June 28, 2009
On the Beat
Trey Hillman knows that his team's record does not show it. The Royals are 31-42 and 9½ games out in the American League Central. It gives the appearance that the Royals are well on their way to another lost season in what has been a lost couple of decades for the once-model franchise.
The Royals have had five consecutive losing seasons, and they've been under .500 in 13 of the last 14 years. It's been 24 years since they last appeared in the postseason, yet Hillman, in his second season, insists that the Royals are making progress and that, under their current circumstances, the record does not reveal their true direction. "I like the feel of the clubhouse, the way these guys come to the park every day and prepare for each game in a very professional way," said Hillman. "I like the energy and effort they show on the field, that they show on an everyday basis. It doesn't matter whether we're winning big, playing in a one-run or two-run game or on the wrong end of a lopsided score, they keep giving an effort. Unfortunately, all of that hasn't produced as many wins as you like, but when you have a group of players with that kind of work ethic, then it means that good things are eventually going to happen for your organization."
Royals fans have been waiting for a payoff for a long time. This seemed to be the year that perhaps the Royals would contend, or at least get back over .500. They were the trendy pick to be the league's surprise team while playing in what appeared to be a wide-open division, and for a while, they seemed ready to live up to those expectations. They got off to an 18-11 start and held a three-game lead in the AL Central following games of May 7, but things have fallen apart in the past seven weeks. The Royals have gone 13-31 and lost many key players to injury or ineffectiveness.
Right-hander Kyle Davies was sent to the minor leagues this past week after beginning the season as the third starter behind Zack Greinke and Gil Meche; Davies had just 0.6 SNLVAR. With a 4.9 SNLVAR, Greinke has been spectacular, but the rest of the rotation has been nondescript, and the Royals have reached the point where they called up Bruce Chen from Triple-A Omaha to take Davies' rotation spot. The Royals are Chen's 10th major league team.
The Royals' bullpen has also been disappointing. Closer Joakim Soria has battled shoulder problems all season and has a team-best 0.954 WXRL, while right-hander Kyle Farnsworth, placed on the DL on Friday with a strained groin, has a -1.036 after being signed to a two-year, $9.25 million contract as a free agent over the winter to serve as the primary set-up man. Thus, the Royals are 21st in the major leagues in runs allowed at 4.85 per game.
Davies' demotion came just as center fielder Coco Crisp, acquired from the Red Sox in an off-season trade in order to ignite the offense from the leadoff spot, underwent season-ending shoulder surgery. Crisp's .264 EqA was also less than the Royals expected. Three other regulars are on the DL as well: catcher John Buck (back), third baseman Alex Gordon (hip), and shortstop Mike Aviles (forearm). That has left the Royals with one of the weakest offenses in the major leagues; they rank 27th in runs scored with 4.10 per game, and their regular with the highest EqA is second baseman Alberto Callaspo at .276.
The Royals hope to have Gordon-who Hillman felt was poised for a breakout season in his third year in the major leagues-and Buck back just after the All-Star break. Meanwhile, the loss of Gordon has made Mark Teahen the regular third baseman, and while Teahen leads the team with 15.0 VORP, the Royals were hoping to make him their second baseman or perhaps their super utilityman this season, which would have added greatly to their depth. Now, with all the injuries that depth is gone, and some Royals insiders fear that this team could be headed for 90-plus losses.
"Right now, we're just trying to get through this the best we can to the end of the first half," said Hillman. "I'm confident if we can hang in there with the guys we have, that we'll be fine. Alex and the other guys coming back from the DL will really give us a boost. You have to be careful when you're talking about injuries, because you don't want the guys who are out there to feel we can't win with them, because we can, but Alex is at that stage of his career where he can really provide a huge boost to our lineup. This is only the second time I've played the injury card, and it's probably going to be the last time, but I don't think there is any denying that the injuries have hurt us. I believe if we had our full team together, or even had just the normal share of injuries, that our record would be much better. We were playing good baseball and had a good feeling going here through the first month of the season. Now we're fighting to try to recapture that."
The Brewers and Phillies, who faced each other in the National League Division Series last year, could both use a starting pitcher in their bids to get back to the postseason, but Brewers general manager Doug Melvin and Ruben Amaro Jr., his Phillies' counterpart, are finding out that starting pitching is a scarce commodity on the current trade market. "You make your phone calls, but there's not a lot happening right now," Melvin said. "There are just not many pitchers available. There are a few guys. Teams just aren't quite sure. It takes a lot to trade one of your starters. We're looking for veteran guys. If you're going to trade pitching, teams want players that are close to major league ready. That makes it a little more difficult."
