Rebuilding in Kansas City

Well, the Royals finally did something today.

They traded aging catcher Benito Santiago to the Pittsburgh Pirates for a pitching prospect, and they traded a pitching prospect to the Atlanta Braves for Eli Marrero.

It’s a start.A year ago, Santiago made sense. The Royals were looking for an upgrade over Brent Mayne, and Santiago was arguably the best catcher on the market. He hit .274 and popped a few home runs, but didn’t endear himself to the fans or the press behind the plate, and he only played in 49 games before he broke his hand.

Change of plans: The Royals trade Carlos (there’s only one Carlos) for prospects, including a catcher. That catcher, John Buck, popped twice as many homers in just 25% more at-bats, and after a slow start, showed he’s probably capable of hitting .274 and he’ll make about 10% of what Santiago was supposed to make this year.

Fine, so Santiago’s expendable. Dump as much of his salary as you can, get whatever someone’s willing to give you for him, and spend the savings on something else.

Which brings us to that someone else: Eli Marrero. No longer a youngster at 30, he nevertheless has 4, 5, maybe even 6 good years left in him, and he’s versatile. He’s mostly an outfielder these days, and the Royals probably would have been better off last year letting their pitchers hit and letting the DH hit for their left fielders, if you know what I mean.

Marrero has always been more of a super-sub type player–the most he’s ever played is 131 games–but Kansas City is a good place for a player who’s never really had a chance to come and break out of his shell. Examples in recent years are Joe Randa, Jermaine Dye, and, well, Mike Sweeney. The Royals didn’t trade for Sweeney, but they tried to pawn him off on anyone who would offer a bag of baseballs in return in 1999. Finding no takers, they stuck him on the end of the bench until injuries forced them to use him as a DH. Further injuries and Jeremy Giambi’s–yes, he of the BALCO scandal–unwillingness to learn how to play first base made Sweeney the odd man in, and he responded by hitting .322 in a year when none of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball wanted him.

Eli Marrero has to compete with a guy who hit .156 last year for the starting left field job.

And Marrero gives versatility. The Royals have two guys who can play first base, but last year both of them decided to get hurt. Marrero can move there if need be. And if something were to happen to John Buck, Marrero can catch to give Alberto Castillo a day off, or he can give them a better bat than Castillo on an everyday basis behind the plate while Abraham Nunez, Terrence Long and Aaron Guiel fight for the two available spots in the outfield.

Marrero even gives the Royals someone who can play center field occasionally, even though the Royals suddenly have three other guys who can do that.

I’ve also heard a rumor that Marrero can play third base, in addition to the three outfield spots, first, and catcher, but as far as I can tell he’s never played third in a major-league game. But if the Royals suddenly have three outfielders who can hit, Marrero at third would be an interesting experiment until Mark Teahan–another key to the trade that sent Carlos packing–is ready.

Marrero’s an upgrade. I’m not positive he’s worth $3 million a year, seeing as he’s always been a part-time player, but by parting ways with Joe Randa, trading Carlos Beltran, trading Benito Santiago, and running Juan Gonzalez out of town on a rail, they can afford a few $3 million players.

Ideally, Marrero is the 9th or 10th best position player on your team. Chances are he’s more like the fourth or fifth, playing for the Royals. But when you can get a guy who’d be your fourth or fifth best player in exchange for someone who had a pretty good chance of pitching in AAA all next season, you do it.

So here’s the starting lineup I’d be tentatively planning to use, if I were Tony Pena:

David DeJesus cf
Angel Berroa ss
Mike Sweeney dh
Eli Marrero 3b
Ken Harvey 1b
John Buck c
Abraham Nunez rf
Terrence Long lf
Andres Blanco 2b

Blanco? Yeah. Tony Graffanino is a utility player, not an everyday second baseman. Blanco is a light hitter, but he has a dazzling glove, so I’d play him on the theory that his glove will save more runs than Graffanino’s bat would produce. The Royals have lots of young pitchers, and the best thing you can do for young pitchers is catch the ball. So Blanco brings one of those mystical intangibles with him.

Matt Stairs can come off the bench and pinch hit for him if he ever comes up with a runner in scoring position, and then Graffanino can take over at second.

Even if he only hits .156, having a .156 hitter at second instead of in left field is a significant upgrade.

Here’s a more likely lineup:

David DeJesus cf
Tony Graffanino 2b
Mike Sweeney dh
Ken Harvey 1b
Eli Marrero lf
John Buck c
Abraham Nunez/Terrence Long rf
Angel Berroa ss
Chris Truby 3b

Truby is a journeyman with a little bit of pop that the Royals got as a stopgap until Teahan is ready.

Regardless, it looks like the Royals have a better team this year than they did last year. Unfortunately, so does everyone else in their division…

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