April 2012

There were legitimate reasons some of us were optimistic about the Royals. Those reasons were sound then, and they’re sound now.

The Royals knew there might be more tough times ahead. In fact, they warned us. Specifically, GM Dayton Moore told anyone willing to listen. He said it was great fun watching those young guys finish the 2011 season on a 33-33 run and that he was thrilled to see fans come back to Kauffman Stadium. He was also optimistic about the future, more optimistic than he’d ever been. He was equally clear about the challenges ahead.

All the Royals had really done was accomplish the first phase of the job. David and Dan Glass gave him the resources to accumulate a wealth of young talent, and Moore did just that. What was it Baseball America said about the Royals? Not just one of baseball’s best farm systems, but one of the best the magazine had ever evaluated. Again, though, accumulating young talent isn’t the same as winning at the Major League level.

Other teams have done fantastic jobs with their minor league systems. Brian Cashman’s work with the Yankees has gotten overlooked, but few general managers have done better. The Rays, Braves, Cardinals, Rockies and Mariners are among the other franchises that come to mind for their work. And Jon Daniels remains the gold standard for taking over one of baseball’s worst system and transforming it into one of the best breathtakingly fast.

But I digress.

Just getting a bunch of those young guys to the Major Leagues last season was a huge accomplishment for the Royals. They’d won throughout their sprint through the minor leagues, and to watch them go 33-33 down the stretch, spurred optimism that the Royals were ready to contend.

This is where things get complicated. First, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, etc., were going to have to make adjustments as teams looked for their weaknesses. Some players can make the necessary adjustments, but many, many more are never heard from again. There’s just one way to find out, and that’s to run them out there, let ’em play and see what happens.

Moore said last winter that as hard as it is to get minor league players to the big leagues, it’s just as challenging to keep them there, and that it’s still another two- or three-year process before they’re established as major leagues. If you looked at the Tigers or Rangers this spring, it was fairly easy to predict how many games they’d win. In Prince Fielder and Josh Hamilton and Justin Verlander and others, they have a bunch of players with long track records.

If you’re wondering why managers prefer veteran players, this is it. They like knowing what they can expect from them. To think the Royals were going to keep right on going the way they finished last season was a huge leap of faith. But the only way the Royals are going to get back to respectability is for Ned Yost to keep writing those names on his lineup card and to give them the opportunity to succeed and fail and succeed again.

This is far easier for someone like me to do than for Yost. There’s no book on when to keep challenging young players, on how long to stick with them when they’re struggling, on that fine line between setting back their careers and allowing them to learn how to swim in the deep water.

Should Yost stick with Hosmer when he’s hitting .203? Should he give him one mental day off, or several? What about sending him back to the minors for a refresher course? If you think you know the answer, it’s because you’ve never had to make these decisions. There’s no one answer, no right answer.

Moore also knew the pitching staff could have some issues. The Royals got a bunch of their position players to the big leagues last summer, but the next wave of talent is their pitching. Until that next wave arrives, the Royals aren’t going to be in a position to contend long term.

He’d hoped Aaron Crow would grab one of the sports in the rotation, but had to send him back to the bullpen after closer Joakim Soria got hurt. And Luke Hochevar, a former No. 1 pick, still is sporting a career ERA of 5.30. Moore attempted to bridge the gap by trading for Jonathan Sanchez, who has zero quality starts in three turns.

This was a bad spring for the Royals. Not only did they lose Soria for the year, but 21-year-old catcher Salvador Perez, arguably the player the franchise could least afford to lose, went down with a knee injury. Those two holes would be a challenge to overcome in the best of times, but for a team still finding its way to the mountaintop, for a team without the money to fill holes in free agency, losing Soria and Perez were punches to the gut.

Still, there’s no way to explain a 3-13 start, including an 0-10 home record. Sometimes stuff happens. The Royals have been tested enough in recent years that it seems unfair they’re being tested some more. This season was supposed to be the beginning of the good times. The 2012 All-Star Game at Kauffman Stadium was going to be a kind of coming-out party for an entire franchise.

The Royals are near the bottom of the American League in both hitting and pitching. Only the Twins and Yankees have had fewer quality starts. Their offense has scored three runs or more in an inning just three times in 16 games. Only the Angels have converted a lower percentage of save chances.

