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How K.C. Gets KO’d

Our two baseball experts wonder how the Royals have found a way to turn so many can't-miss prospects into busts

For years, die-hard Royals fans Rob Neyer and Rany Jazayerli exchanged impassioned e-mails about their favorite team, the Kansas City Royals. A pattern emerged over the years, with Rany showing bursts of optimism in April, then devolving into a blubbering mess by season’s end, while Rob just expressed perpetual disgust with the team and its decision-makers.

We wanted to revive a little bit of that spirit at Grantland. Actually, Simmons wanted to revive it, with a very specific subject in mind: “You and Rany should trade e-mails on the topic, a historical breakdown on why the words ‘can’t-miss prospect’ and ‘the Royals’ should never, ever be in the same sentence.” Except for that time he asked me to wear a Scott Wedman mask and dance for the amusement of Grantland’s editors, I’ve always abided by the boss’s wishes. So here’s that conversation, with Rany leading off.

Rany:

Can you explain something to me? Why is it that the Royals can’t turn their elite prospects into quality major league players like, oh, pretty much every other organization in baseball? It’s not supposed to be this difficult, is it?

The Royals are 20-21, which is about where I expected them to be at this point in the year. That’s not the surprise. The surprise is that they’re doing this despite getting virtually nothing from The Best Farm System In The History Of Baseball.

You remember that farm system, don’t you? Two years ago, the Royals placed nine guys on Baseball America‘s list of the top 100 prospects in all of baseball. I’m fully aware that the attrition rate among prospects is significant, but this is ridiculous. Take a look at those guys:

Eric Hosmer (no. 8 prospect): Hitting .266/.340/.345 for the Royals. He’s slugging .345. He has one home run. He’s a first baseman. Did I mention he has one home run?

Mike Moustakas (no. 9): Hitting .178/.252/.311 for the Royals. He does have four home runs.

Wil Myers (no. 10): Still one of the top prospects in baseball, he was the centerpiece of the trade that brought in James Shields and Wade Davis.

John Lamb (no. 18): Lamb tore an elbow ligament in May 2011 and had Tommy John surgery. Everyone comes back from TJ surgery 100 percent, right? Lamb’s the exception. It took him 14 months to get back on a mound — itself a red flag. It’s now been nearly two years since his surgery, and yet he’s pitching in high-A ball (he was in Double-A when he got hurt). In seven starts, he has a 6.35 ERA, has struck out just 27 of 150 batters, and — most distressingly — his fastball is topping out around 87. He was consistently 90-92 before the injury. If his fastball doesn’t come back, he’s probably done, and after two years, I don’t think his fastball is coming back.

Mike Montgomery (no. 19): He had a 5.32 ERA in Triple-A in 2011, and a 6.07 ERA last year, when he was demoted back to Double-A. He was included in the Shields trade as a throw-in; no one seems to know what’s happened to him.

Christian Colon (no. 51): Probably the one guy on this list who shouldn’t have been on it in the first place. Colon was the no. 4 overall pick in the 2010 draft, and if you’re deemed a top-five pick in the draft, you’re going to make the following year’s Top 100 Prospects List by default. (By the way, there were three consensus elite players in that draft: Bryce Harper, Jameson Taillon, and Manny Machado. They went 1-2-3. The Royals drafted fourth. FML. F. M. L.) Colon’s a shortstop with a second baseman’s range and a utility infielder’s bat; he’s hitting .235/.289/.309 in Triple-A right now.

Danny Duffy (no. 68): Duffy was promoted to the majors in May 2011, and in 26 starts had a 5.28 ERA. Just when he was showing signs of breaking out, his elbow popped. He had Tommy John surgery; he’s supposed to be back on the mound in the next month or so, assuming he hasn’t been spending his rehab time hanging out with Lamb.

Jake Odorizzi (no. 69): The only one of the five pitchers on this list who hasn’t had a career crisis in the last two years, Odorizzi was the second big piece in the Shields trade. The Rays know pitching, and Odorizzi has a 3.83 ERA in Triple-A right now; in a recent start for the Durham Bulls he threw seven no-hit innings.

