Thursday, March 6, 2008

Grudzielanek Keys Middle Infield for KC

This is the fourth installment of a position-by-position look at the 2008 Kansas City Royals. Previous stories: C, 3B, SS

Mark Grudzielanek is set to play in his first spring game of 2008 during Friday's Cactus League contest against the Colorado Rockies, but no, the veteran second baseman hasn't been injured. Rather, first-year manager Trey Hillman has taken a new approach with Grudzielanek and fellow veteran Jose Guillen, allowing them the freedom to set their own timetable for when they're ready to play.

Hillman's decision pleases Grudzielanek, who earned a Gold Glove for his stellar defensive play in 2006, but was hampered by two knee operations in 2007. He has made comments this spring that hint at the fact that he was pushed to play too soon in the spring under former manager Buddy Bell.

"I love it. I'm glad we're on the same page," he said, in a story written by the Kansas City's Star's Bob Dutton. "We talked, and came up with a plan to make sure I get myself right and feel strong."

Even with the knee surgeries last year, Grudzielanek still managed to bat .302/.346/.426 with 137 hits, 70 runs scored, 32 doubles, three triples, six home runs, 51 runs batted in, and a 100 OPS+. Despite those numbers, and his solid defense, he still seems to draw criticism from many fans, who feel the Royals would be better off with someone other than the 37-year old Grudzielanek.

To give you an idea of the kind of player Grudzielanek has been over the course of his career, here is a comparison of two second basemen's career totals, also when they were 37-years old:

Player A was batting .257/.293/.389 with 1847 hits in 2107 games, 858 runs scored, 371 doubles, 56 triples, 156 home runs, 829 runs batted in, and an 86 OPS+ in 16 seasons.

Player B was batting .281/.335/.358 with 1949 hits in 1769 games, 913 runs scored, 278 doubles, 47 triples, 54 home runs, 550 runs batted in, and a 95 OPS+ in 14 seasons.

So, who are those players? Well, Player A has his number retired and proudly displayed on the base of the Kauffman Stadium scoreboard -- yes, it's Royals Hall of Famer Frank White. Player B is former Dodgers, Yankees, White Sox, and A's second baseman Steve Sax.

Did I fool you by making you think one of those players was Grudz? Well, here are the numbers for the yet-to-be-mentioned Player C -- Mark Grudzielanek. For those critics out there, Grudzielanek has batted .289/.331/.395 with 1911 hits in 1686 games, 900 runs scored, 367 doubles, 36 triples, 87 home runs, 605 runs batted in, and a 90 OPS+ in 13 seasons.

**By the way, Ryan Shealy just hit a game-winning home run against the Diamondbacks as I'm sitting here writing this, and so I couldn't resist joining the new trend, and adding my first-ever Pozterisk.

It's obvious that Grudzielanek is nearing the end of an outstanding career, but it's also still quite obvious that he's a very dependable defensive second baseman, who puts up solid offensive numbers. In my opinion, he should remain the Royals' starter at second base until an injury once again prevents him from playing, he's traded, or his contract expires.

This season, though, Grudzielanek will be challenged by Alberto Callaspo, who was acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a trade for pitcher Billy Buckner during the offseason. Callaspo was Arizona's Minor League Player of the Year in 2006, and he comes to the Royals with an impressive baseball resume.

In six seasons, Callaspo hit .317/.370/.437 with 151 doubles and 353 RBI. What might be most impressive about Callaspo, though, is the fact that he's very disciplined at the plate, with just 141 strikeouts in 2897 plate appearances.

Callaspo is definitely considered the heir apparent to Grudzielanek at second base, but when that change takes place is still up in the air. Callaspo is batting .222/.222/.444 with a double and a home run in seven spring games so far this spring. But a season spent learning from a player like Grudzielanek certainly can't hurt his development.

Mark Grudzielanek Photo Credit: Ed Zurga/AP

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Royals Looking to Run in 2008

In the past four seasons, Kansas City basestealers have been poor at their craft, ranking toward the bottom of the American League in stolen bases.

Last year, the Royals combined for 78 steals to tie with the Chicago White Sox for 10th in the A.L. Third baseman Alex Gordon was Kansas City's top threat to swipe a base, finishing his rookie season with 14 stolen bases in 18 attempts.