The Royals were baseball’s model franchise when I began covering the Orioles in 1984, and this season began with such optimism that good times were coming again. All that minor league talent means there’s a really good chance that good times still are ahead, but the Royals aren’t there yet.

Hosmer and Moustakas are accustomed to winning, and that winning attitude is something the Royals believed was important to the attitude of the clubhouse. Now they’re going to have to work like crazy to stay positive when there’s so much negativity swirling around them. They’re learning that nothing is guaranteed, that accomplishing one goal just means there’s another on the horizon. The thing the Royals still have is a reasonable blueprint. They have smart people making decisions and a bunch of gifted players in the system. In the end, that ought to be enough.

Frank Robinson is the player I measure every other against, and they almost all come up short

“When you made a mistake on the field, you hated going back to the dugout because you knew you had to face Frank.”-Elrod Hendricks.

I was asked by a reader to write something about Frank Robinson. I’m thrilled to do it for a long list of reasons. First, he’s the player I measure every other against. We all have someone like that. Sometimes, it’s a guy we grew up watching. Other times, it’s someone we covered.

My admiration for Frank Robinson comes from another place. I moved to Baltimore in 1984 to cover the Orioles for the Baltimore Sun (and later the Washington Post), and even though Frank hadn’t played a game there in 13 years, his name was still spoken with reverence.

He played for the Orioles for just six seasons (1966-71), but those six seasons transformed an entire franchise. The Orioles won the American League pennant four times in those six seasons and won the World Series twice. No team did more with less, and it was during those six seasons they gained the reputation of being one of baseball’s smartest and most efficient franchises.

Frank was a great player, not just in terms of productivity, but in terms of leadership, setting an example, you name it. He won the Triple Crown and American League MVP in his very first season of 1966, and that obviously is where all the other stuff begins. He hit at least 30 home runs 11 times, had at least 30 doubles seven times and stolen 10 or more bases 10 times.

He was a tough guy, at times brutally tough, like the day he wrapped his huge hands around a sportswriter’s throat and shoved him against a locker. There’s no way Frank ever intended to hurt the guy because he easily could have snapped the guy’s neck into six pieces. He just wanted to get a point across.

Those Kangaroo Courts he ran got a lot of attention because there was a funny photo of Frank wearing a mop on his head. But those sessions were absolutely serious. They were Frank’s way of communicating how to play the game the right way, and of not tolerating any other way, especially not tolerating losing.

Frank was unafraid to confront teammates for their mistakes. He would challenge an opposing pitcher in a moment. Fans want players to care about as much as they care. No player I’ve ever known cared more than Frank. No player was as intolerant of players who didn’t.

My favorite story about Frank concerns a game–I’ve long since forgotten the date or place–when he had a wrist injury so severe he was unable to swing the bat. Only his teammates knew how badly Frank was hurting. Never mind that. Frank bunted for a hit, stole second and scored the winning run on a hit.

During his National League days, he had some hellish battles with Don Drysdale. Don would throw one at Frank’s head. Frank would get up and slap one off the wall.

One day, some of us in the media were asking Frank about the best pitchers ever ever faced.

Juan Marichal? “Killed him,” Frank said.

Bob Gibson? “Killed him,” Frank Said.

Don Drysdale? “Killed him,” Frank said.

Sandy Koufax? “Killed him,” Frank said. “Wait. You said Koufax? No one killed him, and if they said they did, they’re lying.”

Frank was legitimately a five-tool player because he could win games with his bat, arm, legs, glove.

My other favorite Frank story is also blurry in terms of time and place. But a pitcher in the minor leagues knocked Frank down. He grounded out a couple of pitches later, and as he crossed the infield heading back to the dugout, he punched the pitcher in the face.

There were stories about a Giants pitcher who refused to give Frank the ball when, as a manager, he went to take him out of the game. That pitcher never made that mistake a second time.

Frank finished his 21-year career, with 586 home runs. At the time, only Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714) and Willie Mays (660) had more. At the moment, he’s ninth on the home run list, 20th in RBIs, 15th in runs, 11th in total bases and 10th in intentional walks. He’s also eighth all-time in being hit by pitches. (Frank thought the inside portion of the plate was his. Others apparently disagreed.)