Chris Dwyer (no. 83): Dwyer had a 5.60 ERA in 2011 and a 5.89 ERA in 2012, but this year he’s apparently throwing his fastball for more strikes, setting up his plus curveball. He has a 3.10 ERA in eight starts in Triple-A, but has struck out just 36 of 204 batters. He’s looking like a future no. 5 starter or middle reliever, which to be fair is better than two months ago, when he looked like a future high school baseball coach.

So from nine Top 100 Prospects, more than any team has ever had since Baseball America started ranking them in 1990, the Royals have a pair of corner infielders who can’t hit, two years of James Shields, and the lottery ticket that is Wade Davis, who was also included in the trade. Shields is pitching very well (2.45 ERA for the Royals with 66 innings in just nine starts), but Davis has a 5.98 ERA. This wasn’t what I was promised.

It’s to the Royals’ credit that they’re playing as well as they have anyway. They gambled on acquiring Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie for their rotation, and both have pitched brilliantly so far. The Zack Greinke trade looks tremendous at this point; Alcides Escobar is an above-average defender at shortstop though he is hitting .249/.276/.341 this year, and Lorenzo Cain is finally healthy and has been one of the team’s best hitter this season. The two holdovers from the Allard Baird administration, Billy Butler and Alex Gordon, continue to rake. The bullpen has been erratic of late but has a 2.98 ERA for the year.

If Hosmer and Moustakas start hitting the way we know they can — the way they have in the past — this could be a really good team. But they weren’t supposed to be question marks; they were supposed to be exclamation points. Why does this always happen to us?

Jonah:

Well, the easy answer would be to say that these things take time. To make Baseball America‘s top prospect list, you obviously need to have rookie eligibility, meaning you’ve only played a handful of games in the big leagues, or you’re still in the minors. It’s not that unusual for a talented prospect to struggle upon getting called up at age 21 or 22, then need two or three years (or more) before he figures things out. Off the top of my head, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux needed a couple years to get their footing. Brandon Phillips took a while. Hell, you mentioned Alex Gordon — people were close to declaring him a bust before he finally broke out.

Rany:

But that’s exactly my point. Alex Gordon might be the most-hyped prospect in Royals history. He was the no. 2 overall pick in the draft in 2005, and the College Player of the Year. In 2006 he was the Minor League Player of the Year and ranked as the no. 1 prospect in all of baseball. He could do everything — hit for average and power, command the strike zone, run the bases, play defense. He hit .325/.427/.588 in his one season in the minors, and was in the Royals’ Opening Day lineup the following season.

And four years later, he turned into the star that we all thought he would be — you can make a compelling case that after Ben Zobrist, coming into this season Gordon was the most underrated player in the majors. But the reason he’s so underrated is because everyone remembers the four years in between: the disappointing-but-not-terrible rookie season in 2007, the promising-but-still-not-there 2008, and then a disastrous 2009 and 2010, when he hit .222 with 14 home runs combined, and played almost as many games in the minor leagues (105) as in the majors (123).

Gordon had as little risk as any prospect I’ve ever seen, and ultimately fulfilled his potential — and yet even he fought through so many struggles that the Royals, and their fans, were tempted to give up on him for a time.

Billy Butler was a hitting machine from birth — he hit .313/.353/.527 in Double-A when he was 19 years old. He was in the majors when he was 21. He struggled to find his stroke for two years, and was even sent back to Triple-A for a month after opening his sophomore season by hitting .263/.330/.339 with one home run in two months.

And let’s not even talk about what Zack Greinke went through before he finally reached his potential.

And remember, those are the guys who made it — the three best players the Royals have developed in the last decade. You don’t want to hear about the failures. It’s crazy to think about now, but Jimmy Gobble was once a top-50 prospect. So was Chris George. Jim Pittsley was a top-100 prospect five years in a row. Trust me, you don’t want to look up their stats in the majors. You have two young children to think about.

Mike Sweeney ranks in the top 10 in franchise history in virtually every hitting category. He toiled as a backup catcher for three seasons, and was nearly released in spring training in 1999 before an injury opened up a roster spot for him. He moved to first base and started raking.

