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…

Dave’s formula for winning a pennant

I’ll lead off with my best, like the Royals need to be doing, but more on that later. New Wikipedia entries for the day: Rick Sutcliffe (I couldn’t resist) and Chris von der Ahe. I wrote up Rick, well, because he’s family, and von der Ahe, well, let me tell you about him.
Christian Frederick Wilhelm von der Ahe was the George Steinbrenner of the 1880s. Actually, take George Steinbrenner, Charlie Finley, and Ted Turner all wrapped up in one, and you’re not far off. The eccentric von der Ahe was the clown plince of baseball, and if you called him that to his face, his English was so bad, he’d probably take it as a compliment.

After winning the World Series in 1885, von der Ha Ha, who liked to run around calling himself “der boss president”, celebrated by erecting a large statue outside of Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. But the statue wasn’t of any of his star players. It was a statue of himself. How totally aristocratic.

By 1898 his micromismanaged team was a consistent cellar dweller and literally was a side attraction to an amusement park and a circus. Late in the season, a fire broke out in the stands causing numerous injuries but, remarkably, only one death. He lost the team in the resulting lawsuit. He ended up tending bar in a grubby little saloon. When he died in 1913, the statue got moved to his grave.

Von der Ahe’s team got sold to two brothers named Robison, the owners of a really bad team called the Cleveland Spiders. The owners pretty quickly figured out that the solution to the problem of owning two really bad teams is to shuffle all the best players to one of the teams and make one good team and one incredibly bad team. The 1899 Cleveland Spiders made the 1962 Mets look like the 1927 Yankees by comparison, and the league voted on contraction the next year, killing off the Spiders and leaving the Robisons with one good team. They changed their name the next year, to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Note to David Glass: Buy the Detroit Tigers! Then, after you win the World Series, build a large statue of yourself… outside Yankee Stadium!

It’s probably a good thing I don’t own a baseball team.

So, what’s new? An awful lot.

The Royals’ problems with young pitchers continue… They’ve burned out Dan Reichert, Chad Durbin, and numerous others in recent years, and now their opening-day starter, Runelvys Hernandez, needs Tommy John surgery. I don’t get it. I think the Royals need a new team doctor. Terry Weiss, D.O., where are you?

But the Royals, to their credit, have made two trades this week. Yesterday they acquired veteran left-handed pitcher Brian Anderson from Cleveland, which gives them two dependable left-handed pitchers. In their glory days, they had two lefties named Gura and Splitorff, who fared well against the Yankees in the playoffs. I sure hope history repeats itself. Then I hope the Yankees end up in the cellar. There’s historical precedent for that–and George Steinbrenner looks a little like Chris von der Ahe.

The Royals didn’t land the best impact bat on the market, but they picked up a decent bat in Rondell White. I sure would have preferred Pittsburgh’s Brian Giles, but it was San Diego’s acquisition of Giles who made White available, and supposedly the Royals have been after White for some time. If they’re smart, White will go into left field and Raul Ibañez will move to first base. I could also see them putting White in right field in place of Aaron Guiel, and Carlos Beltran taking Guiel’s leadoff spot. It would be a bold move, but I kind of like starting things off with a bang. He leads the team in home runs, but Beltran’s the ideal leadoff hitter with his blinding speed and high on-base percentage.

Why not combine the two ideas? How’s this look?

Carlos Beltran, cf
Joe Randa, 3b
Mike Sweeney, dh
Raul Ibañez, 1b
Rondell White, lf
Desi Relaford, 2b
Angel Berroa, ss
Dee Brown, rf
Brent Mayne, c

That looks like a lineup that could score some runs to me. It’s better by a longshot than the lineup the Royals used in 1984 and 1985, and both of those teams won plenty. Ibañez is a little uncomfortable at first base, but Ken Harvey can’t hit right-handed pitching and he’s not exactly agile. Brown’s been disappointing but he’s been more consistent, has some pop, and he has good speed so he won’t clog up the bases. Harvey’s better defensively at first than Ibañez, so in late innings he can come in as a defensive replacement and earn his keep. I think Harvey still can be a good player, but winter ball is the place to learn to hit. We’ve got a pennant to win.

Question of the day: The Yankees released 46-year-old Jesse Orosco today. Does he have anything left? Are the Royals interested in taking a chance on another situational lefty who spent his glory years in New York? I’d be tempted to sign him, if only to mentor the few young pitchers the Royals still have on the roster who aren’t hurt. He certainly knows how to stay healthy; the guy’s been on the DL once in his life.