Frank got 89.2 percent of the vote when he appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 1982. That year, Hank Aaron bgot 97.8 percent of the vote. In other words, Aaron wasn’t mentioned on nine ballots, and Frank wasn’t mentioned on 45, which tells you the boys had a real high standard.

I have very few pieces of memorabilia from my nearly four decades of covering this wonderful sport. My favorite is a small framed photograph taken at an Orioles function in spring training in around 1988. It shows a smiling Frank Robinson holding my infant daughter, Katy. Watching him play with her that evening made me smile then, and thinking about it, makes me smile now.

Big Game James Shields does what an ace is supposed to do

“He was everything we needed him to be–incredible.”–Rays third baseman Evan Longoria on pitcher James Shields.

The Rays had lost four in a row and fallen a game under .500 when James Shields walked to the mound at Fenway Park on Monday morning. During the losing streak, they’d allowed 38 runs, their most in a four-game stretch since July 22-26, 2007. They’d been outscored 38-14 and gone six for 46 with runners in scoring position since scoring fourth in the ninth of Justin Verlander last week.

On a day when temperatures soared into the 90s, Shields did what an ace is supposed to do. He took control of the game and refused to let it go. Boston’s Daniel Bard was very, very good, allowing just one run, that on a bases-loaded walk to Longoria in the seventh inning. But that was one run too many on a day when Shields did what an ace is supposed to do.

When he  walked off the mound with a 1-0 lead, I figured he was done. He’d thrown 105 pitches, and in tough conditions, he’d done his job and then some. He returned for the ninth, got one out, and then finally departed after walking Dustin Pedroia. He has pitched at least eight innings in 16 of his last 33 starts. That’s more eight-plus inning appearances than 14 teams have in that stretch.

“We absolutely needed something like that,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon, who got his 500th victory.

(When James Shields got the Opening Day start for the Rays, he broke an MLB-record streak of 764 games in which they started a pitcher under the age of 30. However, they’ve now used a starter 30 or younger in 905 straight games. The last time the Rays threw a starter at least 31 years old was Mark Hendrickson, 32, on June 25, 2006. In addition, the Rays have used a starting pitcher they drafted for 175 consecutive games, a major league record.)

The Rays began Tuesday last in the American League with a 6.04 staff ERA. Some of that is a bad start by the bullpen, but the starters have only the ninth-best ERA at 4.13.

The Rays began this season widely regarded to have one of the two or three best rotations in baseball, a rotation good enough to take some pressure off an offense that likely will not be one of the best.

Shields is coming off a terrific season in which he set club records in innings (249.1), complete games (11) and shutouts (4). He finished third in the American League Cy Young Award balloting, and his 11 complete games were the most by an MLB pitcher since Randy Johnson threw 12 for the 1999 Diamondbacks. They were the most by an AL pitcher since Scott Erickson had 11 for the Orioles in 1998. He was the first AL pitcher with 11 complete games and four shutouts since Roger Clemens in 1992. He had more complete games than 26 major league teams.

Giants GM Brian Sabean built a deep bullpen, and now it could be the key to his team’s success in 2012

Sometimes the really important moves are the ones that go almost unnoticed. That’s how it looks with the Giants after new broke that closer Brian Wilson probably will have to undergo Tommy John surgery.” While we focused on GM Brian Sabean’s acquisitions of Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan, his re-signing of left-handed relievers Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez could end up being just as important.

Sabean didn’t allow either of them to reach the free-agent market, and his construction of a deep, talented bullpen could be the key to the Giants’ season as Bruce Bochy searches for ninth-inning options. He also has right-handers Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo, both of whom have terrific stuff. It’s not the way the Giants drew it up, but they’ve got some optimism that Wilson’s injury won’t deep-six their season.

“It’s always nice to have one closer, but a committee works, too,” Bochy said. “We’ve done that. We’ll probably have to make slight adjustments as we go–who’s available and who’s not, those types of things. But we’ve got experienced guys who are comfortable pitching late in the game. This is certainly a tough loss for us, but the guys that we have could soften this loss – like the great job they did filling in last year when Willie was gone.”

The Giants have jumped from 15th to fourth in runs, with Cabrera (.364), Pablo Sandoval (.333), Nate Schierholtz (.353) and especially Buster Posey (.300) all off to nice starts. Aubrey Huff’s 2011 slump has carried into 2012, and Brandon Belt hasn’t taken advantage so far.

