Aided by Yordano Ventura‘s solid start in his return from elbow soreness, the 23-year-old allowing just two earned runs in six innings of work*, the Kansas City Royals yesterday snuck past Michael Wacha and the Cardinals 3-2. In doing so, they took the ‘Battle of Missouri’ 3 games to 1, and secured bragging rights in the I-70 area for the next 12 months, so congratulations to them. Naturally though, seeing as how nothing good can ever happen for the Royals without something equally bad, or just unintentionally hilarious, striking them back, this happened during the win:
Yep, that’s Nori Aoki getting drilled in the back of the head by Yadier Molina, who was simply throwing back to the pitcher from the crouch, as he often does. Not exactly a case of intentionally backing Aoki off the dish. Anyhow, after crumpling to the floor and taking a couple of minutes to
regain consciousness shake off the concussion he was hiding compose himself, Aoki would eventually resume his at-bat. Oh and by the way, this was the very first batter of the game for KC! I’d love to know, does not a single day pass without at least once instance of #RoyalsbeingRoyals?
In off the field news concerning Kansas City, the organization made Brandon Finnegan, a left-handed pitcher from TCU, their first round (no.17 overall) pick in the 2014 amateur draft, a move which didn’t exactly go down well on Twitter:
Finnegan is shortish (5-11), has history of shoulder issues, lacks great 3rd pitch, projects as possible closer in the big leagues. #royals
— Jeff Rosen (@jeff_rosen88) June 6, 2014
I have no opinion on Finnegan personally, but the medical reports I’m hearing on him are positively scary.
— Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli) June 6, 2014
Hey, in a draft supposedly loaded in pitching, anytime you can grab a guy with a potential shoulder injury lurking (and then double down with another lefty, Foster Griffin, at no. 28 overall), you have to do it! Thursday truly was a masterclass in #Royaling.
* Though he only struck out one, his velocity, which had so worryingly dipped in his last outing, was back to its usual ridiculous level; his four seam fastball averaged 98.15mph, his sinker 97.81, and slider 89.43. Sure looks like the ‘Father of Dragons’ is back.
If you’re a Royals fan, first off, I’m sorry for everything – your team seems to be under some all-encompassing curse which not only affects the play out on the field, but the decisions made off it. Your futility has reached illogical levels, to the ridiculous point where #RoyalsbeingRoyals and #Royaling are things used commonly to explain events concerning KC. If so far in 2014 you’ve got a horrible sense of deja vu however, well that’s completely rational. Because with embattled third baseman Mike Moustakas, it’s been another winter of adjustments, another hot Spring Training, and yet another terrible start to the season.
Since becoming the first pick of the Dayton Moore era in KC, the headline talent of what was at one point touted as one of the most loaded farm systems in baseball history, Moustakas has not only repeatedly failed to live up to expectations, but managed to get worse every year. After tearing up the minors to the tune of a .282/.337/.503 line, the second overall pick of the 2007 amateur draft hit .263/.309/.367 in a shortened rookie campaign back in 2011. That he was often overmatched wasn’t especially concerning, he was only 22-years-old at the time, and the world hadn’t yet been introduced to the likes of Mike Trout (who inarguably has raised the bar for impactful rookie performances to an unrealistic height). The California native would tout his occasional promise the following year, hitting 20 home runs in his first full season at Kauffman stadium, he regressed significantly in other areas, eventually posting a woeful slash line of .242/.296/.412 over 614 plate appearances. Last season however, even after a Spring Training showing that convinced many his struggles were behind him, Moustakas contrived to somehow get even worse, batting just 233/.287/.364 while seeing his power numbers sharply decline (he hit 12 home runs in his 514 plate appearances).
Once again, this year was meant to be different. After his dismal 2013, Moustakas spent part of the offseason in Venezuela, playing winter ball for Kansas City’s hitting coach Pedro Grifol, and working on his swing and his batting eye with the hope of redeeming his previously heralded status in 2014. He even carried over his hot hitting from Venezuela to Spring Training, hitting .429 ( the third-highest preseason average) with four homers and seven doubles, consistently driving the ball to all fields – a huge development considering how often he was shifted against the year prior. And yet, 39 games into the season, it appears that to an even greater extent than in 2011, Moustakas is again overmatched; by OPS+, he’s been the third-worst hitter among qualifiers in the American League this season*, and despite being platooned more than ever to save him from facing fellow southpaws, Moustakas is hitting just .161/.226/.348.