As a team, Kansas City's total last year was actually an increase over the previous three seasons. During 2006, the Royals tied for eighth in the A.L. with 65 stolen bases, while the 2005 Royals established a franchise-record low total of only 53, and they had 67 thefts during 2004. So it's been four years since Kansas City has reached triple-digits for stolen bases, something that has been accomplished 32 times in the organization's 39-year history.

First-year Royals manager Trey Hillman isn't going to stand for another meager season running the bases, and if Kansas City's first six Cactus League games are an indication, the Royals will be doing everything they can to become more aggressive on the basepaths once again.

Through those six games, the Royals have stolen 12 bases, with outfielder Joey Gathright leading the way with an MLB-best six steals in six attempts.

Gathright, long considered one of the game's fastest players, has struggled to steal bases at the Major League level. In four seasons with Tampa Bay (2004-06) and Kansas City (2006-present), Gathright has stolen 57 bases in 80 attempts, despite the fact that he was 196-for-256 in six Minor League seasons.

Gathright recently stated that he'd like to steal 30 bases for the Royals in 2008, a goal which seems very attainable if he can continue swiping bases like he has during Spring Training.

Kansas City hasn't had a legitimate threat on the basepaths since Carlos Beltran was traded during the 2004 season. Beltran had just 14 steals for the Royals that season, but he stole a team-leading 41 bases in 2003, when Kansas City finished 3rd in the A.L. with 120 steals.

In addition to Gathright and Gordon, left fielder Mark Teahen (13), infielder Esteban German (11), and center fielder David DeJesus (10) all reached double-digit steal totals in 2007. Teahen is considered one of the Royals' top baserunners, and has the potential to reach 20+ steals.

Due to the Royals' lack of power -- KC ranked last in the A.L. in home runs and slugging percentage in 2007 -- the team is going to have to figure out other ways to manufacture runs in 2008. Hillman would like to see his team be more aggressive running the bases, as well as more adept at advancing runners via sacrifice hits.

With Gathright, Gordon, and Teahen leading the way, an exciting Kansas City team might steal its way into the hearts of Royals fans in 2008.

Joey Gathright Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel/AP

Monday, March 3, 2008

Problems Arising With Miguel Olivo?

If you've seen today's Kansas City Star, you might have read the story about Miguel Olivo. The free agent catcher was signed December 27 by the Royals to come in and compete with John Buck for playing time.

Evidently, that was not what was communicated to Olivo via his agent, Martin Arburua, who had conversations with five or six teams, including the Tigers, after he was non-tendered by the Marlins during the offseason. But, in the end, he wound up coming to Kansas City because he thought he was going to have a good shot at being the Royals' primary catcher.

It was apparently a miscommunication, though, as shortly after pitchers and catchers reported to camp in Surprise, Ariz., new Royals manager Trey Hillman made it clear that Buck was Kansas City's No. 1 man behind the plate.

Olivo shrugged it off, saying that's not what he had been told, but that he would compete for his job and continue to work toward being the Royals' primary catcher.

"We'll work it out," Olivo said at the time. "In my mind, I'm the starting catcher because that's the way I've been my whole career."

Now, two weeks into Spring Training, today's story by Sam Mellinger appears in the Star, and it really doesn't sound like Olivo is content, despite the fact that he claims he's not angry, or bitter with his situation.

"If I'd have known it was going to be like that, the second catcher on the team, I would've (done) something else," Olivo said.

He came to Kansas City thinking that he was going to be the starter, and he could have been in an organization like Detroit's, so do you really think he'll continue to be happy if he's playing catcher twice a week, and DHing or playing left field other days?

For their part, Hillman and Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore have both stated that they never told Arburua anything about Olivo's playing time, or certainly not that he would be the starter. And both Hillman and Moore have also said that, just like with every position in Spring Training, Olivo and Buck are competing for playing time.

In front of the cameras and microphones, things have seemed fine. Olivo is a veteran, and he says that he'll deal with the situation, since there's really nothing he can do about it other than compete hard to earn the job. But you really have to wonder whether Olivo's blood is boiling deep down inside, and that he's regretting having signed with the Royals.

If so, I don't think this will be a healthy marriage in the long run, and it might be wise for the Royals to shop around for a team looking for a decent catcher, and see what kind of return they could get for Olivo when he's eligible to be traded on June 16. He batted .237 with 16 home runs and 60 runs batted in with the Marlins in 2007, and he's got a good arm and decent speed.

The Royals could always go with Matt Tupman as the backup to Buck, and unlike Olivo, Tupman would probably be thrilled at the aspect of making Kansas City's 25-man roster.

