has been a long weekend, with scarce moments to write a lengthy new post.

My wife, Carrie, is in graduate school, so if she needs the computer to work on a paper, or do some research, it certainly trumps my reasons for being on here. I will attempt to get something -- a look at the Royals' shortstop candidates -- written, either late tonight, or sometime tomorrow morning.

Until then, take a minute to sit back, close your eyes, and envision the scene, the sounds, and the celebration, when the Royals clinch their first playoff appearance since 1985...

I tend to do that fairly often. It relaxes me...

Go Royals!
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