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May 6, 2011

Expanded Horizons

Get it While it's Hot

by Tommy Bennett

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By now, you should know that the Kansas City Royals have exactly eleventy-million prospects capable of making scouts drool. If you watched any Royals spring training games this year, you probably already know that they got a lot more interesting after about the fifth or sixth inning. That’s when the ringers from Omaha and Northwest Arkansas would come in and knock the ball around a bit. You may also know that the Royals have an astonishingly low $11.73 million committed to next year’s payroll. (Even the relatively cheap Indians owe Travis Hafner $13 million; at least KC’s money is going mostly to Billy Butler.) And, finally, you may have heard that the Royals made the decision to call up Eric Hosmer, the prospect with the most compelling legend—all indications are that he will make his major-league debut tonight at home. Heck, the call-up was the lead story on Royals.com last night.

The expectation for this Royals season was that it would be something like sitting on a hard plastic chair at the DMV until your number—impossibly far from the one flashing red above the bank of windows but incrementing ever closer—was finally called. The wait would be slow and extended, but the payoff would be an enormous, almost Tantric, relief.

The aging veterans and the one-year stopgaps would give way to the dynamic youngsters in the minors. There was a near-perfect symmetry in the way the prospects lined up, so that nearly every position was covered. Sure, if Myers didn’t stick at the dish they’d have to find a catcher, and maybe they’d need one more guy up the middle (especially if Jeff Bianchi couldn’t hack it at shortstop). Still, it seemed that the Royals had a whole baseball team stalking the American plains, waiting to make the major-league minimum salary. The only obstacles standing in their way were Melky Cabrera and Bruce Chen, Jeff Francoeur and Wilson Betemit—and a number-three starter, Kyle Davies, who ranked among the worst of all time. Eventually, the weak resistance offered by the major-league roster would give way to the groundswell brewing beneath.

The only problem with that story is that those mediocre stopgaps had a winning month. In fact, the Royals are now 17–14 and in second place in the AL Central. They have the second-best adjusted Hit List factor among teams in their division. Even Jeff Francoeur is hitting well! Never mind regression: those 17 wins are in the bank, and the rest is as yet unwritten. So you’ll have to forgive the Royals and their fans their optimism. If this was supposed to be a year where only the second half would interesting—and not because there would be any chance of obtaining a playoff berth, but because it would be a sneak peek at the shape of things to come—then entering mid-May with only the Indians above them on the ladder is all lagniappe.

Even good problems invite solutions, and the Royals have responded to theirs by jumping the Super Two deadline by a couple of weeks with Hosmer. No one would argue, based on his world-beating .439/.525/.582 line in Triple-A, that he wasn’t ready for big-league pitching. If the front office didn’t believe during spring training that Hosmer was quite ready, even after he put up an outstanding season in Double-A last year, it surely has been convinced otherwise after he collected 43 hits in 26 Triple-A games. But what gain is there in failing to wait two weeks? What kind of sense does this middle-ground madness —not opening day, but not Super Two deadline either—make?

The argument has to go something like this: Despite PECOTA’s wildest dreams for Kila Ka’aihue (.263/.387/.472 weighted mean), he has been lousy. In 326 career major-league plate appearances, Ka’aihue has hit .216/.309/.375. He’s 27 now and not getting any younger. Meanwhile, there’s a kid down in Triple-A who can finally see straight and can flat-out hit. The standings are just about exactly upside-down, and here’s a chance to improve the club. All that would appear to add up to something like “Let’s give it the old college try.” What’s wrong with that?

For starters, the Royals are very unlikely bets to make the playoffs. In the American League, only the Blue Jays and Mariners have worse chances. Because it is so unlikely that the AL wild card will come out of the Central, there are four teams better than the Royals vying for a single playoff spot. (The Indians, who now lead the division in playoff odds, are 29 times more likely to win the division than the wild card.) That makes for an uphill battle.

Then there’s the fact that Kila Ka’aihue is probably a better hitter than his early performance would suggest. PECOTA may make mistakes, and it may not be deadly accurate about everyone, but its principles are sound. Ka’aihue put up a .364 TAv in Triple-A last year and a .298 mark the year before. There definitely exist guys who exist in the netherworld between Triple-A and the majors, but every once in a while those guys turn into superstars just when we’re ready to write them off. So the relevant comparison is what we can expect Eric Hosmer, a 21-year-old rookie with zero major-league at-bats, to produce over and above what Kila Ka’aihue can—minus the long-term costs associated with calling up Hosmer two weeks early.

This straightforward ledger-based approach is relatively familiar to savvy denizens of this website. But is that all there is? Maybe there’s an expressive logic to this move. Call it a “get it while it’s hot” theory. No team with Bruce Chen as the stopper is going to last long above .500, but why not start calling people’s numbers while you’re still on the plus side of the ledger? Is anyone really concerned about the long-term financial status of a team that just three years ago gave Jose Guillen $36 million?

If you think the Royals will be saved by going after the extra two percent, I’ve got my own two cents to offer. On April 29, the first day the Royals came back after a six-game road losing streak, they sold 31,407 tickets at home. Granted, not all the games have been selling that well, but fans in Kansas City are smart enough to know that this year’s farm system isn’t like those of years passed. They’re ready to show up and enjoy it, however long it lasts.

This weekend, the Royals play a home series against the Athletics. They’ve got two night games and a Sunday matinee, and Eric Hosmer’s name will be in lights. In two weeks, when the Super Two deadline passes, maybe Danny Duffy and Mike Montgomery can join him. Get it while it’s hot.

Related Content:  Royals Prospects,  Royals,  The Who,  The Call-up

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