But the Giants are still 4-4 despite the National League’s second-worst ERA. If you believe in Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner, this is a part of the Giants that’ll right itself. The Dodgers appear to have changed the dynamics of the NL West race a bit, but there are miles and mores to go. Let’s all enjoy the ride.

Dodgers have MLB’s best record, and it just goes to show you that this is a funny game

Oh sure, you’re going t0 tell me you saw this coming. Even as the Dodgers were cutting payroll, losing players, making no splashy moves and barely being mentioned in the same breath with the Dodgers and Giants, you knew this little club had something special going on. There’s one like you in every crowd.

Actually, this 8-1 start isn’t as shocking as you might think. Yes, the Dodgers have gotten all kinds of attention in the last year or so, mostly the wrong kind. But during spring training in Arizona, almost everyone around the club and plenty of the scouts who saw them evaluated the ball club with essentially the same words.

“That’s a pretty good little club.”

Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley give the Dodgers a dynamic 1-2 presence in the rotation, and Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier do the same for the lineup. With Gold Glove winners in Kemp, Ethier and Kershaw, the Dodgers don’t give many runs away. Closer Javy Guerra has been perfect at the end of games. Throw in a pair of 24-year-old relievers, Kenley Jansen and Josh Lindbloom, and scatter Mark Ellis, Aaron Harang and Adam Kennedy around the clubhouse, and suddenly, the Dodgers are MLB’s most surprising team in these early days.

Two people deserve all kinds of credit. One is GM Ned Colletti, who has done an outstanding job in very tough circumstances. Another is manager Don Mattingly, who managed to keep his guys focused despite the flurry of negative news surrounding owner Frank McCourt. The Dodgers are off to their best start in 31 years. They’re second in the National League in runs, thanks to Kemp and Ethier hitting .382 with eight home runs and 29 RBIs.

Guerra is five for five out of the bullpen. He’s just 26 years old, a former fourth-round pick in the 2004 First Year Player Draft. With Jansen in front of him, the Dodgers can shorten the game to six or seven innings. Jansen originally was signed as a catcher in 2005, but converted to reliever in 2009. Guerra spent eight years in the minors, none of them at Class AAA.

There’s some magic, too. Jansen blew a two-run lead against the Padres Friday night, but the Dodgers came back in the bottom of the inning to draw four straight walks off San Diego relievers. If you’re going to point out that the Dodgers have gotten all seven of their victories against the Padres and Pirates, I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear you. This, friends, is a cynicism-free zone.

Astros are off to a 3-3 start, and if that doesn’t sound like much to you, it’s music to the ears of baseball fans in Houston

The thing about throwing a bunch of young guys on the field is that there’s no way of knowing what’s going to happen. That’s the thing that’s going on with the Astros at the moment. Once one of baseball’s smartest and most efficient franchises, the Astros fell victim to the cyclical nature of sports the last few years.

Now they’re pretty much starting over. When Jim Crane bought the franchise and began cleaning house last year, he was extremely honest with fans about where the Astros were at this point.

“We’ve got some work to do,” he said.

Speaking of Crane, he’s off to a pretty good start himself. In the five months since buying the Astros, he has done virtually everything right, from meeting with fans to ask them what they like and don’t like about the franchise to hiring a slew of smart people. He’s in the process of redesigning the uniforms and logo for 2013.

They were coming off a 106-loss season, and Crane didn’t try to spin a story that wasn’t there. He told his fans that the Rangers and Rays would be his model, and that while there might be some short-term pain, the Astros eventually would be back. Once they became good again, they intended to be good for a long, long time.

So in a sense, this season isn’t about winning. It’s about continuing to shift the franchise in the right direction. Former Astros GM Ed Wade inherited arguably the worst farm system in baseball when he was hired in 2007. He turned over a dramatically improved one–15th? 16th?–to Crane.

Crane hired Jeff Luhnow from the Cardinals to be his general manager, and Luhnow has begun to remake the baseball operation. His will be a Moneyball franchise, one in which decisions will be driven but the complex data-driven analysis used by at least half the teams. But it would be a mistake to say that this season’s W-L record is irrelevant. Winning is always important, the best measuring stick of a franchise.