Once thought of as the future anchor to the Kansas City lineup, the now 25-year-old Moustakas has only succeeded in dragging down the team’s offense. Most often batting seventh, Moustakas has had men on base in just under half of his trips to the plate (60 out of 124), but has hit just .135. With over 1600 career plate appearances under his belt**, he’s become the poster boy for that mostly-failed bounty of prospects, and with such languid production, in danger of seeing his time in Kansas City cut short imminently; though he will only become arbitration eligible for the first time after this season, the Royals may be inclined to move on from him way before then – see the numerous calls for him to be demoted to Triple-A Omaha not simply in order to see if it can inspire some confidence in Moustakas, but make the KC offense better.
What might eventually reprieve Moustakas from a trip to the minors is an unfortunate reality for Kansas City fans – the club has little depth they could otherwise plug in at the position. Dayton Moore himself acknowledged on Tuesday “What’s the alternative?” and really, the Royals GM has a point; Danny Valencia played that day as part of the team’s platoon against southpaws, but is far from an everyday player. Johnny Giavotella has played much of the season for Class AAA Omaha at the hot corner, but remains a liability defensively and is currently covering for the injured Omar Infante at second base. Pedro Ciriaco is Pedro Ciriaco. Prospects Cheslor Cuthbert and Hunter Dozier are still a way off from being ready for the majors. Outside of a trade, it seems like Moore can do little but pray on Moustakas eventually rounding into form.
It’s not just the man they call Moose who has underwhelmed on offense so far this season of course; designated hitter Billy Butler currently has a .603 OPS, one home run, and has contributed -0.4 WAR. After finally appearing to crack the whole ‘hitting for power’ thing towards the end of last year, Eric Hosmer has just one long ball so far in 2014, rendering his .304 average somewhat empty. Alex Gordon and his .675 OPS has contributed the same amount of OWAR (0.1) as Yordano Ventura, who has two freakin’ plate appearances. The team as a whole ranks second from bottom among AL teams in both runs scored per game (4.03) and OPS (.677), and dead last in slugging percentage (.367) and OPS+ (85). And yet, the Royals are 20-19, and trailing only perennial powerhouse Detroit in the AL Central, thanks entirely to their terrific pitching and fielding (and in spite of Ned Yost‘s absurd managerial strategies).
Glassy-eyed optimism on the part of Moustakas, quoted recently in saying “I’m going to go out there and get four hits one day, four the next day, and nobody’s going to be thinking about this anymore,” and deflection tactics from Moore, who angrily asked reporters “Anyone want to talk about our bullpen? Or talk about our starting pitching?” a few days ago, can’t obscure what’s going on in Kansas City. This is a make or break season for the Royals, the last in which they’ll have ace James Shields under contract after mortgaging Wil Myers and a host of other prospects for a two year crack at the playoffs. Year one was promising, but ultimately unsuccessful. Year two is off to a shaky start. If the Royals are to fail in breaking their playoff drought once again, who knows what might happen – you’d have to think both Yost and Moore would be on the wobbly chair come the end of the season, and a roster shake-up would follow.
If he doesn’t pick up some of the slack soon however, Mike Moustakas might understandably be the fall guy well before then.
* Brad Miller of Seattle, and Alejandro de Aza in Chicago, if you were interested, are no. 1 and 2.
** As pointed out by Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star, “Including his signing bonus, the Royals have spent more than $5 million and waited nearly 2,500 days for him to be a good big-league player.”
I surprised even myself yesterday in resisting making fun of the hapless Astros and instead finding something positive to preview. Then again, it’s not exactly hard to be positive when writing about George Springer, who seems set to make an impact in Houston sooner rather than later. Today in my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series, I focus on the Kansas City Royals, who last year secured just their second winning season since 1994, though fell short making the playoffs for the first time since winning the World Series in 1985. Though they’ve made no big-name winter acquisitions to help in their quest, smart additions – such as Norichika Aoki – might just be enough to put the Royals over the top this time around.