And I see the Yankees sent disappointing Jeff Weaver to the minors. Steinbrenner’s obviously not happy with him; he didn’t send him to AAA, which would be the most normal thing to do (you generally don’t send pitchers with five years’ experience to the minors), but he sent him to A ball. Three steps down. Weaver can’t be happy. Not that I’ll cry for him–he’s the pitcher who picked a fight with Mike Sweeney two seasons ago. But it’s nice to see Steinbrenner regain his old form. Or something.

How to reinvigorate the Royals

Please indulge me one last time this season to write about my beloved, who have currently lost 99 games and are going to make one last valiant attempt to avoid losing 100 this year.
The Royals are a small market. Small-market teams have a rough go of it, yes. But the Minnesota Twins have been doing OK. The Twins have some vision and a plan and they stick with their plan, and that’s part of it. So here’s what we need to do to duplicate that success.

1. Build a superstar. Back in George Brett’s heyday, the Royals had no payroll problems. The fans came out to see Brett, the Royals spent that money to get more players, and since the Royals had winning records, the fans kept coming. In the late 1980s, a bad season meant the Royals didn’t win any championships. But they had winning records. The Royals nearly have that superstar. His name is Mike Sweeney. He’s got a sweet swing like Brett. He’s got plate discipline like Brett. And he’s even more likeable than Brett. When Brett was Sween’s age, he partied as hard as he played. Sween takes care of himself and he takes care of his fiancee and he takes care of his community. The only people who don’t like Mike Sweeney are opposing pitchers.

But Mike Sweeney’s protection in the order is The Mighty Raul Ibanez. Now, The Mighty Ibanez has turned into a good hitter, but he’s not an All-Star. He’s a better hitter than a 50-year-old George Brett. That’s saying something. But to build a superstar, what the Royals really need to do it

And Mike Sweeney needs to get together with Dave Dravecky to put together a project talking about the Christian symbolism in baseball. (Pitchers can’t hit but it’s part of their job. Designated hitters come in and do that part of their job for them. Sound kinda like Christianity? I think so. I think God’s in favor of the DH.)

2. Sign Jim Thome. Jim Thome doesn’t fit into Cleveland’s plans anymore. Blame it on mass insanity. Blame it on tightfistedness. Blame it on whatever. But the Indians don’t want Jim Thome. And guess what? Jim Thome likes Kansas City. I don’t blame him. In Kansas City, if you’re on the highway and you want to change lanes, you use your turn signal and someone lets you. In Kansas City, strangers smile at you for no reason. When the now-departed Miguel Batista arrived in Kansas City at the airport after a trade, some little old lady walked up to him and said, “You’re our new pitcher. Let me get one of your bags.” People are just nice.

Yes, Jim Thome’s going to cost buckets of money. But guess what? He won’t cost more than Roberto Hernandez and Neifi Perez cost combined. So here’s what you do. Rotate Jim Thome and Mike Sweeney between first base and designated hitter. Then try out this lineup:

Michael Tucker, 2b
Carlos Beltran, cf
Mike Sweeney, 1b
Jim Thome, dh
Raul Ibanez, rf
Joe Randa, 3b
Mark Quinn/Dee Brown lf
Angel Berroa, ss
Brent Mayne, c

We’ll talk about the Michael Tucker insanity in a second. Jim Thome’s .300 average and 52 home runs will make Mike Sweeney look a whole lot better to pitch to. It virtually guarantees he’ll hit .340 again, because pitchers will look forward to the half of the time he makes an out. Jim Thome will see good pitches because Mike Sweeney’s on base. Or someone else is. The Royals will score lots more runs. Meanwhile, Mark Quinn and Dee Brown have Jim Thome to learn from. The Royals’ lineup suddenly starts to look like the great Cardinals teams of the 1980s that had lots of jackrabbits who could hit doubles and one really big bat in the middle. Except Mike Sweeney and Raul Ibanez offer better protection than Jack Clark ever had in a Cardinal uniform.

3. Try Michael Tucker at second base. The Royals need a second baseman who can hit. Tucker’s not a great hitter for an outfielder, but he’s a really good hitter for a second baseman. He won’t be a great fielder. But the 1984 Padres solved two problems by moving Alan Wiggins from left field to second base. They got a good hitter at the position, and they freed left field for another bat. The Padres kept Jerry Royster around to play second in the late innings. The Royals can keep Carlos Febles for defense late in the game.

