31 October 2008

Trade Analysis: Royals Get 1B Mike Jacobs for RHP Leo Nunez

The Kansas City Royals think they've plugged one of the many big holes in their lineup with the acquisition of 1B Mike Jacobs for relief pitcher Leo Nunez, but have they?

The Royals got the 4th worst OPS out of their firstbasemen in the whole of Major League Baseball this year. The three below them (Oakland, San Francisco and Seattle) were all rebuilding teams playing in severe pitchers' parks, so if you adjust for park context, the Royals are probably last, or very close to it.

So almost anything is an improvement, right? I mean, it's not tough to do better than the likes of Ross Gload and Mark Teahen, you would think. The trouble, however, is that of the handful of young players the Royals have who might be worth keeping, three of them (Billy Butler, Ryan Shealy and Kila Ka'aihue) also play first base. There's always the DH of course, since Royals' Designated Hitters in 2008 were nothing special, either (9th out of 14 AL teams in OPS). Except that's still only two lineup spots for four players. This means one of three things:

1) The Royals intend to trade one or more of their prospects.

This is possible, as there are probably several teams who would be interested in someone like Billy Butler or Kila Ka'aihue, a young hitter with patience and pop who would be forced to play for the MLB minimum for the next few years. This would be a smart thing to do, which is why it's probably not in the Royals' plans. Not as smart as, say, not trading for Jacobs in the first place, but smarter than doing nothing, in light of the now-existing circumstances.

2) The Royals don't think they're ready, and plan to let those guys get more seasoning at AAA Omaha and/or on the bench.

This would be a smart thing to do if either of them had anything left to prove in the minors. But they don't, or at least Butler doesn't. Butler's career minor league line is .336/.416/.561 in almost 400 games. The man can flat-out hit, even if he can't field, but that's why we have the DH. Ka'aihue hit approximately .315/.450/.630 combined at AA and AAA this year, an impressive line indeed, but only 33 of his 771 career minor league games are at AAA. (He didn't embarrass himself in 21 MLB at-bats either.) He'll be 25 at the end of March, so the Royals may feel like they have a little time to see if he's the real deal.

For the record, Shealy's got impressive minor league numbers, too, throughout his career, but most of those were put up in hitters' parks in the Colorado farm system, and he's often been old for his leagues. He's going to be 29 next year, so it's not like they'd be totally off their rockers if they didn't look at him as an everyday starter at first base.

3) The Royals plan to "mix and match", go with the "hot hand" and generally "ruin the careers" of all four players, plus Jose Guillen's, just to be fair.

Now that sounds like the Kansas City Royals we all know and love!

Jacobs hit 32 homers and drove in 92 for the Marlins this year, both career highs, as were his 67 runs scored. Unfortunately, his 119 strikeouts were also a career high, and his .247 batting average and .299 OBP were both career lows. Jacobs wouldn't be a bad pickup if the Royals didn't already have three decent possibilities of the position he plays, or if they had a lineup full of patient hitters who can be on base in front of an all-or-nothing guy like Jacobs. But the Royals front office can never just cave in a rebuild completely, and Jacobs comes with the "Proven Veteran" tag tattooed on the back of his neck, so, here he is.

Oh, and he's about to get expensive, which is why the Marlins were shopping him. After making the MLB minimum for the last three years and change, Jacobs is eligible for salary arbitration, and will probably draw something like $4 to $6 million, especially after hitting 32 homers. The Royals are, like many of the bottom-feeders in MLB, flush with revenue sharing money, but they don't know how to spend it.

Three years ago they were picking up guys like Scott Elarton and Mark Redman and Reggie Sanders and Mark Grudzielanek, supposedly to help the youngsters develop in a more stable environment. Of those, only Grudz remains, and his contract is now, up, but the Royals don't have anyone else qualified to play second base.

Well, Alberto Callaspo might be worth a long look, but scouting reports suggest that he'll be hard pressed as an every day player. Shortstop Mike Aviles looks like a late bloomer who may have a few decent years in him, and Alex Gordon should continue to develop. If they can let Butler DH every day and if Jacobs continues to be at least mediocre (or better yet, if he flops and Ka'aihue thrives...) the infield and DH spots might be OK.

The trouble is that the entire remainder of the lineup is filled with professional Out-Makers. John Buck has been the Royals' regular catcher for almost five years, and has yet to post an adjusted OPS higher than 90 in any season. This year, at age 27, when he should have been having his best season, he hit .224 with nine homers. His back-up, Miguel Olivo, hit 12 in 25 fewer games. The Royals' catching corps ranked 21st in OPS among the 30 MLB teams.

And the outfield is even worse. Mark Teahen got a little of his "power" back, hitting 15 homers, but lost 30 points in batting average, so his slugging percentage was basically unchanged. Jose Guillen, despite the 97 RBIs, had his worst full year in a decade, with an OPS of 91, an OPB of .300 and just 66 runs scored. David DeJesus was pretty good, but he can't carry a team, especially not one that insists on giving Joey Gathright 300 chances to prove he still can't hit. Overall, Royals outfielders ranked 20th (RF), 23rd (LF) and 29th (CF) in OPS in 2008, and among those, only Teahen has any real chance of improving. DeJesus is likely to get a little worse, and Guillen is what he is: An aging, below-average hitter and fielder making $12 mil for each of the next two years, whether he improves or not.

And I haven't even gotten into the pitching. Zach Greinke looks like he's back and Gil Meche was solid once again, but it remains to be seen whether Luke Hochevar and/or Kyle Davies will develop, or if Brian Bannister can get back to the form that made him look so promising in 2007. They've got a decent closer and a couple of worthwhile relief pitchers, but not much else, and little help coming from AAA. (Carlos Rosa is the closest thing to a real prospect still down there, and he needs to prove himself at AAA a little more.)

Now would be a great time to take a chance and trade Meche, who, after two solid years, looks like a consistent, LAIM-plus, but who probably won't be worth the $35 million they still owe him for the next three years. The team should be trading away expensive players who won't likely help them toward a championship, instead of acquiring them. Lots of teams could use a guy like Meche, or what they think Meche will be, and the Royals could probably get a pretty good outfielder in return.

Leo Nunez, the pitcher they gave up for Jacobs, was a starter in the minors but his thin frame (6'1", 160) scares scouts. Still, lots of skinny guys have turned out to be pretty good, and he ought to get a chance. it's not that they couldn't afford to give him up, just that there were more pressing needs than an "established veteran" (read: "proven mediocrity") for first base.

All of this is to say that while the Royals have some needs, and could afford to trade away a pitching prospect, they have lots of needs more pressing than yet another firstbaseman/DH.

If there's an upside to this, it's that Jacobs had an abnormally low BABIP this year, just .260, where the MLB average is around .300 or so. If he comes back to the norm in 2009, he could see a 20-30 point improvement in his batting average, and the Royals will look like geniuses! You heard it here first, folks.

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Anonymous said...

its tough to take you serious when you say the Royals have a decent closer

they have the best young closer in baseball

Travis M. Nelson said...

I like to have a little more of a track record than one and a half or two seasons before dubbing someone the best at something. Soria's good, and youing, but is he better than Papelbon? Better than K-Rod? Jose Valverde even? No, no, and maybe. He might be better than Bobby Jenks, and is definitely better than the Wilsons and some others.

But even so, how big of a deal is that really? The difference between his ERA and Huston Street's is like 15 runs over the course of a season. His impressive 70 innings will be irrelevant if the starters flop or if the bullpen can't get the ball to him ot "save". The Royals have mor important things to do than pat themselves on the back for finding a pitcher who can get three outs at the end of a game.