Tupman had an impressive offseason, playing in the Dominican Winter League for Tigres del Licey. The 28-year old Tupman batted .293 with 12 RBI during the regular season, and earned the chance to start for his team in the Caribbean Series. He helped his team win the championship with a 5-1 record by batting .353 in those games.

And, who knows, maybe Olivo will be the one to emerge as the starter. But Kansas City needs players who want to be on the team, no matter what their role is. And if John Buck is going to be starting again for the Royals in 2008, it might not be beneficial to have Olivo stewing on the bench.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Don't Mess With Texas?

I know it's just Spring Training, and these games don't matter. But geez, do you think the Royals could actually catch a break one of these days and win a game against the Rangers? Texas is pretty much a consensus pick to finish as an "also ran" in the American League West, so three straight losses against it is kind of embarrassing, don't you agree?

You know, there are signs all over the state of Texas that say, Don't Mess With Texas, and apparently the Royals need to heed that warning.

With Sunday's 8-7 loss to the Rangers, Kansas City fell to 1-3 in Cactus League play, with all three setbacks coming at the hands of the team with which it shares their Surprise, Ariz., training facility. Texas has outscored the Royals, 29-15, in the three games, and KC also allowed nine runs in its lone win (against San Diego), so Royals pitchers are allowing 9.5 runs per game. Ouch.

Sunday's defeat was made even more disappointing by the fact that the Royals held a 7-5 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth inning. But Joel Peralta surrendered three hits in a third of an inning, including a two-run homer to tie the score, and the Rangers rallied for the win.

But it's Spring Training, and you have to hope that the Royals are learning from their early mistakes. Despite the fact that it seems way too soon to start looking at stats, with only four Spring Training games played, here's a look at some of the notables from the first week of camp:

The Good
--Right-handed pitcher Luke Hochevar has to be at the top of the list of pleasant surprises. On Sunday, he made his second appearance of the spring, and once again pitched brilliantly. He's pitched a total of four innings, allowing just one hit, while striking out a pair of batters and walking none. It's too early in camp to get too excited, but if Hochevar continues to pitch this well, he could earn a spot in the rotation, or at least make the Royals' roster as a member of the bullpen to start the season.

--Kyle Davies also fared well, making his spring debut on Sunday. The right-hander, who was acquired in the Octavio Dotel trade last year, went three innings and gave up three hits and one earned run.

--I haven't written about this yet -- my son's fourth birthday was Saturday, so that kept me busy this weekend -- but Gil Meche had a decent debut, as well. Meche said after the game that he wasn't pleased with his curveball, but he allowed two hits and fanned a batter in his two innings of work.

--CF David DeJesus must have gotten sick and tired of reading all the comments from people who say they want to trade him, because he's off to a great start, with four hits (including a double) in five at bats, three runs batted in, and four walks in three games.

--Justin Huber is 3-for-4, with all of his hits going for doubles, and a pair of RBI in his quest to find a roster spot. His play in left field has been as one might expect when asked to move from first base to left field early in camp. If the Royals aren't smart enough to give him a shot, then hopefully he continues to put up impressive offensive numbers, so that he could at least attract decent trade value.

--LF Mark Teahen is batting .300 (3-for-10) with a double, three runs scored, and has drawn four walks for an OBP of .500.

--Ross Gload has played in three games, batting .444/.444/.778 with four hits (one home run), and three runs batted in. No wonder Trey Hillman said he likes his swing.

--Damon Hollins has about zero chance of making the Royals' roster, but he's been playing right field until Jose Guillen sees some action. Hollins, who hit 15 home runs for Tampa Bay two seasons ago, is 3-for-7 (.429) with two doubles, two runs scored, and a pair of stolen bases.

--Third baseman Alex Gordon is batting .375 with three RBI. He's away from camp until Tuesday, attending his grandfather's funeral in Nebraska.

The Bad
--Honestly, Brian Bannister was rusty, not bad, but he allowed seven hits and four runs (three earned) in his three-inning debut on Sunday. I really don't expect him to be on this list next week.

--Kansas City has eight pitchers with double-digit ERAs.

The Ugly
--Esteban German committed a costly error in the first inning of the first Spring Training game, and has not made up for it at the plate. In four games, German is batting .091/.091/.182, with one hit in 11 at bats.

--OF Mitch Maier is 0-for-7 in three games.

--Julio Pimentel has a 36.00 ERA after allowing four hits and five runs (four earned) in his one inning of work so far.
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