4. If the Tucker experiment fails, move Carlos Beltran to leadoff and Joe Randa to the #2 spot in the batting order. The Royals don’t score any runs because Mike Sweeney doesn’t have enough people on base in front of him. The Royals often give away their first out by having people like Chuck Knoblauch and Neifi Perez and Carlos Febles hitting leadoff. Joe Randa’s no speed demon anymore, but he gets on base. And he’s got enough power that a lot of times, when he gets on base, he gets on second base. Carlos Beltran gets on base. Mike Sweeney needs to hit with people on base. If the Royals were to sign Jim Thome, he’d be worthless without people on base. So disregard the traditional idea that your first two hitters should be your fastest runners, and just get some people on base. Carlos Beltran is your leadoff hitter anyway with him hitting second. Might as well accept reality and work with it.

5. Develop young pitchers. In 1985, the Royals brought in Jim Sundberg, a veteran catcher who couldn’t hit to handle their young pitchers. The formula of young pitchers with lots of good stuff and a catcher who knew how to guide them brought them to the World Series, and, ultimately, to a World Championship. Time will tell if any of today’s young pitchers will turn into Bret Saberhagen or even Mark Gubicza. Since the Royals can’t afford to go sign Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux (and since they wouldn’t score any runs for them anyway), they don’t have much choice but to take the chance. But since the Royals have been throwing their young pitchers’ arms out (witness Jose Rosado, Chad Durbin, and Dan Reichert) they need to re-think the way they develop their young pitchers. Throw fewer innings and watch more videotape.

And be patient. Greg Maddux spent two years as a so-so relief pitcher and sometime starter before he blossomed into the greatest pitcher of his generation.

Hmm. I’m already looking forward to April 2003.

Baseball Mogul 2002 offers a glimpse of the future…

I have seen the future, and it crashes a lot. I’ve been playing Baseball Mogul 2002 like a fiend, and I love it. I love statistical baseball and I love financial simulations, so for people like me, this game might as well be heroin.
My big annoyance is that it crashes a lot. It seems to get through the first season just fine, but I haven’t gotten through a second season yet without a crash. That’s annoying. Playing games in a month’s batches seems to make it worse. I suggest you play week by week, saving at the end of each week.

I started off with the Kansas City Royals, of course, and pretty soon I realized what dire straits the team is in if the game doesn’t change. Without a bunch of trades for can’t-miss prospects, it’s virtually impossible to lift the team over the .500 mark, and with free spenders like Cleveland and Chicago in the division, third place is about as well as you’ll do. An out-of-this-world manager like the late (and very sorely missed) Dick Howser could probably improve matters a ton, but Baseball Mogul’s manegerial model is a bit clunky. You can change how your manager manages, but it’s with a bunch of sliders. There’s no way to model, say, a Dick Howser based on the tendencies he used in the dugout and save it. That’s a feature Earl Weaver baseball had way back in the early ’90s and I can’t believe modern sims don’t copy it.

After two seasons with the Royals, I got frustrated. I needed something easier, but not necessarily too easy. So I took on the Curse of the Bambino and took the helm of the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox haven’t won a World Series since they sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920 for an astronomical $100,000. (Ruth was already a superstar and guided the Bosox to three World Championships, but with him gone, the Sox have been heartbreakers ever since, appearing in four Series and losing each in Game 7. The Yankees have just been scum.)

But how to take on the high-revenue, free-spending Yankees? The Bosox were a challenge unto themselves. Nomar Garciaparra, the greatest shortstop alive today, was injured at the beginning of the 2001 season, of course. MVP candidate Manny Ramirez’ presence in the lineup helped soften it, but I had a cripple playing first base (Brian Daubach was nowhere to be found, not that he has enough punch to really justify holding down that position). So I traded for Toronto’s Brad Fullmer, to get some protection for Ramirez. And Boston limped its way to the playoffs. It wasn’t exactly pretty. The Boston bats racked up tons of runs. Pedro Martinez was masterful, of course, but behind him I had four No. 4 starters: Frank Castillo, Bret Saberhagen (I was glad to see him come off the shelf, but he was the epitome of clutch pitcher, one of those guys who’d give up 9 runs if you didn’t have to win, but when the pennant was on the line, he’d pitch a shutout), David Cone (another ex-Royal, dumped unceremoniously for salary years ago, like Sabes), and Hideo Nomo. Fortunately the Bosox had a solid bullpen. We beat Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs, in five. Pedro had to pitch twice. Sabes won the other game. Of course we faced the Yankees in the ALCS. Boston won in 6, again behind Pedro and Sabes. It would have been poetic justice to have Cone face them in the series and win, but I had to go by the numbers rather than entirely by emotions. That brought us to Larry Walker’s and Mike Hampton’s Colorado for the World Series. Pedro won Game 1. Sabes won Game 2, of course. Castillo lost Game 3. Pedro pitched Game 4 on short rest and lost. I didn’t want to pitch 37-year-old Sabes on such short rest, so I pitched Cone instead. He lost. Sabes came back for Game 6 and won. A shutout, of course. Pedro came back strong and won Game 7.