And even on the rare occasions when the Royals bring up a prospect and he performs right away, something goes wrong. Mark Quinn came up at the end of the 1999 season and hit two homers in his first major league game, and six that September. The next year he hit .294/.342/.488 with 20 homers as a rookie, and we thought we had something. Quinn played in just 141 games the rest of his career. Bob Hamelin, you might remember, was Rookie of the Year in 1994, after hitting .282/.388/.599. Sure, he was 26 years old and couldn’t play defense, but we thought he might give us a few good years, sort of like Travis Hafner would give the Indians a decade later. Hamelin hit .168 the next season.

Angel Berroa was Rookie of the Year in 2003, hitting .287/.338/.451 and playing quality defense at shortstop. The Royals had so much faith in him that the following year they signed him to a four-year contract. He stopped hitting immediately, and spent the last two years of that contract collecting paychecks in the minor leagues.

Even Carlos Beltran, the best player the Royals’ farm system has produced since George Brett, didn’t have smooth sailing. He was Rookie of the Year in 1999, but in 2000 he hit .247/.309/.366, got hurt and missed nearly half the season, and then fought with the Royals’ front office over where he was going to rehab. In 2001 he was hitting .263/.310/.427 going into the All-Star break — like Hosmer, he was having his second straight disappointing season after such a promising rookie year. Beltran hit .358/.424/.617 after the break and has been CARLOS BELTRAN ever since, but it wasn’t a cinch getting him there.

Maybe Hosmer and Moustakas will turn into ERIC HOSMER and MIKE MOUSTAKAS. But it hasn’t been a cinch getting them there either. It never is.

(Note from Simmons: “EFF YOU, ERIC HOSMER, YOU FANTASY TEAM MURDERER!!!!”)

Jonah:

Yes, it does seem with this group to be a systemic problem. Because like you said, it’s not just players struggling upon first exposure to the big leagues. It’s lower-minors prospects not making much progress over those two years. Multiple pitching injuries. Now, Baseball America, like Keith Law and John Sickels and Jonathan Mayo and Jason Parks and other prospect folks, are great at what they do and also fallible, because that’s the nature of the business. But these recent Royals results would be a few standard deviations away from normal, you’d think.

On a more macro level, one thing that jumps out at me is the Royals’ supreme lack of plate discipline. I bet you’ve got these numbers filed in the back of your head being a die-hard KC fan, but this franchise has been allergic to walks since … I dunno, Amos Otis’s heyday? And for all the talk of this next generation of great position player prospects, one thing these guys really haven’t produced are those walks. As I’m writing this, the Royals’ team walk rate is 6.5 percent, second to last in the majors. Even some of those prospects you mention who have been developing, like Escobar and Cain, aren’t walking. Acknowledging the small sample size, even Gordon, who historically has shown a solid batting eye, is striking out six times as often as he’s walked this year. Walks are of course just one of many factors that go into building a winning team. But you wonder if the prospect hounds are correctly talking up the Royal-lings’ tools, only to see those players fall short when it comes to developing refined skills in the big leagues.

Rany:

Oh, Jonah. You really had to bring up the Royals and plate discipline, didn’t you?

In 1980, George Brett hit .390 and the Royals went to their first World Series. They finished a respectable sixth in the AL in walks that year.

In the 32 seasons since, the Royals have been in the top half of the AL in walks ONCE. That was in 1989, when — not coincidentally — they won 92 games, their highest win total since 1980. Even when they won the World Series in 1985, they were third to last in the league in walks drawn, but squeaked into the playoffs thanks to an awesome starting rotation. It’s as if, having won a championship without a patient lineup, the Royals just figured that it must not be important at all. Not only have the Royals been worse than average in walks drawn for 23 YEARS IN A ROW, but in the past 23 years not a single player — not one player — has drawn even 90 walks in a season. At this point, the people of Kansas City have no concept of what it means to have a lineup that grinds out at-bats — you might as well ask them if they want to go to the beach after the ballgame.

And while the organization now pays lip service to the concept that walks are important, they’re showing no signs of turning things around. Last year they finished dead last in the AL in walks for the eighth time in 30 years, and dead last in the majors for the fifth time (even though NL teams don’t have the benefit of the DH). As I’m writing this, the Royals are, guess what, dead last in the AL in walks. Since starting the season 17-10, the Royals have drawn just 28 walks in their last 14 games, which is probably why they’ve won just three of them.

