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December 18, 2001
Rany On The Royals
Getting PositiveI've been mistaken. All along, I thought that the man most responsible for the Royals' perpetual lease on the second division was Tony Muser, or Allard Baird, or maybe even Herk Robinson. How foolish of me. It's clear now that it's been Billy Beane all along.
Billy Beane, who robbed the Royals of Jermaine Dye, who gave us a pet rock for Jeremy Giambi, who helped the Royals achieve their dream of owning Roberto Hernandez. Hell, he even took away Kevin Appier, and never mind that it was the right thing for the Royals, it still hurt like hell.
Now, he has spawned a henchman who also understands that the easiest way to get a leg up on the competition is to take advantage of the Royals. It was obvious that Corey Thurman was going to be taken in the Rule 5 Draft. But the loss hurt worse than expected, because the man who took him, J.P. Ricciardi, no longer works for the Oakland A's.
Is this what the future holds? The Royals have a new, unfriendly neighbor to the north, and there are now twice as many wolves looking to pick off another sheep. It's going to be hard enough to keep Baird away from Beane's seductive pitch when Mike Sweeney is put on the market this July; now that Ricciardi is singing the same song, who thinks that Baird can resist both sirens at once? Where's a mast and some thick rope when you need them?
The Royals lost Thurman, but the news from the Rule 5 draft wasn't as bad as it could have been. The Royals didn't lose Jeremy Hill, although they did wave goodbye to Ryan Baerlocher. Five or six years ago, that would have bothered me greatly but I've learned a lot since we started BP. One of those lessons is this: when it comes to pitching prospects, the scouts matter.
If a hitter's performance (when translated to a major-league equivalent, adjusted for age, etc.) is impressive, then he's a prospect no matter how little the scouts think of his ability. For pitchers, though, the scouting report is just as informative as the stats. Baerlocher struck out 193 batters in the low minors in 2000 (only one minor leaguer had more strikeouts) and allowed just 123 hits in 165 innings. The scouts said that his fastball was just average, that he was getting people out by changing speeds, and that he would hit a wall when he reached Double-A. Sure enough, he gave up 26 homers in 28 starts in 2001, while posting a strikeout rate below the Texas League average. He's also a year older than Thurman.
I don't want to say Baerlocher won't stick in San Diego, because the Padres already have turned two pitchers with average fastballs (Brian Tollberg and Brian Lawrence) into quality starters, but I'm not losing any sleep over his departure.
Meanwhile, the Royals picked up a few gems of their own. Before the draft, Baseball America called Miguel Ascencio the most intriguing player available, even though no one knows how to spell his name (Ascencio? Asencio? Arsenio?) Baird made some noises about how the Royals were focused on one particular player in the draft, and sure enough, he grabbed the Phillies' #5 prospect (according to BA) when no one ahead of him did.
Essentially, the Royals let Thurman go so they could get Ascencio. Was it a good deal? Ascencio spent the year in A ball, with a worse strikeout-to-walk ratio (123 to 70) than Thurman had in Double-A (148 to 65). Then again, Ascencio is nearly two years younger, he keeps the ball down (just seven homers surrendered all year), and yes, the scouts like him. He throws a sinking fastball in the low 90s and a good change-up, though I'm sure what sold the Royals on him was that his curveball needs work.
While Ascencio has the higher upside, Thurman is the more likely to contribute in 2002; unfortunately, if the Royals want to keep Ascencio, they're going to have to let him contribute, anyway. If they can hide him in long relief and get him enough innings to keep his development going, they might have a real find on their hands. It's just a shame that they had to let Thurman go--instead of Scott Mullen, who was just released, or Donnie Sadler, who probably will be next--to grab him.
The Royals made an intriguing pick in the minor-league portion of the Rule 5 Draft. Understand: nobody good gets picked in the minor-league phase. By this point, every team has protected about 65 players, and most of the guys left have a future about as bright as George O'Leary's. Somehow, Baird came up with a real prospect when he selected Tydus Meadows from the Cubs.
I don't know much about Meadows. I don't know if he can field. I don't know if he's good in the clubhouse. I don't know if he's wanted for murder in five states. What I do know is that he has hit everywhere he's played. He's a lifetime .294 hitter, with a .389 OBP and a .496 slugging average. He's only 24 years old. Last year, in 67 games at Double-A--I don't know why he missed half the season, either--he hit .269/.412/.503.
The man has secondary skills oozing from his pores. The Royals need players like Tydus Meadows. For about the price of a souped-up Kia, they just got one. Not bad.
Who said that people in the Midwest don't lean to the left? James Jeffords didn't abandon the right as forcefully as Allard Baird has. From April 30, 2000 until July 26, 2001--a span of nearly 250 games--the Royals didn't receive a single start from a left-handed pitcher. Now, there's a chance that the Royals could open next season with three southpaws in the rotation.
Chris George, who finally ended the drought when he was promoted, might be in the rotation. Jose Rosado, after impressing the Royals in a workout session down in Puerto Rico, will likely be tendered a contract. And having finally, belatedly learned that there is talent to be found in Japan, the Royals have signed a pitcher from there. An American pitcher.
Well, this shouldn't be surprising. The Royals picked up their first Japanese player, Mac Suzuki, from the most American of sources, the waiver wire. It makes sense that, after flying all the way to Japan on a scouting trip this fall, Baird would come home with a gaijin.
Darrell May was a good prospect coming through the Braves' chain in the mid-1990s; not great, but good. His major-league line consisted of 67 innings and a 6.31 ERA when he was sold to Japan, where he has, according to Baird, improved considerably.
The numbers bear that out to a degree. May's 4.13 ERA last season ranked just 16th out of 17 ERA qualifiers in the Central League, behind such American luminaries as Buddy Carlyle, Greg Hansell, and ex-Royal Melvin Bunch. But May struck out 168 batters in 159 innings, by far the best strikeout ratio in Japan; no other starter managed as many strikeouts as innings pitched. Satoru Komiyama, who was described as the "Japanese Greg Maddux" when the Mets signed him earlier this month, struck out less than a man every two innings.
May was never a strikeout pitcher in America; the last time he averaged a strikeout an inning on this side of the Pacific was in the South Atlantic League. But his performance wasn't a fluke; he also struck out 165 batters in 155 innings in 2000. Maybe May is just a late bloomer, like a lot of lefties. Al Leiter didn't become a good pitcher until he was 29. Randy Johnson didn't learn to throw strikes until he was 29. Darrell May is 29, and he's already been the premier power pitcher for two years in a league that's much more contact-conscious than the majors. For that, the Royals will only have to pay him $375,000 next season. Are you kidding me? That's less than half what David McCarty makes.
There's just one nagging question: if May is so unhittable, why did he give up more than a hit an inning, and finish with the next-to-worst ERA in the league? Would you believe that the McCracken Principle applies in Japan as well? In 2000, with virtually the same strikeout rate, May allowed just 123 hits, and finished third in the league with a 2.95 ERA; he actually finished third in MVP voting for the Central League. His poor performance in 2001 could simply have been the result of bad luck. If it is, and if that means Baird is picking May up at exactly the moment that his stock is about to surge, the impact of this move could be a lot bigger than the font size in which it was announced.
Baird gets his share of criticism, and deserves it, but signing Darrell May deserves only praise. It's a gutsy kind of move, the kind of move the Royals of a generation ago used to make. Baird looked for talent in an unexpected place, and found it. The Royals can emulate their forefathers in another way if they do go with three lefties in the rotation. The last time the Royals got at least 20 starts each from three different left-handers? Charlie Leibrandt, Danny Jackson, and Bud Black turned the trick...in 1985.
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.