The curse was lifted. Pedro, with a 19-6 regular season record and a 5-1 record in the postseason, took home the Cy Young award and an All-Star appearance. Manny Ramirez also brought in an All-Star appearance, but most importantly, the team brought in the World Championship.

The 2002 season was where things went nuts. The big-market teams started looking like Rotisserie Leagues thanks to free agency. I went and grabbed Anaheim’s Troy Glaus to play third base and Cleveland’s Kenny Lofton to play left field and bat leadoff. Then I grabbed Minnesota’s Eric Milton to give Pedro a legitimate #2 starter behind him. A couple of weeks into the season I noticed Houston’s Billy Wagner was still unsigned, so I nabbed him to give closer Derek Lowe some help in the bullpen. We rolled through to a 109-53 record, obliterating Oakland and New York in the playoffs. This time there wasn’t even any danger of Pedro’s arm falling off. (He went 27-1 in the regular season with a sparkling 1.53 ERA.)

Then I ran into the free-spending Braves. The Braves’ pitching staff was mostly unchanged from the real 2001 roster. (It was already an All-Star team.) But the lineup… Rafael Furcal, ss. Andruw Jones, cf. Chipper Jones, 3b. Barry Bonds, lf. Sammy Sosa, rf. Tony Clark, 1b. Quilvio Veras, 2b. Paul Bako, c. With the exception of the bottom three, they had arguably the best player in the league at each position. (The other three would be the second- or third-best player on a lot of teams.) Oh yeah. They also had superstar Moises Alou riding the bench. I took a look at Atlanta’s finances. Yep, they were bankrupting the team, deficit spending in hopes of pulling in a World Series. It came down to Game 7, Greg Maddux vs. Pedro Martinez, a showdown of the two greatest pitchers playing today (and arguably the two greatest pitchers alive). Maddux beat Martinez 2-1 in a heartbreaker. (Hey, you try shutting out that lineup!)

After facing that, I felt a little less guilty about running a Rotisserie-style team out of Boston. I’d passed on signing Kerry Wood as a free agent the season before for just that reason. No longer. Atlanta, unable to afford Maddux and Glavine for the next season, let both of them walk. I signed Maddux to a four-year deal, which pretty much guaranteed he’d get his 300th win in a Boston uniform. And between the two of them, I could pretty much count on getting at least three wins in a 7-game postseason. Throw in another clutch performance by Sabes (re-signed for purely emotional reasons–I was either going to get Sabes another World Series ring to go with the one he got with the Royals in ’85 and my fictional Bosox in 2001 or I was going to ship both Sabes and Cone back home to Kansas City, to finish their careers where they both belonged all along. But Cone retired so I opted to go for another ring.) and I’m pretty sure I’d be able to lift the Curse of the Bambino again.

The game even fabricates newspaper accounts of the season’s big games. The picture is almost always the same, and you can usually tell the story was computer-generated rather than written by an intelligent human being, but it adds an element of drama to it.

I also noticed the injury model is fairly realistic. Keeping Pedro Martinez healthy for a full season is virtually impossible, both in this game and in real life. But there are players who will tough themselves through their injuries. Mike Sweeney suffers about one serious injury per year, an injury that would knock most players out of action for a couple of weeks, maybe a month. In Baseball Mogul, Sweeney sits. In real life, Sween tapes himself up and keeps going until he either gets better or the injury hampers his play so severely that even he realizes the Royals are better off with his backup playing. That doesn’t happen often.

The other glaring drawback is that you can’t watch the games. I’d love to watch the All-Star game and at least the World Series.

So. We’ve got a baseball simulation that crashes a lot, doesn’t let you watch the key games (or any of them, for that matter), where injuries are all or nothing, and the managerial model is more crude than I’d like.

Those are serious shortcomings. But the rest of the game is so fabulous that I can mostly overlook them.

Now, the question is, who pitches Opening Day 2003? Martinez or Maddux?

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