I’ve for some reason always liked Nori Aoki ever since he came to the Majors in 2012. Perhaps it’s because of the way he dives into HBPs, or is halfway down the first base line by the time it comes to swing, maybe even the odd contortions he routinely bends himself into making plays out in right field. Though he’s certainly not the most exciting player, far from the best but certainly not the worst in every aspect, there’s something about his style of play that I just innately appreciate. And though I can’t pin down whether it’s the slap-hitting, incredible plate discipline, perennially underrated fantasy value, or crazy 3.3% whiff rate (he swung and missed just 82 times at 2,490 total pitches in 2013 – HT to Baseball Prospectus on that one), I was glad to see him rescued from the lackluster Brewers. His new team, the Kansas City Royals, will soon come to appreciate him too.
Aoki’s acquisition was one of GM Dayton Moore’s better ones in recent times, the 32 year-old outfielder’s diverse skill set projected to mask over several of the 2013 Royals’ flaws at a bargain price. Dealing from a position of strength (for once – he still has relievers Kelvin Herrera, Tim Collins, Luke Hochevar, Aaron Crow and closer Greg Holland available to trade in his effort to win now before the Wil Myers trade bites him in the ass), Moore sent LHP swingman Will Smith to the Brewers in exchange for one year of Aoki’s service – which was deemed expendable by a rebuilding Milwaukee squad which will also be re-integrated Ryan Braun into their outfield plans. Aside from just costing a fringe starter/long reliever, Aoki will also only command a cheap salary in 2014; per ESPN, he is due only $1.25 million this season (he can also make up to $1,087,500 in performance bonuses based on starts and games played), making the Japanese veteran one of the cheaper 3.0 bWAR players league-wide. Furthermore, should Moore like what he sees and wish to keep him around, the aging Aoki won’t likely be too hot a commodity to drive his price up significantly on the free agent market.
More than simply a fiscal bargain though, Aoki constitutes a much needed addition to the Kansas City lineup; a prototypical leadoff hitter. After a 2013 in which Royals’ leadoff hitters ranked in the bottom third of the league in OBP (.309), strikeout rate (18.7%) and stolen bases (15), Aoki figures to improve them in every category. With an OBP of .355 since coming to America two years ago, and a measured approach which saw him strike out just 40 times in 674 plate appearances last year, Aoki can also boast 50 stolen bases (as opposed to 20 instances caught stealing) in his time as a Brewer. Why listen to me though when you can have the infinitely funnier quote from Baseball Prospectus’s fantastic annual: “Aoki will be doubly valuable providing a speedy table setter at the top of the Kansas City order and evicting the gaggle of speedy table emptiers who squatted there last year.” With no platoon split to speak of (in his two years in the majors, he’s hit .304/.351/.395 vs. LHP, and .279/.357/.402 vs. RHP), a love of fastballs (he hits .338 against them, yet pitchers still throw the fourseam 39% of the time), and a Shin-Soo Choo-like ability to accrue HBPs (11 in 2013), Aoki should be at the top of the lineup card everyday, allowing Alex Gordon to return to a better-suited spot further down the order.
Of course, Aoki only hit 8 homers last season as his slugging percentage plummeted from .433 in 2012, to .370 in 2013. Not much of a line-drive hitter (17.3% LD%) either, Royals fans shouldn’t expect much more than a ton of singles from the groundball-happy Aoki. Though above-average in right field too – Fangraphs pegged him a 3.2 UZR in 2013 – the relatively speedy Aoki will struggle to match the Gold Glove caliber production of David Lough, who had a UZR of 14.5. Still, you always know what you’re getting with the lefty, which is more than can be said for the rag-tag crew trotted out by the Royals in the leadoff/RF spots in 2013.
As mentioned, Aoki isn’t the flashiest player, but happy to quietly occupy a place on the right side of the star-scrub spectrum. His addition remains a marvelous one for a Royals team with aspirations of contention, providing them an indispensable piece at a bargain price. It does too, make you wonder where this Dayton Moore was when the Jason Vargas contract was dished out, or the Myers trade consummated – but that’s for another day. Until then Royals fans, enjoy the Nori Aoki experience. I know I will, for reasons still unclear.