The player Melvin gets asked for the most in trade talks is Triple-A Nashville shortstop Alcides Escobar, who is considered an outstanding fielder and has a translated .259 EqA for the Sounds. However, even though the Brewers have a young shortstop in J.J. Hardy at the major league level, Melvin says he will not part with Escobar. "He has played very well," said Melvin. "He's been very consistent. He hasn't had a lot of lulls. For the first year of Triple-A, that's pretty good. He's known for his fielding. Offensively, he should get better as he plays. Shortstops are so valuable. There are so many teams looking for shortstops. You can go years without having one."
Meanwhile, Amaro says that finding trading partners is difficult because so many teams are not yet ready to concede the 2009 season. In all, 21 of the 30 major league teams are within five games of a playoff spot. "I think things will heat up late, because everybody is still kind of in it," Amaro said. "There are no real teams bailing or stepping out of this thing. There's going to be a pretty vicious fight for probably two of the divisions in our league, and certainly for the wild card. There are so many teams that are still involved, [and] I don't expect that to change a whole lot over the next month. But it will start to crystallize a little bit more as we start to get into the middle of July. The availability really isn't there. The number of buyers and the number of sellers is not even close to equaling each other."
The Dodgers are eight games ahead of the Giants in the National League West, and BP's playoff odds report gives them a 93 percent chance of winning the division. The Giants, conversely, are given a one-percent chance of capturing their first NL West crown since 2003, but Giants center fielder Aaron Rowand says that his team hasn't given up on overtaking the Dodgers. "The wild card is not the goal," Rowand said, and Giants GM Brian Sabean agreed, saying, "We've got to find a way to get closer to first place."
Giants left-hander Randy Johnson, however, has a different opinion. He believes that his new team should just concentrate on qualifying for the postseason for the first time in six years. Johnson is well aware that a wild-card team can go deep into the postseason; his 2001 Diamondbacks won a World Series by taking that route. The Giants are now only a half-game behind the Cardinals in the NL wild-card standings. "There's a lot of season left, but as good as the Dodgers are playing right now, if you look at what wild-card teams have done in the past, the important thing is just to get to the playoffs," said Johnson. "Considering the struggles of this organization in recent years, if you're getting in via the wild card, it would be pretty exciting for the team, the ownership, and the fans. You get there however you can. Then every playoff team starts from scratch."
The Phillies and Rays, the two teams who had met in last year's World Series, had a rematch this past week at Tropicana Field, and no one seemed to care. Attendance for the three-game series was just 58,611, an average of 19,537 a game.
That simply flummoxed Rays president Matt Silverman. "As we were planning for the season, we circled this series as one of the most compelling of the year," said Silverman. "It's a rare privilege to host a rematch of the World Series, especially against a team with local connections. Based on the all information we had, we projected full houses. It was a huge miss."
The Phillies are very popular in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area because they have held spring training in Clearwater since 1947. Silverman was asked if the series would have drawn better if it were held in Clearwater or on the other side of the bay in Tampa, where many in the region believe a new stadium for the Rays should be built, rather than in St. Petersburg. "I don't know how it might have drawn within other locales within Tampa Bay, but a matchup of World Series' teams would clearly have drawn better in every other baseball market," Silverman said.
Major League Rumors and Rumblings: The Dodgers want to add another starting pitcher, and Mariners left-hander Jarrod Washburn is their primary target. ... The Marlins would like to add a reliever, and they are eyeing the Astros' LaTroy Hawkins and the Orioles' Danys Baez, along with Luis Ayala, who was designated for assignment for the Twins this past week. The Pirates also have interest in Ayala. ... The Diamondbacks are ready to go into sell mode and make available such pending free agents as left-hander Doug Davis, right-hander Jon Garland, second baseman Felipe Lopez, and corner infielder Chad Tracy. ... White Sox GM Ken Williams feels that his team still has a chance to win the AL Central, but if he becomes a seller he will likely try to trade right-hander Jose Contreras, relievers Bobby Jenks, Octavio Dotel, and Scott Linebrink, and right fielder Jermaine Dye.
Three series to watch this week, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):