A few months ago, I wrote about which front offices should get the benefit of the doubt, using the Tampa Bay Rays ‘ signing of mediocre reliever Fernando Rodney as my primary example. One of my negative examples of a team that had not yet earned the benefit of the doubt was the Royals.
Let’s play a little GM and look at recent examples of each team’s process at work, taking as our case studies Rodney’s production so far this season and the Royals’ call-up of second base prospect Johnny Giavotella.
The Fernando Rodney thing is pretty straightforward. For the last few years he was a mediocre-to-terrible reliever who did not even have the sort of splits that made him seem like a good ROOGY option. The Rays signed him to a cheap contract (although, frankly, given his skills it seemed a bit steep at the time) during the off-season. So far this year, he has been awesome. To be fair, it has been less than 16 innings. Still, a 0.57 ERA is impressive, and a 1.74 FIP indicates that it has not been a total mirage. Rodney’s strikeout rate per nine innings is over eight for the first time since 2008, but more interesting is the level of control Rodney has shown so far this season — his BB/9 just over 1. That’s unprecedented in his career.
To repeat: this is a small sample of Rodney’s performance, he may yet collapse. Replacing Kyle Farnsworth as a closer is not exactly a tall order (although Farnsworth was another good reclamation by the Rays). Still, we can see that the “Process,” to use a terms employed publicly by both front offices at various times, makes sense. The Rays are in contention. They needed more bullpen help. They did not have much money. They (and their scouting staff has to get most of the credit here, since I doubt anyone else saw this potential) singled out Rodney and gave him an affordable deal. So far, it has paid off, and even if Rodney does not pitch another inning, it will have paid off for them.
Now let us take a look at the Royals’ second base situation. In 2011, Royals fans suffered through a miserable season of the noodle-batted Chris Getz and Mike Aviles (in one of his bad years). Johnny Giavotella was hitting well in AAA, although there had always been concerns about his fielding. Aviles (a holdover from the previous administration, which probably figures heavily in how he was treated) was eventually traded to Boston for Yamaico Navarro.
That made sense. Aviles had been good in 2008, hurt in 2009, and decent again in 2010. His infield defense was questionable, and he never walked, but he made good contact and had enough pop to play there. However, he was entering his 30s and his first year of arbitration, which did not really fit in with the Royals long-term youth movement. In addition, the Royals already had better, younger options at shortstop (Alcides Escobar) and third (Mike Moustakas), and they did not need to be paying an arbitration salary to a utility man in his 30s. With Giavotella seemingly ready for a tryout at second, it made sense to get a younger guy like Navarro as a cheaper utility option.
Giavotella struggled on both sides of the ball after his call-up in 2011, but he was young, and given that the Royals seemed ready for another year of rebuilding in 2012, it seemed logical to pencil him in as the second-base starter for 2012. Chris Getz was clearly not any kind of answer down the road, and Christian Colon, the alleged second baseman of the future, had not hit at all in the minors.
One red flag might have gone up when the Royals traded Navarro for nothing. Uh, didn’t they scout this guy? But it didn’t seem to matter. The big one went up when the Royals brought back their former shortstop, Yuniesky Betancourt, on a $2 million contract for a second go-round. He was supposed to be a utility man, but fans still went ballistic, given how dreadful Betancourt was and is.
Ironically, this was the second time he had (effectively) replaced Aviles, a superior player, and again, for more money (Aviles got $1.2 million from Boston). Apologists for the Royals’ front office went into spin mode: hey, he’s not that bad (seriously?), and really, he’s hardly going to play at all (then why waste $2 million on a utility man in a non-contending year?)! People who worried that a Betancourt-Getz platoon would somehow “block” Giavotella were dismissed as cranks.
…and yet, during Spring Training, Giavotella was demoted to the minor league camp, and the team ended up starting the season with a Betancourt-Getz platoon at second base. Both hitters started out sort of hot, but it did not last (and Yuni got hurt). In the meantime, Aviles started out the year insanely hot in Boston as their starting shortstop — Aviles is far from a world-beater, but he is not nearly Boston’s biggest problem. And he is clearly a superior player to either Betancourt or Getz.
One might point out that, on the bright side, Giavotella was finally called up this week. But let’s keep it into perspective: first of all, he is not replacing an infielder on the 25-man roster, he’s replacing Jonathan Sanchez who went to the DL with
cantpitchitis left biceps tendinitis. Moreover, the team is not saying they will play him full-time or even in a platoon, just that he will play “occasionally.” Last night, he DHed against Jon Lester.
Just to recap: the team wants to get younger and look to the future: good. So they trade a getting-more-expensive Mike Aviles for a cheaper, younger, player who might serve in a utility role without blocking younger talent: makes sense. Then they trade what they got for Aviles for basically nothing: um, okay, no biggie. Then they sign an inferior player to Aviles for more money than it would have taken to retain Aviles: uh, what? Then they complete the Chain of Brilliance by sending down the guy they supposedly made room for by shipping Aviles (who effectively brought back nothing) and playing two bad players in his place.
What was the thought process here? If they think that Getz and/or Betancourt were better than Aviles, that would be bad enough, but it seems like one bad move compounding another. Don’t get me wrong: I am not hugely confident in Giavotella, either. His only real skill on offense is making contact, and he is really bad in the field. However, did the Royals really think another month or two in AAA would turn him into Frank White? Giavotella has been a second baseman in college and the minors, what more can he learn? What does the team really gain by playing Getz and Betancourt over him?
If they simply could not stand Giavotella and wanted a better player, they could have kept Aviles around, which would have been better than what they have and been cheaper, too. Either the Royals just do not see who the better players are, or the “Process” is just a mish-mash of small, senseless moves that add up to a larger bundle of silliness. Or both.
And that, my friends, is a microcosmic example of why one can trust the Rays’ Process when they sign Fernando Rodney, but not the Royals’ Process when they sign Yuniesky Betancourt.