In the case of the Astros, the absolute best measuring stick might be how their Double-A team at Corpus Christi performs, and how many of Wade’s four draft classes make strides toward the Major Leagues. That said, winning is never unimportant.

That’s why it has been so much fun to watch the Astros split their first six games. Maybe that’s nothing to get excited about, but they didn’t win their third game last season until they had eight losses. With the trades of Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt in 2010 and Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence in 2011, the Astros are going to turn their roster into a revolving door of young guys.

There’s a different dynamic with younger players. They’re thrilled to be in the Major Leagues and hungry to show they belong. The Astros are going to be fun to watch, and out of this group of players, there almost certainly going to be guys who stick around for the long haul.

For instance, they picked up right-hander Lucas Harrell on waivers from the White Sox. He had to pitch his way onto the club in Spring Training, and he did just that. Last weekend, he was tremendous in beating Jamie Moyer for his second Major League victory.

“Very impressive,” Rockies manager Jim Tracy said. “He threw four pitches for strikes.”

Luhnow says the Astros have been exactly what he hoped they’d be: a young, high energy team that plays its tail off. The Astros have baseball’s third-lowest payroll at $61 million, and their starting lineup averages 25.9 years per man. Carlos Lee is the only member of the starting eight with more than two years of major league service time.

Roster includes:

  • Three waiver claims: Matt Downs, Lucas Harrell, Wilton Lopez.
  • Two Rule 5 picks: SS Marwin Gonzalez, RHP Rhiner Cruz.
  • Four players–Jose Altuve, Brian Bogusevic, Marwin Gonzalez and J.D. Martinez–have less than a year of service time.

From the Jamie Moyer file…

  •  At 49 years, 140 days, Jamie Moyer is the oldest starting pitcher to be on a team’s Opening Day Roster.
  • Only two older players have made an Opening Day roster: Hoyt Wilhelm (49 years, 350 days) in 1972 with the Dodgers and Jack Quinn (49 years, 310 days) in 1933 with the Reds.
  • Moyer is the second-oldest pitcher to make a start. Satchel Paige (59 years, 80 days) started for Kansas City in 1965, according to Elias.
  • Moyer is the fifth player since 1965 to appear in a Major League game at 49 or older. The last to do it was Julio Franco, who was 49 years, 25 days on Sept. 17, 2007.
  • Moyer is the oldest player to appear in a game since Minnie Minoso (54 years, 311 days) played for the White Sox on Oct. 5, 1980.
  • He’s the oldest pitcher to appear in a game since Hoyt Wilhelm played on July 10, 1972, for the Dodgers. He was 49 years, 350 days.
  • The Astros started two players–left fielder J.D. Martinez and shortstop Marwin Gonzalez–who hadn’t been born when Moyer made his Major League debut on June 16, 1986.

Special atmosphere at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington

Once upon a time, the Texas Rangers weren’t very good. In their first 38 seasons, they went to the playoffs just three times and won one postseason game. They had a winning regular-season record only 11 times. Yet what sometimes gets lost in all the losses is that the Rangers had fans who cared deeply about their team. Beginning in 1989, they failed to draw 2 million fans just twice . After moving into Rangers Ballpark in 1994, they drew more than 2.5 million fans 11 times. A Dallas columnist often made the point that these were the best fans in the sport because no franchise had given them less reason for hope.

I thought of these bad old days this morning when I rolled into Arlington and found hundreds of tailgaters enjoying themselves on this Opening Day. Fans began staking out tailgate locations at 5:30 a.m., and by mid-morning, the thing had the feel of a giant street party.

Far from the bad old days, the Rangers are widely recognized as one of MLB’s smartest franchises. They’ve got great ownership led by Nolan Ryan and a brilliant general manager in Jon Daniels. They’ve won back-to-back American League championships and have done such a good job at the minor league level that there’s a good chance they’ll be competitive for years to come. Even with the Angels adding Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, it would be a mistake to discount the Rangers winning again.

The Rangers locked up Derek Holland through 2016 and have been discussing a longterm deal with Ian Kinsler. To fans of the franchise, the message is that the Rangers intend to keep the core group of players together. On their 41st Opening Day, the Rangers honored their past with having an assortment of players from past teams show up. But it’s the present that was on stage Friday afternoon, and it’s that present that has spurred such optimism.