Wednesday night, they somehow took three walks in the top of the third against the Angels — and wound up scoring seven runs in the inning. You’d think someone in the organization would take notice. But they never do. They never do.

Jonah:

You and I both didn’t like the James Shields–Wil Myers trade, not because we didn’t like Shields (I was a fan, you were cautiously optimistic), but because of the process involved in making the deal, where the Royals might’ve tried to acquire a pitcher without sacrificing their best prospect and without giving up six years of service time for two. But hell, maybe there’s something fatally flawed in the way the Royals develop prospects, such that Myers would’ve been destined to disappoint had he remained in Kansas City’s system. Maybe the new market inefficiency is failing at producing homegrown stars, realizing you suck, then flipping these guys while their prospect sheen is still in full effect. (I’m only half-kidding.)

Rany:

Well, if the Royals win the Myers trade — and I don’t think they will, but if they do — then it might very well be because they did exactly that. It’s easy to overrate prospects — I do it all the time — because in selecting a group of young players who haven’t failed yet, by definition you’re selecting a group of young players who have more downside than upside.

But they’re not supposed to be ALL downside either. For Royals fans, it just seems that way.

This, by the way, might partly explain why we’re all so in love with Salvador Perez. He has a chance to be that guy — the one Royals prospect who comes up, plays like a star from day one, and never hits a speed bump along the way. He hit .331 in 39 games as a rookie, and he hit .301/.328/.471 last season, while playing exceptional defense behind the plate. He did miss the first half of last year with a knee injury — we can’t have it all. But after a slow start this year, he’s hitting .308/.324/.413 and nailing base runners like they said something bad about his mother.

And the craziest part is, Perez was never a top prospect when he was in the minor leagues. Maybe that’s his secret.

Jonah:

So where does this leave us? Dayton Moore can deny that making a win-now move like Shields for Myers is a nod to his job security (or lack thereof) as he nears his seventh anniversary as Royals GM. But whether the motive is saving his own skin, bringing in “winning” players in an effort to teach his young players how to win, or a combination of the two, it’s clear there’s a sense of urgency here.

If the Royals had a billionaire owner who didn’t become a giant cheapskate when running a major league team, like … well, not this guy, and definitely not this guy, but … some hypothetical person like that, they could consider doubling down on their win-now tack and spending a bunch of money instead of trying the patient, build-from-within approach. Since they won’t spend money, maybe the middle ground is to raid what’s left of the farm system to make some more go-for-it trades. Shields becomes a free agent after next season, and when you’re contending at the quarter mark while sitting on the longest playoff drought for any big-four North American pro sports team, that might be enough to warrant getting aggressive. I mean, hell, if your team’s player development program really is fatally flawed, then maybe going vintage Steinbrenner, sans cash, is your best bet.

Problem is, cognitive dissonance is a bitch. Moore built his reputation as a scout’s scout, he’s proud of the job he’s done putting this group of prospects together, and with the exception of Shields-Myers, he seems inclined to live or die by the players his organization has developed over the past seven years. Admitting failure and dismantling one’s own strategy is a good way to get fired in this industry. I’m not quite as pessimistic as you are about the team’s legion of twentysomethings. Many of these guys are still young, young enough to pull off successful Alex Gordon–style post-hype breakouts. But the problem is one of timing. If Hosmer doesn’t figure it all out until 2015, Moustakas waits till 2016, and so on, that’s probably too late. By then Shields will probably be gone, Butler and Gordon will be gone or on their way out, Moore will be gone, and the David Glass–owned Royals may very well have blown up this core by then. This was always one of the biggest issues with the Shields deal: The Royals had (and have) a lot of promising, young talent, but expecting them all to blossom right away so the team could start making playoff runs was (and is) asking a lot.

So really, we’re back to hope. Hope that the big push can work, hope that the young guys all start destroying the rest of the league from Memorial Day on, hope that our boss doesn’t hunt down Eric Hosmer after a bunch more 0-for-5s and land himself in one of L.A. County’s finest hospitality facilities for 25 to life. Given the Royals’ glorious history over the past 28 years, what could possiBLY go wrong?

Filed Under: Jonah Keri, People

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri

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